Sunday, January 31, 2010

Books of January 2010

January 2010 books
23 books (or 25)
9148 pages
Twenty five books if you count the Paksenarrion trilogy as three.  I don't think I normally read this much.  Got into the Harry Potter series and then was into reading mode.  Its funny, I go on and off reading.  I'll read a bunch (like this month) and then not very much for a while.  I can't imagine keeping this pace up through the rest of the year.

Dead Lines
Greg Bear
ISBN 0-345-44838-3
299 pages
Jan 31

An interesting sci-fi premise - discovery of a new communications bandwidth - turned into horror.  I'm not a big horror fan.

Greg Bear
ISBN 0-812-51996-5
151 pages
Jan 30

Two pronged book - search for absolute zero, and cryogenically preserved heads.  Interesting in that apparently one of the first sci-fi novels to postulate quantum computing.  Interesting prediction of future blend of corporations/family ties.  Basically the book is an indictment of the cult of "Logology", a very thinly disguised version of scientology. 

Rob Grant
ISBN 0-140-28975-5
290 pages
Jan 30

I loved the Red Dwarf television series, so picked this up (Rob Grant with Doug Naylor wrote Red Dwarf).   A front cover review said "Cruel, cynical and very funny".    Generational ships is another fairly common sci-fi idea.  In this one, inbreeding leads to stupidity.  Its in the style of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but not as good or funny.  Maybe equivalent to one of the later Hitchhikers books.  Funny bits, but overdoing it without success.

Beyond Heaven's River
Greg Bear
ISBN 0-812-53172-8
192 pages
Jan 29

Not my favourite Greg Bear book, not my favourite "earthling abducted to far planet for nefarious purpose" book either.  Bogs down on philosophy too much.

Robert J. Sawyer
ISBN 1-55082-295-0
297 pages
Jan 28

A great Canadian science fiction writer.  I've enjoyed some of his other works, this one is a collection of short stories.  Its fun(ny) and very uncommon to see Canadian locations inserted into popular fiction.  .  He writes a lot of alternate universe stories.

The Sands of Mars
Arthur C. Clarke
206 pages
Jan 27

Some retro science fiction by one of the all time greats.  Written in the late 40's, published early 50's.  Had to laugh at the cigarette smoking on the space ship.  Also the typewriter and carbon paper that was brought on the voyage to Mars.  A good yarn despite the plant and animal life discovered on Mars.  Funny how that seemed a possibility such a short period of time ago.  An early instance of what has become a common theme in 'Mars colonization' books - namely the economic/political/scientific conflict between the colonists and the mother planet.

Darwin's Radio
Greg Bear
ISBN 0-345-42333-X
418 pages
Jan 24 

An apt followup to the DNA expression question of the last book.  An existing section of human DNA expresses itself as a virus with unexpected consequences.  My OAC biology class was far enough in the past that I had a hard time following some of the science in the book.  Not until I finished did I discover the "short biological primer" and glossary at the back.  Should have been at the beginning!!  Bear is one of a trilogy of authors known as "the killer b's", the other two being Gregory Benford and David Brin.  I read everything I can find from all three.  They all write hard science fiction (books that incorporate both scientific detail and scientific accuracy), which I like. There is a sequel to this book which I'm going to try and track down.

Resistance: The Gathering Storm
William C. Deitz
ISBN 78-0-345-50842-3
 340 pages
Jan 20

Scanning bookshelves at a used book store or thrift store is an art.  Zone out romance/teen/crap while keying on interesting looking things at speed.  Noticed this yesterday at the thrift store, picked up on author, having just read another of his books a few days ago.  I was torn about buying it though.  This book is based not on a movie or a tv show, but a video game!  I never realized such things happened.  Never heard of the game, but not surprising since I don't have a playstation 3.   Reads like a video game too.  Two dimensional characters fighting monsters, then more monsters but with better weapons, then different monsters, then the boss monster.  A quick interlude, then repeat.  Then repeat again.  The most interesting part is the premise of alien invasion - not via space ship armada, but by virus.  (The book alludes to the virus arriving in the real life Tunguska Event of 1908).  Its interesting in that without FTL travel, a spaceborne virus would be a workable, albeit slow, method of interstellar travel.  Human DNA has about 3 billion base pairs (750 mb of data), 95% of which is for functions unknown.  Whats in there waiting to express?

Any Old Iron
Anthony Burgess
ISBN 0-09-173842-3
339 pages
Jan 18

Took a while to get used to the style.  Picked it up because I liked A Clockwork Orange and I like the Arthurian legends.  Turned out not to be my cup to tea.

Where the Ships Die
William C. Deitz
ISBN 0-441-00354-0
277 pages
Jan 17

One of the interesting concepts of this book was the idea of data as trade.  Wormholes for spaceship travel but no FTL communication.  Data became a valuable commodity that was traded by traveling freighters.  "Knowledge, plans, designs, entertainment, and other forms of digitized data."  One of those small things slipped into a hard sci-fi novel that I think will be an accurate prediction of the future.

Peter Hernon
ISBN 0-515-12713-2
460 pages
Jan 16

I've been in two earthquakes.  First when I was living in Jamaica was barely noticeable.  As if a heavy truck had just driven by.  Second when I lived on Vancouver Island.  Woken up early one morning by the racket the neighbourhood dogs were making.  Few minutes later the ground started to shake.  Kind of cool, it wasn't very strong, but definitely noticeable.  I think it was 3.5 richter magnitude.  This book wasn't what I hoped it would be.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling 
ISBN 1-55192-976-7
607 pages
Jan 15

I cried.

Pole to Pole
Michael Palin
ISBN 0-14-025743-8
277 pages
Jan 14

I don't often read non-fiction in this manner - cover to cover.  Most of the non-fiction I read is reference style - a couple of chapters, or flipping through when I'm looking for information.  Less now that we have the magic of internet.  The book is a collection of snippets that make me want to see the BBC series, although the book itself wasn't great.  Quite an adventure though.  I miss traveling.

Night of Thunder
Stephen Hunter
ISBN 978-1-4165-6514-7
448 pages
Jan 12

Checked the mailbox yesterday hoping my Deathly Hallows had finally arrived and found this instead.  I had forgotten about it.  Picked it up on Bookmooch.  A pretty cool site for bibliophiles.  It is a free site.  A really free site, not a faux free site, or I wouldn't have bothered.

Basically, you trade books for points.  I started by listing 10 books I was willing to 'trade' in my inventory, got 1/10th of a point each.  Used that point to request someone else's book.  Arrives in the mail.  Someone requests one of my inventory books, I get a point, I mail it off to them.  One point if you give or receive a book in your own country.  Two points to request and 3 points to give a book out of country because of higher postage costs.  I've been a member almost two years, mooched about 130 books, sent a few less.  My mailing costs average about $2 per point earned.  So mooching a book from Canada costs me about $2, from US or overseas $4.  Pretty good deal.

The book itself confirms my 'later books by popular authors aren't good' theory.  My least favourite Bob Lee Swagger novel.

The Day Before Midnight
Stephen Hunter
ISBN 0-553-28235-2
415 pages
Jan 11

Going the other extreme, early book by popular author.  Writer of the Bob Lee Swagger series, one of which was made into the terrible movie "Shooter" starring Marky Mark.  I find the 'technology' in older books (1989) so funny.  Entertaining but far from Hunter's best.

Playing for Pizza
John Grisham
ISBN 978-0-440-24471-4
308 pages
Jan 10

My ebay purchased HP & the Deathly Hallows hasn't arrived yet.  Its been three and a half weeks so far.  Annoying.  Found this one while cleaning up.  Haven't read any John Grisham for years.  Not a big law story fan, not a big fan of superstar authors.  I find their work gets worse as time goes on.  Doesn't have to be as good when people buy on name alone.  Anyway, book about football in Italy should be interesting.  Except it is pointy egg ball, american style.  I missed a lot since I have no idea what all the jargon meant.  Basically the book was boy redeems and rediscovers himself while meeting girl the end.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling 
ISBN 1-55192-756-X
607 pages
Jan 9

A little more interesting, a little more background, a little more action.  I don't understand why, if non-verbal spells are better for combat, they aren't used in the combat scenes.  Other than because it makes it easier to write.  Harry is a little less of a whinging prat in this one, but still took away from the empathy built up for the character in the series.  We're going to watch the movie this weekend, been holding off until I finished the book since I didn't want to take away from the enjoyment of reading it.  Books are so much better than movies.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

J.K. Rowling 
ISBN 1-55192-570-2
766 pages
Jan 7

Far too much Harry Potter feeling sorry for himself.  Took away from the empathy one is supposed to feel for the protagonist.  While a good yarn, I didn't enjoy it as much as the earlier ones.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling 
ISBN 0-7475-4624-X
636 pages
Jan 6

Thunk.  This book is twice as long as any of the previous ones.  I kind of missed Pottermania when it started, I wonder if the series became popular enough that Rowling could write something longer.  No longer seems like a children's series - death and violence that wasn't present in the first three novels.  Original readers growing old enough to deal with it?  A couple things made me smile.  The description of  Dobby's clothes had me remembering the week when Mars went around with a tea-cosy on his head because it was 'his hat'.  The climactic scene with Voldemort's return that seemed straight out of a James Bond movie.  Hero tied up while villain goes on and on...  Parodied so well in the Austin Powers movies...  Should've busted a cap in Harry's head, Voldemort!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling 
ISBN 1-55192-246-0
317 pages
Jan 5

I like this one best so far.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling 
ISBN 1-55192-244-4
251 pages
Jan 3

Another quick read.  For a while, I wondered if I couldn't handle a second reading of this one, but warmed up to it in the end.  Too much introduction and rehashing of Philosopher's Stone in the beginning.  Again, surprised to see so much packed into a short little book.  Some small little things that make more sense having read/listened to the whole series before.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
J.K. Rowling
ISBN 1-55192-398-X
223 pages
Jan 3

Having just said I pretty much think fantasy is rubbish, of course I picked this up to read next.  Decided to spend some of my ebay money on HP & the Deathly Hallows & then re-read the whole series.  Have read the first 6 before, listened to 7 as an audio book.  The first is a pretty quick read, enjoyable, and interesting to see how much is packed into such a small book.

The Deed of Paksenarrion
Elizabeth Moon
ISBN 0-671-72104-6
1024 pages
Jan 2

I don't generally read fantasy.  Too often insipid, with annoying themes, and hard to follow made up languages and names.  I much prefer science fiction, because what could be interests me far more than what never will.  However, I quite enjoyed reading Elizabeth Moon's science fiction novels, so I thought I'd give this a try.  Its actually a trilogy: Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, Oath of Gold.  Follows the story of Paksenarrion running away from home to become a mercenary then hero then paladin.  Pretty standard stuff for Fantasy, except better.  Didn't get too hammy, though plot a little predictable at times.  Liked the first book best, could almost be historical fiction rather than fantasy - magic/elves/orcs don't figure much until the last two books.  Training and combat well told, enjoyed reading about a strong female protagonist.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to Stop Internet Ads

I predate the popularity explosion of the World Wide Web.  Back in the day, I was a regular BBSer, logging on regularly for my daily fix of Legend of the Red Dragon.  I remember when the internet was used only for its intended purpose: porn.  I think that advertising has just about surpassed porn on the internet. 

Pop-ups, flash ads, and dozens of bandwidth hogging graphical ads on every single page.  How can people stand it, particularly with dialup?  Internet use is faster and less cluttered without them, and it is relatively easy to do.  How to you stop internet ads?  I've been doing it for years, so it isn't until I use so someone elses computer that I'm reminded how irritating it is.  Here's how:

Download, install, and use Mozilla Firefox.  More reliable, faster, customizable, more secure, and not forced on you by the evil empire.  I love tabs!!  I love Session Manager too. 

Customize Firefox with add-ons.  There are lots.  For de-advertising the internet, the important ones are:
Adblock Plus: Automatically blocks ads in two ways.  First is a filter subscription - a giant list on known ad sites that are prevented from loading.  Second is manually - some ads sneak through, some idiot uses annoying animated gifs, whatever.  Right clicking on the offending image will allow you to block it forever.  I recently updated to a newer version of adblock, so my stats were reset, but it had blocked well over half a million ads for me!
Flashblock:  Only loads flash animations if you want them to.  All flash animations on the page are replaced by an icon.  If you want to see the animation (often a video), click on the icon.  You can also rightclick to 'whitelist' your favourite/trusted sites.

Enjoy.  You've just stopped 99% of the internet ads you're likely to come across.  You're not wasting the bandwidth you pay for on crap you don't want to see.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Plumb tired of plumbing

No hot water and a burning smell from the basement.  This is never a good sign.  Water heater is toast.  Looks like a leak around the seal of the upper element dripped down and shorted the lower element.  Ah, I hate the smell of burning plastic in the morning.

Don't want to mess about with replacing elements and thermostats on a leaky gunky tank, so went with a new one.  A cheapy, since our well water isn't kind to water tanks.  Cheap or expensive, it will still have to be replaced in 6 years and one month, just after the 6 year warranty runs out.  Found the right one on sale even.  Got it home, opened the box, there was a giant dent.  Not a cosmetic dent, but a top to bottom 1" deep gouge.  The kind you would only get if you lifted the tank with a forklift and ran in into a very sharp corner.  On purpose.

Had it back 20 minutes after I bought it looking for a replacement.  It was the last one in stock.    Naturally.  But hey, they are expecting a delivery of more Feb 2nd if I want to wait!  The next closest CT store had some, but they are 115 km away.  Ended up paying more for a virtually identical tank at the hardware store (same manufacturer, same model, different label).   Annoying, but less annoying than 2.5 hours of driving and the price difference was less than the tank of gas I would have used.

A pretty straightforward change-out, but I elected to replace an old valve that had turned into a gunk magnet, decreasing hot water pressure and not fully closing when turned to 'off'.  It is important to cycle your valves!!  Turn them off then back on occasionally.  Or they won't work when you need them to.   Also added some unions at the inlet and outlet.  Five bucks a piece, I can see why they were left out by whoever put the old tank in.  Worth it though, since I won't have to cut the tank out if there are any more problems or when it comes time to replace the tank again.

Omniscient foresight? Finished everything up, filled the tank over the course of a few hours so as not to strain the well or old piston pump.  Two leaks.  I was surprised, since I'm half decent at sweating copper pipes.  Neither was my bad though.  New valve was leaking through the stem - just had to snug up the nut.  Also the hot water outlet was leaking.  Took me three tries to solve that leak - yay for unions or I would have been cutting and soldering all night.  Just had to depressurize, drain a little out the TPR valve, and unscrew.  Replaced the thread compound and tried tightening twice to no avail.  Turns out the plastic sleeve inside the inlet was a fraction of a millimeter higher than the metal threads of the inlet.  Even after pipe wrenching tight, the plastic left a little gap, allowing the leak.  Shaved off the excess with my Olfa, sealed up nice and tight with no more leaking.

One more thing to do I didn't have parts for.  New tank has a 3/4 inch TPR, old one was 1/2" temperature and pressure relief valve.  Against code to reduce the diameter, so need to get some 3/4 copper pipe and a threaded adapter.   It is a safety issue!  If, for whatever reason, the heating elements don't shut off (like a short due to leaking tank?), the water expands and needs somewhere to go.  If the water gets too hot, or there is too much pressure in the tank, the TPR opens and releases water/pressure.  Reducing from 3/4 to 1/2 would maybe not be an issue, but check out this awesome video of what can happen if the TPR is capped shut and the elements keep heating!

Unforeseen expenses are annoying, but the increased water pressure is glorious.  Gunkless tank will also mean electricity savings.   In recognition of all my hard work, Leaf gave me a special treat.  Custard.  How things change post kids...


Sunday, January 17, 2010

UPS Sucks Large, Brio sucks a little.

My first experience with UPS "brokerage" fees this week.  Those are the ridiculous charges they levy to 'broker' a package through customs. I'm very careful when I order stuff or bid on stuff from the US never to spend over $20.  If you import something worth less than $20, you pay no duty.  Over $20 you do.

Anyway, I recently ordered a couple of brio trains for the boys from the brio web page.  $9.09 USD each.  Total $18.16 USD, or about $18.70 CAD.  I also specified shipping by US Postal Service, since it was quite a bit cheaper. 

Imagine my surprise when a UPS guy bangs on the door wanting money.  A COD package for $20.63.  Yikes.  I was confused for a second... besides having asked for the trains not to be sent UPS, I had already paid for them.  Why would I pay for them again?  Turns out it was for "brokerage" fees totaling almost more than the value of the items in the package.  Thanks but no thanks little man dressed in earth colours.  Since it would be harder to get money back than get it sorted out so as not to pay in the first place, I declined to cough up the cash.  According to the invoice left with me, it broke down to $0 in duty, $2.68 GST, $17.10 Brokerage Fee, $0.85 GST on aforementioned Brokerage Fee. 

Checked UPS web site.  Packages valued under $20 are not supposed to have any brokerage fee.  Called UPS, who said package had two items, each valued at $10 US, for a total of $20 and some cents Canadian.  The some cents triggered the $20.63 in fees.  (Incidentally, also according to UPS web site, packages with a value of $20.01 - $40.00 have a brokerage fee of $7 so don't know how they came up with $17.10)

I nicely explained (there is no point ever raising your voice to the peons) that the invoice I paid clearly says the items cost me less than $20.  She explained that I would have to get an updated invoice faxed to UPS, pay a $10 fee, and not have to pay the brokerage fees.  I think it was some kind of buy off attempt.  Tempt me with some small savings...  not biting, since I shouldn't have to pay anything extra at all.

Phoned Brio.  After I battered my way through "I'm sorry, but we aren't responsible for brokerage or customs fees" it turns out they made an error in their warehouse.  I bought the trains on super duper sale, only the sale price was written on the manifest.  I would just have to pay the fees, fax them the invoice, they would send me money.  Grrrr.... a) I don't want to pay more money and then hope to get a rebate and b) I don't have a fax machine and live in the f'ing boonies and don't want drive 10 minutes then pay $6 a page to fax long distance at the local office ripoff store.

Since it was your error, I suggested sweetly (but probably less sweetly than I should have - their muzak while on hold was driving me batty), can't you fix it from your end without costing me any more time or money?  "But all we could do is reship the trains."

I kept my biting sarcasm on hold.  "Gosh, that sounds like it might work."  Mostly on hold.  I reminded them to send via USPS.  Should be here in 7-10 days.

By the way, the trains are rechargeable battery powered ones that run on your standard Brio/Thomas wooden train tracks.  Odin is mad for trains right now, we get the bin out every day and play with them.  Sale price on the web page right now is $10.09 (down from $34.99).  There is a trick to get them for $9.09.  I wanted to see how much S&H would be, but it wouldn't tell me without entering all my mailing info.  Did so, decided it wasn't worth it for one train... and two trains would have totaled more than $20, and we know what kind of problems that leads to.

I said screw it, but the next day got an email saying "We noticed that you left our site with items in your shopping cart." and that if I went back and bought, I'd get another 10% off, or only $9.09 per train. Good marketing.  S&H was the same for two, no duty or tax since they were under twenty bucks, good deal, should have been easy.