It's sometimes most difficult to read books you're supposed to read. This is why I have a general statement about my reading: "Nobody tells me what to read, including me." Because I even have a hard time sticking to a To Be Read list (though I'm trying my best with my 13 in '13 list. We'll see how that works.
But haven't you had the experience that a good friend recommends a book, and you just can't bring yourself to read it, or you go in with such high expectations based on the recommendation that you give up on it when it doesn't thrill you? I've been having that experience with Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age, Or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer for probably ten years now. A friend lent it to me and I didn't escape the first section (not chapter, since the book doesn't really have them). Then he pointed me to the audiobook. Tried. Crapped out. It didn't hold my attention, and within a few discs, I had no idea what was happening or why I should care.
So, I requested it from Library2Go and got the NOOK version a few weeks ago. Finished! (Though my loan expired and I had to pick it up in hardcover.)
I can now say that I understand, sort of, why my friend likes it, though I wouldn't put it in my list of favorites. Still, I'm glad I read it as it's the first cyberpunk I've read, and while it's not quite my cup of tea, it's certainly interesting.
First, I'll say that my initial problem with the book, and one that somehow worked better in eBook format, was the overall style of it. Right off the bat, the reader is introduced to a character who looks like he might be the protagonist, but he's only around for the first five percent or so of the book. Then the action shifts between several other characters, making it difficult to get a lock on who we're supposed to root for. Interspersed with some of the initial character introductions are some expository sections about the lay of the land, which are actually invaluable in terms of the story but make it hard, again, to figure out what's going on.
I use the word "sections" because the book is divided not into hard-break chapters, but into bolded subheadings describing what's going to happen in the next section. (I understand this is a throwback style to Victorian times, which makes sense given the actual plot.) This format makes it somewhat difficult for the reader to have a feel for how he's getting along.
All that said, I quite enjoyed The Diamond Age on my third go at it, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a taste of cyberpunk.
The actual science fiction of the book is excellent, examining the implications of nanotechnology in society, politics, criminal justice, entertainment, and just technology in general. Much of the first third of the book almost plays like "vignettes examining how nanotech changed X," to quite good effect.
From what I understand of cyberpunk, societal change or upheaval is often at the core, and this book is no exception to that. The major nation-states have basically collapsed, and humanity now divides itself (no question we'd divide ourselves!) into different "phyles" or "claves," generally built around either technology itself or some shared value (Confucianism, Victorian ideals, etc.) Stephenson does a nice job showing the differences between the various phyles (and the unaffiliated "thetes") through a series of early character interactions.
The subtitled A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is the main piece of nanotechnology in the book and could in some ways be considered the protagonist. (One of several candidates.)
The story itself is fairly complicated, but once you get the hang of how it's presented, everything makes a fair bit of sense. The real protagonist is Nell, a young thete girl who receives a stolen copy (illegally made) of the Primer, and it begins to educate her, grooming her for an important role in future. The Primer's methods of educating her involve "ractive" (interactive) stories presented as the Adventures of Princess Nell. The stories are extremely entertaining and almost make you forget what kind of book you're reading, and I actually found myself wanting to skip ahead to the next Princess Nell section.
I won't delve further into the plot, because a.) I'm not totally sure what happened or how to describe it, and b.) I don't want to spoil it, even if I could. I will say that Stephenson's writing is terrific. I'm not sure if his writing style in this book was heavily influenced by Victorian literature, but there was rarely a four page section of the book that didn't contain a ten-dollar word. And some of his phrasing was simply awesome. My favorite example:
"I beg your pardon?" Miss Matheson said, and initiated the procedure of turning her head around to look, which at her age was a civil-engineering challenge of daunting complexity and duration.
I'm definitely recommending this book, or at least some Stephenson title, and I may at some point give Snowcrash or Cryptonomicon a try. I'll also give a slight content warning, as this book contains adult language and a fair bit of sexuality. Definitely not a young adult title.
I've got a few more irons in the fire, but I'm heading for a lengthy vacation, so we'll see how much reading I actually get done.
You may or may not recall that I was pleasantly surprised by the first entry in OSC and Aaron Johnston's The First Formic War series, Earth Unaware. I found the descriptions of asteroid mining completely fascinating, and enjoyed the slow build of the plot and found some of the characters quite compelling. I think one reason I enjoyed it so much is that I went in with low expectations. And so the fact that I wasn't completely thrilled with Earth Afire is probably due to the opposite problem. I expected too much.
Now, I'm not giving it a bad rating, because I really did enjoy it. The main problem was that the sort of Plot C from Earth Unaware, the subplot I didn't care for, was the one following Mazer Rackham and the Mobile Operations Police. And they're pretty important in Earth Afire. And I still didn't care much about them. Yes, I understand Mazer is a major figure in much of the rest of the Ender series, particularly the Shadow series. But that doesn't make him interesting in a prequel. Sorry.
I also thought the portions of the book with Victor Delgado, one of the bright spots of the previous book, were pretty well useless in this volume. Bummer.
Fortunately, I loved the parts of the book following Bingwen, a Chinese peasant child who's basically a Battle Schooler before Battle School existed. Card has a way with creating precocious children, and he scores again with Bingwen and his friends. His presence in the Mazer storyline rescues it from being standard military fiction and establishes Mazer's recognition that children could be formidable strategists.
The previous book took place almost entirely in the Kuiper Belt, detailing the encounters of Free-miner families and Corporate miners with the Formics and the devastating nature of that conflict. In this book, the Formics finally reach Earth and begin to do…something. And this is what really rescues the book for me, the long-anticipated Scathing of China mentioned in Ender's Game. The turning of terraforming on its head, with Earth being targeted as a host for another species of intelligent life.
So I'm not panning the book, but I'm not giving it a super-high recommendation. If you liked the previous book, you'll probably enjoy this one and look forward to the next one, as I did (and do). But maybe my expectations are back down to a reasonable level.
I'm still stuck with the problem of thinking the Formics are actually Bad Guys now, despite what the rest of the Ender canon seems to indicate. I wrote a bit about this in my Earth Unaware review, so I won't delve into it here. But I'd be curious to know if anyone else who's read the series has this problem. Anyone? Certainly, the Formics are the antagonist in this series, but that's not the question. The question is this: Are you having a hard time squaring the Formics here with those described in "The Hive Queen and the Hegemon"? I totally am.
I'm not sure what I'll finish next, but I suspect it'll be The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which I've intended (and attempted) to read for a number of years. And I'm quite enjoying it. Maybe this time I'll finish it. It'll make a friend of mine happy.
Back in November, we stuffed our freezer with grass-fed beef and pork from Carman Ranch, and we're just coming to the end of it. (Well, the pork ran out long ago but was recently replenished courtesy Carman Ranch, and we're just coming to the end of it. (Well, the pork ran out long ago but was recently replenished courtesy Kookoolan Farms.) Generally, my weekend food experimenting revolves around roasts or ribs or other tough cuts of meat from the freezer. Braised Short Ribs, gooooood (I used Michael Ruhlman's recipe). Corned Beef brisket (and Chuck Roast), gooood (Ruhlman again, from Ratio).
Of course, I've also gone with just traditional Pot Roast kinds of things for shoulder and chuck roasts. But I was looking for a nice, reliable meal I could make once a month or so that my son the Swimmer Dude could get behind. Well, I've never gotten any complaints about having tacos once a week, so I figured I should try to make a taco filling with those remaining roasts. And it just so happens there's a yummy shredded beef option I often indulge in:
Barbacoa. When I eat at Chipotle, I tend to alternate between Carnitas and Barbacoa. It's gooood. So why not take a run at it? It's basically pulled pork but made with beef.
I looked up a few recipes and based mine ultimately on this one, with a few alterations, resulting in one of the most delicious things I've ever made. Behold, my slow-cooker Barbacoa recipe:
- 4-5 lb beef roast (chuck, shoulder, rump, whatever)
- 2 tsp whole cumin
- 1 tsp whole coriander
- 2 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 3/4 cup chicken stock (any stock will do, probably, but my chicken stock is awesome)
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2-5 whole chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (3 was nicely spicy without kicking me in the teeth. Tastes vary.)
- juice of 2 limes
- 3 bay leaves
Prep (the night before if possible):
- Toast the cumin and coriander until you can smell the cumin. Grind in a mortar and pestle along with the oregano. Add salt, pepper and cloves to the mixture. That's your rub.
- (BTW, if you're not using whole spices, skip the toasting/grinding and reduce the amounts by about half. Also, use whole spices.)
- Trim any excess fat off the roast, then cut into several large chunks. (Fine, I'll be specific! Six! Six chunks! Happy?)
- Pat the meat dry and apply the rub liberally to all surfaces.
- Put the meat on a plate, cover with plastic if you want, and pop it in the fridge overnight. (Nah, leave off the plastic. The meat will dry a bit and give you a better sear tomorrow.)
Your ten minutes of actual cooking:
- Heat your fat of choice in a skillet (yes, I used bacon fat) and brown the meat, in batches, on all sides. Don't crowd the pan or you won't get a good sear. (Fine! Two batches!)
- Move the meat into the slow cooker as it comes out of the skillet.
- Deglaze the pan with the chicken stock, scraping the bottom with a wooden spatula. Add the resulting deliciousness to the slow cooker.
- Make the sauce: puree the chipotles, tomato paste, vinegar, lime juice, and garlic (I used an immersion blender).
- Pour the sauce over the meat, add the bay leaves, and put it on low. All day.
Finishing it up:
- BTW, it's probably done in about six hours.
- Using a baster, siphon off the liquid in the slow cooker and reduce it in a saucepan until you're ready to eat.
- While the liquid is reducing, shred the beef using two forks. Add reduced sauce until your finished product is at your preferred level of sauciness.
- Serve as taco meat with tortillas and guacamole, or with rice and veggies. Or just eat it with a fork.
I'm thinking that next time I make it (Tuesday or Wednesday this week), I'll toss a sliced onion into the pan after browning the meat and let it cook down a bit, then strain it out after deglazing. Just for a bit of extra flavor, though my chicken stock already has onion in it. So maybe not.
Any tips or tricks from the peanut gallery here?
Quite simply, I'll be surprised if I read anything better than Wool (Omnibus Edition) this year. Certainly in terms of return on investment, it's six bucks for a very high quality twelve hundred pages that reads more like three hundred. The reason for that is that the book is actually five short but connected novellas. (Though to be fair, the latter three novellas are basically book length.)
Oh, and it was on my 13 in '13 list! Seven down, six to go!
When I tell people I'm reading a science fiction book, I think the image conjured up is of space battles and aliens and ray guns, and there's room for that (though it's more often Space Opera), but Wool isn't that kind of science fiction. Instead, it's more classic science fiction, in which there's a central question raised. In this case, it's "How would humanity change if the outside world was unlivable and we had to live below ground?"
No, it's not some weird treatise on possible evolutionary changes or anything like that. Instead, it examines how we change toward each other, how our laws change, and how our morals might change. There's also a fairly tired reference to a change in religion, but I'll give it a pass on that one (though I'll mention it later).
The first story is simply titled Wool, and it's basically the perfect short story. It sets up a world, gets us interested in some characters, then blows our mind at the end. Love it.
As I indicated, the premise is that humanity lives below ground in a great silo, perhaps like those abandoned missile silos turned cool homes, only on a larger scale. In fact, the silo goes down more than a hundred levels, leading to some interesting interplay between the "Up-toppers" and "Down-deepers." But that really comes up in the later stories.
The world outside is messed up, but the residents of the silo can see it through a large view screen on the top level. Instead of standard executions for heinous crimes, the condemned are "sent to cleaning," wherein they suit up in protective clothing and are put outside to clean the sensors that generate the view screen. No one survives the cleaning. And here's the first mystery:
If you were condemned to die outside, why would you do a favor for the people who sent you out?
This question is answered (to the reader) in Wool, and it's awesome.
The other four stories introduce a great cast of characters and develops them to the point that you kind of understand the bad guys and love the good guys. Along the way, you get a few more interesting questions.
How would you govern a populace in confined quarters?
What would happen if a revolution broke out?
What price would you pay to keep the peace?
How would you go about safeguarding the largest number of lives if the outside world was destroyed?
I see there's another omnibus edition that functions as a prequel to Wool, and I'll definitely be giving it a look, because Hugh Howey has earned my dollar. And his stuff is inexpensive. So go pick it up!
(Seriously, if you're skeptical, pick up Wool. It's a dollar!)
The one gripe I have is pretty minor, and as I mentioned, it involves religion. Look, I get it that non-religious people (and I'm not implying anything about Mr. Howey, but I'd be curious what his affiliation is) don't really understand religious people. Yes, people believe weird stuff. I'm a Christian. I believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. It's weird. I get that.
But no one could convince me, in a million years, that "in the beginning God created the Silo." Sorry. The idea is childish, and again I get it that atheists see theists as childish. And they can shut up about it, because it's a dumb thing to think.
I also understand that the whole thing is probably a ham-handed poke at Creationists. Hardy-har-har. It's not well executed if that's what it is, and I don't really see what else it could be. And in an otherwise stellar work of fiction, this kind of crap has no place. I was willing to accept this kind of thing in The City of Ember, but that was juvenile fiction.
All that being said, it really only comes up in one or two places and isn't really a thing. If I weren't sensitized to the whole issue, I probably wouldn't have noticed it. It just struck me as the kind of thing that would bring peals of dumb laughter from empty-headed atheists. (I acknowledge that there are some very full-headed atheists out there, several of which are my friends. Just don't try to tell me religion has a corner on stupidity.)
(I've said in the past that I'm willing to consult with authors attempting to write realistic religious characters or themes. Contact me.)
And lastly, a funny story. I told my son the Swimmer Dude what I was reading. His comment:
"Sheep take over the world in that book?"
Next up, it's the latest entry in Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston's The First Formic War series, Earth Afire.
I also saw Man of Steel, and I'm having a similar experience to the one I had with Star Trek Into Darkness. I liked it at the time, and I'm disliking it the more I think about it. Grrr. I may have to write up a few thoughts about it and then see it again.
Capsule review: I liked it and will see it again, though I'll probably re-watch Star Trek more.
Edit: I've now seen it twice, and while I still have some of the gripes I had after one viewing, I can definitely say it's a good movie and I enjoyed it greatly. Perhaps I'll explain more about my change of heart in the Spoiler area.
And now we get into Spoilers. Serious ones. So, some obligatory Spoiler Space Into Darkness…
Still with me?
Okay, we'll start with the good, and there's quite a bit of it. The movie's production values are incredible. JJ Abrams can make a movie. The cast is once again terrific, and Benedict Cumberbatch happens. There's action. There's drama. There's more than a little bit of humor. All very nice.
And now, a bunch of bolded headings. Because bloggers who succeed use bold font in some places. And I'm trying to prove that not all bloggers who bold are successful.
Khan! But not the shouty part.
Of course, as you doubtless know, Cumberbatch is playing Khan, of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan fame. Except he's younger and doesn't chew quite so much scenery and fails to quote even once from Moby Dick. (Though the fact that I intend to never read that book makes my analysis suspect.)
I liked the idea of using a young Khan, and seeing him in action. Of course, we see a bit more about his physical prowess than his mental awesomeness, which is more alluded to than anything else. Except for one nice monologue in which he lays out why his plan is superior and so the other guy might as well just do things his way. The physical stuff is fairly awesome, though, and his dismantling of a cadre of Klingons was pretty sweet.
Funny side note: I once worked for a manager likely to be named Worst Guy I Ever Worked For by myself and basically everyone else I know who's worked for him. He had English as a second language, and many of his sayings continue to be part of my lexicon. His favorite attribution of someone he didn't like was "that dem guy." Which was a close cousin to his saying for when the software crashed, which was "dem ting crapow!" (In proper tech-company jargon, I now call such an event a DTCO.)
None of this has anything to do with anything, and I'm sure bloggers who succeed don't rathole like I just did. Whatever. Back to on-topic.
Karl Urban is once again delightful as Bones, coloring his speech with, well, colorful metaphors, though not in the Star Trek IV way. Probably my favorite line in the movie has Kirk tiring of McCoy's continual references to all things country life.
Kirk, and the reason I liked the movie
I also continue to be impressed with Chris Pine's portrayal of Kirk. The main reason I like this film is that it's a vehicle for developing Kirk. It's a character film disguised as an action film filled with fan service. (Which is my main gripe.)
But Chris Pine really plays Kirk well, bringing a brashness, but also a likeability to the character that's totally Shatner-like, but then filling it in with acting chops that are very un-Shatner.
Uhura speaks Klingon?
Somebody needs to do a cut of Uhura speaking to the Klingons in this film and compare it to Valkress in Star Trek III speaking to Commander Kruge. I swear it's the same voice, and Zoe Saldana's lips definitely didn't match the Klingon she was speaking, and it didn't sound anything like her. Somebody do this for me, please?
So my gripe here is twofold. First, if I'm right, then this is a bit of sly fan service no one needed but I TOTALLY NOTICED AND I'M AWESOME IF I'M RIGHT!!!! Second, and here we're saying I'm wrong, and I'm never wrong, then they're headed dead into the Fire Swamp! Seriously, though, why was it so obviously dubbed?
(Side note: Original Series Uhura didn't speak a lick of Klingon. Which is a bit strange in hindsight.)
Star Trek into Dunk Tank
Why did we hide the Enterprise under water? Because it was wicked cool. And you know what? I'm good with it. Yes, the science-y part of me thinks that a ship not designed to go under water couldn't go underwater, but then Scotty steps in and says the whole notion of hiding underwater is insane. So I'm good with that.
I have to admit that I love this. They dropped a "Cold Fusion Device" into a volcano. It's cold, you know, and volcanoes are hot, so it freezes the volcano. Totally. The reason I like it is because I'm confident that the writers absolutely knew it would drive some Trekkers batty. It would prove that New Trek is not Star Trek. So they stuck it to them. Love it.
(It took me two films to be okay with this one. Because: physics.)
Srsly. Teh fan service.
Enuf already, JJ! We know you like Trekkers/Trekkies. Stop trying to appease them!
I understand fan service. I understand making references to a beloved film. But the problem with endlessly referencing what's generally (and correctly) regarded as the best Star Trek film is that it makes your film look a bit silly by comparison. I'm actually trying to think of one of the callbacks to the original film that actually worked in this one and coming up empty (Edit: found a couple). So I'll just go through the list of the ones I can remember:
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
In Khan, Spock first quoted this by way of passing command of the Enterprise to Kirk even though he wasn't the captain anymore. It's then used in the heartbreaking "Spock dies" scene, when Spock explains that his sacrifice was "logical."
In this film, it's used to explain why Spock was okay with dying on whatever planet he was ready to die on at the beginning. I'm not going to try to remember the planet's name, because who cares?
The Khan Reveal itself
Okay, so I'll admit that when I saw Khan, I had no memory of Khan from the original series. I was nine years old, so what do you expect? But the Khan reveal in that film was effective because you had a bit of excellent exposition by Chekov and Khan. Why? Because Captain Terrell didn't recognize him. (BTW, Chekov never met him in the original series. Trivia!)
But in this film, Khan reveals himself…to the fans. His revelation to the characters hits them like a ton of, well, nothing. You can hear crickets chirping in the background, because they don't know anything about him. If only Data was around to do a bit of exposition for us. Or if only there was an android crew member who could help out.
Oh. Right. There was. Also, a ship's computer which would doubtless have some record of him somewhere. Instead, we get a Nimoy cameo (which I actually don't object to) to replace any number of more obvious ways for Spock and Kirk (the new ones) to learn about Khan.
Now, I do get that keeping Khan's true nature hidden was absolutely necessary to the plot's development, but if your plot requires plot holes in order to hold together, you've got problems.
Wheeeaaaton!!! I mean Khaaaaaaaannnn!!!
You see the problem here, right? It was funny when The Big Bang Theory made references to Khan, with Sheldon doing the Moby Dick quotes and screaming his enemy's name. It was awesome when The Shat screamed "Khaaaan!!". It was incredibly lame when the Vulcan dude got all emo and did his sad impression of Shatner's awesomeness. This should not have happened. I actually had to stifle a laugh. I'd be shocked if Zachary Quinto was okay with that scene.
BTW, JJ, can we please get a New Trek movie without Emo Spock? Please?
<someone> goes into the reactor to save the ship
This one is sort of okay in a way, but only functionally. Emotionally, there's just no way in the galaxy to put the kind of depth of feeling into Kirk's self-sacrifice that Spock's had in Khan. First of all, Spock sort of stayed dead. Second, we'd spent a five year mission with Spock already. Even if it was only 79 episodes. But to those of us who saw The Wrath of Khan in theatres, Spock's death destroyed us. Even George Costanza was affected (start at 1:38):
The only thing that really saves this is that even though I had not even the slightest worry that Kirk would actually die (on account of the magic Khan-juice from earlier), Kirk thought he was going to die. And since I'm seeing this is a character movie, it still works for me.
Redshirt and the look
No, I won't gripe about this one. It's awesome. I loved that the redshirt thing happened in Trek 2009, so I didn't expect it here. But Chekov's look when Kirk told him to put on a red shirt was priceless. BTW, read Redshirts. It's awesome.
Okay, I'll give JJ this one. I always loved "The Trouble With Tribbles," so using one as a guinea pig was a nice touch. But it doesn't reference Khan, so it also doesn't really count.
And by the way, was there ever any question that the tribble would be resurrected? It really takes something away from Kirk's sacrifice when you totally already know he'll end up alive at the end.
Another bolded heading because of no particular reason
Aaannd I'm out of things to write about. You may be wondering, with my list of gripes, why I'm still recommending the film and claiming to have enjoyed it greatly. The answer is simple:
It's because I saw it twice. The first time, I was distracted by the references. I failed to take the film for what it actually was and kept comparing it to The Wrath of Khan. It failed at every comparison. The second time, I was able to set aside those things and just enjoy it. And enjoy it I did.
It's kind of like reading a really good book and then seeing an adaptation of it that's a good movie but not particularly faithful to the book. As long as you're holding onto the idea of a good movie adaptation having to be slavishly faithful to a book, you won't like it. But if you can let go of that idea, you can still enjoy the film. In this case, if you're thinking of it (and you could be excused for doing so) as an adaptation of The Wrath of Khan, it doesn't work. But as its own film, it's terrific fun. (BTW, for my thoughts on film adaptations and good and bad examples of them, click on this absurdly long hyperlink.)
One final gripe is that Star Trek Into Darkness is basically the same movie as we had three years ago. The next one needs to go in a different direction. I expect it'll still be flashy and brilliantly acted, but I'm hoping for some better writing and a severe lack of connection to original series ideas.
What about you? Have you seen it? Did you notice the bad Klingon dubbing? Please tell me you did. I'm dyin' here!
I'm a bit short on book reviews these days, because my Library2Go loan expired for What We Talk About When We Talk About God, and Wool is just pretty darn long. But it's tremendous, and I'll finish it in the next week or so.
I kind of suspected that the NOOK Daily Find for May the Fourth (Star Wars Day) would be an Expanded Universe book, and I was delighted when it was Timothy Zahn's excellent Heir to the Empire, a book that kicked off an explosion of Expanded Universe offerings, many of which I subsequently read before I really discovered that reading is awesome. So I credit these kinds of books with fostering a love of reading I didn't really know I had.
(I'd be remiss if I failed to also mention the Star Trek: The Next Generation novels. I read a couple of dozen of them while still maintaining that reading sucked.)
While we're on the topic of Star Wars Day, can I just point out that when I was a kid, we had a Star Wars Day. It was called all days named Today from 1977 through high school. Okay, it actually never ended. Still going.
I think I'll start off by pointing out that there is a fault to Heir to the Empire, and a glaring one at that, in that the book isn't really a self-contained story. Instead, it's the first of a three-part book disguised as a series. So if you were going to just read the first one, don't plan on getting any kind of nice resolution out of it. Instead, it's a bleeping cliffhanger. Just grab all three books and enjoy.
That being said, the book (and series) has an interesting list of things going for it. And the really interesting part is that it's basically everything we didn't get in the prequel films: interesting characters we actually care about, fun references to the original series, a villain you almost want to root for, and a good story to put them all in.
Seriously, name me an interesting character from the prequels. Can't do it, can you? Okay, maybe I'd give you Jango Fett. Sort of. But stacked up against Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, and Talon Karrde, he's downright boring. Okay, so it's obvious that characters in a novel have more chance at development, but even allowing for some balance-shifting for that, Heir wins out hands down.
Grand Admirial Thrawn, the blue-skinned-red-eyed-bad-mutha who might have saved the Empire had he been at the Battle of Endor, who studies the psychology of his enemies through their art. Mara Jade, Force-trained, dangerous and not a little bit sexy even on the printed page. Talon Karrde, who's everything you liked in Han Solo before he got all lovey-dovey with Leia (and I'm not faulting him for that, because who wouldn't?). And this is without even mentioning a certain loopy Jedi Master who's easily more interesting than any of the Jedi introduced in the prequels.
Even the peripheral characters are interesting, and it's really a crying shame that neither the prequels nor the animated Clone Wars series ever mentioned the Noghri or the ysalamiri.
I haven't even really discussed the plot of the book/series, but it's really quite simple: Five years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire isn't gone, and the New Republic has some growing pains to go through. Grand Admiral Thrawn is marshalling what strength he has in order to overthrow the New Republic. Awesomeness ensues.
I really can't recommend the series highly enough, though I should warn you that there are some concepts and events that don't fit in particularly well with the prequels. Pardon me if I don't cry overmuch about it. Actually, it just makes me hate the prequels all the more. Lucas had a well to draw from here, and he didn't do it. He went with second-rate characters and a third-rate story and first-rate CG and called it good.
Fortunately, my imagination has first-rate CG, so reading a story with the other two ingredients also first-rate, it's all good.
And that's all I have to say about that. If you're a Star Wars fan, you'll love the series.
Next up, I'm not sure. I'm determined to knock off another 13 in '13 title, and I think Wool is going to be it. But it's a long one. So maybe I'll finish up What We Talk About When We Talk About God first.
Oh, and I'm also writing up a few thoughts about the new Star Trek movie now that I've seen it twice. There's a lot I didn't like about it, and while I was a bit negative about it at first, it's growing on me.
My sister tells me that this is one of the more expendable books in the Dresden Files collection, but even as a standalone work it's still plenty of fun. Nice, gruesome fun. As you might guess from the title, this one involves werewolves, and introduces four kinds of them: werewolves, Hexenwolves, lycanthropes, and loup-garou. All nasty bits of work of one type or another, and each gets to see some action in this book.
Harry Dresden is once again thrust into some pretty deep waters after a grisly murder gets him involved with the Special Investigations division of the Chicago Police Department. The evidence indicates werewolves, but which kind? Along the way, Harry runs afoul of basically every kind of them, though not without finding unexpected allies in the mix.
I'll be curious to see if Harry manages to get himself so badly beaten up in the rest of the series, because he really takes his licks in this one, and we get a glimpse of what it looks like when a wizard runs out of magic. I kept expecting there to be a cheap Eragon-style magic storage device lying around somewhere, but Butcher expects his wizard to solve his own problems.
The thing I'm digging about this whole "found a new series to read" thing is that there are twelve more books out there, just waiting for me to pick them up (and another one due out this year). I'm going to take my time and enjoy each new volume, since I've got another couple of series in which I'm waiting for the next volume or have recently finished the latest. True, they're all Orson Scott Card series (Pathfinder, Mithermages, Formic Wars, and the Shadow series), but still. It's nice, sometimes, to be a late adopter.
Next up, it's Heir to the Empire, my Star Wars Day pickup. And I've got What We Talk About When We Talk About God in progress. One of these days I need to get back to my 13 in '13 list. Falling behind!
(Take a look at that list for me and tell me what I should read next. Yes, I know. Wool. Totally need to get back to that one.)
The good news: The Trouble With Physics is a good book. Unfortunately, it's also three books. One of them is an extremely engaging and interesting overview of the history of Grand Unification and an introduction to the main problems of modern physics. One of them is a like-watching-paint-dry overview of String Theory. And one of them is an interesting if not thrilling treatise on the nature of science and the problems with the way it's currently done, particularly the troubles with the tenure system in universities.
Rather than dwelling on the not-so-great parts of the book, I think I'll focus on what I did like. But first, let me point out that I'm not sure if it's possible to have a layman-accessible treatment of String Theory. I'm reasonably well-versed in physics, and I just didn't get half the crap Dr. Smolin was talking about. But then, I'm a bit out of date. (I've actually been toying with the idea of reading and working my way back through my old Tipler Physics book from college. That'd be fun!)
But back to the good stuff. As I indicated, the first part of the book was extremely engaging, so much that I NOOK-gifted it to my dad. He ran out of steam before I did and ,I think, gave up on it. But it really was interesting. What are the fundamental problems in physics that String Theory attempts to answer? More than that, what are the problems that any Theory of Everything needs to address? Here they are:
Problem #1: Combine General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics (Quantum Gravity)
This is the reason String Theory exists. How do we combine General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics? Einstein went to his grave attempting to unify them through Unified Field Theory, but failed. Any number of other approaches have been tried, so far without success.
Problem #2: Make Quantum Theory Make Sense (Make it provide a picture of reality absent our interaction with it)
How to even sum this one up? Well, how about letting Jim Al-Khalili (author of the excellent Paradox) explain the Double-Slit Experiment.
(And here I expect my niece to stop reading and start looking for more videos.)
So yeah, the problem here is that Quantum Theory is weird. Make it make sense!
Problem #3: Unify all Particles and Forces
Maybe you're aware of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and that there are sixteen particles in it (not including the Higgs Boson) that explain basically everything except gravity? Well, we need to be able to unify them all into one particle or force. Including the Higgs and gravity (and maybe a graviton). Not there yet.
Problem #4: Explain the Free Constants in the Standard Model
The Standard Model is all well and good and useful, but it's littered with constants, the values of which we basically have to find experimentally. A Theory of Everything should predict these values.
Problem #5: Explain Dark Matter and Dark Energy
Visible matter and energy make up about 4% of the universe. The other 96% is something else, and we simply don't know what it is. Is it all those angels that can sit on the head of a pin? Maybe a big Universal Landfill? We just don't know yet.
Smolin goes on to discuss not just which questions need answering, but also what a new Unification theory should look like. And it's these three things:
- It should be surprising. In other words, we shouldn't see it coming.
- It should lead quickly to new insights.
- It should offer predictions no one would have thought to make before.
Smolin holds String Theory up to the Five Problems and to the three requirements of a Unification theory and finds it wanting. (Small wonder, since he's an advocate of the competing Loop Quantum Gravity.) In fact, he finds that it only has the potential to deal with Problem #3 (Unification of the Forces and Particles).
I'm not qualified, really, to judge his judgment, so I guess I'll have to take his word for it. But something I'm definitely with him on is the idea that other approaches should be tried, and scientists should be free to pretty much tackle the problems any way they want without fear of being ostracized for it.
I really don't have it in me to discuss much more about the book. I tend to prefer Short-Topic Science books, and I'm not sure a book about String Theory will ever fit that description. This one certainly didn't, though if it'd just been the first third of the book, I'd have given it high marks.
Ultimately, I'm happy with a science book if I learn something. And in this case, I learned a bit about M-Theory, the history of attempts at unification, and supersymmetry, and I'd be remiss if I didn't include this quote (which you'll get if you understand supersymmetry, or at least know that it proposes partner particles for the ones we know about, but with either a preceding 's' or a trailing 'ino'):
Not only are there squarks and sleptons and photinos, there are also sneutrinos to partner with neutrinos, Higgsinos with the Higgs, and gravitinos to go with the gravitons. Two by two, a regular Noah's ark of particles. Sooner or later, tangled in the web of new snames and nameinos, you begin to feel like Sbozo the clown. Or Bozo the clownino. Or swhatever.
Two other quick (and minor) gripes before I go. Most of the time with a NOOK Book, if you click through to an endnote, there's a corresponding link in the endnotes back to where you came from. Not in this case. If I clicked through, I was stuck. At least with a print book, I could keep my thumb in my place. This needs to be fixed when the book is updated. Speaking of which…
My other gripe is that it was written before the LHC came online at CERN, and it doesn't therefore contain any references to the recent findings about the Higgs. I can't fault the book or the author for this, because that's just how time works. If it'd been written later, it might have had that content. But then it wouldn't have been a couple of bucks on the NOOK Daily Find. So I guess it's more of a gripe against spacetime.
Most important of all, of course, is that this book was on my 13 in '13 list, so that's one title shorter. But I've got to get hopping if I'm going to finish the list.
Right now I'm reading Against Calvinism (though I've shelved it for a few weeks), Fool Moon, Heir to the Empire, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I figure Fool Moon will be next up. Stay tuned.
Early warning here: I'm changing my plans. Pork Chops aren't happening this week. Swimmer Dude is going to be away, and my lady and I are gonna get dinner and a movie. So unless you beg me, there's going to be no recipe for tomorrow. (And I just realized I forgot to change the title before I posted this. Oh well.) For that matter, there really isn't one today. It's burgers. Who needs a recipe?
All right, the fact is that there are things to say about making the perfect burger. And it all starts with picking the right beef.
No, I'm not talking about making sure you source Organic or grass-fed beef. Both of which are great ideas, don't get me wrong, and I do both of them. Instead, I want to emphasize that you should get the 80% lean beef.
(Queue shocking turn of events music.)
Yes, this me again, advocating the consumption of fat. Now, part of my reasoning here is that I think a burger should be cooked well done. I'm willing to go pink on a steak, but all the little critterz are on the outside. A burger has them ground all through it. (Even organic beef has bacteria in it. I know, I looked it up. Actually I didn't, but I'm fairly sure about this. Feel free to chime in if you think I'm wrong.) I want it cooked!
The problem is that a 95% lean, well done burger serves as a pretty decent hockey puck stand-in. At 90%, you could pull off a juicy and well-done burger, but you're walking a fine line. Lose your concentration and you've again got a clay pigeon. Hockey and skeet shooting are both fun, but they lack the mouth feel that a nice, juicy (and well done) burger has. And neither goes particularly well with bacon and guacamole.
Yes, I'm using fatty beef, then topping it with fatty guacamole and fatty bacon. I may even whip up some homemade Chipotle Aioli and throw that in there. Four, four, four kinds of fat! Oh, and don't forget the Pepper Jack!
My pro-tip for getting a burger evenly cooked, that is, done in the middle but not charred on the edges, is to shape it into what might be mistaken for a middle-school pottery class ashtray, not that middle-schoolers would even make such a thing (though we totally did in seventh grade shop class). I press the center down nice and thin, but keep the edges fairly beefy. And yes, I really just did that.
In our generally gluten-free existence (my knees don't like gluten, quite apart from any Paleo considerations), we tend to go the Lettuce-Wrap route with our burgers, and I'll just warn you that a guacamole bacon burger is exceedingly messy in a Lettuce-Wrap configuration. But so worth it.
One more small tip: Season those suckers! Seriously, bust out the salt and pepper and go to town! Don't waste a nice, fatty burger by making it bland.
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I think we've covered burgers, don't you? Quick fact: The average son of Seth can consume two half-pound burgers in an evening and still ask for me to make fruit smoothies. Swimmer Dude can flat out eat.
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Okay, I'm going to go fire up the grill.
Normally I like to keep soup pretty simple, trusting in the flavor to sell it even though a basic chicken soup isn't anything complicated. Making my own stock certainly goes a ways toward solidifying that flavor. But since I have a ton of time on my hands these days, I've gone for a bit of a more involved soup, though the list of ingredients is still pretty simple:
- 1 large Onion
- 4-5 Carrots
- 3-4 stalks Celery
- 3-4 cloves Garlic
- 1-2 pounds Bulk Italian Sausage (pork)
- 1 15oz can Great Northern Beans or Cannellini Beans
- 2 15oz cans stewed tomatoes (or one 29oz can)
- 1-2 red bell peppers, roasted
- 2-3 cups chicken stock
- chopped basil and other herbs, either fresh or dried, to taste
Onion, celery, and carrots are a standard soup base (called "mirepoix"), so I don't think they even count. Garlic…duh. Doesn't count. So it's really just meat, beans, and the soup base, made of pureed tomatoes, peppers, and chicken stock.
Speaking of which, did you finish your stock yet? If not, just do like I told you the other night. Get it out of the fridge and put it on medium-high heat. Add a roughly-chopped onion and carrot, plus a few smashed cloves of garlic, some bay leaves, and a few crushed peppercorns. Let it simmer while you start prepping the soup.
- Finish your stock! (see above)
- Chop your onion, celery, and garlic (I go fine on the onion and celery and half-fine, half-coarse on the carrots. And I add extra carrots until I think I've got enough).
- By the way, I generally start with the meatballs and prep veggies while they cook. But if you're worried about the multitasking, go with this order.
- Crush your garlic and give it a nice chop, or squeeze it through a press if you must (you feel more cheffy if you crush it and chop it).
- (Any leftover bits of onion, carrot, and garlic can just get added to the simmering stock.)
- Make your meatballs and start browning them in batches. Remove to a prep bowl. Alternatively, just brown the sausage like any other ground meat. It's still good, just not as nifty. Or you could brown the meatballs in a skillet and start your veggies in a pot. But I don't like to miss all the wonderful browned bits of meat, so I prefer the one-pot method.
- After the meat is browned and removed, add your veggies and a nice three-finger pinch of salt. Any browned bits left in the pan will be essentially deglazed here.
- While the veggies are softening, throw your tomatoes and peppers in a food processor and puree until smooth. (I wrote a bit about roasted peppers yesterday.)
- Add a splash to a half-cup of wine of your choice (red/white/both) to the veggies when they start to stick (or really at any point).
- Before the wine is totally cooked off, add the pureed tomatoes and peppers. I understand there are compounds in tomatoes that only get brought out by alcohol. Not sure what they are, but evidently they do their best work drunk.
- Rinse your can of beans (or two) and add them to the pot.
- Add some chicken stock, a ladle-full at a time (helps to have a strainer handy through which you can pour the stock).
- Add the meatballs and any additional stock, to your desired thickness.
- Add any chopped herbs. I like basil. And chives.
- Once everything is bubbling, turn it down and simmer for as long as you like. I like to give it an hour or so to develop flavor, but as soon as the veggies are soft, you're good. I'd give it a minimum of twenty minutes or so.
This has become one of Swimmer Dude's favorite dishes, the same boy who claims not to like tomatoes and hates the smell of chicken stock. Cooking is transformation!
Seriously, I think the meatballs sell it for him. Who doesn't love a meatball?
Well, my soup's simmering, and I'm going to go watch a dumb movie or play a Word or two, or maybe finally write up that review of The Trouble With Physics. I could do ANYTHING right now!
What about you? Have a favorite soup recipe to share? And pro-tips?