Book review: Go Set A Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it in high school. The movie adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a favorite as well. I always thought it was a shame that Harper Lee only published the one book, but I respected her decision not to turn out uninspired works just to make money. When it was first announced that a new novel was going to be released, I was thrilled. Then I found out that the circumstances were suspect at best.

Concerned that Harper Lee was being taken advantage of, I decided not to purchase the book. But when I was at the library a few weeks ago and noticed several copies on the shelf, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Let’s be clear here: Mockingbird is a better book than Go Set A Watchman. Although Watchman was written first, I don’t think it could survive without being preceded by Mockingbird. Mockingbird is why you care about the characters in Watchman, and I found that I did care very deeply about them.

Watchman is the story of an adult Scout, who has gone off to New York and become a career woman. When she returns to her childhood home, she’s struck by the way racism pervades Maycomb. Being away from it has caused her to lose her desensitization. The frog is out of the pot. Scout, being young and wordly, is passionate about righting all the wrongs. Meanwhile, even those who largely agree with her advise moderation.

I had heard long before I read the book that Atticus, the heroic Atticus, was racist. I was expecting the stereotypical southern racist, but that wasn’t the case. Atticus’s racism is a more nuanced, almost well-intentioned racism that you can almost start to agree with until you suddenly remember that it is still racism.

There are a few plot details that would allow one to argue that Mockingbird and Watchman aren’t in the same universe, but that does a disservice to the story. The Atticus of the 1930s and the Atticus of the 1950s are the same man, but Scout has changed. I think most people can identify with the idea of seeing faults in their parents as adults that they were totally blind to as kids.

This is where Watchman shines. It’s not going to become an American classic, but it is much more thought-provoking. In Mockingbird, the line between good and bad is largely clear. Not so in Watchman, and it forces the reader to consider not only the abstract concepts of race, but how to address racism in the real world. Is it right to burn down all the injustice in a sweeping blaze of righteous indignation, or is it better to slowly work to help those who can be helped and let the rest fade away? And if it’s better to work slowly, is that a position that can only be held by the privileged while the oppressed are forced to endure more oppression?

There’s no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is a better book: artistically, commercially, and politically. But Go Set a Watchman is an important follow-on, and I’m glad it has seen the light of day. I only hope that Harper Lee really does feel the same way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


This post contains spoilers. If you’re not fortunate enough to have seen this movie in the first month after its release, please stop reading now.

I’ve loved “Star Wars” for many, many years, as I’m sure my ones of readers have as well. On New Year’s Day, my wife and I finally got the chance to go see “The Force Awakens”. I had been hearing a lot of good things about it in the first few weeks after its release, but I was nervous.

When “The Phantom Menace” was released, I wasn’t old enough to drive. My mom was gracious enough to take my friend Erik and me to the Georgetown Drive-In on opening night. We had to get there very early in order to ensure we had a spot. In the hours between our arrival and sunset, we spent a lot of time running around: Erik with a blaster and I with a light saber. Finally it was dark enough for the movie to begin. The place was packed, so it had been a little loud, but once those opening words came on the screen, everyone was quiet. We all held our breath for just a moment, and then the music started. On the first note, there was such a cheer as I’ve never heard.

I was pretty stoked to watch the movie, but over the course of the next few days, I was less and less thrilled. What the hell is a “midichlorian”? Did we have to see so much of Jar-Jar? I saw “Attack of the Clones” in the theater not long after it came out, but I wasn’t thrilled. Mostly what I remember is rain and Hayden Christensen’s terrible acting. I never bothered to go see “Revenge of the Sith”. I still haven’t seen it all the way through.

So yeah, the prequels? I’d rather they just never existed.

Shifting gears, I’ve been a Star Trek fan even longer than I’ve been a Star Wars fan. I have a TNG hoodie with a comm badge and captain’s pips. When the Star Trek reboot came out, I went and watched it with friends. It was a very entertaining movie, but I didn’t quite feel like a Star Trek movie. There are so many stories to tell in that universe, so destroying decades of canon seemed like the wrong move.

So yeah, J.J. Abrams? Not big on his space movies.

I tell you all of this to explain why I was really apprehensive going into “The Force Awakens”. I had nothing to fear. When it ended, my first words were “holy shit that was a Star Wars movie!”

And yes, there are a lot of similar plot elements (though usually with a twist) to “A New Hope”. I’ve seen a fair amount of complaint about that. “Too much fan service,” they say. Well, yes. For one, history repeating itself is kind of A Thing™. Secondly, for the reasons above, Abrams et al had to regain the trust of the fan base. “Trust us,” the movie says. “See how we respect what you love? Let’s ease into this and the next two movies will show you what we can do together!”

Personally, I found the cast to be incredible and the story telling to be better than the originals. It has some self-awareness, which makes for some great jokes. Most of the criticism I’ve read seems to be of the “let’s hate on it because we’re cool” variety, which Matty Granger has addressed quite well.

I may try to get another viewing in before it leaves theaters, but I’m definitely excited for Episodes 8 and 9.

Upgrading to Fedora 23 and some meaningless torrent stats

Since Fedora 23 was released yesterday, I went ahead and upgraded my desktop over lunch. The process was mostly painless. I followed the instructions for using dnf in Fedora Magazine, but hit a small snag: a few of the packages blocked on requirements. So I removed an old kernel-devel package and gstreamer-plugins-ugly. But I still got this:

package kf5-kdesu-5.15.0-2.fc23.x86_64 requires kf5-filesystem >= 5.15.0, but none of the providers can be installed.

That’s not great, because you can’t remove that package without also removing KDE Plasma. Taking the –best off of the dnf invocation fixed it, without any weird upgrade issues (the –best option supposedly cancels the download if a package can’t be upgraded, but everything seems good after the fact).

Since I don’t have any great tales of technical prowess to share, I thought I’d comment on the torrents. Measuring usage of an open source operating system is a really tricky thing, so I thought I might see what the torrents tell us. Keep in mind that torrents are probably a terrible way of measuring popularity, too. I’m just going to assume that most people who torrent ISOs are only torrenting the ones they actually use (instead of me, where I torrent several just to be a good citizen).

Here’s my seeding ratios for Fedora 22:

Flavor i686 x86_64
KDE 16.1 32.9
Security 8.02 13.6
Workstation 24.8 31.2
Server 10.3 15

The “ratio ratio” as I call it is a comparison of seeding ratios between the two main architectures:

Flavor x86_64:i686
KDE 2.04
Security 1.70
Workstation 1.26
Server 1.46

So what does all of this tell us? Apart from “absolutely nothing!”, it says that KDE users install on x86_64 way more than on i686. Workstation is still really popular on 32-bit machines and overall. The first 32 hours of seeding for Fedora 23 show similar patterns. Yay?

Learning by mashing buttons

I’ve become somewhat of a Slack expert at work (or at least that’s the perception) On the technical side, we’ve been using it for over a year, and you’d think everyone would have a pretty similar degree of familiarity. That turns out not to be the case.

I don’t think I’m particularly smart, but I tend to be pretty good at knowing how to configure various applications. This isn’t some skill honed by years of meticulous study. On the contrary, I learn my way around by smashing keys until something interesting happens.

One of the first things I do when I get a new device or application is to go poking around in all of the menus looking for fun settings to change. When my family got our first computer, I nearly bricked it a few times playing with different settings. I’m much more careful now, but I’m still unwilling to leave settings unexplored.

Occasionally I’ll be reminded that not everyone does this, and it confuses me. Where’s the fun if you don’t play with all the settings to see what happens?

I’m a boothtrovert

Some people are introverts. Some are extroverts. I, apparently, am a boothtrovert. Last week, I attended the All Things Open conference in Raleigh. As part of the Community Moderator team, I took a few shifts in the site’s booth. And wow did I enjoy it!

I’m an equal mix of introvert and extrovert, depending on the day, but something about working the booth really got me going. It helped that I had nothing to sell. All I had to do was talk to people about the site: what they like about it (if they read it), and how maybe they should consider contributing. I’m not sure any of them actually will, but there were definitely a few people who began to light up when I explained that I went from thinking “I have nothing to contribute” to having submitted 20 articles in the space of just a few months.

But my favorite part happened during one of the book signing sessions. We were giving away signed copies of Jason van Gumster’s Blender for Dummies, and the stock we had was quickly exhausted. One guy came up to the table and looked pretty sad when he found out there were none left. So I asked his name and then brought him over to where Jason was standing. I introduced him to Jason and stepped out of the way to let them talk. They conversed for probably ten minutes or so. It wasn’t the same as getting a free and autographed book, but he certainly seemed less sad.

I’m not sure I could ever give sales pitches, but I certainly enjoy the interaction and conversation of booth work (interestingly, I mostly don’t like visiting booths at conferences, in part because I know it will result in having to ignore sales solicitations for the next three months). It looks like I’ll have another opportunity soon, but this time for work. I’ll be interested to see how booth-for-work compares to booth-for-volunteer.

ebooks versus dead tree books

For a long time, I avoided ebooks. Partly because reading on a monitor was just weird to me. Partly because I really like the feel and smell of physical books. Partly because having a dead tree version of manuals was important in outages. Partly because I don’t have to worry about DRM. Partly because I enjoy the look of a shelf full of books.

It wasn’t until my oldest child was born that I started getting into ebooks. The aspect ratio of my phone or tablet made long-form reading a lot easier than the “sideways” monitor setup. The real selling point was that the backlight was a lot easier to manage than a small reading light, particularly when trying to get a resistant child to fall asleep.

Still, my consumption habits are better suited for physical books. One of my favorite ways to get books is to peruse the discard shelf at the local library. I’ll pick up books that seem interesting. If they are, I’ll keep them. If they’re not, I’ll send them off to Goodwill. Digital media doesn’t (yet) have a similar paradigm.

On the one hand, that makes sense. Digital copies are cheap to the point of being basically free. Who needs to discard an ebook when you can just copy it? Of course, authors and publishers argue that such a model completely eliminates the commercial value of their work. I am very sympathetic to that, although there’s certainly room to make copyright law more consumer-friendly.

Slowly, I’ve begun adding to my ebook collection, generally when O’Reilly has their Day Against DRM sale. I’ll still prefer physical books for the most part, if nothing else because it’s easier to get them autographed. A conversion to more ebooks is probably inevitable, particularly once publishers realize that ebooks are cheaper to produce and adjust the prices downward accordingly.

RIP Paul

I swear this won’t become a theme (or at least I hope it won’t), but the world got a little bit darker today. My friend Paul Birkhimer passed away this morning after a a brief battle with cancer. Paul was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the end of May. It was aggressive, but it did not dampen his spirits.

I’m not sure Paul’s spirits were dampenable. I didn’t know him half as well as I would have liked, but he always seemed to be the most cheerful person in the room. His cheer was a quiet one, subtle. He wasn’t bombastic in a way that turned people off, but an even, slow-burning cheer.

I first met Paul because his wife Suzanne of my undergraduate department’s Assistant Head. I’d seem him at department functions and thought he was a pretty fun guy, but I couldn’t remember his name. I called him “Mister Sue” until I learned his name. I don’t remember if I ever told him that or not, but I’m sure he would have gotten a kick out of it.

Paul faced cancer exactly how Paul would: with humor, with faith, and with the love of countless family and friends from all over. Would that we were all a little more like Paul.

How I take notes

I’m not what you call an obsessive note taker, but I have learned over the years that I shouldn’t rely on my memory without some kind of external backup. A while back, I came across an article about how taking notes by hand is better for long-term memory. This immediately made me sad, since all of my serious note-taking is done digitally. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized digital notes are best for me.

I first started taking digital notes late in my undergraduate career. I had a program called “GoBinder” where I could import course notes and slides and comment directly on them, as well as adding my own free-form content. This worked fairly well for more text-based classes, but for meteorology classes with a lot of Greek letters and illustrations, it was a bit of a challenge. I mostly stuck to hand-written notes.

Years later, I went to graduate school. A master’s degree in IT project management is very wordy, so I resumed digital note-taking. Pretty early on, I settled on using Markdown. This allowed me to take notes that looked like text but still have some basic markup so I could highlight important points, make lists, etc. When it was time to study for exams, I would review the notes, and convert them to HTML for more in-depth study and review.

This method worked pretty well for me and had a few added benefits. When doing homework, I could `grep` for a key phrase if I couldn’t remember where to find it. Also, the files were on my SpiderOak account, so they were available to me anywhere. I didn’t have to worry about leaving my notebook at home or spilling coffee on it (at least if I spilled coffee on my laptop, I’d be able to get my files onto a new one).

For me, the portability and searchability are compelling reasons to stick with digital notes. As the article points out, I do find myself doing more transcription when typing than when writing, but that’s a habit I can fix.

RIP Lara


Internet, I want to tell you about my friend Lara Ann Harrison. Lara was a short little bundle of happy. She was a sweet person who was fiercely loyal to her friends. I met her by happy accident. Her older sister was my age. We met at a couple of Model UN conferences and became friends. One day, I called her and we talked for several minutes before I said “you don’t know who this is, do you?” Well it turned out I didn’t know who she was. I wasn’t talking to Kari, I was talking to Lara.

At 17, I didn’t have too many friends who were younger than me, but Lara and I quickly became close friends. I hope I was as good a friend to her as she was to me, but at that point in my life I don’t think it was very likely. At any rate, we lived about 45 minutes away from each other, so we didn’t see each other too often, but we talked a lot on AIM.

I got older and busier and we started talking less. Then she got older and busier and we talked even less than that. The last time I saw her was at least 5 years ago, probably closer to 10 at this point. I don’t remember the last time we talked. We just sort of drifted apart.

I found out earlier this week that Lara died at the far-too-young age of 28. In fact, she died back in January. I missed the news when it first happened, and it was only because Facebook had decided to show me a post that her sister made that I realized she was gone. It’s odd how the Internet has changed the way we interact. Without it, Lara and I would never have become close friends. Without it, I might never have known she left us far too soon.

Working from home

A couple of months ago, Harvard Business Review ran an article about working from home. The article didn’t say telecommuting is the worst, but it did point out some of the productivity and morale benefits of office interactions. After two years of my own working from home experience, I thought I’d reflect on my own opinions.

The thing that has surprised me the most is how much I miss having a commute home. Whether by bus, bike, or car, my trip home took 15-30 minutes. It was my time to switch from work mode to home mode (and if I were riding the bus, watch some Netflix). My commute home now is the two seconds it takes me to stand up and leave the room. If I’ve had a rough day at work, immediately walking into a 4 year old and a 1 year old (and a wife who has been herding them all day) doesn’t allow for much time to reset.

I do sometimes miss the personal interactions with my coworkers. I have a colleague across town, and I see him in person once every few months. On a normal day, the fact that I can work without someone sitting in my office distracting me is a benefit. When I do need to talk something out, coworkers are a video call away. I really only miss physical presence on days when I’m just not feeling very motivated to work.