Book review: Less

Less

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not read a lot of Pulitzer prize-winning novels. In fact, it would be accurate to say I’ve read none.

But the 2018 winner, Less, was on sale and I said to myself, “What price would I pay to read a Pulitzer-winning novel?” And the answer was, “Less!”

Sorry.

This is a funny novel and I mean that in both common definitions of the word. It is breezy and witty, but also a bit odd in how it follows the meandering world-spanning trip of not-quite-self-discovery that Arthur Less, a soon-to-be-50 novelist, undertakes shortly after the story begins. Quirky details are the norm here and the narrator—intruding occasionally to make it clear they are an actual person telling the story, and not an omniscient unknown presence—lovingly describes the hapless Less with both affection and concern as he blunders through France, Morocco, Germany and other locations. Cast in vivid relief in the background is the imminent marriage of his younger lover Freddy, who left Less abruptly.

Less’s trip is stuffed with incidental details, side stories and diversions that somehow always prove interesting, no matter how inconsequential they initially seem, largely thanks to Greer’s droll wit and use of metaphor. Metaphor in the hands of a bad author is like expecting a five year old to whip up a seven course meal, but here Greer wields it like a master chef. Or something like that (I may be a bad writer).

Perhaps the single funniest moment (minor spoiler) is someone telling Less he is a “bad gay,” underscoring just how little he seems to understand others—or even himself.

This story certainly won’t be for everyone. The writing, though funny, is dense and detailed, and speaks of a class and world that many will only ever see from a distance, if at all. But Greer buoys the prose so beautifully, it’s difficult to not recommend, anyway. If you’re looking for an amusing examination of befuddled middle age, Less will give you that—and a little more.

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Book review: Surviving Death

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect a lot of people will have one of two reactions on reading this book. They’ll either roll their eyes and put it down, dismissing it as a bunch of non-scientific hooey, or they’ll allow themselves to admit that definitive evidence may be ever-elusive, but that Kean presents a strong set of circumstantial evidence to suggest that consciousness can and does exist outside of the human body, and can therefore exist after death.

Kean breaks the book into sections and devotes chapters to letting direct witnesses or participants tell their stories in their own words, ranging from classic out-of-body experiences. My favorite is a woman in hospital who floated around and outside the building while suffering cardiac arrest, spotting a blue tennis shoe out of sight on a ledge. A medical social worker later looks for and finds the shoe, which precisely matches the description the patient offered. This story is also a good example of the evidence Kean provides. While you can come up with ways the story might be faked–the patient and social worker may have conspired together, the patient may have planted the shoe herself before her hospital stay–they all seem highly implausible, but not quite impossible, always leaving some room for doubt for the skeptical.

Kean devotes further chapters to past life experiences, “actual death” experiences where the patient is clinically dead for a period of time, and a large part of the book to communicating with the dead through mediums and seances. Kean ends up inserting herself into the story after attending several seances in which she believes she is contacted by two spirits, those of her brother and Budd Hopkins, the UFO investigator, with whom she was acquainted. She also sees physical manifestations of objects like human hands forming out of ectoplasm. If it sounds weird, it’s because it is weird.

Kean admits as much while asserting that she always remained analytical, taking notes and doing all she could to establish the events were authentic and happened as she recollected.

The underlying thesis is that there exists two things we can’t really see or even prove. The first is psi energy–the ability to do things like move objects through thought alone (yes, just like Carrie, but with less burning-down-the-high-school), and the second is that each person has a consciousness or what some might call the soul, that resides within our brains and bodies, but is not bound to them, so that when we die, this essence or soul is released and joins others in another dimension that doesn’t quite overlap ours. It’s established that those in this other dimension cannot easily communicate with us, because they exist outside of regular physical space. But the other dimension is very groovy and peaceful and wonderful, and is why virtually everyone having a near-death or out-of-body experience loses their fear of death.

A good part of the book is spent on various observers debating whether the experiences are created by discarnates (spirits) or through the psychic energy of those who report seeing them. It is notable that those having this debate are only arguing between the two possibilities, not that the phenomenon is fake or staged in any way.

The evidence presented is about as good as can be expected and Kean comes down on the side suggesting the evidence points toward survival (life after death) rather than just being projections made by the living. I found few instances where I thought, “Yeah, but…” in the many examples provided, and this is a credit to Kean’s research and thoroughness.

It’s still all very weird, though.

I went into reading Surviving Death with an open mind, and I remain the same after. I can’t say I “believe” as I haven’t seen any of the things Kean documents, but I also can’t deny that any of it might be possible. I’ve long felt that the world we see and the world that is are two vastly different things, that we only understand a small sliver of what we consider reality. I find this intimidating, but also exciting. And in the end (no pun intended–well, maybe a little), the idea that death–something none of us can avoid–is nothing to fear, but rather something to embrace when it comes, is a welcome one, particularly in western culture where death is treated as something terrible. Myself, I want a wake, not a funeral, and if I am still around in some form post-death I would absolutely delight in freaking out any surviving friends by messing with them. In a good-natured way, of course.

I did feel that the final section on mediums and seances could have been trimmed a bit, as the material starts to feel same-y as Kean documents various mediums and episodes, but it’s a minor criticism.

If you are intrigued by the idea of the consciousness surviving outside the living body, and of life only being one part of the human experience, Surviving Death is easy to recommend.

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Book review: Transmission

Transmission

Transmission by Ambrose Ibsen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Transmission is a short, direct, no-filler, no subplot horror story with perfunctory prose that feels more like an initial treatment for something more substantial than a complete work.

It’s perfectly okay as is, but that’s my main issue–it’s just okay. Nearly every aspect of it falls short of its potential. The student protagonists of Kenji and Dylan are sketches and I never really felt much of anything for them. The Vietnam vet Reggie (you are reminded he is a Vietnam vet–for no real reason–so often it almost becomes part of his name) is a generic semi-retired guy who similarly has no life outside the narrow confines of the book’s plot. The characters feel like pieces put into play to be subject to the spooky goings-on.

The plot itself is one I’m a sucker for. As the title suggests, it’s about the transmission of a message from a mysterious woman who somehow gets herself into a World War II documentary and a song by an obscure band. The students and Reggie are compelled to decipher the cryptic message she speaks and from there both spooky and bad things happen.

All this is good and I kept reading to see what would happen, just as any author would hope for, but by the end I was left unsatisfied because the whole experience is a little too straightforward. By eschewing any subplots or supporting characters, by cutting away the rest of these characters’ lives, save for the bare minimum, I felt detached from them, instead of invested. And the transmission and the fallout of the successful deciphering (spoiler!) likewise left me wanting more. It’s all just a little too…little.

This is where really sharp prose could have lifted the entire story, but the prose only does its job, nothing more.

Transmission is not bad by any means, it just seems content to amble along instead of trying to fly.

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Book review: The Inner Runner

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You by Jason R. Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, some background: I’ve been running for ten years (since 2009 if you happen across this review some time after 2019), but I’m a late bloomer, as I was already 44 when I started. I can’t say I regret how fast my run times may have been in my 20s because I never saw them!

I’ve read a few books and lots of articles on running. When I began, I researched shoes and other running gear and am glad I did. I still cringe when I see other joggers on the trail in the middle of summer wearing sweat-drenched cotton t-shirts.

I came into The Inner Runner not as a neophyte, then, but as someone who has been running less lately due to knee and other issues. I felt like I was losing some of my mojo, so I figured this book might provide some inspiration. And while its fine for what it is, it didn’t really inspire me at all. Going for a run around the lake got me fired up again, though, and one of the mantras Karp repeats throughout The Inner Runner is to just run. So in that sense, maybe it has helped.

There are some nice success stories and anecdotes here about the running experience, but Karp seems at times confused about the audience. At times it feels like he is giving advice for the wayward runner, and at others it seems like he is trying more to entice newbies into the running life. I don’t think you can effectively pitch a book at both audiences, as their needs and motivations are going to be different.

Karp wears his biases openly–he prefers short, fast runs over longer, endurance-focused efforts, and he is a big believer in running being something that can undeniably make someone’s life better, through the discipline, focus and dedication it requires. He lists many benefits, such as how it is one of the most effective exercises for losing weight, but doesn’t shy away from potential downsides–leg and foot injuries being the prime examples.

I did have an issue with Karp’s repeated use of “pain” being a necessary part in improving your performance. Pain is not good, pain is your body telling you that you’re pushing too hard and should stop. Pushing through pain is not noble or brave, it’s dumb and greatly increases the chance for injury. Sometimes Karp uses the term “discomfort” instead and I actually believe this is what he really means most of the time, but word choice matters and I’d hate to have anyone read this book and come away thinking that if they aren’t hurting while they run that they are doing something wrong.

Overall, this isn’t a bad book. It has a lot of interesting background on the body science of running–Karp is quite knowledgeable on the subject, but it’s perhaps too long and lacking in focus.

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Book review: Flight or Fright

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with most anthologies, this collection is filled with stories that are mostly fine, a few that are great and some that are merely okay. That Bev Vincent managed to collect enough stories based around a specific theme–terrible things happening on aircraft, makes the overall quality noteworthy.

All but two of the stories have been previously published, but given the narrow focus of the collection, it’s likely you will not have read many of them. Here’s a short summary of each. Overall I can recommend this collection to fans of horror or suspense. And if you read these stories while flying, I salute you.

“Cargo” by E. Michael Lewis is an effectively creepy opener in which a Loadmaster onboard a Lockheed C-141A StarLifter transport must deal oversee dozens of coffins being sent back to the U.S., straight from the Jonestown massacre. Things go bump in the plane.

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle. This story has been scuppered by the inevitable march of progress in air flight (not to mention space travel), but it’s still a nifty epistolary of a pilot who dares to fly his solo aircraft into the unheard of reaches of 40,000 feet, where strange and hostile creatures are rumored to dwell.

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson. This is easily the best-known story of the anthology, and if you’ve seen the classic Twilight zone episode, which Matheson also adapted, you’ll find it is largely faithful to the original story of a man convinced he is seeing a creature on the plane’s wing, trying to tamper with the engine. Chilling, suspenseful and an all-around good time.

“The Flying Machine” by Ambrose Bierce. An odd short short more about procuring investment from gullible types than flying (Bierce died in 1914).

“Lucifer!” by E.C. Tubb. A morgue attendant pries the ring off a dead body before it is claimed. He discovers the ring has certain unique qualities while abroad a flight and from there a devious mix of time travel and terror unfolds.

“The Fifth Category” by Thomas Carlisle Bissell. A man who worked for the U.S. government during the Iraq invasion, writing legal opinions on torture, earns himself a reputation for being a war criminal by some. He agrees to give a speech, with others, in Lithuania, then on the flight home, strange things happen that seem to relate to his defense of torture. This dark tale is wonderfully written, with prose that snaps and sparkles.

“Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” by Dan Simmons. A shorter piece in which a man feeling guilty of what he has done with his life, decides to do something about it while in a private jet full of executives. This one didn’t grab me and the rollercoaster analogy fell flat.

“Diablitos” by Cody Goodfellow. Ryan Rayburn III tries to smuggle a mask from a now-extinguished primitive people known as the Xorocua onboard a 727. The mask was worn in harvest ceremonies to summon Diablitos, or little demons. You know how you shouldn’t steal uranium with your bare hands? This story is kind of like that. And it is delightful.

“Air Raid” by John Varley. This is a weird time travel story taking place on a commercial flight in 1979 (the story was written in 1977) and I can’t really say much without spoiling it, but it’s a neat idea, filled with quirks and people just doing their jobs, however strange their jobs may be. Another good one.

“You Are Released” by Joe Hill. This story os one of two originals written for the collection and is my favorite. It’s a simple story–a group of passengers on a 777 are returning to Boston when the pilot announces a report of a flash near Guam. Details emerge that it may be a nuclear strike, and the various characters–an actress, an alcoholic, a MAGA adherent and others–begin to realize that a full-on nuclear exchange is likely taking place as they cruise 30,000 feet above what could be the start of the end of human civilization. Harrowing and authentic.

“Warbirds” by David J. Schow. An old flyer from World War II tells the son of a fellow flyer, now deceased, about the warbirds, strange creatures that he swears flew with them through their battles in the sky. This one has a haunting quality to it I liked.

“The Flying Machine” by Ray Bradbury. A short and dark tale sent in China in AD 400, in which the servant of Emperor Yuan spots a man impossibly flying, using some kind of contraption he has apparently built himself. The emperor, fearing what might happen if flight became more common–and the great defense of The Great Wall was trivialized–orders the flier executed, and swears the servant to the same, hoping to prevent anyone else from inventing another flying machine and using it for dark purposes. Well, we all know how that turned out. :P Bradbury writes well, as always, but the lesson here felt a little too on-point.

“Zombies on a Plane” by Bev Vincent. This is a short, slight tale about a group of survivors amid a zombie apocalypse trying to escape dodge on a small passenger jet. A twist ending of sorts and there are zombies, as promised in the title. A decent take, but nothing revelatory.

“They Shall Not Grow Old” by Roald Dahl. I adored this story, not just for the language, but also for the sheer earnestness of WWII pilot Fin, describing to his baffled comrades how he came back two days after a surveillance mission, long after his plane would have run out of fuel. Published near the end of the war, it brims with authentic detail as Fin depicts his trip into the light.

“Murder in the Air” by Peter Tremayne. A straight-up murder mystery on a commercial flight, with suspects, an investigation, the explanation and everything neatly wrapped up by the end, including, presumably, the body. Despite the gore surrounding the deceased, this is probably the closet the collection gets to high brow. There’s Latin and all that. I enjoyed it, though murder mysteries aren’t really my thing.

“The Turbulence Expert” by Stephen King. The other original story, this story hints at people who can see the future and conscript others to avoid worst case scenarios–in this case, potentially fatal clear air turbulence on commercial airliners. It’s fun and the characters are smart and witty and engaging. My one nit is the Mary Worth character (literally named Mary Worth) seems a little too quick on the uptake, given the oddities she is presented with.

“Falling” by James L. Dickey. Stephen King introduces this with, “Before you groan, shake your head, and say ‘I don’t read poetry,'” which is exactly where I stopped. It may be a dazzling poem and perhaps I will go back and read it one day. But not now.

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Book review: Dead Shift

Dead Shift

Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fast-moving and witty romp that starts with a cancer-riddled old man completing the proverbial deal with the devil shortly after being brought into Northcote Hospital. He summons Terrible Things, gets his just reward (not so good), then leaves the hospital staff to deal with the cosmic horrors he’s invited to our dimension.

Complete with a literal shout out to Lovecraft, Dead Shift is full of gruesomely gory scenes and characters both smart and sarcastic. They take the whole “world transforming into some unspeakable place” thing well, considering.

The story zips by quickly and though the climax is predictable, the journey getting to it is entertaining as the three central characters–a doctor, a pathologist and a staff nurse–team together to undo what the old man has done, showing resolve, ingenuity and that ineffably dry British wit along the way.

The only reason I rate the novel three starts instead of four (come on, Goodreads, add half stars already) is I felt there was an unnecessary tonal shift in the final scene. It is rather humorlessly grim, unlike all that came before it, and feels designed more to show off a shock/twist ending. As such, it left me disappointed, because the twist is trite and doesn’t earn the abrupt shift in tone.

Everything before is a spiffy take on the ever-growing library of Lovecraftian fiction. If you like yours with a dash of sarcasm and a handful of sensible characters that don’t behave stupidly to advance the plot, Dead Shift is recommended.

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Book review: Astounding!

Astounding!

Astounding! by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another short, breezy read. The elevator pitch might be “Road trip with my secret alien lover.”

Astounding! tells the story of Carter Evans, the editor of a high quality but money-losing speculative fiction magazine called Astounding! As he prepares the final issue, he drowns his sorrow in booze and meaningless sex with strangers. As opposed to meaningful sex with strangers, I suppose. While more than a little drunk, he writes a personal rejection letter to John Harper, a guy who sends terrible stories to the magazine every month, pleading that they be published. Carter doesn’t intend to send the letter, as it’s quite nasty, but being drunk and all that, off it goes.

He impulsively decides to apologize in person by driving from Seattle to Portland, where he finds John living in a small duplex. John looks like Tab Hunter, and all his furniture and belongings have a similarly vintage style. After the apology is accepted, John invites Carter to spend the night–on the couch–because the drive back to Seattle is long and it’s late. Carter agrees because he finds John super-hot. When they accidentally bump into each other in the narrow hallway as each prepares for bed the inevitable happens, then happens a few more times after that.

The story kicks into high gear when Carter’s friend, Freddie, an author of a Game of Thrones-style bestselling series, convinces Carter to join him and his partner on a RV trip to Yosemite. Carter impulsively gets them to stop in Portland, where they pick up John.

John is very polite and shy and charms everyone and is an alien in disguise. He wanted his stories published to serve as a beacon to his people-electrical beings without bodies–that he was ready to return home after a kind of fact-finding mission.

John and Carter (get it?) fall head over tentacles in love (kidding, there are no tentacles, though they get a mention), and this is complicated by John’s inevitable return home when that last issue of Astounding! hits the newsstands and his alien cohorts arrive to fetch him.

From here there are shenanigans, most of them occurring on the trip in the RV. The heart of the story feels almost like the travelogue of a good friend, recounting activities and meals, doing touristy things, braving the great outdoors where cellphones lose reception, all minus the boring slides (or posts to social media) you are forced to endure.

The arc of the story is predictable, but it’s presented so pleasantly and with such warmth that it feels like snuggling up with whatever favorite thing it is that comforts you. Most of the conflict is of the “breaking hearts” variety, Carter grows as a person, John grows as an alien-inside-a-fake-person and it’s all just kind of sweet.

I did find the ending a bit odd. Without going into spoilers, Carter recalls how he and Freddie define a “pancake part” in a story. It’s a scene that comes after the climax and denouement, being both unnecessary and making the story too long. And the final scene of Astounding! feels exactly like that. Still, it doesn’t detract much from what precedes it.

As expected in a story like this, the science is not exactly rigorous, bending to the needs of the plot, but there is a simple joy in watching a couple fall in love and remain smitten, affected only by external forces that seek to separate them. This is essentially light, romantic fluff with a science fiction twist, so if you’re up for that (with the requisite sex scenes, presented in semi-explicit detail), Astounding! may charm.

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Book review: Elevation

Elevation

Elevation by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

NOTE: This won Goodreads Best Book 2018 Award for Horror, which is flat-out absurd. This is not a horror story in any way.

This is a strange thing: a Stephen King novel (it says so right on the cover) that is legitimately short. This hearkens back to, well, literally forty years ago, when he wrote novels that told their stories in less than a thousand pages. (I’m being mean, of course. Some of his recent novels would not break a bookshelf in two, just most of them).

In telling a lean tale, King jettisons side plots, extraneous characters, back story and everything else to show how a seemingly unassuming man in Castle Rock helps smooth the way for a lesbian couple to be accepted–more or less-by the community, before facing up to his very unusual condition.

Without going into spoilers–I think the story works better if you don’t know more than I’ve just described–I found Elevation to be sweet, even lovely. It seems to have been written as an antidote to the rather depressing state of the world we currently live in, filled with compassion and decency, even if the face of naked prejudice, threats of violence and reckoning with one’s mortality.

It’s also rather funny, in all the right places.

The characters are not particularly complex and given the brevity of the story, things may feel like they get resolved a little too quickly. This isn’t anything deep or profound, but you’d need to have your cynicism shined and buffed to not be at least a little moved by this.

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Book review: Contagious

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short book that feels a bit like a magazine article that got padded out, but it is accessible and both provides explanations for why things are popular, along with tips on how to make your own product/event/thing popular. It generally manages to not feel too much like a sales pitch.

While a lot of what Berger offers seems obvious when he explains it–people are more likely to remember something and share it (“go viral”) if the product is an inextricable part of the message you craft, rather than not being connected at all to an otherwise clever ad, for example–I was left feeling that you can do everything right and still not have your whatever-it-is catch on. Call it luck, karma, coincidence, or something else, it still seems that most products, stunts, messages and so on get put out to the public and die quiet deaths, no matter how carefully they have been created and nurtured to become successes.

Berger outlines the mnemonic STEPPS as the key to how things catch on: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. Each makes sense. For example, we are by nature inclined to enjoy narratives, so a good story can be an effective way to transmit a message (one of the examples used is the story of the Trojan Horse and how it serves as a warning to be suspicious when an enemy turns friendly without cause). There is also some pop psychology fun in examining how easy it can be to manipulate people (line-ups = product good, no line-ups = product bad), but in a way it’s also a bit depressing to realize how much of everything we see and experience hasn’t just been made for us to enjoy, it’s been crafted in a calculated, even cynical way, to work on our emotions.

Although not especially revelatory, Contagious is a quick, easy read.

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My keyboard history and a short CTRL keyboard review

In one of those “down the rabbit hole” journeys that happens when I get caught up searching for something on the web and get inexorably drawn into finding and poring over a bunch of unrelated things, I came across the D2D YouTube channel.

Dave Lee seemed personable enough and I liked his low key style, so I kept watching for videos that would interest me and lo, he had one featuring one of my weirdly favorite computer topics: keyboards.

I used to collect computer mice like no one’s business and I still change up semi-regularly (my current mouse of a Logitech G703 wireless, which I’ll review separately. Super-short review right now: Great mouse except for battery life.) but the pace of collecting mice has dropped off over the last few years, perhaps because mice are generally improving enough that I don’t see the need to keep searching for something better.

Which brings me to keyboards.

For some years after I got my first PC (way back in 1994) I just used whatever cheap keyboard I could find, ones that would go for $10-15 today. They were all pretty much the same. The biggest change was when they started including a dedicated Windows key. It seemed weird at the time.

But after I’d upgraded my rig a few times I became more particular and started looking for keyboards that had backlighting or extra keys. I eventually decided the extra keys/macros were something I never used, but backlighting was nice to have, as my computer space was not brightly lit.

Fast-forward to around five years ago when mechanical keyboards became a big thing. I didn’t pay much attention at first because they seemed absurdly expensive. Well, they were absurdly expensive, really. I was intrigued, but not enough to buy.

As I spent more time working on laptops, I found myself starting to prefer the low-travel keys they featured and settle on a desktop keyboard that emulated the style. Although it was not backlit, my computer space was now brightly lit, so it was no longer a priority. The keyboard was wireless (nice, but inessential) and runs off solar power. This is nicer than expected because it meant that I literally never have to worry about batteries.

The worst aspect of the Logitech K750 is probably the glossy sheen the keys and surrounding surface have. Under bright light it can produce surprisingly annoying glare. Glossy is never good on keyboard.

Although happy enough with the keyboard, curiosity got the better of me and I got a Cooler Master Trigger mechanical keyboard. It has red backlighting, extra macro keys, and a weird setup that disables the Windows key by default. I never warmed to it at all and quickly set it aside, regretting the decision to buy.

But buyer’s regret never stopped me, so I next picked up a more business-oriented Das keyboard. It had blue switches and I learned to love the CLACK. However, like the K750, it had a glossy design I came to dislike and it was big and bulky. A tenkeyless design (without the numeric keypad) would be better ergonomically and take up less space. From here I experimented with some tenkeyless designs using red, brown and blue switches. They were all fine, but none really clicked (so to speak), though the blue switches remained my favorite.

Then Dave Lee posted a video for what he declared the best keyboard ever, the CTRL keyboard, featured on Massdrop. I was intrigued and liked the clean look. Thee drop ended before I could buy, but eventually came back and I placed an order.

It took a few weeks to show up and I had to pay an additional fee to actually collect it, so it came out to be very expensive in the end–over $200 Canadian. Although it has a few flaws, it has become my favorite mechanical keyboard and the reason has nothing to do with anything Dave mentions in his video, but rather in the choice of switches.

I was intrigued by the description of Halo Clear switches as having the clickiness of cherry switches, but with a smoother, more “velvety” feel, so I took a chance and ordered the keyboard with them, trusting they would live up to the description.

And they did. And they are the key (ho ho) reason why I really like the keyboard and have finally ended my great keyboard quest.

For now.

The good points:

  • Halo Clear switches are clicky, but smoother than blues and a bit quieter, too
  • Backlighting offers a good set of options
  • USB Type-C connections on opposite ends of keyboard allow for easy cable management
  • Switches are actually hot swappable if you’re into that
  • Aluminum chassis is very solid
  • Works great with both Windows and Mac

The not-so-good points:

  • With the backlight off, the lettering on the keys is very difficult to see. Not a big deal if you’re a touch typist, but something to be aware of.
  • The removable feet will almost always pop off if you try moving the keyboard by sliding it around the desk. Folding legs would have worked better.
  • The default backlight mode is a strobing rainbow effect, which you will see every time you connect the keyboard. It is pretty, but entirely impractical, so you have to go through a series of FN-key shortcuts to get back to something “normal.”
  • I found all but the white backlight color to be too garish, even after adjusting the brightness down.
  • Sometimes the backlight controls will stop responding, forcing you to unplug the keyboard and start from the strobing rainbow again.
  • The keyboard configurator is clumsy

Really, I think any reasonably well-made keyboard with Halo switches would win me over, but even apart from them, the CTRL is a sold offering. Overall, I’m happy with the purchase and typing is once again a satisfyingly clicky experience, though now with a pleasingly softer touch.


Book review: Stretching to Stay Young

Stretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain FreeStretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain Free by Jessica Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was a kid I was nearly double-jointed. I could bend my thumbs back to touch my arms with ease. Today I could do the same if I surgically removed the thumbs first. I am, in a word, inflexible.

As this can have negative effects for both runners and those getting older, two groups I am a member of, I picked up Stretching to Stay Young to see if I could return to at least a little flexibility in my body vs. the immovable board it is now.

I can’t say how effective the book is as I haven’t applied its exercises yet, but I will say that the presentation is thorough, accessible and clear. Jessica Matthews starts with explanations and background on stretching, its benefits, the various muscle groups and so on. She moves on to instructions for a multitude of stretching exercises, each accompanied by a clear color illustration of how to do it. They look simple, even fun.

The bulk of the book then covers sets of stretches tied to recovering from or preparing for specific activities, everything from walking, running and cycling, to sitting for hours in an office chair, talking on a phone and more. She further includes sets for conditions like sore shoulders, necks and more, ending with tips on customizing your workouts.

After reading, I unrolled my exercise mat, recently found buried behind some junk I got rid of, and tried a few simple exercises. Imagine taking a log and laying it down on its side, then asking it to stretch. I am that log. But Matthews addresses this, regularly advising the reader throughout the book to never push to the point of pain, to take it slow, and to allow time for results to appear (she has a chapter devoted to debunking myths, including the old “no pain, no gain.”)

For anyone looking to incorporate stretching into their daily or weekly routine, this guide provides everything you need in a stylish, straightforward format. Recommended.

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Book review: The Oracle Years

The Oracle YearThe Oracle Year by Charles Soule
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again Goodreads 5-star system fails me, as this is a solid 3.5 star effort for me. But if I have to choose between 3 or 4 stars, I’ll go with 3, because while I enjoyed the ride, there are some flaws in The Oracle Year that bring down the overall experience.

First, I love the premise. An unremarkable bassist in New York named Will Dando has a dream in which 108 predictions over the next year are revealed to him and he uses these predictions to create the persona of The Oracle. He enlists his business and security-savvy friend full-time to create a website that allows people to see a subset of the predictions, along with providing an email address for people to inundate The Oracle with requests for winning lottery numbers and such.

Will Dando’s friend, Hamza, starts orchestrating selling certain predictions by offering 10-minute chunks of time to corporate interests looking to get a leg up on the competition. Soon the pair of friends has amassed literally billions of dollars. But Hamza presses on, saying they need more before they can reach a point where they will be completely secure.

This didn’t strike me as particularly believable, but even if it is, the morality of what Will and Mamza are doing is only treated in a weird, offhand manner. Will is unhappy, but doesn’t stop the pointless accumulation of more money than he could ever use. His friend, Hamza, seems to have no reason to be best friends with an ordinary, struggling musician, but at least has a convincingly obsessive, detail-oriented personality.

This also touches on another issue–Will Dando is not a very interesting person. He is a loner (apart from Hamza and Miko, his wife) and spends most of the story trying to avoid people and relationships. He has no real arc, no growth. He starts out bland and unremarkable, and ends the same, albeit richer and happier. He does create an elaborate system to track and correlate the 108 predictions, to try to see the big picture that binds them all together, but there is nothing to suggest how he has this ability. Most of the novel shows him making bad decisions and treating others poorly, because he can’t keep his inner voice from being an outer one.

The opening of the book also suggests a lighter tone and it bubbles up occasionally, but overall the story is dark, world-ending stuff, and I can’t help but wonder if the cipher-like quality of Will would have been better-served with a more deliberately humorous approach similar to what David Wong uses in John Dies at the End (and related novels).

Also, almost all of the supporting characters are unlikable. The subplot featuring the evangelist Hosiah Branson doesn’t really pay off, except as a late punchline, and could have been cut entirely. The liberal use of fictional countries also undercuts some of the drama, because it starts to feel manufactured for the plot.

And, though this is not something author Charles Soules has any control over, it’s hard to imagine a president acting in a mature manner (the fictional President Green and various staff and associates play key roles as the story unfolds), given the destruction of the office by its present occupant.

On the positive side, I was invested enough to keep going and the effects on the world of predictions destined to come true is played out in interesting, if ultimately bleak, ways. For me, this is an almost irresistible premise, story-wise, a kind of ultimate “What if?” scenario. Overall, then, The Oracle Year is recommended, with some reservations.

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