Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

[Very minor spoilers lie ahead]

The Hunger Games tells the story of a teen girl living in a future, post-post-apocalyptic world, where an obviously-evil government keeps the people in line by throwing a handful of them into a televised fight to the death in an outdoor arena once a year. Although it doesn’t happen right away (more on that later), it’s pretty easy to guess that she gets involved in the titular Hunger Games.

The concept may sound like a sci-fi trope, but Collins does a good job of painting a world that feels unique despite borrowing pieces from other stories in its genres. The first third or so of the book is mostly setup for the inevitable beginning of the Games. It could’ve been boring, knowing the story is taking its time to begin, but it’s interesting enough due to the colourful character development, world-building, and writing style.

Then the action kicks into gear, and something odd happens. The writing quality drops immediately the moment the Hunger Games actually begin. It’s as if the latter two-thirds were written by another author (or an author who wrote the first chapters years after the latter ones). What begins as straightforward YA-level prose begins sounding like a teenager’s blog. Rambling tangents come back with “anyway”, ellipses replace proper punctuation, and there are outright typos. I half-expected sentences to start ending in “lol.”

It’s not too distracting, and makes some sense given the first-person narrator’s age, but the fluctuation in style was a bit jarring.

Anyway, the story itself is about what you’d expect given the premise. There is some mild satire of reality television and some mild violence (but this ain’t no Battle Royale). Some unexpected twists have impact, but some expected showdowns are a letdown. Maybe it’s a further subtle bit of satire to have some of the major plot points happen “off camera,” but it’s anticlimactic storytelling. Despite my pickiness, it’s a good story that’s often hard to put down, and anyone who’s up with the premise would enjoy it. I’m looking forward to the movie.

This was also the first book I read on a Kindle. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, it was a joy being able to sit under a tree in the sunshine (yeah, took me a while to get around to this review) with the tiny Kindle in one hand, flipping pages with the push of a button. On the other, when I wanted to skim the book while writing this review, I couldn’t. And what if I wanted to come back to it in 10 years? If technology changes too much, or Amazon bites the bullet, or I get another company’s incompatible device, my DRM-infected e-book is lost.

I’ll probably only use the Kindle for cheap books I’ll never want to read again. Hunger Games fits that bill.

Advertisements

On Complaining About Technology

I don’t complain much, but when I do, it’s usually about technology. I have an unfortunate combination of bad luck and high standards when it comes to gadgets. Literally, whenever I buy anything with greater complexity than lettuce, it has some flaw, either minor and only noticeable to my hyper-critical eye1 or a major defects2. At least nothing has outright exploded, though not everyone is so lucky (see: iPhone spontaneously combusts aboard flight). It’s tempting to become a cynical old ass, shaking my wooden stick (not a microchip in it!) and grumbling about how quality control has gone down the stinker and nothing works like it should. I’ve certainly given into that temptation a few times.

But think of it this way:

We are a bunch of animals. We were crafted by nature to root around in the dirt, find food, then go home and screw. Yet we’ve taken some of that dirt and, with nothing more than our grubby hands and abnormally large brains, we’ve made tubes of steel that can fly us through the air. We’ve burned sand until we have a slab of glass that allows us to have food delivered to us by poking at it. “Technology” isn’t some mysterious black toaster that pops out perfect gleaming gadgets. We’re literally grabbing whatever imperfect raw materials we find lying around the planet, and sticking them into arrangements that accomplish things no other animal can fathom.

Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But the people crafting our gadgets (and crafting the machines that craft our gadgets) are not magicians. They are humans, animals, maybe smarter than you or I, but only by a little bit. They’re working with limited time and limited resources. They get tired. Sometimes the best they can do is try pretty hard, and hope it’s good enough.

Thinking of it this way, it’s odd to complain.

Maybe a dead pixel on my phone’s screen “shouldn’t” be there, but a bunch of strangers managed to get me 614,399 working pixels that beam all of humanity’s accomplishments directly into my eyes. I can probably live with it. I can probably manage to enjoy everything that works despite the small parts that don’t.

There are exceptions; technologies that are defective by design (e.g., DRM, planned obsolescence) are inexcusable. The average gadget works pretty well though, and although it’s not terrible to strive for perfection, I also need a moment to shut up and revel in the the awesomeness of the imperfect magic people have managed to weave.


1 E.g., backlight bleed on my iPad 2, suboptimal battery life on my Kindle, phosphor trails on my TV.

2 E.g., cutting out audio on my iPhone 4S, a computer with a display that occasionally turns to grey fuzz, six dead Xbox 360s.

A Degree of Modesty

Recently, I decided to pop by the university and get a PhD. Since then, a lot of people have been asking, “do you feel any different now that you have a PhD?”

Well yes, of course I do. Whenever I insist that someone call me “doctor Mike”—whether it’s government documents, or my friends, or the lady serving me a shawarma—I get a nice little reminder that I am, in fact, superior to all the common people without PhDs. That’s a great feeling.

It also feels different knowing that I’m now qualified to force my opinion about anything on anyone. Also, I don’t know if you knew this (you don’t have a PhD, after all), but a psych degree comes with a free license to kill. It also makes you a god in the sack, lowers your THAC0 by 3, and allows you to glow when you get in a fight.

Actually, I set up a camera to record my PhD defense so you can see what it was like:

Err but for serious, being The Last Dragon a doctor is, for me, a relief but otherwise no biggie.

These past 6+ years of grad school have certainly been important to me, but my degree was only one project I was working on. It’s not what has defined me as a person. So I’m proud of checking one more thing off my list of accomplishments, sure, but it is only one thing.

As a polymathic sort of person, I get pleasure in pursuing a variety of goals. Reaching those goals is rewarding, but often secondary to the pursuit. I don’t feel different when I complete a multi-year project, because the ongoing learning and building I’d been doing all those years was already fulfilling the reasons for starting the project.

Now I can focus on some other pursuits more. Substantial ones like kicking ass at my job, publishing some of my research, and finishing up those half-completed novels that are sitting around, but also more nebulous ones like building relationships with kickass people, blogging, and contributing to the good of mankind.

I’m proud of my PhD though. Sometime I should tell you guys what my research is all about, because I was extremely lucky to be able to study what I actually wanted to study, and it turned out pretty cool. Until then, cheerio.

— Dr. Michael E. Battista, M.Sc., Ph.D., O.M.G.

99 Problems But a Fish Ain’t One

Yesterday I saw a turtle squashed in the middle of the road. It’s not something you see every day in downtown London, so I figure it was an omen that it would be one of those days when everything that could go wrong would go wrong.

My first of two thesis defenses was scheduled for 1:00. I gave myself an hour after I got to school to have lunch and go over my introductory presentation. I’d written it the night before, but hadn’t practiced it yet. Last minute I guess, but I work best under pressure and there was much procrasturbation to be had.

When I picked up some sushi and a drink, the server made fun of my “bucket of coffee.” It’s true though, a venti is approaching a litre of friggin coffee. On my way back to my office, my labmate told me that I looked really chill. Which I mostly was, because all my preparation plans were in place, and all I could do was my best.

I got to my office, then flipped on my computer.

I didn’t know Apple computers could have a blue screen of death, but there it was: a blank blue screen. It was perfectly fine just 30 minutes earlier when I left the house, and now, it’s giving me sass with this blue screen. I reset it, and the blue screen was fixed! Except now it was this grainy rainbow screen of death.

I frantically Googled on my phone. I safe-moded and start-up-item-altered and make-verbs-out-of-phrases-ized as fast as my fingers would allow, but nothing that the internet suggested would help.

I took a moment to bite into my sushi. I say “bite into” because the salmon sashimi was this stringy unchewable mess. But as I stared at the spit-out wad of rancid meat, in the light of what was now a grey nonfunctional screen, feeling less than chill, a supernatural clarity came over me. I found myself reaching for a video adapter thingy. I poked it into a hole in the side of my laptop, then removed it.

No more screen of death. Like many grumpy people, my computer just needed something hard shoved into a random orifice.

I quickly loaded up my presentation. Even though I hadn’t worn a tie in a year, I let my fingers figure out how to tie it while I practiced my presentation at quadruple speed.

I got to my defense with sushi breath (I was out of gum, naturally) and a screaming bladder full of venti ounces of caffè. Of course, one of the people who needed to be there didn’t show up, so we started late anyway. But the bottom line is that I got through the presentation and the rounds of difficult questioning, and passed like a boss. Revisions, one more defense, then I’ll be a doctor.

The lesson here is that even when things go horribly wrong (in a first-world-problems sense, anyway), let them go wrong, and it will probably turn out fine anyway. They might even give you a PhD.

The Best Most Listened To Albums of 2009

Oops I forgot to post this earlier. Ah well, only a month late.

10. Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke

Synthy pop rock goodness out of New Zealand. She named herself after the 80s movie, and the 80s influence shines through hardcore, bringing me back to my childhood. Plus look at that album cover. Playing NES in her underwear? Dream woman.

9. Tegan and Sara – Sainthood

I love everything Tegan and Sara have ever put out, and Sainthood is no exception. Apparently this is the first album that they’ve actually written together. The result is a more mature-sounding, sometimes mainstream-sounding album, but it still holds some surprises.

8. Muse – The Resistance 

I was late jumping on the Muse bandwagon. I first heard them described as “the next Radiohead,” but they sound nothing like Radiohead, so maybe they just confused me. But anyway, I’ve come around, and The Resistance is another over-the-top blasting of dramatic rock goodness. It brings to mind Queen but sounds nothing like Queen.

Plus you gotta love them because, when told to lip sync, they do this:

7. The BPA – I Think We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat 

It seems like few people know that Fatboy Slim morphed into The BPA, then put out this insane mess of an album. Full of random guest stars babbling over Fatboy’s bouncy beats, it’s one of the most fun albums of the year.

Oh and this is one of the best videos of all time. OF ALL TIME.

Now I’ma let you finish.

6. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat for Lashes has this haunting, melancholy sound that I can’t stop listening to. This album is … like … if PJ Harvey and Tori Amos got it on, then popped out a baby, and that baby was a hobbit that went to visit elves and explore their musical secrets. You know what I mean?

5. Little Boots – Hands

This is just pure pop goodness. Little Boots is from England, where you can be a pop star even if you have weird teeth. I think her, Lights, and Lady GaGa should do a multinational concert together that will make teen girls and myself scream with glee.

I love this video too:

4. Marilyn Manson – High End of the Low 

I love Marilyn Manson like a son, but even I was slightly disappointed by his last album, Eat Me Drink Me. Luckily, Manson and his band are back with High End of the Low. This albums sees them less angsty, more playful. The way he casually growls “it’s arma-goddam-motherfuckin’-geddon” is irresistable.

Oh and listen to him singing with Lady GaGa!

Let’s see if I can work Lady GaGa into every entry here!

3. Joel Plaskett – Three

Plaskett, you cheater! This album is only in the top ten because it has 27 tracks on it. I’d have to listen to any other album 3 times to equal listening to this one once. But I’ll let it slide, because with no duds among all 27 songs, it’s a damn solid album. Plus he puts on an amazing live show.

I’ll just point out that Lady GaGa almost made this list with an 8-song album though.

2. Metric – Fantasies



When I first heard Fantasies, I remember thinking to myself that it would probably top this list. It’s one of those albums that you put on and go “oh, I love this song!”, then the next track comes on and you’re like “oh I love this one too!”, repeat x 10. Metric seems to have finally made the transition to big-ass popular band, and I’d love to see them play Stadium Love in a stadium. It’s a song about spiders fighting bats fighting eels, or something, which might be a metaphor? Whatever, it’s definitely awesome.

1. La Roux – La Roux

Well, this is embarrassing. See, I wouldn’t classify La Roux’s debut as a good album. Their 80s-inspired synthpop isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, and probably done better. But obviously something here pleasured my eardrums enough to listen to it more than any other album of the year. Elly’s voice is just heartbreaking, and along with the nostalgia-soaked music, it tickles something deep in the drafty chambers of my blackened heart.

Here is the song/video that hooked me:


(again, from England where you can be both famous and awkward-looking)

So there’s my list. Perhaps you will find something here that you didn’t know existed until now. What were your favourite albums of the year?

The Best Most Listened-To Albums of 2009 – Honourable Mentions

I can’t really say what the best music of the year is. I haven’t listened to every album that has come out, and I’m no music critic. What I can do is say which albums captured my ears enough to listen to over and over. Luckily, Last.fm keeps track of all the music I listen to, so it’s easy to see which albums those are. In a few days I will post my most listened-to albums of the year. But today, here are some albums that probably would have made that list, if they came out or I’d gotten them earlier in the year. This only includes albums that were released in 2009 in North America.

Aqua – Greatest Hits: It’s so disappointing that Aqua’s big comeback was just 3 new songs on a greatest hits album. Oh, but what songs they are. Back to the Eighties sounds just fresh enough to exist today, while keeping Aqua’s awkward, slightly out-of-touch-with-reality lyrics. Every night I pray that Aqua will release another full length album.

The Prodigy – Invaders Must Die: Another 90s band still kicking ass in the 00s, The Prodigy continues to make insanely high-energy dance music that’s useful for when you need that extra motivation at the gym, or you’re cutting an action movie trailer.
See also: The Crystal Method – Divided By Night; MSTRKRFT – Fist of God; You Say Party! We Say Die! – XXXX


Chris Cornell – Scream: Then there’s how not to make a comeback. Chris Cornell’s — yes, the same one who fronted Soundgarden and Audioslave — Timbaland-produced, guitar-free pop collection is a platypus of an album; so disjointed and ugly that it really shouldn’t even exist. But in my humble opinion, it goes so far into terrible territory that it ends up in awesome land.

What…the…fuck.

Lady GaGa – The Fame Monster: More WTF courtesy of Lady GaGa. The Fame Monster is a little 8-song blast of sugary pop with an edge to it. It’s like a tiny dessert that’s finished before you tire of its sweet-bitter richness.
See also: Lights – The Listening, Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma.

.

Weezer – The 8-bit Album: A collection of Weezer songs done in the style of, or with the technology of, 8-bit video games. Weezer’s genius in crafting strong pop songs is highlighted by the fact that they’re still fun to listen to when stripped down to bleeps and bloobs.
See also: Weezer – Raditude, Jaydiohead – Jay-Z x Radiohead.

Gavin Castleton – Home: A concept album telling a story of love during a zombie apocalypse? YES PLEASE.
See also: other quirky independent pop: e.g.: The Fiery Furnaces – I’m Going Away, Islands – Vapours, Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career, Andrew Bird – Noble Beast.

Ramona Falls – Intuit: Raymi tossed a video from this album onto one of her posts, and I instantly fell in love with it. Such beautiful, dark, fresh, epic music. Even though I have no idea what they’re singing about most of the time.
See also: Placebo – Battle For the Sun.

Oh and this video is incredible:

I’ll be back in a few days with the albums I listened to most in 2008.

Book Review: Ten Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet) – A Guide to the Scientific Wilderness, by Michael Hanlon

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of reading about and contributing to science, it’s the old cliche that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The method of science has revealed a whole lot about the universe we live in, but even the most well-established facts can be utterly mysterious if examined in depth. Most of this mystery is still too unfathomable to even be labeled as a mystery, beyond even the wildest speculation. However, there are some things we know enough about to ask good questions, but not yet enough to provide good answers. Michael Hanlon explores ten of these questions in this book.

The title is a bit misleading; this is not a comprehensive “guide”, but a rather random selection of ten mysteries. Some are what you’d expect – e.g., what is dark matter? What are consciousness and identity? But there are also some quirky topics you wouldn’t expect here – e.g., what really causes obesity? What should we do with stupid people? I found these rarely-tackled topics to be the most interesting.

It’s a quick read, written in an informal style and never delving too deep into any one topic. It’s just enough to stimulate your appetite for more information, but unfortunately Hanlon rarely provides sources for the science mentioned. That’s somewhat forgivable – this is, after all, a book of questions, not answers. Less forgivable is the preponderance of typos and shoddy writing (e.g., why does everyone have so much trouble distinguishing “which” and “that”?). I thought I was just being picky, but I got the book from the library and whoever read it before me went to the trouble of circling and correcting each of the many mistakes. Hilarious.

This book should be a light, entertaining read for both scientists and non-scientists. I think it would also be a great wake-up call for people who identify with the so-called “skeptical movement.” Skepticism is obviously a requirement for good science, but I think it is often taken too far, to the point where skeptics can claim that we already know everything there is to know about the universe (and therefore anything that contradicts current knowledge must be wrong). This book is just one reminder that no, actually, we know very little about the universe. Mystery is what makes science so exciting.