Reading Log 2019, #1: Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo (The History of England, Vol. 4), by Peter Ackroyd

The fourth of five (so far) volumes in Ackroyd’s “History of England” series, Revolution covers, well… a lot of revolt.

Starting from the end of the Glorious Revolution that wiped the Cromwellian grimness out of power, continuing through the American Revolution, and ending with the English reaction to the French Revolution and its Napoleonic successor, Revolution stays on-topic with its title throughout. Oh, and let us not forget what was arguably the most important revolution of them all: the Industrial Revolution. Ackroyd presents the latter as more of a process than a singular event, but its impact reverberates throughout every other event in the book. 

I’ve liked the way Ackroyd writes since I first read his London: The Biography (a book I can’t recommend enough if you have any interest in any aspect of that city at all). While the scholarly rigor is fully present in the facts presented and sourcing and all that, Ackroyd is anything but dry. Broad-sweep views of the politics or background events of the day are interspersed with tight, personal vignettes drawn from the people being impacted by those politics and events. More academic chapters covering the government and wars and such alternate with chapters focused on the economics of regular people trying to get by, or on the arts of the era. It’s a well-rounded read that moves along quickly given how much it has to cover.

If there is a fault to be had with Revolutions, it’s in the conscious choice of the author to focus it tightly on _England_; you’re not going to get much discussion of the slave trade or India save as to how they directly impacted on the English in England itself. It’s emphatically NOT a history of the Empire. But, he’s clear about that in the very first volume, so it’s not so much an issue as it is just something to be aware of. 

Ackroyd also doesn’t cast much of a critical voice into the narrative, either; you won’t get much sense of how the author feels about any of the events he’s retelling. The lack of easily-discernible bias is honestly somewhat refreshing, but some sense of point of view would be appreciated by some readers, I’m sure.

That said, I like his approach and recommend this book and series to anyone who wants a deeper dive into English history than any single-volume book could do justice to. 

 

iPad Pro 11: Not For Portrait-Mode Thumb Typers

The new iPad Pro has been out for a little over two months right now.

I’ve bought three of them 😦

And they’ve all been returned at this point, and I’m using my trusty old iPad Mini 4 instead. Why? Well, I can tell you at least it’s NOT due to “bendgate” or anything; all three were straight as arrows on all sides.

But I still think there’s a manufacturing defect or design bug that affects iPads reliably, but only in a pretty rare use case that I unfortunately happen to be very prone to.

You see, I use my iPads in portrait mode 95% of the time. Yes, even the 10.5 and now 11 inch bigger ones (I have pretty gigantic gorilla hands). I’m often holding it up in bed or while sitting somewhere, and I thumb-type the shit out of that screen in portrait. This has worked just fine with every iPad I’ve had up to the new Pros. My primary uses with the iPad are reading books and articles, and reading/responding to social media shit, all of which I do mostly in portrait while thumb-typing. I don’t like having the screen far away from me on a desk or surface when I’m using a tablet; they’re personal devices to me, and I hold them up pretty close. My eyes are old to the point where I need a bigger screen than any iPad gives to be comfortable using it at laptop distance for any length of time.

The problem is noticeable right out of the box; when holding it in portrait mode and typing on the onscreen keyboard with my thumbs, the t, g, b, h and y keys (and sometimes the ones around those, but less so) will often make the keyboard click sound and depress on the keyboard (the two signs iOS gives the user to say “I acknowledge that you are pressing this key and want me to actuate it), but they will NOT enter into whichever text field I’m actually trying to enter into. Since I type fast with my thumbs, this quickly becomes a big problem. Every third “the” renders as “he”, “that” is usually “hat”… just an infuriating mess of easy to miss typos.

Since I’m one of those dinosaurs who hates to make typos, and likes correct spelling and grammar, this is obviously crazy-making to me. I write a ton on these things, and having to spend twice as much time laboriously using iOS’s editing features to correct typos than I did typing it out in the first place quickly became untenable.

I’ve since been to two different Apple Stores with three different iPad Pro 11’s that all exhibit the issue. One of the techs insisted on testing it with the iPad lying down on the table and couldn’t get it to replicate; they eventually gave me a senior tech who followed my instructions and held it the way I do when the problem actually occurs and it reliably triggered.

I suspect, but obviously can’t prove, that the little bit of extra thinness and the little bit of extra width on the 11 over, say, the 10.5, leads to just enough torque being applied when trying to portrait-grip this thing and stretch thumbs over to the middle of the keyboard to cause the digitizer to flex out of true just enough to break the finger-glass-digitizer-OS chain of events that leads to a character input actually being fully acknowledged.

The fruit stand techs probably get horse-whipped by the ghost of Steve Jobs if they give even a passing nod to a possible physical defect in a new product that hasn’t been acknowledged by corporate yet (see: the fucking MBP keyboards for first two years of this generation until, voila, Apple acknowledged that they just might have a shitload of issues), so he doubled-down on “it’s probably a software bug, keep an eye out for iOS updates that might address that and buy another one if you’d like at that time”, which is fine advice, but this really feels like a physical issue to me. There’s a slight chance I guess that the gyroscope is being knocked out of true in that orientation and pressure and that could be fixed by a software change to calibration, but I won’t be holding my breath.

I posted to Reddit and some other forums about this issue in early January after more Googling still didn’t bring up anyone else having this issue; my posts however, did bring at least a few people out of the woodwork to state that they were having similar issues. The gist seems to be, though, that portrait-typers are an increasingly dying breed and that, even if this issue is as widespread as me getting three iPads in a row with the problem seems to indicate, so few people actually use iPads in this precise way to trigger it. I blame my humongous neanderthal paws for even making it possible.

So, I’m bummed. I can either continue to use my ancient Mini 4 (which, to be fair and to Apple’s credit, works ridiculously well still, even if the battery life is pretty degraded; iOS 12 really rejuvenated older iOS devices to a crazy degree), or buy a previous gen 10.5 again, which, to a die-hard Apple PayPig such as myself, is humiliating*. I’m leaning towards the latter, as I really loved that device, it doesn’t have this issue, and even a refurb bought today will probably be good for 3-4 more years.

My main question now is wondering if this will slowly creep up enough across the userbase to actually become an issue Apple has to acknowledge and work towards correcting, or if this entire generation of iPad Pros is just going to be dead to me (which would crazy suck).

At the end of the day, it’s a super First World Problem, and Apple’s support and store staff were uniformly excellent throughout, giving me no hassle at all, even as I wanted to immediately open, try and return thousands of dollars worth of shit in their store. So that’s good at least. I’m imagining going through this with like a Samsung Tab S4 or something bought from Best Buy and just lol.

Anyways, please don’t Old Tech Shame Me if you see me out and about with my Mini or 10.5, I’d crumple up and cry if you did.

*might as well just drive a 1989 Chevy Citation while I’m at it

Apple’s Smartphone Dominance Explained In One Feature

I’m not partisan about mobile ecosystems; I’ve spent thousands of dollars on iOS shit over the years, and thousands on Android stuff, too. I like features from both and think that choosing between a goodAndroid phone (Google’s Pixel line, essentially) and an iPhone is something that comes down entirely to personal preference.

That said, I spend MOST of my time in iOS land. Why? There’s a million little quality of life things I think iOS does slightlybetter than Android, but I’ll talk about just one in particular that stands out as it’s a very good example of what Apple gets right that Android still misses the mark on:

Adjusting the brightness of the screen.

You know often I have to do this manually on my iOS devices?

Never. I literally cannot remember the last time I had to manually dim or brighten the screen on a device. They’re just ALWAYS at the right brightness level for whatever lighting conditions I’m in.

Out on my balcony on a sunny day? It goes full max brightness without me even noticing.

Lights out in bed at night when wife is already asleep? It dims itself to almost the lowest setting.

It just figures out what is the best setting for the moment.

In contrast, the last two Android devices I used (Pixel 2 XL by Google, and Samsung’s Note 9) ranged from “needed slight, but regular manual adjustment to the auto-settings” (the Note) to “this is just broken entirely” (the Pixel).

I had a couple of Pixel 2 XLs due to Google’s iffy QA and screen manufacturing woes this generation (another thing Apple gets better; the next bum-out-of-the-box iOS device I buy will be the first). Every one of them, I quickly ended up turning off Android’s Adaptive Brightness almost immediately because I can’t stand watching a screen change its own brightness constantly while I’m looking at it while stationary in an evenly-lit room.

I never notice my iOS screens adjusting themselves; they’re just always at the right brightness.

Again, this is the whitest of whines, the First World-iest of problems, but it’s something Apple a) realized was a low-intensity but widespread quality of life issue and b) iterated until it was fixed.

Like, I vaguely remember, many iPhones ago, manually setting a brightness slider because I read somewhere that iDevices like you to do that once or twice so it can set a baseline of what brightness level each person likes in a given ambient light scenario, and then it adjusts brightness against that from there. I feel like this is data it passes along with your iCloud profiles so it carries over from device to device, because I’ve never had to fuck with it again.

These kinds of things exist throughout the Apple ecosystem, and is the thing that keeps me coming back to them even when I’m seduced away momentarily every year by the latest Pixel phone.

Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey

Babylons_AshesA solid entry in the series, but starting to strain the suspension of disbelief that the same six-seven people are constantly at the center of these epochal, shattering moments for humanity. So, on that note, I’m glad that they’re moving into the “final” trilogy of The Expanse with the following book, Persepolis Rising.

As for THIS book, it brings a generally satisfactory conclusion to the story of Marcos Inaros and his Free Navy’s rebellion against Earth/Mars/OPA. I’m basically just glad to see Marcos go away (spoiler, but c’mon, you knew it was coming) because he’s a paper-thin caricature of an evil bad guy who was never really developed much beyond being a necessary plot agent. His background with Naomi was rather insubstantial, his relationship with their child almost Darth Vader-ian in its comical abuse… what he did to Earth is genuinely disturbing, and I almost wish they spent more time dealing with the effects of the attacks, but the background info we get via Avasarala does a pretty good job of conveying just how fucked things are.

That said, the fact that the 1300 new worlds and many new colonies that we know are out there spend this entire book basically out of sight entirely is distressing; I get that we have to settle our home solar system’s story here, but Jesus Christ do I hope that the final trilogy takes place amongst these new worlds already (I know the first book is already out and thus I could already know if that’s what’s going on, but I’m saving the entire final trilogy to binge on once it’s all released, inshallah).

So, while not quite as cool as the first trilogy (Marcos is no Miller in terms of being Holden’s primary foil), Babylon’s Ashes does a solid job of fulfilling the usually-difficult mission of wrapping up the middle act of a series. If you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, I doubt you’ll not enjoy this entry as well.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

IstanbulI’ll be blunt: this book is a goddamned triumph.

I liked this book so much that I read all 800 pages of it even though the e-book had a glaring processing problem that caused it to insert a space after every double-f in the text (and some other cases I couldn’t pin down a precise cause for). So, every time like “offered” was in the text, which was a surprisingly large number of times, it showed up as “off ered”.

This was AMAZINGLY distracting. And normally the sort of thing that would cause me to bail out and wait for Amazon to fix the copy or something, but not in this case. The book, from Page One, was just too good.

Admittedly, I’ll basically read anything even tangentially related to the Byzantine Empire. But even if you don’t particularly care about that narrow topic, say you’re just a “history buff” in general, this is the sort of work you absolutely should read.

Why? Well, Ms Hughes pulls off the herculean task of integrating classic history of the “which ruler sent what general to fight which enemy for what reasons” type, with the more modern aspects of “and how did that affect the culture, economy, mores, religion, etc., of the common man/woman/eunuch/slave of the polity?” type, AND does it all with a measure of style and competence that few authors are able to pull off successfully.

The book moves roughly chronologically through the “Three Cities” of the title; starting with the ancient Greek polis of Byzantion, then moving through the long epoch of the Roman/Byzantine Constantinople, then wrapping up with the world capital of Ottoman/Islamic/Turkish Istanbul. For such a long book, it moves remarkably briskly, helped along by economical chapter lengths and a vibrant writing style that generates that almost novel-esque sense of “just one more chapter” that few works of non-fiction ever achieve.

While firmly a history book, each chapter tends to start off with a wonderful and personalizing vignette from the author’s own experience of researching for that chapter, situating the historical time about to be discussed in the modern age, which really helps pull the reader in and serves additionally as just great color. It also forces the reader to occasionally consider the randomness of history at time; sometimes your ancient relic becomes the still-venerated Hagia Sophia hundreds of years later. Other times, you’re an equally-stunning ancient mosaic buried in the basement of a kebob joint behind a cell phone store. Such is fate.

VERY few histories give any nods to these also-rans of importance, and that Hughes does in this book jarred me into thinking for a bit about the caprice of history, the undeniable fact that what we today consider important about the past may not have been what the past considered important about itself, and that so much is left to the random chance of what managed to survive the millennia between a building or work of art’s original period of importance and the reignition of interest in that original period by a much-later time. Basically, how many Michelangelo’s “David”s are we missing out on today because nobody cared three hundred years ago and repurposed something beautiful into a roof for a barn?

It’s this effect of the book I enjoyed most; at times I would read something that would force me to put the book down and just let my mind wander down a path it never had before, to consider some arcane detail of 1700’s Constantinople that I hadn’t thought of.

The breadth of knowledge Hughes shows here is also commendable; being able to write authoritatively about how an ancient Greek polis organizes itself politically is typically an entirely separate discipline from say describing in detail the personal politics of a reform-era Ottoman Sultan’s harem. She handles both, and all of the other disparate topics that come up in a history of this breadth, with aplomb.

Bottom line, this book is just a delight. If you like good history, read it. If you’re a fan of anything Byzantine or Ottoman, read it. If you like just plain good writing, read it. It’s got that kind of cross-genre appeal few books pull off without being “lite” in their treatment of the topic, an accusation that absolutely cannot be laid at Ms Hughes’ feet here; it is that rare bird, the Serious Work of History that is also an absolute joy to read. It gets my highest recommendation.

Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin

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Link to Series on Amazon

(Putting this on the third and final book of the series because spoilers but it’s a review of the series as a whole, not just The Stone Sky)

I’ve never been a huge fantasy guy. Tried a couple of times to get into The Lord of the Rings as a kid; always bounced off within the first 100 pages or so. I’ve never read it, or seen the movies. Never got into D&D at all. Harry Potter, I’ve read not a word of nor seen even a minute of the movies. Game of Thrones, the books, I tried and got through like two of them and had to just bail. I do enjoy the show still, but the actual fantasy elements, like the Dragons and the White Walkers, are the least-interesting part to me. I prefer the politics and the personalities of the humans involved.

So, even though over time I’ve gotten a little more tolerant of Orcs and Dorks, it’s still not really my jam. Which explains why I just got around to reading The Fifth Season this year instead of when it came out in 2015 and won every award for fantasy worth winning. A solid review from my friend Smeebs put it over the edge and I finally grabbed and started reading the first book of the series.

And here we are, less than two weeks later, and I’ve finished reading the entire trilogy. It’s that good.

Even though it’s considered firmly in the fantasy camp, there’s a wonderful lack of the usual tropes; no dragons, no elves, and the world refreshingly resembles 14th-Century England not in the slightest.

Instead of all of that, we get a bracingly original set of conceits to revel in, many of which make the world seem thoroughly exoctic and foreign, instead of the more-typical fantasy trope of “like Earth, but older, with a touch of magic”.

Magic does exist in this universe, but in a more defined, important way than the usual “it just exists” manner we’re more familiar with. It is generated by the Earth itself, and interacts with its inhabitants in different ways depending on what type of inhabitant they are.

And those inhabitants are a varied, creative lot. The main protagonist and many of the main characters are Orogenes; humans who can detect and manipulate the tectonic activity of the Earth itself. They can therefore unleash crazy amounts of hell in this hyper-tectonically-active world, and are therefore despised by the majority regular humans, called “Stills” by the orogenes for their inability to feel the near-constantly moving Earth. On the flipside, a properly-trained and/or powerful-enough orogene can also deflect or even stop earthquakes locally, which makes them very valuable, if they can be controlled.

Author N. K. Jemisin is VERY subtle about this, but she makes some inciteful commentary and analogies between how the orogenes (who are commonly referred to by the Stills as “Rogga”, a word that’s basically the N-word of this universe) are treated in this world and how African-Americans are treated in ours. Again; it’s SUBTLE. She does not beat you over the head with it, which is appreciated in a work of fantasy fiction. But there’s some meat to chew on here.

Orogenes are either bred by the ruling society in creches heavily guarded by, well, The Guardians, a wonderfully creepy class of overwatches/parental surrogates who have… complex relationships with their charges, or they are “feral” and only discovered as having their unique powers when, typically as children, they lash out with their uncontrolled powers in a moment of fear or anger and Everybody Dies. This complex interplay between utility, power, and threat colors every bit of their existence and relationship with the society they inhabit.

My favorite of the invented races in her universe are the Stone Eaters. Much of what they are besides the obvious feature you can deduce from their name would ruin the story, so let’s just say that they’re… super fuckin’ interesting.

These races interact in a world where the Earth itself is basically ripping itself apart. Every so often, a cataclysmic event happens that fucks up the weather so bad the inhabitants call it The Fifth Season, and much of their cultural lore concerns how to just survive through these periods of horrific climatic and environmental upheaval.

Even in between the Fifth Seasons, the planet is much more active than ours, and it basically prevents society from advancing beyond its essentially late-medieval level of wealth and functioning, even though there is much evidence of “deadcivs” lying around that indicates that, at some point in the past, their ancestors had effectively reached our own “modern” level of advancement. And even in calm periods, people have to prepare and set aside any excess wealth into storage to help them survive the next Fifth Season, which can strike at any time.

The story has elements of the classic fantasy “quest”, but it’s also more than that. It’s a grand rumination on how a society chooses to function, the cost/benefit analysis that has to occur in moments of extreme strife and privation, and, most essentially, what makes somebody “human”?

On a closer level, there’s an examination of what it means when a society’s well-being depends on the forced labor of a specific subset of it. This is where the uncomfortable analogies to our own society are strongest, and, again, without spoiling anything, I like how the author covers this aspect.

The hard part of reviewing a series like this is that the reviewer can’t go too deep into the world or what happens without spoiling the journey, which I don’t want to do. That said, let’s examine a lot of the aspects of the series I found particularly rewarding:

  • The protagonists are mostly female. This is refreshing, and I don’t give two shits what the Sad Puppies (Google it, I’m not covering these shitheads at any length here other than to say that these guys whine about any book that doesn’t feature a white male lead, and go about their complaining in absolutely vile ways) have to say about it, and they’ve said more than enough. Morons.
  • Most of the “good” characters are brown. Most of the “bad” ones are white. Just by description; our world’s color dichotomy doesn’t exist in this one. Again, tough shit to whoever’s feelings are hurt by this. It’s good to not instantly feel comfortable and familiar with the protagonist of a novel, which is the default state of a white male reader of fantasy fiction. It’s certainly more interesting, and isn’t that something we WANT in our books? To be clear, the brown=good, white=bad thing isn’t absolute, and this is not a universe where ANYONE gets through without making some morally dubious choices. But, from a purely literary standpoint, it’s just fuckin’ refreshing.
  • One of the dominant themes is the nature of parenthood, particularly in times of societal upheaval, that is not at all the norm for books of this genre. I like her examination of this, even if it often verges on absolutely heart-breaking.
  • There are elements of sci-fi as well, but only via the aspect of “ancient” civilizations having existed thousands of years before the book’s present-day that were way more advanced than that present-day culture. This isn’t a particularly original idea, but her treatment of it, is.
  • I like that she doesn’t go too crazy with inventing words to replace things that already exist and have names in English. There’s a bit of that, which is just plain necessary to worldbuild and remind the reader that it’s not _our_ world this story is taking place in, but I like that even her invented words tend to be sensible enough to be immediately understandable by the reader. A child is a child, not a “birthling” or some dumb shit.
  • That said, people and place names are wonderfully foreign but have their own internal consistency that is pleasing and believable. A lot of books fuck this up.

Overall, The Broken Earth is an absolutely rewarding read. There’s more than enough original ideas in the series to make it feel much fresher than most fantasy, many aspects of the series are wholly original, and the emotional flavor and impact are deep and not in the usual ways we are used to from the genre. Basically, if you’re at all a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, you’re a fool if you don’t read this series.

Fuck These Garbage Bags

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Yeah, these guys right here. Fuck these bags.

You know how much time I wanna spend thinking about garbage bags? Fucking NONE, that’s how much. It should be a fucking binary split-second thought:

  • I have garbage bags

or

  • I need garbage bags

Of course, like every other goddamned thing in this bloated, end-stage capitalism nightmare of a country, it cannot be that simple. Just like with fucking crackers, chips, deodorant, toothpaste, soap, every goddamned thing, there’s 74 fucking varieties to sort through and somehow discern the differences between and for most things I just say “FUCK IT I DON’T NEED THIS SHIT” but garbage bags are one of those essential things that life gets really shitty without fast.

So, every time I buy them I can’t remember exactly what fucking kind we just ran out of or like so I grab whichever collection of adjectives looks most likely to not completely piss me off.

This carefully-considered strategy has worked perfectly for lo the many, many years I have been buying garbage bags.

Until THESE motherfuckers came into my life. Yeah, you: Hefty Ultra Strong Clean Burst w/Active TEAR RESISTANT Technology

Pretty much every goddamned word in your very name is a lie. I’m not even a third of the way through the fucking box yet and I’ve had to punt three fucking bags for ripping while I put them into the garbage can, new and empty. Like, not even the structural failure you get and can kinda understand when you’ve just overloaded a bag to hell, but no, they fucking rip right down the side just from the simple, low-pressure act of being installed.

And I’ve had two other fuckin’ bags go to shit when I’ve tried to remove it from the can, with one or both of the handles ripping right the fuck out on the attempt. And it’s not due to overloading because we generally don’t make that much throw-out garbage, the bag’s usually half-full but super-stinky and I take it out at that point even though every fiber of my cheap-ass being would prefer to wait until it’s full. And the handles just strip right out, leaving me to have to hug-carry a ripped bag of smelly vegetable refuse and cat poop down to the chute.

It’s not like this is a box of Pakistani off-brand ‘HUFFTEE” garbage bags I bought at the fuckin’ Dollar Store or something; these are spendy-assed, top of the line, fulla technological marvels Hefty Premium As Fuck garbage bags. And, to be clear, I’ve always bought some kinda Hefty bags and they’ve always worked without fail until I got these pieces of shit.

So, yeah, don’t buy these fucking things. I’m going back to my usual principle of buying whatever has the least number of superlatives on the box.