Office 365 Exposed, Episode 16

It’s everyone’s favorite time of the year: Ignite Season!

See the source image

In this episode, Tony and I are joined by Anna Chu from Microsoft; she has some pretty interesting answers to the questions we asked her about Microsoft Ignite, including why there’s an increased focus on developers and what she thinks the biggest change from years past is. Along the way, we also talk about the spreading evil of self-service license purchases and make a few predictions about things you might see from the show floor at Ignite.

 

Office 365 Exposed, episode 16

Good news– we’ll be recording an episode from Ignite this year, so plan to tune in week after next for more Ignite-y goodness.

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Seeking to drive adoption, Microsoft fumbles customer service

Let’s subtitle this post “A tale of two tickets.”

The other day, I got a request from one of my staff: could we please start using Shifts for scheduling his team’s on-call rotations? “Sure,” I said, little realizing what a journey that would entail. To make a long and painful story as short as possible: Shifts didn’t work in our tenant, so I filed a ticket, which took six weeks and multiple escalations before it got to someone who actually realized the problem (it was a back-end provisioning issue) and fixed it.

Six weeks. Hold that thought.

Now, a digression.

It is no big secret that Microsoft is working very, very hard to increase adoption of their cloud services. At their recent Inspire partner conference,  there was a steady drumbeat of adoption-focused messaging directed, loudly, at Microsoft partners, and many Microsoft partner and sales personnel have found that their fiscal year (FY) 2020 compensation is directly tied to increasing adoption. For example, one person I spoke to told me that in FY 2020, the target they were expected to meet was to drive Teams adoption in their target market year-over-year (YoY) up by more than 250%.

Now, really: I get it. Microsoft is selling their “three clouds” (Dynamics 365, Office 365, and Microsoft 365) as hard as they can, but the old phenomenon of “channel stuffing” rears its head when customers buy licenses for those three clouds and don’t use them fully. If you buy a bunch of O365 Enterprise E3 licenses, for example, but only use Exchange Online, Microsoft is worried that you might a) buy less expensive licenses at renewal or b) defect to Gmail. They therefore have a really strong interest in not only selling licenses for these services but ensuring that people actually use what they’ve paid for.

Not only that, if customers don’t use the licenses they already have, it’s darn hard to upsell them more expensive or more capable licenses. This is a major brake on Microsoft 365 adoption: it’s hard to sell people a new SKU for Windows 10 and Office 365 when they already have O365 licenses on a multi-year agreement and perpetual Win10 licenses on their existing devices.

Side note: Azure is of course a Microsoft cloud, and it absolutely has its own, and rather daunting, adoption and consumption targets, but since almost all Azure services are priced based on actual usage, the play in Azure-land is to get people to use more rather than to get more use out of what they’ve already bought. Thus the intense focus on topics such as “digital transformation,” which translates to “getting stuff out of your on-premises data centers and into Azure” and the various Azure security offerings (which translate to “pay us per-minute to do cool security stuff on your Azure-hosted resources.”)

To recap: Microsoft wants customers to use all of the workloads in their O365 or M365 SKUs because doing so helps them keep customers around longer and sell them more stuff. In fairness, customers can benefit too by getting better value (defined as “more productivity” or “better security” or whatever) from their existing investment, but I think Microsoft is mostly interested in this because “customers can benefit” directly turns into “customers give us money.”

With that background, you’d probably think that Microsoft is always looking for new ways to increase user adoption… and you’d be right. That explains the mail I received this morning.

It looked like a support ticket, but I figured it must just be a decent phishing attempt. After all, I didn’t open a ticket, so the “Your request…” language was suspicious. Then I read it and damn near threw my coffee mug at the monitor.

Why?

Think about it. This is Microsoft sending me a “support ambassador” to try to convince me to use more of their services, i.e. to increase adoption, in a test tenant with only 1 paid license… something which only benefits Microsoft.

Meanwhile, users in my production tenant have to wait SIX WEEKS to get an actual problem fixed, one that directly affects their ability to work. Oh, by the way, fixing that problem would drive adoption of the service! We wanted to use Shifts but couldn’t until the problem was fixed– so no need to manufacture a fake support ticket to try to get me engaged.

Apparently there are enough “support ambassadors” roaming around to waste time dunning the admin of a single-user test tenant because “[their] system detected that not all users are using the services included.” Now, of course I realize that the “support ambassadors” here are not really support engineers in the same mold as the people who answer, y’know, actual support requests. What this email really means is that Microsoft is spending money on trying to drive adoption that would be spent better on the actual support organization.

This is part of the same tiring and worrisome trend we’ve seen in Office 365 for years now, where Microsoft does questionable stuff behind their customers’ backs. Here are a few examples:

  • Contacting the tenant admin (me in this case) to drive adoption based on data I haven’t seen about what my users were doing– perhaps this would be an unpleasant surprise to admins who don’t realize that user usage data is used for this purpose
  • Faking a support ticket as a means to fool customers into thinking they should read the adoption-related propaganda. (I split this one out separately because it irritates me so much.)
  • Pushing feedback surveys directly to Teams end users. Here’s some feedback for y’all: don’t talk directly to my organization’s end users without permission. Interestingly, the Teams team has made no public comment on this feature despite the uniformly negative feedback I have heard they’ve received.
  • Sticking transport rules into customer’s Exchange Online tenants. (Hear more about that here.)
  • Magically generating O365 Group objects from distribution groups and making them appear in the GAL
  • Turning on any number of other features by default so that they appear to end users with little or no warning. I do appreciate that the roadmap communications have gotten more detailed, and more frequent, as the service has matured, but since I still don’t know exactly when feature X will hit my tenant, it’s harder to do adoption and change management than it should be.

MVPs have a reputation for giving Microsoft candid and honest feedback, so here it is in two short digestible sound bites.

First, tighten up the support organization so that it doesn’t take multiple weeks to fix any problem. I can migrate a 100,000+ user organization in the amount of time it takes Microsoft to recognize and fix simple provisioning problems.

Second, stop bypassing (or trying to bypass) the tenant admins. Be very, very judicious with which new features are on by default; provide admin controls for new features on day 1 (and not later), and don’t assume that your customers are OK with you interacting directly with their end users.

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 15

Just a little palate cleanser this time before Microsoft Inspire gets started! Tony, Vasil, and I talk about Teams security, the Search-Mailbox cmdlet’s journey to Death Row, and whether or not emoji reactions in email are a tool of the devil.

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2020 edition of Office 365 for IT Pros now available

It’s July 1, so you know what that means… or maybe you don’t: the new edition of Office 365 for IT Pros is available. Each year, around this time, we release a new edition. herewith a rude Q&A that might be informative and/or useful (but probably not entertaining)

Q: It isn’t 2020. Why are you calling it the 2020 edition?
A: Car manufacturers do this too. Unlike cars not made by Tesla, though, we release monthly updates to upgrade and update the thing you buy today into the next calendar year.

Q: What’s different about this edition?
A: The cover has a new animal on it.

Q: No, seriously, what’s different?
A: We reorganized the content, so now there’s a separate companion volume (included with your purchase, of course) that holds some older material. This frees up space and word count for new stuff. In this edition, MVP and identity management legend Brian Desmond took over the IdM chapter from me, which automatically makes the book at least 16% better. There’s also significant new content covering new features in Planner, Teams, Intune, SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, and the various other parts of Office 365.

Q: What are your plans for updates to this edition?
A: We’ve already covered a ton of 2019 updates in this initial edition– for example, the switch to the “Microsoft 365 admin center” branding and all of the new goodies around information protection are included. Microsoft has already publicly announced or started to RTM several major new features that we’ll be covering, including information barriers for Teams. Then there’s a whole shedload of new stuff that Microsoft has discussed under NDA that we’ll be covering once it’s publicly mentioned. Plus, there is always room for surprises, like the rainbow themes Microsoft added to the admin center, OWA, and a few other apps in June 2019.

All joking aside, we’ve got lots of new content planned for the book, and one key advantage of our book is that you’re buying a year’s worth of updates, not a single point-in-time copy. As Microsoft evolves and grows Office 365, we cover the changes to help you learn what you need to effectively plan and manage your Office 365 deployment. I hope you’ll give the new edition a look and let us know what you think.

 

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Flying Friday: Avidyne IFD540 10.2.3.1 upgrade notes

For a while now, I’ve been waiting for a new update to the GPS software in my airplane. The last major update was about two years ago, so it was about that time. Avidyne had originally planned to release this set of features as version 10.3, but it turns out that, for some mysterious reason, the FAA update process for a “major” update applies to a version update. So releasing the software as 10.3 would have required a longer certification cycle than releasing the same thing as 10.2.3.1, which makes very little sense to me given that this update touched literally every part of the IFD’s firmware and software.

After the software was finally done, Avidyne had just submitted the software for certification and… government shutdown.

Then they decided to do a separate release just for the GPS week-number rollover bug. That update could be released nearly immediately, but it didn’t include any new features. However, like all software updates for avionics in certificated airplanes, you can’t just plug in a USB stick and go; updating the software is considered to be an alteration and so requires a logbook entry signed by a certificated airframe & powerplant (A&P) mechanic. Rather than make a separate trip just for the GPS fix, I elected to wait until the full release was ready, and so when it dropped last week I immediately emailed the shop to make an appointment.

As with every other software product, this update was a combination of bug fixes and some new features. The new features that I was most interested in were the ability to stream ADS-B data from the IFD to Foreflight and the ability to load instrument arrival and departure procedures without a transition. Here’s how my first flight with it went.

First, I preflighted and flew the short hop from Decatur to Tullahoma, Tennessee, where XP Services is located. XP is a great shop: they are quick, efficient, and they do good work. When I pulled up to the hangar, the tech already had the installation instructions printed and a GPU cart waiting, which is mighty fine service for a Friday afternoon before a 3-day weekend. I went into their conference room to work while the mechanics worked through the long install procedure. It requires continuous power to the GPS, along with a bunch of separate reboots and firmware updates. The instructions have a lot of dire warnings in bold red type. I’d certainly have been capable of doing the update myself but I liked the security of having the shop do it so that I wouldn’t make a stupid mistake that bricked the unit.

The update went fine; they billed me for 1.61 hours (oddly specific, but OK, whatever) All of my settings were properly preserved, and immediately after the update I was able to load the 23 May navdata cycle without incident. I happily flew home $156 poorer but eager to see what the update brought.

Last year, the FAA announced that they would start sending additional weather data over the FIS-B data link protocol. I have a box (the SkyTrax 100) that is essentially a modem; it receives ADS-B data (which includes FIS-B weather), demodulates it, and passes it as a stream to the IFD. That box didn’t require any updates to display the new weather data (which includes lightning strike, icing, and cloud-height data) but the IFD couldn’t interpret it until this update. I really wanted the lightning data for the summer and the icing data for the winter— both of these are important cross-checks that help clarify what’s really happening inside the clouds. Once I was airborne and established, I was able to see lightning data in some storm cells off to my west, so that part of the update clearly works. The weather was sunny and clear for probably 200nm around me, so there wasn’t much else to see.

The other major feature I wanted was integration with Foreflight. Since early in its life, the IFD series has been able to wirelessly connect to external devices to upload and download flight plans, send GPS position data, and send ADS-B streams. The idea is that if you’re using a tablet app like Foreflight or FlyQ, you can use your panel-mounted GPS and ADS-B receiver to feed position, weather, and traffic data to the tablet app. For a variety of boring technical reasons that I won’t go into here, ADS-B streaming hasn’t worked properly with Foreflight until this release (although GPS position streaming and flight plan up/download did work). Now it does— those little blue arrows are other aircraft, and the radar display is live FIS-B data (including lightning data). I was also able to look at the icing level forecast, which is going to be invaluable in the wintertime for tactical weather avoidance.

IMG 0011

There’s one thing that Avidyne took away in this update, though. They previously had an aural “traffic!” announcement that was triggered when the IFD detected traffic within a certain radius. The unit still gives you a visual indication, but no more audio prompt— having it violated some FAA standard or other. However, I was happy to see that Foreflight provides audible traffic callouts based on data from the IFD– so now I probably need to decide whether it’s more valuable to have my phone or iPad connected to the AMX240 during flight.

The second thing I wanted was the ability to load arrival or departure procedures that don’t have a transition. This requires a bit of explanation. These procedures (SIDs for departures and STARs for arrival) specify a route for how you arrive at or depart from the airspace near an airport— they provide a way to transition between the terminal environment and the en route environment. For example, see this plate for the SWTEE.1 arrival procedure, which is used in Atlanta airspace to handle aircraft arriving from the west and slotting them into the correct flow for whatever airport they’re going to. ATC will usually assign the arrival while you’re still en route, and they may or may not assign a transition. For example, they could give me BIZKT.SWTEE1 (pronounced “biscuit transition for the sweet tea 1 arrival”) or LPTON.SWTEE1. So the IFD expects you to specify a transition point when you load a SID or STAR. The problem is, sometimes you don’t get one assigned from ATC (and you can’t just make up your own). When I fly in from north Alabama, my direct route will normally take me north of those routes, so typically when I’m somewhere just northwest of RMG, ATC will call me and amend my route to give me something like “direct OKRAA, thence the SWTEE1 arrival”. It’s simple enough to load the STAR and then sequence the leg I want, but keep in mind that the flight management system (FMS) in the IFD is always expecting that you’re telling it what waypoint to fly to next— so any time you have to change waypoints or insert a gap in your route, you need to be extra careful. The 10.2.3.1 update solves this problem by allowing you to load a SID or STAR with no transition, so you can just go direct to whatever waypoint ATC gives you. Simpler, with fewer opportunities to make a mistake.

Even though this update took a little longer than I would have liked, I was delighted to see how well it worked and I look forward to racking up a bunch more hours flying behind it this summer.

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Running in Bratislava

One of the joys I find in travel is running or cycling in new places. Since starting my current job, I’ve been able to run or cycle in the UK, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, the Balearics, Switzerland, and France, mostly along routes that were either intrinsically scenic or interesting because of their novelty. I was recently in Slovakia for meetings and was able to knock out a couple of runs in Zilina, but I also had the opportunity to run in Bratislava. 

Let me start with a few simple facts:

  1. One does not simply fly into Žilina. There are basically two ways to get there: fly into Vienna and drive, or fly into Krakow and drive. Both routes have their charms, but the Vienna route is a little shorter and much flatter, meaning it’s better when there is ice, snow, or rain. You wouldn’t think that’s a concern in May, but it snowed the day I arrived in country; I just routinely go through Vienna. The drive takes about 3 hours.
  2. Bratislava is only about 30mi from Vienna, and you drive right through it on the way to Žilina. 
  3. If you’re going back to the US from Vienna, all the flights leave in the early morning.

That means that I will normally have a full day of meetings, drive back to Vienna in the evening, stay at the airport, and then fly home the next morning. On this particular trip, I’d planned to get my last day’s workout in by running around the Žilina dam, but then it occurred to me that I could run in Vienna instead, as even with the drive I’d still arrive well before daylight. Then it hit me: I could run in Bratislava instead. 

A little research led me to this route, the “Bratislava Promenádna”. This is a simple loop that starts on the north bank of the Danube and runs to the west, then crosses the Lafranconi bridge to the west, which takes you to the south bank. You then run to the Apollo Bridge and cross back to the north bank. This looked like a good route to try, so I threw on my running clothes, jumped in my rental car, and drove to Bratislava with a vague idea of where I needed to go— none of the running route maps I had said anything about where to park or exactly where the route started.

A bit of driving around led me to a big shopping complex called the Eurovea that has ample parking, restrooms, and beer (more on that later). I parked there, then walked around the outside a bit until I found the river and the path adjoining it. I started running east, towards the Apollo, where I found this handy sign showing the actual route. Turns out I was running the “wrong” way, so I turned around and headed west again.

Promenádna sign

I only wanted to run about 5 miles, so I decided not to go all the way to the Lafranconi bridge. Instead, I ran to the bridge with the Bratislava UFO:

IMG 1057

Crossing that bridge put me out right near the Sad Janka park; the whole south bank is wooded and features some very pleasant and green trails. I could have detoured through the park, but I like running alongside the water whenever possible, so that’s what I did instead. (In retrospect I wish I’d gone through the park; it’s actually the oldest public park in central Europe!) There are lots of river barges moored along both banks; some are fancy cruise ship or dinner boats, while others aren’t. 

IMG 1054

As I approached the Apollo bridge, I very quickly figured out that I was going to be way short of 5 miles. Luckily there’s a cycling trail that continues further to the east, although it diverges from the river. Slovakia is plentifully supplied with all sorts of riding paths; this one was nicely paved and quite busy with runners, cyclists, and even a few rollerbladers. The area at the foot of the bridge is 1.3Km from the starting point of the loop, so with a little mental math I was able to figure out how long I needed to stay on the cycle path. Along the route I saw this cool painting on a bridge abutment.

IMG 1059

Coming back westbound, I climbed the footpath onto the Apollo Bridge, which is the newest and fanciest (and busiest!) of the four Bratislava bridges. 

IMG 1060

I had a fantastic view of the setting sun off to the west as I ran across, and I stopped to get a closeup of the Bratislava plaque on the bridge arch. I’m not sure if it’s officially a landmark or not, but it should be.

IMG 1062

From the north end of the bridge, it was an easy path back to the Eurovea, where I had a delicious dinner at the Kolkovna. This is a Czech chain of restaurants serving traditional central European food; I had a delicious goulash and a bowl of “bean soup” that was indistinguishable in ingredients from what Cajuns would call “red beans and rice” (except for not having any rice in it). Although there were many excellent beers on tap, I didn’t have any, as Slovakia has a very strict 0.0% blood-alcohol limit for driving. (Sorry if you read this far hoping to find out what delicious beer I sampled!) 

I thoroughly enjoyed the route; next time I’ll try to arrange things so I can run the full loop and maybe detour through the park. I’d also love to explore the bike paths around Bratislava more, although that will require an actual, y’know, bike,

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Microsoft Teams privacy bug: the cat and the camera

As longtime readers probably know, I have a cat. As cats do, he will sometimes jump on my desk.

Pancake, looking majestic

Pancake the cat on his royal pillow

Some of you may know that, because my job entails working with a worldwide team, I often have early-morning conference calls. To make this easier, I have a small workstation in my bedroom where I can work and be near the coffee machine. This machine is set up with a Logitech c920 webcam and a Blue Snowball USB microphone.

Most of you probably don’t know that I tend to pace when on telephone calls.

So picture the scene. I’ve straggled out of bed to grab a cup of coffee, yawn and stretch, and get on a call. I’m pacing around and speaking. Suddenly the gentleman I’m speaking to (my long-suffering counterpart, Tony Sterling, who owns our customer experience team) starts cracking up. “Dude, turn your camera off!”

Sure enough, somehow the Teams app had started showing Tony video of me pacing around in my boxers and T-shirt. Thankfully it was only him. I apologized deeply, turned off the camera, and removed Pancake from the keyboard. After the meeting, I scoured the Teams documentation to find out what the keyboard shortcut for controlling the camera was.

There isn’t one. This made me a little nervous, nervous enough to put a Post-It note over the camera lens so Pancake didn’t accidentally turn on the camera one night when I was asleep or something.

Today I was in a Teams meeting. The cat jumped on the keyboard and… voila… I got a macOS permissions dialog asking me whether Teams should have permission to use the camera. He’d done it again!

It turns out that when you’re in a Teams meeting, hitting a key will act like a mouse click on whatever control currently has focus. By default, the camera on/off button has focus. Try it yourself: join a meeting, switch out of the Teams app and back into it, and hit a key.

This is, shall we say, not a great design. I appreciate that the Teams team has provided keyboard focus selection, which is great for accessibility, but having focus default to camera on/off is a recipe for unpleasant surprises.

Lesson learned: since I can’t keep my cat off the keyboard, I’ll keep my webcam covered.

 

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Training Tuesday: Magic City Showdown powerlifting meet

(For basics on how meets work, see my two previous meet reports here and here.)

The last time I was on the platform at a meet was in June 2016. Since then, I’ve run a few marathons, done various other athletic stuff, and generally spent very little time lifting weights… and I missed it. So earlier this year, I told my coach that I wanted to do a meet in April or May, before triathlon season really kicked in. Coincidentally, there was a USPA meet scheduled for 20 April in Birmingham, so as soon as registration opened up, I signed up. What I didn’t tell my coach: I really wanted to nail my 1000lb (454kg) total for all 3 lifts, a total I narrowly missed in my 2016 competition.

Training and meet prep

Prep couldn’t have been simpler: I just did what my coach told me. I was lifting 3 days a week: one day of chest and shoulders (mostly bench, with some accessory work of shoulder presses, some tricep work, etc), one leg day (squats and deadlifts), and one full body day (squats and deadlifts plus some upper-body accessory work). This is in addition to running 30-40 miles a week. During the training phase, I improved my 13.1 PR time by more than 5 minutes and my 10K PR time by just under 3 minutes, so the lifting certainly didn’t hurt my running, but I wasn’t entirely sure the reverse was true until the first time I pulled a 405lb deadlift in my garage, a few weeks before the meet. There were a few changes from my prior powerlifting training regimen for this time. At the start of this training block, I was doing all double-overhand grip for deadlifts, but I just don’t have the grip strength to make that work for heavier weights, so over about 300lb I switched back to mixed grip. I also found that I started having problems benching after I got a Texas Power Bar.  I’m still not sure why, but my wrists developed a worrisome tendency to roll when lifting above about 80% of my one-rep maximum (1RM). This culminated in me dropping a 205lb barbell on my chest a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully it didn’t do any major damage; the safety rails on the rack caught most of the impact, but I’ve had a painfully sore spot on my intercostal muscle ever since (which my chiropractor suggested treating with swimming, as if. Has he even met me before?)

Another change to this training block: I’ve been traveling a ton. I’ve squeezed lifting workouts in at ratty hotel gyms in London, skipped them altogether in Seattle and Spain, and used really fancy facilities in Zürich. That’s a polite way of saying my training consistency has been worse than usual.

The final change was that, because of my travel and general laziness, I decided I wasn’t going to try to cut weight to make the 90kg (198lb) weight class this time. I did that successfully with my last meet, but I would’ve needed to start a week in advance, whilst traveling, and that just didn’t seem like a great idea.

The meet

As is typical, the meet director (Charlie Lyons, who exemplifies exactly what’s good about competitive strength sports) had planned two weigh-ins, both on the day before the meet. At the weigh-in, you record your official weight, pick your opening attempts, and have your gear checked. Unfortunately this required me to drive down to Birmingham in the pouring rain, then drive home again Friday night, then drive down again for the meet. Oh well. I got to bed at a reasonable time, woke up at 515a, pounded down some coffee, and headed back to Birmingham, easily making the lifter meeting. Here’s Charlie going over the meet rules with an attentive crowd.

One very interesting thing about this meet: out of the 60 lifters, maybe 20 were women. This is an unusually high number and percentage. In part that’s because there’s a great team of female lifters here in Huntsville at Core Strength and Performance, and in part because Charlie recruited pretty heavily to get women on the platform. Many of the women lifting at this meet set state records, and there were a couple of national records too– and the crowd ate it up. But I digress. Anyway: the room pictured above is the lifting part of the Diamond K facility, which is where the lifters could hang out and warm up; the meet itself was on the other side, where CrossFit classes are normally held.  Charlie gave demos of the commands that the judges would give and explained the criteria for a lift to be judged as successful. I appreciate that he started the lifter meeting on time, finished it on time, and started the meet on time: just like the dentist’s office, a little delay early in the day can build into a long delay as the day goes on.

The meet was organized into 4 flights with a single platform. I was midway through the B flight for all lifts.

The squat

I’d been feeling OK with my squats lately, so I decided to open at 145kg, which I got easily. My second attempt at 157.5kg was just as easy, so I reached a little and attempted 170kg for my third attempt– and got it. That left me with a solid 25lb PR on the first left, which felt great. Later in flight D, “The Tank” squatted 385kg, or 849lbs, which sort of put my lift into perspective. (However, I would bet money that The Tank couldn’t run a marathon, so I have that going for me, which is nice.) 3/3 with a 25lb PR was a great way to start though, so I rewarded myself with a diet Coke and some snacks.

The bench

This is where I expected a little trouble. In my last meet, I went 100kg, 105kg, and 110kg for my attempts, failing the third one. This time I wanted to start a little easier, so I opened with 95kg… and blew it by putting the bar back into the rack maybe 0.2sec before the judge gave the “rack” command. On one hand, this was a stupid mistake. On the other hand, it wasn’t a technique or strength problem, so I shrugged it off and gave the expediter 100kg as my second attempt… then nailed it. This led me to get a little cocky, just like I did in 2016. I attempted 110kg and couldn’t push it to full lockout. I was philosophical about it; the total of my two lifts so far was 275kg, and I needed 454kg to hit my goal, so I figured I could make that up on the deadlift.

The deadlift

With the squat and the bench, each time a new lifter takes the platform, the spotters have to adjust the height of the equipment and load the correct amount of weight. In the deadlift, they only have to load the weight, so it moves faster than the other events. Because I was in the B flight for bench, I had plenty of time to chit chat with other lifters and take my time warming up. The only other lifter in my age/weight class was Jeff Ray, whose openers were all higher than my final lifts– really nice guy who also happens to be strong as hell. Since we’re of a similar age, we warmed up at the same time, then before I knew it, I was on deck to lift.

First attempt was at 170kg, or 385lb. This is close to the normal top end of my training lifts but I was confident I could get it, and I did. Here’s where the math got tough. I needed 179kg on the deadlift to hit my 1000lb-goal. I picked 180kg for my second. Why so conservative? I wanted to make absolutely sure that I’d have another shot at the weight if for some reason I screwed up the lift. It turns out that my caution was unnecessary, as I blasted 180kg off the floor and locked it out with a quickness. Three white lights and bang! I’d hit my goal.

For my finishing attempt, with my goal in the bag, I selected 192.5kg, or 424lb. This was a roughly 19lb PR over my previous best garage lift. It was a little tougher than 180kg, but it came off the floor nicely. I maybe could’ve put another 5kg or so on there without a problem, but I remembered what happened when I got greedy on the bench.

The summary

At this point, I confess: I was d-o-n-e and ready to go home. At my other meets, I’ve stuck around to watch the big guys lift; it can be very competitive and the crowd gets loud when people are starting to pull 700lb or more off the ground. I figured that, on balance, I’d rather just head home given that I didn’t know any of the lifters well and didn’t have any friends or family with me. So I did, stopping en route for a well-earned Chick-Fil-A key lime shake and some fries. I was pretty wiped out when I got home, so I took a brief recliner catnap and enjoyed a quiet evening of reading.

 

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Training Tuesday: NYC United Half Marathon + MCM 17.75K race reports

IMG 0821What an adventure!

Over the past 10 days I had the opportunity to run two signature races: the New York City United Airlines Half Marathon, and the Marine Corps Marathon 17.75K. Herewith my race report.

NYC 13.1

I registered for this lottery not realizing exactly when it was; as it turns out, it was the same day my youngest son’s high-school choir was performing at Carnegie Hall and it fell on St. Patrick’s Day. The annual Microsoft MVP Summit started the next day in Seattle, so the logistics were a bit challenging— normally I would’ve flown myself but that wouldn’t work since I had to go straight to Seattle the morning after the race.

Minimal tourism note: New York City is amazing, the Dream Hotel Midtown makes a great base of operations for exploring Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I super loved running Central Park. Everything I ate was superb. The choir concert was a once-in-a-lifetime memory, and a huge highlight was getting to see my cousin Jeff, whom I hadn’t seen in 13 years, not once but twice. Sometime when I have more time I’ll write up all the fun touristy stuff, but for now, let’s talk about the race.

The course begins in Prospect Park, which is in Brooklyn (which of course I didn’t know), then snakes through Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, then up FDR Drive, which is closed for the race. Runners turn left near the UN, run through Times Square, and finish in Central Park right near the famous Tavern on the Green. There was a lot of online discussion in the NYC 13.1 Facebook group about how hilly the course was— most of the elevation looked like it would be in the first 4-5 miles. With that in mind, and knowing how crowded the race would be, I didn’t plan this to be a PR race. I figured I would give myself permission to enjoy the day and take plenty of pictures, especially since two weeks beforehand I had PR’d the Carnival Frolic 13.1 in Decatur. I planned to plug in 305W into the Stryd PowerRace app and just run to that power target instead of worrying about my pace or HR; that’s what I’d done at Carnival and it seemed like it would work well again. First there were two problems to deal with…

Problem #1: how the hell was I going to get to Prospect Park? This was neatly solved by Cesar Trelles, lead instigator of the FB group, who organized four buses that picked up on Madison Avenue and went to the race start. Once corral assignments were handed out, he staged the bus passengers by their corral, which was assigned on the basis of predicted finish time. All I had to do was show up about 0515 and get on the bus, which delivered me right to the correct side of the park. I had elected not to check a race bag, so after a brisk half-mile walk I was able to get in line for the porta-potties and then make my way to the corral. Breakfast was a protein bar and a packet of BeetElite juice, which is pretty close to my normal pre-13.1 feeding.

Problem #2: the weather. Race day was predicted to be cold and windy, and it was— 34° at the start with a steady 6-10mph wind. I decided to run with a beanie and gloves, shorts over tights, and a long-sleeve tech shirt. This was not nearly enough to keep me comfortable pre-race, but oh well. Thankfully the original forecast, which called for rain, was wrong, because running when it’s cold and wet is not even a little bit fun.

Problem-wise, that was it. The race organizers did a great job with the pre-race logistics and it was easy for me to get through the area and into my corral. I decided to tag along with the 1:55 pacers and see how long I could hang with them, so I met them (though I can’t remember their names, boooo) and waited for my corral start. At about 0755 it was our turn, and I crossed the line at 0759.

The first three miles flew by as we went through Prospect Park. It was cold, but the sun was coming up and I was too busy dodging other runners to worry about how I felt. I held a nice steady rhythm and felt like I was keeping up with the pacers just fine— with my first 3 mile splits at 9:00, 8:38, and 8:11, I was good to go.

Mile 4 was mostly downhill, heading towards the water. My watch says I ran it in 7:41, which is smoking fast for me. I’ll take it.

The real surprises came at miles 5-6. That’s the segment that includes the Manhattan Bridge. I’d heard a lot of pregame anxiety about the climb but it didn’t look that bad, and it didn’t feel that bad either. The run up to, over, and down the bridge went by at 8:44 and 8:26, better than my previous PR 13.1 average pace. This segment had a terrific view of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. The pacers kept telling us to save our energy because “the race begins in Manhattan”… and they were right.

IMG 0795

Mile 7: I don’t know, man. 7:56 on the flat terrain of the FDR Drive. I had been yo-yoing the pacers a bit from mile 5 onwards, but I was also taking time to hit each Gatorade stop to ensure that I didn’t get dehydrated— that tends to happen to me when it’s cold outside because I don’t realize how much I’m sweating. Mile 8 was a 9:18 special, since i stopped for a pee break— which proved that I was getting enough water in, yay.

All the while, I felt great. Plenty of energy from the crowd; my legs felt strong; I was in a delightful flow balanced between working hard and feeling like I was just trucking along steadily. So I can’t explain what happened for the rest of the race: 8:01, 7:54, 7:44, 6:44, and 8:29. That’s right. I ran 5 miles all under my previous best PR pace, with one of them the fastest mile I’ve ever run in my life… and it was not all downhill, as you can see from the Strava data.

I crossed the finish line somewhat disbelieving my watch time, but the official result time confirmed it: 1:53:09, or about a 2min30sec improvement over my two-week-old PR, which itself was about a 2min30sec PR. I guess I was in a New York state of mind, or something.

Summary: great race, one which I will forever remember. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The next morning, I woke up at 4ish, took an Uber to JFK, and spent Monday-Wednesday deeply immersed in the highly technical (and completely-covered-by-non-disclosure-agreement) MVP Summit. I had a short shakeout run Monday but nothing for the rest of the week; I didn’t have time for my scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday workouts, then Thursday I flew to DC for the MCM 17.75K.

The MCM 17.75K

This race is special for two reasons. One is that it gets its name from the year of the USMC’s founding, 1775. The other is that finishers get an automatic entry to the Marine Corps Marathon. I registered for the 17.75 last year but couldn’t run it because of a family funeral. My original plan was to run it so I’d have an MCM entry, but then I unexpectedly was able to register for the MCM 50K (about which, more in another post), but I figured I might as well run it anyway because I didn’t have any other weekend plans. So off to DC I went, where I found a cheap Airbnb right near the Nationals’ ballpark. My plan was to work Friday, then drive down to the Quantico area for packet pickup and the Marriott room I’d reserved using points, so that’s what I did. Meanwhile, I had an amazing lunch of bison huevos rancheros at the Silver Diner, and they were thoroughly amazing; I also found the local Goodwill and bought some clothes to wear at the start line, then donate.

IMG 0821

Dinner was the “carbo motivation dinner” offered by the MCM Organization— it was at the Marine Corps Base Quantico officers’ club and featured the Quantico band and a speech by the base CO. For $20, I figured it might be fun, and it was; I was at a table with 7 other runners and supporters (all but 1 older than me, go figure) from various parts of the country. The band was fun and the food was decent.IMG 0824

My Stryd pod had died midweek sometime, and I didn’t have the charger, so my original plan to run with power went out the window. I decided just to run based on feel, since I wasn’t trying for a PR or anything. Breakfast was a MetRx protein bar and a pre-race Gu with 35mg caffeine, plus most of a 20oz diet coke. Weather at the start was chilly as hell, with a knifing wind. At Goodwill I’d picked up a big fleece (when I say “big” I think it was 3XL—it went down damn near to my knees) and had that on over my MCM mock and a short-sleeve tech shirt, shorts over tights, and a beanie with gloves. The start/finish area is at a medium-sized church, which you access via either walking or a shuttle bus from several nearby parking areas. I headed into the (nice, warm) church and met some new Facebook friends from the MCM running group (hi, Monique, Joe, and Susan!) We stayed toasty inside until it was time to head to the start line— a bit of a tactical mistake, to be honest.

The starting gun fired and I was off. The first 4-5 miles of the course are mostly on packed gravel trails through the forest. It had rained a bunch the week before but for the most part the trails were fine; there were a few muddy patches but not too bad. The big problem for the first 2 miles was just the volume of runners—3300 people, not sorted into corrals or waves, all hammering up and down the little rollers. I was weaving a good bit but managed to get into a more open space around mile 3ish. Until mile 4 I picked up some free downhill speed, then the real fun started about 4.3 with a pretty steady climb until about mile 7.5. Thankfully the race organizers had added some motivational signs to power us up and down the hills.

IMG 0825

Normally this is where I would have run a steady power but since I couldn’t do that I tried to hold a steady RPE and my pace reflected that nicely.

More free speed on mile 8, and then just before mile 9 I took a badly needed portapotty break—I couldn’t get into one before the race and figured I’d just hold out, but my colon had a different opinion. You can see that at one point my pace shows as 44:04/mile, which is pretty funny since a normal walking pace for me is about 15:30/mile.

Miles 9+ were back on the trail but much less crowded, as the field had thinned out. Steady run to the finish, got my medal, and boom: bison huevos rancheros for lunch, a quick dip in the hotel hot tub, and then home. I arrived just in time to join friends for dinner and show off my new bling collection.

IMG 0835

Overall the whole trip was superb. While extended road trips like this are often a pain in the butt, and there were definitely times when I would rather have been chilling with Pancake at home, the opportunity to run two iconic races in two completely different places— with the MVP Summit sandwiched in the middle— was a marvel. This is just one of the many ways in which running has changed my life for the better.

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 14

It’s MVP Summit week, and you know what that means: another episode! This time, Tony and I were joined by Greg Taylor and Brent Alinger from Microsoft. We discussed a rash of topics, including the impending death end of support for Exchange 2010, new announcements from the Microsoft Teams team at Enterprise Connect, and a rather surprising fact about SharePoint retention and your document library. Share and enjoy!

(editor’s note: this podcast was the first one where we experimented with audio postproduction so do let us know if the sound quality is better or worse than usual!)

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Office 365 Exposed, episode 13

Join me and co-hosts Tony Redmond and Vasil Michev as we talk about all manner of things, including the new Outlook web app, Microsoft’s checkered history with transport rules for security, various SharePoint topics, and the pungent cloud of FUD emanating from certain Office 365 ecosystem vendors.

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My first Angel Flight mission

You may have heard of “Angel Flight” before– it’s a network of organizations that provide no-cost transport for critically ill patients using airplanes. There are lots of variants of this basic idea; for example, the Corporate Angel Network provides transport using corporate jets to cancer patients, while Angel Flight Soars covers patients with all sorts of needs but mostly in the southeastern US. These organizations are matchmakers– they accept requests from patients and then match them to pilots who have volunteered. They coordinate transport but that’s it; the actual legwork of getting the patient from point A to point B is handled by the volunteers.

Even before getting my pilot’s license, I knew that these organizations existed, and as soon as I got my license I wanted to start flying these missions. They typically require 250 hours of pilot-in-command time and an instrument rating, so it wasn’t until late 2014 that I met the requirements, so I registered with Angel Flight Soars and then… well, I just never got around to it somehow. I signed up for one mission that had to be aborted due to weather, but that was as close as I came.

Angel Flight Soars maintains a list of missions that you can look at at any time, but their coordinator (hi, Bernadette!) will sometimes send out email looking for volunteers. This usually happens when they have confirmed pilots for some, but not, all of the legs of a multi-leg trip. Last Wednesday, I got an email saying that a volunteer was needed to ferry a two-year-old boy named Dawson from Enterprise, Alabama to Aiken, South Carolina. Angel Flight had already booked three additional legs to get Dawson from Aiken to Boston, where he was scheduled to have life-saving heart surgery… but if they couldn’t find a pilot for the Saturday Enterprise-Aiken leg, his family would face the exhausting 21-hour drive from south Alabama to Boston. The timing looked good; the airplane was up, I had a free day, and Matt was going to be at work, so I signed up and started planning my flights. I’d planned an 0730 departure, with roughly a 90-minute flight to Enterprise, a two-hour leg to Aiken, and then home.Angel Flight Soars had sent me a roster with all the information about the passengers and the ongoing flight legs. Dawson would be traveling with bottled oxygen, an oxygen concentrator, and a car seat, plus his two parents– around 500lbs of people and gear all told, well within the capability of my airplane. I called Dawson’s dad and the pilot I was meeting in Aiken to coordinate and give them my estimated arrival and flight times, then called North Alabama Aviation to ask them to fuel the plane and get it on the flight line. The weather was forecast to be clear and sunny, with an AIRMET Tango for moderate low-level turbulence.

This last is worth a bit more explanation– AIRMETs define a polygon (usually really weirdly shaped) within which the forecast conditions may occur. Think of a tornado or hurricane watch– an AIRMET Tango means that there may be moderate turbulence within the area, not that there will be. Most of the time, this turbulence is at lower levels and is stronger closer to ridges, mountains, and so on; I didn’t think it would be an obstacle for this flight.

Saturday morning, all ready to go, I got to the airport and sad reality intruded: the FBO hadn’t pulled out the plane, and they didn’t open until 8a on Saturdays, so I was late leaving. Once I was up, this is what it looked like.

it’s triangle time!

The flight to Enterprise was perfectly smooth with about a 30kt tailwind– always welcome. That cut my time to Enterprise down by a good margin and helped make up somewhat for my late departure.

yay tailwind!

The Enterprise airport had the lowest fuel price of any of my stops, so I wanted to fill the plane there– that would minimize the overall cost. I filled the plane and met Dawson and his family inside, had them fill out the required waiver, and then started moving the show outdoors to load the plane. It was disconcerting to see such a small child with a nasal cannula and an oxygen supply– it really drove home his need for safe and efficient transport to his surgery. Honestly it was a bit daunting; normally I’m traveling somewhere for fun, and a delay or interruption is much less critical.

The biggest bag went in the nose baggage compartment; two small oxygen cylinders and two smaller duffel bags behind the rear seat, then Dawson (in his car seat) and his mom in the back row and his dad up front with me. Dawson was surprisingly cheerful throughout the whole process.

Takeoff was normal; it was a little bumpy until we got above about 4000′, then smoothed out nicely. Dawson fell asleep probably 30 minutes into the flight, and the rest of us enjoyed a quiet and sunny trip and an easy approach into Aiken.

Napping makes the trip go faster

The airport there is quite nice, and obviously targeted at corporate customers who come into town for the Masters Tournament at Augusta. I didn’t take a picture, but one area of the FBO is all done in what I imagine the designer thought of as an English dinner club, with tons of dark wood, a 12′ tall fireplace, and so on. Like most other FBOs, the one in Aiken offers a fuel discount for Angel Flight missions, which I happily took advantage of– but even though there wasn’t a discount at Enterprise, fuel there was still cheaper than at Aiken with the discount. That 12′ fireplace wasn’t free, you know.

At Aiken, we met Mr. Dale, the gentleman who was going to take Dawson on the next leg of his trip. We visited briefly, paused for a group prayer, and loaded up Dale’s Cessna 182 with all the gear. While I paid my fuel bill, they strapped in and taxied off, northbound on the next part of the trip; I then loaded up and flew home, enjoying the sunshine and pondering my good fortune.

It was a moving experience all around– I received a very nice thank-you note from the family, but more than that I was able to contribute in some small way to helping a gravely ill child, while at the same time indulging in an activity I love.

Summary: I’ve already signed up for two on-call missions to fly transplant patients (one from Pensacola to Birmingham, one from Decatur to Atlanta), and I’ll keep the plane gassed up and my flight bag packed… just in case.

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2018 in review: the flying

Another quality year of flying: 88.2 total hours, all in familiar aircraft (and almost all in good ol’ 706) and mostly to familiar places. Highlights included:

    • Two alternator belt failures, including one on Shawna’s first-ever airplane flight
    • Another trip to Ohio to see the Blue Angels at the Cleveland National Air Show
    • My first trip inside the DC SFRA
    • A leisurely sightseeing loop around metro Nashville with David Dellanave
  • Another leisurely sightseeing loop around Orlando with a plane full of my Quadrotech coworkers
  • My first real encounter with airborne icing and my first real “I-can’t-see-the-runway” missed approach, both on the same (excellent) trip to the Marine Corps Marathon
  • Taking a good friend to see her dad on his deathbed– it was a long, quiet flight back home

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2018 year in review: the rest of the books

See here for my 2018 top 10 list; this post lists the rest of the books that I read through the 20th. As always, some were worthy of comment and some weren’t. I thought this year I’d organize things a little differently and group books by genre instead of by reading order. As always, the links below point to Amazon; many of these titles are available on Kindle Unlimited, too, for extra reading cheapness.

Thriller, mystery, and crime

  • Crusader One. Implausible but still enjoyable.
  • Code Name: Camelot. Simplistic wish fulfillment. Well written but not very plausible or interesting
  • Point of Impact: after reading G-Man, one of my ten best for the year, I wanted to re-read this and am glad I did. Still one of Hunter’s best books.
  • Forty Thieves: a book about… pink panthers. Absolutely terrific.
  • The Last Man in Tehran. The third of Mark Henshaw’s thrillers, and every bit as good as the first two. I wish he were a little more prolific.
  • Priceless: I really liked Miloszewski’s other books but this one left me flat.
  • Codename Villanelle: interesting premise, and I really liked Eve.
  • Weaponized. Best described as a “wrong-man” thriller, with a ton of (often implausible) plot twists. Get it from the library.
  • Debris Line: 4th in the consistently excellent series from Matthew FitzSimmons, featuring hacker Gibson Vaughn and his compatriots. This one is set against a background of organized crime in… Portugal. Didn’t expect that! Great read.
  • The Blackhouse: murder mystery set on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland, with a not-very-likeable main character. Quite engaging nonetheless. I will say I wouldn’t want to live on the Isle of Lewis given the weather and all the shenanigans his characters get up to.
  • Heartwood: the second Billy Bob Holland novel from James Lee Burke. I don’t remember much about it other than that I enjoyed it.
  • Hap and Leonard Ride Again and Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade: two short story collections about a hippie Texas redneck and his best friend, who happens to be a gay black Republican, and their various criminal adventures.
  • House of the Rising Sun: So James Lee Burke wrote a book about the quest for the Holy Grail, and I read it and enjoyed it despite the ridiculous premise. Further affiant sayeth naught.
  • Robicheaux: complex but expertly plotted James Lee Burke novel featuring you-know-who.
  • Bandwidth. I didn’t remember this book at all. Once I looked it up on Amazon, I remember why I enjoyed it: tautly plotted and full of ruminations on the nature of power, who holds it, and who maybe shouldn’t.
  • The Ridge
  • Soho Ghosts: enjoyable mystery featuring anti-hero Kenny Gabriel and set throughout London. Cleverly plotted.
  • The Death and Life of Bobby Z: terrific Don Winslow crime novel. Just go read it.
  • King City: lightweight but quite enjoyable honest-cop-in-a-corrupt-world story, well told.
  • Finnegan’s Week: dated crime novel. I bet it was funnier when it first came out.
  • Salvation of a Saint
  • The Deep Dark Descending: only after reading this did I learn it’s the fourth book with the same protagonist, which probably explains why I felt like I was playing catch-up the whole book. Riveting nonetheless.
  • The King Tides: not too shabby. I’m looking forward to the next book with these characters so I can see whether this was the high or low point of the series.
  • The Lock Artist: superb combo of a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, and a romance novel.
  • The Boardwalk Trust: I have grown away from reading legal thrillers over the last few years, but enjoyed this one enough to finish and recommend it.
  • The Good Samaritan: sadly, not very good.
  • Career of Evil: another JK Rowling crime novel, and probably the best of the lot. The ending was a giant cliffhanger and I am looking forward to reading the next installment.
  • Angels Flight and Trunk Music: There were enough differences between these two books and the past two seasons of Amazon Prime Video’s Bosch series that I didn’t feel like I was retreading old ground.
  • White Tigress: ridiculous on every level.

Science fiction

  • Earthcore. Scott Sigler has done better than this novel of homicidal underground space aliens and the cardboard humans they interact with.
  • The Hunters of Vermin, Deadly Nightshade. Two novellas set in the space-opera universe of Max Robichaux, coonass and fighter pilot. Thoroughly enjoyable if you liked the others.
  • Points of Impact. Marko Kloos = automatic purchase. This has a nice savor of Haldeman’s Forever War about it.
  • The Scorpion Game. Violent and reminiscent of Richard K Morgan’s “Altered Carbon.” Interesting world building with a biotech plot twist.
  • Punishment. Imagine that there’s a machine that can pull memories from the mind of one person and add them to another person. Now imagine this machine used for recreation, for punishment of criminals, and for investigation of serious crimes. The protagonist of this novel is a homicide detective who’s touched by all three uses. Imaginative, well-plotted, with crisp and real dialogue and a hell of a twist to the ending. Very recommended.
  • Empire Games and Dark State. Fascinating extension to Stross’ “Merchant Princes” series. More readable and better-plotted than most of his “Laundry” novels.
  • All Systems Red: how can you not love a book where the protagonist is a killer robot that calls itself Murderbot?
  • Revenger. I really wanted to like this more than I did, as I’m a big Alastair Reynolds fan. Still pretty good: space pirates are a great topic.
  • Forge of God: Greg Bear’s classic, which I was reading for the second time.
  • The Punch Escrow: Meh. I can’t see why this was so praised.
  • Superhuman: various people get superpowers. Some of them are former Marines, some are bikers and other criminals. Like a DC Universe movie, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment.
  • Calculating Stars: what if, in the 50s, because reasons, there were female astronauts? I just couldn’t make myself love the main characters because the author kept hitting me over the face that they were female! and black! and laboring under the strain of the heteronormative patriarchy, which oppressed them at every turn! I should’ve just read a biography of Mae Jemison instead (and I would love to but there don’t seem to be any).
  • 14: if you liked Lost (which I didn’t watch), word is you’ll like this. I liked it anyway.
  • The Delirium Brief. The best, so far, of Stross’ “Laundry” novels. As a character, Bob Howard continues to grow in depth and complexity with each book, becoming correspondingly more relatable and interesting, and Stross’ dialogue is always top-notch.
  • Planetside: if you like Marko Kloos (or other military sci-fi), you’ll like this. Excellent debut, and I look forward to seeing more from the author.
  • Way Station: thoughtful book from the “golden age” of SF about aliens, immortality, and what it means to be human.
  • Six Wakes: clumsy characterization. I just couldn’t love it, and I don’t see what all the award excitement was about.
  • Infinity Born. Implausible but still interesting; tackles some big questions around brain uploading.
  • Twelve Days I couldn’t decide if this was more of a thriller or more science-fiction. Highly readable mix of the two.
  • Head On: quick, enjoyable, ultimately forgettable. In its favor, this is one of the only Scalzi books that doesn’t make me want to slap the protagonist for being smarmy.
  • Walkaway: I sometimes have a hard time seeing past Cory Doctorow’s politics, but I’m glad I read this thought-provoking novel about “revolution, love, post-scarcity, and the end of death.”
  • Sea of Rust: I can’t improve on this description from Amazon: “A scavenger robot wanders in the wasteland created by a war that has destroyed humanity in this evocative post-apocalyptic ‘robot western'”
  • An Excess Male: in a dystopian future China, plural marriage is the norm thanks to the One-Child Policy and its resulting shortage of women. Combine that premise with a neatly extrapolated nearly-dystopian future China and you have the makings of a solid book.
  • Exo (Fonda Lee)
  • The Collapsing Empire (audio): gets off to a slow start, and all the characters essentially sound the same. The second book in this story arc is supposed to be better.
  • The Million: boring and juvenile. Would someone please bring Heinlein back from the dead and give him this same story idea?
  • Stiletto: every bit as good as The Rook.
  • New Kings of Tomorrow: don’t believe the reviews on Amazon. Cardboard characters and a bizarrely overengineered plot mean that I won’t be reading the sequel.

Fiction and alternate history

  • Book of the Unnamed Midwife and Book of Etta. Provocative post-apocalyptic series with a lot to say about how terrible men are.
  • The Hangman’s Daughter. Fascinating medieval murder mystery featuring a character based on one of the author’s ancestors, who was a literal village executioner back in the day. There are at least six more books in this series that I haven’t read.
  • Lion’s Blood. Thoroughly interesting, and very well written, alternate history where Africa, not Europe, becomes the world center of gravity. There’s still slavery, but it’s African and Muslim slavers who capture slaves from places like Ireland and resettle them in a very different America. Great characterization.
  • The Country of Ice Cream Star: starts strong and then sort of peters out. The patois used by all the characters can be difficult to understand or laceratingly clear in turn.
  • Julian Comstock: boring
  • Centennial: absolutely marvelous narrative of the American West. I wish I’d read it 20 years ago.
  • Scrapper: powerfully written and atmospheric, but confusing. I’m still not sure I caught everything that happened.
  • Arc Light
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. confusing, perhaps a little chaotic, and yet powerful.
  • I Will Never Leave You: Worst book I read this year. I only started it because it was free, then couldn’t stop because I wanted to see how bad it would get.
  • Wicked Wonders: I was surprisingly engaged in this collection of magical-realism and fantasy stories. Better than I expected.

Aviation and space

Biography

  • Speed Girl: short account of Janet Guthrie, the first woman to finish the Indy 500. Fascinating, and the Kindle version has photos, animation, and other multimedia that really add to the experience.
  • Running Away: A Memoir. Obnoxious narrator who makes a wreck of his life and yet salvages something precious by training for the Boston Marathon. I was rooting against Powell for the first half of the book and cheering for him in the second.
  • Johnny Carson (Bushkin): dishy tell-all from Carson’s attorney. Lots of name-dropping and snark.
  • Masters of Doom: alternately fawning and critical look at John Carmack and John Romero, co-developers of the seminal video games Castle Wolfenstein and Doom.
  • Next Stop Execution: a memoir by Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky. Fascinating personality study featuring an unlikable narrator who nonetheless tells an interesting story.
  • The Perfect Mile: fascinating account of the race (!) to break the 4-minute mile barrier. I learned a lot about the history of distance running from this and enjoyed the back-and-forth battles between the contestants.

Assorted non-fiction

  • The Idea Factory: superb history of Bell Labs, putting in context their inventions (the transistor, the laser, the cell phone, the communications satellite…) with lots of interesting detail I hadn’t seen previously.
  • Chrysler’s Turbine Car: absolutely captivating look at a little-known project from Chrysler: a turbine-powered everyday car. Great read for car lovers. The work done on this car is continuing to resonate today, as one of the key engineers founded the company that makes engines for cruise missiles and many small business jets.
  • Fool’s Mate: you can tell that the primary author was the lead FBI agent in this espionage case, because the book reads like an FBI narrative. Interesting but a little clunky, and ultimately the case it describes was minor compared to (say) Tolkachev’s story in Billion Dollar Spy.
  • Level Zero Heroes
  • Into the Raging Sea: sad and harrowing recap of the sinking of the merchant ship El Faro. I won’t spoil the plot, but it was almost all the captain’s fault.

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2018 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 97 I’ve read so far. Closer to the 31st, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  • The Night Trade. I’ve always been a big fan of Barry Eisler’s thrillers, and am happy to say I discovered him just after the publication of his first book. To me, this is probably Eisler’s best novel, with an emotional depth that he has slowly been perfecting over the last few books. Characteristically excellent action scenes and plotting, as I’d expect, but a significantly darker subject (child sex trafficking) than his regular spycraft.
  • Billion Dollar Spy: Absolutely captivating true-life story of Soviet engineer Adolf Tolkachev, who spied for the US in the heart of the Soviet military establishment. Hoffman provides a meaty, well-supported mix of tradecraft, personality profiling, and you-are-there vignettes that make this a compelling read.
  • The Rook: imagine Charlie Stross’ “Laundry” series with a female protagonist and a great deal more polished wit, with fewer geek jokes. I wish there were more books in this series, as the second volume is equally good.
  • Ali: A Life: I have many fond memories of sitting with my dad and watching Ali box. Despite that, I didn’t know much about him as a man. Thanks to this perceptive yet entertaining biography, now I feel like I have a better understanding– and Ali was remarkable, in and out of the ring, in many ways. He was an archetype of the self-promoting pro athlete but at the same time a generous and complex human.
  • The Overstory. It’s about trees. Go read it anyway. You’re welcome.
  • Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Meticulous and deep history of JSOC, an enormously influential and yet largely unknown part of the US military.
  • The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. I had no idea how much the Ford Motor Company contributed to World War II, nor the depth of racism and anti-Semitism that Henry Ford perpetrated, nor that his son Edsel was ever more than the namesake of an automotive punchline. Remarkable story of how the Ford family– mostly Edsel– conquered a huge number of technical, political, and logistical problems to build the world’s largest air force from literally nothing.
  • Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. Fascinating memoir from an eminent British brain surgeon. Equal parts thrilling, educational, horrifying, and heartwarming.
  • Norse Mythology. Back in the day, I had Bulfinch’s Mythology to read. Neil Gaiman, whose work I’ve always enjoyed, weighs in with this very approachable take on Norse mythology– funny, engaging, and quite educational.
  • G Man: probably my favorite of all Stephen Hunter’s books. Like Barry Eisler or James Lee Burke, Hunter is able to get a lot of juice out of the same basic plot lines and characters. In this story, Bob Lee Swagger is hunting for the truth about his grandfather, a famous Prohibition-era lawman, so we get both his search but also the grandfather’s adventures. Cleverly plotted with great dialogue.

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