Everything I Never Told You

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After a disappointing science fiction novel, about which I wrote last month, and a disappointing fantasy novel I didn’t bother to write about, I was again scanning my closed Amazon wish list for the next book. And so I came to read “Everything I Never Told You” which is the debut novel of Celeste Ng.

It’s what I sometimes call a “normal people problems” book. No lightsabers are used and no wizards appear out of thin air.

There is a family of five people: mother, father, son and two daughters. One of the daughters is found dead and the whole book revolves about the question why and how she died.

Through various flashbacks and inspections of the current situation from the viewpoints of each of the members of the family the problems that shaped the lives of the individuals and the family in its entirety are revealed.

At first it all seems to be rather mundane and a standard case of unfulfilled dreams and feelings of inferiority of the parents which they long for their children to implement and overcome. But it’s much deeper than that and the consequences are way more disturbing.

Ng succeeded to change my attitude from “Why did they recommend this book?” during the first pages through “That might be a good source for a drama movie.” to finally “So that’s how life sometimes plays. You die shortly after you realize what you can change to actually reach happiness.”

Congratulations to Celeste Ng for a great first novel. If you like to read touching stories with a good portion of tragedy, I recommend this one to you. If you are a parent and have specific ideas about the future of your child, I even urge you to read it.

Seveneves

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When “Star Wars Episode 1” arrived in the cinemas many fans were shocked and some came up with a conspiracy theory in which George Lucas had been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter.

When I look at Neal Stephenson’s books after “Anathem” I fear a similar conspiracy is taking place here.

I didn’t like “Reamde” and I don’t like “Seveneves”.

The setup of “Seveneves” isn’t overly exciting. One day the moon breaks apart into seven pieces and scientist predict that within two years it will split into many more small pieces that will produce a “hard rain”, which in turn will burn Earth and extinguish all life on it.

Similar scenarios have been used and reused for movies with beautifully rendered catastrophes.

But this is a book by Neal Stephenson and I believed in him doing something special with this. And he probably does. The book consists of three parts. In the first part the world prepares for the catastrophe by sending selected people to the ISS and creating a “Cloud Ark” with the ISS at its center. The second part shows the catastrophe and the third part takes place 5000 years afterwards.

I gave up at the start of the second part which is after 1/3 of the book. The problem is that the story is broken into little chunks by overly detailed descriptions of all sorts. It seems like Stephenson is trying to make sure some scientists will be inspired to actually build the things he describes. With that those descriptions look like small technically detailed essays.

The book is likely a contribution to his Project Hieroglyph. The project wants to bring together big ideas, real science and great stories.

The big idea in Seveneves is how humanity will deal with a catastrophe destroying all life on Earth. I’m convinced that Stephenson did a detailed research on all the topics he talks about in his essay-like descriptions.

The last one — great stories — is where the book is sorely lacking. Where is the engaging, exciting storytelling from “Diamond Age”, “Snow Crash” and the “Baroque Cycle”?

Is this an imposter at work? So sad. I really miss the old Neal Stephenson.

Jean Le Flambeur

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I pity those who read “The Quantum Thief” by Hannu Rajaniemi shortly after it was published and had to wait two years for “The Fractal Prince” and again two years for “The Causal Angel”. That’s because this trilogy is actually one huge story.

There’s so much going on here and so many things, that make their first appearance in the first volume, are explained in the second or third. It’s dubbed a space opera by some while others complain that it only takes place in our own solar system and so on a far too small scale to be a space opera. Even though the spaceships only visit Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn, the actual action is grand enough for me to call it a space opera.

The protagonist here is a Jean Le Flambeur who is said to resemble Arsène Lupin. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, because I never read a Lupin novel and the last movie featuring him, that I remember watching, bored me somehow. Anyways, Jean is what you’d call a gentleman thief and throughout all three volumes he steals or tries to steal things, but while the original Lupin would steal crown jewels, Le Flambeur steals quantum information and other science-fictionally fantastical things.

The whole setup is really crazy. There is an organization called the Sobornost trying to finish the “Great Common Task” which involves uploading all humans into big planetary sized computers. It’s like a new kind of socialism inspired by the Soviet Union.

Then there is another group — a group of gamers — who spend their time in virtual realities called Realms and for whom even the war against the Sobornost is a game.

And then there are people of flesh and blood who just don’t want to be uploaded.

The books are filled with nerd talk to the brim. Here’s one piece I took the time to write down while reading:

There are two problems, really. The first is that we can’t solve any hard problems. Not really. Anything that’s NP-complete. The Travelling Salesman. Pac-Man. They’re all the same. All too hard.

Kindle’s feature of not only displaying a dictionary definition for a word but also being able to look it up in Wikipedia, was really helpful here. Regularly I came across terms that a Wikipedia entry would identify as culturally belonging to Russian or Japanese history.

The books are really crazy and if you’ve read any books about virtual realities, singularities and transhumanism then those will probably look like children’s play compared the the Le Flambeur books. Many of the concepts presented here are just fantastical and seem to be totally impossible, but then, no one can really know, how transhumanism would really work. And it’s a real joy to read those nerdy novels.

So I highly recommend those books and also to take the time to read them directly one after the other without any breaks.

Solved Problems

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I’m that kind of guy who loses interest in problems once they are solved. That’s why I seldom write about software development on this site although developing software is what I’m doing most of my time.

Problems interrupt the flow. They require me to experiment again and again with seemingly not getting anywhere for some time. Solving problems also involve finding some good search terms that will make DuckDuckGo bring up some StackOverflow page or some blog post that at least contains some hints at where the solution might be lurking. Having solved a problem is fun. Achievement unlocked. Problem solved.

After a problem is solved the flow becomes tangible again. So I usually don’t write about solved problems. I plunge into the flow towards new challenges.

I applied for a job as an iOS developer some days ago and they asked me to do a homework to verify the truthfulness of what I told them about my skills. They asked me to develop an app showing fake statistics data for an unnamed website. The app was also required to contain a today widget.

As I developed the app and the widget and wrote tests for both, I realized that it presents the solutions to some problems in a pretty uncluttered way that might be useful to other people.

So I put it on GitHub. It shows my current opinion on the development of testable iOS apps in the Swift programming language.

Although it makes some use of ReactiveCocoa 3, I’ve still got the inkling that there is much more to functional reactive programming than how I use ReactiveCocoa now. So don’t take it as a primer on that subject. It’s still a good starting point, though.

I’ve read many comments from iOS developers complaining about AutoLayout. Perhaps because I’m used to this kind of layout management from the Java projects I’ve worked on, AutoLayout has never been a big issue to me. I actually like it. I’ve never been a fan of GUI builders and avoid Interface Builder whenever possible. I create my UIs programmatically. Sure, it’s quite verbose when you use the low level API, but I always have a simple wrapper around it that I started developing while working on Space Primacy. It’s so simple that I didn’t bother releasing it as a framework. That’s one of those solved problems I mentioned above.

Weighort

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When I created the first project that I would show to the world, I had quite a problem to find a good name for. I read all the tips about naming software and somehow came up with the name “Squareness”. It was a look and feel for the Java Swing library that used rectangles quite a lot because rounded corners looked bad back then a decade ago. But I couldn’t come up with a nice sounding name containing “rectangle”, “rectangular” or something like that and “squareness” also had other meanings that seemed fun to subtly add to this project.

I realized very soon that the name was a mistake. As many — or maybe all — who release something to the public, I wanted to know if others talked about it and what exactly they said about it. Use your favorite search engine to search for “squareness” and you’ll get many search results. Back then when Squareness was in active development it wasn’t any easier than today to really find the results that dealt with my project.

So for the next big project I came up with a new strategy. I wrote down a sentence describing it, “OSGI Module Layer and Eclipse RCP support”, and played with the beginnings of the words until I came up with “Osmorc”. That name had a nice sound to it. It was also short and searching for it produced only very few results.

I used similar strategies for Bookitics which came from “book critics” and Appiast which came from “app enthusiast”.

So after this lengthy prelude let me introduce my next app: “Weighort”. This is from “weight report” and the app is a weight tracker. I like that it rhymes with “weird” and “way”, because it probably looks weird to release another weight tracker and because it gets along with the bold tag line “your way to your target way” which I’ve chosen for it.

What sets it apart from other weight trackers is that it integrates perfectly with the Health app and just looks better than any other I looked at. It’s a joy to enter your daily weight into it and instead of those graphs present in every weight tracker nowadays, it just shows two informative bar charts that motivate you to work on reaching your target weight.

For more information about it and a convenient link to the App Store look at its website.