Saturday, December 28, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013

As I've been doing for the past two years, here is my list of the top 5 books I read this year. This are books I *read* this year, not ones that were published this year.

Statistics-wise, the number of books I've been reading has dropped: 2011- 32, 2012- 25, 2013- 19. This means picking 5 means picking the best book in nearly every 4 that I read! Not surprisingly, it was very difficult to pick and sort these.
In terms of page count (by Goodreads' standards since I read electronically), that's 10030 pages read (comparable to last year, which reflects the length of the books). While I'm still reading a lot, I didn't do as well this year. I attribute this to several reasons including a heavier work load as my science has really picked up, dealing with other hobbies, and to my broken kindle which left me to use the more uncomfortable iPad.

Here then are my top 5 books, roughly sorted.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first part of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Despite being a trilogy, the first book stands on its own and can be read without the others. This is my second read through it thanks to selection by our local book club. I sure hope they like it better than my last recommendation!

Without further ado, let's jump right in to my spoiler-free review.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Book Review: Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

For our latest book club meeting, we read Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. Here is the Goodreads blurb:
Corelli's Mandolin is set in the early days of the second world war, before Benito Mussolini invaded Greece. Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephalonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he imparts much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn't so bad--at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of "Heil Hitler" with his own "Heil Puccini", and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. It isn't long before Corelli and Pelagia are involved in a heated affair--despite her engagement to a young fisherman, Mandras, who has gone off to join Greek partisans. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches. 

Read on for my full, spoiler-free review.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Astronomy: Comet ISON in Chile

Comet ISON, on November 15. Credit: Damian Peach

There's been a lot of news lately about the brightening of Comet ISON. If it survives its close passage to the Sun on November 28, it may grow even brighter and so it's receiving some attention. However, most of the information I've seen has been for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. I figured I'd see what I could figure out about observing comet ISON from Chile. Unfortunately, things don't look too promising for the Southern Hemisphere.

For the details, read on.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantasy crime novel by Scott Lynch. You follow the story of Locke Lamora, a master con artist leading his band of thieves. It's recently been promoted quite a bit thanks to the author's third release. Here's the blurb:

The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a ghost that walks through walls. Half the city believes him to be a legendary champion of the poor. The other half believe him to be a foolish myth. Nobody has it quite right.
Slightly built, unlucky in love, and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. He certainly didn't invite the rumors that swirl around his exploits, which are actually confidence games of the most intricate sort. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else, pray tell, would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny of it. All of Locke's gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards.

Locke and company are con artists in an age where con artistry, as we understand it, is a new and unknown style of crime. The less attention anyone pays to them, the better! But a deadly mystery has begun to haunt the ancient city of Camorr, and a clandestine war is threatening to tear the city's underworld, the only home the Gentlemen Bastards have ever known, to bloody shreds. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends will find both their loyalty and their ingenuity tested to the breaking point as they struggle to stay alive...

Read on for my full review.

Friday, October 25, 2013

RIP Kindle

As of Oct 24, I declare my Amazon Kindle 3 to be dead.
This is a sad, mournful day for all involved.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling is a novel by a "Robert Galbraith," who turns out to be none other than J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. I don't know the reason why she choose a pseudonym, but it could be to distance herself from the hype and popularity of the Harry Potter franchise. Her name is now so firmly etched with that series that it can cause problems when writing anything other than that. Although I haven't read her other work, The Casual Vacancy, from what I understand a lot of people are surprised to read it and realize it wasn't another Harry Potter book. She certainly isn't the only author that has pseudonyms, though, so it's a common thing.

The Cuckoo's Calling is a fairly standard detective story about an investigation of a famous celebrities' death. The main character, detective Cormoran Strike, has to seek out witnesses and suspects to see if he can piece together the events of that confusing evening. Was it suicide or murder? And if murder, then who is the culprit?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Astronomy and Middle Earth

I recently came across the above image and a post about astronomy within J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. It's fascinating how much detail Tolkien included in his works. Astrophysics professor Dr. Kristine Larsen figured out the structure of the Tolkien's solar system, as well as numerous astronomical objects, by looking through all the hints in his books. The figure above illustrates that very nicely (though apparently Nénar and Luinil cannot be Uranus and Neptune given that these are actually very faint; what they are are supposed to represent has yet to be determined).

Many of our constellations are named after Greek mythological figures, the planets in our solar system carry the names of Roman gods, and new dwarf planets and Kuiper belt objects are being named for Polynesian gods. Astronomy and mythology have gone hand in hand for ages so it's nice to see that a modern fantasy mythology was written with plenty of attention to astronomical details.

A very long discussion on Tolkien's astronomy can be read here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart is Brandon Sanderson's latest novel. It is a young adult novel set in a world where ordinary people have received great powers and been corrupted by them. A group of ordinary humans, however, has banded together to assassinate these near-invincible people. Sanderson takes us on a whirlwind ride in the former city of Chicago as this group faces off against one of the most powerful Epics known- Steelheart.

Read on for my full review.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, is a story of several families and friends in Australia. Everyone is gathering for a friendly BBQ when one of the characters slaps a young child that is not his own. All hell breaks loose as lines are drawn and friends turn to enemies.

I had read many negative reviews of the book prior to starting it, which made me very hesitant. It appears that you either love it or hate it. Below, I try to organize my thoughts as I try to make sense as to whether I liked it or not.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Astronomy: Observing at VLT

A few weeks past, I went up to Cerro Paranal to observe with the Very Large Telescope (VLT). I was there with my officemate, Jackie Faherty, who was the PI of the program. Given that this was our first experience with the instrument (FORS2), I tagged along to learn about it and to help in any way that I could.

This blog recounts our brief adventure there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Book Review: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

While chatting with the book club I attend, we were talking about books by Ursula K. Le Guin. It turns out that The Left Hand of Darkness is not available on the US Kindle store, which is surprising and disappointing. The Word for World is Forest was mentioned and this one is on the store. One of my friends claimed it sounded just like James Cameron's Avatar. I set off to prove her wrong...

Monday, September 2, 2013

The 2013 Hugo Award Winners

I woke up this morning to the news of the Hugo Awards. These are arguably some of the most prestigious awards a science fiction or fantasy book (or related work) can get. I had not paid close attention this year, but I'm pleasantly surprised to see several books/novellas I've read have won.

For Best Novel, John Scalzi's Redshirts took the prize. Scalzi always has this humorous style that's fun to read.
For Best Novella, Brandon Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul took the prize. This was a good novella that managed in a short time to convey a full world and epic story.

My congratulations to the authors and to the many others that won or were nominated this year. A full list of the nominees and winners can be found in Tor's website.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is a story about a young, stammer teenager in a sleepy village in England. The story recounts a year in his life (1982-1983). While bigger things are happening in the outside world (such as the Falkland War), the story is told from the point of view of the teenager and you can imagine how this colors it. He's more preoccupied with his friends, his school, and his cliques than with the bigger picture. That makes for an interesting read, as I describe below.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Astronomy: ALMA Observatory on Strike

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is the largest astronomical project in existence with collaborations from across the world. It consists of 66 radio antennas located at an altitude of 5000m in Chile's Atacama desert. These antennas can be moved to provide the resolution, or image sharpness, of a giant telescope.
In summary, ALMA is one of the most powerful observatories available to explore the universe. 
And it is now on strike.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Book Review: Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

Toll the Hounds is the 8th book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

In this book, we return to the city of Darujhistan, which we saw in Gardens of the Moon, and to Black Coral, which we saw at the end of Memories of Ice. Lots of characters we are familiar with are key to the story and mysteries that have haunted us since the beginning are starting to get answers.

Read on for my full review.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Astronomy: Protostars and Planets VI

Two weeks ago, I attended Protostars and Planets VI, an astronomy conference held in Heidelberg, Germany. It was a large meeting and also my first time in Germany. Hence, I decided to stay a few extra days and thus this post is somewhat delayed.

In this post, I give my personal impression and experience during the conference. I'll point you here if you want a summary of the talks, particularly the earlier ones during the meeting.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind (La Sombra del Viento) is a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and forms part of a series called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books (El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados), though this book is so well contained that I have no idea what the other books in the series are about. I read this as part of the book club I'm part of and so it is straight fiction. The novel was originally written in Spanish, but I read it in English since I read faster there plus it was significantly cheaper. I did wonder at some of the language, but I don't think too much was lost in translation.

The Shadow of the Wind revolves around the story of a young boy, Daniel, who receives a rare copy of a book with the same title. He is fascinated with the story and wants to learn more about the author- Julian Carax. However, he quickly realizes that someone has been systematically burning all of Carax works and this person has caught word that Daniel holds one of the last copies. Who is this mysterious person and why does he or she want to destroy these books? Just who was Carax that he should receive such attention? These questions drive Daniel as he searches for the truth in the streets of Barcelona.

Read on for my (spoiler-free) review.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Astronomy: Las Campanas, Round Two

Las Campanas Observatory

This past weekend, I took another short trip to Las Campanas Observatory for a brief observing run. Given that my experience this time was different, and that perhaps some readers may want to learn more about the life of an astronomer, I've written this short post on my recent time there.
At least one paragraph is very science-y, so feel free to skip that one if you're not an astronomer ;)

More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: The City & The City by China Mieville

The City & The City is a detective novel by China Mieville. I'm a fan of Mieville for his intricate language, the worlds he creates, and the unique place that Setting has in his stories. I had already read this book several years ago when it won the 2012 Hugo award for best novel (tied to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl). However, I recently recommended it to the book club I'm in and was happy to see it accepted as this month's pick. Interestingly enough, there is a set of discussion questions at the end of the book for any reading groups. I've only seen that in a few books, but it's a great way to encourage deeper discussions.

So what's the book about? It's a police procedural, anti-fantasy story where a dead body is found in one city, but the murder appears to have taken in another city. However, while these two cities are in exactly the same place, they are in completely separate countries and people from one cannot see, hear, or interact with those of the other. As the investigation proceeds, we learn both rumors and facts about that which lurks in the gaps between the city and the city.

Read on for my (spoiler-free) review.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Astronomy: New Potentially Habitable Planets

Artistic depiction of the view from Gliese 667Cd. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The recent news is that 2 more planets in the Habitable Zone of the star Gliese 667 (aka GJ667) have just been discovered. These are GJ667C f and e. I had previously written about GJ667Cc, another habitable world in the same system. It appears that this star system could host 3 planets that, if the conditions are right, could harbor liquid water on the surface of the planet.

These planets join a growing list of potentially habitable planets.
List of potentially habitable planets. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo

The figure above shows a dozen planets thought to be most likely to be habitable. Note that a few, like Gliese 581g, are unconfirmed.

The planets are ranked by the "Earth Similarity Index" or ESI, which I recently learned is an index that measures how similar a planet is to the Earth. It compares the radius, density, surface temperature, and escape velocity to that of Earth's and values close to 1 are very good (ie, Earth-like). I was surprised to see escape velocity among the parameters (since it depends on the mass and radius) given that the density, which also folds in the mass and radius, is already considered.
Note that despite the high temperature on the surface of Venus, the mass and radius are so similar to the Earth that the ESI is close to 0.8. However, Venus is not in the habitable zone as it's too close to the Sun.

This is an exciting time for planetary research in astronomy as more and more planets are being discovered and we are starting to probe planets whose conditions may be favorable for liquid water and ultimately, we hope, for life.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Astronomy: A Video of the Local Universe

Cosmic flow near the Local Group of galaxies. Credit: Courtois et al 2013Cosmic Flows conference.

You don't need to be an extragalactic astronomer to find the video below amazing.
This 17-minute video walks you through the distribution and velocities of galaxies within 300 million light-years of the Milky Way Galaxy. Distinct regions like the Virgo Cluster, the Local Void, and the Great Wall are easily seen and pointed out by the video. There's a lot of rotations going on, and the field of galaxies is complex, but the video does a good job of highlighting what's important at each step so that one is not completely overwhelmed. It's great to see where all these structures are and be reminded of how large the Universe is, as I tend to deal with stars that are a million times closer.

Check it out:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist is a young adult novel written by Brandon Sanderson. I feel it hasn't been advertised as much as some of his other books and novellas. Even now you hear more about Steelheart, his next novel, than about The Rithmatist. And that's a shame, given how fun The Rithmatist is.

This is a story set in an alternate Earth where certain people, Rithmatists, can use geometry-based magic. By drawing lines of chalk, they are able to produce physical effects that help them in the never-ending battle against wild chalklings. These wild chalklings are controlled by no man, yet flow forth from a mysterious tower. In the midst of all this, students at a prodigious school start disappearing, seemingly kidnapped by a rouge Rithmatist. Joel, a young boy without Rithmatic abilities, but all the desire in the world to be one, quickly gets involved in the investigative work to figure out who is behind these kidnappings.

Read on for my full review.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This is quite different from the sorts of books I read. It's not even remotely science fiction or fantasy. I've read it as part of a book club I'm joining here in Chile. It's a suspense novel about a marriage of a sociopath and a narcissist and it has gone horribly wrong. It may not be what I'm used to, but I actually enjoyed it!

Here's my review.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Review: Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

Reaper's Gale is the 7th in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

For long series like this one, it's sometimes difficult to split the thoughts into each individual book. However, now that I think about it I realize that the Malazan series tends to have a unique and separate focus for each book, which greatly helps to keep them apart:
In Book 1, we see the fall of Darujhistan as part of the Malazan conquest of Genabackis. In Book 2, we see the Seven Cities rise up in the Whirlwind Rebellion. In Book 3, the Malazan empire gives answer to the threat from the Pannion Domin in Genabackis. Book 4 introduces us to the very interesting Karsa Orlong and his role in the Whirlwind and the House of Chains. Book 5 places us among the Tiste Edur and we see the Emperor of a Thousand Deaths emerge. In Book 6, the Malazans confront the remnants of the Army of the Apocalypse in Seven Cities and set off to answer the growing threat of the Tiste Edur. And all throughout these books we see the influence of the Crippled God and the rise to power of his House of Chains.

My review of book 7, Reaper's Gale, now follows.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Smog in Santiago

Santiago, Chile: April 30, 2013

Santiago has some of the worst air pollution of any city I've been to. Last week, I took a few pictures from my office that very vividly illustrate the problem here. The first is above, for the next few and some discussion, keep reading.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Astronomy: More and More Planets

Artist depiction of Kepler 62f

In the latest astronomy-related news, a pair of planets in the habitable zone of a distant star has been found by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Tons of newspapers and websites are reporting on Kepler 62. We already have several promising planets in the habitable zones of other stars, but it's a good thing to excite the public's interest in such topics. In our current times of budget cuts, it's important to emphasize the role science and astronomy have in our lives and our culture.

In addition to the reports on the planetary system, the New York Times released an impressive visualization/infographic of many of the Kepler planets discovered to date. It's very much like the older Kepler orrery, but this one is interactive so you can see extra information on the system like the name, any artist conception, or any article associated with it. Go check it out!

The New York Times Kepler planet infographic

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

On my trip to the US several months ago, I picked up two books that were unavailable in ebook format at the time. The first was A Memory of Light, the final installment of The Wheel of Time. The second was Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Tigana is an epic fantasy tale told in a single book. It is the story of a peninsula, whose provinces have been taken over by two Tyrants. In the midsts of the war, one province was utterly devastated, its people killed, its cities burned, and its name taken by magic. Only the few survivors remember and can speak and hear the name of their province. The balance of power is shifting, however, and a band of travelers in the guise of merchants, poets, and musicians must gather what forces they can to overthrow both Tyrants and break the curse of their land. Otherwise none will live who can remember the name Tigana.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Astronomy: Observing at Las Campanas

Las Campanas Observatory

A few weeks ago, I went up to Las Campanas Observatory to observe with the du Pont 2.5-meter telescope. I had only a single night, but this blog post recounts my experience there.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

A good friend of mine visited me a few months ago and she brought along a book as a gift. The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer was that book. I have read some of Neal Stephenson's other works; in particular, Snow Crash and Anathem. I enjoyed those two books and have been meaning to read more from him. This was an excellent opportunity to read the book some consider a stepping stone into the steampunk genre, despite the fact that at a glance it doesn't look like a steampunk novel at all.

Click through to read the review. As always, I try to avoid spoilers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chile: 3 Years after the 27F Earthquake

Mayor earthquakes in Chile since February 27th 2010. (Credit: José Infestas & EMOL)

Three years ago, before I moved to Chile, there was a massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake in the central region. This occurred on the 27th of February 2010 and the event is commonly refer to in the news as 27/F (or variants like 27-F). A few days ago, there was an interesting report on earthquake statistics in Chile, which I would like to summarize (and translate, as it's in Spanish) for you.
Given my current travels this is a scheduled post and I didn't have time to double check all the facts in the report. I'm hoping they are mostly accurate, though that newspaper has had it's share of mistakes in the past. Nevertheless, the important trends still should hold. Now, on to my summary...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Astronomy: Observing at La Silla

La Silla Observatory

Astronomers, particularly those that deal with observations (like me), tend to go to remote places to observe the stars. These tend to be high up on mountain tops in isolated areas far from cities. This past week was the first time I visited La Silla Observatory. This post summarizes my experience from the last few days.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This is it. The 14th and final book of the Wheel of Time. I purchased this book a few days after it had been released while visiting the US. It's one of the two books I got in my visit (the other is Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay). We have all been waiting for the concluding volume of this epic series. This is Tarmon Gaidon, the Final Battle.

I try to avoid direct spoilers, but it's nearly impossible in the final book of a series like this.
The full review is below the jump.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fund Me Maybe

Short post today to point out Emily Rice's excellent work compiling a parody video of Call Me, Maybe.  This was a hackAAS project at the most recent American Astronomical Society meeting.
You have to see this; it's excellent. And as a bonus, I appear briefly near the end!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Back in the 1500s, Thomas More helped popularize the idea of utopia. This was the concept of a perfect society with no scarcity and ultimate peace. And it was frightening when we saw how much the utopians had to sacrifice in terms of personal liberties and choices. Paolo Bacigalupi in his works, The Windup GirlShip Breaker, and now, The Drowned Cities, shows us the opposite: a dystopia. He takes the present-day Earth and extrapolates what things might become: a bleak world of war, struggle, and scarcity.

We see in The Drowned Cities a familiar society focused in rooting out traitors and protecting the liberties for which it stands. This is home. And it is terrifying.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Astronomy: Nine Years On Mars

Nine years ago, on January 25, 2004 Universal Time (the 24th on Pacific Standard Time), the Opportunity rover landed on Mars.
To celebrate the occasion, has created this very cool infographic:

This is showing how much we (including our robots) have travelled on distant worlds, in particular Mars and the Moon. Now, we've sent landers to other worlds, such as Venus and Titan (largest moon of Saturn), but these others couldn't move around.

Opportunity, in the past nine years, has travelled over 22 miles. And the coolest thing: it's still working! Nine years in Mars and still going strong when it was made to last just over 90 days.
Curiosity, our newest Mars rover, is nuclear powered and expected to last 2 (Earth) years. Its power supply, however, could let it work for many more years if nothing goes wrong.
Let's hope Opportunity and Curiosity last for many more years and keep doing great science on Mars!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Astronomy: The 221th American Astronomical Meeting

My trip to the 221th American Astronomical (AAS) Meeting was long, but quite productive. Now that I've returned to Chile I'm ready to talk about what went on there. There is always far too much going on at AAS for me to keep track off, though, so this is more of a snapshot of my experiences at the AAS conference.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

Written while waiting for my flight and gathering my thoughts for the upcoming AAS-related post. Here are my thoughts on a book I finished several weeks ago: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett.

This is the second book in the Discworld series and picks up immediately after The Color of Magic, hence I would recommend reading the two together. I should have had this post up earlier and in the time since I've forgotten some details, but I hope it is still useful for those interested in the Discworld series of books. Given it's such a tight sequel with the prior book, this review is shorter than usual.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Blogging for A Year

Last year, on January 2nd, I started this blog, something I've been meaning to do for quite a while.
I've since written 95 articles primarily about either astronomy or books. The divided nature of the blog has troubled me, but I'm not yet ready to split it into solely one or the other category. We'll see how things evolve in 2013.

Word cloud (wordle) of some of the most frequently used words this past year. Some html formatting may have slipped through.

In this post, I go over some of the basic statistics of my blog (as of Jan 2, 2013) and mention some of the more popular articles.