Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review - "Spellwright" by Blake Charlton

Spellwright is a new entry in the fantasy genre. In this world, spells are literally written and cast. There are a number of languages, and each has letters (or runes), grammar, and syntax. The main character, Nicodemus Weal, is a cacographer, meaning he has a tendency toward misspelling. He also has an unusual scar on the back of his neck, which may or may not mean he's the Halcyon of prophecy. But if he can't spell, how can he be this chosen one?

Nicodemus has friends with him, and he discovers some enemies who want to kill him. His teacher is an elderly wizard named Agwu Shannon, and his roommates are Simple John and Devin, also cacographers. He also meets a druid named Deirdre, who has a dark secret, and Amadi Okeke, a former student of Shannon's. Right from the beginning of the story is a strange creature clothed in white, who seems to be hunting Nicodemus. And what's going on with the terrifying nightmares he suddenly has? Soon, he finds out about an emerald that may be able to heal him of his disability, and he determines to find it. But will the creature in white stop him first?

At first I had a hard time envisioning physical strings of text being written and thrown into the air, but soon I was engaged in the world Blake Charlton has created, and his descriptions made it easier for me to visualize this phenomenon. It's an ingenious twist on magic, stemming from the author's own childhood struggle with dyslexia. Literally spelling magic spells also has a broader meaning, that words and language are powerful, and just because Nicodemus has a disability that will prevent him from becoming a strong wizard doesn't mean he is broken or incomplete. He spends the book coming to terms with the way he views himself, and what he finds along the way means he may have to change his outlook.

Charlton doles out history and other information through conversations, not blocks of explication. Some mythological events seem familiar, like the Apocalypse or Crusades, but only as much as one cultural myth resembles another. He definitely has created a world with its own rules, geography, and creatures and people-groups. Teen readers, especially those with some kind of learning disability, should enjoy this story. Adults too will find much to like. Anyone who feels inadequate in some way or who struggles with their limitations--and who among us hasn't?--will identify with Nicodemus. This book has an ending, but it is a rather bleak one. However, there are still plenty of loose ends to be tied, so take heart that there is another delightful tale on the way.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tips for Managing Your Online Reputation

Mashable had a useful article on How To Prevent and Report Online Stalking. In a nutshell, know that anything you post online could possibly be made public; use security and privacy settings where possible; and know how to report stalking. Don't try to fight back directly, but use proper, authoritative channels.

Also check out the link at the bottom, 3 Tips for Managing Your Online Reputation. Basically, be smart about what you post online but realize that not everyone in your social circle may have the same level of privacy settings on their own profiles. If anything embarrassing does become public, you probably won't be able to get it deleted, but you can continue to practice secure posting so that eventually the good aspects of your reputation will outrank the bad. Finally, be careful about companies that claim to monitor your online reputation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Library of Congress to Archive Twitter Posts

The Library of Congress announced this week that they are planning to archive all public tweets posted to Twitter. I can understand the desire to capture a slice of life during the early twenty-first century - future researchers will love the chance to see how we all communicated with each other and what we talked about. However, the sheer scope of the project blows my mind. If there aren't billions of tweets yet, there will be soon. I don't know how exactly the tweets will be archived - Twitter is donating their collection, but what happens if Twitter ever disappears? What happens to deleted tweets? Will they be preserved, or will they end up deleted from the archive? What will the archives look like? How will you search it? The Internet is such an ephemeral phenomenon; any blog, tweet, social networking post, website, photo, news article, etc. can be deleted at any time. Future researchers looking into common life and communication methods might find a big hole from the year 2000 on. Still, it's fascinating to think that some part of the Internet will be preserved.

If you want to read more about the Library of Congress project, check out these websites:

The Library of Congress is at twitter.com/librarycongress if you want to follow them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cool Use of Foursquare

From the Mashable blog:

When users check in [to Foursquare] around various U.S. cities, they can find historical tidbits about their location and unlock the limited edition History Channel badge. “For example,” reads a release from the History Channel, “users in New York who check in to St. Paul’s Chapel will discover George Washington worshipped there on his Inauguration in 1789, and users in Los Angeles who check in at the Cinerama Dome will find out it opened in 1963 with the premiere of ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and that it’s the world’s only concrete geodesic dome.”

I'm not sure I quite see the point of Foursquare, the smartphone app that lets you "check in" when you arrive at a location; however, this History Channel offering sounds neat. It's educational, so it appeals to the librarian and the history buff in me.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Star Charts

A blog post from TechCrunch about the Worldwide Telescope got me thinking of other websites where you can find star charts.

Weather Underground is one place: Put in your location (or the location where you'll be when you want to use the chart), then scroll down to the Astronomy section. Click to view the star chart. On the next screen you can select items to view and also change the date to the night you'll need the chart.

Sky and Telescope has an interactive chart. You have to register (it's free). They also have a chart for your mobile phone.

Astronomy.com has an interactive StarDome (the link is at the top right of the homepage). It's Java-based and took a few minutes to load on Firefox, but it does seem to work in Firefox and Internet Explorer. Use the options to the right to specify location, time, etc. I don't see a way to print the map, however.

It is possible to Google "star chart" and get more websites. These are the ones that look easy to use and that are authoritative. Other favorites? Leave them in the comments.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Feature in Google Search

From the Google Blog (scroll down for this part):

Help for those who need it


A few months ago, we introduced a search feature that displays the toll-free U.S. poison control number when you search for related information. This got us thinking about other ways we can help people get clear information from Google search in times of crisis or distress. So we recently launched a feature that displays the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the top of the results page for certain search queries in the U.S. We hope this quick access to information helps people in emotional distress who may benefit from calling a suicide prevention hotline.

Anyone seen this? It sounds like a good idea if it works well.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review - "The Yellow House" by Patricia Falvey


The Yellow House is Patricia Falvey's first novel, and it's a keeper. It relates a period of time that may not be familiar to American audiences, but the events from that time still have repercussions today. The Yellow House is a love story, but it goes much deeper than a romance novel. Besides passionate love, Falvey also writes of patriotic love and familial love.

Eileen O'Neill is headstrong and independent. She grows up in the early decades of the twentieth century when Ireland is struggling for independence from England, and she is living in the worst of it, in the province of Ulster, which is soon to become Northern Ireland. She is Catholic in an area dominated by Protestants, and she experiences the discrimination against her religion by those in the majority. Horrific events cause her to lose a good part of her family as well as her beloved Yellow House, and she vows to one day return and live in her childhood home with her family restored to her. Anger and rage fuel her actions and keep her dream alive, even when it seems like she should give up that fantasy.

Eileen falls in love with two men: James, who becomes a freedom fighter, blinded to everything except an independent Ireland; and Owen, a Quaker whose family owns the mill where Eileen works. She marries one and has a child by both, but only one of those men really and truly understands her better than she understands herself. She joins the struggle for Home Rule out of revenge, but she eventually learns that that way may not lead to personal healing.

The historical events are not just the backdrop against which the story is set. They are the story. There is a note at the back of the book, which perhaps you should turn to first if you're not familiar with Irish history. There may be some minor spoilers, however. It's not necessary to have the background information, as Falvey does a good job of interweaving those details of real life with her characters' lives. I admit I had a hard time keeping the sides straight at first, but I decided not to worry about it. Soon enough the story hold and I was able to remember who was on which side. I did wish that she had provided a map. Even though I knew a bit about Ireland and that Ulster is in the north, I still would have liked to know where cities and towns are in relation to each other.

If you're interested in the Easter Uprising and the War of Independence, here are a few other books you might enjoy:

1916 and 1921 by Morgan Llywelyn
A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry
A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle
Trinity by Leon Uris

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Travel

I was going to do a post on online travel sites, mostly aggregators like Expedia or farewatchers like Kayak. Then I saw an article on washingtonpost.com, listing over 50 websites. It was written in 2008 so it's not brand new, but as far as I can tell the sites are still active. Besides the usual booking and guidebook sites, the article also covers tools such as currency conversion and wifi hotspots. Of course there are other websites out there, but these ones will get you started.

Any travel tips to add? Feel free to leave them in the comments. I'll put my own out there:

  1. Even if you use Expedia or something similar, I like to double-check with the airline itself to make sure the flights listed are really at the price given. I prefer to book with each airline/hotel/car rental company instead of through an aggregator for peace of mind in case anything goes wrong (it can be difficult to get a refund if you've used a second party), but perhaps things have improved over the years.
  2. HomeAway is another place to look for vacation rentals.
  3. To track flights online, you can try the individual airport's website, or you can search Google for "flight tracker." There are several out there, including FlightStats and FlightView.