Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Book Review: Babel by R. F. Kuang

Pros: thought provoking, great characters, fascinating discussions

Cons: ending gets brutal, tension drags on

When Robin is saved from cholera in Canton and brought to England his life becomes one of study and languages. He’s sent to Oxford’s translation department, where silver bars are inscribed with words that - like magic - power much of Britain’s modernization. The others in his program have also suffered to be a part of it. But they realize their successes are designed to only benefit the British Empire, not the homelands they were torn from and whose languages the silverworking magic is based on.

This is a brilliant book. I found the frequent etymological breakdown of words and the discussions on translation fascinating. The author did an excellent job of showing the fallacies of colonialist thought. It was such a thought provoking story.

The characters were all well fleshed out. Robin is such a conflicted character, not fitting into white society but also no longer Chinese. Told to feel grateful for the opportunities he’s been given but aware that he’s been given no choice regarding his future. I loved Ramy and Victoire and their perspectives on things. I wasn’t as keen on Letty, but she was still an interesting character. I appreciated that we get to see interludes from their perspectives, giving more information about their backgrounds and allowing us to see what led to their convictions.

Towards the end of the book the tension ramps up. It stays high so long though that I found myself needing a break from the book. There is a section of the book towards the end that gets quite brutal, with a lot of people dying in quick succession. It’s not overly graphic, though there is a torture scene. The book also contains period accurate slurs which may be distressing to read.

The book has footnotes, which is great as they give some authorial asides and additional information that’s not essential for the story but fun nonetheless. They also make the book feel more scholarly. They are marked by as star (*) after the text. Clicking the mark is supposed to hyperlink you to the explanatory note at the back of the book. Unfortunately, the first time I tried this is just turned the page, so I didn’t realize it worked (I guess you have to be very careful to hit the star). I ended up using bookmarks to flip between them, but the footnotes aren’t numbered, so I had to be careful to check each one and move my bookmarks so I didn’t lose my place in the 100+ pages of footnotes.

If you like languages and alternate history, though brutal at times, this is a brilliant read you’ll be thinking of for some time after you close the book.

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Topaz Sharpen AI Thoughts

I recently came back from a research trip to France. I took... tens of thousands of photographs using a 10+ year old camera. It's focusing ability wasn't as good as it used to be, nor are my eyes or my ability to hold it super steady. So taking photos in low light cathedral interiors and museums means I came home with a larger than I'd like number of blurry photos. :(

So I was intrigued when I saw an ad for Topaz Sharpen AI. The reviews I saw for the program were pretty impressive and it turned out my husband had used some of their products in the past. So I got their free trial download (it's the full program that puts a watermark in the centre of test photos) and tested it. I was impressed enough that I bought it, and the Denoise AI program during their black friday/cyber monday sale.

I don't know enough about other similar editing programs, and I've only been playing with it for a few days, so this isn't a review. It's just some observations of how well the software has worked with the photos I've tried it on.

To start, the successes. The software gives 3 levels of sharpening: motion (camera shake or subject movement), out of focus, and softness. Photos that are just slightly blurry with clear lines are the easiest to fix. Here's an example of stained glass (I didn't choose the entire frame, so the section on the left didn't get sharpening), and a Virgin & Child statue. (Click on any image to scroll through larger versions of all the photos.)

Blurry original stained glass.
Sharpened stained glass of Salome dancing before Herod.

Blurry Virgin & Child

Sharpened Virgin & Child

The photo that sold me on the program though, was this one. I had to go very heavy on the anti-blur as I otherwise ended up with Mary having extra ghost fingers, but I'm very happy with how this one turned out. I also ran it through Denoise AI to make it look even better. I did find that their combined 'Photo AI' didn't do as good a job with this photo as the individual programs. I guess trying to de-noise & sharpen in the order Photo AI uses didn't seem to jive with this specific example. I couldn't get rid of the ghost fingers no matter what I tried. I love medieval ivories, so fixing this photo was amazing.

Original ivory of the Annunciation

Sharpened & de-noised ivory of the Annunciation

As a historian I need to warn that with some fixes important detail is lost. So the photos can no longer be used as pure representations of the original (as much as a photo can in the first place). For example, I was able to make the following 2 photos usable from a general standpoint, but if you zoom in you can see that the detail isn't there. In the cathedral facade's sharpened image, you can see that the trefoils at the top still have some ghost effects showing the blur.

Original light show on the west facade of Amiens cathedral. 

Sharpened west facade of Amiens.

Crop showing a lack of detail (though, part of this is also due to the light show, which created a shadow on the figures).
Original photo of prayer bead with Virgin & Child.

Sharpened prayer bead.

Zoomed in image of sharpened prayer bead. 

You can clearly see how the program smeared the faces in the zoomed in prayer bead. I kind of like how the queen below Mary has become more skeletal, but this no longer reflects the true detail of the bead.

If there's too much blur the program is unable to fix it at all. I had a few failures and a few photos that turned out better than the originals, but still not usable.

It's always best to get a properly focused and sharp image in camera. But if you can't, this program does a shockingly good job on making slightly blurry photos usable. Is it worth it for you? Try out the software first. I'm just stoked that I can save some of my trip photos. :)

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Book Review: Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman

Pros: has a degree of historical accuracy, interestingly flawed characters, horrifying monsters

Cons: uses slurs, some disturbing scenes

The black death rages across France as demons test God’s concern for the earth. A disgraced knight saves a young girl from his companions and, against his will, agrees to accompany her to Paris and Avignon. He quickly realizes there’s something special about her, but is she a saint or a witch?

The book is set in a historical place and time that was clearly well researched (with some good acknowledgements in the back). The author weaves in some horrifying monsters and clearly inaccurate fantasy elements that fit the medieval mindset.

The are rich descriptions of setting that allow you to vividly picture the action. Given some of the monsters this isn’t always a positive.

Thomas is a great character. He’s flawed in several ways but grows as he travels with the girl.

One main side character is gay and they encounter Jews a time or two. Be aware that several slurs are used in the text when discussing these groups that fit the time and place, but may be distressing to read. There's also the threat of sexual violence several times.

It’s a brutal look at the middle ages with some horror elements added regarding Biblically accurate angels and demons. It’s a difficult read at times, so not for everyone.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

TV Review: W: Two Worlds Apart

Pros: fun romance, interesting characters, great concept

Cons: some disturbing content (suicide, torture)

Oh Yeon-joo is pulled into her father’s bestselling comic book series, “W”, and saves the hero, Kang Cheol’s life. Pulled between the two worlds, she falls in love with Kang and tries to shift the comic from being an action adventure to a romance story.

This is a Korean drama that aired in 2016, starring Lee Jong-Suk and Han Hyo-joo. IMDb listing.

Hard to find in North America as it’s no longer on Netflix here, I was lucky to find it in Europe on my recent trip to France.

The story is fun and quirky, with rules that get explained as the characters slowly figure out what’s happening. There are a few moments in the first two episodes where I felt embarrassed for Oh Yeon-joo, but the tense cliffhanger endings kept me watching. There are some heavy emotional moments and times when the story took a turn I wasn’t expecting.

The romance between the protagonists progressed at a good pace, though there was one moment where it seemed Kang had an unrealistic mood swing in Oh’s direction.

The special effects of going between worlds were really well done.

The show deals with free will, as the story begins with Kang just becoming aware that something is strange with his life. Learning he’s a comic book character, created to tell an entertaining story, creates turmoil in his life.

My only complaint with the show is that the writers (and characters who can effect reality in the comic book world) keep doing the same actions: providing a weapon and a getaway car. It seems that as they realized the potential of their ‘magic’, they could have done more interesting things to evade and outsmart the bad guys. Also, the English subtitles translated the web comic as 'cartoon', which I found inaccurate and distracting.

While it’s predominately a romance, this won’t be for everyone as the series also involves suicide and scenes of torture.

(Unfortunately this trailer I found for the show does not have English subtitles, but gives you an idea of the style & content of the show.)

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Video: Lo Pan Style

 Here's a double blast from the past. Wekejay did a parody video of PSY's "Gangnam Style" using Lo Pan from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. It is awesome! It's not a new video, though I only stumbled across it recently. James Hong, the actor that played Lo Pan in the film, even makes a cameo. 

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Book Review: The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

Pros: fascinating period, clever interweaving of magic into history, interesting characters and events


After finding their murdered governess’s book of magic, archduchesses Maria Carolina (Charlotte) and Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) start teaching themselves spells. They hope this forbidden skill will help them in their upcoming political marriages to King Ferdinand I of Naples and the Dauphin of France respectively. One joins forces with a magical society that wants to control the use of magic, while the other is forced to hide her skill and work with rogues. Dreaming of how they’ll change the world for the better, politics, magic, and the whims of fate propel the sisters into the arms of revolution and a world very different from what they’d hoped to create.

Carefully following the events of history from 1767 to 1798, the author weaves magic into the story, using it to often explain natural disasters, political upheaval, and personal triumphs and defeats in the womens’ lives.

Magic requires 5 sacrifices, including a personal treasure, a memory, and an emotion (the love of a pet, for example). These sacrifices slowly leach the life and vivacity from the girls and the other practitioners around them. Magic itself varies between simple frivolous spells and truly dangerous spells.

It’s sad seeing how circumstances gradually change the sisters’ relationship with each other. Each one tries to do the best for their country, their family, and themselves, but that ultimately causes discord between them.

The author is kinder to Marie Antoinette and her actions and motivations than history has been. I didn’t know much about Naples or Charlotte’s reign, so I found her part of the story utterly fascinating. It’s clear the author did a lot of research on the people and time.

If you like alternate history and fantasy, this is an enjoyable read.

Friday, 4 November 2022

Shout-Out: Silver Queendom by Dan Koboldt

Service at the Red Rooster Inn isn’t what you’d call "good," or even "adequate." Darin would be the first to say so, and he owns the place. Evie isn’t much of a barmaid; Kat’s home-brewed ale seems to grow less palatable with each new batch; and Seraphina’s service at the bar leaves much to be desired. As for the bouncer, Big Tom, well, everyone learns right quick to stay on his good side. 

They may be bad at running an inn, but they’re the best team of con artists in the Old Queendom. When a prospective client approaches Darin with a high-paying job, he knows he should refuse. But the job is boosting a shipment of priceless imperial dream wine, the most coveted and expensive drink in the world. And, thanks to a stretch of bad luck, he's in deep to The Dame, who oversees criminal enterprises in this part of the Queendom.

If they fail, they’re as good as dead, but if they succeed… well, it’s enough money to get square with the Dame and make all of their dreams come true. Plus, it's an option for Darin to stick it to the empress, who he has good reason to despise.

Then again, there’s a very good reason no one has ever stolen imperial dream wine...