Goodbye to The Verge

So I no longer visit The Verge – a website that started out as a tech blog, became insanely popular, was one of my most regularly visited sites for a long time, is actively falling into the, “jack of all trades, master of none,” trap that has rarely worked for anyone, and is now out of my life.

The single biggest problem with The Verge over the last several months, perhaps a year or so, is how they were becoming increasingly trigger-happy when it comes to deleting comments and banning users. Sure, there are occasions when it was warranted, but there were several occasions where users got banned despite posting well-reasoned and civil (albeit dissenting) posts. But these, apparently, were enough to get them a ban. And jokes, too. The Verge, it seems, simply doesn’t have the ability to laugh at itself.

I got banned there about a month ago. Basically, I had noticed on that day that the last few threads on their “Meta” forum — a sub-forum where users can post about topics related to The Verge itself — were all abruptly locked and closed by the same moderator. None of them were particularly offensive, but the moderator just locked them, usually with no good reason. Just an abrupt end to the discussion. So I made a new post where I jokingly called out the moderator, basically saying that since he seems to enjoy locking threads so much, I created this thread just so he could lock it.  “Knock yourself out!” I said. Next time I visit, I see a message informing me that I was banned from commenting because my “childish” post was exactly what they don’t want on their esteemed site. So while I was “free” to browse the site, I could not comment. Gee, can I really browse the site still? Really? However so generous of you!

*shrug* Okay, then. I closed the tab without acknowledging the message like they wanted me to (I know it doesn’t affect them, just my little ‘rebellion’) and haven’t been to the website since. This was over a month ago, I think. And you know what? I don’t really miss it. At all.

The problem with sites like The Verge, and this can really apply to any business, is that once they reach a level of mainstream popularity, it seems they fool themselves into thinking that they are somehow unique or irreplaceable. They’re not. Everything The Verge does is fungible, and can be replaced easily with dozens of other sites. Let’s examine:

Want reviews? Head on over to CNET or Engadget. Or, if phones is what you’re after, GSMArena. All of them have long been better at reviews, anyway.

Technology news and information? Virtually any tech site will do. CNET, Engadget, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Techdirt, Ars Technica… the list goes on and on. There was virtually no piece of news or information that was unique to The Verge, anyway, as all sites would ‘break’ news at roughly the same time.

Information about movies/music? A weird part of The Verge to begin with, which doesn’t even have its own dedicated section. And there was never any consistency. They review certain movies, but not others, and there’s no particular rhyme or reason why. Go to virtually any movie or music related website for this, and they will assuredly do a better job. Try for movies or Rolling Stone for both. Of course, you could just head to Rotten Tomatoes and get aggregated results from dozens of reviewers.

Cars? Another weird addition, though at least this one has its own dedicated section. This section was always unintentionally hilarious, because all it did was remind the reader just how little The Verge guys knew about cars. It basically involves one of their senior staff writing and talking about cars in the absolute most generic way possible. It was an embarrassment, really, and if you actually went to The Verge for car related info, then shame on you. Try Car and Driver, Motor Trend,, or Yahoo! Autos. If car tech is what you’re after (like Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto or self-driving tech) then any one of the aforementioned tech sites will do.

Longform articles? Honestly, this is really the only part of The Verge which I might miss. They occasionally did some solid, in-depth articles on various topics, complete with splendid web-design. Unfortunately, these were fewer and far between over the last several months, and I actually can’t remember the last longform article on a topic that interested me. Ars Technica does a pretty good job of these, as does Engadget occasionally.

Overly-sensitive moderation and an Editor-in-Chief who looks, talks and behaves like an overgrown man-child? If this is what you want, then really, you should just stick to The Verge. It’s perfect.

RIAA Accounting: Why Even Major Label Musicians Rarely Make Money From Album Sales | Techdirt

A fascinating article I just stumbled upon.

It’s from back in 2010, but gives a very interesting view of the entirely unethical methods by which major record labels ensure they always make money. This article also provides evidence for what even many artists have been saying for years – that if you want to show them your support, paying to see them on tour is the way to go.

The article also mentions an op-ed piece that was written in Salon way back in 2000 that is a fascinating (albeit rather long) picture of the RIAA and royalties from the point of view of a musician. The author? Courtney Love. Yes, that Courtney Love. I know – who knew she had a brain, right? Either way, that article is worth a read if you can spare the time.

via RIAA Accounting: Why Even Major Label Musicians Rarely Make Money From Album Sales | Techdirt.

P.S. In the article, there is also an interesting link about “Hollywood Accounting” and the shady methods that the movie industry employs to portray their blockbusters as “loss making” and avoid splitting profits. The more I read stuff like this, the more I lose sympathy for the argument of studios/labels losing sales because of piracy.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Finally done with The Mirror Empire. I must say – I didn’t enjoy this one.

The book starts with Lilia, a young girl, witnessing an army of Dhai warriors that has descended on her village and goes The Mirror Empire - at least the cover's niceabout destroying everything. Lilia’s mother uses some sort of blood magic to tear open a portal, and sends Lilia across. But across to where? It’s not until years later that Lilia, now a young woman working as a scullery maid in the Temple of Oma, realises that the world of Raisa that she is now inhabiting isn’t here original world. It’s a mirror world. The Dhai here are a largely peaceful, even docile, people and are enslaved by the ruling Dorinah. For some reason, the Empress of Dorinah has ordered her Captain General Zezili to wipe out every Dhai she can get her hands on. The dutiful – and rather bloodthirsty – Zezili goes about her tasks, but can’t help but wonder how this benefits Dorinah. After all, wiping out the entire slave class that is the backbone of the Dorinah economy hardly seems productive.

It turns out that the other Raisa (Lilia’s original world) is being ravaged by the destructive power of the ascendant satellite Oma, and the Dhai there really, really want to jump ship. The catch? You cannot pass over to a mirror world while your local doppelganger is still alive there. The local people are almost entirely unaware of any of this. It has been so long since Oma last rose (about 2,000 years) that many assume the notion to be a myth.

Imaginative? Yup. The premise sounds excellent. But not all is well.

The Good:

World-building – The world of Raisa consists of of three orbiting satellites. There is Para, which gives off a blue light; Sina, which gives off a red light; and Tira, which gives off a green light. There are three types of sorcerers, identified with the suffix -jista, whose abilities vary depending on which of the three satellites’ powers they can channel when the respective star is ascendant. So you have Parajistas with defensive oriented abilities like manipulating air to create shields, Sinajistas with more offensive abilities like destroying things, and Tirajistas with abilities like healing. But there is a fourth class of sorcerers, too – the supposedly mythical Omajistas, who can channel the abilities of all the satellites, along with having a handy list of unique abilities like opening gateways between mirror worlds. It will not be giant shock for readers to learn that dear Lilia has latent omajista-ness.

Magic – I liked the idea of different abilities tied to the ascendant satellites, and how the -jistas only have powers when their related satellite is around.

The Bad:

Characters – There is a reason I only mentioned Lilia and (briefly) Zezili. It’s not because they are the only POV characters in the book. It’s because they were the only ones whose subplots were remotely interesting. There is also Rohinmey (Roh for short), a parajista-in-training at the Temple of Oma, who appears to be one of the most useless characters I have ever read in a novel, despite his possessing the extremely rare natural ability to see through wards. He is just a complete bimbo, and I can’t help but wonder if Hurley actually intended for the reader to like/care about/sympathise with this character. Because I certainly don’t. There is also Ahkio, who becomes the Kai (the supposed leader of the Dhai people) after the death of his sister. And there is Taigan, a talented and powerful omajista-cum-assassin, who apparently fluctuates between being a man and a woman. And this bring me to the second major flaw…

World-building – While the world-building, as I stated above, is imaginative, it is a bit too imaginative. The world portrayed here is so radically different, that I can’t help but feel disconnected to it, and never found myself being pulled into Raisa. It’s not just the gender-bending Taigan, though that is a bit odd. It’s the society depicted here as a whole that I couldn’t understand. There is an element of ‘role reversals’ here, so the women generally tend to be more in power and dominant over the men. That’s fine. But the Dhai, for instance, have a society where multiple women (usually sisters, it looks like, and always with each other’s consent) ‘marry’ a husband. Someone like Roh then has one father and multiple mothers. But how does that work? Maybe step-mothers, but shouldn’t he just have one mother? In another culture, we are told how a woman having multiple lovers was natural, but a man having more than one would be a problem as it would difficult to determine parentage. Huh? How? In this world, is it the men who give birth? This didn’t make sense to me. And there is the gender confusion – Taigan is an anomaly in that s/he actually changes genders. But there were other parts where the characters were apparently not sure whether someone was a man or a woman. Are there so few physical differences between the two that it’s hard to tell them apart? Color me confused.

Pacing – In a weird dichotomy, this is a book that has plenty of action scenes, and yet seems to progress at a snail’s pace. I took me nearly a month-and-a-half to finish The Mirror Empire. A large part of the reason for this was because I simply wasn’t looking forward to picking up the book. Some books make me feel like reading them the moment I get home from work, so I can pick up where I reluctantly left off the night before. With The Mirror Empire, I just didn’t care.

All in all, I would give the book a 3 out of 5. It gets points for the imaginative and unique setting, and for a fascinating premise. But it loses points for the dull way it goes about realising it. Maybe, if I have nothing better to read, I might pick up the sequels. But I doubt it.

Struggling with The Mirror Empire

So I’ve been reading this book called The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. I started the book around the beginning of April and am, at the moment, barely 69% through (as measured by my Kindle).

Admittedly, I’ve never been the fastest of readers. While some voracious readers zip through a novel a week, I tend to take longer with my reads. Partly this is because I read, predominantly, Fantasy, which tends towards the larger size. Mostly, though, is because the way I read is by what is called, ‘subvocalisation.’ This is when you “speak” the words as you read, albeit in your head rather than out loud. The result, though, is the same. My reading speed is limited to my talking speed, which, like with most people, isn’t particularly quick.

Yet, I read four books (Meritropolis and The Maze Runner trilogy) and 2 short stories in the month of March. And as we approach the end of April, it looks like I won’t finish this one novel.

But why is that?

Sure, I’ve been a little busy. With my own work in the day and helping out the wife with her office work in the evenings, I haven’t had a ton of reading time recently.

But I didn’t have a ton of time in March, either, and I still finished 4 full books. Admittedly, they weren’t very large books, and were all in the YA genre, which isn’t exactly known for being complex. For me, this comes down to the difference between skilful writing and ‘entertaining’ writing. Hurley is clearly a skilled writer, better than James Dashner. Where Dashner had the advantage, though, was that his plot and story was entertaining. Quick, fast paced and easy to pore through.

The Mirror Empire is well written, and the world-building is quite unique, albeit confusing. But is unique good enough if I’m not being drawn into the story? Can I praise a book for being well-written if I’m not actually having any fun reading what’s been written? At this point, I’m looking forward to finishing this book not because I can’t wait to see what happens next, but more because I just want to get it over with. I want to finish it so I can move on to something else. Entertaining the reader, keeping him engaged and engrossed in your world, convincing him that he has to read the next page when he finishes the current one – all of that should be a large part of being a good writer.

So I guess that’s my problem with the book. Ms. Hurley is clearly a skilled writer, but she isn’t a good writer.

The Ravenous Flock by Adrian V. Diglio

The Ravenous FlockAwake. Trapped beneath the rubble of an avalanche and circled by bickering vultures flying overhead, Grindor the Ravenous is pulled from the debris and rescued from almost certain death. Though, during recovery, he finds himself in a whole new world of trouble as his savior, Ocamyr, is holding him captive. Ocamyr, a large man-sized hawk, has grown obsessive over how Grindor obtained his master’s ring. Worse still, the vultures are following him. Grindor realizes he needs Ocamyr’s help more than ever and for better or for worse, decides to tell Ocamyr the tale of the ring. Discover Grindor’s past, learn how he got his name and the story behind his ring in this no-holds-barred fantasy adventure!

I can’t say I was expecting much from the above blurb; I’ve never heard of the author, I was wary of reading about man-sized hawk creatures, and the cover is terrible. I got it as a spur of the moment purchase on Kindle some time ago (it was free). And I’m so glad I did.

It was good. Very good, even. The man-sized hawk creatures weren’t as ludicrous as I’d imagined (they’re called Avians because, of course they are), and the writing is actually very good. Mr. Diglio is, clearly, a skilled writer with a nose for prose. Don’t judge a book by its cover, indeed. The short story is part of the world of his series-in-waiting called The Blacksmiths, the first installment of which is called The Soul Smith.

The Soul Smith has an interesting background. It was actually on everybody’s favorite crowd-funding platform, Kickstarter. While Kickstarter is a natural place to fund smartwatches, game consoles and potato salads, it’s not a platform I would have expected to be responsible for allowing Fantasy novels to get published. But, apparently, that’s exactly what happened here. Diglio ran a Kickstarter campaign to get funding for his (already completed) novel so he could get it edited and published. Well, he succeeded and the novel should be out any week now.

Speaking of which, there was a preview of The Soul Smith at the end. It was the Prologue of the novel, and boy! It was riveting. A first person narrative of some… thing that is being forcefully transformed into some other thing. Jaws stretched and pulled into a new shape, scales hammered onto raw flesh, eyeballs unceremoniously shoved into the skull… it was brutal, but beautiful. I could really picture everything that was happening. Without a doubt, the best preview I have ever come across. This is how to use a preview to full effect, publishers! Take notice.

Since the point of the short story was to tempt the reader into buying the novel, Mr. Diglio has entirely succeeded. I’m giving it a 5 / 5. And I am definitely looking forward to getting the novel when it is finally published.

Sleeping Beauty by Mark Lawrence

"Beauty" is a stretch...

“Beauty” is a stretch…

Jorg Ancrath needs shelter from what looks to be a hell of a storm, and he and his traveling companion stumble upon a cave. A ghost, or memory, of a woman warns them to turn back. But Jorg isn’t one to respond to warnings or threats, is he? He goes right in, and al most immediately runs into trouble. There is another ghost in the caves, and her plan involves a lot more than warnings. Perhaps Jorg should have listened this time…

If you enjoyed Jorg and the world of The Broken Empire trilogy, then you will enjoy this short story. According to Mark Lawrence, “It’s really a bit of fun, prompted by a challenge from a reader to warp the tale of Sleeping Beauty around that of young Jorg Ancrath.”

Like its fairy tale namesake, Jorg wakes up with a kiss. But this is no fairy tale. Not surprisingly, Jorg ends up in a hairy situation. He has the worst luck, doesn’t he? But then, through a combination of cunning, foresight, and good fortune, he escapes. Jorg has the best luck, doesn’t he?

This short story is by no means critical to the trilogy, and you won’t miss anything if you pass over it, but it adds a little more to the character of Jorg by reinforcing his willpower, stubbornness, and refusal to bow down to fear. Plus, it’s just fun as hell. I’d give it a 4 / 5.

During the DanceI also read During the Dance, a very short story by Lawrence. It’s only about 2,000 words, and has nothing at all to do with The Broken Empire. Hard to describe. It’s about a boy who lost his little sister, but regains hope many years later. Very brief, but touching. It’s completely free on Kindle, so go ahead and pick it up.

Meritropolis by Joel Ohman

“He couldn’t change the past, and he couldn’t control the future. But he would beat the present into submission.”

MeritropolisIn a dystopian world, thousands live inside a walled-off community that runs on “the System,” where every individual, young or old, is assigned a score judging their worth to society. The lucky handful of High Scores enjoy a safe, privileged, and learned life, while Low Scores are shunned, struggling to eke out a living in the slums. But even they are luckier than the unfortunate few who are judged to have such low merit that they are exiled from the city, thrown outside the doors to the inhospitable wilderness. A wilderness full of dangerous hybrid creatures, creatures for whom humans are little more than prey. But Charley doesn’t think it’s right to place a number on the value of human life, and as he’s finally coming of age, it’s time someone did something about the powers-that-be.

I actually didn’t realise when I bought Meritropolis that it was the first in a (planned) series; I was under the impression it was a standalone. But the ending makes it clear there will be future entries to the story.

While nothing to write home about, Meritropolis makes for a simple, quick and adequate read. The writing is pretty simplistic; not that the author is a ‘bad’ writer, per se, but he’s no Patrick Rothfuss, whose prose seems to seamlessly meld from word to word.

The premise is of a walled-off town, some time in the future in the year 12 A.E., or After the Event. The city ranks its citizens on their ‘merits,’ hence the name. While we are never explicitly told the factors that affect the scores, we can surmise that intelligence, strength, quickness, good looks, etc. will all allow one to have a higher score, and the scores are regularly updated (weekly, it seems). High Scores – those with a merit score of above 100 – generally have a more privileged life, better food and housing, access to education and such, while Low Scores live in the town’s equivalent of slums. Anyone with a score lower than 50 is “zeroed,” which means they are cast outside the gates, where they will certainly die on their own.

Predictably, our protagonist, Charley,  is a bit of a prodigy with a very high score for a teenager, but hates the System because his Down’s afflicted brother was zeroed when they were kids. Now he spends his days dreaming of coming up with a way to take the System down.

I felt the author missed some opportunities which would have made the novel more interesting. For example, it is never clarified how, exactly, the scores are derived. How do they go about measuring individuals? What is the basis for the scores? Is intelligence more or less valuable than strength? Not only would this have been informative, and helped flesh out the world that these characters live in, it would also open the door to interesting subplots. We could, for instance, have a subplot involving citizens competing and scheming against each other to increase their scores.

There was also very little in the way of characterization. Sure, we know Charley is angry because of his brother, but that is really all we know about him. Other than the fact that he is way too god at everything he does. During the course of the novel, he quickly climbs up the High Score list and by the end has the highest score in the city. Too bad it happens right when everything is falling apart and the city is already on the verge of destruction.

I also didn’t think enough thought was put behind the name of the city. Meritropolis sounds perfectly logical at first, but not so much when you realise that there are other, similar cities around which work on the same System. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler. It’s pretty obvious from page 1 that Meritropolis is not alone.) What are they called then? Do they have innocuous names like Sacramento? Do they have variations of this name, like Meritville, Meritburg, Meritstan? Or are they just sequentially numbered like Meritropolis 1, Meritropolis 2, and so on? This seems like a petty complaint, I know, but these kind of oversights are, I feel, a hallmark of YA fiction. That’s one reason why I might find the occasional YA novel entertaining, but never quite as immersive as an adult fantasy novel.

Ultimately, this book is just adequate. You probably won’t remember the book a few weeks after you read it, and you certainly won’t remember the characters. In fact, I actually had to look up the protagonists name as I was writing this. It seems in the month or so since I read the novel, it had slipped my mind.

I’m in a good mood, so I’ll give the book a 3 / 5.