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Nexus: fast technothriller about transhuman drug crackdown

Ramez Naam‘s debut novel Nexus is a superbly plotted high-tension technothriller about a War-on-Drugs-style crackdown on brain/computer interfaces.

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Dark Lord: an evil overlord trapped in a kid's body

Dark Lord: The Early Years gets right down to business: an unnamed narrator suffers a million agonies, while calling out for his hellion lieutenants to aid him, and we quickly learn that this is the Dark Lord, feared and tyrannical ruler of a distant kingdom, and that he has been transported to a suburban parking lot in our world.

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Fairest: the women of Willingham's Fables stories get their own comic

Fairest centers around the lives of many of the great women of fabledom: Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers and the frost queen, merging their stories with the tale of Ali Baba (albeit a different Ali Baba than the one you may have encountered in legends).

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Coding Freedom: an anthropologist understands hacker culture

Biella Coleman is a geek anthropologist, in both senses of the epithet: an anthropologist who studies geeks, and a geek who is an anthropologist. Though she's best known today for her excellent and insightful work on the mechanism and structure underpinning Anonymous and /b/, Coleman is also an expert on the organization, structure, philosophy and struggles of the free software/open source movements. I met Biella while she was doing fieldwork as an intern at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She's also had deep experience with the Debian project and many other hacker/FLOSS subcultures.

Coleman's has published her dissertation, edited and streamlined, under the title of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which comes out today from Princeton University Press (Quinn Norton, also well known for her Wired reporting on Anonymous and Occupy, had a hand in the editing). Coding Freedom walks the fine line between popular accessibility and scholarly rigor, and does a very good job of expressing complex ideas without (too much) academic jargon.

Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. As someone embedded in both those worlds, I found myself surprised by connections I'd never made on my own, but which seemed perfectly right and obvious in hindsight. Coleman's work pulls together a million IRC conversations and mailing list threads and wikiwars and gets to their foundations, the deep discussion evolving through the world of free/open source software.

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Future Perfect: an optimistic look at the future of networked politics

I've read and enjoyed innumerable Steven Johnson books; he's one of those great science writers who can gather together disparate phenomena from the technological world and tease out of them a coherent story about what's happening to the world right under our noses.

His latest, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, is no exception. Johnson proposes that people who believe in the Internet are not techno-utopians, but rather "peer progressives" -- people who believe that progress is possible when peers work together through non-hierarchical, networked systems.

Johnson lays out the case for peer progressivism as being neither of the right nor the left. It shares some of the right's beliefs in markets -- the idea that the distributed intelligence of lots of people produces better outcomes than centralized decision-making. But it shares some of the left's belief in collective, state-driven spending -- the idea that systems like the Internet don't get produced by advantage-seeking commercial firms (which want to make walled gardens), but rather by governments trying to attain some public-interest goals.

Using this lens of public-spirited, state-sponsored development to create market-driven, individual-centered systems, Johnson lays out his case, showing how the Internet has enabled radical shifts in city management, political campaigning, newsgathering, arts funding, and entrepreneurship. Each of these chapters is well-drawn, and Johnson's careful to label his uncertainties when he has them, rather than trying to shoehorn the facts to fit his thesis.

I was particularly struck by the chapter on news-publishing, in which Johnson suggests that the Internet has demonstrated a capacity to produce fine-grained, intelligent, well-thought-through coverage of various subjects. He suggests that tech news -- the most mature news-subject on the net -- is a template for future subjects. The early days of the Web were particularly hard on tech publications, which struggled to remain relevant with monthly publications in the age of up-to-the-minute Internet coverage, and to continue to pay the bills as online new sources expanded the advertising inventory by orders of magnitude. But over time, a kind of stability emerged, an ecosystem of news coverage that beggars anything of the pre-Internet age. Johnson suggests that the net isn't inherently great at covering tech, but that it was just the first of many news niches the net will cover, and that in time, it will be a model for overall networked newsgathering (he also mentions studies showing that newspaper readers are more likely to inhabit an echo chamber of bias-confirming news than online news junkies).

This is a refreshing, optimistic, level-headed read, and the idea of "peer progressive" is a good one, with the potential to get people thinking outside the Dem/GOP, left/right boxes.

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland


Fables creator Bill Willingham continues his impossible run of prolific, high-quality, highly varied stories based on the idea that all the fables, myths and stories of the world are secretly true, and that they all live together, hidden among the real, "mundy" world. The hardcover Werewolves tells the back-story of Bibgy Wolf -- his time as a crack Nazi-hunting guerrilla in the dark forests of Germany. This past comes back to haunt him when he discovers a midwestern town populated entirely by werewolves that have been created by a beautiful, ruthless Nazi scientist who isolated a serum from blood that Bigby left behind when he helped foil a Nazi attempt to revive Frankenstein's monster to fight on their side.

Werewolves draws on the likes of EC Comics' Two-Fisted Tales and other hyper-violent war comics, with plenty of gory decapitations, ruthless executions, suicides, immolations, and tough talk. It's just the right kind of story for Bigby, who's one of the best characters from Fables, which has lots of terrific characters to choose from. The book could conceivably stand alone -- it has its own complete storyline -- but it's much richer in the context of the wider Fables universe.

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

Tune: Derek Kirk Kim's alien abduction romcom

Today, Derek Kirk Kim’s online science fictional rom-com comic Tune has been collected in the first of (I hope) many volumes, with Tune: Vanishing Point.

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Super Scratch Programming Adventure! an excellent way to get started in Scratch


Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is No Starch Press's excellent adventure to Scratch, the extremely popular (and absolutely wonderful) kids' programming environment from the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group.

Produced with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is a graphic novel that walks readers through a series of extremely well-designed game-design projects, each of which introduces a new concept or two to young programmers, providing a gentle learning curve for mastering Scratch's many powerful features.

To get a sense of these projects, have a look at No Starch's project site for the book, which provides downloads of all the sprites, artwork and sound for each one (the book encourages you to use these as starting points, and to modify them or create your own from scratch).

I've been interested in the book since Mark reviewed it in September, and was delighted to get a chance to read it myself. My daughter is too young for this one as yet -- Scratch requires basic literacy in order to really work with it. But reading it, I got very excited about the possibility of working with her on it in a year or two (for example, once she's mastered numbers and letter recognition, I'm sure we could have a lot of fun just taking the existing projects and modifying them with her art and voice).

I fell in love with Logo and BASIC games programming when I was 9, and reading through these projects really brought back the excitement. What's more, it feels like Scratch has all the stuff I wished Logo had built in when started out -- for example, you can create if-then loops for sprites that evaluate whether a sprite is touching a certain color ("If I am touching orange, then..."), something that's used in a maze-navigation game where all the maze-walls are orange.

Scratch feels like the second coming of Hypercard, mixing graphics and drag-and-drop code-blobs, but Scratch is all free/open source software, so there's much less danger of a single vendor killing it off. There's even a nascent project to port Scratch to Android, which would be especially fun.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure!

Sweet Tooth 5: Unnatural Habitats, in which the chimeric apocalypse gets even more engrossing

I've just finished Unnatural Habitats, the fifth collection of Jeff Lemire's apocalyptic Sweet Tooth comics, and I continue to be absolutely taken by it, on the grimmest of tenterhooks for the next volume.

Sweet Tooth's is set against a mysterious end-of-the-world, a horrific plague that kills most of humanity, and causes pregnant women to give birth to human/animal chimeras. The protagonist, Sweet Tooth, is a deer/boy, raised by his weirdly religious father in the woods, and then thrown into the brutal outside world when his father dies. He is captured by medical experimenters, escapes, and journeys across America with a shifting band of allies who may or may not have Sweet Tooth's best interests at heart.

Volume 5 proves that Lemire knows what he's doing with his storytelling. He whipsaws the pacing with a multi-part flashback to an early twentieth century Arctic expedition that hints at the plague's origin, then jumps back to the present day and a series of interlocking perils that raise the stakes for Sweet Tooth and his companions.

Lemire is a Dickensian master of the cliff hanger. Each monthly episode collected in the Sweet Tooth books leaves you eager for the next one, and each volume leaves you gutted at the thought of having to wait months for a new collection (I could read the singles, but I prefer to get my comics in concentrated, six-at-once doses). The story of Sweet Tooth is a great adventure, great science fiction, and great comics.

Once again, here's the first volume, in case you'd like to grab all five parts at once and consume a deep, deep draught of the story.

Sweet Tooth 5: Unnatural Habitats

Philip Pullman's Grimm's Fairytales

Philip Pullman — best know for his Dark Materials series — has written a new edition of the Brothers Grimm stories, called Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. It’s the 200th anniversary of the Grimm collection, and Pullman’s edition includes author’s notes and Aarne–Thompson classifications.

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Hilda and the Bird Parade: high adventure kids' comic in the style of Miyazaki & Jansson

Hilda and the Bird Parade is every bit the triumph that the earlier volumes were, full of adventure and mystery.

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Rookie: Yearbook One - Sassy's second coming

Rookie: Yearbook One is the first book-length anthology of Rookie magazine, spun out of Style Rookie.

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Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312: a novel that hints at what we might someday have (and lose)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is an insanely ambitious novel of life three hundreds years hence, set in a solar system where the Earth continues to limp along, half-drowned, terrified, precarious — and only one of many inhabited places.

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The best cheap, all-purpose juicer: Omega 8003

During my treatment for breast cancer this year, nutrition was a big challenge. Hell, getting any food down was a challenge during chemo and radiation. That’s where my interest in fresh juices began. I hunted around for a single, affordable device that could produce a diverse array of juice, and ended up with the Omega J8003. It rocks.

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Bong: "Live At Roadburn 2010" music review

After enthused hails from the crowd, the first of two loooooong tracks starts up, or seeps in, eerie and airy and understated, quite lovely really, not at all heavy, but nicely hypnotic…

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