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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Bard Bloom's LiveJournal:

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    Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
    9:15 pm
    Review: Origins
    Origins, by Mark Hendrikson, is a clumsily-written Frankenstein monster of space opera, wannabe psychodrama, and von Daniken style Bible-rewriting in which Exodus is all due to the aliens. I can't off-hand think of *any* character in the book who makes much sense. (Why does the reincarnating alien commander come tell the whole story to a random psychiatrist? And his explanation for getting slaves get lost for forty years in the desert is pretty contrived too. Why are the enemy aliens stereotypical sneering villains? And, sheesh, Pharaoh.) The science doesn't either: somehow the eruption in Thera (I guess) caused most of the Exodus plagues in Egypt, at convenient times. The main point of reading this is to watch the train wreck. One mind-preserved alien soldier out of five.
    9:08 pm
    Review: Broken Symmetry.
    Broken Symmetry, by Dan Rix, is a surprisingly engaging bit of mirror mystery. In this world, people with the right gene can go through a mirror into a slightly distorted version of the universe, where events are *not* reflected into the original world. The original world (labelled "source") is where the action starts; an unscrupulous group of researchers and teenagers with mirror-travelling powers exploits the travelling power, ravaging parallel universes for treasures and even replacement hands. It's dangerous work, and more so as the government has a mysterious "artifact" that somehow relates to travelling. The book is somewhat confusing, as the characters dart around in slightly-variant alternate universes constantly. But it's somewhat dramatic, as the characters work hard to finish their quest before the stress of mirror travel destroys them. The plot twists in intriguing and unpredictable ways, and the characters have actual personalities. The crudely-done teenage romance doesn't help though. Two tape X's on mirrors so you can get back through them right, out of five (which is to say, worth reading if the mirror mystery appeals to you.)
    Friday, September 19th, 2014
    9:49 am
    Review: Khe
    sentient buildings, planetary consciousness, soft science, interesting cultures. Khe is a doumana, a woman, from a country commune/village. Her species have some cool features, like built-in mood rings — dots around their necks which change color with their emotions. (Wear a tall collar if you want secrecy!) The countryfolk are communist/collectivist — and sexual separatists, with villages segregated by sex and only meeting during the mating season. Khe isn’t affected by the mating season. She seeks treatment for this disability, and is given an experimental drug, and gains the superpower of being able to increase plant fertility by 20% in exchange for losing years off her lifespan. So she seeks treatment for that, much to her village’s dismay. Things get complicated and more troublesome from there, as she learns some of the secrets of who or what actually rules her world, and gets into a very uncomfortable relationship with them. </p>

    The writing is uncontrived and plain, and fits the first-person narrative of the fairly unsophisticated Khe herself. The science is kind of wonky. The ideas range from standard-but-interesting, like energy beings, to downright eccentric, like intelligent buildings and villages.

    Three blue dots out of five, making it about average for SF books that I finish. Enjoyable and interesting.

    Sunday, September 14th, 2014
    10:55 pm
    free ebook review: The Chocolatier's Wife

    "“Nay, my dear, I am supposed to slay dragons for you, not deacons."

    The Chocolatier's Wife, by Cindy Lynn Speer, is as sweet as the title. In this 18th-century-ish land, everyone is shown their optimal spouse by a scrying spell at an early age, so there's approximately never any doubt about who should marry whom. William, scion of a rich merchant family in the South, is unfortunate enough to should marry Tasmin, a sorceress from the despised North. Actually they don't meet for a long time, but do correspond and send gifts and sort of fall in love by mail. But then William decides to open a chocolatierie, much to his family's dismay, and the local Bishop is found dead of poison with a box of William's chocolates at hand. So Tasmin comes South to try to rescue her fiancé from jail and execution. Things get complicated from there, in a sweet and stylish murder mystery and romance.

    Very nice. Four perfectly-roasted Halsey almonds (which are deadly if they are not properly roasted) out of five.

    8:57 am
    Occasional Review: Forbidden the Stars

    Forbidden the Stars by Valmore Daniels is a large tofu-flavored lump of Space Does Not Work That Way. I think there's a plot there and some characters, but they're pretty forgettable and/or nonsensical compared to the scientific mistakes and malaproprisms. (In fact, the author spends 3/4 of the book setting up a particular pirate king as the major villain, and then entirely forgets about him.) The author feels the need to remind us of the main character's main life event constantly — the life event from chapter 1 — and that's actually almost appropriate, because it's insipid enough so that we might have forgotten it. Oh, and there's also some connection with ancient Mayan legends, and modern Mayan people who somehow carry them on, except that there isn't.

    But the most memorable stuff is the nonsense science and malaproprisms. We're talking nonsense highschool-level science here.

    Like, the McGuffin of the stuff that enables near-lightspeed travel (occasionally and confusingly described as "lightspeed travel" or "faster-than-light travel" — Daniels evidently couldn't remember which it was) is a new and previously-undiscovered element, but one that exists in mass quantities in the asteriod belt. And, when the lightspeed-or-so travel is first observed, all the scientists instantly assume that some new element is responsible for it. There is mention of "hundreds of undiscovered new elements with attributes that could improve the quality of life for everyone on Earth." Elements do not work like that.

    "Casement" — normally defined as "a window or part of a window set on a hinge so that it opens like a door." — is used as a synonym for "case". Constantly. On every other page, people are staring into their computer casements, or thumping on engine casements, or that sort of thing.

    When the pirate ship is trying to ram the explorers' spaceship, the explorers can't alter their course because, at that velocity, course changes would rip their ship apart. Motion does not work like that.

    "The phenomenon is not uncommon to people who have been struck by lightning. They, themselves, have become living ions." Lightning does not work like that.

    "…the most important byte of intelligence that could ever have been forwarded to him…" There are only 256 possible bytes. That's approximately like saying, "The most important letter of the alphabet that was ever sent to him". A single byte does not have much information in it.

    Alec is not a "fortuitous youth", though he is a "fortunate youth".

    I don't even get the title. Nobody was forbidden any stars.

    Anyways, this was terrible. I only finished it so I could write the review. Rating: one undiscovered new element out of five, or hundreds even.

    Monday, February 24th, 2014
    9:04 am
    Lacuna, by David Adams

    Lacuna, by David Adams, is a flat space opera.

    Good features: Um ... the spelling and grammar are fine. It's original, not a rip-off of any particular other work I could identify. Some details are nice: see below.

    The plot is pretty straightforward. Humans invent some useful space and space-weapon technology, in the lampshadey "Chekhov Arsenal". Unknown aliens show up and destroy three cities and say "Don't work on the jump drive on pain of death" (in bad Chinese), and vanish. So humans build three giant space-battleships to defend themselves, and tangle with the aliens, and there's fighting and some victory. (This is book 1 of a series.) This is not inherently boring, and a good writer could do a lot with it. But the quality of this space opera is in the details, and, though David Adams certainly tries, the details don't sing.

    Case in point, with minor spoilers: the aliens don't want humans (or anyone but themselves) to use the jump drive. The reason, when they get to explain it surprizingly late in the story, is sensible enough. Once in a while, the jump drive accidentally creates a singularity that wrecks the star system it's in. It ate the aliens' home world, and so they don't like it at all. This is a good idea! But: the aliens use the jump drive constantly and freely. They won't let anyone else use it because of those singularities, but they use it despite that possibility. Also, humans insist on using it, without any qualms, despite knowing that it could destroy the Solar System.

    Case in point: the jump drive cannot be used inside a gravity field. (Presumably, of a certain strength — everything is within a gravity field.) But Adams says that it can be used at Lagrange points. Now, there's a certain sense there — Lagrange points are where two gravity fields, say Earth and Moon, balance. But they aren't gravity-free. There are other gravity fields around, like the Sun's, and the galaxy's for that matter. (Also, wouldn't any point between starts work fine? Go a couple light-weeks from the Sun and the gravity is weaker than at any Lagrange point in the inner solar system. This would ruin an important plot point.)

    But this could be forgiven if the characters were interesting. They're not. They're flat and flavorless, and when Adams tries to make them have a personality (as with the wisecracking science lead) it's even worse. They have lots of sex and a few conflicts, but there's no passion or interest there. The alien commander suddenly acquires a personal vendetta against the human captain, wanting to torture her by killing her entire species while she watches. OK, he has a good reason to be angry — she did just do a Pearl Harbor kind of thing on his military base — but his posturing and sneering is stereotypically and melodramatically evil, and it's unclear why he would care about her in particular. An honorable or cold-blooded enemy would make a lot more sense.

    It's not the worst free e-book I've started by any means. But it's in the bottom 20% of e-books that I've finished, so it gets one Lagrange point out of five.

    Thursday, February 6th, 2014
    2:17 pm
    CYBORGED!
    I have been assimilated!
    I am now a cyborg with a part-titanium skeletal structure!
    I have powers far beyond those of my mere fleshy frame!
    Such as — being able to chew on both sides of my mouth!
    And — having one tooth that is probably cavity-proof!
    Friday, January 31st, 2014
    9:04 pm
    Book reviewlet: Krakatoa

    This is only a free book in the sense I got it out of the library. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded is, of course, about the Krakatoa explosion in 1883. It's a wonderful book, just my style. It talks about the science of plate tectonics and geophysics that makes volcanoes. It talks about the science history, of how plate tectonics went from a crackpot theory to totally accepted. It talks about the history of Java as a Dutch colony. After the explosion, we get some biology: how does life reappear on an island that got blown up, or in the case of "Son of Krakatoa", on a 100% new volcanic island? And some connection with modern society: how the volcano was a trigger for some radical Islamism. (Odd story there: indigenous Javanese religion treated the volcanoes as gods. That's obviously not Islamic — but nonetheless the eruption was interpreted as an intensely spiritual occurrence).

    Anyways, excellent book, and lots of interesting material.



    (Oh, and if any pseudoscientists complain that science is insular and rejects crackpot theories, plate tectonics is a wonderful example of how outsiders can get their theories accepted. Hint: have tons of evidence and testable hypotheses.)

    Sunday, October 27th, 2013
    11:42 am
    Federal Department of Beauty
    Last night I visited the Federal Department of Beauty. I'm not quite sure why I was part of the visiting team: maybe they want to use MongoDB.

    It may be that you are not familiar with the Federal Department of Beauty. Unlike what the Republicans said about it, it doesn't *regulate* beauty in the US. It uses highly scientific laboratories and methodologies to invent new forms of beauty.

    We toured an experimental facility devoted to dichroic glass, and saw some the less-than-successful experiments that hopefully will wind up producing trichroic glass. We saw some amazingly lovely crystals of pure niobium.

    Then we got to the Blue Room. It's a lab devoted to blueness. (I think there are similar labs for redness and whiteness.) The actual research is rather impressive: they can squirt some stuff into the air and make a sort of animate blue mist jellyfish that jellies its way around the room, slowly disintegrating, and scenting the air with lilacs.

    But I got into a fight with the Director of Blueness about whether their main blueing agent, "isohydrone sodium", was the same as FD&C Blue #2. Specifically, I asked her, and she didn't know, and then the rest of the touring dignitaries got very annoyed with her for refusing to answer such a basic question, and there was a great big brouhaha, and we all got kicked out.

    ...

    Still: wouldn't you like to live in an alternate reality where beauty was an important feature of a civilized society, where a Federal Department of Beauty was considered as important as Investigation or Corrections or Labor?
    Monday, September 30th, 2013
    7:26 pm
    Three Reviews

    So first of all we got Songs of the Savants: The First Movement by Dale Corson. Every once in a while I finish reading a book so I can make some fun of it. This one, well, isn't quite like that. It did have a good feature or two, like the cheerful and helpful giant robot spider who entirely stole the show whenever it scriggled on stage.



    But the editing — Oh, great Eris on an eggcorn, the editing! Every couple of pages brings something like this:

    1. "none two few had beed murdered"
    2. "John found the environment preferable to the hodtilr surface
    3. "Just as quickly, the resurrection was quelled" (meaning "insurrection")
    4. "He managed a zombie-like gait, and forced an insubordinate state at Soll" ("stare", I think)


    But let us ignore that. We got plot: that's actually halfway decent, with the alien Savants having come to Earth two thousand years ago, decided we were messing it up (humanity having just accidentally transmuted most of the Eastern Seaboard (?) into glass and preposterous monsters), and constructed a robot army of Myrmidons to take all humans to exile on the world of Xile. Some humans managed to stay behind, unfound by the robot masters of Earth for two thousand years — well, mostly unfound. The Myrmidons just found six of the last seven enclaves and wiped them out. John from the last enclave got sent out to find out what happened to the others. He doesn't find them, but does find Zarathustra, a rebel Savant, who knows where the last spacecraft on Earth is and will rebelliously help the last humans escape. Getting back to the enclave is a bit of a challenge, what with all the transmuted monsters and robot hordes. It gets more troublesome from there.



    I really can't complain about the plot.



    Characterization: well, the robot spider is pretty engaging. The love affair between John and his girlfriend is so uninspiring and passion-free as to remind me of a movie by actor who will never admit he's gay. Zarathustra is simply perplexing: he's had about two thousand years to do something, but hasn't gotten his act together, until the last minute when John shows up. That kind of thing.



    World-Building: This sorta hurts. The mutated Earth is interesting enough. But every single mutated thingie seems so contrived! There are giant crabs who seem to survive without food (other than stray adventurers) in deserted tunnels. There are rock-melting giant subcar-size digging things that seem to exist in great numbers without any ecology. There are invulnerable floating teleporting Moondoggs who are an entirely unnecessary deus ex machina in an entirely unnecessary scene. Even the physical properties of the transmuted ground are designed to make the story seem possible.



    But, y'know, it doesn't seem possible. If a vast number of quite intelligent robots ruled the Earth to the extent of trying to manage its ecology for two thousand years, how could they manage to miss several large towns and their surrounding farmlands — even underground towns? Especially since they manage to find them on their own after that time without much difficulty.



    And the history is distorted too. Everyone seems very aware of the end of human civilization, the big accident, the Savant invasion. Oh, except that they don't seem to get that the Savants are trying to do what they told everyone they were trying to do. But after that, history seems to stop for two thousand years. Nuh-uh. People care more about recent events than ancient ones. The last twenty years ought to seem like the important time, and the Savant invasion maybe the second- or third-most important.



    Anyways, I rate this book one giant robot spider out of five. A high one, 'cause the giant robot spider was a reasonably good character. That is, the bottom 20% of SF books that I start.





    Next we get The Backworlds by M. Pax. From the flobby world-spanning plot of the previous book to a small but fun story of some grody characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. Humanity, severely mutated and genengineered, has spread throughouth the galaxy. There are the Foreworlds, which are aggressive and sophisticated, and the Backworlds, which are the dregs. Craze is a barkeeper's son on a backworld, a cunning guy who wants not much more than to run a bar of his own and bilk customers for himself rather than his dad. But his dad betrays him, steals his girlfriend, and gets the elders to run him off the world to seek his fortune afar. He meets up with some no-more-reputable personages, including smugglers of that most valuable of substances in the whole Backworlds: chocolate!



    This is a light-hearted comic novella. The characters are mostly one-dimensional, but at least their single dimensions sometimes curve off in interesting ways. Like Craze's companion-in-arms whose obsession is to show up his elder brother Federoy (who never shows up on-screen), and constantly makes up scurrilous rhymes about Federoy as a nervous tic in times of danger or delight.



    Not a Great Novel, but not without amusement value. Two chocolate bars — or maybe they're bricks of compressed mealworms? — out of five. So, not as good as half the books I start, but not awful by any means.





    Finally Sleeper: The Swarm Trilogy book I by Megg Jensen. Lianne, Kellan, and Bryden are hostages, taken from their Dalagan families by the Fithians at a year old or so. Lianne, viewpoint character, is a 16-year-old servant and confidante of Mags the Fithian queen. Not a powerful queen; a woman treated as a womb for son-production by the quite powerful Fithian king. Lianne and Kellan are a couple; crippled Bryden is out of the picture.

    Then it's Lianne's 16th birthday, and suddenly her people's magic (thought lost) fills her. And the king discovers that the queen's latest son isn't his. And Kellan behaves quite badly. And things do not go at all as one might wish if one were in the story.

    Well, hmm. The characterization around the important bits ranges from adequate (the Queen is appropriately worried about her sons, even the bastard one) to flimsy (none of the romantic bits felt very romantic to me.)

    Some things really bother me. Lianne is introduced as a really good brawler: that's one of her strongest points in everyone's estimation. But she repeatedly loses fights. In one incident, she decides that her tactically best move to defend herself against some impending unknown assailants is to curl up on the floor and whimper. She didn't live up to what everyone said about her at all.

    The story seems rather padded. The characters spend so much time running around saying, "Terrible thing X is going to happen! Terrible thing X is going to happen!" Yes, it is going to happen if they don't stop it somehow, and yes, it is terrible and they should work to stop it, and yes, real people do that kind of running around too. But we don't need to see so much of it. It's kind of boring.

    Ultimately, though, the plot keeps this one going. The romantic plotline is pretty feeble, but the historical / adventury plotline is pretty good. When the author does stop with the running around and whining about terrible things about to happen, and lets them get to happening, the story comes up with a lot of sudden momentum and a lot of sudden surprises even in the last few pages, and All That You Had Suspected Ought To Be True In A Conventional Fantasy turns out to be true in an oblique and often unnerving way.

    For which surprises, I rate this book at three mysterious Dalagan spies out of five: about average for novels I start reading.

    Sunday, September 22nd, 2013
    3:57 pm
    Free Ebook Review: I Bring The Fire 1 Wolves by C. Gockel

    (I'm trying to review all the free or cheap e-books I read all the way through. This is one. It's a $3 book on Amazon, but BookBub had for free one day.)



    I wasn't expecting a lot out of I Bring The Fire: I (Wolves) by C. Gockel. The god Loki bouncing around in modern-day America could be done badly so easily.



    But it's done well. This isn't exactly your standard mythological Loki. He's close enough to recognize, but, e.g., the Aesir here aren't quite gods, Bifrost isn't exactly a rainbow bridge, there's no Valhalla or Naglfar, etc. This is not due to ignorance on the author's part. The author knows his Norse mythology. Hoenir is an important characters in the novel, and I had to look up who he was. In fact, the characters know their Norse mythology: the Aesir know what's actually going on in the world of this story, and the humans know the standard mythology, which makes for a good moments here and there.



    Loki is well-done, if you can consider turning a major villain into a hero to be doing it well. He is, by turns, a slick trickster, an arrogant god, and a sad man who has suffered a terrible loss. We learn a good deal about his past, in flashbacks, and it all makes sense. In any event, he's an engaging character and well worth reading about. He reminds me most of Corwin of Amber, not that Gockel is up to Zelazny.



    Aside from Loki, plot and characters are entertaining but a bit flat. I rate this four displaced deities out of five: distinctly above average, and worth reading.

    Friday, July 19th, 2013
    8:52 am
    Sears
    Sears was never my favorite store.  But it's been around since about forever and it's part of American history — Sears catalogs in particular.  But it seems to be getting destroyed.  According to one source, by the ghost of Ayn Rand.  This makes me sad. (But not sad enough to shop there in its current style.)
    Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
    6:43 am
    Duel party
    Sheesh. Seiji Ozawa and Craig Claiborne were coming over to my parents' house about 20 years ago to settle a point of honor. We prepared a bunch of honor-settling activities for them — fun little contests, like a chipotle soup eating contest. (That stuff was harsh.) But when Ozawa came to the door, he had a *gun*. And before we could take it away from him, Claiborne got there with a *dinosaur*, a big miserable one that probably wasn't even a carnivore but it was still pretty big. They started fighting it out for real. Then this middle-aged superhero type named Blast-Star showed up and took them both out with his iridescent daffodil stun rays.

    Party: ruined.
    Sunday, June 16th, 2013
    8:51 pm
    Father's Day

    Father's Day Loot and Events!

    A hand-designed 3-d printed cup from Rhys!



    Contessa with Squid print!



    Lunch at Max Brenner's House of Thoroughly Chocolate!



    Watching Blue Man Group!



    Much love to Rhys and Vicki!
    Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
    8:26 pm
    Free Book Review: Draykon

    I had lots of fun with Charlotte E. English's Draykon, book one of her Draykon trilogy. (I've read book 2 too, which is just as good, but it's not free so I'm not reviewing it.)

    So I really like the setting. It's an 18th-century/steampunky sort of place, with lots of magic. People live in the Middle World, between the Upper and Lower Worlds, and some people can make gates to one or the other of those. That's uninspiring, until a couple more details show up: the ever-lit Upper and the ever-dark Lower worlds are just wild lands, not Heaven and Hell or anything close. 3/7 of the Middle World has aligned itself with the Upper World, and 3/7 with the Lower -- which is to say, they have adopted plants and animals from the respective world as the basis of their economy. The lands aligned with the Uppers are in constant daylight, those with the Lowers in constant night -- and it takes the sorcerers of those countries a ton of work to maintain the appropriate illumination.

    And the flora, fauna, and inhabitants are just as ingenious and interesting. I love the glissenwol trees, which are sort of giant mushroom/pines. And some of the people just happen to have wings, which nobody finds remarkable, though just why is a plot point in book 2.

    Good characters, too. The book is about (1) a very shy jeweler named Llandry who discovers a supply of a mysterious gemstone, and (2) a stylish and powerful summoner and official named Lady Eva Glostrum, and (3) a cast of thousands. The main characters are strong, distinctive personalities, likeable and interestingly flawed. Sometimes even the characters' strong points come and bite them in interesting ways: Eva has many admirers and lovers, but that does not always work in her favor.

    The names ... oh, the names. I appreciate the art of coming up with good names, and the author has come up with a zillion of them. Unfortunately they're mostly two-syllable names with similar rhythm that seem to come from the same language (and many of them do come from the same language or at least the same country). Individually they're often delightful. En masse they kind of blur together. The trilogy has lots of characters who live their own lives and show up in the story occasionally, and it's hard to keep them straight. (And why did she have to call her dragons Draykons? They're unambiguously dragons.)

    There's a lot of mystery in book 1. A significant portion of it has been cleared up by the end of book 2, and a significant portion of disaster acquired in its place. I'm looking forward to reading book 3, which is already on my Kindle.

    Rating: five mysterious gemstones out of five: top 20% of books I expect to read in a year.



    Current Mood: blah
    Saturday, March 16th, 2013
    8:49 pm
    Free Review: Trang

    Trang, by Mary Sisson, is a surprisingly clever novel about the world's first space diplomat, dealing with a collection of strange and not always comprehensible alien species on space station. He is assisted, and “assisted”, in this task by a platoon of space marines: extraordinarily tough and rude killing specialists.

    The aliens are the stars of the book. Each species is distinctive, and most are unusual. Their motivations range from comprehensible to obscure, which is a good thing for aliens.

    Actually, the space marines came a close second. Trang initially thought that they were all cut from the same cloth, but several of them soon revealed distinctive personalities beyond their super-tough violent space-marine veneer.

    And it's pretty funny. Not in the intensely silly style of a Hitchhiker's Guide or something, but little things. I was particularly taken with the automatic translator which usually let the characters communicate, but sometimes had to resort to very general terms: "The hull is not made of glass. It is composed of a composition."

    Disadvantages: The plot sort of wandered around for most of the book. Trang himself isn't all that interesting.

    Four alien species out of five. I'm planning to read the sequel.

    Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
    8:46 pm
    Alien Wind from the Stars/

    Now here's an odd beast: Alien Wind from the Stars by Dimitrios Molfetas. The basic plotline is: the country (the nameless third-world country) is in rebellion, with the rebels and government forces more or less evenly matched. An alien saucer lands in the middle of the battle, neutralizes all electrical equipment and guns, zaps all the combatants with hippy peace beams. That's evidently a dry run, 'cause in an off-screen aside the aliens go do that to all humanity and invite us to join the Galactic Confederation.

    And it takes some insane number of pages to do that. The book is mostly wandering through the past and present of a number of the combatants: the famous doctor who escapes from the capitol city and joins the rebels gets a very long chapter.

    As character sketches, they're somewhere between adequate and tedious. There's far too much detail: "His [sic] is escorted by Conway's personal cook, who serves the two generals, the colonel, the lieutenant colonel doctor, the fifth to a major, who is sitting next to Linda, and the last to a captain who is standing behind Valentino." (These officers are never mentioned before or again.) It's very repetititititititive: the non-events and fine points of the situation get rehashed and re-rehashed, more or less without extension or elaboration.

    There's practically no surprise. Events unfold just as you'd expect given the skeleton of the situation. The author seems to take every measure possible to keep the dramatic tension down to a minimum.

    Rating: one floating metal saucer out of five: the bottom 20% of books that I have bothered finishing. It's bad, but at least it's painlessly bad.

    8:30 pm
    Free Review: The Course of Empire

    Continuing in my plan to review every free e-book I finish, I picked up The Course of Empire by Eric Flint and K.D. Wentworth for free somewhere or other, and expected to hate it. I generally don't like military SF. I snagged it in a pile of a couple dozen free e-books, and planned to toss three quarters of them.

    And, rather to my surprise, I really liked it. The heart of the book was about a culture clash between the alien Jao who had conquered Earth twenty years before, and the humans (mostly American) who directly served them. The Jao had good reasons for conquering Earth: the even-more-alien Ekhat were killing off every intelligent species in the galaxy, and the Jao essentially drafted humanity into the anti-Ekhat war effort.

    Anyhow, the world-building and culture-building can be the main character in a story like this, and in Course of Empire it was. The actual characters were pretty one-dimensional, but there were enough of them and they were arranged well enough so that their meagre personalities and stories outlined the two conflicting cultures. The Jao were nicely alien-but-understandable, with some interesting personality quirks for a conquering imperialist race.

    A number of things bothered me about the book as I was reading, but turned out sensible in the end. Oppuk, the Jao governor of Earth, acted like a nearly-irrational sadistic villain for most of the book, which seemed surprisingly insane and stereotypical for this story. It turns out that there was a good reason for him acting that way. The obbligato mumble that, although Jao are human-like around the genital region, no human ever saw Jao take sexual interest in either Jao or human; there's an interesting reason for that, and it's quite relevant to the plotline. That sort of thing.

    And yes, there was a lot of gloating about how good human military apparatus is (albeit inferior to dropping asteroids on Chicago and Mt. Everest), and a space combat scene carefully crafted to show them off.

    Anyways, five baus (specially carved Jao batons) out of five: it's in the top 20% of SF books I've read lately.

    Friday, February 8th, 2013
    9:50 am
    10gen!

    Well, I didn't stay unemployed for long enough to collect unemployment. The first week included the last day of my IBM job, so that week didn't count. The second week was an unemployment-required null. By the third week I had a job offer, from Foursquare, and no longer met the unemployment rules.



    And at the end of the third week, I got a job offer from 10gen, to lead a small team developing crucial tools for their flagship database, MongoDB. It sounded like a really cool project, with a good dose of language design, distributed computing, and code generation — my technical stock-in-trade. I wasn't that into taking a management position, but leading a team of two enthusiastic bright recent college grads seemed more like being a professor again with a couple of grad students. (And an explicit part of the position is being a mentor to them and training them in the Ways of Software Engineering.)



    And they really wanted me. They offered me a nice bonus if I started in time to join them at the all-company meeting. In Miami, which is a nice treat for wintertime in Florida. To meet everyone in the company — two hundred people. (And incidentally to abandon my interviews at Google and Twitter.)



    I took it.



    And the all-company meeting was a total blast. Here are a couple high points.



    Robot Sumo Wrestling: We got split up randomly into 20 teams of 10. Each team got a new Lego Mindstorm kit, and had about three hours to build and program a robot sumo wrestler: a little autonomous Legobot whose goal was to shove another robot out of a ring on a table. This was not really enough time, and the programs were pretty rudimentary, and we lost big-time. But it was very cool.



    Surprise Coding: In another technical exercise, we (technical side of the company) split up into a bunch of little groups to work on projects that were of interest to the people in the group. I wound up on a group to do something with searching in databases, which instantly decided to write a gadget to comb over all half-dozen places where problems and their solutions are reported looking for a particular clue, and show all those places to the support person who is trying to figure out if a customer's problem has shown up elsewhere and how to solve it. (And everyone technical is on support at least a little.) So on my first day with 10gen I wound up sitting around a table with a half-dozen engineers, hacking away like a mad thing, gluing together two unfamiliar systems and making a little web server and arranging data. And it worked! Very nicely! We demoed the gadget to a room full of appreciative 10genners. And I got a round of applause when I said how excellent an intro to 10gen it was.



    People are very friendly. Part of that is my job — I'm working on something that the company really really needs. (The new build engineer and quality-assurance engineer, the first of their respective specialties, got even louder rounds of applause.) A lot of it is that it's a friendly crew. And a lot is that we're all members of a common culture: the open-source programmer culture. (Which I like a lot better than IBM.) I actually got described as a "social butterfly", which is pretty bizarre 'cause I'm usually more of a wallflower. But I figured that my job for those days was to get to know the company and as many people as possible, 'cause we'd be working together for (if all goes well) a long time.



    Some problems of course. My two bright college grads, Sam and Louisa ... um ... I'm terrible with faces, and I haven't quite learned to recognize them yet. It's particularly unfair about Louisa. Women are not that common in computer stuff, and it ought to be enough to remember that Louisa is the tallish woman in her 20's with long curly black hair. Nope. There are somewhere between three and six of those in my office. I'm actually going to have to figure out facial features. Sam looks like three or four other people in the office, which is just as embarrassing but more predictable. (But aside from that, both of them are bright and energetic and seem like they'll be a great team.)



    (It's a reasonably diverse office really. Wisdom, hired two weeks before me in the next team over, is from Nigeria.)



    Anyways, I had more fun in two days than I had had in the last two years at IBM.

    Wednesday, November 21st, 2012
    1:06 pm
    Sexual Orientation

    Dan Savage said something I didn't agree with today, here.

    Poly is not a sexual identity, PP, it's not a sexual orientation. It's not something you are, it's something you do. There's no such thing as a person who is "a poly," just as there's no such thing as a person who is "a monogamous." Polyamorous and monogamous are adjectives, not nouns. There are only people—gay, straight, bi—and some people are in monogamous relationships, some are in open relationships, some are in polyamorous relationships, some are in monogamish relationships, some are in four-star-general relationships. These are relationship models, PP, not sexual identities.

    Hmph.

    If one takes a reasonable definition of "sexual orientation" by the first clause of the Wikipedia article "Sexual orientation describes an enduring pattern of attraction—emotional, romantic, sexual, or some combination of these", then poly and mono are as much sexual orientations as gay and straight.

    (OK, one can take the full Wikipedia definition, which restricts sexual orientations to gay/bi/straight, but that's about as reasonable as defining an "interracial couple" as a couple consisting of one black and one white.)

    I consider that there a vast number of possible sexual orientations: the gay-straight continuum, the poly-mono continuum, interest in fat or thin partners, interest or disinterest in oral sex, and so on. For any particular person, a few of these preferences will be relevant -- someone might be gay and monogamous, but have no strong opinion about the race of playmates.

    (Of course it's more complicated; consider, for example, a bisexual woman who prefers fat women and thin men.)

    The fact that the homosexuality is a socially and politically active sexual orientation, and polyamory rather less so, is a social and cultural accident. In other places and times, polyamory has been the more active form. For that matter, in twenty years when gay marriage is legal in most of the world, polyamory might start to get political.

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