Book Review: The Necromancer

The Necromancer is the fourth book in the series by Michael Scott which is titled The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. I have been reading this series for a little while, but I haven’t reviewed any of the books until now, so this review will also cover a little bit of the whole series. The series centers around two kids, Sophie and Josh, who are twins and they are special. As should be apparent by the name of the series, they get into some adventures with Nicholas Flamel, who is famous for being a scrivener in Paris.

This book starts with so many of the characters in disparate positions - two of the main characters are in the Pleistocene era, others are stuck running away from their masters. Josh and Sophie are separated from Nicholas and Perinelle. So right away, the events at the end of the last book are starting to make things difficult for the narrative. There are a lot of things going on from the start of this book, and there is not a lot for them to go except for some of them to resolve themselves.

Nicholas and Perinelle meet up with Josh and Sophie pretty quick in this one, and they wander around some places in San Francisco, while the story mostly revolves around the other characters. It may be fitting that the most compelling storyline in this book is the one that John Dee is taking, as he is the one which the book is titled from. He is in the most danger, after his failure to capture either of the main duos, and ends up with a particularly nasty price on his head.

All in all, I think that this book is really flawed for a few reasons. First of all, the previous three books have taken a long time presenting Dee as a particularly nasty character, so centering this book around him is a little stretching it in the first place. Part way through the book, I am not sure whether I should be rooting for him or not. The main villains which we are supposed to be worrying about causing the end of the world are all out against him, so it’s somewhat confusing to double down on some of the antagonism. So while he is clearly against these looming bad guys which we have been rallying against while he was their champion, he is suddenly against not only the main enemies, but still set in his ways against the main protagonists of the previous books.

The book also suffers from pacing problems. Part of the problem with starting all of your characters in mortal or near mortal danger is that you really don’t have a lot to go from there. The first half of the book it seems like all that is happening is either the characters in the story are staying as status quo (which is not very quo) or they are slowly solving the problems that were all set off in the previous books’ blockbuster of an ending. Halfway through the book I found myself not caring that much about the characters, and especially about some of the new characters which got added. It could be that the series is just flawed because it is centered around a group of people who don’t die by nature, but there are a lot of people to keep track of at the beginning of this book, and the list doesn’t get any shorter.

Even with these flaws, it was entertaining enough once the middle section got a bit less crazy and some of the characters ended up in little groups. Scott coalesced the story lines into just two at the end, both of which I was genuinely interested in because they involved characters that I had come to know from the previous books, and at least one of which I am rooting for in each storyline. There was also some revealing in the middle section which I was happy to see, having the world which is similar but not exactly the same as ours spelled out a bit more.

I think that I will be taking a break from this book series for a while, so that I can get onto some of the other books in my reading list, and also because I think it might be a bit stale partially because I was trying to read them straight through. I’ll at least alternate, and then maybe the books will be a little more interesting when I am picking up a familiar character set and revisiting them instead of just continuing what could have been just one long story, but with what seems like the book breaks caused some unnecessary writing acrobatics which may have hurt the story in the long run. Overall, I’m giving this book a C because of the middle when I was very not enthused to continue with reading, and the fact that the beginning was a bit forced in order to get all the characters where they needed to be at the end.

Big Bang Theory Intro #11: Chimpanzee

It’s a monkey! And something that’s genetically related to humans. The original image is in color, and looks pretty nice.

Yes, I’m someone who believes in evolution, which says that humans might be descended from apes. The chimpanzee used to believed to be 99% in common with humans, but more recent studies suggest 94% or even as low as 86%. Technically the chimpanzees are in the genus Pan, and not the Homo genus that Homo sapiens are, but there are some other species in the Homo genus which are less related than them.

They are the types of apes which have a strong social structure, with alpha males, empathy, and use of tools. There are the ones that Dame Jane Goodall were studying for the longest time, and she discovered a lot of things about them, including the fact that they have unique personalities for each chimp, and not just simple social norms. I’ve always thought that she was a good person, but was more convinced recently when I found out about this far side cartoon. It was originally opposed by the Jane Goodall foundation, but then the woman herself thought it was amusing and put a kibosh on the smackdown. There’s nothing like a sense of humor in my book. Now they sell a shirt with the cartoon on it.

Closer to home, the Como Zoo is building a habitat for some apes that will be done in 2013 that they’re calling the Gorilla Forest. This is a big improvement to the current habitat that they have for the big apes. They also have a bunch of other monkeys and apes in the primate house. The designs look like the visitors will be able to get pretty close to the gorillas, which will be interesting to see.

Apple’s iBooks Announcement

This may be a little late in order to actually make any dent in the massive amount of news and opinion that came out about the iBooks Author announcement and what I actually think about it, but I have a want to express my thoughts anyway. Hopefully it’s not too stale.

The iBooks Author Announcement was about a week and a half ago now. I watched the liveblogs and then heard all about it for a week (and the follow up is still going) on the 5by5 podcast network. I usually agree with most of the people there (with the exception of Gruber, which I am usually either laughing at or yelling at), since they have reasonable opinions. There are a few points that I haven’t read about yet though.

Firstly, this is obviously about hardware. They may be giving away the software, but no one thinks that this won’t sell more iPads in the coming years. A few people brought up the notion that they are selling the iPads to young people, in order to get them into the hands of kids - then they grow up, and they want to continue using their iPads. While the iPad has gained some major inroads into business, most of the major computing still gets done on Windows computers on Office, and even when you’re using a Mac you’re probably connecting it to an Exchange server somewhere. This is very similar to the type of thing that happened before though, where Apple was dominating the education market, especially at the primary school levels. It didn’t work then, and I don’t really think it will work now in the long run unless some major things change in the business landscape.

There is still a great thing for Apple in the hardware angle though. Parents are a little leery about buying the iPads for their children now, maybe because they think that they might be spoiling them, or may be they think that they will be more apt to break when the kids get their fingers on them. Now, they have an excuse which definitely pushes them into the “buy” column for many of the parents in the country. School districts will want to look like they are high tech and they want to get on this bandwagon, so they might buy the iPads for the kids themselves. Apple just made a killing on iPads in last quarter’s earnings, and selling to the academic market will certainly not hurt those sales. They’re practically giving the books away (and are giving away one decent section of one, which I’m sure they paid a nice fee for).

Secondly, I think that this is about hardware in another, more brilliant way. Getting an iPad or an Android tablet might actually become something that you will have to ask yourself a question about in the near future. Right now it’s a foregone conclusion, because unless you have a specific reason to get Android (for example, if you’re like me and don’t really like iOS), reasonable people will be buying an iPad if they want a tablet. It has a better selection of apps, and the hardware has been historically better built, plus the speed is fast enough for everything you might want to do. However, the fact is that the Android tablets are starting to look pretty good. The hardware itself is getting better, being much faster, and the screen quality is starting to climb as well. Android tablets are starting to look less like toys that are clawing for a slice of the non-iPad market and starting to look like real competitors. It’s my belief that in two to three years, there will be a set of iPad competitors that will look great in comparison.

So when is the best time to start giving people reasons to use the iPad over other tablets? It’s right now. Leverage the market position that you have now in order to create exclusive content that is required in some way, or at least greatly improves the experience of the user. If you’re a college freshman, and you could buy an iPad and a bunch of books for iBooks, or you could buy a bunch of books and buy an Android tablet that won’t have any of your books on it, you’re going to choose the iPad every time. It doesn’t matter if the Android tablet has a better screen, longer battery life, better accessories, and a great selection of apps and games, because you just got a huge tilt in the iPad direction because of the iBooks exclusive component.

Thirdly, people got a little mad at Apple because of the EULA on the iBooks Author saying that the books that you write in it can’t be sold in any other medium except the iBooks store. Many people have already commented on this, and I believe that it’s their prerogative what they say people can do with their software (as long as the content itself can be ported over to another book and they’re not claiming that - it would be overreaching), but I think there is a second reason other than the want for awesome software to do what they want. Apple started using language like the rest of the corporations that spout bullshit that people don’t like. They began the presentation talking all about how the US isn’t great in education, and we can help the students learn better with this awesome new iBooks tool. The problem is that they are speaking one thing, and doing another. If Apple really was being altruistic like their speech acts like they are, they should not care where the output of their awesome tool goes. If it makes new textbooks that are better for other people, then it’s great, and if you can get some money, you should consider selling in our store. You’re advancing the education in the world by using iBooks Author, and they would be happy about it. That’s not what they want though, they want to use your content to sell more iPads. It’s the kind of doublespeak that you would expect from other large tech companies, and exactly the kind of thing that makes every actually read the fine print when something comes out from HP or Microsoft. I don’t mind Apple acting like a for-profit company, I just don’t want the doublespeak with it - people want better from Apple.

How’s the Thesis? - Putting the Hours In

This week’s thesis work is Windows focused, which means that I was working in Windows 7 all week long. It was going a bit slow earlier, but I made a lot of progress today, and I almost am at the stage where I put the portable app together and start beta testing. There’s a bit of server work to do still, but I think I should meet my goal of opening to the public in early February.

Today has been quite productive, getting the client to the stage where I am comfortable packaging it up. At the same time, it was quite frustrating throughout the day looking at the clock and seeing that I wasn’t making the progress that I wanted on my hour goal. The goal for today was to get 8 hours of real work done on the project. I think that I am counting today as about 7 hours, even though I only logged 6. At the same time, I worked from about 10:30 am to 9 pm, with only a couple breaks.

If you think that math is a little wonky, it is. Even if we take out the breaks that I did take – half an hour for lunch at around noon, and an hour and a half for my regular run around the neighborhood, it should be eight and a half hours of work. However, I’m using an interesting bit of math for counting my work on most normal days, and I was trying to continue it for the “thesis day” that I have scheduled each week.

I mentioned this method before, the Pomodoro technique. I have my intervals set at 30 minutes for the work time, and 5 minutes of break. It usually works, and I’m not exactly not thinking about my work when I walk away from the desk to do something else. I also have a long break every 4 pomodoros I do of 15 minutes. Today, I have performed 12 pomodoros, which equates to 6 hours of real, focused work. I don’t check email, I don’t do Twitter, Facebook, and I even am a little short with anyone who is walking up to me (sorry, honey!) when I am on a work interval.

The breaks do add up though, and it makes my time calculations a little bit weird. 12 pomodoros have 9 short breaks, and 3 long breaks in them. This means that I have an extra hour and a half that I’m on a break, doing something else which is not related to the work. That means that those 6 hours of focused work add another hour and a half of scheduled breaks, which I really believe make the focused work better.

If I add those to my “real” breaks that I took in the day, that comes to nine hours. I don’t really know where the remaining hour and a half disappeared to. I am guessing that I was a little lax in getting back to the desk right away on some of the rest breaks and took a few minutes here and there, or maybe my lunch was really an hour and not just half an hour.

It’s really teaching me that getting real work into the project is difficult. I’ve decided that I am going to count my scheduled break time as 2/3 of normal time on the days when I do enough to make a long break, which will make today count for 7 towards my 12 hours a week goal, but keep my 1 hour thesis days at a real, solid hour because I won’t count any of the break in the middle, which I often take my daily run between, making that one much longer than the five minutes.

There’s still nothing more frustrated than looking at my pomodoro count at 12 and the clock at 21:00 though. It’s like I feel that I could actually finish at 16 for the day, but I would have very little time to myself. Maybe I’ll try to get started earlier next week, and the wallclock time won’t get on my goat as much. In the meantime, you can watch my progress towards the 12/week goal on my beeminder graph.

Big Bang Theory Intro #10: Woolly Mammoth

It’s our first subject with fur!

It’s a Wooly Mammoth! Look at how huge it is. Wait, the cropped version here doesn’t have a good sense of scale - maybe you should gander at the source image from, where there is a friendly scared dude with a spear to see how big this guy actually was. They could get almost 10 feet tall. Unlike everything up until now, there is actually some evidence that humans, or neandertals were around when the mammoths were walking around, because there are some cave paintings.

One of the most interesting parts about these large creatures, are that they often aren’t fossilized, but just freeze in place, so you can end up finding one just frozen solid. I’ve thought sometimes in the Minnesota winter that I might end up in a similar fate. The latest one was found less than five years ago. They are often still found with their soft tissue intact. This means that there might actually be a real-life Jurassic Park situation, where they could extract the DNA of a frozen specimen and make up a clone. It doesn’t look like there is an actual clone coming anytime soon though.

It’ll Be Fine if You Drop It!

I spotted something on the Verge liveblog of the Apple event today.

Books = Not Durable iPad = Durable

Remember, kids:

  • Books are not durable.
  • iPads are durable.

Thoughts on the non-iPad Market

Lately I’ve been thinking about tablets, partially because I ended up with a iPad over this Christmas season, and partially because the tablets that are coming out that I actually want are starting to heat up and look a lot better. I have a rant which has been working around in my head for a while about this, and it’s not really going away.

Part of this is my own fault, because I’m one of those crazy people who reads a lot of Apple focused tech blogs even though I don’t (or didn’t recently) own any Apple products. Recently, it seems like every time someone in the mainstream tech press talks about the competition in the Android tablet market, some snarky examination and explanation of the many reasons why we shouldn’t care happens in the Apple blogs. John Gruber, being the most prominent of the bunch, brings to mind the most examples in recent memory, although Marco Arment makes the point earlier in the year.

It’s not that I am disagreeing with these stories, or their viewpoint that non-iPad tablet sales are much smaller than iPad tablet sales. That’s pretty much written in black and white on the reports that the news stories draw their numbers from. The thing that is irking me is the implication that the stories shouldn’t be written at all, or they should more focused on how iPad is dominating the entire area.

There clearly is a market for non-iPad tablets. Using the same report that the most recent spat of articles (and echoing on each other’s linkblogs) is using, we see that the headline is that non-iPad sales are at 1.2 million tablets. That’s a big market. Let’s have some fun with numbers ourselves.. Assuming that those tablets are selling cheaper than the iPad 2, let’s say maybe $300 on average, the market size is around 350 million dollars in the first three quarters of 2011, that makes the non-iPad market almost half a billion dollars a year. The same report states that non-iPads are selling once for every 10 iPads. (btw, let’s look at the trend - in August Gruber estimated one for every 20)

It’s pretty boring to just focus on the winner, especially when there is no competition for the best tablet for the general consumer. I can easily admit that the iPad is winning hand over fist, but the exciting news is in the competition, which is pretty heated in the Android field. CES this week brought us announcements of Asus Transformer Prime, Acer Iconia Tab and Visio VIA. All three are quite interesting and in direct competition with each other. Which one will sell more? That’s a question that you might not know the answer. You know which tablet will sell more than all of them? The iPad 2. I don’t care because it’s an obvious conclusion considering the state of the market.

There’s a lot of competition, and a lot of different options, because Android is a lot more open than Apple is. When I shop for an Android tablet I need to pick what size, what resolution, whether I want mobile data, which manufacturer, colors, and many other options. The only choice on an iPad is what size I want, or whether I want a 3G modem. They’re all essentially the same. Let’s compare the iPad to the iPad. Boring. On the other hand, comparing a Galaxy Tab 10.1 to a Motorola Xoom is something where you might actually learn something.

The tech press is reporting on the non-iPad market because it’s where all the interesting stories are, and they can actually contribute to the discussion, and there is an actual market there. You only need to tell me once that the iPad is a great tablet. What if I don’t want one? What do I buy then? Now you have a question that I need to look into.

(I’d also like to hammer about how market share is somehow important for tablets, but not important for phones now, because the iPhone is losing the market share battle in phones but winning in tablets, but it’s getting late. Maybe another time.)

January Diet Report

It’s only been a couple weeks since the last report, but I have a full column in my tracking notebook so I guess I’m getting back on track with these reports. I’ve mostly been on track for the month, with a little blip around the holidays as expected. Exercise has been going well, which is really encouraging to me in many ways. I’ve also added a new style of workout to my schedule that I will work in as I can.

2012 January 30 Days Graph

Looking first at the weight chart, it’s pretty obvious that I took a week or so off from caring about what I eat, right around christmastime. This isn’t really a big surprise because we went on a stay-cation for the holidays this year, which involved a bunch of room service and eating out at the same time. It was quite relaxing though. Lately I’ve been pretty happy with the progress that I show on the scale, and able to ignore it when a day or two goes blipping above the trend line.

Little changes in my weight and trend look really big on these graphs now, which is actually a good thing, meaning that I’m not fluctuating or going all in one direction, keeping to my weight maintenance goal that I’ve been doing for the last couple months. My resolutions call for a loss of at least 12 pounds, which comes out to about 212 at the end of the year. That’s not a lot of weight lost compared to last year’s 75 pound loss, but I really don’t want to push it and really want to be able to keep this weight indefinitely.

I’ve been good at the exercising lately, which is actually somewhat viewable on my beeminder running graph. I’m on track for my goal of 100 miles in each month, with 47.7 miles so far that should climb to above 50 when I finish my workout today. The training plan has been working out well, as yesterday I just upped my interval running time to three minutes. I’m still taking two minute breaks, which means that I will be lowering the walking break time in the next time I change the intervals, probably two weeks from now. Lately I’ve also had a few runs with a sub-45 minute final time, which means that I’ll probably change up the route a bit in the next month so that it is longer.

Weather was something that I was worried about when I started running around the neighborhood, because I do actually live in Minnesota, meaning that it can get very cold and the snow can definitely pile up and cause some problems. I promised Diana that I would not run when it was exceedingly icy or piled with snow outside, but this year we have had a mostly mild winter so I haven’t had to worry about it that much. There are some patches of ice around sometimes on the sidewalk that I have to be on my toes watching for, as the case may be. Mostly I’ve been worried about the cold, which hasn’t been overbearing, but has gotten in to the single digits a few times. Lately I just finished up my gear by buying some running gloves which should keep me from frostbite. There were a couple days before I acquired them that I ran insidje on the treadmill in order to avoid injury though.

I outlined my running schedule in the last month’s report, but part of the treadmill running gave me an idea for a different type of workout that I can do on my non-training days. Last Wednesday on one of those indoor days I did what I call a “pacing run” but is probably more accurately referred to as something else. I set the treadmill to the average pace that I run in one of my training runs, and just left it there for the majority of the run. So instead of running 8 mph and then walking at 4 mph on a rest interval, I run 6.5 mph the whole time. I was somewhat worried that I would just get tired and wouldn’t be able to continue even at the slower pace.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to keep such a fast pace through twenty minutes of straight running, completing more than two miles without stopping at all. I didn’t really know how to run slower, as it were, until I had the treadmill keeping the pace. If weather encroaches in the future and the treadmill is open when I show up in the exercise room, I think I will use the equipment to my advantage and have these runs to try to teach my body to run a consistent pace for a long time instead of the running / walking intervals that I normally do. I am definitely more bored when I am just running and not doing intervals though, I may need something to distract me from the monotony. Maybe it would be different if I was outside and the landscape was falling by, but I don’t really have a good instinct to run at that slower pace continually yet.

I still haven’t written about how I keep warm, but I think I’ll put that off until next month’s report. Lately it’s been in the 40s here, which means I haven’t even had to use much of the cold-weather gear that I have around, just walking around in shorts and long sleeve shirts. Even if it doesn’t get too cold, I’ll write about keeping warm in the next report though.

Big Bang Theory Intro #9: Stegosaurus

More big dinosaurs in the next Big Bang Theory Opening picture.

This time I could find the source image on jupiterimages and many other sites. The original is in color, and looks like an interesting diorama or claymation setup. Since the Apatosaurus was in the last picture as well, I’m going to focus on the foreground beastie.

The Stegosaurus has long been one of my favorite dinosaurs. I always liked how his fins on the back looked, they were spiky but they didn’t have a lot of stuff. Also many times they are depicted as having a spiky tail, which I just thought was cool. I learned that there is some debate about whether they could actually use the spikes on the tail as a weapon.

I also learned that they have two brains, one stored in the tail, which was mentioned on Fringe, one of my favorite shows. The second brain was not necessarily used for extra storage, like posited on the show though, but more likely as some type of extra brain processing like an extra core booting up when they were in a dangerous situation.

Until researching for this post, I didn’t know that there are states with official state dinosaurs. The stegosaurus is the oldest state dinosaur, which Colorado designated in 1982. Denver’s Museum of Nature & Science has one of only 6 on display in the country. The fossil is in a super-awesome display where there is a mother and baby Stegosaurus being attacked by an Allosaurus (T-Rex).

How’s the Thesis? - Anonymity and Consent

This week’s thesis work has focused on client work and website work, and has brought up some interesting conundrums about consent, privacy, and self-run studies. I thought that I would share some of the things that I’m working through right now, because it’s one of those topics that you don’t think about when you are first starting thinking about a thesis topic or your experiment in general.

First, a little background on the experiment I am running. I have a self-run experiment, where the subject will download a client onto their computer and run the experiment, and the program will gather data on the interactions between the user and the program and then submit it to a web server application for later processing and analysis by myself for the purposes of proving my hypothesis. I ran a study in a similar way last year titled Selection and Movement Methods for Multiple Mobile Agents. (The study server is down, so you can run the program, but no additional data is collected.)

In order to make the subjects want to participate in the study, I would like to let the subjects enter their email in the program which will then be submitted along with the data, and have a random prize drawing for participants of an online retailer gift card. This brings up some concerns for me as an ethical researcher, because I don’t want to have a list of emails just sitting around after the prize is over. It’s a privacy concern that I’d rather not deal with, and it relies on a level of trust that I will not use it for some nefarious purpose.

I am technically competent enough to assign each user an anonymous identifier and keep it separate so that I can delete all the emails without losing any important data (the user can run the program more than once, and that could provide even more useful data about training times and such). At the same time, I know that anonymizing data is hard and would like to avoid any issues with that as well.

The main conundrum at the moment is this: to get consent to monitor the user, I want to have a click-through title page at the beginning of the program. I need to word this in a way that clearly says that I’m only monitoring them for the purposes of the study itself, and will only use their email for the drawing and will delete that data later. I also need to be careful that this page isn’t too scary so that a lot of people don’t decide right then that they want to bail. Adding to the fun is that I need to be somewhat vague about what I’m actually testing, so that I don’t spoil the results. The wording is.. delicate.

As if that isn’t enough to think about, there are two special bonus rounds which are complicating matters further! First, I am going to get an IRB waiver for this study, so the review board will be reviewing my “consent form” that I am presenting, and will need to give it the OK. There really is a large amount of oversight for any study which involves subjects, including making sure there isn’t gender bias and many other things, but that’s another discussion. The second bonus round involves fancy statistics which I think that the subjects themselves would be interested in. Personally I think it’s nifty to see a page of your stats at the end of the thing, and would want to let each user see how they did, possibly in comparison to the rest of the subjects, or to earlier runs themselves.

So some part of this week will be nailing down the exact wording of that page, which is only a tiny fraction of the program itself. Because I have a study website to avail myself of during this, I am probably going to include a sample piece of data that they can look at if they’re curious exactly what I’m collecting, as well as an explainer page that is somewhat reassuring. I’m hoping that I can finish the site and client soon, and start the study in the next few weeks, so that I can get a decent amount of data to crunch before February, because I can then wrap this section up and move on to the rest of the thesis of doom.