RIP Bob Thompson

I was very sorry to learn today that my friend Robert Bruce Thompson passed away last night after a short illness. Bob and I worked together on a number of book proposals, none of which ever made the cut. We both had the same agent and wrote books for O’Reilly and Associates during their heyday, so we had many long conversations about writing and life. Bob’s probably best known for his books on PC hardware troubleshooting, but he wrote on a wide variety of other technical topics.

Bob was a very early adopter of blogging and maintained a regular daily blog for many years. For the last few years, his site contained a wealth of information about food storage and prepping, with a practical and fact-based vent often absent from prepper sites.

Bob had impeccable personal integrity and a strong sense of right and wrong. While we disagreed on more than a few things, I appreciated his willingness to learn new things and consider different viewpoints.

Bob’s survived by his wife, Barbara, and his faithful border collies.

I will miss you, Bob.

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2017 in review: flying

2017 was a moderately busy flying year: I got to 670 TT, with 100.5 PIC hours this year. 8.9 hours of night time and 12.6 actual instrument.

My flights in 2017

Highlights for the year included flying to Charleston to see my family just before the eclipse; discovering how birds build nests while flying my team to American Odyssey; taking my friends Tony and Alan on sightseeing flights over Orlando at sunset, having two in-flight alternator belt failures, taking my mom for her first flight in the plane, and sneaking over for a quick day trip to Atlanta to see one of my oldest friends for lunch– all things that would have been impossible without an airplane.

At the end of 2016 one of my 2017 goals was to get my commercial license. That’s still on my list for this year, along with getting to the big Oshkosh airshow, a long cross-country trip to Vegas, and logging as much time going interesting places as I can. Here’s to a flying year!

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2017 in review: my reading list

Earlier I posted my top-10 book list for 2017. Now here’s the rest of what I read, more or less in chronological order. I think there are probably a few other books that I missed somehow (e.g. I remember reading a book about the practicalities of emigrating to Costa Rica but can’t find it on my list).

Underground Airlines. What if the Civil War had never happened? Gripping tale of a present-day system of smuggling slaves out of the slave states, and what the commercialization of forced labor might look like in the US.

Dark Matter. Well-plotted thriller with some strong SF elements.

It’s a Long Story: My Life. If you like Willie Nelson you’ll probably like this. If you don’t, not so much. Heavy on the folksiness.

A Girl In Time. Meh. A time-traveling cowboy abducts a Seattle game designer to help him find his lost daughter. Not one of Birmingham’s better efforts IMHO.

No More Mr. Nice Guy. Thesis: there’s a condition known as “nice guy syndrome” that causes many men to become resentful and unhappy. Interesting read with a lot of immediate applicability in my life.

Only the Truth. Confusing plot but hey, it was free on Kindle Unlimited.

Amerika. WW II alternate history: the Nazis get atomic weapons and we don’t, so a thriving American resistance emerges, led in part by a Pan Am flying-boat pilot. Fast-paced and atmospheric.

The Prisoner. Another excellent John Wells novel from Alex Berenson.

To The Bright and Shining SunOne of James Lee Burke’s earliest novels, this has nothing to do with the Robicheaux or Holland families but is still well worth reading– a complex tale of a young Kentucky coal miner’s coming of age.

At Speed. Cyclist Mark Cavendish’s memoirs. Interesting at a technical level but made me think that I wouldn’t enjoy hanging out with him very much.

A Grain of Truth. Set in Poland and featuring Teodor Szacki, one of my favorite literary anti-heroes. Revealing portrayal of modern Polish culture.

Amerika: Call to Arms. The American resistance rides again.

Fields of Fire. Book 5 of Marko Kloos’ excellent military sci-fi series.

Entanglement. The first of the Teodor Szacki crime novels. Better to read this first before tackling A Grain of Truth.

War Shadows. Enjoyable if predictable yarn about valiant soldiers fighting The Bad Guys.

Prince of ThornsKing of ThornsEmperor of Thorns: Medievalist fantasy series that puts a nifty twist on the Prodigal Son story. This genre isn’t my usual fare but I enjoyed the series.

Sleeping Giants. Aliens come to Earth. A little girl discovers one of their artifacts, then grows up to be an eminent physicist who helps unravel the mystery behind their presence. Not too shabby.

Anansi Boys: re-read this classic Neil Gaiman retelling of the trickster legend. Still just as good as it was back in the day.

Anathemre-read this one too. For my money, this is probably Stephenson’s best world-building, although it is slow to develop and there are a lot of Gibsonesque leaps that require you to pay careful attention to new terms and concepts that are just thrown in.

Split SecondThoroughly enjoyed this twist on familiar time-travel themes: a physicist discovers time travel but it only lets you send objects back a few milliseconds. Hijinks ensue.

Snapshot. Detective novel set in a world where high-fidelity simulations allow cops to recreate murder scenes with perfect accuracy. Not bad but didn’t love it.

Beach Lawyer. Well-written legal thriller– there are a ton of plot twists in this so I had to go back and re-read some passages to make sure I didn’t lose the bubble.

Carrier Pilot. Fascinating memoir of a World War II Corsair pilot in the RAF. Nice change from my typical diet of WW II reading from the American perspective.

The Brave OnesAffecting memoir by a man who joined the Army at age 41 and ends up in the 82d Airborne Division.

The War Planners, The War StagePawns of the Pacifictrilogy in which the Chinese mount a false-flag operation to get a group of brilliant US engineers and scientists to devise a foolproof war plan to attack the US. A novel concept, well-plotted and nicely executed.

Sled DriverThis book by Brian Shul covers his time as an SR-71 pilot. Fascinating if you’re interested in airplanes, otherwise not so much.

On TyrannyShort, simple, practical list of examples of tyranny through the 20th century, along with tips for resisting similar instances in our own century.

The Black Widow. Another excellent Gabriel Allon adventure from Daniel Silva. Get this one as an audiobook and revel in the quality of the narration.

Soho DeadSuppose you’re 60 and an out-of-work private investigator living in London. Can you find some new ways to get in trouble? Yes. Yes, you can. Fun read.

Devil at my HeelsAutobiography of Olympian and WW II bomber pilot Louis Zamperini, immortalized in Unbroken. Moving and thought-provoking.

The Naked DameNoir novel by my friend Jason Bovberg. That tells you everything you need to know whether you’ll like this or not.

Working Stiff. Written by a New York City medical examiner, this book is exactly what you’d expect: gritty, occasionally morbid, and absolutely fascinating.

Devil Said Bang. Sandman Slim rides again.

Zero Sum. Legendary assassin John Rain didn’t start out that way… so this book takes us back to 1982 when he was just starting out.

Unbreakable. Meh. Like “The Truman Show” but not as interesting. 

The Boy Who Played With FusionI really wanted to like this but the overall effect of this biography of a young scientist is sort of creepy.

Into Everywhere. Another book in the Jackaroo universe, this one features a plot twist midway through that stunned me for a few minutes– not something most authors can pull off. Well worth reading but read the first book in the series first.

Beneath a Scarlet SkySuperb, lightly fictionalized account of the life of Pino Lella, a World War II partisan who helped run the rat line that smuggled Jews out of Italy over the mountains. Terrific atmosphere.

The Caine Mutiny. Somehow I had managed to not read this for the first 48 years of my life. I wish I’d read it sooner.

The Nightmare Stacks. The amount of enjoyment I get from the Laundry Files novels scales up as the amount of Bob Howard goes down. This book scores very highly on that scale.  

The Last ParadiseI wish this were better-written– it’s a fascinating story of a Depression-era auto engineer who goes to work for Ford’s factory in the Soviet Union. Terrible dialog and a clunky plot.

The Last Pilgrim and Hell is OpenCrime novels set in Norway featuring a likable but not very pleasant detective. Tommy Bergmann is the kind of guy about whom my mother might say “well, bless his heart.”

Time Heals No WoundsSet on the Baltic coast, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill crime novel. I enjoyed it but, apart from the setting, nothing memorable.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 34th annual editionEvery year I order this with trepidation- will it be a good year or a bad one? This year’s edition was quite good.

GlidepathHacker terrorist bad guys take over an autonomous passenger aircraft. The only thing standing between them? Some dude who happens to be the son of the manufacturer and a target of Russian mercenaries. Not bad but nothing really original here.

Solar Clipper books: Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, Owner’s Share, In Ashes Born. Enjoyable space opera, with memorable and witty characters. Heinleinesque in a good way. Good for middle-school kids and up.

Station Breaker and Orbital. Ridiculous, but in the best way. Insanely fast paced, implausible, and breezy stories about an almost-accidental astronaut who ends up saving the world not once, but twice, in space.

The ExtraditionistThe protagonist is a thoroughly unlikable human being: he helps drug lords cut deals with the US government to reduce their sentences in exchange for cooperation. I felt a little slimy when I was done reading this.

The Saga of Pappy Gunn1950s-era retelling of the life of one of World War II’s most colorful and memorable characters– Paul “Pappy” Gunn. I’d never heard of him before this book.

Mona Lisa Overdrive. Another classic that I re-read. If anything, it holds up better now than either of the other two books in the trilogy.

The Man of LegendsA neat twist on the “Wandering Jew” legend: an immortal passes through history trying to make the world a better place so… he can finally die.

Cold HarborThe third book featuring hacker and former Marine Gibson Vaughn, this story centers around Vaughn’s quest for revenge after being rendered and held in solitary confinement at a CIA black site. Thought-provoking

Slovakia: Culture SmartApproachable, detailed, informative guide to the history and culture of one of Central Europe’s lesser-known countries. It was extremely valuable to me before my first trip there.

The Berlin Project. Disappointingly slow and turgid alternate history of WW II– what if the Allies had found a shortcut to creating atomic weapons and were able to ready them in time for use against the Nazis?

The Last Good ManI like Linda Nagata’s fiction but it’s just sort of, well, jumpy. She’s all over the place. Ethics in combat, forgiveness, the rise of autonomous bots in warfare, the role of private military contractors… this book has an awful lot going on and suffers as a result.

The Freedom Broker. Interesting look at the world of kidnap & ransom (K&R) specialists. Apart from the unique informational touches related to K&R, a pretty standard thriller.

The Point of a GunCompletely implausible tale of a shadow cabinet of US government officials who go off the reservation to hunt terrorists, doing such a good job that the President has no choice but to make them official. The ending reminds me of the problems I used to get in college calculus: once you know the trick to solving them, the solution is obvious but, until then, it’s a grind.

Yesterday’s Kin. I’ve very much enjoyed Nancy Kress’ books in the past but just couldn’t love this one. The heroine is shrill and unsympathetic, and the ending is a giant fizzle.

Not so much, said the cat. I adore everything I’ve ever read by Michael Swanwick. I’m not sure how I missed this collection of short stories before but it’s superb.

Slow Bullets. Skip this space opera. Reynolds has written better, and so have many others.

The Lieutenant Don’t Know. People who have never been in the military generally have no idea how many supposedly non-combat jobs actually involve combat. Clement’s memoir of his time as a Marine logistics officer in Afghanistan is well-written and makes that point very, very clear.

Beyond the RiftShort-story collection from Peter Watts, who writes challenging but often distasteful science fiction. Some of the stories here were excellent, some were awful (I don’t mean poorly written, I mean awful.)

Heat and Light. Wow. This complex novel traces a group of characters in rural Pennsylvania as they struggle with the problems caused by hydraulic fracking in the community. Unflinching. Very highly recommended.

In Calabria. Suppose unicorns were real, and that you found one hanging around your farm in rural Italy? Beagle has written a charming and moving story that revolves around the answers to those two questions. Much more enjoyable than I thought it would be at first.

The Mote in God’s Eye. I re-read this after nearly 20 years and it is still one of the best-plotted SF novels I’ve ever read.

Gold CoastWhen you read Elmore Leonard you know what you’re going to get. Like eating at Chili’s: predictable quality but, if that’s what you want, you’ll walk out happy.

Afterlife. This is the first Marcus Sakey book I cannot unreservedly recommend. It was merely OK, whereas his others (such as the Brilliance trilogy) are excellent.

Fly by Night. Enjoyable aviation-themed thriller about an NTSB investigator sent to poke around for evidence of a lost CIA drone in Africa.

Quantum Night. Robert J. Sawyer has had a long and distinguished career, so I suppose we have to allow him an occasional clunker every so often… and this would be it. Not recommended.

Hunter Killer. Very good 17th book in the Dan Lenson series. Ends too soon– it’s clear that Poyer hit his page count and knocked off work for the year. I’d rather see him write complete narratives that come out every two years than half a book released yearly.

Autonomous. Very good– it’s been called “the Neuromancer of biotech” and that’s not wrong. Touches on some critical issues of patent and IP law, as well as what it means to be autonomous as a human or a bot.

The Force. Rich, complex, and affecting. Winslow pulls no punches. Complicated and believable characters, crackling dialogue, and a logical yet unpredictable plot push us along to the inevitable end. Would’ve been on my year’s 10 best list if I had read it earlier in the year.

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 10

Tony and I decided to do a special holiday edition of the podcast to celebrate a banner 2017. In 2018, we have some big things planned– but until then, enjoy this episode where you can learn what our favorite new Office 365 features were, hear Tony fulminate about the Teams PowerShell extension, and find out whether we actually believe that Teams will kill off email (spoiler: nope.)

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Viewing events for Windows 10 Controlled Folder Access

I wrote about Controlled Folder Access not long ago. Since then, I’ve seen it throw a few dialogs telling me that a particular application was blocked from doing something, but I generally didn’t pay much attention unless I found something that didn’t work. The desktop notification doesn’t show the full path of the blocked executable if it’s anywhere in \program files or \users\appdata. There just isn’t enough room.

Today I saw a message pop up that had some Chinese characters in it– you’d better believe that got my attention. I wanted to see what CFA had blocked. A little digging around led me to an article that explains how to easily create a custom view that shows CFA events. Sure enough, here’s what it showed:

Someone’s up to no good

Since I don’t use Internet Explorer, it’s pretty clear that something is on my machine that shouldn’t be, but, at least for now, CFA has prevented it from doing anything too nefarious. Off to the malware scanner I go!

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2017 in review: my top 10 reading list

I decided to post my 2017 reading list a little earlier because there are some real gems here that would make great holiday gifts for people who enjoy various genres. for today, my top 10. In a day or two, the rest of the year’s haul; expect another post around the 31st with the books that I finish between now and then.

Here are my top 10 for 2017 in the order in which I read them:

  1. John Wayne: The Life and Legend. Superbly rich and detailed bio of an American icon– I came out of this with new respect for his wit and grit.
  2. Eccentric Orbits: the Iridium Story. Excellent in every way. Reads as much like a thriller or murder mystery at some points as a business book. (Spoiler: Motorola did it, or tried to).
  3. Spaceman. Lovely autobiography by astronaut Mike Massimino. Uplifting and motivating. Great for kids who might be interested in the space program or STEM in general.
  4. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Enraging and sad. I can’t tell whether I was more angry at the companies and people who profited from the explosion of prescription opiates or the Mexican cartels who simultaneously flooded the US with cheap heroin, both driving and benefiting from demand for prescription pills.
  5. Walking the Amazon. Bugs! Machetes! Killer natives! Exactly what the title implies: a man walks the length of the Amazon river. Fascinating look into something I never want to have to experience myself.
  6. Mississippi Blood: like getting in the boxing ring with Evander Holyfield in his prime, this book is a continuous series of hammering body blows. Unrelenting conclusion to the three-book “Natchez Burning” arc. Grab a cup of coffee because this will take a while to get through.
  7. The Fireman: I was initially skeptical of this post-apocalyptic novel, but in the first few pages the wit of the writing won me over.
  8. The Jealous Kind. I am a lifelong James Lee Burke fan but this is probably his crowning achievement. Set in 1950s Houston, the novel is at once a romance, a coming of age, and a polemic, and it has an ending that for me hit the perfect note combining the three. Burke has a tendency sometimes to make his villains cartoonishly, over-the-top bad guys but the ones here have understandable motivations, and all except the worst are clearly struggling to redeem themselves. And his main characters… wow. Read this.
  9. Atomic Accidents. I have a pretty solid layman’s understanding of atomic power technologies and their history. At least, I thought so until I read this book. One of the clearest, most interesting, and least biased scientific histories I’ve ever read, and absolutely bursting with little-known facts (example: high-speed power-plant turbines are cooled with gaseous hydrogen!)
  10. Stonemouth: atmospheric novel centering on a man’s return to his boyhood home in Scotland, very much against the wishes of a local crime family. Well plotted with vivid characters and a terrific sense of place.

Yesterday’s Kin

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Quick impressions of the Harman Kardon Invoke Cortana speaker

I’m an early adopter. This is both a blessing and a curse.

Thanks to John Peltonen, I installed some X-10 home automation gear back in the early 90s and have long wanted a more automated home, so when Amazon started shipping the Echo I bought one and threw together an ad hoc home automation system. My “robot girlfriend” Alexa can control various devices, including the kitchen and master bedroom, floor and desk lamps, my security system, and my thermostats (a Nest downstairs and an el cheapo Honeywell upstairs). I have a mix of LIFX bulbs (wouldn’t buy them again), WeMo switches, TP-Link smart plugs, and Lutron Caseta dimmers/switches, plus a GoControl garage door controller. It all works pretty well.

The Alexa devices have pretty quickly blended into my normal home workflow. I use the one in my bedroom like a clock radio, and to control the temperature when I’m in bed; the one in my office gets frequent use for adding items to my grocery list when I remember them, and the kitchen unit is an all-around music player, news source, multi-function timer, grocery-list keeper, and audiobook reader. Overall I’m well pleased with the Alexa devices and ecosystem.

But.

Alexa as an assistant is far behind both Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri. (For another time: my thoughts on what each smart-assistant platform is good and bad at, e.g. Siri is dumb and has poor voice recognition, for example, but has a few idiot-savant skills that are useful and both benefits, and is limited by, Apple’s strong emphasis on on-device processing). It’s safe to say that Alexa is mostly a portal to Amazon’s services, which is fine; as a heavy consumer of Amazon services I’m OK with that.

However, I got spoiled by the quality of Cortana’s assistant functionality on Windows Phone and have continued using it on Windows 10, so when I saw that Microsoft and Harmon Kardon were partnering to make the Invoke, a Cortana-powered competitor to the Amazon Echo, I was intrigued. For Black Friday, Microsoft was selling the Invoke for $99, and I had a $50 Microsoft Store credit, so I figured for $50 it was worth taking a flyer. The Invoke got here yesterday and I spent a few hours setting it up and playing with it. Here are my initial short-term impressions.

  1. The device build quality and packaging are excellent. I prefer the physical design and finish of the Invoke to the Echo. They are similar in size.
  2. The Invoke has a power brick instead of a wall wart. That is inappropriate for kitchen use.
  3. The out-of-box-experience and initial setup for the Invoke are very smooth, better than the initial experience for an Alexa device. All I had to do was power on the device and tap “set up my speaker” in the Cortana app. Whereas the Echo/Dot require you to manually switch wifi networks, the Invoke just magically figures out how to set itself up. (The Invoke immediately had to download an over-the-air update but this was painless and fairly fast.)
  4. The sound quality of the Invoke is much better than that of the original Echo. The new Echo 2 supposedly sounds better. The Invoke produces rich, clear highs, solid midrange, and decent bass for such a small unit and it seems louder than the Echo at max volume.
  5. The Dot and Echo have an LED ring around the top that lights up to indicate when the device is listening. The Invoke has a small touch-sensitive screen on the top. The ring is easier to see from a distance (and can be used to indicate when there are notifications, etc) but the touch-sensitive screen is an easy way to interact with the device. I’ll call this one a draw.
  6. Cortana functionality seems to be on par with the iOS Cortana app, and somewhat behind the Win10 app’s functionality.
  7. Cortana has very few skills compared to Alexa’s skills library. On both platforms, many of the skills are either stupid (I don’t need a skill to play the Notre Dame fight song, thanks) or not useful to me (I’m not a Capital One customer so their skill doesn’t do me any good).
    1. Cortana doesn’t have skills to control TP-Link smart plus, LIFX light bulbs, or WeMo switches– all of which I use heavily.
    2. It is completely non-obvious how to add or manage skills. Some skills are built into the device, like Spotify and Skype. Some require you to install an app or to authorize an external service. The process is much more consistent for Alexa devices.
    3. Obviously the Invoke doesn’t have any Amazon skills. I use those heavily too. Being able to reorder cat food, or check on the whereabouts of a package, or listen to an Audible audiobook is very handy.
    4. You enable smart home skills through the Cortana notebook. This isn’t obvious. None of the skills I have seem to recognize individual devices, e.g. the Wink skill just ties Cortana to the Wink hub, and there’s no way I can find to tell Cortana to find new devices through the hub.
  8. Within the first 30 minutes, I ran into a bug– the device would say it couldn’t understand me, no matter what I said. I’ve seen other people mention this online so it’s a legit bug.
  9. I couldn’t get the Wink skill to control my garage door. This might just be because I didn’t know what to say to it; the same skill works fine with my Caseta dimmers and switches though.
  10. You can only set one kitchen timer at a time. Multiple concurrent timers is a key Alexa feature for me because I lack the skill to coordinate cooking multiple dishes without timers.

One feature I really like and can see myself using a lot is the integrated Skype calling. A simple “Hey Cortana, call person” is all it takes. I’m not 100% sure where Cortana is getting contact data from. If I say “call Delta Airlines,” it calls the local Delta Cargo office instead of the number in my contacts. If I say “call Walmart,” the device looks up the nearest Walmart and calls it, which makes sense because I don’t have Walmart in my contacts list. If I name a person in my contacts list, it calls them. Alexa has a very similar feature, along with the ability to send voice or text messages directly to other Alexa devices, but I never got in the habit of using them. (It doesn’t look like Invoke calls show up in my Skype history; I’m not sure if that’s a feature or a bug).

(Fun side note: if you call either device by the other name, it tells you about the upcoming Microsoft-Amazon partnership.)

For now, the Invoke is definitely a second-class citizen here at the fortress of solitude– with limited smart home integration, I can’t do a 1:1 replacement of any of my Alexa devices yet. But it sounds great, and Microsoft has a long history of rapidly improving their 1.0 releases, so I am optimistic that it will get better rapidly. I’ll keep it.

 

 

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