October 12 2011

Travel Impressions

We went on vacation last week–Jamaica. I’ll be posting some pictures later when I’ve got them off the various cameras and organized. In the meantime, I thought I would say a couple of words about air travel in general.
On this trip, we made all our connections and our luggage arrived on time, so that was good. On this trip we had to (for various reasons) take two suitcases of the checked variety. This freed us to only take a small carry-on each (camera, i-pad and 1 change of clothing just in case.) Since the checked in luggage wasn’t lost this worked well. We both noticed that there was quite a bit of freedom in not pulling along a carry-on.
I did notice that many people seem to be desperately trying to cram as much as possible into larger and larger carry-ons. This strategy fails(of course) once the carry-on gets too large to fit into the overhead compartment. The airlines main check of the size of the carry-ons seemed to be the failure to fit rule rather than any pre-screening. This leads to everyone waiting while the people desperately try to fold their luggage into a space that is too small. Maybe they needed more topology classes. I would guess that the carry-on size increase comes from the airlines now charging for check-in bags. So, rather than sensibly packing less, people are trying to pack the same (or more?) into less space.
The one place in which having checked luggage was annoying came on the return flight. When we arrived in Atlanta (from Jamaica) we had to clear customs. This means that you have to retrieve your checked bag, wheel it 50 feet and then put it back on a conveyer. Then, you have to go through security again. I’m fairly unclear on what security hole this arcane exercise is trying to fill. I did get to go through one of the full body scanners. It reported that my right leg was suspect. The pat down dud then patted my leg and confirmed there was nothing there (other than a leg). So that was kind of interesting.
The other mildly annoying thing was having to turn off my Nook at the start and end of each flight. Someone, somewhere has a great fear of all electronic devices and the vast energies they emit.
More on the actual trip later.

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October 3 2011


REAMDE by Neal Stephenson is a massive avalanche of reading delight. You might just say that I liked it–really liked it. The book starts off in NW Iowa at the annual Forthrast family reunion at Thanksgiving. The time-frame seems to be roughly the current time. Richard Forthrast is busy shooting at cans and pumpkins by the creek on the family farm along with the rest of the extended family. He isn’t quite able to blend in with the rest of the family and we gradually learn that through his life he has been variously a draft dodger, pot smuggler and gamer who is one of the founders of the gaming company, Corporation 9592. The main output of Corporation 9592 (Richard randomly created the name after no one could agree) is a MMORPG T’Rain. T’Rain was created with the idea of being geologically accurate (the gold comes from somewhere other than just dragon lairs) and being friendly to the idea of gold farming. T’Rain has become quite popular and as a result has driven Richard’s net worth north of 600 million dollars. At the Reunion Richard chats with his niece Zula (adopted into the family by way of Eritrea) and thinks that he might be able to get her a job in 9592 as she has a degree in geology.
We get this nice fairly low key intro into Richard and then skip a few months as Zula and her boyfriend Peter are visiting Richard in his ski resort in British Columbia. Zula has indeed joined 9592. It is at this point that the main story begins and then the action escalates. Upon escalation, the action never really lets up for the next 900 pages or so with the occasion brief pause for some cool information presented with Stephenson’s knack for infodumpery. What this means is that you often don’t realize that he is feeding you info as he manages to make it part of the storytelling.
The action in this case originates from an unexpected confluence between a virus effecting T’Rain users (the REAMDE virus) and an exchange of information between Zula’s boyfriend Peter and some Russian mobsters. Chinese virtual gold farmers, terrorists, counter-terrorists, British spies, fantasy authors and Idahoan “gun” people are some of the groups that will get run into, over and through.
In addition to a breakneck plot and fantastic characters (Zula is the very soul of an empowered female lead) there are a number of really cool concepts. The base idea of T’Rain being hospitable to gold farming (the exchange of in game gold with real world money) is pretty interesting. Most games try to actively prevent this and there are some murmurs of tax issues from governments that seem to encourage this attitude. Couple this with some of the action of the novel occurring in the game environment and aspects of the game that seem quite a bit more advanced than actual games that currently exist and you get a bit of science fiction feel to parts of the book for anyone who might be desiring such a feel. Most of the book is quite firmly ensconced in the world of the current techno-thriller so don’t expect spaceships, but instead private jets.
One detail that I found slightly annoying was that Stephenson went out of his way to keep pointing out that his characters (from Iowa) were pronouncing creek as “crik”. I’m from north central Iowa and don’t know anyone who actually does this so it seemed out of place. He does mention that the Forthrast’s migrated to NW Iowa from Missouri, so they presumably brought this dialect with them. I have heard anecdotal evidence that this pronunciation holds in places so it isn’t necessarily an incorrect detail, just odd that he keeps mentioning it. He doesn’t comment on Chinese character’s dialects, for example.
But, on the other hand, since he mostly then portrays the Iowa portion of the cast as quite the cool set of people I’ll forgive him this.
So, there you go–a thrilling book that you won’t want to put down with interesting characters a non-stop plot and some cool pieces of info along the way. Highly recommended.