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Oct. 22nd, 2014 @ 09:53 am Book Review: First and Last Men, by Olaf Stapledon
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The ninth novel that I completed for the Worlds Without End Masterworks Reading Challenge was First and Last Men (1930), by Olaf Stapledon.

This is a very different novel. It's hard to imagine what it took to even get it published, as there is no story line, no characters, no emotional ride, just a sort of brain exercise.

The book presents itself as a modern man taking dictation from a man in the future of an oral history of mankind. This future man is in fact, from billions of years in the future. This oral history starts at roughly the beginning of history, and gives a thumbnail sketch of mans doings, right until his end, many eons from now. Several times man is almost wiped out, then recovers, only to have the process repeated. Man also evolves, so that the man giving the history bares very little resemblance to the man of today.

I'm not sure I can say that I liked the novel, but I can say that I respect it. Olaf Stapledon does not talk down to the reader. The prose is eloquent, high brow, and often so complex, as to seem like one is reading math formulas, and not a book. I had trouble getting through it, both for the weight of the words, and the often slow story that was being dictated. Still, I applaud the author for reaching for the stars (literally), and for his silver tongue, so that his odd novel seemed almost at times to be poetry.

A hard one to rate for certain, but I gave it three out of five stars, because I feel like I cannot in good conscience give such a monumental attempt to do something different a failing score.
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Jul. 25th, 2014 @ 10:56 pm Book Review: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
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For the eighth review in the Worlds Without End Masterworks Reading Challenge that I started this year from the book website Worlds Without End, I took on Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. I actually finished this one a couple of books ago, but needed to stew on it for a while before I could write my review.

In the near future, universities have restricted access to time machines, which are used by historians only to observe the past, thus enriching our knowledge. Against the advice of her advisor and most trusted professor, a graduate student goes back to medieval England to observe. But something is wrong, as people all around her are showing signs of the plague, despite that fact that the time she requested is well before that historic event. Meanwhile, a sudden and mysterious disease is sweeping through the time she left, and so she doesn't even know she may be trapped...

I enjoyed the book, but my enjoyment was somewhat hampered by the actions of the characters. At every turn, it seemed like characters took certain steps or made certain decisions only so that the plot could continue, and the tension and danger could increase. I understand that there is a certain amount of panic to the situation, and bad decisions will be made, but I was constantly frustrated by the actions of the characters, particularly the ones in the near future setting. Everyone refused to hear or believe anyone else, so that the problems could only become worse. All it would have taken is for ONE character to see reason and listen to another, and much of what happened could have been saved or prevented. But no, like a badly written TV show, all are blind or too proud to see the issues, and so the danger escalates.

I still enjoyed the book, and the author did a great job of trying to make the banal life of a Medieval Englander vivid and real, but every time a character refused to listen to reason, I rolled my eyes, and could almost sense the moustache being twirled.

I give it three out of five stars.
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Jun. 12th, 2014 @ 10:54 pm Book Review: A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
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For the seventh book in my Masterworks Reading Challenge, I read A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle For Leibowitz was a bit tough to get through. It starts out in a post-apocalyptic world a few hundred years from now, at a Christian abbey. Then, every so often, the story jumps ahead a couple of hundred years, which makes it very difficult to grow attached to any one character.

The novel starts by following a novice monk named Brother Francis, and as long as the book followed him, I enjoyed it. Francis is an atypical protagonist, as he is extremely shy, stutters, and just generally finds it difficult to communicate with others. His frustration over his inability to convey a discovery that he has made with others becomes your frustration, and it works.

Once we leave Brother Francis, and jump ahead, I lost interest, and I just never really got it back. It had some interesting ideas, and I would still give it a passing grade of 3 out of 5 stars, but I didn't think it was great, only okay.
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May. 13th, 2014 @ 09:31 pm The Red Baron, by Deven Science
I'm no longer posting all of my builds on here, but I thought I'd post pics of this one, as it's one of the better bikes I've built, with many details. I used real copper for the tank, bars, truss rods, and covering the chainring. I was going for a kind of 1910 Indian motorcycle, but without a motor.
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May. 6th, 2014 @ 11:59 pm Book Review: Dr. Bloodmoney, by Philip K. Dick
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For my next book in the Worlds Without End Masterworks Reading Challenge, I read Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb.

Alright, I've now read four PKD books. I can officially say that I'm not a fan. He overcomplicates things. It's like he takes a great idea, writes a great novel, and then puts it in a blender, scrambles it, and reassembles it arbitrarily, publishing it as is.

Parts of this novel are great, but characters often do things for incomprehensible reasons. A couple of them made me mad, they were dim witted to a level that was unbelievable.

Mercifully, it ended well, so that I can almost give it a pass, but I would say that there are so many classics out there, your time might be better spent reading some H.G. Welles, or some Heinlein or Asimov. Their stories made sense, at least, and it turns out, oddly, that it seems to be rather important to me that what I'm reading makes sense.

Now, in the writer's defense, there are whole websites dedicated to how brilliant Dick was, and whole pages that will explain his books. I'm just saying that if I need an English professor to interpret the book for me, then it's not for me. It's for the English professor.

2.5 out of 5 stars.
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Apr. 7th, 2014 @ 09:28 pm Book Review: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Next in my Worlds Without End Masterworks Reading Challenge was The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The story moves along at a slow pace, introducing many characters, and some very different cultures. The story mainly follows Shevek, a physicist from a land that was settled by revolutionaries from another world. Their new planet is arid and forbidding, and has no property, no government, and little need for such intangibles as new theories of space-time. Thinking that he may need to turn to another planet to find those that would be interested in his work, and feeling the need to shake the status quo of his home world, Shevek decides to break all taboos, and arranges passage to the "propertarian" world in which his people came from. But the people that greet him as if he's a celebrity have their own motives for bringing him to their world...

The leisurely pace is not really a bad thing, as the novel unfolds it's story using flashbacks to reveal how Shevek got into his current position, his motives, the motives of the government of the nation that invited him to their planet, and possibly, the future of both worlds.

The only negative that I might have would be that with such a deliberate pace, it seems as though not much actually happens in the story, though I believe that to be a false impression, as the plot spans a decade of Shevek's life.

3.5 out of 5 stars.
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lab guy
Mar. 18th, 2014 @ 10:22 pm Book Review: The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
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Next novel completed in my Worlds Without End Masterworks reading challenge was The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. I've read a book or two by Vonnegut, and I was expecting good things, but...

This one was meh. It started out well, but the second and third acts were... ambling. The story just seemed to ramble on, without direction, without focus, and most definitely without a point.

2 1/2 stars out of 5.
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lab guy
Feb. 21st, 2014 @ 10:49 pm Book Review: The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells
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My Worlds Without End SF Masterworks reading challenge continues well. Finished up The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells (1897).

Wells is known as one of the founders of the science fiction genre as we know it, and this book helped to justify that status to me.

The novel is told in a similar style as his War of the Worlds, that is, as if some time has passed since the event, and what we're reading is an account of the tale using several sources to complete it, as if it's told by a journalist. It admits to holes in the account, but rarely questions the various sources reliability.

The thing that I most enjoyed was the language used. The prose never seemed outdated to me, more it seemed as if the teller of the tale (as well as some of the main characters) were all well educated people, with the gift of gab. Much of what comes out of the characters mouths, most particularly the invisible man himself, is almost poetic in its rhythm.

The account follows chronologically from the moment a stranger wrapped head to toe in clothing and bandages appears at a lodge seeking quiet refuge, to the reveal of his condition, to him turning to violence, being sought for various crimes, and the panic that travels through the local area as the tale spreads. Only when the invisible man meets someone from his past does he reveal his name, and tell of the events that transpired to bring him to the situation he now finds himself.

From mysterious beginning, to tragic end, the novel is well worth the read. I rate it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
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Feb. 13th, 2014 @ 01:40 pm Speaking in Tongues, by Deven Science
I started playing with Duolingo some time ago, after justphoenix mentioned using it. Now that I have been using it for a couple of months, I wanted to give some thoughts on it, for any who are interested in learning, or brushing up on fluency of, one of the five languages the app offers (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese).

I've been learning German. For no real reason, I've always been interested in Germany. I've got a little German ancestry, but no more than I do any of the other half dozen nationalities that makes up your typical American Mutt. We are planning a trip there in a few years though, so to have some knowledge of the language would help then, for sure.

Anyhoo, the app is laid out differently than any other method of learning another language that I've ever heard of. It just sort of jumps in, teaching you whole sentences, and repeating them in a hundred various combinations to allow you to pick out what words are what, and when to use them. It has a format, to be sure, it breaks it up into sections. Conjunctions, accusative pronouns, clothing, plurals, etc. But it's focus is always on sentence structure. Because of this, I know that the negative "not (nicht)" goes after the verb, but I haven't even been taught the numbers one through ten, yet. I think that this is because the app is designed to have your end goal to help translate Internet pages in other languages into English, which is why it is free.

The other issue is that it moves very fast. I'm learning so many words with every lesson, that I can't possibly retain them all. They'll come up later, and I have no idea what they are. I was getting a bit frustrated, and then, I taught myself a way to make it fun again. The answer?

Cheat. Use the hints the lessons give. Look it up online if I feel like it. If I keep passing each level this way (it's got a semi-game like format to each lesson), aren't I then still moving too fast for me? Yes, but the app is repetitive, as I've said, and I figure even if I only retain 10% of what I'm doing, then 10% of 10,000 words is better than 10% of 1,000 words. I'm now treating it more like a game, with the goal to beat each current level, and I hope that some small amount of fluency will come with it as I continue.

I'm also looking into getting some other materials on learning German from the library. There are some audiobooks, some workbooks, and even an interactive book designed for kids! That one actually looks fun. No single one of these things is as good as something like Rosetta Stone, but added up together, these materials could help strengthen each other.

My final verdict is that I WOULD recommend it to others. I'm learning at least a couple good words or small phrases every day that I use it, and that is bound to add up. I could now ask someone for a bathroom, a place to eat lunch or dinner, introduce meine Frau, and I'm currently learning nouns found in a house, such as a door (Tür), or table (Tisch). I plan on keeping at it, even if I sometimes feel that other things are not fully explained (fucking when do I use das, der, or die? WHEN!?! Masculine and feminine? NOT. THAT. SIMPLE.).

You might want to give it a shot.
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Feb. 7th, 2014 @ 02:05 pm Book Review: A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
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I completed my next novel in the WorldsWithoutEnd Masterworks Reading Challenge. I read A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick. Here's my review for the site:

I always hesitate to read PKD. The synopsis of his novels always sound so interesting, and so I give them another shot, despite the fact that his books are a puzzle to me. I just don't fathom his writing.

This book takes place in the near future (at least as of the time of publication), in a world where a drug called Substance D is so big, the police and federal government hire people to infiltrate its supply chains at such an alarming rate, one gets the impression that there are more agents then regular civilian drug users. The book, or at least its beginning, is centered around one of these agents, named Bob Arctor. Arctor is doing his job, and well, but as time goes on, the drug begins to affect his mind, so that he starts to lose grip on reality. As an agent, when not undercover, his real identity is hidden using a clever suit. When in the suit, Arctor goes by the name "Fred." Even his boss knows him only as Fred, and when said boss orders Fred to start monitoring known D user Bob Arctor, his brain is far gone enough to do so, which slowly seems to split him into a kind of multiple personality. Bob, the D user, and Fred, the officer watching Bob, reporting on him, and even encouraging the authorities to turn the pressure up on him.

This middle section of the novel is quite interesting, and I really enjoyed the strangeness of a man reporting on, and trying to bust, himself. However, there is a turn near the end that takes the focus a bit away from Arctor as his life and drug use come to a head, and the book really lost it for me at that point.

I gave this novel three stars out of five. It's just barely a pass for me, and barely a recommendation.
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