Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wild Cards, an alternate fiction world edited by George R. R. Martin

Cover of the first book I accidentally heard of the Wild Cards books a few weeks ago, but the concept fascinated me. The plot is that of an alternate America in which an alien virus caused massive deaths, but also strange mutations in 1946. The virus, something a bunch of aliens wanted to test on Earth as a bioweapon, kills 90% of its victims, mutates in horrible forms 9% of them, but also gives powerful abilities to but 1%. This 1% are called Aces, while the deformed ones are called Jokers, the analogy with a deck of cards giving the series its name. What is even more interesting is that this is like an open source literary universe, edited by George R. R. Martin, but in which a lot of writers are creating content. First book was published in 1987, and more and more were published and still are in the present. Some of them are collections of stories, some of them are full featured books; they all happen in the same universe, same heroes, and Martin is making sure they are ordered chronologically and have consistency. I found the concept intriguing.

Anyway, I've already read the first two books and started reading the third and I like it. It has the feeling of the Union Dues stories and Watchmen: dark, bleak sometimes, pulling no punches when it is about human pettiness, base desires or social ugliness. It also has some positive messages and classic "good wins in the end" stories. I was impressed by the faithful following of American history, including savage McCarthy witch hunts against jokers and aces, a Vietnam war with the appropriate Flower Power anticulture, complete with actual historical figures that somehow get affected by the virus (like the werewolf Mick Jagger).

Now I am not saying that this is the best book series ever written. It certainly has boring or lagging parts, some of it is slightly puerile (after all it is a superhero series), but so far I enjoy it. It is worth mentioning that there are 12 books published by Bantam Books before a "new cycle" appears, published by Baen, then two from ibooks - a publishing house that suddenly went down - and now Tor Books is apparently publishing the rest (a revival, it is called). 21 books so far and another one set to be released this year. In other words, some books may be better than others and I can only discuss my feelings after reading the first two.

In conclusion, it felt weird to not have heard of these books until now. Certainly they gained more popularity with Game of Thrones getting all this attention, but still, an alternate history superhero series of more than 20 books should have had some impact on me so far. I am glad I finally got wind of them and I enjoy them so far. I hope I find a system of filtering the books, though. I don't know if I am ready to read 20 books at once.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernon Vinge

book cover A Fire Upon the Deep is a really strange book. The writing style of the author, Vernon Vinge, reminds me a lot of Asimov: the describing of scenes that are clear in his head, but the willingness to move immediately over concepts or ideas that are not, the sometimes obnoxiously long dialogues, the direct way of saying it as it is. In fact, without knowing anything about Vinge, I bet that he is an engineer, maybe even a computer scientist. And I won. The concepts of the book range from high hard sci-fi to naive depictions of kilobyte per second communication. So, in all earnest, I thought the book was amateurish, meanwhile reading it from cover to cover in a few days, just like one of Asimov's books. Still, for a book written in 1992, it felt terribly outdated.

The plot is a combination of story arches. The main one is the emergence of an evil artificial intelligence that plans to take over the galaxy and the quest to retrieve the ultimate weapon that would defeat it. Then there is the story of a medieval alien race of rat-wolf analogues that think in packs, making an individual from several bodies acting together. And finally there is the internal dynamic of the group that embarks in this quest of quests. Some interesting ideas are being thrown around, but almost always with terrible naivete, such as the Internet Relay Chat type of communications between interstellar civilisations or the distinction of several Zones of the galaxy in which technology and space travel can work at various speeds. The alien creatures, in their vast majority, are badly described with embarrassing slip-ups like using the word "zombie" or some other typical human colloquialisms in an alien context, however some ideas are ingenious. I will list here the way the "tines" use ultrasonics to group think and act like singular entities, while being able to use sound for "interpack" communication. The way a soul of such a creature is affected by the death, addition, injury or indeed torture of one of the individual bodies is also explored, with various degrees of success. The creation or manipulation of an entire race of people in order to further the goals of a "godly" intelligence is also an interesting twist.

To sum it all up, from the three main story arches, the pack intelligence aliens one was the most thorough, while the one relating to AI and space travel and communication was the least. Amazing coming from a computer scientist. In fact, I would have liked the book more if its sole subject was about the accidental marooning of two children on a starship in the middle of a strange alien feudal world. The rest felt clunky and frankly completely ridiculous in most cases. I still read it with interest, although I don't intend to read anything else from Vinge.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

TV Series I've Been Watching, part 18

Time for another TV series watch list. Let's see what has changed in the last four months!

  • The Good Wife - This is a show that I watch with my wife, so I had to wait for her to watch it with me, but, after a short break, The Good Wife is back again. Pardon the pun, couldn't help myself. Towards the end of the season we see a very important character die off. I don't want to spoil it, but it is interesting to see how it will continue from here.
  • The Walking Dead - The new formula of the show is that, after running from the other group of humans and a lot of zombies, the group has split. So each episode we see what stupid people do when they are all alone. Well, stupid things, of course. They did go for the shock value with one of the characters going all psychotic and killing another, but it is still stupid. How can they maintain the idea of the zombie threat, when they are just slow, moaning corpses, that walk in small groups? What happened with the migrating hordes? The end of the season finds everyone reunited, but facing another threat.
  • Arrow - Manu Bennet's character comes to the foreground, as well as a lot of others, that are less interesting. I really like Manu Bennet, but his character lacks consistency.
  • Elementary - After defeating Moriarty and making a complete ass out of inspector Lestrade and after they showed the human side of Sherlock, it's kind of hard to distinguish Elementary from all the other police procedurals out there. They are trying to let Lucy Liu's character get more of the spotlight, which goes to further erode the mythos that makes Sherlock... well, Sherlock! A mysterious story arch regarding his brother seems to be looming, too, which probably means that when we will see Sherlock's dad appear, we will know the show is close to an end.
  • The Tomorrow People (2013) - after a direct confrontation between the main character and his evil uncle, right after finding out his mother also has superpowers, we get to see The Founder in a different light, only for him to suddenly assert control and play the nice guy. A lot of melodrama in this show about people with superpowers who can't seem to be able to leave their country and live happily in a tropical island somewhere.
  • The Originals - Out of boredom I continue to watch this on fast forward. Petty feudal schemes and plots, brotherly love and infighting, a lot of posturing. Each episode has about 5 minutes of interesting material, if you discount the beautiful girls, and that is what I am watching.
  • Marvel's agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - They finally find the secret of agent Coulson's survival and start a new arch of searching for the origin of the alien corpse with magical blood. Meanwhile, they save Sky by using the same procedure. I can't wait for her to turn blue or something. The Hydra enters the equation and we find the identity of The Clairvoyant, while a member of the team is suddenly revealed to be a sleeper agent.
  • Killer Women - Last blog entry I wrote about this suggested the show would quickly be cancelled, because Hollywood doesn't know how to make non pornographic shows around female characters. I also think the public (especially in the US) doesn't really like women in positions of power in their fantasies. I was right. The show is gone.
  • Ripper Street - The show might still have a chance. According to news, the series might be continued on Amazon.
  • Sherlock - I don't really know what this show is about anymore. Sherlock is unhinged, probably psychotic, his friend has some real issues being friends with this guy and Sherlock's brother is probably the worse of them all, including Moriarty. Who, BTW, didn't die either.
  • Babylon - A new British series, codirected and produced by Danny Boyle, about a woman PR person trying to direct and improve communication from the police department to the public. The premise is not that great, but I really like the main actress, Brit Marling, and the show could become a lot more.
  • Banshee - A new season with a lot of people dying. Lots! The show continues to keep one viscerally on the edge, even if what happens doesn't make a lot of sense. It's like the Smells Like Teen Spirit of TV shows. I love it, I just don't know why. Funny enough, my father, the man who is always making fun of my choice of entertainment, also likes it!
  • Bitten - The incredibly beautiful Laura Vandervoort is a werewolf. Unfortunately, she is not the only one. She is part of a pack of pompous asses who are being harassed by a pack of psychopath werewolves. I mean that literally: someone turns psychopaths into werewolves in order to exact their revenge on said pack. The series is incredibly boring. Not even Laura's naked shots can't save this show. Wooden acting, bad premise, inconsistencies at every step. Ugh!
  • Black Sails - It's pirate season! A show about pirates that has some very interesting characters and some cool ideas, not with cliched drunkards spouting "Arghh" every sentence. Unfortunately it really drags on. It might pick up the pace soon, though. Without the need for additional artificial drama, hopefully.
  • Dilbert - I watched the Dilbert animated cartoons until I couldn't anymore. Some episodes are really funny, but I don't think the show makes justice to the comic strip. But if you are an engineer in some corporation, it should be very therapeutic :)
  • Fat Tony and Co - An Australian drama about a real drug lord that the police tried to catch. It is kind of boring, though. The guy is just a businessman who happens to deal in drugs. Other than that he is a normal bloke. His family and mates are the same. The police people are normal people, too. It kind of makes them all alike and their conflict meaningless.
  • Flemming, the Man Who Would Be Bond - A four episode British miniseries about the life of Ian Flemming, the writer of the James Bond books. Charismatic characters and a good show. You should see it, especially if you liked the James Bond books and/or movies.
  • From Dusk Till Dawn - Yes! The series version of the film with the same name has finally come to life. A vampiric cult of people believing in strange gods, bank robbers on the run, a disillusioned priest on a journey of rediscovery with his annoying adolescent kids, an angry ranger set on revenge, there are a lot of interesting characters. The story, though, kind of drags on, with no relief in sight. This might have worked for a movie, but for a series, you have to give something in every episode, you can't just finalize every story arch at the end of a season
  • Helix - Oh, man! How can you make a show about viral outbreaks in an Antarctic station and mess it up so completely?! To borrow a page from the Romanian comic Pidjin, I think SyFy are hard at work making science-fiction fiction. I can't think of anything good about this show, except the Japanese actor, Hiroyuki Sanada, who is always good, but who I think made a horrible career move agreeing to play in this shit.
  • Hinterland - Welsh police procedural. Dark, centered around small communities and their secrets. A kind of desolate cross between Midsommer Murders and Broadchurch. I like it.
  • House of Cards - Season 2 is out. Haven't watched it yet, as this is also a show that I watch with my wife, but I can't imagine Kevin Spacey messing up.
  • Intelligence - Another US government agency is saving the world. This time is Cyber Command. They implanted a chip in the head of the only guy from Lost who wasn't too annoying and now he can hack things instantly, connect to databases, etc., while also keeping his Special Forces skills and macho charm. I like the show, even if it is kind of stupid, mostly because of the charisma of the main actor, Josh Holloway, and that of John Billingsley, who plays the scientist. The condescending bitch that is the partner and protector of the headchip guy, a good looking girl who acts like a log, is subtracting points out of it all, no matter how tight her pants are.
  • Looking - A show about gay men who was touted as being not stereotypical and actually showing real gay life. I watched the first episode and, if that is real gay life then it is really... errr.. gay! As in boring. Imagine trying to be interested in Sex in the City starring hairy men. Ugh! Also, it looked really filled with gay clichees to me. But maybe I just don't know what I am talking about. I didn't like the show at all.
  • Ressurection - Remember when I recommended you a nice French series about dead people suddenly appearing live and well in their hometown? The Americans cloned Les Revenants into their own version. The script is not exactly the same, though, it's a real adaptation. All I can say is that what made me feel curious and connected to the characters in Les Revenants is missing in Ressurection. And why did they have to center it all around an FBI agent? Not enough cop shows? It may be too early to tell if the show is going to get better or not, so I will keep the watch.
  • Star Crossed - Oooh, another sci-fi show! This one is about an alien race that crashlands on Earth and we decide to keep them all in a concentration camp while haters roam free and try to kill them. Then an integration program is born, where Atrian teenagers are accepted into a human high school. Then it turns into a sort of Twilight meets Defiance via the Black liberation movement. It's not horrible, but it is certainly bad.
  • The 100 - Yet another sci-fi show about adolescents. But this one started nice enough. People live in a giant space station because they nuked the Earth. The series starts with 100 teenager death row convicts sent to the planet to ascertain if it is survivable. Lord of the Flies meets Elysium, maybe? The first episodes are intriguing, even if they already showed crass leaps in logic. I hope this one will be good, although I remember hoping the same about Lost and look how it turned out.
  • The After - And another sci-fi. Or so I thought. Something bad happens and some people get trapped in a building parking. They manage to escape and reach the house of one of them. Then it gets freaky when they realize they are all born on the seven of March and meet a demon like creature with a tatooed body that encompasses the individual tattoos of all of the people in the group. Also the prostitute said something about the book of Revelations, so I think it is actually a bad religious apocalypse show. Let's see where it goes.
  • The Assets - I first thought it was an alternative to The Americans, a show about the CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who willingly became a double agent for the KGB. The show was nice, no special effects, no artificial drama, but from the beginning it didn't seem like the TV network wanted the show to begin with. After just two episodes they cancelled it. I can't say I loved it, but it was certainly better than a lot of crap that keeps sticking to the TV screens these days.
  • The Americans - The second season had begun. I like the show a lot. Both main characters are fantastic in their roles and make it all believable. Their annoying daughter started to suspect things and someone just killed some undercover KGB agents and no one knows who. Keri Russell does a very good job jumping from Felicity to KGB agent, while Matthew Rhys comes out very well as a chameleon capable of impersonating just about anyone.
  • The Musketeers - You can't have pirates and not have musketeers. Loosely based on the Dumas books, this is a show about D'Artagnan being the coolest guy that ever lived and everybody taking an interest in him. Peter Capaldi is cardinal Richelieu. Strange choice, considering he is also Doctor Who, but very befitting the role. The show is not bad, but it feels so incredibly fake. I hope it will get better soon.
  • The Red Road - Jason Momoa plays in this as a bad ass native American who blackmails a cop in order to maintain his drug running operation. He plays well the role, looking all angry and violent and remorseless, but the movie subject is terribly boring. It feels like the type of show that gets cancelled and I personally have decided not to watch it anymore.
  • True Detective - An HBO project that features Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as cops in a God forsaken region of the US where religious fanatics and child rapists (sometimes the same person) roam free. Complex characters, eight episode seasons, very good acting and an interesting story make this one of the best shows around. It's not all rosy, though. In the first season more than three quarters was suspense and exposition. You always feel something will be going on, but it takes entire episodes before something does. It will be interesting to see if they continue with other seasons and, if they do, will they retain the same actors. The story arch has pretty much ended with the last episode of the first season.
  • Vikings - Season 2 has begun. Political intrigue, a new wife, backstabbing and a king of Britain who doesn't run with his tail between his legs at the sight of vikings. This season certainly keeps things interesting.
  • Suits - The series has never been about the law, not really, but about ritual. It was fun for a while, but every ritual, no matter how bizarre or exaggerated for dramatic purposes, can maintain outside interest only for so long. And the few law related references that made it interesting to me now are almost gone, together with the cowboyish feel of the show that made it seem less serious and more fun. Perhaps because all male characters in the series got hitched and their wings properly clipped off.
  • Continuum - Weird new direction of the third season of the series, with collapsing timelines, people meeting themselves and "the freelancers" being a cult like do gooder agency that protects time. I don't know yet if I like it, but it feels more confusing and less fun and sci-fi.
  • Crisis - A bunch of rich kids, including the son of the US president, are taken hostage by a shadowy mastermind who has thought of all possible outcomes before long before the actual execution and then uses the parents to achieve his goals, including more kidnapping of kids, I guess. Then there is this ex-cop Secret Service rookie black man who is set on finding the kids. So it's a kind of Die Hard, if you think about it. However the shadowy mastermind seems to have some moral agenda, revealing the evils of CIA, while the poor investigative agents are torn between their duty, their sympathy for the kids and their parents and the incredible stupid decisions people take in the name of their kids. I know Americans have this cult of parenthood and the need to do anything for your children, but too much is too much!
  • Da Vinci's Demons - The Pazzi's are trying to wrestle control of Florence from the Medici's, with Rome's involvement. That leads to some deaths, rearranging of loyalties and now both Da Vinci and Reario are heading towards the Americas on different ships, using a map of the location, only 40 years before Columbus blindly went to find the continent and with the help of none other than Amerigo Vespucci, who wasn't born yet. Nor was Da Vinci's friend, Nicolo Machiavelli, for that matter. Confusing? Only if you try to align the series with history.
  • Turn - This is a show about the first American spy ring, during the Revolutionary War. The first episode was rather slow, but it needed to set up the story and it showed good production values. Due to the actual nationality of the first Americans, most of the actors are British or Scottish, even if it is an AMC series. British acting with American money sounds good to me.
  • The Crimson Field - A six episode British miniseries about nurses in the war. The main action happens in a field hospital where four new volunteer nurses came to help out. It seems pretty decent and I already eagerly await the second episode.
  • Silicon Valley - An American sitcom about Silicon Valley, created by Mike Judge. Six programmers live in the same house when one of them invents an ingenious algorithm. Being an HBO series, with only eight episodes in the first season and created by Judge, I have high expectations from it.

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

Book cover
The title of Altered Carbon refers to flesh, human flesh in particular. Richard Morgan describes a world in which people record their experiences while they live, then get transferred to other bodies when their own die or if they need to go to another planet or if they are rich enough to want a different experience or alternate bodies just for the sake of it. The alteration of the normal relationship between consciousness and physical existence is the backdrop of the book.

The good part about this cyberpunkish story is that it is personal enough and simple enough to read in one gulp. I did that, always wondering what was going to happen next and excited enough to not get distracted by something else. The bad part is that most of the props are used only to further the story and are never explored in depth. The way people are always so easily "re-sleeved" into another body and yet almost never walk with different bodies at the same time, the way "Meths" - rich people that are practically immortal, having cloned bodies waiting in case anything happens - have all this influence, but in the end fear laws and have a conscience and human failings, just as if they didn't live for centuries, and so on. I could have gotten over that more easily if all these rules would not have been waived aside whenever the main character needed them waived.

The plot is that of a detective story set in the future. A former Envoy - soldiers trained to easily switch bodies and move from planet to planet to preserve The Protectorate - is sleeved back on Earth to investigate the suspicious body-death of a rich and influential man - a Meth. During this mission, he lives dangerously, gets people to try to kill or manipulate him, women to fall for him - quite a lot actually - and in the end solves it all. So in a way, it's an interstellar James Bond.

Some of the elements in the story are haphazardly thrown around and never explained or having any connection to the main plot, like an apparent discovery of Martians, also an interstellar civilization, long gone for reasons unknown and remembered through racial memory only by whales. It was a silly proposition and pointlessly left in the book, but for me it served to show that the writer is not perfect and, even if his first book is not perfect either, it still was a nice enough read for me to do it in one swoop. Morgan has written another two books with the same character, Takeshi Kovacs, and in the other two the Martian motif is truly explored. I may end up reading them.

In conclusion, Altered Carbon is more pulp fiction than cyberpunk, with a strong backbone of detective story with a moral and a thin body of future world, disruptive technology and exploratory writing. Even if it felt naive at times, it was a pleasant read and I don't regret wasting a Saturday finishing it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Converting FLOAT values to string in T-SQL

I seem to remember that I blogged about this before, but I can't find it anymore. Probably it was just a missed intention. This is simply a warning on how T-SQL converts FLOAT values to string. Here are some Transact SQL queries and their results:
DECLARE @aFloat FLOAT = 1234.123456789
DECLARE @aDecimal DECIMAL(18,9) = 1234.123456789
DECLARE @aNumeric NUMERIC(18,9) = 1234.123456789
DECLARE @aString NVARCHAR(20) = 1234.123456789

SELECT @aFloat,@aDecimal,@aNumeric,@aString -- result: 1234.123456789    1234.123456789    1234.123456789    1234.123456789
SELECT CAST(@aFloat as NVARCHAR(20)),CAST(@aDecimal as NVARCHAR(20)),CAST(@aNumeric as NVARCHAR(20)),CAST(@aString as NVARCHAR(20)) -- result: 1234.12    1234.123456789    1234.123456789    1234.123456789
Wait! What happened there? The FLOAT was the only numeric format that lost precision to only 2 decimals (it is actually a loss of scale, 12345.123456789 would be converted to 12345.1). The solution is either to either convert to DECIMAL or NUMERIC values before converting to NVARCHAR or to use the STR function, which receives the scale and precision parameters. Like this:
SELECT CAST(@aFloat as NVARCHAR(20)), CAST(CAST(@aFloat as DECIMAL(18,9)) as NVARCHAR(20)), STR(@aFloat,18,9) -- result: 1234.12    1234.123456789        1234.123456789

The first conversion to DECIMAL and the STR function later on are equivalent.

I have looked into SQL options to somehow set the default precision that is used when converting a float to string, but I could not find anything usefule. Neither did settings like
have any effect on the queries above. No error and the same result.

You don't want to know what happens with 123456789.123456789!
SELECT @aFloat, CAST(@aFloat as NVARCHAR(20)), CAST(CAST(@aFloat as DECIMAL(30,10)) as NVARCHAR(30)), STR(@aFloat,30,10) -- result: 123456789.123457    1.23457e+008    123456789.1234567900    123456789.1234567900

Not only the digits are cut even when selecting the actual value!!, but the scientific notation rears its ugly head. And look at the beautiful STR function returning ugly extra zeroes! Same issue appears when trying to use XML functions. The resulting XML has really ugly strings of the float values.

Bottom line: as much as I hate it, you probably should not use FLOAT when trying to display values. Ever.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Book cover The Windup Girl, acclaimed by many as a very good book, shows a Thailand that Paolo Bacigalupi declares as "a future version", but given scientific realities I would call it an alternate world Thailand. Wikipedia calls the book "biopunk", although I wouldn't quite call it that way, either, as the bio bits in the book didn't feel absolutely necessary to the story; more of an eco-thriller, perhaps. The book takes place in a nation that is fighting the encroaching ocean, in a time where global warming is rampant and sea levels have risen. Also, there is no more oil, no real use of electricity or combustion and everything revolves around genetics. Large elephant derivations are used to generate power; "kink-springs", a sort of mechanical energy battery, are powering just about everything; cats have been engineered to color shift to blend into their environment; human derivatives have been created, sterile, but beautiful and always healthy, slaves for things varying from military use to sex toys. But the most important element of this strange world is the overwhelming power of genetic companies. The same ones who created successful and copyrighted versions of food crops, they also released horrible diseases onto the world, making their products the only viable alternative and creating a depopulation incident.

In the book, Thailand is one of the last countries to resist the "calorie companies" through a combination of cultural and religious fanaticism, but also with the help of a hidden seed bank and a defecting company geneticist. The country is rife with political and economical tension and the main characters of the book are all caught up in this large game. You have the artificially created girl who was left behind by the Japanese and now is a sex toy to be abused every day for the pleasure of others, the AgriGen company man, his only purpose to get his hands on the seed bank, the Chinese refugee from Malaysia, where the brown skinned Muslims took over the country by ethnically cleansing anybody else, the different Thai factions and their agents, all playing the field amongst the "innocent" population of Bangkok.

The thing is that the book is not really about the "windup" genetically engineered girl, but about this world that Bacigalupi is describing. The girl herself has a pivotal role in all of this, but she is merely a secondary actor. I feel like the author wanted to give this impression of all the characters of the book, that they are transient, unimportant, even the human race as a whole, even when they are the driving force of the events around them. A very Asian perspective from a European, I guess. The writing style is good and fluent and I rarely got bored, even when the events described were not terribly exciting. The plot focuses almost exclusively on people, with the technical or logistical aspects thrown in there as afterthought. I think this is what makes the book a good one, because any inconsistency with our own world can be easily dismissed, at least for lack of evidence.

Bottom line, The Windup Girl is a very nice book, well written by Paolo Bacigalupi to describe an alternate future version of Thailand. The fantastical elements of the book are there mostly for support of the story, which in its essence is not really science fiction. One could easily imagine the same plot in a real world country, maybe modern Thailand itself. But, if you are going to write a philosophical commentary about human society and our place in the world, why not place it in an imaginary universe, as well?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Code School - a very nice site with the purpose of teaching you to code

I've heard of Code School for some time now, but never actually tried anything on the site. Today I tried a course that teaches the basics of R, a statistics programming language akin to Matlab, and I thought the site was great. I suspect it all depends on the quality of the course, but at least this one was very nice. You can see my "report card" here, although I doubt I am going to visit the site very often. However, for beginners or people who quickly want to "get" something, it is a good place to start, as it gives one a "hands on" experience, like actually coding to get results, but in a carefully explained step by step tutorial format.