Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Taltos by Steven Brust

 This installment of Vlad's story takes us back in time a bit, to the point in his personal story when he first makes the acquaintance of Morrolan, Sethra Lavode, and Aliera; though she's a rather special case, and the point of the main plot line in this story. In fact, this story unfolds like a trifold wallet; there's the main plot line, in which Vlad is entangled in the affairs of Morrolan and the House of the Dragon, first stealing a staff which contains Aliera's soul from an Athyra wizard who refuses to part with it, and then journeying the Paths of the Dead in order to plead with the Lords of Judgement for Aliera's return, to become the Dragon heir to the throne, there's a secondary plot line in which Vlad is slowly creating an incredibly complex and potent ritual of witchcraft to bring an object of his desiring to the lands of the dead, and a third series of vignettes which show us how Vlad went from being the son of an Easterner with a purchased title in the Jhereg to an assassin, boss within the Jhereg, and somehow the friend of some very powerful people.

One mystery that remains, touched upon in the vignettes, is why, exactly, Kiera the Thief befriends Vlad in the first place. I suspect that she's somehow more deeply involved with Sethra and her plots than is readily apparent, and may be more spy than thief, after all. I'll have to keep an eye on this in newer installments. If I had to place this chronologically in the series, it would immediately preced Jhereg. More good snarky fun with Vlad and his friends.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Aftershock by David Wiedemer

I can't add a whole lot to the very thorough review of this book I posted earlier by my friend, John. This is a follow-up book to Wiedemer's earlier work, America's Bubble Economy, and a clever bit of pre-buzz for his coming "sequels", which he promotes heavily at the end of the book. For the most part, I felt like this book was mostly intended to promote the author's web site, newsletter and other products. Wiedemer may have been either very astute when he predicted the collapse of the real estate bubble, stock market, and consumer spending in 2006, or merely lucky...I'm leaning towards lucky.

The other two "bubbles" he describes are the U.S. Dollar and Government Debt. I don't know what seems so revolutionary about this thinking - those of us who have consistently tried to vote in fiscal conservatives over the years have been harping on these themes since...well, forever. We haven't actually had a president in office in decades who was seriously interested in cutting spending across the board - deeply. They've all had to either play the compromise game and allow more spending than they wanted in order to get their own programs supported, or have been irresponsible spenders to begin with. Despite the political football games being played with the debt ceiling recently, it's obvious to anyone with any sense whatsoever that you cannot go on borrowing money indefinitely - something's gotta give. And when you borrow and spend money the way our country has over the last fifty years, at some point, the "full faith" upon which our currency's value is based becomes ridiculous, and the dollar's utility as a reserve currency will come to an end.

So, one point where it started to go off the tracks for me was when Wiedemer talked about the collapse of the dollar, and said it would be followed soon by the collapse of the Euro. The Euro may be collapsing right now, so I begin to wonder how prescient he really is, if he misses the fundamental instability of the EU currency and the complete fiscal irresponsibility of a number of its member states. What is discouraging, however, is that few in our country can extrapolate from the situation in Greece, Italy, or France, and see that the social welfare state we are creating here, mimicking theirs, is unsustainable over the long haul.

Wiedemer also talks about the coming global currency, which he calls the IMU - International Monetary Unit. While I don't think the idea itself is all that far-fetched, and could indeed be rolled into place, it's not going to come about as the result of the great wisdom of our statesmen and economists, as he seems to believe, but because of the submission of many countries around the world to the idea of a one world government, controlled by something resembling the U.N. Some of our leaders already are trying to give up U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. and World Court, and may eventually succeed, as the idea of American exceptionalism is destroyed through our educational system.

Wiedemer's prescriptions to protect ourselves are pretty limited - and parrot the usual recommendations of the perennial doom and gloom crowd. Gold, precious metals, investment grade gemstones - all seem to do quite well in hyperinflationary times, but they are not usually very liquid - somewhat impractical to use to generate income in retirement, and you pay sales commissions coming and going, which really eats into returns. Stay away from real estate, he says. So, if the real estate market is going lower, that shouldn't affect rental income streams from investment properties in a major way, should it? This type of investment, too, is a good one for retirees - generating a generally steady and inflation protected income. He also says to get out of both the domestic and foreign stock market. If your 401K plan is like 99% of those offered by employers in this country, your automatic retirement savings are going to either the stock market, money market, bond market...some sort of mutual fund. You can't buy gold and jewels there, and one of the investments he does recommend, once we get to high inflation, short term bonds, isn't usually a choice in most of those plans, either.

About the only thing I can recommend is for anyone who's trying to invest for their future to stay diversified - pick an assett mix and rebalance when a particular area gets too far out of line - pop your personal bubbles before they burst in a painful manner. I'm not sure that Wiedemer's book, or his advice, should be taken with anything but a grain of salt.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - May 25 to May 31

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

Today's question: Blogging Question: How do you handle the writing of a negative review?

My answer: I generally try to be somewhat gentle. There's no need to go on the attack. There are two types of writers (in general), new authors and established authors. In the case of a new author, I'll point out some issues with the story, characters, world-building, and tell people whether or not I finished the book. What usually happens when I read a "bad" book by a new author is that I don't finish reading it, as it just isn't good enough for me to waste my time further. With established authors, I'll usually just make a few points and say it's not up to their usual standards.

Above Reproach by J. D. Kinman

A blogger whom I follow, Ordinary American, has published his first novel, Above Reproach. The story is too darned close to possible for comfort, much like Clancy's story about an airliner being used as a bomb to destroy the Capitol building while a joint session of Congress was convened presaged the "unimaginable" horror of 9/11. The underlying premise is that a far-sighted terrorist mastermind began placing sleeper agents in the United States decades ago, and many of them are in positions of importance and influence, unsuspected.

The mastermind begins to activate his sleepers, their missions predetermined, and the first attacks are incredibly successful, from the terrorists' point of view. Seemingly innocuous men and women (actually men in disguise), in a restaurant and a shopping mall, suddenly open fire with automatic weapons on shoppers and diners. The result is a horrendous massacre, and the attackers get away cleanly. The main stream media and many politicians react predictably, condemning the gun culture and outdated Second Amendment rights that allowed such a tragedy to occur.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Dillon Cole is a former federal marshal who now lives near Dallas, raising horses, flying airplanes, making saddles, and keeping his skills sharp on the rifle and pistol range, with the help of his friend, Ramon "Ram" Alvarez. Ram is a former gun for hire from Mexico who turned his life around and became a firearms and tactics instructor for the Mexican federales. When we first meet Dillon, he is working out on a tactical pistol course with Ram, and demonstrates that he's still as good as he was when he was working as a marshal, and can shoot equally well with his left and right hand.

This scene demonstrates one of the solid aspects of Kinman's writing, as it sets up in advance the believability of a later scene, which takes place when Cole and his wife, Vicki, are attending a speech by a conservative journalist friend on a college campus in Tulsa. Four "students" armed with automatic weapons try to turn the auditorium into a slaughterhouse, but Dillon manages to kill two of them with his concealed pistol before sustaining a wound in his right arm, and having to switch hands. He takes down the third with a southpaw shot, before passing out from blood loss.

Lest you think Kinman can only write good action sequences, I have to tell you that the author had me leaking tears for a good fifty pages, early in the novel, relating the story of how Dillon and Vicki worked with Angel Flight. For some months they have been helping a young lady, Shelly, stricken with leukemia to travel from Tulsa, where she lives with her father, Owen, to Fort Worth, where she receives chemotherapy. Angel Flight is a real group of pilots and airplane owners who provide free transportation for medical treatment to those who could not otherwise afford it. The story of how the Coles go above and beyond the call of duty to provide for Shelly and Owen, a widowed, disabled, Gulf War veteran, is guaranteed to ring all your emotional bells.

This is a darned good read, and a chilling look at some possible problems with the way we as a nation are dealing with potential terrorist attacks. Dillon Cole gets to deliver a great speech at a Congressional hearing near the end of the book about our Second Amendment rights and the proper role of our elected representatives that's well worth the price of admission. There are some loose ends here and there in the book referring to previous events in some of the characters' lives that makes me wonder if Kinman wrote an earlier novel that I missed, or whether a prequel/sequel or two are in the works.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Around the Web

Here's a book review on Lagniappe's Lair.

Teckla by Steven Brust

I'm never quite certain whether Brust, at the time he was writing Teckla, was going through struggles in his own relationship with his significant other, or not, but he certainly captures the emotions well in Teckla. Vlad finds out that Cawti has been concealing something from him; that she's been spending time in the Eastern quarter of Adrilankha, working with a group of revolutionaries trying to raise the consciousness of the masses, more or less. The tribe of Teckla has always been the lowest of the low, and their labor is mostly responsible for feeding the Empire, but they are treated with contempt, poorly educated, get the picture.

Vlad is, of course, understandably upset that she has been doing this for months without telling him about it, and equally upset that she's gotten involved with a cause which he understands not in the slightest. It seems that Cawti has caught the reformation bug, and decided that her former profession of assassin was immoral, so she is trying to do good works instead. The implied criticism of Vlad's line of work does not go unnoticed, but their marital troubles aren't something that can readily be solved by the application of a dagger in the right location, so Vlad flails about for most of the novel, trying to figure out how to protect Cawti from the retribution that will most certainly follow, from either the Jhereg, whose businesses are being disrupted by the rabble rousers, or the Empress, whose city could grind to a halt if the Teckla do not bring their goods to market.

A difficult read, emotionally, for anyone who has experienced a love gone awry, and perhaps a key turning point in the series for Vlad.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Stranger by Max Frei

I saw a new book at the library, which was the second in a series by Max Frei, so I hunted down the first book, The Stranger, and thought I'd add another good author to my list of those I follow. Unfortunately, I couldn't get more than about twenty pages into it before giving up.

It could have been that something was lost in translation, but I found it difficult to engage with the characters or what little amount of plot was in evidence. It was all just a little too vague and frivolous and dreamy for me.

Ah, well.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - May 18 to May 24

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

Today's question: How many books do you own? This can include books in your to-be-read (TBR) pile(s) and books you have already read that are on your keeper shelf.

My answer: Ummm...that's difficult to say for sure at this point. Ten to twelve thousand, perhaps? They just keep multiplying up there in the library. If you feel like counting them, you can always open up the Card Catalog pages on the right side of the blog. Those don't include all the pulp mags and non Science Fiction and Fantasy stuff packed in boxes in the crawlspaces, though. Definitive answer - a boatload.

Empire's End by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

At long last, we come to the end of the Sten series by Cole and Bunch, who moved on to other things for a while before finally splitting to write on their own - a pity, as they were a marvelous team. The Eternal Emperor has gone megalomaniacally mad at last, and Sten and his allies determine that they must fight a battle against overwhelming odds to unseat him from the throne. In a move reminiscent of the Caesars, the emperor has clandestinely supported the Cult of the Emperor, which claims he is a representative of the Holy Spheres, and has used his patsies in the Parliament to declare him God. He is ruthlessly suppressing dissent, and plans to send planetbuster bombs to destroy the home worlds of all who oppose him.

A direct confrontation is hopeless, so Sten and his allies - the Bhor, the Rom, the Zaginaws, and other disaffected cultures - begin a propaganda and guerilla campaign to harass and discredit the emperor. They also concentrate on finding out two key items - how does the emperor always return to life several years after being assassinated or dying of other causes, and where does the AM2 which powers the Empire come from?

The answer to these questions will determine whether they can remove the emperor permanently from the equation, and whether civilization itself can survive his absence. There is an extended middle section that answers these questions for the reader, simultaneously arriving at the same place as our heroes, by telling the story of how the Emperor, nee Kea Richards, got his start.

The only downside to this story is that it ends, and we never find out how Sten and his friends fared after Empire's end.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to Retire Overseas by Kathleen Peddicord

Kathleen Peddicord has lived and worked overseas for over two decades, beginning in Ireland, then on to Paris, France, and most recently in Panama. Although there is a lot of good information about living as a retiree or pensioner abroad, the title is a little misnamed, as almost all of its content would apply to anyone wishing to live abroad for extended periods of time.

Most countries, as you'll learn in this book, limit your stay on a tourist visa to six months maximum, so if you want to live in a particular country longer than that, you'll have to apply for legal resident status, which Peddicord discusses extensively. She also covers thoroughly how to find a place to live, and the pros and cons of renting vs buying vs building or remodeling overseas.

I think the most important takeaway from all of this is that we, as Americans, have to realize that almost everything we take for granted here can very well be different overseas. This includes things like buying real estate, setting up a bank account - simple here in the U.S., but akin to attaining a security clearance most other places in the world - getting utilities, phone and Internet connections hooked up, and just getting around the area in your new home.

She talks about the "manana" factor a bit towards the end of the book. Here in the U.S., we tend to expect - and get - businesses and people to do what they say they will do, on time, and in accordance with the prepared cost estimate. Most other cultures around the world, for various reasons, are a bit more relaxed about things, and very few projects actually go according to plan or schedule.

There is an extensive middle section of the book where she describes in great detail some of her top picks for overseas livings, based on factors such as affordability, culture, climate, quality of health care, education for dependents, accessibility from the U.S., and special benefits available for expat retirees. If you already have a vague idea of somewhere you want to visit extensively, grab a  locale in the same area from this book, and pick Mrs. Peddicord's brain.

I think one of the best things in this book is a section on the decision making process that leads to moving overseas in the first place - some questions to ask yourself ...and your spouse. They'll determine, first, the particular locations that would make you happy, and second, whether you should move overseas at all.

A sample from this list:

  • Do you enjoy a change of seasons?
  • Do you need regular sunshine?
  • Do you mind rain?
  • Can you handle heat? Humidity?
  • Do you lose your cool if you can't send an e-mail the first time, every time you try?
  • Would you mind living on a dirt road?
  • Would you mind your road access being temporarily cut off during the rainy season?
  • Do you need American television?
  • Would you be comfortable owning a car and driving yourself around in a new country?
  • Would you be unhappy without your favorite comfort foods?
  • Do you have children or grandchildren you want to see regularly?
  • Do you speak a second language? Are you terrified at the idea of learning one?
  • What's your favorite thing to do on a Friday night?
  • What would you like to see from your bedroom window? The ocean? A mountainside covered with wildflowers? A vineyard? A busy street scene?
  • Have you spent much time outside the United States?
  • From where will you derive your income in retirement?
This is a great book, really makes you think about things, and gets down to brass tacks about a subject that seems, for most of us, castles in the sky.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Around the Web

Got a good laugh out of this post on View From the Porch.

"Re-reading the omnibus edition of the first three books of The Dragonriders of Pern (and you really needn't bother with the rest.) They're still fun, but the idea of having a giant telepathically-linked dragon that would be your friend forever and could fly you around and set stuff that annoyed you on fire was a lot more attractive when I was in middle school and grappling with teen angst. Not that I'd turn one down now, but as an adult, all you can think of are the damned vet bills, which must be ginormous. And it probably horks up hairballs the size of VW Beetles."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vortex by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Our hero, Sten, has become the Emperor's prized ambassador, being sent from one trouble spot to another, as he tries to hold things together after the devastation of the war with the Tahn's and the privy council's incompetence have begun the slow descent into division and barbarism. Sten's new assignment is the Altaic Cluster, with the capital world of Rurik.

In creating the Altaics, Cole and Bunch draw from fairly contemporary history of Asia and the Middle East. The parallels to India's multicultural and often warring factions are mentioned, but one can also see glimpses of Iran and Iraq in the latter half of the twentieth century, as in the Khaqan's (ruler of the cluster) incessant and obsessive building of monuments to himself "from a grateful people", to the Emperor's choice of successor to the Khaqan, Dr. Iskra, a scholar in exile - think of Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Khomenei. Oh, don't forget the violent supression of student riots, as in Tianamen Square.

Wherever they got all their sources of information, the cluster has traditionally been ruled with an iron fist to keep the four major races and factions from acting up too much, and when the Khaqan passes away suddenly, most beings hope that a new era is at hand, without the oppression, for a change. Alas, it is not to be. Dr. Iskra turns out to be an even more ruthless tyrant than his predecessor, and Sten must try to put a good face on things for public consumption back in the Empire, while simultaneously letting his boss know the truth of matters on Rurik.

A great quote from one of the rioting students, that almost perfectly sums up the attitude of progressive scholars,

"Most beings - meaning the, well, uneducated classes - want to be told what to do", He leaned forward, impassioned, "They feel...uncomfortable with weighty decisions. They want structure in their lives. It makes them...."

"Comfortable?" Sten helped.

"How astute of you, Sr Ambassador. That's the word exactly. Comfortable. And happy, as well."

"Educated ones know best." Nirsky said.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the returned Emperor is slipping rapidly into megalomaniacal paranoia. The controls placed on his incarnations by the ship beyond the veil of the alternate universe are slipping, and he and his ally, Poyndex, take further steps to keep that control from returning. Sten and Alex and Mahoney are left trying to mitigate the damage and chaos from the Altaics.

This one has some biting political commentary, leavening the usual spying, treachery and adventure.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - May 11 to May 17

Time again for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop
Today's question: Who is your favorite book character? I’ll give you a maximum of two choices, but they have to be from different genres!

My answer:
It's very very difficult to narrow it down to one or two. This is the type of question that could spawn a whole series of posts on different characters, but I'll give it my best shot.

From the Fantasy genre, I'd have to say Bilbo Baggins. You have to bear in mind that I read The Hobbit as a young child, shortly after the books were first published in the U.S., so I'm not a Johnny-Come-Lately to the LOTR craze spawned by Peter Jackson's movies. Bilbo is one of my favorite folks mostly because he constantly learns, changes, and grows throughout his adventure. From a parochial and isolated background, he constantly does his best to do his duty, and ends up a completely different person than he ever thought he could be, achieving one of the highest honors of Middle Earth - Elf Friend.

From Science Fiction, once again I love a character who barrels on through barriers, against the odds, Miles Vorkosigan of Bujold's stories. His character truly deepens as time goes by, and his childhood loyalties mature into deep, adult convictions and strong relationships. Bujold says, in once of the stories, that the most important thing to examine about a man is the quality of his friends, and Miles' selections in this area are impeccable. He surrounds himself with competent, trustworthy, and loyal companions, and urges them always to become someone greater than they ever imagined.

Host by Faith Hunter

Third, and apparently final, book in the Rogue Mage series, this book seemed confusing to me. The dark powers under the Trine mountain have not been completely vanquished, and in some ways have grown even stronger. An emissary from the New Orleans mage enclave arrives, ostensibly to teach Thorn the things she must know to function in the diplomatic side of magery, but he turns out to be an assassin, working for her political rival within New Orleans.

The succubus Queen attacks early in the book, causing more murder and mayhem. The townspeople, aside from a few fundamentalist holdouts, have finally decided to trust Thorn, and ask her to put their old folks and children under the protection of the wards on her buildings, so the noncombatants are gotten out of the way for the coming big battle. They all believe they may only have days before the leader of the dark forces, known as the Dragon, brings all of his forces to bear on their town. He needs the blood of the Stanhope family to work the magic which will free him from his chains, as one of their ancestors, known as the Mole Man, used his blood to work the binding in the first place.

Thorn gathers all of her friends and allies around her, and they present a more or less united front when all hell breaks loose a couple of nights later. There are a couple of weird scenes when Thorn has an out of body experience and spends some time in the river of time, a higher plane where the seraphs, dark and light, do battle. She also gathers a hoard of objects of power that get used up, one by one and in occasional bunches, while battling succeedingly more powerful dark forces. In the end, she and her lost sister, Rose, must unite their minds as prophesied to conquer the Dragon.

The end felt rushed, and I think Hunter was already mentally and emotionally moving on to her Jane Yellowrock series, and just wanted to wrap up all the loose ends quickly. Thorn's development from a character with little power to one with major power happened far too quickly. If you're following this series, you've got to read the finish, but expect to be underwhelmed.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Around the Web

An interesting business book review for entrepeneurs at Get Rich Slowly.

The Return of the Emperor by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

The Emperor is dead, killed by an assassin's bullet, and all evidence destroyed by a small nuclear blast immediately following his death. The privy council has taken over all administrative duties for the Empire, but they are somewhat hamstrung by the cessation of all AM2 supplies - the mysterious substance that the Emperor once controlled is necessary to provide power for all space travel, manufacturing, and other industries. The Empire has fallen into a universal depression, and may descend into a Long Night of isolation and barbarism, if something is not done soon.

Ian Mahoney has faked his own death and gone into hiding, as the privy council's minions have been quietly gathering up and interrogating anyone who was close to the Emperor, hoping to learn the secret to turning the AM2 flow back on. When the council's goons go after Alex, on his home world of Edinburgh, and Sten, on the tiny planet of Smallbridge, Ian contacts them, and they flee to rendezvous at a safe, secret location to confer. Ian has been doing some secret research and been convinced of two things: the privy council is responsible for the death of the Emperor, and the Eternal Emperor has been killed more than once before, and returned within two years to take over his empire once again. This time, though, it's been six years, and the Emperor has not appeared.

Sten and Alex recruit some old friends from Mantis and the military establishment who are also convinced of the privy council's guilt, and they launch a disastrous attempt to capture or kill all of the council members at a gathering on Earth. When this fails, the duo flee to the Wolf Worlds and take refuge with their old friends, the Bohr.
Eventually, they decide the route to justice must take a more official-looking path, and organize a Tribunal to investigate, evaluate and issue an indictment against the council. Sten and Alex get the dirty job of stealthily gathering the evidence.

In the counterpoint tale, a human is awakened from cryogenic slumber on a ship located in another universe, and hypnotically educated/indoctrinated, then sent on his way to first a planet containing a mansion with a comprehensive library where he learns all about the events of the past six years, then to a spaceport where he displays an innate talent for cooking in a greasy spoon diner, and finally to the planet Dusable in the Cairennes system. On Dusable, he shows an amazing talent for political dirty fighting, and helps to get a new chief executive elected there. The account of the hands-on electioneering tactics is fantastic fun!

More great action, intrigue and a few minor mysteries cleared up in this installment.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Around the Web

An interesting book review on Lagniappe's Lair.

Thieves Deceivers and Killers by William Agosta

At the end of Micro, by Crichton, there was an extensive bibliography, from which I made quite a few notes for future reading - this is the first of those books. Agosta does a fine job of explaining in layman's terms (for the most part) some of the incredible complexity of chemical and other interactions between diverse species in the plant and animal kingdoms. While he is careful to attribute all of this wild and crazy stuff to the forces of evolution (no science writer dares to cross the Darwinists, after all), people who regard these things as evidence of God's infinite creativity will enjoy this book, too. I had yellow sticky notes plastered throughout the book, highlighting interesting points, by the time I was through.

The world of chemical interactions among plants, animals and other organisms is far more complex that I ever imagined, and I'm certain that in the decade since this book was published, scientists have discovered even more amazing and wonderful things. I'd always known that ants used chemical scents to mark their trails to food, and to communicate on a very basic level, but I hadn't realized that there are between ten and twenty different antenna-detected chemical signals that keep a colony running smoothly, from trail marking, to reporting the existence of another colony's scouts, and even a special "recruiting" chemical to gather the war party to drive off the invaders.

Even the same chemical compound can be used by different species for different functions. Carbon dioxide is used by ants as an aggregation signal - encouraging them to join their nestmates, used by corn rootworms as a signal leading them towards their food - corn roots, and used by mosquitoes and a few other pests to track their prey.

Agosta tells the story of ant gardens in the forests of southeastern Peru, where arboreal ants gather the seeds of particular plants - only the types that will flourish in their nests - and take them into their nests, which are cemented together by their own glandular secretions. Some of these plants bear moist, pulpy fruits and nectar to feed the ants, in return for their hospitality, and exude anti-fungal compounds to keep fungus from growing in the ant nests. The ants care for the plants, protecting them from herbivores, fertilizing them with vertebrate feces, and covering up their questing roots with new nest material. As scientists began to investigate the selection of particular seeds, they found that a particular chemical was present in all of the seeds selected, and not present in those which are not used in the ants' nest gardens. Non-gardening ants in the same forest find these particular seeds repugnant, and will not gather them for food.

Neat factoid - a single pound of honey represents the nectar from about seventeen thousand foraging trips and entails over seven thousand bee-hours of labor. Appreciate that next dollop in your tea!

In the pollination of fringed orchids of the genus Platanthera, there are only two species of hawk moths that are able to do the job. The orchids store their nectar deep inside a 6 cm tube at one end of the flower, the longest of any North American orchid. Only hawk moths have a proboscis (nose) long enough to reach down to the bottom of the flower to get at the nectar, and the necessary requirements to pollinate the flower, as well. When the moth is in the proper position to gather the nectar, its head touches against two pollen-bearing organs, one on each side, and the pollen is cleanly transferred to the moth's eyes, which are set at precisely the correct width to transfer the pollen. At the next orchid, the pollen is transferred to two receptive structures (if it's a female flower), again spaced just right for the moth's pollen-coated eyes.

There used to be a show on PBS or the History Channel called Connections, I think. They would trace the development of some modern event or invention back to something you would never believe was related. Agosta does the same thing with mosquitoes and the Louisiana Purchase. It seems that in 1802, a yellow fever epidemic caused by mosquitoes caused the French forces occupying Haiti to finally give up. Napoleon ordered a withdrawal, and decided not to seek an American empire any longer, which left France receptive to the young U.S.'s $15 million dollar offer for the territory in 1803. My hometown of Lewiston would certainly not exist if it were not for those mosquitoes.

There is a certain type of insect, the firebrush mite, that lives only on firebrush pollen and  nectar in the wild. If a mite ends up on the wrong type of flower, it will have no opportunity to mate with others of its kind. The mites travel from flower to flower in the nasal cavities of hummingbirds. When a hummingbird approaches a particular flower, it will only hover there for a short time, and the mite has to decide whether to rush (at a speed equivalent to that of a cheetah) out of the bird's nose and onto the flower. The mites are blind, so they must use the scent of the flower as it is inhaled by the hummingbird, and make the right decision in a split second. The mites jump to the wrong flowers only 1 time in 200!

"Tiny parasitic wasps...lay their eggs in the larvae of Caribbean fruit flies, which they find by following the strong smell of rotting fruit where the larvae mature. Three simple chemical compounds from the fruit are particularly enticing to the wasps. These chemical markers, themselves products of microbial fermentation, are formed as bacteria and fungi feed on the fruit and decompose it. In this case, then the feeding of one group of organisms (microbes) on another (fruit) yields a chemical signal that leads a third group (wasps) to the location of a fourth (fly larvae). Only with this elaborate assistance are the wasps able to reproduce."

Agosta spends some time in the oceans, too. There is a particular type of dragon fish which lives in the lightless depths that uses blue light to hunt. As all other deep water species can see only red light, and are blind to blue, this is a huge advantage. The blue pigment in its eyes, however, is chlorophyll-based. Chlorophyll is produced by plants, not animals. How did the fish get the chlorophyll?

It turns out that there are species of green  sulphur bacteria living in the ocean vents, which are eaten by plankton, which are eaten by tiny crustaceans, which are eaten by larger crustaceans, which are eaten, finally, by the dragon fish. The chlorophyll is sequestered (unused) by all of the organisms in the food chain, until the dragon fish metabolizes it and uses it to produce the blue pigments which give it its hunting advantage. Crazy, huh?

Another thing I found interesting was the magnetic microbes. There are certain bacteria which live in muddy ponds in North America that accumulate magnetite (a magnetic ore) and align the crystals in spikes about 120 nanometers long, just the right length to create a needle-like magnet. The magnet helps them to determine which direction is north and which is up and is down. They always swim to the north and downward so they can remain at the bottom of their murky pools. Similar bacteria living in the southern hemisphere always swim to the South; their compasses are aligned the opposite direction!

Tons of great, crazy discoveries to enjoy in this book. I highly recommend it!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Blogger Hop - May 5 to May 11

I'm pleased once more to be able to participate in the Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books.
Book Blogger Hop

This week's question: What are the next five books in your TBR (to-be-read) pile? And, don’t worry, you can change your mind and read something different – we won’t check!

My answer:
How to Retire Overseas by Kathleen Peddicord - I've been thinking about this more and more as I get closer to that magic age.

Teckla by Steven Brust - I've been re-reading this series for the last few weeks.

Host (A Rogue Mage novel) by Faith Hunter - I love her Jane Yellowrock series, too.

Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown by David Wiedemer - A friend of mine wrote a guest review of this book a month or so ago, and I just now got my reserve copy from the library.

The Stranger by Max Frei - A totally new (to me) author.

Revenge of the Damned by Alan Cole and Chris Bunch

After suffering the destruction of his command while protecting the evacuation of civilians from Cavite after the defeat of Imperial forces there, Sten is taken prisoner by the Tahn. Luckily, his sidekick, Alex Kilgour, ends up in the same prison camp. With their Mantis skills, they have no problem escaping from each prison they are sent to, until they are sent to the repository for hardcase prisoners, located in the ruins of Koldyze Cathedral on the capital world of the Tahn, Heath.

Lt. Colonel Virunga, the ranking officer among the Imperial prisoners, appoints Sten as Big X, the person in charge of all escape attempts, which eliminates him from being allowed to participate, unless all the other prisoners are gone. So Sten and Alex work their usual mischief, setting up multiple plots, and generally being a pain in the rear to the Tahn guards, sabotaging the war effort however they can, and trying to avoid being caught.

In the meantime, back at Castle Arundel, the Emperor is just getting things warmed up for the Tahn. There's a serious parallel here to WWII's battle in the Pacific, after Japanese forces made the mistake of waking up a sleeping giant. The Empire is slow to build up their forces, mostly because of the scale of their industries' inertia, but once things get moving, they can produce more warships and supplies, and recruit more troops, than ever the Tahn can match. Ian Mahoney, still recovering from grievous wounds he received in the fall of Cavite, is put in charge of the forces that will take back the Empire's worlds.

There's a side plot going on here about the ongoing plot against the Emperor by members of his privy council. Now that they've been given great wealth and status for their help with the war effort, they're afraid that the policies he wants to pursue when the war is over will reduce their influence. A few interesting lessons on war economics and the military-industrial complex tucked away in this, without being at all preachy.

We get to see, once more, a couple of the ongoing shticks in this series. The Emperor likes to cook, especially long-lost recipes from pre-space Earth, and in this episode he creates a dish called "nuked hen". The analogy to what the Emperor plans to do to the Tahn is pretty good. Also, we get to finally hear Alex's shaggy dog story of the spotted snakes - pretty bad.

A fun book, with just a hint of Hogan's Heroes and The Great Escape, for seasoning.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fleet of the Damned by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

After thwarting the plot against the Emperor in Court of a Thousand Suns, Sten has been reassigned and transferred to the Navy to attend flight school. Unfortunately, he and his troops were unable to reach the diplomatic rendezvous point in time to stop the slaughter of the Tahn delegation, so the Tahn have gone to a full war footing, and may attack the Empire at any time. Cole and Bunch merely hit the highlights of flight school and its filtering rituals, and then Sten gets sent to the Caltor worlds to assume command of a squadron of tacships based on the Imperial world of Cavite.

The authors also borrow liberally from the culture and tactics of the Imperial Japanese military in this novel. The Tahn launch a sneak attack on all of the imperial forces, with a strong focus on the forward areas such as Cavite, and in a scene very similar to Pearl Harbor, nearly the entire space force is wiped out while still on the ground, leaving Sten's command and just a few other ships. The Emperor sends the First Imperial Division to reinforce Cavite, under the command of Major General Ian Mahoney, Sten and Alex's old Mantis commander.

Sten's rather unconventional military background doesn't make him well liked by the Admiral in charge of the fleet, and he's forced to staff his ships from the rejects and dregs of the fleet, including the troublemakers in the brig, local criminal deserters, and some gung ho police offices from the city. His and Alex's adventures in training such a ragtag force make excellent reading, and his crew soon distinguish themselves after the Tahn attack as one of the few effective units in the war effort.

Lots of epic battles, plenty of wry humor, and the ever fresh antics of Sten and Alex make this a good read and set up the next several books in the series well.