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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Nerdy
I've always considered myself something of a nerd, even back when being nerdy wasn't cool. Nowadays, everyone thinks they're a nerd. MGK recently noticed this:
Recently, I was surfing the net looking for lols, and came across a personal ad on Craigslist. The ad was not in and of itself hilarious, but one thing struck me. The writer described herself as “nerdy,” and as an example of her nerdiness, explained that she loved to watch Desperate Housewives.

My god, people, have we allowed “nerdy” to be defined down so greatly that watching Desperate Housewives - a top 20 Neilsen primetime soap opera with no actual nerd content per se - qualifies as “nerdy” now? That is just wrong. The nerdular act cannot be allowed to be so mainstream.
To address this situation, he has devised "a handy guide for people to define their own nerdiness, based on a number of nerdistic passions." I'm a little surprised at how poorly I did in some of these categories.
  • Batman - Not Nerdy. When I think about it, it's not that surprising. After all, I have never read any of the comic books, not even Year One or The Dark Knight Returns, which MGK specifically calls out later in his creteria as not being particularly nerdy. That said, I wonder how watching The Dark Knight 5 times (three times in the theater) in less than a year qualifies.
  • Star Wars - Slightly Nerdy. Now this one is surprising. Sure, according to this guide, I'm nerdier about Star Wars than I am about Batman, but only a little. I suppose if he had loosened the criteria or chose a different random fact for the "nerdy" level, I could easily have reached that level, for I have had some experience with the “expanded universe” Star Wars novels. One other gripe is that no self-respecting nerd would defend the idea of Jar Jar Binks!
  • Harry Potter - Somwhere between Not Nerdy and Slightly Nerdy. I didn't particularly love Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and my dislike may disqualify me from the Slightly Nerdy level. On the other hand, I didn't particularly hate the novel either, and I had no problem blowing through it rather quickly.
  • Magic: The Gathering - Slightly Nerdy. I have to say that I didn't play this game that much, but I really did enjoy it when I did. But it got way too complicated later on, and some people took it wayyy to seriously.
  • H.P. Lovecraft - Dangerously Nerdy. Finally! Though I have to admit that I don't qualify for three of the lesser levels... However, I have read several of his stories, which is apparently dangerously nerdy.
  • Nerd Television - Dangerously Nerdy. Totally. The two shows I haven't watched much of are the lowest ranked ones. I've seen a significant portion of the other ones, including The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (at this point, even recognizing what Brisco County Jr. is, is probably nerdworthy).
  • Star Trek - I think I might be Fairly Nerdy here, otherwise I'm Not Nerdy. It's just that I don't actually remember which one Picard rode the dune buggy in. That probably disqualifies me. I do love TNG though. Could never get into any of the other spinoffs.
  • Computer Use - Nerdy. Potentially Really Nerdy, but there are definitely a couple of coding jokes in XKCD that I haven't gotten (but I get a pretty good portion of them).
Again, I am a bit surprised at how non-nerdy I am. I mean, aside from a couple of dangerously nerdy subjects, I'm not very nerdy at all. How did you do?
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2009 at 10:45 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Liveblogging Harry Potter (again), Part 4
Well then. As suggested by Alex, I succumbed to the "unrelenting greatness" of the last couple hundred pages of the book and read them straight through instead of pausing to liveblog. Starting around page 550, things picked up considerably and all of my nitpicks were forgotten due to the aforementioned "unrelenting greatness." It's a fitting and satisfying end to the series, much more so than some other series I've read (*cough, cough* Dark Tower *cough*). I'm not sure it will pass Hitchcock's infamous refrigerator test, but at this point I don't think it matters. It's a series of books about magic, for crying out loud. Anyway, more commentary with major spoilers beneath the fold... Maybe an additional update on Wednesday night, to see how it sank in (as I just finished now)...
  • Page 503: This passage stuck out for me. Perhaps not so important to the story, but an interesting nugget of human behavior:
    [Harry] could not even explain satisfactorily why he had decided against it: Every time he tried to reconstruct the internal arguments that had led to his decision, they sounded feebler to him.
    I think this sort of thing happens more often than we, as humans, care to admit. We like to think we act reasonably and with careful consideration, but I think a lot of what we decide, especially when forced to do so under some sort of time constraint (as Harry was in the book), just happens instinctually. We can generally rationalize our decisions, but sometimes we're stuck, like Harry. To use a more trivial example, I think a lot of people like or dislike movies or music (or art in general) because of some sort of initial, subconscious instinct. Again, we rationalize our choices, citing the acting or cinematography or whatever, but sometimes, even when we can find no real fault, we're left not liking a certain movie (most recently, this happened to me after watching The Fountain). It's a strange feeling.
  • Page 560: Ah, so it was Dumbledore in the mirror, but not Albus. It was his brother, Aberforth! And now we find our more about Dumbledore's past. Again, it is not as horrible as Skeeter had portrayed, but neither is it saintly. In other words: human.
  • I don't have much to say about the lost diadum or the battle of Hogwards, though the whole sequence from this point on was really fantastic and at some points, heartbreaking. The biggest thing that happened, to me, was the validation of Eric S. Raymond's speculations regarding Severus Snape. It's uncanny; he came breathtakingly close to the truth with his post. Snape, it seems, didn't need to be redeemed (or had already redeemed himself, much earlier in his life). He'd been working for Dumbledore all along, as many had speculated. The reason for this, as not as many speculated, was his feelings for Lily Potter. The chapter "The Prince's Tale" is among the best, and it fills in many blanks in both Snape and Dumbledore's history in a satisfying way. It strikes me that this series is almost as much about them as it is about Harry and Voldemort. It also contains one of the biggest shocks of the series, as Harry finds out that he is destined to die. I thought for a time that Rowling was going to do it, but she didn't, and I found myself relieved. She even managed a good enough explanation for why he did not die (and we get to talk to Dumbledore again, who gives some answers we've been craving, including more about his past).
  • There were several deaths during the battle at Hogwarts, among them Fred Weasly, Tonks, and Lupin. These were some of my favorite characters, and it was indeed hard to see them go... Many other characters died as well (some, it seems, were not even named). Even with all of that, the death toll was perhaps not as high as I was expecting (or dreading, I should say).
  • The final showdown between Harry and Voldemort was well handled and satisfying, with a proper explanation for what happened and why. Again, I'm not sure any of these explanations would stand up to close scrutiny, but that doesn't really matter. It was well a well done and satisfying ending.
  • Nineteen years later... I actually like these sorts of afterwords where we see what came of everyone, even if they're usually unnecessary (as this one pretty much is). I'm a little surprised that Harry did not take up a position at Hogwarts (though they don't really say what he does, other than being a father - I guess the message is clear.) but it was a fun little exercise, and a nice way to end the book and series.
Ultimately, I was very satisfied with the series. The last book drags a little at times, when it reverts back into the repetitive and whiny (and repetitive and whiny and repetitive...) tendencies of the fifth book, but it picks up towards the end and makes for a fitting end to the series.
Posted by Mark on July 25, 2007 at 01:17 AM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Monday, July 23, 2007

Liveblogging Harry Potter (again), Part 3
I'm a little past the halfway point, so I figured I'd post some more thoughts. Again, many spoilers are likely, so I'm putting everything beneath the fold.

Update 9:30 pm: More comments added...

Update 10:15 pm: More additions...

Update 12:30 am: Last update for the night...
  • Part 1, covering initial thoughts and the first couple chapters.
  • Part 2, covering the next several chapters and some other thoughts.
  • Page 186: A ha! So R.A.B. was indeed a member of the Black family, as I'd speculated a few years ago (along with a few million other fans:P), though I had the name wrong. It's Regulus Arcturus Black, and unfortunately, it seems that he's only taken care of one of the Horcruxes (and not several, as I had speculated yesterday). Also, Kreacher becomes a more sympathetic character. That makes two previously stalwart anti-Potter factions that have made moves in the other direction (the other being Dudley Dursley's surprising admission earlier in the book). Does this foreshadow Snape's eventual redemption?
  • Page 284: One of the things I'm realizing is that the book seems to bog down a bit when it's just Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Not that it gets bad or anything, but that things really only pick up when they venture out or talk to someone from the outside. Otherwise, they seem to just be sitting inside their tent, snapping at each other and whining about how Dumbledore didn't tell them enough of his secrets (they seem to be doing this a lot, particularly Harry. This sort of thing has been my least favorite part of the series, especially in book 5, and it's annoying that it's reappeared after a blissful respite in book 6). Also, the wearing of the Horcrux seems to be a silly practice, as it appears to demonstrate One Ring of Power-like symptoms. The Lupin subplot is heating up, but I have no idea where it's going. And finally, Ron is acting like a turd. Big shock. He never seems to play a real important role in the series...
  • Page 346: Nearing the halfway point, and we're not much further into resolving the plot lines, though it appears that all the chess pieces are being put into place. Some mysteries have been revealed (R.A.B.), but some remain (Snape's spy) and new ones have come up (who is Dumbledore's blond friend?). Some of these action sequences are a little confusing, but somewhat short and effective. I think Rowling is actually going for a certain sense of disorientation, but it can be a little frustrating.
  • Page 362: There has been a lot of talk about the history of the Dumbledore family, particularly about Albus' youth. Coming from a source like Rita Skeeter, I don't believe the implications, though I'm betting there's some nugget of truth to the revelations. Harry, on the other hand, immediately believes everything he hears. At first, I found this odd. Why would Harry be so insistent that Dumbledore wasn't a great man? But then, I realized that this is something we deal with all the time. Hardly a national holiday goes by that we don't hear some lecture about how such-and-such founding father was a good man, but that he owned slaves (or some other such observation)! Somehow, people seem to expect that great leaders are great because they're perfect or something. But no one is perfect, and so even great men have their weak points. Harry is going through this realization now, I guess. Rowling is doing a pretty good job here though. By introducting these disturbing rumors early in the book thorugh the unreliable source of Rita Skeeter, she's setting herself up so that she can reveal that Dumbledore was indeed not perfect, but nowhere near as evil as Skeeter is portraying him. Indeed, it seems like the Weasley's aunt Miriam has tempered some of the rumors a bit (though they're still a little strong). I'm betting that when we finally find out the truth, it won't be anywhere near as bad as Skeeter portrays it...
  • Page 388: Finally, some progress. The sword found and the locket destroyed, and Ron has returned. And redeemed himself, I suppose. Again, I'm sensing a theme here. Wanna bet Lupin will redeem himself and return to his wife and child? Also, we find out that at least some of what Dumbledore left to the kids in his will is useful. And it helps explain how Ron was able to find Harry and Hermione (who've been hiding for the majority of the book).
  • Page 413: And so we find out what the Deathly Hallows are: another set of magical artifacts. Still, it shows promise, and suddenly the loss of Harry's wand doesn't seem so important. Incidentally, I've always wondered about the wands. They seem awfully flimsy, and it seems to be a blindingly obvious vulnerability. Of course, the last book introduced the concept of silent spellcasting, which perhaps doesn't require a wand either (or am I remembering that wrong). In any case, Rowling seems to be increasing the number of things that need to be resolved, rather than resolving them. Our heros might have one of the Hallows already, but the other two?
  • I just had another thought. The Deathly Hallows were created by death, and supposedly, they represent death's defeat (or something like that). Earlier in the book, we see James and Lily Potter's tombstone, and there was an unusal inscription: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." The whole Hallows concept puts that in a different light...
  • Page 502: Now we're getting somewhere. Another death has befallen us, the house elf Dobby has died, in the heroic act of saving Harry, Ron, Hermione and several other prisoners. Just how Dobby knew where they were is still a little unclear - Harry thinks it has something to do with the mirror fragment and Dumbledore, but I'm still not sure. In any case, some of the various plot lines are starting to converge and make more sense. Harry appears to have grasped the situation thoroughly and is acting with authority (for the first time in the book, really, and thankfully). Only 250 pages or so to go, but there's still a lot of ground to cover.
More commentary on the way...
Posted by Mark on July 23, 2007 at 07:48 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Liveblogging Harry Potter (again), Part 2
Well, a few chapters later, and I'm already forced to warn about spoilers. I'll try to keep them vague, but I'm putting my thoughts into the extended entry in case anyone doesn't want even a hint of spoilers.

I'll most likely be adding to this post later tonight, so stay tuned...

Update 9:30 pm: Added some more thoughts

Update 10:00 pm: More thoughts added... (last update for the night) About a hundred pages in, and it looks like those quotes at the beginning of the book were accurate. That's all I'll say for now.
  • Liveblogging Harry Potter (again), Part 1 - Initial thoughts and first two chapters...
  • Chapter 3: The Dursley's Departing - The Dursleys make their first (and possibly last) appearance, and we get some surprising reactions, especially from Dudley, who seems to have appreciated what Harry did for him a few books ago (Harry saved him from dementors).
  • Chapter 4: The Seven Potters - The Order of the Phoenix appears, and they're attempting to help Harry escape from the Dursley's house. We know from earlier in the book that Voldemort knows their plans, but the paranoid Mad Eye Moody has anticipated this and called a change in plans. Many familiar characters show up to enact the plan, which, of course, doesn't go as planned. It's a little unnerving to have a major battle sequence, complete with a Voldemort showdown, this early in the book. Rowling is wasting no time, it seems. Also, our first death of what appears to be many (I guess those quotes a the beginning of the book weren't just for show), Hedwig the owl dies.
  • Chapter 5: Fallen Warrior - Well, color me surprised. Another major character is down, and one injured. A lot of speculation about who betrayed the Order. We learned earlier in the book from Snape that it's from "... the source we discussed." which could be just about anyone. At the time, I had my money on Kreacher (the surly house elf of the Black family), but at this point I have no idea. So we can add that mystery to the R.A.B. mystery heldover from the previous book. Another mystery is why Harry's wand seemingly acted of it's own accord - Genevieve, from the Onion A.V. Club (who was liveblogging last night, along with Tasha), thinks it's possible that Dumbledore is acting through Harry somehow. I'm not sure, but if it is, then it fits in line with what I said before about Dumbledore. While the book started a bit slow for my tastes, I have to admit that I'm right in the thick of things right now. Rowling's got a lot of loose ends to tie up and only 600 pages or so to do it!
  • Chapter 6: The Ghoul in Pajamas - I always forget the details of the previous books by the time I start reading the next book. As such, the first hundred pages or so always make me wonder various things, but eventually I manage to clear out all the cobwebs. I'm getting to the point now where I'm pretty much up to speed with everything and am really getting into the spirit of things. There are a lot of loose ends that Rowling needs to tie up in this book, chief among them are the Horcruxes. There are apparently 4 of them left, and they're apparently not so easy to destroy. Plus, no one knows where they are and then you've still got Voldemort himself to deal with. The only thing I can think of is that this R.A.B. fellow has actually taken care of a few of these Horcruxes in addition to the one we know about.

    The other thing that struck me in this chapter was that Ron actually seemed to be mildy competent with magic. This is one of the things that always bothered me about the series - Hermione appears to be the only student at Hogwarts who takes her studies seriously. Harry and Ron have always been serious slackers. This was particularly bothersome during the 5th book, when Harry started teaching everyone defense against the dark arts. Aside from the Patronus charm which Lupin taught him, where did Harry get all this knowledge from? I guess there's a bit of sly commentary about the usefulness of school (I certainly don't use a lot of what I was taught in school out here in the real world) here, but at the same time, how did Harry and Ron get good at magic? A lot of the time, they seem like they just get lucky. All of this is, of course, just a nitpick. But still, it always seemed like they should be a little more knowledgeable if they're every going to defeat Voldemort.
  • Page 130: Excuse me while I abandon the concept of chapter-by-chapter commentary. This is something I kept forgetting to mention: The entire wizarding world seems to be dependant on a single newspaper, The Daily Prophet. Much has been made in this book about how the Prophet isn't reporting high profile news items like the havoc wreaked by Death Eaters, or a mass breakout at Azkaban prison, or the death of a powerful Auror. Don't wizards have some sort of competitive market for newspapers? Do they have some sort of First Amendment type protections? At the very least, they could use more newspapers. They could also probably use the wizarding equivalent to the internet and blogs. If I were a student at Hogwards, I'd read Harry Potter's blog. I bet Hermione would make a great blogger. Ron's would suck though. His brothers, on the other hand... Hell, I bet Voldemort's blog would be interesting, if a little scary (he'd probably try to infect you with the wizarding equivalent to spyware though. Unless you're using the wizarding equivalent to Opera. Then you'd probably be safe, because even Voldemort wouldn't develop his software to work on that browser. He probably uses an unpatched version of IE 6.) Again, I nitpick. I should stop with the nitpicking. But wizard blogs would be cool, wouldn't they?
  • Part 3 is up, with lots of spoilers.
More updates coming, though tonight might be a busy night... Stay tuned to this post.
Posted by Mark on July 22, 2007 at 04:28 PM .: link :.


Liveblogging Harry Potter (again), Part 1
When Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince came out 2 years ago, I liveblogged it. Sorta. I pretty much abandoned the liveblogging concept towards the end of the book. I expect the same thing to happen with the latest and final installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but I'll start with the pretense of liveblogging anyway. Also like last time, I expect the spoilers to be low towards the beginning of the book, but by the time I reach the end, I'll almost definitely be slinging spoilers.

Before I start reading, I figure I'll collect any preconceived notions I have about the last book:
  • Each book in the series has a similar structure: the book opens with Harry having a crappy summer with the Dursleys, followed by the trip to Hogwarts (usually there are a few pitstops before he leaves), the introduction of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, some Quidditch, whatever conflict is in the story comes to a head just around the end of the school year, and then we're done. Of course, there's more than that in each book, but they all have a similar school-year themed structure. Interestingly, the end of the sixth book seems to suggest that most of these Potter conventions will be thrown out the window for the final installment.
  • I have high expectations for this book. I think Rowling will be able to deliver. More than anything else, the introduction of the concept of Horcruxes in the last book has raised my expectations. To quote myself: The Horcruxes don't seem tacked-on in the way that, for example, some things were in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. (Or, grandaddy of all tacked-on mistakes: midi-chlorians.) I'm convinced that Rowling actually did have a good long term plan for the series and, as such, I'm expecting a satisfying ending. (I've checked, and the last several pages aren't totally black, and the book doesn't seem to be equipped with any audio devices programmed to play Journey's Don't Stop Believin, so I'm reasonably sure the ending can't be that bad.) (Yes, I'm also aware that I'm not the first person to make that joke.)
  • I don't believe that Harry Potter will die, though I guess anything's possible.
Those thoughts in mind, I opened the book and read the first two chapters. Short thoughts are below. Again, I'm trying to avoid spoilers for this book, but if you haven't read previous books, then you might find out something you didn't want to know.
  • "Bless the children, give them triumph now." As authors often do, Rowling precedes the book with a few quotes, and if they're any indication, we're in for a rough ride. The quotes, one by Aeschylus and the other by William Penn, prominently feature death, children and friendship. Where have we seen that combination before?
  • Chapter 1: The Dark Lord Ascending - The book opens an indeterminate time after the last book ended. Clearly some time has passed, but not a lot. A few weeks or months maybe. Snape is unnervingly calm and at home with the death eaters, but I'm still thinking that he will redeem himself by the end. Perhaps not the way Eric S. Raymond speculated he would, but a redemption most certainly seems in order.
  • Chapter 2: In Memoriam - Now this is strange. Harry is at the Durseley's? And it appears to be nearing the end of summer... maybe Rowling will stick to the schoolyear format after all? In any case, we're still dealing with repercussions from the end of the previous book, though in this case, we get some rather interesting background info on Dumbledore. Lots of speculation has been made on whether or not we'll see Dumbledore in this book. While certainly possible, Rowling seems to be pretty straightforward when it comes to this sort of thing, and her mysteries are usually pretty clear. You don't have to go hunting through the text to find out what she wants you to be curious about. If Dumbledore makes another appearance, it will be in an obtuse way - some sort of magical recording, or perhaps in a painting or something.
  • Part 2, covering chapters 3-6 (and lots of other stuff) is up.
  • Part 3 is up, with lots of spoilers.
Update: Lots of updates. Updates everywhere!

Posted by Mark on July 22, 2007 at 01:13 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 3
Well at this point, I've pretty much abandoned any pretense at actually liveblogging. I finished the book earlier this week, but have been to busy to post comments. Unlike previous installments, this post will contain lots of spoilers, but I'll put them in the extended entry so as not to expose them on the main page...
  • Most of what I said in previous entries still holds true. See Part 1 and Part 2 (and the Magic Security post too).
  • It was rumored that a major, beloved character would die in this book, and it turns out that said character was Dumbledore. Honestly, this wasn't that much of a surprise, as people had been speculating on his death for weeks. However, the stylish manner in which Rowling pulls it off means that you really don't care that you knew he was going to die. Indeed, the entire ending sequence is masterfully orchestrated by Rowling, who was able to tie together several of the disparate plot threads in quite a dramatic fashion. Plus, as Nate notes, Dumbledore had to die in this book so that we get a full book of "post-Dumbledore Harry," a more mature and self-confident wizard than what we've seen of Harry so far (though we've been catching glimpses of the new Harry all throughout this latest novel).
  • Color me surprised that Snape turned out to be the one who did the deed. Like Nate says: "I always hoped that beneath his gruff demeanor and his obvious dislike of Harry was a guy who would do the right thing when the time came." Indeed, that sort of thing had already played out in previous books (1 or 2). In that final scene when it becomes clear that Malfoy won't go through with it and Snape arrives, I honestly thought he'd turn against the Death Eaters. I suppose the notion that Dumbledore would die wasn't a surprise, but that Snape was the one who did so certainly was. Indeed, the internet is rife with speculation as to the redemption of Snape in the next volume. Nate thinks it'll happen, as does Johno and a whole host of other people I've spoken to about the subject. I certainly hope it will happen, but look where that got me...
  • Unlike any of the previous books, this book really isn't much of a self-contained story, nor does it have any sort of definitive ending. The ending is, in a way, a cliffhanger. Not only does Dumbledore die, but we find out that the Horcrux that he and Harry had retrieved was actually a fake, left there by someone else (with the initials R.A.B), presumably someone powerful who is also opposed to Voldemort. An intriguing mystery, but one that won't be solved until the next book (there is speculation that the "B" in the initials stands for "Black," perhaps even Romulus Black, Sirius' brother). This book feels very much like The Empire Strikes Back of the Harry Potter series. In both, not much in the way of good things happen to our heros, but it's still a pleasure to watch or read.
  • It also looks like this will be the last book to conform to the standard school-year structure, as Harry searches for the remaining Horcruxes with his friends (and I'm sure others, notably Ginny, will find their way into the story). Throughout six books, Rowling managed to pull a lot out of the predictable progression of a school year at Hogwarts, but it should be interesting to see how the next book plays out.
  • One final, almost unrelated note: Much is often made about the length of the Harry Potter books. At 650 or so pages, this volume weighs in at a little larger than the middle of the pack. However, I was reading Beyond Fear this afternoon, and it seemed that I was reading significantly slower. With Harry Potter I read at a rate of about 40-60 pages an hour, while Beyond Fear sees at most 30 pages an hour. Then I looked at the type, spacing, and margins. There are easily two lines in Beyond Fear for every line in Harry Potter, if not an even more glaring ratio. Without such spacing, this latest Harry Potter book would have been around 300 pages or so. Don't get me wrong, it's still impressive that we're seeing kids reading these books despite their large page count, but I guess I was surprised at just how easy to read it was...
Posted by Mark on July 24, 2005 at 04:31 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 2
Well, I suppose this hardly qualifies as liveblogging anymore, as I've read over 300 pages since my last update, but such petty details notwithstanding, below are some more thoughts I've had while reading.
  • Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 1: My first post covers initial thoughts and approximately the first 200 pages.
  • Magic Security: A tongue-in-cheek, yet strangely serious evaluation of a security measure suggested by the Ministry of Magic, using a muggle method of analysis.
  • Two more Harry Potter conventions have made an appearance at this point: Quiddich and teenage romance. I've never been too impressed with the game of Quiddich, but its appearances are brief and they do play a role in some of the subplots, so as not to be disconnected or boring (as I sometimes felt they were in previous books). Since Goblet of Fire, the Potter books have had more and more romantic encounters. There is, of course, the romantic tension between Ron and Hermione, which is alive and well in this sixth volume of the series, despite Ron's boneheaded pursuit of Lavender Brown (and the resulting row with Hermione that results). It's getting increasingly obvious that they're going to get it on pretty soon (and it was obvious two books ago, so we're getting darn close to definite here). Harry, too, has a new love interest, but he honorably realizes that she is "out of bounds," and we have thankfully not had to endure much about that just yet. Harry, for his part, seems to have become quite mature and genuinely seems to have gained at least some self-confidence and composure, even under fire (a welcome change from his hyper-grumpy days in the last book). As the Michelle Pauli at the Guardian notes (warning: many more spoilers there than here) about the romantic storylines, Rowling is forced to compromise between raging hormones and a younger audience. It works reasonably well enough, but it perhaps leaves something to be desired. But at least she seems to be hitting a better tone with this book than with her previous effort (in terms of love interests and just about every other aspect of the story).
  • Am I the only one who finds the characterization of the Vampire Sanguini at Slughorn's Christmas party absolutely hilarious? It's but a few paragraphs (on page 316 in my edition), but I honestly would like to know more about that situation...
  • About 500 pages in, and it seems that Rowling isn't really going to tell a self-contained story here. I mentioned before that numerous sub-plots and mysteries had presented themselves, and that is very true (none more compelling than the glimpses into Voldemort's fascinating past), but there doesn't seem to be much of a narrative here. Oddly, it's working. This book feels like it's simply laying the groundwork for the seventh and final book, which one assumes will contain the penultimate confrontation with Voldemort. But again, it works and I find the pages flying by. The only reason I haven't finished is that I've intentionally been trying to draw out the reading of the book. Of course, much could happen with 100 pages to go. It's not as if we've learned very much about this titular half blood prince (though we've been given certain disturbing hints). I expect to be finished tomorrow night.
  • Horcruxes! An interesting, if not especially novel, concept. It strikes me that, unlike some other series, Rowling actually did have some sort of plan for these books. The Horcruxes don't seem tacked-on in the way that, for example, some things were in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. (Or, grandaddy of all tacked-on mistakes: midi-chlorians.)
More to come! I anticipate finishing the book off tomorrow night. Until then...
Posted by Mark on July 19, 2005 at 11:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Magic Security
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there are a number of new security measures suggested by the Ministry of Magic (as Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters have been running amuk). Some of them are common sense but some of them are much more questionable. Since I've also been reading prominent muggle and security expert Bruce Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, I thought it might be fun to analyze one of the Ministry of Magic's security measures according to Schneier's 5 step process.

Here is the security measure I've chosen to evaluate, as shown on page 42 of my edition:
Agree on security questions with close friends and family, so as to detect Death Eaters masquerading as others by use of the Polyjuice Potion.
For those not in the know, Polyjuice Potion allows the drinker to assume the appearance of someone else, presumably someone you know. Certainly a dangerous attack. The proposed solution is a "security question", set up in advance, so that you can verify the identity of the person in question.
  • Step 1: What assets are you trying to protect? The Ministry of Magic claims that it's solution is to the problem of impersonation by way of the Polyjuice Potion. However, this security measure essentially boils down to a form of identification, so what we're really trying to protect is an identity. The identity is, in itself, a security measure - for example, once verified, it could allow entrance to an otherwise restricted area.
  • Step 2: What are the risks to those assets? The risk is that someone could be impersonating a friend or family member (by using the aforementioned Polyjuice Potion) in an effort to gain entrance to a restricted area or otherwise gain the trust of a certain group of people. Unfortunately, the risk does not end there as the Ministry implies in its communication - it is also quite possible that an attacker could put your friend or family member under the Imperious Curse (a spell that grants the caster control of a victim). Because both the Polyjuice Potion and the Imperious Curse can be used to foil an identity based system, any proposed solution should account for both. It isn't known how frequent such attacks are, but it is implied that both attacks are increasing in frequency.
  • Step 3: How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? Not very well. First, it is quite possible for an attacker to figure out the security questions and answers ahead of time. They could do so through simple research, or through direct observation and reconnaissance. Since the security questions need to be set up in the first place, it's quite possible that an attacker could impersonate someone and set up the security questions while in disguise. Indeed, even Professor Dumbledore alludes to the ease with which an attacker could subvert this system. Heck, we're talking about attackers who are most likely witches or wizards themselves. There may be a spell of some sort that would allow them to get the answer from a victim (the Imperious Curse is one example, and I'm sure there are all sorts of truth serums or charms that could be used as well). The solution works somewhat better in the case of the Polyjuice Potion, but since we've concluded that the Imperious Curse also needs to be considered, and since this would provide almost no security in that case, the security question ends up being a poor solution to the identity problem.
  • Step 4: What other risks does the security solution cause? The most notable risk is that of a false positive. If the attacker successfully answers the security question, they achieve a certain level of trust. When you use identity as a security measure, you make impersonating that identity (or manipulating the person in question via the Imperious Curse) a much more valuable attack.
  • Step 5: What trade-offs does the security solution require? This solution is inexpensive and easy to implement, but also ineffective and inconvenient. It would also requires a certain amount of vigilance to implement indefinitely. After weeks of strict adherence to the security measure, I think you'd find people getting complacent. They'd skip using the security measure when they're in a hurry, for example. When nothing bad happens, it would only reinforce the inconvenience of the practice. It's also worth noting that this system could be used in conjunction with other security measures, but even then, it's not all that useful.
It seems to me that this isn't a very effective security measure, especially when you consider that the attacker is likely a witch or wizard. This is obviously also apparent to many of the characters in the book as well. As such, I'd recommend a magic countermeasure. If you need to verify someone's identity, you should probably use a charm or spell of some sort to do so instead of the easily subverted "security question" system. It shouldn't be difficult. In Harry Potter's universe, it would probably amount to pointing a wand at someone and saying "Identico!" (or some other such word that is vaguely related to the words Identity or Identify) at which point you could find out who the person is and if they're under the Imperious Curse.
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2005 at 12:21 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 1
Odd as it may seem, that is exactly what a curiously unnamed BBC reporter has done for the just-released Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. As said book has arrived in the mail today, I figured I might as well just follow the Beeb's lead and liveblog my reading of the book.

I'm no speedreader - the aformentioned reporter apparently read at a pace higher than 100 pages per hour - and I don't particularly want to finish the book that quickly, so this will most likely be spread out over the next few days.

Before I started reading, I read this summary of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (thanks to Nate for the pointer). I didn't especially enjoy that book. It seemed a distinct step down from the Goblet of Fire, and thus my hopes are not as high for the new volume (which, as I've noted before, could act in its favor). And so I give you, the first two chapters of the new Harry Potter book. Additional chapters will be added to this entry as I read them (new chapters will be on the bottom). I'll attempt to keep things vague, but I must warn: Potential SPOILERS ahead. (as of now, I'm two chapters in, and no real spoilers).
  • Chapter 1: The Other Minister - Unlike previous books (if I remember correctly), this one opens on a scene not featuring Harry. It contains a recap of some of the events in previous books, and it does so in a more novel way than usual (Rowling normally just kinda blurts out a recap, but this time she sneaks it into a scene, with characters informing a Muggle about certain events). It's a clever bit of storytelling, and it illuminates some of the previously vague Wizard-Muggle interactions. I shall be interested to see if the Muggle in question will actually play a larger part in the story, or if he's merely a plot contrivance (an excuse to recap earlier works), in which case this probably wouldn't be as clever as I though. I guess that's how the hermeneutic circle turns.
  • Chapter 2: Spinner's End - Things pick up a bit and Rowling unleashes the first twist of what is sure to be many. It's an interesting notion, but several years of watching the television show 24 have addled my brain to the point where I'm naturally suspicious of such revelations so early in the story. Of course, this really doesn't mean anything, but it does indicate a sort of diminishing returns in the series. One of the big problems with a story that you know will have a lot of surprises (though I guess I don't know that about this book) is that you're constantly formulating guesses as to what's going to happen, so that when it does, it's something less of a surprise. Of course, Rowling has deftly navigated this sort of obstacle in previous books (notably The Prisoner of Azkaban, my favorite of the books) and either kept something a surprise or executed a twist with such flare that you don't care you guessed it earlier.
  • Chapter 3: Will and Won't - Harry Potter makes his first appearance, followed by a more typical recap of events from the previous books and events between the last book and this one. Dumbledore also makes his first appearance here, saving Harry from his horrid step-family (the Dursleys) and the end of this chapter marks the real beginning of the story. As the BBC reporter notes, the chapter ends with an appropriate quote: "And now Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure."
  • Chapter 4: Horace Slughorn - All the Potter books follow a certain structure, but one of the big variables from book to book is the appearance of a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Dumbledore and Harry recruit this year's teacher, who seems to have a flare for recognizing and exploiting talent. Given the way Rowling portrays him, and given certain other facts about him, you can't help but be a little suspicious of the man. Things are getting more interesting, but we're still cought up in the preliminaries. So far we've had numerous recaps of the story so far, Harry's escape from the Dursley family, and a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Still to come are Harry's reunion with Ron and Hermione (ostensibly to occur in Chapter 5), the trip to Hogwarts, and the start of classes, at which point the real story begins.
  • Chapters 5 & 6: More Potter staples: The aformentioned reunion with Ron and Hermione (and other members of the Weasley family), a trip to Diagon Alley, and the inevitable run-in with Draco Malfoy. At this point I think I'm going to be abandoning the whole chapters thing, and just comment on something when I feel the need. I don't want this to end up being a summary of the book, after all. Additional entries will be by page number (indicating where I am in the book - the comments won't necessarily be about whatever appears on that page).
  • Page 138: One thing that keeps getting stressed in the book is additional security, since Voldemort is loose and wreaking havoc again. I think it might be fun to analyze some of the security measures laid out by the Ministry of Magic (as the book I'd been reading before I got Potter was Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear). Perhaps I'll tackle that tomorrow. All in all, after 138 pages, I'm quite enjoying the book. It's been a while since I've read over 100 pages in a single day (though I suspect that also has something to do with the size of the type and the page layout). So far, I'm enjoying it a lot more than I did the previous book, but the story really hasn't started in earnest yet (though things are set in motion).
  • Page 200: About 200 pages and 11 chapters in, the kids are back at Hogwarts and the story is now starting in earnest. We've had a few mentions of the Half-Blood Prince, Harry get's detention, and we learn some stuff about Voldemort's past. Lot's of mini-mysteries and subplots are popping up in a generally fun feeling atmosphere. None of that grumpiness that permeated the last book. It looks like The Guardian also liveblogged the book.
Update: Added thoughts on chapters 3 & 4. Added some more chapters after that, and switched to a different format.

Again Update:Added some more stuff. Will probably write the security entry soon, and will then start a "Part 2" of this post.

Update 7.19.05: Part 2 is up, as is the discussion on magic security I hinted at above..
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2005 at 08:15 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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