Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell always seems to bring a fresh perspective to society's behavior. In this book, he talks about the causes that lie behind fads, crazes or waves that behave almost like an epidemic in our society, whether it's the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes, teen suicides, or falling crime rates.

He identifies three agents of change that most of these things have in common: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few says that "in a given process or system some people matter more than others." We can see this in the 80/20 rule known to economists, but "when it comes to epidemics, though; this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of the people do the majority of the work."

"The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."

"The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem."

Gladwell talks about a personality type he calls a Connector. These people just seem to know everybody, across all different groups of professions, ethnicities, and geographic areas. One example of Connectors he mentions strikes a chord with me, as I just got done traveling to Philadelphia, and one of the tour guides said much the same thing. Paul Revere was a classic Connector. He knew hundreds of people all around the countryside, and he was well liked and respected by everyone. When he made his "midnight ride" to warn of the British coming, people listened and responded. William Dawes rode in another direction. Dawes was not a Connector, and he didn't know many people well enough to knock on their doors and disturb them. In the end, very few responded to his message.

I think we all know some Connectors. They're the folks who listen to your complaints and then say, "I know a guy..." (Jersey accent optional)

There are some people, whom Gladwell calls Mavens. Mavens are extraordinary experts in one or more areas, and just love to share their knowledge with others. They're the folks, for example, who read all of the computer magazines and keep up on what Apple and Microsoft are developing, then they try it out and write reviews, share their information online, or babble to their friends about the latest, greatest widget. If you're really lucky, you'll have a financial planner, CPA or stockbroker who's a Maven in his field.

And then there are the Salesmen (or women). "Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue, they spread it...Salesmen...with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing."

One of the key illustrations Gladwell uses in talking about Stickiness is the development of the children's tv show, Sesame Street. Most of what "everyone knew" about how children learn by watching tv turned out to be wrong, and the producers of Sesame Street (and Blue's Clues, which came along later) spent a great deal of time studying children while they watched the show, and adapting the show to be better all the time. It's super successful today, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from its licensing agreements (so don't let anyone tell you defunding Big Bird is going to be a huge tragedy, ok?).

"Kids don't watch tv when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused."

I wonder if this phenomenon might be observed in adult populations at times, as well.

When the show first aired, the animation and muppet segments were kept completely separate from the live action sequences. Children rapidly lost interest in the live shots - adults talking probably sounded to them about like the teachers in the Charlie Brown special. When the muppets were brought into the street scenes, the kids suddenly started paying attention to the dialogue. Developmental psychologists told the producers that children were too easily confused by blending fantasy and reality, but in order to make their message more "sticky" Sesame Street broke the rules, and gained enormous popularity, teaching children around the world. I think it might have made Jim Henson a famous man, as well.

A real world example of the power of Context is drawn from a crime epidemic in New York City in the 1980s. Oddly enough, it wasn't tightening up sentencing guidelines and sending more murderers and rapists to prison that brought about a sudden reduction in those crimes. It was adopting a zero tolerance policy for a whole slew of lesser crimes that turned things around. When the city declared war on grafitti, subway fare-beating, public drunkeness, vandalism and other quality-of-life crimes, the whole environment was changed, and "the criminal - far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world - is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him." Criminals appear to know from the way that society reacts to the most minor of criminal acts whether their more heinous ones are going to be taken seriously.

Have you ever heard (or voiced) the complaint "You act differently when you're around your friends than when you're around your family." or "You're a whole different person at the office Christmas party."?

It seems that some studies have been done that show, according to Gladwell, that:

"Character...isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment."

A really odd and scary thing about context (and I've seen some of this before with teen suicide "waves") is that not only are more suicides attempted after highly publicized suicides, but in a study done by sociologist David Phillips in L.A., "on the day after a highly publicized suicide, the number of fatalities from traffic accidents was, on average, 5.9 percent higher than expected. Two days after a suicide story, traffic deaths rose 4.1 percent. Three days after, they rose 3.1 percent and four days after, they rose 8.1 percent." So, the contagion of suicides is even higher than most of us know.

Gladwell's book is chock-full of interesting things to ponder. You might even find some innovative ways to make your ideas contagious.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Changeless by Gail Carriger

Lord and Lady Maccon have taken to married life like ducks to water, were one of the ducks a werewolf and the other a soul sucker. Unfortunately, a crisis is always at hand, and Lord Maccon is called away to deal with one which is having the dangerous effect of neutralizing supernaturals, in the same fashion as Alexia, but over a much larger area of London. To the werewolves and vampires this is mostly inconvenient, but results in permanent exorcism of the supernaturals of the ghostly persuasion, and Lord Maccon suddenly loses several of his spies because of it.

When his former pack, who now serve as the cadre one of the Queen's regiments in the Middle East, return from duty and then decamp for Scotland, Maccon is drawn after them, leaving Alexia behind. This doesn't stop her for long. She discovers that the anti-magic effect seems to be attached somehow to the Scottish pack, and ends up on a dirigible headed north, with the mysterious Madame LeFoux, her twitterpated friend Ivy, her sister and her maid Angelique in tow.

Alexia, in her stubborn way, blusters about the castle, discovering the source of the phenomenon and surviving attacks by mysterious entities. I found the ending, however, extraordinarily frustrating, which may be Carriger's intent, as its effect is like a horrible cliff hanger, and now I must soon read Blameless to find out what comes next.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Scalzi seems to have gotten away from his "hard" science fiction days of the Old Man's War saga, and into some lighter fare these days. It seems like a riff on early SF TV, like Star Trek, poking fun at the genre. The characters are mostly forgettable, but the idea - that people in an alternate universe are either generated by or affected by a science fiction show of the early twenty-first century - contains some fun ideas and food for thought.

The crew aboard the Universal Union ship, Intrepid, seems to encounter more than their normal share of deadly encounters with alien life forms, rogue robots, plagues and explosions. The captain, first officer, and the bridge crew are mostly immune to the tragedies around them, but the newly arrived crew mostly just end up messily dead. When a group of the latest recruits finally figures out what's going on, they have to travel back in time (via the effects surrounding a black hole) and convince the writers of the television show to stop what they're doing.

For old Star Trek fans, some of the "rules" that govern events aboard Intrepid will seem familiar.

"...the Intrepid's inertial dampeners don't work as well in crisis situations... the ship could do hairpin turns and loop-de-loops any other time and you'd never notice. But whenever there's a dramatic event, there goes your footing."

"Decks six through twelve will almost always sustain damages during an attack. It's because these are the decks the show has sets for. They can cut away from the bridge for shots of explosions and crew being flung backward."

"Every battle is designed for maximum drama. This is what happens when the Narrative takes over. Things quit making sense. The laws of physics take a coffee break. People stop thinking logically and start thinking dramatically."

"A fact you didn't know before just pops into your head. You make a decision or take an action you wouldn't otherwise make. It's like an irresistable impulse because it's an irresistable impulse - your will isn't your own, you're just a pawn for a writer to move around."

"...having one get through (torpedos) will be more dramatic."

"Something will explode on the bridge. That's where the camera spends nearly all its time. There has to be damage here, whether it makes sense or not."

"Every once in a while Abernathy or one of the other officers will say something dramatic, or rhetorical, or leading, and then he and everyone else will be quiet for a few seconds. That's a lead out to a commercial break."

Not terribly memorable, but amusing and mildly sarcastic. Scalzi can write, but I wish he'd go back to his strengths.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey

 I summarily panned the first book in this series - didn't realize Carey was going to write a sequel - I thought it was just something from her early work she'd capitalized on her newfound fame to publish. This one seemed a bit better, though it seems she has a problem deciding whether she's writing for a young adult or a true adult audience.

In Saints Astray we pick up the tale of Loup, a genetically modified organism (basically human, with enhancements to strength, speed, etc.) who used to live in an Outpost or military compound where she and other residents were permanently exiled. She won her freedom in a boxing match against another GMO who was a member of the military, but was thrown in jail after her victory, tortured for a while, but helped to escape by her erstwhile opponent. She and her lover, Pilar, escaped through a tunnel at the end of Santa Olivia, and are now stateless persons.

There's a hint of Pygmalion in this tale, when the head of Global Security, Magnus Lindberg, offers Loup a job working for his company. He feels that some celebrities and other wealthy folks will enjoy the novelty of having the one and only free GMO playing bodyguard for them, and expects to make a tidy profit selling her services. Loup insists that Pilar be hired, as well, for her bartending and administrative skills, and the two end up going to Scottland for six weeks to be trained by former special forces types in the nitty gritty of the protection business.

They are given several opportunities to earn their pay after they are trained, and swiftly turn out to be a fantastic team, or addition to normal human security teams.

The threat of being exposed as a GMO, who have been determined to have no human rights (in the USA, anyway, not sure of their exact status elsewhere in the world), and imprisoned again, or worse, is still hanging over Loup's head. In their final assignment, they develop strong friendships with the members of a pop band called Kate, and when Loup shares her story with them, the band decides that it's time they got involved with the GMO cause, politically a la Bono.

The tale moves pretty quickly, and has some good action scenes, some mildly risque sex scenes, and some extraordinarily maudlin sentimental whining by young and often star-crossed lovers Loup and Pilar. I still think Carey's best work was with the Terre d'Ange novels, and I'm not thrilled with anything else she's done.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Real Education by Charles Murray

 Charles Murray really seems to like to take on some of the pressing issues of our times with a sometimes unconventional and almost always unpopular point of view, but one that I feel is unfortunately all too realistic. He talks about Howard Gardner's seven different types of intelligence: bodily-kinesthetic, musical, spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal and how they relate to our ability (or perhaps I should say inability) to deliver optimum education to all children with a one-size-fits-all approach.

"Educational measures such as test scores and grades tend to make differences among schoolchildren look as though they are ones of degree when in reality some of them are differences in kind. For example, a timed math test limited to problems of addition and subtraction, administered to a random cross-section of fourth-graders, yields scores that place children along a continuum distributed in a shape resembling a bell curve. These scores appropriately reflect differences in degree: Some fourth-graders can add and subtract faster and more accurately than others, but they are all doing the same thing and almost all children can be taught to add and subtract to some degree.
The same is not true of calculus. If all children were put on a mathematics track that took them through calculus, and then were given a test of calculus problems, the resulting scores would not look like a bell curve. For a large proportion of children, the scores would not be merely low. They would be zero. Grasping calculus requires a certain level of logical-mathematical ability. Children below that level will never learn calculus, no matter how hard they study. It is a difference in kind."

While Gardner and Murray have some hard data to support this, I can only confirm that this matches my experience with real world results. I have a fairly high level of logical-mathematical intelligence, and studied higher mathematics in college - until I reached linear algebra, and suddenly discovered that past a certain point, I just wasn't capable of doing much more than memorizing a few problem types and their solutions. I also have a very low level of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and it didn't matter how much instruction I got in the techniques of striking a tennis ball or hitting a baseball pitch, I was never going to be as good as someone with native talents in that area. My wife and children have an innate musical ability that I will never possess, and they can pick up instruments and play a tune on them without any prior experience - not me.

Murray says,
"For understanding an individual child and what that child's educational needs might be, you want as much disaggregation of the child's abilities as possible. For understanding the overall relationship of the components of academic ability to educational performance and later outcomes in life for large groups of people, you are better of using a combined measure."

These combined measures might be found by taking standardized tests such as the ACT, SAT, or ASVAB.

I've become a somewhat convinced of a Bell Curve theory of just about everything these days. For example, in politics, you will see a distribution of people from one end of the spectrum, from radical left to radical right, where (IMHO) most people fall into either center-left or center-right, perhaps mixing and matching their convictions between positions readily identifiable as from both sides, while a smaller group on either end might hold nine out of ten beliefs identifying them as conservative or liberal, while a very tiny group are so far out there that their beliefs may even lead to irrationality or violence.

So, it's my hypothesis that in each area of Gardner's intelligences, we'll find - over large groups of people - that the distribution of each ability follows a bell curve pattern, with some out at the far ends of the curve having either infinitesimal abilities in that area, or amazing natural abilities, and the rest scattered from mild, to average, to pretty good, in the middle of the curve. There are, unfortunately, certain folks who just aren't going to "get" mathematics, engineering or science, and others who aren't going to comprehend classic literature or write coherent research papers. Some will excel in sports or music, others in winning the popularity contest.

Murray says,
"For any ability, the population forms a continuum that goes from very low to very high. The core abilities that dominate academic success vary together. Schools that ignore those realities are doing a disservice to all their students."
I always wondered what all the complaints were about "teaching to the test". There are lots of good tests out there, especially in the professional certification arena, where they are a very good measure of actual skills and knowledge acquired. The actual material of the tests change regularly, so even the "cheat" sites can only give you examples of what types of questions you are likely to find, and it's not really productive to attempt to memorize answers for them, you just have to know the principles and have the skills in order to pass.

The author explains,

"If teachers know that a state competency test will include on item of this particular type (calculating percentages), they can drill the students and raise the proportion that answer it correctly. But if the test uses a new context and puts a different twist on the is up to the students to generalize their knowledge, and that calls upon logical-mathematical ability."

A couple of interesting points:

"Literacy requires not just the linguistic ability to decode individual words, but also the logical-mathematical ability to infer, deduce and interpolate."

"Limits on logical-mathematical ability translate into limits on how much math a large number of children can learn no matter what the school system does."

I also found it interesting that the greatest "leap" in education in the U.S. came between 1900 and 1950. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only about 25% of adults ever reached the fifth grade, and 50% never made it past the eighth. By 1940, the percentage of students still in school up to the eighth grade had risen to 95% and by 1951, 99%. The biggest progress came with the availability of universal K-8 schooling. Gains since that point in time have been incremental.

There's a belief that the quality of schools makes a huge difference in children's educational outcomes. Sociologist James Coleman led a study that examined 645,000 students nationwide and discovered that the quality of schools "explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement." The mean scores of students on academic achievement tests are not affected by the credentials of their teachers, the curriculum, sparkling new facilities, or money spent per student.

"Once a school reaches mediocrity, a lot of the slack has been taken out of the room for improvement in academic achievement for the average student."

Granted, a good teacher can make a great deal of difference in the life of an individual child, but over the long haul, for the vast majority of students, it appears that hiring better teachers will make little difference.

Politicians may promise this and that in order to improve education in this country, and we can throw all the money in the world at the problems we believe exist, but feel-good solutions can't trump reality. You would think that the Head Start program begun back in the Johnson administration to help disadvantaged children get an educational boost would have shown some results by now, but a study by the Consortium of Longitudinal Studies found that "the effect of early education on intelligence test scores was not permanent."

"Responding to children in need is about as instinctive as human responses get, and as emotionally charged. But deciding how to use scarce resources to help disadvantaged children is not a matter of caring. It is a matter of deciding what works and what doesn't.

Murray wanders off into a discussion of statistical illiteracy, which is rather interesting in its implications.

"Widespread statistical illiteracy among the gifted is cause for immediate concern because none of us, no matter how thorough our training, has the time to assess the data independently on every topic. We all have to rely on the quality of the information we get from the media - and, as of today, that quality is terrible."


Whether you agree with Murray's solutions (you'll have to read for yourselves to see what they are), you can't argue with his facts, gathered over the decades from study after study on education. I always find his work enlightening.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Death's Rival by Faith Hunter

I think this book has more beheadings, dismemberments or mutilations per page than any book I've read in the last decade. The latest episode in the Jane Yellowrock series is violent from one end to the other. Appropriate for the story, yes. For young folks, not so much.

Jane is facing the consequences of killing the enforcer of another vampire family in a previous book in this series, when the ruler of that family, who is several hundred years old and quite powerful (and probably quite insane) declares war on Leo Pelletier's territory. He's also gradually taking over other territories around the country, by infecting the vampires in those areas with some sort of plague which both addicts them and slowly kills them, while not affecting humans, who transmit the disease in their blood.

Leo sends Jane to investigate the plague, and to get samples of the blood from infected vampires, but her trip is cut short when she is ambushed a couple of times along the way. It's obvious that there's an informer in Leo's family, but it takes Jane and company most of the book to figure out who it is, and they don't figure it out in time to save everyone from  lots and lots of bloodshed.

There's some good sweat lodge sequences in this book wherein Jane learns more about her forgotten history, and comes to understand her motivations a bit better. Her complicated relationship with Rick LaFleur seems like it's going to get better, then her trust issues screw things up once more. Ditto for Bruiser.

We get a couple of new characters added to the series when Jane recruits a security specialist for her team, and gets his computer genius/hacker little brother as part of the package. Not sure whether there will be some romantic angle with the older half of that team, one certainly hopes she's not tempted to rob the cradle.

In the end, Jane appears to be striking out in a new direction, trying to disassociate herself from Leo a bit, which is tough, as he has placed a mystical binding on her Beast (by accident, while trying to place it on Jane).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Soulless by Gail Carriger

 I had a hard time pinning this novel down. It seemed a little bit like P.G. Wodehouse' humor, almost falls into the urban fantasy or paranormal romance genre, and had some elements of steampunk, too. I picked it up on special advertised on Facebook by the publisher, as I'd been thinking about trying Carriger's series for a while, and found it amusing.

Alexia Tarraboni is a "spinster" (not by today's standards) in Victorian England, the oldest daughter of a respectable family, with two younger and very vapid stepsisters. Alexia is quite well-read, and stubbornly intelligent, which may explain her lack of beaus, though it's often blamed on her mixed heritage, with a father who was Italian - her mother's first husband.

There are several sorts of supernaturals in residence in Carriger's London. The well known types are werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. Alexia herself is a lesser known type - a soulless one, or preternatural. Her main supernatural ability seems to be to remove the abilities of the other types, making them human when she touches them, though they revert immediately after she removes contact.

Alexia has a very contentious relationship with the alpha of the London pack of werewolves, Lord Maccon, a Scottish were who has recently arrived on the scene and challenged the old alpha successfully. It doesn't take long for us to figure out (if you read enough PNR) that the two will soon be romantically entangled, even if they're confused about their feelings through most of the book.

Alexia has a very efficient butler, much in the manner of Jeeves, without the gently sarcastic comments, while Lord Maccon's second in the pack seems to offer the biting comments, instead. She also has a flamingly gay vampire friend who provides her with good guidance and occasional immoral support.

Werewolves and vampires have begun disappearing from the streets, and newly made, ignorant vampires from no known line are showing up in their place, as well. Someone is messing with the natural order of things, and Alexia and her allies must get to the bottom of it somehow. It ain't Sherlock Holmes, but it's a pretty good start to the series. I'm hoping Carriger can continue to keep things light and humorous - even Wodehouse had his off days.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod

This is a really difficult book to categorize. It's not exactly science fiction, more of a political thriller than anything, but it has an SF "wrapper". In the beginning of the book, a member of a future civilization, playing a highly advanced MMORPG, discovers that a group of Synthetic Psyches (AIs) have created a vast simulation, which turns out to be a Matrix-like reality that we are currently living. She also appears at the tail end of the book, to explain what's going on to the protagonist, hence the SF wrapper.

The heroine of the story is Lucy Stone, a Western girl who was raised in the tiny area of Krassnia, part of the former USSR. The area was once ruled by the Vrai, a race of warriors who claimed to be descended from the Romans, and who folklore says guarded a secret kept atop or inside a mountain, which each young adult Vrai had to experience in order to come into their full powers over the peasants in the area.

Lucy is now living and working in Scotland (MacLeod's homeland) as an admin for a game design firm who have developed an MMORPG with some novel features. First, it employs a novel game engine which allows it to run on any platform, even outdated systems with limited resources. It adjusts its graphics and physics engines on the fly, so to speak, and can display in any mode from 3D down to wireframe, without slowing gameplay. Next, players begin as members of a horde of orc-like creatures with primitive weapons, assaulting the stronghold of elf-like rulers of the land. If and when they win their way to the top of the mountain, they become rulers themselves, and turn about to find themselves facing a new horde of orc-like creatures, composed of all of the players who have newly joined the game.

One passage I found amusing:

"I found another hobby: role-playing games. In those days we played them around a table with rule-books and score-sheets made from paper. (You don't believe me? - Check Wikipedia.)"

It turns out that Lucy's mom has been involved with the CIA (and perhaps some other shadowy agencies) and used to pass information to them about the Krassnian region when they lived there. Her employers come up with a plot to use a game based on the Krassnian folklore as a clandestine forum where democratic dissidents can meet and plan their revolution against the Soviets. Lucy and the guys at her game company are recruited to adapt their new game to this template, which turns out to be not too much of a stretch, as Lucy has been central in developing its storyline and has subconsciously included most of the plot elements remembered from her childhood.

This novel has more twists and turns than a nest of pythons, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cast in Chaos by Michelle Sagara

Sagara's heroine, Kaylin Neya, tends to jump right into things with both feet, as does this story. The action begins rapidly when odd magical happenings begin to cluster in the somewhat shady streets of the city. A hair restoring tonic actually works spectacularly, a fortuneteller's stories are actually true, and children begin to be born with odd abilities. Things escalate rapidly and a rain of blood allows Kaylin and the Hawks to sketch the radius of the effect - it's quite large.

When historical records are consulted, it turns out that the last time this happened, it presaged the advent of two new races, human and Barrani, into the world, and a great deal of destruction occured in the area when the portal that delivered them opened. The Dragon Council decides to have the Mages and Arcanists try to prevent the opening of the portal, but Kaylin discovers in a roundabout fashion that the new race on its way is being pursued by something called the Devourer, which has eaten whole worlds. Ever compassionate for the homeless, she uses all of her powers of persuasion, and her connections with the Keeper, Evanton, and the Tha'alani mind readers to sway the Emperor and the rest of his council to try something different.

An interesting dynamic between Lord Nightshade of the fiefs and Kaylin develops further when he rescues her from her first encounter with the Devourer between worlds. Kaylin digs into history with Tara, the avatar of the Tower in Tiamaris' fief. There are new developments with the runes magically embedded in her skin, and she gets access to the deeper parts of the Arkon's hoard. We find out a lot more about Severn's love for Kaylin, too.

There's a great buildup of tension and mystery and action for about two thirds of the book, but when the final confrontation with the Devourer arrives, Sagara spends far too many pages in mystical mumbo jumbo and allowing Kaylin to convince the Devourer not to eat people by sharing her memories and emotions, and in the process discovering many things about herself. Why clog up a great story with tortuous, slow

There should be interesting times ahead in the next book, as Elantra absorbs the refugees and Kaylin begins her training in Dragon etiquette, now that the crisis is past.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Greenhouses by Ortho Books

The growing season in Idaho can be quite short, with late frosts in May and early frosts in October, which can devastate a home garden. I've fought the frost at both ends of the calendar, and considered off and on building a greenhouse to extend the growing season. So, I picked up this book at the library just to learn a little bit more.

The book is not much over 100 pages long, but quite thoroughly covers the subject, complete with illustrations and even some design plans for building your own greenhouse, advice for installing a "kit" greenhouse, or letting the professionals do the work.

This edition was published in 1991, so I'm certain there have been some developments in materials used to build and cover greenhouses by now, but at least it gave me a good idea of how I might want to start. For my purposes, just keeping the frost from killing my early starts and the full-bloom garden in the Fall, a simple tunnel greenhouse, which I can put together myself, either from materials purchased at the home improvement store, or by buying a kit, will probably do the trick. I just can't see a greenhouse becoming a full time hobby for me, at least until after I retire in some far away future.

A good book for a quick intro to greenhouse basics.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Heart of Valor by Tanya Huff

 Once again, (now) Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr is off on a "cake" assignment - escorting a severely wounded Major who has had his body rebuilt to a final test of his rehabilitation - the planet Crucible, where the space Marine recruits all must go for final testing to become Marines. As one might suspect, it turns out not to be a simple or safe assignment after all. Torin and her lover, salvage operator Craig Ryder, have discovered that they're the only people from her last mission who recall  the escape pod from the alien spacecraft, Big Yellow. The military and scientists took it away to study further, and now no one has any idea that it ever existed in the first place. She suspects that the Elder Races are playing around with mind control, and sends Craig off on an errand to talk with a journalist who went through the same experience, to see if their common experience of being scanned by Big Yellow has also made her immune to memory erasure.

When Torin arrives on Crucible with her charge, Major Svensson, and his personal physician, who is along to monitor his medical condition, things begin to go awry. The scenario that the recruits are scheduled to face gets thrown out the window, and the orbital platform which controls the drone enemy forces is blown up by persons unknown, though Torin suspects the Others. The limits on lethal force go out the window, and Torin and the DIs try to herd their platoon of recruits to a location that they can defend against all of the drones, tanks and aircraft that have suddenly focused on their destruction.

Another light and adventurous tale, with a good twist close to the end.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

The only other book I can recall reading by McLeod was Cosmonaut Keep, which sticks in my memory by not really sticking in my memory. However, I saw this book at the library while pickings were slim and thought the blurb, at least, sounded interesting. This book reminds me a great deal of some of Charles Stross' near-future fiction; dark, highly technologically driven, dystopic in places.

The setting, for the most part, is Scottland, with some of the action also taking place in New Zealand. Sometime in the last decade, the forces of Christian fundamentalism precipitated a conflict with radical Islam, resulting in a battle on the plains of Megiddo (Armageddon of Revelation fame), which devastated both sides. The backlash from the secular public and governments worldwide decimated and discredited Christendom, leaving it no place in public life. Those few churches that remain for the most part worship in secret, and have no official recognition by the state.

Many of the remaining robot warriors who fought in the Faith Wars have now been decommission, their self-aware brains being transplanted into the bodies of maintenance robots working on the two space elevators (shades of Arthur C. Clarke), or into lekis, Law Enforcement Kinetic Intelligences. One of these lekis, named Skulk, is partnered with Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, the man assigned to investigate the murder by bombing of a Catholic priest. It appears that a militant sect of christianity is on the rise again, warring against the apostasy of Catholicism and godless secularism.

A fun passage, I thought:

"...a Laplacean Deity is one that knows the position and speed of every particle in the universe. A Cartesian Demon is an entity that feeds consistent false information to all the senses. Now, the same entity can't be a Laplacean Deity and a Cartesian Demon at the same time."

Ya kinda gotta know a touch of math to get that.

This is a very disturbing novel on some levels, in that it shows a possible future in which christianity has forsaken its role as humanity's moral compass. The "christians" in this book really seem to have nothing that identifies themselves as different, or Christlike, from the rest of society, but are merely identified by their narrow-mindedness and thoroughly discredited conservative beliefs about reality.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Pet Peeve

I've been a little irritated over the last couple of years by the prices of Ebooks. I got a Nook for Christmas, and looked forward to reading a lot of new books by my favorite authors, and have been able to do so, to some extent.

However, at the big online retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, who seem to hold a monopoly on the most popular ebook formats, the price of a newly released book seems to be the same as buying a hardcopy, for the most part. I had expected that as ebooks became popular, publishers would pass on what seems to me to be reduced production costs to the consumers.

The most obvious cost is, of course, printing however many copies of the book they expect to sell in the first "rush" of excitement. The cost of converting an electronic version of a book - which is the most likely way for authors today to write - to the ePub or Kindle format, is a one-time charge, with minimal labor involved. Someone uploads it to the retail site, so it's available for download, and you have no further costs.

Now, I understand you need to pay your author's royalties and make a reasonable profit, but shouldn't the version of the book that's cheaper to produce sell more reasonably?

The sole exception I've found to this is Baen books. Their newly released titles are generally available the same day the hardcopy is published, and they are discounted to $6. If only Baen published all of the authors whose work I liked, it would be marvelous. Compare this to the cost of Jacqueline Carey's new work, released in hardback and Kindle format, selling for $15.48 and $12.99, respectively. At some point, given strong enough demand, it will be released in paperback for $8.99, but the ebook will also sell for $8.99.

Maybe someone who works for one of the publishing companies out there can explain to me why ebook prices haven't dropped in lockstep with production costs. In the meantime, I'm still stuck waiting for the paperback issue, rather than reading books hot off the "press".

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Time Travelers Strictly Cash by Spider Robinson

This is almost a sequel to Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, Robinson's earlier collection of shorts about a marvelous and magical bar, but Spider was under the gun to produce a contracted number of words and didn't have enough Callahan's stories on hand, so he includes some of his other short fiction an essay or two, and a rave about Robert A. Heinlein. You'll get a little respite from the puns and a slightly broader view of his works. I really really need to review Stardance one of these days.

There's a story about someone who has "fivesight" an interesting twist on precognition. When the person with fivesight sees a disaster coming, they can't try to prevent it, it only makes it worse (sorta like the law of conservation of pain), but they are allowed to make some minor preparations to reduce the damage a bit. What do you do when you can see lightning about to strike in your life, and how do you stay sane when you can't stop it?

There's a wonderful little surprise ending in God is an Iron, which is the story that Robinson later turned into the novel, Mindkiller. It's possible in his future world to plug yourself directly into the wall socket and stimulate the pleasure center of the brain, and it's a lovely way to suicide, if you make the right preparations. Suicide may be painless, but it still seems to leave a mess for someone, even an innocent bystander, to clean up.

The only story that falls a little flat, for me, is Serpent's Teeth, Robinson's sole attempt at fantasy, for good reason.

The essay, Rah, Rah, R.A.H.!, was probably the first time I ever heard anyone express so eloquently what was wonderful about Heinlein, back when this book was published. I've been a big fan since I first read Glory Road, and have kept on being a fan long past the passing of the Master. Robinson does a marvelous job of defending Heinlein and his works against those who accused him of various perfidies such as fascism, militarism, and misogyny. I recently watched a documentary about Heinlein, where they blathered on about what Heinlein's stories were REALLY all about, and I gotta say that people, especially egghead intellectuals in the art and film world, have no clue what Heinlein really meant to say about ANYTHING.

Some great reading material here. Robinson is truly one of the most droll authors around.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How does your Garden Grow?

I'm going to take some time to hijack this blog once again, to discuss another one of the myths of personal finance; that growing your own vegetable garden saves money.

The first requirement of having a successful garden is, of course, having a space to plant it. I know that some people have had success with container gardening on their patios or balconies, but the amount of produce you'll get from such an endeavor isn't really going to make a dent in your grocery budget. The cheapest way to go about this might be to pick up gently used pots of appropriate sizes from yard sales, thrift stores and flea markets, or maybe your friends and neighbors have some they're dying to get out of the storage shed. One other downside to container gardening is that it's a little more difficult to achieve proper watering in containers, especially when you get to the middle of the season - a couple of scorching hot days in a row can wipe out your plants. You could go with automated drip irrigation, but that requires some up front investment in cash, too, that pretty well wipes out any financial advantage for at least the first few seasons, and probably will require replacement and maintenance just about the time you edge into the black.

So, if you want to have a large and productive garden, you'll need a decent space, which might mean you'll have to buy a larger piece of property than you really need, more investment up front, higher taxes, etc. But let's assume for a bit that you already have a house with a nice area that's just perfect for growing a garden, and all you have to do is till up the soil, add some steer manure or other fertilizer, and you're on your way. Oh, did you forget about the cost of renting a rototiller for a couple of hours? You could do as I did about twenty years ago and buy one instead of renting. New or used? You'll have less maintenance costs with new, but used is less spendy in the first place. So, almost twenty years ago, my rototiller cost me about $400. Ignoring maintenance and repairs, that's a lot of vegetables to harvest to recover the costs. I have to put gas in the tiller every time I use it, too. That wasn't too bad when I first started, but now we're up around $4 a gallon, and probably going higher.

Do you a) live in an area where you can get some good aged steer manure for free from a local rancher? or b) have enough trees and shrubbery around your home that you can shred sufficient leaves and branches to mulch into the soil? If not, you'll end up paying for some sort of fertilizer or soil enhancement. The best results in a garden happen when soil has nutrients added back to it each year. You can accomplish this with the right planning, rotation and cover crop plantings, but are you really looking for a full-time job here?  If you do have enough "free" leaves and branches, you may need to buy a shredder - there goes another $400! Of course, it's very handy for spring and fall yard cleanup, so maybe you should only assign half of its cost to your vegetable garden.

Another aspect to consider is weed control. The first time I planted a garden at this location, I spent my entire summer, every day after work, pulling weeds from around the veggies. It was miserable. If you really love to pull weeds in the summer heat, don't let me stop you, but my solution was to buy weed barrier fabric and plant in holes cut through the fabric. This saved a ton of time, but usually costs me about $50 to $70 in the spring, whenever it needs to be replaced. The heavy duty fabric costs more and will last several seasons, but the cheap stuff will need to be replaced every or maybe two if you're lucky.

Onwards to the actual planting. You can order seeds from a catalog, and sprout them indoors, or you can go the the garden store in the spring and buy nice seedlings. It's six of one, half dozen of the other which method puts you in the best position to get an early harvest, and growing from seeds tends to be cheaper, until that new kitten of your daughter's decides the seedling pots look like a lovely litter box, and you have to start all over. I generally spend about $40 to $50 buying all of my plants at planting time.

Do you live in a temperate climate, without any possibility of a late frost? That's one of the biggest issues we have here in Idaho. I've set out plants when the weather looked perfect, and ended up having to go back and buy a whole new batch when a killing frost in mid-May sent me back to the beginning. I've tried the walls of water, and they worked wonderfully (and cost me some cash) until the year when they collapsed for no apparent reason and crushed all the little plants - return to starting point.

Another thing to think about is supports and cages. If you're growing beans or peas, you're going to need to provide support for them, such as poles or a section of chicken wire fence. Tomatoes need cages for support, and you can buy or build them out of wood or wire.  You'll probably need some stakes to keep them in the ground, and some zip ties to hold them to the stakes. I tried just letting my tomatoes sprawl on the ground one year, as one gardening book suggested - it was a huge sprawling nasty mess when harvest time rolled around.

Throughout the growing season, you'll need to water your plants regularly. If you're fortunate, you live in an area where water is relatively cheap, but in many urban areas, keeping your garden watered will significantly increase your utility bill each month. I've been lucky in having flood irrigation where I live, but the water doesn't always go where you need it to without a little engineering, so I've spent lots of money on an irrigation pump, pipes, sprinklers, hoses and keeping it all working each year, trying different configurations...

Now it's time to harvest your garden, and rather rapidly you'll find yourself wondering what to do with all this bounty. You can just give away everything you can't personally consume as it ripens - that's simple enough. Or you can try to preserve it for those long cold lonely winter months. Three of the most common methods are canning, freezing and drying produce. If you select canning, you'll need to invest in jars, rings and lids, a water bath canning kettle at the minimum and a pressure cooker if you're canning non-acidic vegetables. Rings and jars  can be re-used each year, but you'll need to buy new lids for every new season. If you decide to freeze your produce, cheapest case is to use locking freezer bags - also doesn't guard against freezer burn as well as other methods, or invest in a vacuum sealer and bags - another ongoing cost. Don't forget a freezer! The freezer compartment in your refrigerator will be overwhelmed in a hurry. Unless you're living in the Southwest, drying vegetables out in the sun on your patio isn't all that easy to do, too much humidity most other places, and you'll fight mold, so you're going to need a food dehydrator to make those sun-dried tomatoes. Oh, you've gotta store them in something, so add some more baggies.

After you've invested all this time and money, I really seriously doubt that growing your own produce saves money, and in fact it's probably more expensive than a trip to the grocery store. The reason to garden is because you love the experience of growing your own food, eating tomatoes fresh off the vine that taste like nothing you'll ever buy, shucking and boiling some ears of corn so fresh you can smell them across the room and slathering them in butter...

Just don't try to convince me it's saving you money.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

It's difficult to believe that I've never posted any reviews of Spider Robinson's work on this blog before now. I guess it's partially because most of his works that I read were first published in the 70s or 80s. I had an urge the other day, when I was headed to the mountains for some R&R, to take along a couple of Spiders' short story collections.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is his first collection of the Callahan's stories, which were for the most part published in Analog magazine when Ben Bova was editor. They're not always exactly science fiction (which caused some complaints from diehard Analog readers), but they're nearly  always just exactly Spider Robinson, at his most amusing.

Callahan's is a bar, run by Mike Callahan, where those who need its solace the most are somehow drawn in, as if by some gravitic force. All drinks are exactly 50 cents, but if you put a dollar in the box on top of the bar, you are encouraged to utter a toast, and hurl your glass into the fireplace - which is often cathartic or leads to a story. The patrons of the bar are almost supernaturally supportive, and many hearts get healed there.

The opening story, The Guy with the Eyes, steals a page from Heinlein, one of Robinson's greatest heroes, in that the being who is uttering a toast, Michael (another similarity to RAH) Finn, is an advance scout for a race of powerful, one might say "evil" galactic overlords (Valentine Michael Smith suspects he is a spy for the Old Ones of Mars in Stranger for a Strange Land, sent to determine whether Earth needs to be destroyed like the Fifth Planet once was), who are ready to turn Earth into their own meat locker.

If you don't like puns, I'd suggest you find your entertainment elsewhere, however. The first night of the week at Callahan's is Punday, not Monday, and there is enormous competition to come up with the worst stinker. Tuesday is Tall Tales night, and you'll find only the shaggiest of dogs at Callahan's.

Robinson, like his hero RAH, anticipates a later invention in one of his stories (probably more than that, but this one I noticed on most recent reading) - music videos. This was long before MTV, but in The Law of the Conservation of Pain, a time traveler from the future who is trying to avert the suicide of a Janis Joplin-like singer brings back a globe that projects the music and accompanying video, showing the Callahan's regulars why she must be saved. We are living in the future I used to read about.

The tag-line of that story borrows once again from Heinlein. "Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased." Robinson postulates that there's a certain amount of pain in the universe, and it can't be thwarted, it will just turn up somewhere else, in some other form. However, like matter and energy, pain can be converted to joy.