Book review: Delta-v by Daniel Suarez

Ever since I picked up Daniel Suarez's Daemon in 2011 (mini-review here), I've eagerly awaited each and every work from him since, and I haven't been disappointed. He has continued to generate fascinating explorations of technology, culture and social trends in his fictional but very realistic novels that always feel like they can see about a decade or two ahead into the future. Our future.

Suarez's latest work, Delta-v, is no exception.

It's a sweeping, fast-paced book that dives into the economic and physical realities of commercial space exploration, experienced through the adventures of a crew of astronauts and the super-rich business mogul funding their journey. The stakes are high -- imminent collapse of the global economy, catastrophic climate change effects, war and famine are all just around the corner -- and the potential rewards are great, but this isn't just another "put up a colony on Mars and save humanity" space adventure.

As is his reputation, Suarez has done in-depth research into the problems and even fundamentally flawed thinking behind most mainstream approaches to getting humanity into space and on to other planets. The infeasibility of deep space travel, the carcinogens in Martian soil, the problem of settling other planets, the menacing details of legal contracts that a space explorer might sign before launch...it's all there like a slow-motion massacre of more standard sci-fi novel plots. The version of human success in space that Delta-v teases out over the chapters looks very different than what you might expect, and it makes some sense.

"If you solve the problems of living on Mars, then you've only solved the Mars problem, but if we learn to build habitats in open space, then we have solved the entire future of the human race." This from the billionaire character who is a darkly-rendered combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, talking to the other space race players in a panel conversation that feels like it could happen on a SXSW stage any moment now. (There's an argument to be made that humans have no business taking our reckless imperialism over the natural world into space given how badly we've messed up the first planet we were given, but that's for another time.)

Unlike some of Suarez's other books that have looked at the challenges and dangers of AI, nanotech, government overreach in tech, genetic engineering and more, the space focus of this book might initially feel a little less accessible or relevant to everyday life. But as the novel unfolds and it begins to ring more and more true that so much time and money is already being invested in a similar kind of space race in real life, you can't help but feel like it's a story we're destined to be a part of sooner rather than later.

Delta-v is a lovely mix of science, adventure, mystery, social commentary and celebration of the best and worst of what humans can do for (or to) each other. There are a few times where the book seems confused about being character-driven or plot-driven or both, and some of the time invested in a particular character's backstory or a particular plot point's intricate geeky details didn't always pay off. But I still really enjoyed the universe Suarez crafted and the story that unfolded, if only because it feels so familiar to the one we live in now.

If you've enjoyed Suarez's other works, or novels from Andy Weir, Neal Stephenson or similar authors, I highly recommend checking out Delta-v.

 

Note: I was provided an advance copy of Delta-v by the publisher, but was not otherwise compensated or influenced in my writing of this review. Some links may be to affiliate websites so that I receive a very small percentage of the sale if you choose to buy from them.

Andy Weir's Artemis

I recently finished reading Andy Weir's new novel, Artemis, and really enjoyed it. I've been immersing myself in political non-fiction lately (reviews coming soon) so I really needed a fun, smart page-turner to balance things out, and Artemis fit the bill perfectly.

If you're not already familiar with Weir, he wrote the bestselling book The Martian (mentioned here) which then became a surprisingly great 2015 theatrical version starring Matt Damon. It was so well-written, engaging and scientifically grounded that high school physics teachers convinced him to release a profanity-free version that they could teach their courses from.

Similar to The Martian, the book centers on a smart, extraordinarily resourceful main character who seems to be in an uphill battle against life-or-death surrounding circumstances from start to finish. Unlike The Martian, for this new main character the circumstances are much more derived from her life choices and penchant for non-traditional ways of generating income, and the experiences that unfold are much more intertwined with the choices and personalities of other people.

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Plume WiFi Review

After my less than great experience trying out Netgear's Orbi wireless mesh product, I continued looking around for a better home wireless networking option.

I checked out the second generation Eero, but it wanted to replace my router, didn't support an OpenVPN server, and was going to cost $100/year ongoing for cloud-based services (malware protection, parental controls) that I want to manage locally. ASUS's HiveSpot aka Lyra offering looked interesting and would go nicely with my existing ASUS router, but the reviews I could find indicated deal-breaking performance problems. Google's Wifi option requires a persistent connection to their systems, doesn't support an OpenVPN server, and wants to replace my router to make use of most of its features.

Ubiquity's Unifi product line comes highly recommended by a number of people I trust. But as I explored what it can do and what I would need to do to manage it, I felt like I was crossing fully into the realm of "enterprise network administrator" instead of "home network user." Enabling something as standard as IPv6 included steps like "Copy the config.gateway.json file to the UniFi controller and force a provision on the USG." Not that big of a deal, but I've spent enough time doing command line management of network device config files professionally that I'm not super excited about doing it at home any more.

Then I found the Plume Wifi offering. I didn't find a lot of reviews about it, but the ones I did read indicated it had an innovative approach to providing an "advanced network topology," great speeds and a focus on doing wireless really well instead of trying to be an everything home networking appliance. That's what I wanted! They also had a detailed-but-beautiful website, a helpful blog (despite being on Medium) and some growing Twitter buzz. Once I confirmed that they'll let you try it out for 60 days with a money-back guarantee (assuming no damage and original packaging), I ordered a set of six units.

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Review: Netgear Orbi wireless mesh router

To date I've remained a loyal user of an ASUS router at my home (despite some early bumps in the road). After moving to a larger house earlier this year and finding some spots with degraded or unusable wi-fi, I decided it was time to explore the latest offerings in wireless mesh routers. I was drawn to the idea of having comprehensive coverage managed by a unified setup (instead of using extenders) and was also excited to see if anyone had disrupted the space of home network management.

The system I tried first, Netgear's Orbi Router & Satellite Extender system, definitely offers seamless wireless coverage, but holds on to so many of the problems of traditional home network router management that I'm sending it back.

I'd been researching different vendor offerings and had narrowed it down to products from Netgear (Orbi), Eero, and Ubiquiti (Amplifi or Unifi). This Wirecutter article seemed to reach out from the Internet gods and speak directly to me with definitive advice about what to buy:

For the tech-savvy, Netgear’s Orbi is the only mesh kit we tested that provides the features of a high-end router, from port forwarding to static routing, along with plenty of Ethernet ports on both units; it’s also one of the few that don’t require an Internet connection to set up or control your network. Orbi is the mesh kit that’s most like a router-and-extender combo, without the drawbacks that usually come with that setup.

I'm tech-savvy! I want a high-end router with advanced features! I don't want to depend on an Internet connection or "cloud" services to manage my network! I don't want drawbacks! I was sold, and bought the RBK50 kit (one base router unit and one satellite extender unit - not truly a mesh system as much as the beginnings of a hub/spoke system, but who's keeping track?).

The unboxing experience was quite pleasant and everything was clearly labeled, though I may have said a colorful word or two when I saw how large each these two units are - you'd think I'd bought a new food processor or something.

My disappointment came soon after.

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Review of The Roost Stand

wrote earlier that The Roost Laptop Stand is a part of my daily carry when I'm working away from home. I've been using it since 2014 when I started working regularly from co-working spaces, coffee shops and other places. For the last few months I've been using the second generation of The Roost Stand, so I want to share a few more thoughts on it here.

(Disclaimer: the Roost team sent me a free stand after they saw the Lifehacker post featuring my bag contents. I am not being compensated for this review and am under no obligation to provide positive commentary or any commentary at all.)

In case you're not familiar with what the Roost stand is or does: it elevates your laptop screen to the height at which you might use a traditional computer monitor. This means that long periods of time staring at a screen don't necessarily lead to a sore neck or back from being hunched over. Here's what it looks like in use:

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The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It was one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I've read recently, and so I can't help but recommend it here.

The story is a kind of Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away extreme survival adventure that happens in space, and will especially appeal to fans of MacGyver-style resourcefulness with some realistic science and geeky tech explanations thrown in. It's also pretty funny at times, and strangely moving at others. Check it out.

Review: Unite Pro Mobile WiFi Hotspot

The AT&T Unite Pro 4G LTE Mobile WiFi Hotspot released at the end of 2013 is a compact, lightweight and versatile hotspot device that's great for wandering tech workers or just as a backup for your home Internet connection. Here's my full review:

In preparing for my recent adventure living in Washington D.C. for three weeks, I became aware of the possibility that - are you sitting down? - there wouldn't be any broadband Internet access available at the apartment where we would be staying. I know, right? Since I was going to be working I needed fast and reliable connectivity, I started researching options for bringing my own bandwidth.

My ideal solution was something that would integrate with my existing AT&T mobile plan, be a solution that used standard and flexible ways of connecting devices instead of proprietary or platform-specific drivers, and that would be reusable for future traveling adventures without me having to make a significant financial commitment in the form of a contract or other fees.

The Unite Pro, which is actually manufactured by Netgear, seems to have been created just for my purposes.

unitepro

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Book review: Netflixed, the story of Netflix

(I've been reading a lot of books lately about the stories of how various technology companies came to be, and it's been great food for thought as I work on the next chapter in my own professional life story. This is the first in a series of blog posts about these books.)

Netflixed-Gina-KeatingI remember hearing about Netflix from a geek news site sometime in the early 2000s, and I think I was among the first folks in my town to try the DVD subscription by mail service that they'd launched in 1999. I was skeptical of it, having a hard time imagining a day when I wouldn't rather just stop in to the local movie rental store than bother with ordering a disc online and then waiting for it to show up by mail. But I tried it out, thinking it would be an interesting way to access some of the independent and obscure films that local stores wouldn't bother to stock.

And so I took my place as one of the many video watching consumers that Netflix, Blockbuster and other media companies were battling to attract and keep as customers over the last 15 or so years, leading right up to present day where the release of the second season of the Netflix-produced House of Cards on Friday was a major media event.

That battle and the personalities that made it interesting are the focus of Gina Keating's great book, Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs.

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1Password alleviates the horrors of password management

1PMainWindowI come to you today a recovering password management hypocrite.

I have over 190 accounts and logins for which a password or PIN is a part of my access: website tools, online banking, social media, email, internal company tools at Summersault, and so on.  I used to pretend that I was maintaining the security of these accounts by having a reasonably strong set of passwords that I re-used across multiple sites, sometimes with variations that I thought made them less likely to be broken into if someone did happen to compromise one of my accounts.

But as I prepared to give a talk in December about email privacy and security issues, and really stepped back to look at my own password management scheme, I realized just how much pretending I'd been doing, and just how vulnerable I was making myself to the increasingly well-equipped and highly-automated attempts at compromising accounts, stealing identities and stealing funds that are being launched every day.  I went and tested some of my passwords at the Password Strength Checker, and I was ashamed.   The potential impact of this really hit home as I read Mat Honan's personal tale of woe and his follow-up piece Kill the Password in Wired magazine.  Add in Passwords Under Assault from ArsTechnica and you'll be shaking in your boots.

So I decided that I was not going to be that guy who goes around telling people about how vulnerable they are with their simplistic password schemes while quietly living a lie in my own password management scheme.  I might still be hacked some day, but I would not be found giving some teary-eyed interview to Oprah where I whined about how the pressure of the 190 accounts to manage just got to be too much and how I knew using a simple dictionary word plus a series of sequential numbers was wrong but I still didn't do the right thing.

That's when I found 1Password from AgileBits, a password management tool that alleviates the horrors of password management.

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Mini reviews: Brave, Quiet, Reamde, Freedom and more

Some mini reviews of books (and one movie) I've had a chance to take in lately.  For most items I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first:

Brave (2012), Pixar
I can't say that Brave, Pixar's latest feature film, is anywhere close to my favorite from this studio.  It's not that the animation isn't stunning (it is) or that the watching experience isn't enjoyable (it was), and it's certainly great to see a strong female main character whose departure from limiting traditional roles is largely uncompromised.  But the world wrought by the story feels somehow smaller and more forgettable than other Pixar adventures.  The nuanced and emotionally complex experiences of the characters mostly overcame the awkward dialog and sometimes dragging plot, and in the end it was observing their inner transformations that was most compelling,

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