September 15th, 2002

Seeing a bash shell on a PDA...

... is a little disconcerting. Fun, but disconcerting.

autopope and I had heard that the Sharp Zaurus Linux-based PDA was being sold in the US for round about half what it costs in the UK. As the much rumoured OS-X sysnchronisation tools seem to be just around the corner, the Worldcon seemed to be an appropriate time to invest in some interesting technology, especially at the new US price of about $350 or so. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley being what it is, the high geekiness rating of the Zaurus meant that they had nearly vanished from the shelves, making finding the devices a quest worthy of one of John Kovalic's characters...

Fry's was a dead loss (and we tried three or four different sites) - though entertaining as a point of geek pilgrimage. Their stock computers kept saying that they had stock, but there was no sign of hardware beyond a set of mainly dysfunctional display devices. autopope tracked down one at a branch of Goodguys, and they seemed to have more in other branches - especially as their prices were even lower, as they were stopping selling PDAs completely. So on the way to the airport to fly back to the UK, ocean_song's bargaining skills helped me pick up an ex-demo device for $150...

Since then I've faced a struggle to connect it to Windows 2000, though finally succeeding after a complete reinstall of the Zaurus Windows software (which interestingly uses PPP over USB to connect and handle synchronisation). I've also upgraded the device's ROMs, and installed what I feel were essential pieces of software that aren't included in the default system - including a terminal and a file explorer. I am surprised that it runs everything as root - which does make security a bit of an issue, but at least that's better than single user mode. GUI-wise there's no X - instead it uses a UI developed by Trolltech, and based on a mobile version of the QT libraries. It feels a bit like a cut down KDE, but is fast, clean and above all easy to use and learn, which is important in a PDA.

At this point I douubt that it will replace my Pocket PC HP Jornada PDA (purely on grounds of Outlook integration with home and work systems), but it's an interesting experimental device, and I will keep monitoring the various Zaurus software sites for useful software - including, hopefully, support for my WLAN cards.

More to come as I get to grips with it - especially if the Mac OS X integration ever happens...
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The Backlog Reviews: Number Six - The Disappeared

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's novella The Retrival Artist was an interesting story, with well thought out characters and situations. So, when I saw a novel in the same universe, in the shape of The Disappeared it quickly found a place on my bookcase.

The Disappeared is a mystery, set in a world where humanity has gone to the stars, and discovered how difficult it is to develop relationships with other races - especially when their ideas of justice and punishment differ radically from our own. It's a situation that has led to development of new solutions, in the shape of interworld tribunals and an acceptance of the dictum "when in Rome". Of course there are loopholes, in the shape of disappearance agencies that will give an inadvertant transgressor a completely new identity and life.

On the moon, the police find themselves with three new cases - one an obvious alien revenge killing with no link between the victims and the alien race, one a child collection by another group of aliens with what appears to be an invalid warrant, and the third a woman apparently on the run from another group of aliens, and with a story that just doesn't quite fit. There's a link between these crimes, and it leads to a question of trust and responsibility that will cause a cop to question his values and his role in society.

Unfortunately for Rusch the novel fails to excite. Her colonised moon is just another American city with the serial numbers filed off, and her aliens are too human to have such different moralities. The same is true of the characters, with the police straight out of NYPD Blue and the running disappeared just too lucky for their own good. If things have changed as much as she says, then why does everything feel like a standard police procedural with added space ships. There's a failure of imagination here, with little to encourage the reader past the first hundred pages or so...

All in all, The Disappeared is a promising idea, let down by poor execution and juvenile characterisation and a cardboard world.
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The Backlog Reviews: Number Seven - Limit of Vision

It's a pity that when Linda Nagata was finally published in the UK the publishers chose to start with Vast, not only part of a (currently) 4 volume series, but also the direct sequel to Deception Well. This means that UK readers are unlikely to see her latest novel, Limit of Vision, an intriguing tale of biological experimentation gone awry.

This is a tale of the boundaries between science and politics, between love and duty, and between new life and old. In a near future Hawaii an experiment with symbiotic artificial lifeforms known as LOVs (as they exist at the limit of human vision) goes terribly wrong. Not only is the chief researcher dead, but as a result of communication with the LOVs in orbit a section of a space station with LOVs on board is plummeting to earth. One of the research scientists is still carrying symbiotic LOVs, and manages to escape the cordon flung around the illegal experiment. A struggling journalist in the Mekong Delta finds herself in the thick of things as the station fragment lands around here, and the escaped LOVs start to populate the rice fields. As a conflict between third world children and corporate interests escalates, the LOVs start to find their own way in the world...

Nagata is an excellent writer, and Limit of Vision is a pearl of modern hard SF. An irritating core of an idea has turned into a powerful story that entertains and educates, investigating complex issues and coming up with questions and answers. Through her words we get a picture of a possible next step in human evolution, and what it means for those involved and for those outside. Fear and hope battle for the future of society, in a world where we may not be as smart as our creations.

Well worth reading.
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