Halie and the Moon’s Marvelous Million Suns

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Halie and the Moon’s recently released their second EP, A Million Suns Vol. 1. I loved their debut Blue Transmissions Vol. 1 and so, waited with bated breath for this new addition. Of course, this begs the question: “When are volumes 2 dropping?” Equally perplexing to their naming practice is attempting to pigeonhole their music. Is it folksy pop with jazz overtones or, as their site describes, “acoustic dream pop ethereal atmospheric folk.” By any name, it’s lovely. It’s also not that far afield for Halie Loren; much of the style is reminiscent of Full Circle, Ms. Loren’s debut album recently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The melodic underlying structure and vocal overtones are quite similar while the writing and combined sounds of the instrumental members of the band do provide a different flavor

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The overall sound of this EP is less of the dream ethereal nature the Blue Transmissions and more along the lines of ballad pop. Trying to peg it, while fun, is not all that informative, so let’s dive into the pieces themselves. Shangri La is an ode to that notion that we desire to share our best moments – that fabulously slowly and chromatically shifting sunset, those perfect vignettes of a street side café with early light filtering over your cappuccino and croissant or lovely mundane moments of: “…tangerines/ and here’s the scene/ I got the light just right / and the Beatles in the kitchen.” I don’t know if there’s irony in this, but there seems nothing missing in this symphony of sound. While it starts with a simple guitar and Ms. Loren’s voice coming together on the melody, as it moves on, layers of instruments (cello, voices, piano) converge to create a more complex sound mix. As if that someone came and joined in the moment. I love the play with complexity as it’s broken back down to Ms. Loren a capella then to layers then to an instrumental interlude. The tapestry of sound woven in this song is just right.

The sentiment of Shiny New Thing is that we will bob together on the sea of life whatever waves may come; this is reflected in the bouncy beat of the music. She sings of her willingness to be the “shiny new thing” to the end: ‘Til I stop shining/ The light of your days/ ‘Til we grow sick of trying/ Or ’til we live with the crazies /Or we’re pushing up daisies/ Or slide into the steep sea/ With the angels below.” We will be the ones who ramble life together: “I’ll be the bread in your mouth/ Poetry on the table/ The one who remembers/ To weave all the fables…” These slightly crazy lyrics looped into this bubbly song make for a wonderful combination of ardent sentiment and a light heart. Rather than cloying or heavy on the notion of sticking together, this celebrates the wackiness of life in riding the rapids together.

Sunshine in Disguise seems to pair the first two songs where we’re stumbling along together and that’s precisely how we have those missed moments from Shangri La of perfect (and not so perfect) vignettes shared. Sharing those moments (“I can taste the sunshine in your voice when you’re singing along”) keeps us both shiny new things for each other (“So let’s stay and dance all of our prayers until the dawn”). Clearly, I love this song. While its beat is up, it’s also more directed. The moment the drums start the rhythm to the final tone from Halie Loren, there is purpose and play, poignancy and whimsy.

 

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Halie and the Moon – photo by Bob Williams

 

Paint the Stars provides a sonic impressionist image drifting near the edges of jazz and pop where we sense the stars and crickets, taste the ocean in the sand and leave wrapped in devastating joy. I love the textures of the song, how the individual clear notes of the piano infused in the overlay of Ms. Halley’s voice and then the layers of the percussion, guitar, and layered voices come in and out and all weave together this wonderful harmony as the melodic narrative thread continues through it. This song epitomizes this group; it all comes together to make for glorious sound, brilliant images where the whole woven together takes on a quality no individual element quite matches.

 

A Million Suns, Vol. 1, is a great celebration of summer, love, and beauty, and in these days of so much hate and violence, an homage to love and beauty is to be cherished. The combination of Daniel Gallo’s writing (and guitar playing), Halie Loren’s vocals and the precise yet lyrical playing of Katherine Dudley on cello, Bobby Stevens on bass, and Beau Eastlund on drums bring together magical moments on the EP. I cannot recommend it enough.

 

 

Madeline Ashby’s Company Town in which the disenfranchised save the white knight and the selfish are lost.

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Company Town is set in the future on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland which makes the rig itself a company town. It feels very much like a novel of the gold rush days but with futuristic ability to augment and modify the human body. It is owned by the powerful Lynch family who purchased it after a disastrous fire that took the lives of a third of the town. It is a working man’s platform and, so, there is a cadre of sex workers (unionized, of course) who live there and have a number of protectors including our hero, Hwa. In the midst of her duties, she is pulled into a series of murders of her sex worker friends, the Lynch family and man’s constant desire for eternal life.

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Madeline Ashby

While the premise, as I’ve laid it out, seems “normal” and prosaic, Ms. Ashby makes it anything but. Hwa is a phenomenon in herself. While most of her upbringing has done its utmost to teach her not to value herself, she has pushed back and will suffer no fools. While she doesn’t see her own value as she might, she is no doormat. Yes, as part of her job, she kicks butt and asks questions later, but it is her ability to put the puzzle together, to think through the challenges put before her that set her apart.     Her relationships between her family (in the form of a prostitute mother and a dead brother), her employers (both the sex union and the Lynches) and her “under-world friends” are rich, varied and multi-dimensional. The augmented bodies around her make for a difficult world to navigate as one who still has pure and natural biology.

One of the processes that fascinates me is to see an already really good writer become an even better writer. I believe that’s happened here with Ms. Ashby’s writing. So what makes it better? It’s more accessible and draws us into caring more about the characters and relationships while remaining edgy and holding no punches. How is this magic achieved? At least for me, I found myself more able to empathize with Hwa than I ever did with Amy, Charlotte or even Javier in her previous Machine Dynasty duology (vN and iD). While her characters there were rich and fascinating, they were different enough, both in capabilities and outlook, that I couldn’t empathize with them.

My life has been considerably different than Hwa’s. First, I had parents who in many different ways and forms made it quite clear to me that I was unconditionally loved. There are a few more freeing gifts than this. Second, I had a relatively comfortable middle-class life. Yet we all feel those moments of exclusion, where we feel substantially different from and, somehow, less than those around us. All, while not to her same degree, have suffered loss. Merely because she bears the stares with an insouciant shrug makes them no less painful. We take heart in seeing her network of friends. We sense the steel in our own spine stiffen when she makes clear that she suffers no fools. So while there are many differences, including physical and intellectual talents, well beyond our own among them, Hwa is someone with whom we may empathize.

Another mark of Company Town is that a mutually caring relationship takes center stage. The relationships were at best awkward, sometimes antagonistic while always complex in the Machine Dynasty duology; while the relationships between Daniel Siofra and Go Jung-hwa or Hwa and Joel are different types, they are both mutual caring relationships while remaining complex.  Javier relationships with Charlotte and Amy were all too strange. While that strangeness added to the novels but distanced us from the charachters, here, we more naturally care even in the midst of the strangeness

Our vision of the world is all too often upended in both good and difficult ways. So too in the Lynches’ New Arcardia.. The “white knight” proves to be the one in need (bought that t-shirt). The broken one proves to heal many and the man in control finds his reign illusory. It’s a masterful bit of writing that pulls that off without feeling artificial and manipulative. While I know some may disagree, I love the ending; it brings things together in a beautiful but possible way without ignoring the realties that we never have a perfect world when we’re done. So is justice fully achieved? No. While we may long for “… justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24 ESV), it will not, on this side of the grave; Company Town reflects that fallen state oh so accurately.

So, what do I love about Company Town?

  • Hwa – her tenacious character who cannot fail to help others
  • This world of augmentation and biological adoptions and their social implications
  • The complex, multi-dimensional relationships and interactions.
  • The riveting, quick-paced yet thoughtful narrative

I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about the book; even the depiction of the seedier side of New Arcadia was intriguing.

I highly commend Company Town to your reading pleasure.

Phrasing: 3.5/5

World Building:  4.5/5

Character:  4.5/5

Narrative: 4.5/5

 

The Golem and the Jinni: A Cultural Treat

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The Golem and the Jinni provides the rare treat of historical fiction infused with fantastic elements whilst mixing multiple cultures. The characters are compelling, multiple related story lines are deftly woven together and the story itself provides a beautiful tableau on which to paint these characters. The turn-of-the-(previous)-century, immigrant New York that Helene Wecker paints is a full character in itself.

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Courtesy of Harper Books

Ms. Wecker doesn’t simply invite us to know her characters, she has fully immerses us in their world, their lives, and in their thoughts. As we read the book, the rhythm of our own thoughts and the vocabulary of our own reflections begin to take on a hint of flavor from those of the characters. These characters are so rich in their responses and their thought life as well as the way they see the challenges ahead of them that, while there is a lovely driving narrative throughout the whole story, you can simply enjoy diving into the well of these lives.

Helene_Wecker_cr_Sheldon_WeckerHelene Wecker – Photo Credit Sheldon Wecker

Let’s take a little deeper look at the culture picture given of early Easter European Jewish and Syrian Christian immigrants to America. There is much in their cultures that overlap – the near-eastern tradition of honoring and taking care of strangers in need as well as some of their cuisine. In New York, each had a tight community to deal with the transition to this new world in which they found themselves. Standing on the streets of each neighborhood would have brought similar impressions – busy, smells of coffee and spices, street vendors and calls of friendship. There were, of course, differences and sometimes hostility. Ms. Wecker allows you to vicariously experience this world while weaving in fantastical elements with the story between the Golem and the Jinni. The warp and woof of the cultures brings out the features of the various characters, how they perceive others and respond. It’s not like their cultural automaton but culture flavors all that they do; Ms. Wecker brings this all about in an organic and realist manner. It provides a framework for the character’s relations and the direction of the narrative.

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Jinn, Bedouin, caring Rabbi, crafty and cruel magician trained as a rabbi, coffee shop owners, a scion of the Winston family who wanted to be more than a jewel on some man’s arm and so much more. Indeed, both Chava, the poor Golem and Sophia, the Heiress, live under the burden of limiting expectation. Both are expected to be obedient wives who exist solely to please their husbands. Clearly, they walk in different worlds (that eventually collide), but their primary issues are similar  There are multiple story threads that smoothly come together. Each person, each thread, every story told and each bit of action are all masterfully used to build the narrative and drive the story toward the conclusion. There are no wasted bits and yet it doesn’t fill artificially contrived.

In this debut novel, Ms. Wecker already exhibit a mastery of her craft. The dialog, story, characters and worlds (whether New York, the desert, Poland or an oasis) are perfectly married, her phrasing carefully reflects each setting and person and she understands and conveys the challenges and longings that come to us all.

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George Guidall – Photo Credit Joanna Perrin

I heard the book, performed by audiobook veteran George Guidall, as much of the story as I read. His pacing, inflection and characterization are spot-on. In particular, his pacing allows you to fully soak up the world, the characters and storyline. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you love this one. If you want to luxuriate in the wording, you can always user Whispersync for Voice to jump between the Audible version and the Kindle.

  • HarperBooks Trailer

I highly recommend this story of love and loss, moving beyond people’s expectations laid down for you and rising about your cultural limitations even as you embrace it.

Phrasing  4.5/5
World Building  5/5
Character  5/5
Narrative  4.5/5

 

 

SnagIt – Real World Notes from the Field

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I’ve used TechSmith’s SnagIt for well over a decade. I’ve used it at work to create training documents, user manuals, document issues and overall communication about software systems I use, support or help develop. In the evenings, I’ve also used it from my work laptop/tablet to edit photos, capture screenshots to communicate with others how to do things or to document support issues when things go awry. I think are a lot of folks think about SnagIt  simply as a screen-capture tool and, hey, doesn’t the Snipping tool included with Windows do that for you? For some, the Snipping tool may be all they need, but SnagIt’s ability to capture scrolling areas within a page, add annotation, make it dead easy to share and countless other activities all leave the Snipping tool and other capture tools (free and otherwise) in the dust (about which more later)

 

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All images courtesy of Techsmith.com

 

While its screen capture ability is the gold standard, I use its editing tool at least as much; I use it for photos as well as screen captures. Now, it’s not going to have filters, change of white balance or other pure photo editing features, however, I tend to use those aspects sparingly. I typically use the original image but will crop/paste, annotate or resize for web use. One of the primary uses I’ve had over the last couple of year is to manage images for this blog. There are times I’m just using my home computer and I always run into a challenge – there is no other tool in its price range (roughly $50) that I can find that allows me to edit an image for a particular pixel dimension without degradation of the image. Many online platforms have defined recommended pixel height and width (they’ll accept others but the aspect ratio or quality will be degraded). For example, the particular WordPress template I use has the banner set to 960 x 260. Not too many images have that as their native dimension.  I typically mashup images such as an author picture with book cover elements to create a banner (with their permission, of course). SnagIt’s editor is a huge help in this. I can crop, resize and paste in images with clear feedback on the pixel size throughout the editing process. The editor has some of the best annotation tools as well as ability to obscure sensitive information with highly configurable blurring. Simply put, SnagIt is my business and personal workhorse for image editing. Yes, I’ll turn to other tools to create a collage, to apply rarely used filters and to fix an image’s white balance, but nothing is as easy, intuitive and functional as SnagIt for my purposes. This is key for an impatient, non-artistically inclined guy such as myself. It returns its value on its editor alone.

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The editor, however, is certainly not the only story; indeed, it’s not the main event. SnagIt’s ability to capture exactly what you want on screen is dead-on simple and accurate. If you word within web applications or just grabbing information from a web site, SnagIt can accurately capture the most obscure elements whether that is a drop-down box with values listed, a window within a window or an area on the screen that scrolls or where you select an area like a slide show. It can capture all of it. You can also create presets to manage the way you capture for your use. For example, the default capture mode will present the captured screen in a box that allows you to quickly set the pixel dimensions and whether you’re capturing a still image or a video (see below). The vast majority of my captures keep whatever pixel size I originally selected and it’s a still image. So, for my use, that dialog is redundant. Presets to the rescue! I created a preset that bypasses the dialog and brings it right into the editor. By the way, this is a tribute to Techsmith’s excellent customer service. I actually fussed about the intermediary dialog when it first came on the scene in release 12 and didn’t like that there wasn’t a setting to ignore it in this post. The folks at TechSmith came right back with the suggested preset. I felt partly idiotic for not thinking of it myself but mostly grateful for their detailed suggestion.

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The magic of the latest release, along with improved user experience through changes in the user interface, is its enhanced ability to capture any region and especially a part of an application or web page that scrolls they’ve dubbed panoramic capture. Here’s a little video example of how it works:

This latest ability has finally pushed me over the edge. As cheap as I am (for example, I still have a 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon for the use of my children), I finally broke down and bought my own copy for personal use. I’m not sure I have a better evidence for how well the tool works for me than that.

There are some tools that, over the years, that simply nail their niches such as Scooter Software’s Beyond Compare, Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IDM Software’s UltraEdit; Techsmith’s SnagIt (as well as their Camtasia video creation/editing tool, but that’s another post) belong in that pantheon that own their category of software tools. If you need to do anything beyond the most rudimentary of screen captures or image edits, I highly recommend SnagIt, you’ll be glad you grabbed it.

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Microsoft Band 2 – Real World Notes from the Field

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I’ve had my Microsoft Band 2 for roughly 3 months. I use it within Microsoft’s ecosystem (yeah, I drank the Kool-Aid). I have Windows 10 on my PC and Surface as well as Windows 10 mobile on my Lumia 950 phone. (All that I indicate in this post will also hold for those using the Band with iOS (Apple) or Android except the Cortana integration isn’t as good). During this time, I went from walking as my main form of exercise to walking, running and various strength and toning exercises. I also lost about 25 pounds. What role did the Band have in helping to improve my fitness so far? It’s been instrumental in providing data and helping to analyze that data. (Here‘s some notes on my experience with Microsoft’s fabulous support of the Band)

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Courtesy of thedigitallifestyle.com

To understand this picture, we’ll need to go back a little bit. I have a yearly health assessment that dives into a lot of health indicators including blood pressure, BMI, and various blood tests to look at cholesterol etc. Last year, I started walking on a regular basis but made no other changes to my behavior related to health. I used a step-counter. Most of that time it was a Fitlinxx Pebble+ and shared my progress with others on http://meyouhealth.com/. This was helpful to see my progress, give me some daily goals and to have some shared encouragement from others using the site. As the year progressed, I switched over to a Fitbit Flex that my daughter was no longer using. I ate pretty much whatever I wanted and my sleep was less than optimal. As a result of that year walking, all my health indicators at my yearly assessment improved slightly. So, I began to wonder, what it would look like if I took a more active role with my diet and sleep? In particular, what would be the impact if I knocked out the junk and reduced portions in eating while making more of an effort to get a reasonable amount of sleep? So, my plan was simply to change my eating and sleep a bit.

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Courtesy of Microsoftstore.com

On my additional quest to eat better and sleep better, I saw some limitations with simply using a step-counter with some additional function). Flex can give you some feedback on sleep and provides a way to enter data related to what you eat in related application. There just wasn’t enough feedback and tracking the food I eat was never been something that enticed me. The Microsoft Band 2 went on sale with the siren song of more more information and a bit of a productivity boost. I thought I would give it a shot.

What a difference it made. Part of that difference is the Microsoft health app and the related website http://dashboard.Microsofthealth.com. I started tracking daily weight. Over the next couple weeks, I could start seeing a pattern in the data that walking was not having the same impact on my health as it did when I started. Based on my heart rate and other indicators, I could see that the sessions of walking that used to improve my fitness or at least maintaining it, now they were simply denoted as having light impact. I  had become fit enough through the walking that, short of serious speed walking, I had reached a plateau. I could not get my heart rate up enough to have a serious impact on improving my health simply by walking any longer. I don’t think I would’ve come to that conclusion without the data that Microsoft Band 2 provided. So, if somebody were to talk to me about a fitness device, I would say opt for one that has at least an optical heart rate monitor.

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Courtesy of Microsoft.com

 

Based on that feedback, I changed my program to begin to run. I say “begin” because I actually used what Microsoft calls a guided workout. This is a workout that you can load down to the Band and it will take each step vibrate on your rest and give you text related to what you should be doing. I used it to start with a run-walk workout. Now, this was designed to be a minute of walking then 2 minutes of running for 30 mins. After the first part of the first session, I did 1 minute of running and 2 minutes of walking. Within two weeks I switched it up to the normal program. Within a few weeks, however, I was forced to focus more on fitness in the gym and less on running due to challenges pounding pavement brought to my legs. During this whole period, I have been losing roughly a couple pounds a week and was now down 20 Ibs (or 1.5 stone to my friends in the UK). For me, the guided workouts are a godsend because it takes all of the temptation to be guided by how I feel at the moment and simply gives me the next step to do.

  • Courtesy Winbeta

 

So far, I haven’t given any deep technical review of Microsoft Band 2 over other fitness devices that can monitor heart rate, sleep and have some mechanism for providing a guided workout while providing productivity apps. Nor will I do so. There aren’t a ton of those devices and they all have their quirks. For me, it’s a really good combination of a productivity tool, with phone, text, email, and calendar notifications with built-in Cortana (digital personal assistant) integration, and its primary role as a fitness device. The Apple Watch seems more productivity and less fitness focused and most of the Fitbit products seem more fitness and less productivity focused. I like that Microsoft continues to develop new applications such as Explore which provides great information for hiking such as longitude/latitude coordinates, compass heading, trekking rate of climb and providing a picture of the climate and terrain if you have GPS on. Is it perfect? No. The GPS doesn’t always acquire the signal and sometimes takes longer than it should to do so. Cortana just recently became fully functional with a fix for Microsoft. For me, it is the right combination.

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So what have I learned so far?

  • Real data is key. Whether it’s heart rate, weight, how good my sleep is, or improvement on split times, getting detailed, solid data is foundational for making good choices about what you do next. In my case, I would still just be walking had I not gotten feedback that it wasn’t really doing that much for me. I love being able to track my improvement and the Health app provides feedback on personal bests.
  • Clearly, fitness devices won’t make you fit or healthy. They only provide you information for you to use. That information, however, can make all the difference. I make a marginally better effort to getting reasonable sleep knowing that my Band will tell me how poorly I did if I don’t improve.
  • Sometimes the data surprising and sometimes it’s not. It’s always helpful.
  • As all the literature and everyone will tell you, this is a life journey. I’m just barely into it and there will come a time, I hope, I’m maintaining weight rather than losing it, but there will never be a time where I don’t have to pay attention. Whether that’s to my sleep, what I eat or whether I workout that day.
  • Even with all the great downloadable workouts, tons of information on the web and pressure to measure up, chill. Seriously, it’s you, your body and your pace. If I felt obligated to do my first run-walk as designed, I may have given up. Take your time. It’s not a diet, it’s not a phase, it’s a life change. It’s all about improvement and personal bests. Don’t worry about others or expectations.
  • There are always options. If running is not working for you, and in my case the high impact nature of it is too much for me, find something else. I’m now working on ellipticals and rowing machines as well as strength exercises to tone muscle.
  • Change up your workout as your fitness changes. While starting to just reduce eating and sleep more, based on the information I received, I changed my workout to run. Based on the weight loss, I started strength training to reduce muscle loss and keep up metabolism. Be flexible (literally and figuratively) with your workout.
  • There are challenges with losing weight. The above-referenced need to tone muscle is one of them. You lose muscle mass along with fat. I’ve seen sag where I’ve never seen sag before, hence the toning. You also have the challenge of your wardrobe, especially in transition. Nothing is gonna fit perfectly for a while. The upsides clearly outweigh these few challenges, but it’s good to remember that there are challenges.

So, we can talk about the Band’s 11 sensors, improved ergonomic design, or its less than stellar battery life. All of those are interesting points. Ultimately, however, it’s a tool to help you be more productive and become fitter. Your mileage may (and likely will) differ. It’s been an effective tool for me.

Jennifer Foehner Wells’ Remanence is a Nearly Perfect Sequel Whose Protagonist is Among the Best

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The Confluence series is quickly becoming one of my favorites due to its world-building, strong characters (without being one-dimensional) and relationships. I particularly like that Jane Holloway and her crew are strong and willing to do what must be done without tons of aggression ala Star Trek.

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Jennifer Foehner Wells‘ series began with Fluency (reviewed here) in which a team of astronauts investigate an alien ship only to find out that it’s abandoned except for its navigator who looks startlingly like an octopus or Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. They get caught up in saving the ship and themselves. In Remanence, they set “…off to return that ship’s marooned navigator to his home world, determined to discover who was behind the genocide that destroyed his original crew.” [from Amazon’s plot summary].

Jennifer Foehner Wells

Jennifer Foehner Wells

[Note: read Fluency prior to reading this review, it have Fluency spoilers, and Remanence]

Let me address the world-building of this series first. While interesting and novel, it’s not so much the species, planets or technology that make it so intriguing but the perspective. Ms. Wells focus is on the culture of the worlds rather than the mechanics. While this is true of other ScitFi novels, this is an area where the protagonist’s focus on communication accentuates the cultural aspect of these worlds and people. If that sounds boring to you, it’s not. I want to emphasize that all of this is brought out through the narrative, dialog and interaction. Little “straight” exposition is used.

Not only is it a brilliant move to make Jane Holloway a linguist from a world building perspective, it also deemphasizes a military focus. For all of that, Jane Holloway is strong.  If we look more closely at Jane Holloway’s strength of character and leadership in the midst of normal and extreme tension, we see an “ordinary” hero. So often we’re tempted to feel obligated to overdo a character to rid ourselves of stereotypes. Hence, the literarily butt-kicking women who fight among the best as well as are brilliant and emotionally adjusted. There is a place for that, but I like Ms. Wells’ protagonist who is strong but not “action-hero” strong. She is able to withstand pain, adjudicates amongst different species and navigates multiple challenging relationships, romantic and otherwise, while still commanding her ship during tense moments while feeling the weight of responsibility. In this day of seemingly daily acts of violence, it’s refreshing to see strength portrayed without aggression.

I seriously liked Fluency; I love Remanence. It is a nearly perfectly executed sequel: it provides a deeper dive into all characters and relationships. There is a consistently smooth progression of the storyline with no major jerks or cheats but still plenty of surprises. We also come to a deeper understanding of the world Wells creates with new aspects and people groups brought int but always in a consistent way that drives the story.

The characters of the book are multi-dimensional and grow (or we grow to know them more) in Remanence. Their relationships are well done, especially the relationships between the humans and aliens. These characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves have the mark of authenticity. Her aliens feel starkly “other” but accessible. Most of the events are ones with which we can identify but on a more low-key level (except for the great by an extraordinary ending.

Ms. Wells tackles issues of freedom and responsibility, appropriate use of violence and culture/species bias. She incorporates these as part of the story and, following great SciFi tradition, tackles these social issues head-on without being preachy or “making a point.” This is primarily a story and the narrative rules the day but one that addresses important and interesting nevertheless.

In sum, Ms. Wells has a clear, consistent vision of her series’ world. Her characters and relationships amongst the crew and the alien species are complex and interesting, made even more so when worked through the lens of a linguist’s understanding of complex communications that goes beyond mere language. She portrays strength without an emphasis on firepower and builds the narrative well. One of the other things I like about Ms. Well writing is that she knows how to end a story in a series well. There is a well-hewn balance between completing the current novel and alluding to the next. Clearly, I highly recommend Remanence and will take up the next in the series as soon as it is available.

 

Phrasing  3.5/5
World Building  5/5
Character  4.5/5
Narrative  4.5/5

 

Open Minds Opens a New World of Mind Games

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In Susan Kaye Quinn‘s opening salvo in the Mindjacking trilogy, Open Minds, it’s tough being a teen and being substantially different. It seems our dear Kira is a Zero – she can’t read others thoughts as can most in society once of age. Readers thoughts are open to each other; Zeros can’t be read and, hence, can’t be trusted. They can keep secrets. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that Readers were the odd ones, they were mistrusted because they can read you. Now that they were the majority, they looked askance at everyone else. Some things never change.  In addition to trying to navigate life as a Zero while in high school (ugh), she accidentally discovers she can control others thoughts and down the mindjacking rabbit-hole she goes.

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Open Minds has a clever premise that is well executed. Susan Kaye Quinn builds a consistent vision of this oppressive world where being different can get you locked up in jail, or worse. While this is clearly a targeted YA book, her characters and relationships are built to the point where they seem real. Often these characters make unwise decisions as we do in “real” live. For example, our protagonist gets involved with two guys, one of whom plays on her not being “normal” like him. They’re odd together. Avoiding spoilers one way or another, he has the image of a “bad boy.” It’s one of the more interesting love triangles I’ve read with real plausibility. Like this triangle, the relationships developed seem natural, the characters, have reasonable depth and her world is sparkling new and intriguing. These mind-talents also lend themselves to great story material.

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Susan Kaye Quinn

 

I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book, spending the majority of my time with the audiobook.    Kelli Shane provides narration for the book.  Ms. Shane seemed to have an uneven performance. There are times when her timing, pitch, and tone are spot-on and others where she sounds like she’s reading a book report for a 10th grade English class. The words are neutrally placed before us with no emphasis, timing or pitch variations. I don’t know if she was left alone in a recording booth and there was no direction when she wavered from a full-blooded performance, but while she never becomes monotone and completely devoid of emotional connection to the material, it comes across weakly. Her narration is professional enough to not distract but it doesn’t really add to the book either.

Overall, Ms. Quinn’s writing matches the audience and her fast narrative approach. It’s fairly straight-forward and uncomplicated.  The characters are well-developed and her world is fascinating. Open Minds is a worthwhile read; I’ve already picked up the sequel, Close Hearts and will review it separately.

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Phrasing:                    3/5

World Building:        5/5

Character:                 3.5/5

Narrative:                  4/5

The Band, a Break and Brilliant Customer Service

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On a day when I took some time off from work to run some errands, I looked down as I was walking down my stairs and noticed a rip/break on my Microsoft Band 2. A little more intense examination revealed that the “thermal plastic elastomer silicone vulcanate (TPSiV)”, that is, rubber band part had torn and separated from the middle display part. While it was still connected and running, this was clearly disconcerting. Since all of the components of the Band are integrated together into the device, you can’t simply replace the band part of it. No worries, however. I had bought this a couple of months ago and I’d even paid for the extended warranty, so I was covered. What I didn’t know was whether this would be a pain in the derriere to have resolved. I needed this resolved because after two months of owning this, I can’t imagine living without out it. The feedback I receive has helped me drop over 15 pounds, get fitter and work to get more sleep (still working on that one). While I have a long way to go and no one will confuse me with Chis Evans, I’m definitely fitter and healthier; I also love the quick notifications. (I’ll review the Band separately later).

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Microsoft Band 2

After my morning errands, I drove to the Microsoft store at Southpoint Mall in Durham to see about getting a replacement. How was I greeted? Did they reluctantly come up and grumble and suggest I did something wrong? Did they give me a number and suggest that they would be able to help me in an hour or two? Absolutely not. I walked in and was met by their point guy who was greeting incoming customers. He apologized for the Band breaking and quickly set me up so that I could have it resolved with a new Band. This didn’t just involve getting a new Band out of the back, but setting up, testing (I wanted to make sure the GPS would work because that failed on a previous unit) and transferring my warranty information to the new Band. So, I gave him the old knowing this would take a bit.

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So time to check out the toys. I looked at the Microsoft Surface Book (I seriously love this). While doing so, an employee came over and checked in on me, asked if I wanted anything to drink, he chatted with me a little bit about what I do, about some of the devices I have and then suggested taking the demo of the HTC Vive, a VR device. By the way, all of this is happening while the store has plenty of activity. It wasn’t super busy, but it wasn’t exactly empty either.

 

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Oh yeah, I looked exactly this cool playing the demo (or not)

 

The HTC Vive demo is some of the best wait time I’ve ever had on the planet. Their demo includes standing on a sunken ship in the ocean and watching fish and a huge whale swim by while utterly immersed in the ocean depths. A painting demo where you can use different brushes and not only can you paint all around you, what you paint stays in 3-D. So if you paint with oil brushes, these ribbons of light-paint are displayed in the air all around you. You can walk around, underneath and above them; if you paint something spherical you can walk around the sphere. Really cool. Finally, you save the world by shooting up alien ships trying to take over the world and your super sleek spaceship.

When the fun was done, my Band was ready. Not only did they give me a new Band, but since I had a screen protector on my old Band, they put a screen protector on my new Band and they threw in the charger that came with that unit. So I’m coming in with “problem” and they greeted me with open arms, offered stuff to drink, suggested a cool demo of the game and went above and beyond in making sure that my new experience was at least as good as my last. Almost all of my dealings with Microsoft, either through the web or through the store have been good, but this was just one of those times where everything was done perfectly. All of the folks that helped, there were three of them whose names I’ve unfortunately have forgotten, were polite, helpful and informative. So, as much as we all like to fuss and complain about bad service in retail, I simply want to highlight a really stellar customer experience with Microsoft’s Store and some great employees.

Cans: A Personal Journey Through Soundscapes

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Sennheiser Momentum Angels

Sennheiser Momentum

Headphones, whether large or small, in-ear monitors or over-the-ear headphones (and anything in between), are a relatively large part of my life. I connected with headphones more seriously when I started having children. Gone were the days when the boom from an explosion of the blown up starship as it reaches Coruscant could reverberate through the house, the tight percussive sounds of Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drum the ears or “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th viscerally wash over me through loudspeakers. Then we became mobile. First through the Walkman, then MP3 players and now our phones – we took our music with us. Finally, I came to notice that you could get headphones that faithfully represent music for orders of magnitude less money than loudspeakers that can do the same. So while I still watch movies with “real” speakers and occasionally listen to music with loudspeakers, the vast majority of my music listening is through headphones. Through all the iterations, I come to consistently using three headphones. Three? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more money on one set than three? While I didn’t plan on having three, let’s look at the journey that led me there and it may not seem so whacked. It might even help you on your musical journey. Mostly, if you care about music, I encourage you to explore something beyond the Apple “Earpods” (I can’t quite write that word without quotes) or Beats by Dre through which to enjoy your music. Your ears will thank you.

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Sennheiser PC 160 – great for dictation while listening to music

While I toyed early on with some OK Koss headsets and, the little more serious Telefunken headphones (back in the day), I first stepped back and began to pay attention to headphone sound when I got a pair of Sennheiser PC 160 headphones (for a “steal” at $45 – I still use my old pair with Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictation). The audiophile among you will laugh, but they were my first foray into open-back headsets and, while not going deep or having quite the detail a true audiophile set would have, they were considerably better than anything I used before (which was especially surprising given that I bought them mainly to record software demos).

For those of you who’ve never known the delights of open-back headphones and their tendency to have a wider soundstage and be designed to produce more detail, you are (likely) missing the sweet, pure joy of wide, clear sound. Later, I got a pair of Panasonic semi-open back earbuds for you with my iPod for mobile use.

 

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Now was the time for an epiphany.  While everything I used up to this point was fine, I had read that the best headphones for the money were Grado SR60s. I believe they were $70 when I first got a pair in 2009 (which was a lot for me but obviously at the very low end for quality sound; their slightly updated brother, the SR80’s were $90). Up to this point, I had been listening through murky waters and didn’t even know it. These cans were crisp and clean, producing remarkable detail and not coloring the sound at all. I mostly listen to classical music and jazz, so I particularly like their faithfulness to the original sound recorded despite the fact that they also were a little light on the bass side. If you want the clarity of the Grados with more warmth and punchier bass, the price starts climbing quickly and these were already more than I usually spent on headphones. Not only do they have the added bonus of giving a retro/ham-radio-operator look, Grado is a seriously cool family-based company where they make all of their headphones right in Brooklyn. I believe that there was (as still is) nothing that can touch them for clarity and faithful sound for $70 (or even the current price of $80).

Alas, there were a couple of issues; as lovely as the SR 60s were, they’re not exactly mobile. You don’t want to be sweating with them, cutting grass with them, or walking greenways with your dog. Moreover, they have a long cord (7 feet) which is lovely when you’re at your desk or in the den but not so much when you’re doing the dishes. Also, while open-backed headphones have a great soundstage, they let sound in so you hear ambient noise, conversations and just about everything around you. They also leak noise; if you happen to eschew sleep for the sake of your addictive reading habit and like to listen to music at the same time, these are not the headphones your wife (or husband) will appreciate. She will hear everything, albeit at a lower volume, that you hear. So I needed to come up with a portable solution that kept music in and unwanted sound out that was reasonably priced yet still faithful to the music. Clearly, I’m not looking at something like Urbeats (or Beats anything). At the time, the Klipsch S4 Image in-ear headphones came to the rescue.

 

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Klipsch S4 Image

 

I could get S4s on Amazon for between $30 & $45 back then, they had a tight seal for passive noise cancellation and had clear mids and solid bass with controlled treble. While I preferred the sound of the Grados, these worked well and solved my two problems. Issues I had with these headphones is that they are quite small and easily misplaced (not their problem, mine), they’re relatively easy to break and they have loud “cord-thump” (when you move and the cord hit you, your clothing or something around you, the sound is transferred up the cord to you). The other issue is that they keep going up in price. They’re now $100. For that price, I was ready to try something else.

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I had always been interested in the Shure’s in-ear monitors (think about the headphones you see on performers as the sing on stage that seem embedded in the ears). I’ve posted earlier about how good their lower-end SE215s are and their high-level of customer service. What I’ll say here is simply that the Klipsch S4s can’t hold a candle to them and they are equivalently priced. Man, I’m so glad I switched. The sound is better, they’re more stable since they’re true in-ear monitors, you can replace the cords (not so on the Klipsch which lost me a couple), they have much less “cord thump” than the Klipsch and they deaden outside noise even more. Now the Shure’s are also a bit more of a pain to put in your ear, but acoustical bliss comes at a price. Due to their fit and how they lie flat to your ear, you can lie down with them without causing pain to your ears. These were my mobile solution.

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One upgrade I hadn’t planned was initiated from a colleague at work who was upgrading to a new headset and gave me a great deal on his Grado SR 80s. The SR 80s have all the benefits of the SR 60s with a little bit more warmth and better handling of bass, so this was a lovely surprise indeed.

So this had been my breakdown – Grados for long-listening in a relatively quiet and stable spot and Shure’s for mobile or environments where open-backed headphones weren’t a good solution either due to a lack of passive noise cancelling or noise leakage. I was a happy camper with astonishingly good sound in the full knowledge that as an active father of four, the audiophile life was not for me. I look for the best sound I can afford for focused and active listening. I’m often moving with headphones and I mostly listen through my phone, my computer or my beautifully clear but relatively low-end DAC. These cans meet my realistic, active lifestyle that doesn’t afford sitting in an acoustically accurate man cave with high-end gear.

 

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Sennheiser Momentum – Over the ear

 

These principles have remained as has the love for open-back but the need for closed as well. A bit over a year ago, I changed the mix a bit to include a pair of lovely Sennheiser Momentums (original over-the-ear Ivory).  While I love open-back headphones, these have a startlingly wide sound stage, they handle all the bass thrown at them (although it could be a bit tighter), seem to mellow out the more strident notes while remaining faithful to the music and you can wear them forever without pain, heat or any discomfort. Most of all, their balanced design makes them good at handling any type of music you throw at them. Finally, ain’t they so pretty. Seriously, these are a good looking set of cans (sorry Grado). While I focus on classical and jazz, my tastes are varied and eclectic.  These are my go-to headphones for almost any kind of use. They deliver great detail in the midsection, serious bass (albeit not quite as tight as I would like), perfectly pitched treble and they look fabulous. (The Momentum 2.0s fold, have more flexibility working with Android and have larger earcups; I love my 1.0s because my ears are relatively small and so have a perfect fit). So now, I have the SR 80s at home, the Momentums at work and the Shures for on-the-go. Musical bliss indeed.

And that’s a theme that you’ll see throughout; these three are not absolutely the best headphones ever but they provide great value for the money. You’ll notice none of them are their respective company’s highest end headphones. You also note that none are Bluetooth. I still think that it’s very hard (read expensive) to get as good a sound at a Bluetooth as why a wired headset although they’ve come a long way. If you want to spend a lot of money, you might get there. These also aren’t the cheapest headphones around; the Momentum’s originally went for $350 (I didn’t pay anything near that), the Grado’s are about $100 as are the Shure’s. They both are an incredible value. It speaks to the great design and construction of the Grados and the Shures that the Momentums are only marginally better. There is slightly more detail in the Momentums and they can deliver that deep reverberating bass that the other two can’t quite reach. That’s true in general as you move up the scale of audio (and most things), after a certain point you have to pay increasingly more for smaller increments of improvement. If you’re ever tempted to get Beats Pros, please try the Momentums first. While not as iconic, they look better, provide much more clarity and detail and can still handle some kickin’ bass.

Your priorities and usage, as well as tastes, may differ. Think about how you’ll use them in real life – not some ideal setting. Try some out and play around. You may discover a whole new world of sound that you’ve missed until now.

Evelyn Waugh on the Weight of Sin

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Evelyn Waugh is, of course, a master of language. His descriptions, dialog and transitions are a work of art. They are as perfect as we get on this earth and yet are always convey his thought without drawing attention to the writing itself. There is no flourish for flourish sake.

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Evelyn Waugh

So, I venture the type of post I’ve not written before: a book quote. Mr. Waugh has written one of the most moving scenes in the English language of a person’s sense of sinfulness crashing down on their awareness with an overwhelming weight. It also shows what a foreign notion this sense of sin is to any non-believer and what a burden when there is no received grace. So we have Julia Flyte evoking this weight of sin to her lover Charles in Brideshead Revisited.

 

All in one word, too, one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime.

“ ‘Living in sin’; not just doing wrong, as I did when I went to America; doing wrong, knowing it is wrong, stopping doing it, forgetting. That’s not what they mean. That’s not Bridey’s pennyworth. He means just what it says in black and white.

“Living in sin, with sin, always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. ‘Poor Julia,’ they say, ‘she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her sin. A pity it ever lived,’ they say, ‘but it’s so strong. Children like that always are. Julia’s so good to her little, mad sin.’ ”

“An hour ago,” I thought, “under the sunset, she sat turning her ring in the water and counting the days of happiness; now under the first stars and the last gray whisper of day, all this mysterious tumult of sorrow! What had happened to us in the Painted Parlor? What shadow had fallen in the candlelight? Two rough sentences and a trite phrase.” She was beside herself; her voice, now muffled in my breast, now clear and anguished, came to me in single words and broken sentences.

“Past and future; the years when I was trying to be a good wife, in the cigar smoke, while the counters clicked on the backgammon board, and the man who was ‘dummy’ at the men’s table filled the glasses; when I was trying to bear his child, torn in pieces by something already dead; putting him away, forgetting him, finding you, the past two years with you, all the future with you, all the future with or without you, war coming, world ending—sin.

“A word from so long ago, from Nanny Hawkins stitching by the hearth and the nightlight burning before the Sacred Heart. Cordelia and me with the catechism, in mummy’s room, before luncheon on Sundays. Mummy carrying my sin with her to church, bowed under it and the black lace veil, in the chapel; slipping out with it in London before the fires were lit; taking it with her through the empty streets, where the milkman’s ponies stood with their forefeet on the pavement; mummy dying with my sin eating at her, more cruelly than her own deadly illness.

“Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot; hanging over the bed in the night-nursery; hanging year after year in the dark little study at Farm Street with the shining oilcloth; hanging in the dark church where only the old charwoman raises the dust and one candle burns; hanging at noon, high among the crowds and the soldiers; no comfort except a sponge of vinegar and the kind words of a thief; hanging for ever; never the cool sepulcher and the grave clothes spread on the stone slab, never the oil and spices in the dark cave; always the midday sun and the dice clicking for the seamless coat.

“No way back; the gates barred; all the saints and angels posted along the walls. Thrown away, scrapped, rotting down; the old man with lupus and the forked stick who limps out at nightfall to turn the rubbish, hoping for something to put in his sack, something marketable, turns away with disgust.

“Nameless and dead, like the baby they wrapped up and took away before I had seen her.”

Between her tears she talked herself into silence. I could do nothing; I was adrift in a strange sea; my hands on the metal-spun threads of her tunic were cold and stiff, my eyes dry; I was as far from her in spirit, as she clung to me in the darkness, as when years ago I had lit her cigarette on the way from the station; as far as when she was out of mind, in the dry, empty years at the Old Rectory, and in the jungle.

So brother and sister sat and talked about the arrangement of the house until bed-time. “An hour ago,” I [Charles] thought, “in the black refuge in the box hedge, she wept her heart out for the death of her God; now she is discussing whether Beryl’s children shall take the old smoking-room or the school-room for their own.” I was at see.

Brideshead Revisited, pp 329-332 of Book IV

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