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.

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.

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?