Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Everyone in fantasy knows Terry Pratchett. He's one of the big guys in the genre. And yet I am almost, but not quite, ashamed to admit to not having read any of his works until now. When I was young and living in Puerto Rico, I never saw any of this books in the science fiction and fantasy sections of bookstores I frequented. Once I got older and explored more of speculative fiction I heard about the Discworld novels, but again never spotted any of this books in the wild. It was only in an independent bookstore in Seattle a few years back that I first saw his books in the shelves. Since then I've also spotted them here in Chile, coincidentally as one of the few English-language books they sell here.

I've had his series on my radar for several years now and decided to start at the beginning, The Color of Magic, particularly given that it was 1.99USD on the Kindle a few weeks ago. A cheap price on something I've been meaning to read means an instant buy. I doubt the remaining 38 books will be similarly priced, but I'm now hooked and will buy them regardless of price (though probably not all at once...).

After the jump: my review of Terry Pratchett's The Color of Magic, first in the Discworld universe.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Favorite Books of 2012

As I did last year, here are my Top 5 books for this year. I should re-emphasize that these are books I read *not* books that necessarily came out this year. If you've been following along in my blog, you know what sort of taste in books I have, but if this is your first visit here (welcome!) then this summarizes what I found cool. It's interesting to note that despite my preference for fantasy, 4/5 books here fall in the science fiction category (though in my opinion the line dividing sci-fi and fantasy is blurry).

Statistics-wise I read 25 books this year, in comparison with 32 last year. Surprisingly, that's about 6,497 pages vs 13,473 pages last year, as recorded by Goodreads (I wonder how accurately it tracks page counts, though). I read mainly in electronic form so page numbers are meaningless, but if we factor about 400 words per page then that is nearly 2.6 million words this year. Clearly I read a lot, yet I was busy this year with plenty of other tasks. There's still a few more days in the year, but that will only add a negligible number of pages to the running total. I expect I'll be just as busy next year, so my goal is a modest 20 books read throughout the year.

But enough about statistics, let's see my Top 5 Favorite Books of 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Novella Review: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

Here is a quick review of Legion by Brandon Sanderson. This is another short novella and can be read in a single day. I tried to stretch it out as much as I could, but it was difficult. It was actually quite engaging, even more so than The Emperor's Soul, which I also recently finished.

The story revolves around Stephen Leeds, a unique man who has very specialized hallucinations. He relies on those hallucinations, or aspects, to solves mysteries and puzzles in a sort of detective fashion.

Read on to find out my thoughts on Legion.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Novella Review: The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

This is the first instance I review a novella in this blog, however, I'm grouping it with book reviews. A novella, for those who don't know, is much shorter than a novel, but longer than a short story. The exact definition or word count depend on who you ask, but a novel (according to NaNoWriMo) is at least 50,000 words, so a novella may be 20-40k long.

Regardless, this is a short book and can be quickly read in a maner of days, though I took it easy while reading. Given the length, I'm formatting my review differently as well, just talking about my impression rather than the usual character-plot-setting breakdown I use.

So, to read my brief review of Brandon Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul, read on after the jump.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

In this post I review The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson, the 6th book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It has taken me far longer than I expected to read this book. Normally a book of this length (~800 pages) would take me 2-4 weeks to finish, not over 2 months. This is in part due to the 'heavy' nature of the book (see below) and to a bunch of travel, work, and other things I was up to these past few months.

Read on to learn what I thought of this book. As always, I try to avoid spoilers of this book though prior books in the series are considered to be fair game. Here are all the reviews thus far I've done for the Malazan series (technically, this is any blog post tagged as Malazan and so a few are not actual reviews).

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hetu'u Global Network Results Published


This is a short post to let you know that the results of the Hetu'u Global Network have been officially published in Astronomy Education Review (AER)! You can see the article here.
More details after the jump.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chile: Summer and Winter


I've now spent over a year in Chile and have taken pictures from time to time. Here I present two pairs of pictures of approximately the same location, but shifted in time by several months. That is, one picture is taken around Summer, while the other was taken around Winter (or close enough). This showcases how the seasons change here in Santiago and it's a good opportunity to talk about how the seasons work on Earth.

As always, remember that you can click the pictures to see them larger.
More details, and the second picture, after the jump.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Astronomy: Young Stellar Moving Groups

Open cluster M25. Credit:  J.-C. Cuillandre (CFHT), G. Anselmi (Coelum Astronomia), Hawaiian Starlight

Stars are born in groups, as clusters of stars. Some groups stay well-knit and the members remain together many hundreds of millions of years later. Others, however, are loosely bound to each other, and, after traveling a bit through the Galaxy, get dispersed. However, the initial bulk motion of the stars in these groups is preserved. So, if you search carefully, you can find groups of widely separated stars throughout the sky all moving in approximately the same direction and with the same properties like age and composition. These are stellar moving groups, and here I'm going to tell you why astronomers love them.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Poetry: Isildur's Bane

I have had no time to write or even think about my blog in the past few weeks thanks to lots of work deadlines and a bit of traveling. So, to fill up time, I present you with another old poem I wrote. This one recounts the story of Isildur, son of Elendir, and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. It is not strictly canon in the Lord of the Rings universe, but that's alright: it's just meant for fun.

As before, I'm not a poet so forgive me if the meter, rhyme, or whatever is not quite right.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Four Stars and One Planet

Artist depiction of PH1. Credit: Ron Miller

A really cool new planet discovery has been announced today and I wanted to mention it here for those who haven't heard about it yet.
You may recall the Kepler Space Telescope has been starring at a patch of sky to look for periodic dips in the light of distant stars. Such dips can be caused when planets orbiting those stars transit in front of the star (just like our own Venus transit a few months back). There are so many stars to look through, though, that there is a public program available for anyone interested to look at the data. That's right: ordinary people can look at scientific data and help find planets. This Planet Hunters program is ongoing and has already discovered several planets.
Today, a really cool planet has been discovered by these citizen scientists. Read on to learn more.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Exoplanet Visualizations


If you're interested in astronomy, you're probably aware that we know of hundreds of extrasolar planets -- planets outside our solar system -- and that we have thousands of candidate planets. Many of these new candidates come from NASA's Kepler mission, which looked at the dimming of light when a planet passes in front of another star. By the current count, there are over 2000 such objects identified.

Many people have come up with clever ways to display these planets in a way that's fun and easy to understand. In this post I've gathered some of my favorites (mostly videos) and will walk you through what they show. Click through to check them out!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Year as a Postdoc Astronomer in Chile

As of October, I have now spent one year as an astronomy postdoctoral researcher straight out of graduate school. It has been a great year, though with plenty of ups and downs. I figure I should write down my thoughts about this experience. I have both good things and bad things to say, but I try to be honest, fair, and positive throughout. This may be of interest to curious grad students, or anyone really, especially if they have wondered about pursuing a postdoc or are just interested in astronomy in Chile. One thing to keep in mind is that this is an individual, personal experience and your own story or circumstances may be quite different. It's obviously difficult to approach this critically and unbiasedly, but here goes nothing...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review: The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

The King's Blood, by Daniel Abraham, is the sequel to The Dragon's Path, one of my top 5 books of 2011. The story continues where we left off with mostly the same characters. Not sure if I'll have the sequel among my top 5 this year, since I've read so many other good books in 2012.

A tyrant's power increases with the help of priests of a ravenous Goddess while a young banker struggles to hold on to her bank. Things are going to get messy as war breaks out in the lands once ruled by dragons.

Read on, to find out what I thought.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chile on September 18

September is a month of history in Chile. Back on September 11, we saw the remembrance of the military coup that overthrew Allende and established the Pinochet dictatorship. Today, however, we go further back in history: to September 18, 1810 and the first steps in Chile's independence. From my readings, it looks like there were many notable dates throughout the process for independence, but September 18 is celebrated as the Day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chile on September 11

In the United States of America, September 11, 2001 (aka 9/11) is remembered as the day terrorists hijacked several aircraft and crashed them, most famously into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. While those events were tragic, it's sometimes easy to forget, particularly in this political climate, that the US is not the only country of the Earth. There is a whole world out there for whom the date may or may not have special significance.
Chile is one country that remembers something similar for September 11.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Video Book Reviews

As you may know, I've written several reviews for books I've read and enjoyed this past year. You can see them all by searching for "book review" on the right-hand search box, or showing all those entries with the label "books" (for example, the tab above). You can also filter by science fiction or fantasy if you prefer.

One thing you may have noticed, though, is that my reviews tend to be a bit long. I have suffered when people ask me what a book is about and I can't tell them quickly enough.
Enter: 1-minute book video summary/reviews/thoughts.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

There are some books people frequently recommend. I've heard a lot of people praising Vernor Vinge for A Fire Upon the Deep, but never once do they tell what it's about. Then I read the basic blurb, which talks about Zones in the Galaxy that control where advanced technologies (like faster-than-light travel) can work. That sounded original so I finally got it. And was blown away. This was one of the best pieces of fiction I have read in a long time. It is certainly among my Top 5 this year. It's not just because of the Zones, though. There is a lot to enjoy in this book: a medieval society experiencing first contact, "world"-building on a galactic and extra-galactic scale, a Blight that threatens to destroy the civilizations in the Galaxy, and some very odd alien races. Read on to see my full review.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Of Hurricanes, gods, and planet Jupiter


It's hurricane season in the Atlantic right now, so that means lots of news channels will be reporting on the latest storms to develop. Given that I grew up in Puerto Rico and lived a few years in Florida, I have had my share of storms and can attest to their intensity.

Above is an awesome graph created by John Nelson, a data visualization expert. The graph depicts every tropical storm and hurricane that has been recorded since 1851, color coded by intensity. The projection is polar, so we see Antarctica in the center and the US off in the edge near the right. The Southern Hemisphere hasn't been tracked until more recently, hence the fewer storms there.

This post, as you may be able to tell from the title, ties together hurricanes, storm gods, and the planet Jupiter. More information after the jump.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Poetry: The Fellowship

Back in high school I dabbled in some poetry some time before the first of the Lord of the Rings movies came out. I wrote four epic poems set in that world (with some liberties at time). I'll be posting them here when I find I haven't posted in a while. I am not a poet, so I don't think these are great, but perhaps you'll disagree?

Here is the first of them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

I consider myself a fan of fantasy and science fiction and there are certain names that always get mentioned by people in the genre. Robin Hobb is one of these names and yet I had never read her books. Given that Sword & Laser, one of the shows on the amazing Geek & Sundry lineup, is reading the book this month, I figured: it's time. And I have to say I'm glad I finally read Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice.

Click through to find out why.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Line of Fire Across The Andes

Today was a cold, overcast day with some light rain in Santiago. It wasn't the rainest or the coldest day I've seen, but when I looked out in the late afternoon I was impressed.

This is what I saw:

I think my camera has failed to capture the amazing scene I was seeing, but I tried my best.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I've only read a little of Gaiman's work (American Gods and Neverwhere) and while I enjoyed it, I wasn't blown away like everyone else seems to be. When I found Anansi Boys on special, I figured: why not? Let's find out how good this is.

By the way, as you may have noticed I'm now breaking up my posts with a 'jump break'. You'll have to click through to see the full article. That should make the main page far less cluttered and you can scroll through to find what you want to read. It also facilitates the RSS feed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Replacing our Moon with a Planet

Do you know how big the Moon is compared to the other planets?

io9 recently had an article showing how the different planets would look like if they were placed at the distance the Moon is from the Earth. This is not the first time I've seen it done (I embed a video I found a few years ago), but I wanted to comment on it as well for those who may not have considered this.
Click through to find out more.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

When looking at my blog stats I realized that my Malazan reviews are some of the most popular and that I've been writing them every 2 months. I figure that's a good timescale: that means only 20 months to read the 10-book series and I think I'll try to stick to that. With all the recent travel and work  I've had, I am falling behind on this tentative schedule. That is now rectified with this review of Book 5 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen: Midnight Tides.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Astronomy: Mars Curiosity

On August 6th 2012 (1:31 am EDT), the Mars Curiosity Rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, lands on planet Mars. You've probably heard tons about this in the last few days. Everyone's talking about it!
I'm gathering here some links and multimedia for those who aren't yet informed of what's going on. There are several places you can see live or semi-live coverage of the landing (see the links below).

Concept art of the Mars Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Marketing for Scientists Workshop

This past week, I attended a three-day workshop to learn about marketing skills scientists like me can use. This was led by Marc Kuchner, astronomer, songwriter, and author of Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times (check out the website here). The workshop drew heavily on what's in the book and we were encouraged to have a look ait it too, given that it goes more into depth. Naturally, I can only say a few of the highlights here, but I purchased the Kindle version of the book and I am already seeing extra things there that are useful to know.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

LoTR Mini-Round Up

It's been a while since I posted anything, so here's a short post gathering a few interesting things related to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

On July 24 1954, 58 years ago today, The Fellowship of the Ring was first published. As many of you know, this is the first part of The Lord of the Rings and I would consider it a classic of modern literature.

They say you should never judge a book by it's cover. You should also never, ever, try to guess the plot of a book by the cover. Yet, this 6-year old girl was asked to for several classics in science fiction and fantasy. Here's what she has to say regarding the cover for The Fellowship of the Ring:
This book is about a tree on a hill. The tree is the star of the book and it’s a very nice tree but everyone else is mean. I think the tree has a magical ring and some evil guys capture the ring and put him on the top of the hill so they can watch him.


Last but not least: we're getting closer to The Hobbit film!
Here is the latest video blog with some tidbits about Comic Con and the final stages of filming:

I have a feeling that many Tolkien purists will be dissatisfied with the film. A lot is being added that isn't in the original story. It's going to feel less like The Hobbit and more like a The Lord of the Rings prequel. I personally have no problem with that since I enjoyed the prior films. This will be an amazing visit back to good old Middle Earth.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Astronomy: Cool Stars 17 Meeting

I wanted to write up a brief summary of my thoughts on the Cool Stars meeting, but was busy traveling and then had the ALMA proposal deadline. That's all past now, so here are some quick thoughts.


What is Cool Stars?
This is an international conference held every 2 years since 1980. The full title is the "Cambridge Workshop on Cool Stars, Stellar Systems, and the Sun" and as you can imaging it deals with stellar astronomy. The website description says it all:
Cool Stars is now a well established workshop, which gathers biennially about 400 worldwide experts in Low-Mass Stars, Solar Physics and more recently also Exoplanets, creating an stimulating cross-disciplinary exchange environment in these fields. Cool Star meetings have a long tradition of presenting cutting-edge science, as shown by outstanding results such as the discovery of the first Extrasolar Planet and the first confirmed Brown Dwarf, which were first announced in the Cool Stars 9 meeting celebrated in Florence, Italy in 1995.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review: The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu

I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but it quickly got my attention. However, I didn't purchase it at the time and forgot about it. Then, it was on special on Amazon (free!) so I got it and read it over a period of a few weeks, with, alas, some frequent interruptions due to travel.

Overall Impression
This book was better than I expected. I was very hesitant to start it at first given that I had never heard of the author, but it had a cool airship on the cover so I eventually gave it a go (yes, I know not to judge a book by its cover, but let's face it: it happens). The book starts off a bit slow and heavy, particularly given all the new terminology (particularly the Russian-sounding words) and intricate world building, but it picks up the pace eventually and turns into a pretty interesting story.

The book is about the land of Khalakovo, an island duchy. A young lord of Khalakovo is set to marry a daughter of Vostroma and all the duchies gather together. However, rebellious plots are underway to make use of a rift in the fabric of the world and destroy the duchies. The Grand Duke is killed as a consequence and all hell breaks loose. The characters have to smooth tensions or brace for the coming war, while at the same time trying to figure out the mysteries of the rift and of a young boy who is the key to everything.

Plot
Like a good epic fantasy, this book takes its time building momentum. You're not quite sure at first what is relevant, but the wedding between Nikandr and Atiana seems to be a key issue. As the story progresses and you learn more about the world, the scope broadens and you realize this is truly an epic story: the fate of the world itself is in the balance. The main problem is the 'rift', some otherworldly phenomenon that is causing all sorts of problems for the characters from dwindling crop-yields to a wasting disease.

The idea, which I summarized in the Overall Impression, is that there is a rebellious faction that seeks to overthrow the duchies. Throughout the story, they summon powerful spirits, hezhan, which are used to attack the other characters. This creates an interesting tension on several levels: there is conflict against the rebels, between the duchies to place the blame, between the characters as they seek to understand the rift and the boy Nasim, and within the characters themselves as they explore their past and their place in life.

Characters
The book has three main viewpoint characters: Nikandr, Rehada, and Atiana. The story revolves around all of them and a few significant others, like Ashan and Nasim. The three main characters are interestingly flawed. Nikandr is your typical good 'prince', but he suffers from an illness he's trying to keep secret. Rehada is a prostitute and Nikandr's lover, but carries a deadly secret given her association with the rebellious Maharraht. Atiana is Nikandr's bride and is particularly gifted at taking the dark and traveling the aether, though she is at times very innocent and used by others.

Ashan and Nasim remain mysterious throughout the book. Ashan is a powerful Arahman, able to summon/use the power of several different types of hezhan. Nasim's mystery is the key to the book, so I won't comment on it here. There are a lot of other characters that are introduced throughout the book, but most don't play as key roles as the ones I've mentioned here. It is sometimes difficult to keep everyone straight given the odd names and the occasional use of nicknames.

Setting / World Building
One of the first impressions I got from the book was a similarity with Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. In both books, people bond spirits with particular elemental properties and can then use them to affect the given element. For example, Rehada can bond with a suurahezhan, a fire spirit, and can then control fire. The exception is that in this book only some people can do this, whereas in Furies of Calderon (practically) everyone can.

In order to bond a spirit, or hezhan, one has to use a particular gem: "jasper for earth, alabaster for air, tourmaline for fire, azurite for water, and opal for the raw stuff of life." I'm actually not too sure what that was meant by with opal, since it summons a lightning hezhan (a dhoshahezhan). The names, as you can tell, are complex: jalahezhan for water spirits, vanahezhan for earth, suurahezhan for fire, and havahezhan for air. It can be very confusing seeing all these names in addition to the Russian terminology thrown all over the place.

In addition to the gems and spirits, there is also something the women of the duchies do: they go down to a cold lake and "take the dark." Doing so they project their spirits, or minds, or something, out into the aether and are able to sense different things, such as the rift, and can possess other creatures, generally birds for communication.

Despite the level of technology (lots of guns and muskets), magic has a strong place in the world. Ships glide through air currents supported by their special design and the guidance of people summoning air spirits. There are some pretty nifty sky-ship battles in the book. While in general, I didn't get a good sense of the setting (cold, snowy mountains is what I pictured nearly the whole book), the world building in terms of magic and its interplay with technology was pretty neat.

Final Thoughts
The book was more enjoyable than I thought. I wasn't expecting much, but the book delivered a good, simple tale with a blend of magic and technology. Though parts felt at time a bit generic, there was plenty of cool things to keep me interested and wanting more. The magic system was intricate and quite  complex. Perhaps too complex: even at the end, I'm not sure I had all the pieces together regarding the magic. The book does feel long enough to end the story in a single volume, but in the end you realize it's part of a series and there is more to come. Many of the plot lines do end, though, so the end is still mostly satisfying. 
Will I continue in this series? Maybe. While I liked the book, at this moment I wouldn't immediately dive into the sequel (The Straits of Galahesh).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Short Story: The Plane and the Calculator

This is a scheduled post. I've been traveling a bit these past few weeks and one of the things I know to do is to power down all electronic devices for takeoff and landing. Regardless, a Kindle, which barely uses any power at all, shouldn't interfere in any way or form with aircraft operations. The worry perhaps is about radio or wifi devices, but those settings can be disabled so why the constant fear? I've heard some people saying it's necessary and others saying the opposite. Still, it's annoying to be reading a book on your e-reader and have to turn it off. Score another one for "dead-tree" books.

While thinking about this, and unable to sleep, I wrote this very short story about what would happen if someone disregards those rules. Clearly, this is all tongue-in-cheek as I doubt the severity of the situation or that a calculator, of all electronic devices, could cause it. Note, though that calculators are among the devices that can't be used during takeoff and landing.

It should be noted that I am not an author, so I make no claims as to whether the story is good or not.


The Plane and the Calculator
by Vir Strakul

The plane shook and plummeted another 50 feet.

"The controls aren't responding!" cried James, the copilot.
"There's some kind of electrical disturbance," replied the pilot.

***

Simon was just your average high school teacher, flying out to meet with his sister in Hawaii.
It was a last minute trip, given the sudden accident, so he had brought along some of his work to do on the plane ride.
This time it was grading homework. Boring.
The problem was he didn't think things through when he gave out the assignment. He should have said "What are the absolute magnitudes of these 5 stars?", rather than having thie students pick their own stars. He guessed it was more engaging this way, but it meant he had to work through the numbers himself.
Just a little bit of logarithms and some arithmetic, but still, most people (himself included) cant do logarithms in their head. Hence the need for a calculator.

He was using an old calculator just barely useful for this work. It was solar powered, so as long as he had light he was good to go. His phone had a better calculator, but they were taxiing at the moment and he knew you had to...
"Sir! You need to turn that off."
"Turn what off?"
"Your phone. It needs to be off"
"This is a calculator, not a phone. It doesn't even have an off button"
"Oh, well you should stow it away and stop using it"
Simon sighed. 
He put it away, but immediately took it out once the stewardless left.
Seriously? They think a cheap calculator like this is going to be a problem?

***

The weather was clear, with low winds and visibility out to 20 miles. A perfect day for a routine flight from the Los Angeles International Airport.
Captain Rob had done this a million times. Well, maybe not a million times, but certainly often enough.
"Hey, there's this cool book I read the other day. You might like it, James."
"Yeah? What's it called?" replied James, as Rob led the plane on the runway.
"Redshirts. Remind me to lend it to you sometime"
A few minutes of communicating with the tower, extend flaps, increase throttle, rotate, and with that they were in the air. Another perfect liftoff.
"What was the name of the book again? Redskirts?" asked James as the plane gained altitude.
"Nah man, Redshirts, like the Star Trek guys."
"Oh, that sounds.... HOLY SHIT, what are you doing!!" cried James, as the plane suddenly tilted violently to the left.
"I'm not doing anything, something's wrong with the controls!"
The altimeter and velocity indicators were flying wild. Controls weren't responding, even the radio cut off. 
The plane dropped.

***

Babies started crying. I mean, they always cry on airplanes, but this time they started crying earlier. They weren't the only ones with their nerves on edge, though.
"Remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened!" the stewardess screamed.
Simon seriously doubted anyone could walk with a plane tilting like this. He could barely work on the grading as it was.
His calculator slipped from his desk and fell to the aisle. Oh, I was supposed to put the tray table up, wasn't I, thought Simon.
He was about to pick up his calculator, but the stewardess noticed.
"Sir! I told you that had to be turned off! It interferes with the instruments!"
"It's only a calculator!"
The stewardess, in a fit of annoyance or perhaps fear, smashed the calculator with her heel.
The display died down and immediately the plane leveled off and startng gaining altitude again.
"Umm, oops," said Simon, as several of the other passengers turned to glare at him.
Who would have thought?


Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: The Ice People (La Nuit des Temps) by Rene Barjavel

This book was lent to me by a friend, with very little preamble. She knows I like to read and she's French so I can only assume she wanted to introduce me to French authors. The good thing is that it was short (so I felt OK pausing my read of The Winds Of Khalakovo) and by being a "dead-tree" book, I didn't have to turn it off during takeoff for my flight. I finished the book and wrote the review on the same (13-hour) flight and decided to post it today.

Overal Impression
This is a sci-fi romance novel with some really cool concepts behind it, particularly given the inclusion of Lost World genre themes. The tale is told as a frame story and shows the life of an ancient civilization 900,000 years ago. Though the story focuses on the amorous couple, it also touches on the political concepts during that ancient era which resonate with the characters and events in the novel as well as readers both past and present.

The book was initially published in 1968, with the version I have dating to the 1970s. Hence, it may be difficult to find in print. The book carries the imprint of that era: the Cold War and the strong aversion to war, a sentiment that I think still holds true to this day.

Plot
The story is told, in part, as a frame story. At first, everything is about the discovery of the ruins, the frozen people, and the global tenstions that rise due to the implications of that discovery. It's interesting, but I feel that the world powers were too civil when confronted with such a situation. I fully expected a world war.

The next part of the story revolves around Elea and her life in Gondawa. The tale of Gondawa is told through Elea's memories, but there is one part where it looks like the author forgets this and tells a small part through Paikan's eyes. This is the main part of the novel and is actually a very interesting sci-fi romance tale. The story ends up rather sad, but has some interesting parallels with the era in which the frame story is set (and the book was written).

The book ended in what was probably the only possible way to neatly end it. A few other ways would have been clearly unrealistic or unsatisfying. The book also very nicely ties together several issues in the frame story, the memories, and real life such as war, political tensions, and student protests. We may no longer be in the Cold War, but the story applies today as it did then.

Characters
In the memory part of the novel, the plot revolves around Elea, Paikan, and Coban. The frame story involves primarily Simon and Elea, though other characters like Hoover, Lukos, and Leonova have their parts to play. At the start of the novel, you get too many characters introduced and it can actually be overwhelming, particularly since most are not really that important.

I think Elea may be a tad over-sexualized, especially at first. She's supposed to be the most amazing specimen of women-kind they've ever seen and you get the feeling everyone constantly fantasizes about her. A similar thing happens with the frozen male, but it's brushed off much faster.  However, Elea does develop into an interesting and kick-ass character as she tells her story.

Setting/World Building
The whole premise of the story is that an expedition finds the ruins, and reanimates people, from a civilization that existed 900,000 years ago. It is a very interesting idea, and has been done before/since. The civilization is actually far more advanced than the present day so it feels really cool. I was reminded at first of the video game Chrono Trigger, where the characters travel to an advanced kingdom that existed around 12,000 BC.

The Kingdom of Zeal circa 12,000 BC, from Chrono Trigger. Advanced technology/magic is used to float the landmass above the rest of the surface. Just another example of the Lost World genre in fiction.

There are two prominent nations/continents in Elea's backstory: Gondawa (Antarctica) and Enisor ("Greater" America). They have been rivals for a long time and in Elea's time-frame she sees the Third War which lasts for 1 hour and devastates millions thanks to the earth (ie, atomic) bombs. A treaty is formed and such weapons are banned, but hostilities persist. 

We hear that both nations establish Moon and Mars colonies and that there are also forays into the rest of the solar system. The Gondawans have a more utopian lifestyle combining elements of capitalism and communism, the two great issues of the day. In Gondawa, a citizen gets an annual allotment of credits to spend in whatever manner he or she wants. Since everything is made by automated factories and "universal energy," there is no lack or even a need to work (unless you don't have a "key" in which case you have absolutely nothing and have to beg). Everyone is required to work at least half a day every 5 days, those who don't get slightly less credits, those who work more get a little more. However, there is no accumulation of wealth since credits are reset every year. Although there is no outright birth control, apparently the population is kept in check and couples are matched by a computer at a young age. Enisor, though it has similar technology, uses it to expand and grow rather than to conserve the balance. To (unsuccessfully) control their population they use a form of euthanasia.

The conflict is revealed to be the reason why the Moon is barren without seas or an atmosphere. Presumably this also happened in Mars. As an astronomer, I know this is ridiculous but I take it for what it is: alternate pre-history science fiction.

Final Thoughts
I was surprised I enjoyed the novel given that it would not have been something I selected from the shelf. Despite its classification as a 'romance' there is plenty there to interest all sorts of readers. In particular, I was drawn into the descriptions of the civilization, technology, and culture of the ancient people.

One of the few problems I had with the book was that descriptions are actually a bit vague: I had trouble picturing some of the settings, especially in Antarctica. I wonder if some of that was lost in translation. Speaking of which: there are no outright moments when I knew this was a translated book.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

While I'm off traveling, here is a review I wrote up last week.
I first heard about Redshirts when John Scalzi read a preview of it at a signing I went to (for Fuzzy Nation, which I still haven't read). The reading was hilarious (he also read the first sentence from The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue).

Overall Impression
I went into this book very excited given all the hype and the song (here) and it quickly delivered. The first half of the book is amazing and you start wondering how the strange events on board the spaceship Intrepid can be happening. Then, things fall flat... You're given an explanation for how things are working and you take it with a grain of salt. It is weird and out-there, but many authors tend to provide a few of these and then completely surprise you with 'the answer' at the end. You only get to connect all the dots moments before the revelation and are left completely satisfied. This book is not like that.

Does that mean this is a bad book? Far from it! The book is hilarious and has some great moments, even the ending is great. However, I kinda wish it was different. The 'big reveal' never feels like it happened and I was left disappointed at such an 'obvious' solution. It's not quite like a Deus Ex Machina, where a powerful outside force suddenly appears and makes everything right, but it feels the same way. Could I have come up with a better way to tell the story? Of course not, but it just didn't meet my expectations.

Plot
I would say the plot has two main parts. First, there is a classic space opera which channels Star Trek and other classic TV shows. The crew of the Intrepid go on adventures to explore the galaxy, answer distress calls, etc. It's very fun, especially when the main characters catch on to the unique circumstances behind away missions. Namely, someone always dies on these missions and it is always one of the non-essential crew: the redshirts. The captain, chief officers, and most lieutenants are immune to such deaths and though they can be injured, they always miraculously recover in a manner of days. The rest of the crew knows this and hides in terror when an away mission is announced.

The mystery of why that happens and how it can be solved is the second main part of the plot, and unfortunately it is disappointing. The book goes all meta-fiction at this part, which breaks from the universe created in the first part. It feels like rather than considering a viable, internally-consistent explanation for what's going on with the ship, Scalzi ops for the quick and dirty solution.

The book ends with 3 codas that are related to the second part of the plot. They're somewhat more emotionally charged than the rest of the book. Overall, it feels like book is combining 2-3 stories, but achieving only partial success.

Characters
There are several characters throughout the book, but we really focus on only one: Ensign Andy Dahl. He's on the Intrepid and has some interesting skills and backstory that we think will be critical to the story at some point. He feels similar to the main character from Old Man's War in terms of how he approaches problems and the sort of snarky attitude at times. The rest of the characters are a bit bland, though some have their moments to shine. I liked some of the banter and humor between the characters, but other than that they don't stand out that much. The book is really all about the main character and, more importantly, the idea behind the story.

Setting / World Building
The book has two main settings, like it has 2 parts to the plot. The first is neat and space-y, if a bit generic. It's set in the far future, aboard an exploration space ship- the Intrepid. It screams 'Star Trek' all over it. The second setting is far more mundane and takes place in the latter half of the book. The 'down-to-Earth' nature of that setting is jarring when compared to the Intrepid. For someone who likes  the intricate details of fictional worlds, that was a bit disappointing.

Final Thoughts
So in the end, did I like the book? Sure, but not as much as I expected. The story was pretty funny and perfectly in line with what I expect from Scalzi. However, I was very disappointed at the turn of events in the plot. I honestly did not expect such meta-fiction in the book. If you are a fan of Star Trek, enjoy comedy, and like to read a book that pokes fun at itself, then you will surely enjoy the book. It was a clever story, but I prefer it when the fiction stays in the book and doesn't call attention to itself, if that makes any sense.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Morning Mountains

Getting ready to head out for the Cool Stars 17 conference.

Today looks like a beautiful day in Chile, thanks to the bit of rain and wind yesterday. Here's what the Andes looked like this morning:

Looks like Winter has finally come...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Transit of the Earth... from Mars!

Several weeks ago we were witness to one of the rarest, yet predictable, astronomical events known: the transit of Venus. The next such transit will be in the year 2117. You can always catch the next transit of Mercury, though. These are far more common with 13-14 events per century: the next one is May 9, 2016. However, you do need a telescope to see it as Mercury is much smaller.

Perhaps you are now hooked on transits and want to catch an even more exciting event. You may actually have already seen the November 2006 Mercury transit. How about a (near) simultaneous transit of both Venus and Mercury? Good luck: the next one will be around September in the year 13,425 AD.

Perhaps it's best to focus on something that may happen sooner? Enter the transit of the Earth!
If you think Mercury and Venus transiting is exciting, then check out this simulation of transit of the Earth (and Moon!)... from Mars!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Easter Island: Tourism! (3/3)

This is the last of my three posts on Easter Island. Part 1 described the astronomy outreach we did there, part 2 was about the transit of Venus, our main event. This part now describes all the touristy things we squeezed in when we weren't working.

First, a map:
Easter Island. The map I used in my activity has a few embarrassing errors (this one is fine).

There are, as you can imagine, tons of moai on the island. These are statues built by the natives of their ancestors many, many years ago and are the most impressive things you will see. Most were torn down and have subsequently been restored, but a few impressive ones are broken.
(Remember: you can click on the pictures to see them larger.)

Broken moai at Ahu Akahanga

All of these moai were constructed at one place: Rano Raraku, the remains of a volcano that now hosts a lake. The rocks on one side of the volcano was carved up into these great statues, which were then transported all across the island. We had with us a friend and guide, Edmundo Edwards, who told us these great stories and taught us a ton about the history of the island.

Moai at Rano Raraku.

The lake atop Rano Raraku.

Ahu Tongariki, picture below, is one of the better known moai sites. This one has 15 huge moai.

Ahu Tongariki

Most moai face inland, though a few, like Ahu Akivi picture below do not. It's not clear to me why this is, but it's an interesting curiosity. Somewhat unusual is that the stones around Ahu Akivi are all river stones, but there are no rivers on the island (they were recently imported from the mainland).

Ahu Akivi

The highest point of the island, Maunga Terevaka, stands at 507 meters and is the tallest mountain in a 4000 km radius. That shouldn't be too surprising considering there is practically no land (just a few small islands) in that area. Easter Island is truly isolated. We climbed this hill at sunset as we were buffeted by the winds. It was a gruesome hike (I may be exaggerating here), but we made it.

Almost at the summit of Maunga Terevaka.

There are two beaches on the island (the rest of the shore is rocky or cliffs). One was supposed to have pink sand, but it wasn't that pink. I've seen better beaches, but this one was still cool. And it had moai!

Moai at Anakena beach

On our last day of tourism we visited the ruins of Orongo. This ceremonial village is located near the south at the edge of Rano Kau, which is picture below.

Rano Kau. The crater is about a mile in diameter.

Orongo is important as it was used for the Birdman Cult on the island which replaced the moai-building period. The birdman cult is present in other islands and is tied to the creator god Make-Make.

Orongo ceremonial village,

There was a ceremony every year in which a champion would go out to swim to the island to gather the first egg laid by the manutara, the sooty tern (a bird). The host of the winner would then become famous as the tangata-manu (the birdman) and would be considered sacred.

Motu Nui, where the manutara would have their nests is the 'large' island more distant in this shot.

And finally, here's a shot of Ahu Tahai at sunset on June 5, 2012 (the day of the transit of Venus).



Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I interrupt my Easter Island series (the final part will be up this weekend) to post this review for The Killing Moon, which I finished about a week ago. This book is part 1 of N. K. Jemisin's Dreamblood duology (that means 2 books). As Jemisin says on her website, it's an epic fantasy tale with influences from ancient Egypt, Freudian dream theory, and Jung's ideas on collective consciousness.

Overall Impression
The book was very different from what I expected. To be fair, I didn't know what to expect from it too well, but one of my first thoughts upon reading was 'That's not how Tel'Aran'Rhiod works!' Fans of The Wheel of Time will recognize that. I was also interrupted while reading with my Easter Island trip so this broke up the story's flow a bit.

Still, I did find the book engaging and the world was interesting. I expected a bit more given Jemisin's amazing debut with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but this was still a good read. I wouldn't say this is epic fantasy, though it clearly has some elements of that in it. The plot, as you'll read below, is split between the internal and external conflicts and the external one doesn't seem to encompass the scale I usually associate with epic stories.

Plot
The plot centers around the political machinations of those in power in order to grab even more power. Though a bit generic, the details are unique and will keep the reader interested. It does, however, take a while to get started. It feels at times like the main characters are moving on short term goals instead of seeing the big picture. That limited scope can give you an interesting look into the characters, but it keeps the reader in the dark about some of the main details for a long time.

In addition to the external conflict of the political corruption and threat of war, there is also the internal conflict of one of the characters, Ehiru, as he doubts himself and undergoes a crisis of faith. That gives a far more personal look into the world and is actually a very interesting plot line. Both plots are woven together and finish neatly at the conclusion. This is a story of achieving peace, both inner and outer:
True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict. - The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin

Characters
The plot revolves around four main characters, but given the relatively short nature of the book we only see two in great detail: Ehiru and Nijiri, a Gatherer and his apprentice. Ehiru is the city's most famous Gatherer and he is deeply spiritual and trustworthy. His confrontation with the corruption in the city shakes his faith and drives the personal side of the story. His apprentice, Nijiri, is a young man eager to prove himself and adores his mentor. There's actually a bit of sexual tension between the two, which is not surprising given Jemisin's take on these issues, but nothing overt happens.

The other two characters are Eninket, the Prince of Gujareh and Sunandi, an ambassador from the neighboring country of Kisua. They are also very important for the story, but it feels like they don't get enough page time for you to get a full idea of what they are like. While Ehiru and Nijiri grow and change throughout the book, Eninket and Sunandi remain fairly static (less so for Sunandi).

Setting / World Building
The setting was interesting and unique given the touches from Egypt. The city has flooding cycles similar to what goes on with the Nile river, and the people, the language, and their attire seem appropriate for the setting. Their culture revolves around the moon and dream goddess, Hananja. The Hetawa are priests of Hananja that specialize in healing magic by gathering humors from dreams: dreamblood, dreamseed, dreambile, and dreamichor. The combinations of these four substances can be used to repair physical damage or heal mental sicknesses. An interesting take on medical magic.

Dreamblood is probably the most controversial of the substance to extract as doing so kills the person. A subset of priests, the Gatherers, travel at night to collect dreamblood from people selected for that purpose.  The Gatherer enters their dreams, gives them a sense of peace, and eases their passing into Ina-Karekh, their version of heaven. In general, the tithe bearers are the sick and elderly who wish to pass on in their sleep, but not surprisingly there can also be political motivations behind these 'assassinations.' The Gatherers are very spiritual and have a blind eye towards the politics behind their actions. It is only when the blinds are removed that they realize they've been played and things get messy.

The magic at first feels a bit underdeveloped. The Gatherers give so much (they loose the ability to produce dreamblood so must continuously gather others), but don't seem to get any benefits. Sure, they can use narcomancy to put people to sleep or calm them and eventually we see some of the interesting (and excellently foreshadowed) side effects of dreamblood, but it looks like all the dream humors are used for is healing. Only at the end do we see the secrets behind narcomancy and can appreciate its power and subtlety.

There are two moons on the sky and the larger one, the Dreaming Moon, has four bands. I had a bit of trouble imagining this and how it would work until I read her 'interview' at the end of the book. It turns out the 'planet' they are on is actually a moon! The Dreaming Moon is a gas giant, like Jupiter, and is banded by the structure in the atmosphere. I always appreciate some astronomy in my fantasy and I wish I had caught that as I read the story.

Final Thoughts
In the end, I enjoyed the book, but not as much as I had anticipated. I expected a lot more out of the book, and though I got a satisfying read I was left wanting. Jemisin has an interesting style of telling her stories, but it takes a bit longer for me to get into them. Will I read the second part (The Shadowed Sun)? Sure, but I may wait until after I read other authors and their books. Nevertheless, I can still recommend this book as an interesting take on a fantasy society based loosely on ancient Egypt with some cool magic focusing on healing and dreams.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Easter Island: Transit of Venus (2/3)

This is the second of a three part post series on our recent trip to Easter Island. Previously I wrote about the outreach activities we did on the days leading up to the transit. In this post I describe the main event itself: the transit of Venus.

I've previously talked about the transit of Venus (here) and described the math involved in determining the distance (here). Hence, I'll skip the overview and jump right into the details.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Easter Island: Outreach Activities (1/3)

This past week I've been with a group of astronomers on Easter Island to do outreach, observe the transit of Venus, and do some tourism. This is the first of a 3 post series describing our adventures. Part 1 is a description of the outreach activities we did at Easter Island. Part 2 describes our viewing of the transit of Venus along with our distance estimate, and Part 3 is about the places we visited.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Day of the Transit of Venus

Today is June 5, 2012 (for me, for others it will be June 6). This is the day that Venus passes in front of the Sun in a rare alignment resulting in a transit. This is similar to an eclipse, though Venus will only block ~1/30th of the Sun's disk. Unlike an eclipse, a transit of Venus is an extremely rare event. The next one will be more than a century from now: December 2117.

I had previously written about the transit (here) and detailed some of the math (here) involved in estimating the distance to the Sun. My prior post details one of the outreach activities I created as part of the event.

Today, this post is short and intended only to say one thing: WATCH IT!
This is a scheduled post so hopefully it goes out on time (regardless, the transit lasts for 6 hours).

If it's cloudy or you otherwise can't see the event, here's a short list of websites that will provide live webcasts so you can watch this unique event online (unfortunately, Team Hetu'u will not have a live web feed):
If one link doesn't work, try another! For a larger list, see the Bad Astronomy post here.

Clear skies!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Solar System at Easter Island

By now, you've probably heard about the transit of Venus on June 5-6, 2012. I wrote a short post (here) describing it and a second one (here) describing one method to estimate the distance to the Sun using the transit. Although Chile won't see the transit, a group of us will be traveling to Easter Island to watch it from there (technically *have* travelled since this post was scheduled in advance).

We've created a whole outreach plan for our time at Easter Island, which includes a two-day workshop at the local museum (with talks by the astronomers), school visits the following day, observing the partial lunar eclipse, and the transit of Venus itself on June 5.
One of the things I prepared was an activity on the scale of the solar system specifically for the residents of Easter Island.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: Railsea by China Mieville

I've been a fan of China Mieville's work ever since I read The City & The City so I was eager to read his latest work: Railsea, a young adult novel inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Overall Impression
The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that this is claimed to be a young adult (YA) novel. There are several reasons for this claim: the character is young, some of the chapters are short, & most importantly, the publisher said so. However, while reading it, I wasn't too sure of this classification. Yes, it has some elements of YA novels, such as Ship Breaker or The Hunger Games, but it's language is a bit too intricate & the pacing too erratic. It's still not as complex as his other novels, like Embassytown & Perdido Street Station, but it isn't as straightforward as his prior YA book, Un Lun Dun.

One of the first & most obvious things one notices is the ubiquitous use of '&'. It at first threw me off & I almost dropped the book since it felt so crude, but after a while it blends into the background & eventually you reach a chapter that explains why '&' is the preferred conjunction in this universe. I adopt this style throughout the review.

During the start of the book, & at times near the middle, I felt the story slipping off its tracks & wondered at Mieville's choices. However, I persevered & was rewarded. The ending has so many revelations about the nature of the world & the railsea, angels & heaven. Everything fits together & is extremely satisfying. Mieville has created a fascinating world & tells an engaging story fit for all ages.

Plot
The plot, like all Mieville's works, takes a while to develop. Only after about ~100 pages do you see the shape of the novel. That's not to say that events prior to that are meaningless, they certainly have a place, but we just can't connect all the dots or even see where the dots are until a quarter of the way into the book. Once we do, though, things really get interesting.

There are some similarities between Railsea & Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which the author acknowledges inspired this work. The captain of both has had injuries from a white great animal (in this case Mocker-Jack) & chases it across the sea/railsea. The crew, particularly Ishamael/Sham, is key to revealing the world around them. However there's a lot more action in this book & the story takes some very unexpected twists. Despite the initial similarities, these two books couldn't be more different.

The only mildly irritating (yet interesting as well) aspect of the plot is the narrator's penchant for breaking the story & talking about something else. The first few times it can be annoying, but you get used to the unique style. It feels like someone else is telling the story & in their excitement they keep jumping ahead before reining themselves in.

Characters
The story revolves & centers around a young boy growing up in the world of the railsea. His name is a mouthful: Shamus Yes ap Soorap, or as most people call him: Sham. He's a young teenager suffering from one of the most common ailments most people do at that age: he has little idea of what he wants to do for a living. This is one of the reasons to highlight the YA status of this novel, as indeed all of us have passed/are passing/will pass through such a stage early in our lives & careers. At the start, he is a doctor's apprentice aboard a moletrain, but has aspirations to search for rare salvage instead. The story places him alongside other characters including molers, salvors, pirates, explorers, & ferronaval militia.

The list of characters isn't particularly long, but among them stand out Captain Naphi & Mocker-Jack with their parallels to Captain Ahab & Moby Dick. Naphi leads her crew on the moletrain Medes which hunts, as you can imagine, moles (also known as moldywarpe, underminer, talpa, & muldvarp). Her 'philosophy' is the hunt for the legendary white moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack, which took her arm on a prior encounter. She is driven to finish her task & drags the crew along; tensions mount as the story progresses.

A great southern moldywarpe (Talpa ferox rex).
One of the several illustrations (by China Mieville himself) within the book.
Yes, those are trees beside that mole...

The narrator is actually quite invested in the story & governs its telling, as I mentioned previously. He/she (let's assume 'he') is practically a character in the story & will, at times, distract you from it. For example, he may start describing something, then stop, say it's too early for that, & then veer off into a philosophical issue. This is quite interesting, & I quote one such instance below, but it jars with what I expected. I thought I would get a light, action-packed book for a young adult, instead I got a book that occasionally dips into interesting discourses.
Technically, our name, to those who speak science, is Homo sapiens— wise person. But we have been described in many other ways. Homo narrans, juridicus, ludens, diaspora: we are storytelling, legal, game-playing, scattered people, too. True but incomplete. That old phrase has the secret. We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast & awesome hole.

Setting / World Building
If you've read my other reviews you'll realize that having a fascinating world or universe to place the characters & story in is one of the first things I look for in a book. Railsea does not let you down in this respect:
There are two layers to the sky, & four layers to the world. No secrets there. Sham knew that, this book knows that, & you know that, too. 

One of the first things you notice when you compare books Mieville has written is that 'the city' always has a key role in the story, whether it be London, UnLundun, New Crobuzon, Armada, Beszel/Ul Qoma, or Embassytown. This book appears to be the exception until you realize the railsea itself is what holds the place of the city.

So what exactly IS the railsea?
The railsea, sitting on the flatearth; that is the second level. Tracks & ties, in the random meanders of geography & ages, in all directions. Extending forever.
That quote describes it best, though to really understand it you have to read the book & explore it in all its facets. The railsea connects all the world together in an endless maze of tracks. "What of the ocean?", you ask. "What ocean?", I reply.

There's a wide variety of tains that ride the railsea:
[...] solar trains from Gul Fofkal; lunar ones from who-knew-where?; pedal trains from Mendana; a rococo clockwork train that made Zhed smile & salute as its crews sang the songs of winding & twisted their great key; treadmill trains from Clarion, their crews jogging to keep them moving; little trains tugged by trackside ungulate herds able to fight off the burrowing predators of shallow railsea; one-person traincycles; hulking invisibly powered wartrains; electric trains with the snaps & sparks of their passing.

There's also interesting creatures from underground, like the giant moles (see the moldywarpe image above), & alien lifeforms from the upsky as well (those of the downsky, like birds & bats, are somewhat more familiar to us). I'd like to describe the world further, but that's one of the great mysteries to the book that one of the characters (& the reader) seeks to answer. Just know that this is quite a unique take on a science fiction universe.

Final Thoughts
My initial impression was a bit negative, with the continued use of '&' along with the more elaborate language than I expected in a YA novel. However, the story was interesting & the world is engaging & mysterious. After a while, I was digging through it trying to understand the nature of the world & how it came to be. I have to say that the ending made me very happy. It's one of the clearest & most uplifting endings I've seen in a Mieville book. Is it my favorite Mieville book? No, but I can say that I enjoyed it.

If you want to preview the book, an excerpt is available here.

UPDATE: September 2, 2012
I've created a short, 1-minute video where I introduce the book and it's main concept (the railsea). You can watch it here:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Measuring the Distance to the Sun with the Transit of Venus

With the upcoming transit of Venus, scientists from across the world are coordinating with groups to measure the contact times of the transit and re-measure the distance to the Sun. There are several websites (such as this one, or this one) that detail how to do this, and a nice (math heavy) paper by Mignard in 2004 (PDF file here). Many of these methods, however, require you to get the full duration of the transit or directly measure the parallax with imaging. Here I describe a much more simple method that requires you to measure only the time at ingress interior or egress interior for two locations on the Earth. This method is convenient as you don't need to witness the full transit (only ingress seen from Easter Island, for example). This is a retelling of the information derived by Udo Backhaus in this website with some added explanations.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the 4th book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. I have previously written reviews for Book 3Memories of Ice and Book 2Deadhouse Gates.
I understand that Ian Cameron Esslemont has also written books in the Malazan universe and they both collaborated on the series. I may have to check Esslemont's works later on, but I intend to finish the 10-book series first.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Memory of Light Cover for Kindle

This may be old news for some, but Tor has revealed the cover for the final book of the Wheel of Time, A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson:

In my opinion, this is one of the best covers to date for the series. It's done by a different artist, Michael Whelan, who is well known in the community and has created many fabulous book covers (for example, see The Stormlight Archives #1: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson). All the prior Wheel of Time covers were done by Darrell Sweet, but sadly he passed away in December before finishing his sketch for the cover:


If you own a Kindle or other e-reader, you may want to use the new Whelan cover as your background/wallpaper/screensaver, so you can pretend you're reading the final book of the series well ahead of everyone! I searched, but couldn't find that anyone had converted the cover (a trivial process), so here you go:

You can download the 600x800 version here (from the Picasa album).
Instructions for how to set it up on your device will vary, but here is some useful information one for the Kindle.

If you prefer Sweet's version (with the title/authors added by Aidan Moher) here you go:

You can download the 600x800 version here. It looks a bit grainier since the original size was smaller than this. I personally prefer the Whelan cover.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Astronomy: Spitzer Sees Light from Super Earth

The Spitzer Space Telescope is an orbiting satellite that takes data at near and mid infrared wavelengths. It had to be cryogenically cooled, otherwise it would detect its own heat in its instruments! Right now, the cryogen has run out so it only operates at the shortest wavelengths (3.5 and 4.6 microns), but is still useful for a lot of science ranging from brown dwarfs to exoplanets to dusty galaxies.

Today, NASA has revealed that Spitzer has detected the light from a distant super-Earth; the first ever such observed. At first I was surprised, since I had heard about Spitzer imaging a planet before (HD 209458b and TrES-1, see here), but it turns out that these were gas giant planets, not a super Earth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Exciting May Book Releases

This month sees the release of several books I'm very excited for. So much so that I almost (but not quite) regret starting House of Chains, fourth book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen rather than waiting to read these titles.

May 1
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Soldier boys emerged from the darkness. Guns gleamed dully. Bullet bandoliers and scars draped their bare chests. Ugly brands scored their faces. She knew why these soldier boys had come. She knew what they sought, and she knew, too, that if they found it, her best friend would surely die. 
In a dark future America where violence, terror, and grief touch everyone, young refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to leave behind the war-torn lands of the Drowned Cities by escaping into the jungle outskirts. But when they discover a wounded half-man--a bioengineered war beast named Tool--who is being hunted by a vengeful band of soldiers, their fragile existence quickly collapses. One is taken prisoner by merciless soldier boys, and the other is faced with an impossible decision: Risk everything to save a friend, or flee to a place where freedom might finally be possible.

This young adult novel is set in the same post-apocalyptic universe of Ship Breaker, which I recently finished reading. Despite being categorized as "young adult," I'm sure this book, like Ship Breaker before it, is far more complex than meets the eye and engaging for audiences of all ages. io9 has a magnificent book trailer here, just watching it makes me want to go buy the book and start reading it now.

May 1
The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

In the desert city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Along its ancient stone streets, there is no crime or violence. Priests of the dream-goddess, known as Gatherers, maintain order: harvesting the dreams of the citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife. . . 
When Ehiru-the most famous of the city's Gatherers-is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war.

This is the first book in the Dreamblood duology (so, two books). The next book comes out in June, so you don't have to wait years and years for the conclusion. Jemisin has proven herself as a great author with The Inheritance Trilogy (check out my review of book 3, The Kingdom of Gods). The setting and magic for this duology is said to have come from Jemisin's fascination in ancient Egypt, Freudian dream theory, and Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious. Sounds very interesting and I'll be sure to check it out.

May 15
Railsea by China Mieville

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea. 


Mieville is a great story teller and a master of language. You can see he's drawn from Melville's Moby-Dick for this novel. I have no doubt that this book will be an amazing ride into yet another fantastical world. Unlike Bacigalupi and Jemisin, Mieville has less of an online presence (ie, twitter, blog, etc), but he doesn't need it: his works are of such quality that people all over keep talking about it. You've probably heard of the numerous awards that his last book, Embassytown, has been nominated for (this just in: Embassytown among the 2012 Locus Award finalists).


All these books have free previews available online, either through ebook stores like Amazon, or through the author's own websites. I personally have not read any of the previews: I trust these authors enough to buy their works without any prior glimpses.
Right now I'm about a third of the way through my current book and will probably start The Killing Moon next. Though I have a few other sci-fi novels queued up, it looks like those will have to wait. Why does my to-read list increase faster than I can read?

Did I miss any notable May releases? I'm sure there are plenty of books being released every month, but in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, these are the ones I personally am looking forward to reading.

Update (May 2):
It looks like I did forget one exciting release!


May 4
The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

WAR AND MADNESS CAST SHADOWS
OVER THE LANDS DRAGONS ONCE RULED.
Geder Palliako's star is rising. He is a hero of Antea, protector to the crown prince, and darling of the court. But storms from his past are gathering, and with them, a war that will change everything.
Cithrin bel Sarcour founded a powerful bank on stolen wealth, forged papers, and ready blades. Now every move she makes is observed, recorded, and controlled. Unless Cithrin can free herself from her gilded cage, the life she made will be for naught; war may provide just the opportunity she needs.
An apostate priest sees the hidden hand behind all: a long-buried secret of the dragon empire threatens everything humanity has built. An age of madness and death is on the way, with only a few doomed heroes to stand in its way.

This is the second book in The Dagger and The Coin series. I read the first book of that series (The Dragon's Path) and considered it to be one of my top 5 books I read in 2011. This is traditional epic fantasy, but with some cool elements in it. The author claims he borrowed ideas from multiple sources and yet he managed to meld everything together so it feels new and fresh. I like it! I'm looking forward to this book and I can't believe that it slipped under my radar.