Thursday, October 30, 2008

Paul Melko "Singularity Ring": book review

I really wanted to like Paul Melko's "Singularity Ring". I'm a sucker for everything that has Singularity in the title. But it failed to draw me in. By the way -- maybe it's just me, but by stating the protagonist was a starship-pilot-to-be, the cover blurb lead me to believe that this is a space adventure. I was mistaken: the book takes place almost entirely on Earth.

To quote synopsis of the book, "Various factions struggle for control of the Ring, a colossal space station built around Earth by engineers who turned most of humankind into a group mind called the Community, which promptly figured out how to access other realities and vanished from this one. The few remaining humans genetically engineer their children to form pods of individuals so closely bonded that they function as one person. After stumbling on secret research during a training exercise, the teenage pod called Apollo Papadopulos soon find themselves on the run from shadowy forces who want to seduce or kill them." That's a fair description of the plot. However, the devil is, as always, in the details.

The first few chapters: like watching a bored child

The beginning of the story, where the pod wonders around the countryside, undergoes training and occasionally gets into trouble, did not hold my interest. There's something about the idea of young, physically perfect, superhuman characters roaming around and feeling vaguely bored, that turns me off. To make it worse, some chapters are written in the present and others in the past tense, but that doesn't mean the past-tense chapters happened before the present-tense ones. The timeline of the first few chapters is unclear.

For a book about Singularity, the first few chapters are oddly low-tech. Even though there are offhand mentions of the Community (consisting of humans that disappeared in the recent Singularity), the Ring (a structure around the Earth where they lived just before they disappeared), the Exodus (disappearance of the said Community), and even something called the Rift (of which nothing more is said), those remarks are so scarce and non-specific they don't provide interesting clues as to what exactly this Ring and Community is / was and what happened to them. Basically, you don't immediately get a picture that there's something interesting going on; rather, reading about the teens' capers they filled me with ennui similar to that which comes from watching a bored child.

The bear storyline is disconnected from the rest of the plot

The pace picks up with the accident in the space station. (Yes, there is a chapter or two that take place in space station, and then it's back to Earth.) At that point I finally felt things were starting to move along, and the characters were taking charge of their own story. Alas, then they go back to Earth, and more aimless roaming ensues. Well, it's not entirely aimless. The pod has a goal of finding a family of genetically engineered bears they suspect of holding clues to certain secrets they've stumbled upon. Ultimately, though, the bear storyline turns out to be nothing more than a digression. Yes, the teens get a certain clue that explains some things, but that whole episode (and it makes a good third of the book) is so dissociated from the rest of the plot that it does not feel like a part of the same story.

Interesting concepts not integrated into the plot

Overall, there are some interesting concepts there, but they are only revealed at the end, instead of being integrated into the story. Reading this book you don't get that satisfaction a reader can get when separate clues add up to the big picture and a realization slowly dawns. Maybe this was the aim in this book, but it just didn't happen. The most interesting concepts of the book are not woven seamlessly into the plot. That's actually a common flaw in many science fiction books. It's hard to do it right. Well, this is Paul Melko's first novel, so maybe there's still hope.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I tried coworking

Today was a bike-to-coworking-or-wear-green free coworking day at Conjunctured. This means you got to cowork for free if you fullfilled one of those two conditions. There is no way I could bike all the way from Northwest Austin to Conjunctured without getting killed on a highway, so I dressed in green. Plenty of green from head to toe. Many other folks at Conjunctured embraced that approach as well, so the place looked a bit like St. Patrick's day.

Coworking has been a much written about trend lately. It means strangers working in the same building on their individual (or joint) projects. Conjunctured is an Austin company that rents space for coworking. But it's a lot more than that -- it's a community as well. It's used primarily by freelancers and owners of small businesses that do business mostly over the web (hence, can work from anywhere). Unlike conventional entrepreneurs, these people did not keep their business ideas secret, but chatted freely about their projects, exchanging advice.

The most frequently overheard word today was launch. As in, many of those people were going to launch their web applications some time soon. I was sitting in what appeared to be a less geeky corner, next to two women, Lavanna and Lisa, who were working on their web sites, and The latter is scheduled to launch tomorrow. Lavanna has an interesting take on coworking. She sits in coffeeshops and paints pictures of strangers without them knowing. Usually they never catch on. So coworking is not just for geeks -- it's for artists too.

Geeks were plentiful too, working on their startups, trading snippets of advice such as "why don't you use the AJAX'y thingy". It was from one of them that I got this unusual question: what would be women's equivalent of a little black book, like guys have (or used to have before the days of PDAs and smartphones)? Is women's version pink, or what? Unfortunately, I couldn't answer: I never had so many dates as to need a book to keep track of them. The question was posed by two guys brainstorming possible iPhone applications for women. Or so I figured from their conversation.

To sum it up, coworking at a dedicated place like Conjunctured is like working at the coffeeshop, only you don't have to take your laptop with you to the bathroom. And you don't have to play musical chairs with electric outlets -- they are plentiful. And coffee is free (OK, donation-supported). And strangers won't mind if you chat them up -- it's expected. A very nice mixture of solitude and community.

Neal Stephenson in Austin, September 25, 2008

On September 25 Neal Stephenson gave a reading from his latest novel Anathem, signed books and answered audience's questions. This is Stephenson's third reading and Q/A at Book People over the last 4 years. Some of the questions haven't changed much from year to year. Are his projects getting bigger and bigger? Is he ever going to write something short? Which is the favorite of the novels he has written? Why does he prefer to do his research in books, as opposed to search engines? Hint: serendipity. Are there new technologies he is excited about? Other questions are new. Does he have any ideas on posthumanism? Has he been making something cool in the workshop lately? Why is Anathem set on an imaginary world, not Earth?

Neal Stephenson at Book People in September 2008

Read the whole article on my website.

Read about Neal Stephenson's earlier appearances in Austin in 2003 and in 2004.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fencon: Science -- fact or crap?

"Science -- fact or crap?" was a game played by a team of pros against a team of fans... I think. The most prominent pro on the team was Gregory Benford, a physics professor, science fiction writer, and Fencon guest of honor. The purpose of the game was to score points by answering science-related questions. Each question had two parts: a fact-or-crap, i.e. yes-or-no part (but you could not answer "no", you had to say "crap"! :-)), and a follow up freeform" question. The questions drew from many different sciences: anatomy, anthropology, archeology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics.

Tim Morgan, dressed as a cartoonish scientist in a lab coat, a propeller hat, goggles and rubber gloves, conducted the game. Team members had to share some of the same humiliation by donning rubber gloves and goggles. In addition they were given very cool plastic hand-shaped rattlers, so as to announce their readiness to answer a question.

Examples of questions

Here are the examples of questions. Most of them were not very hard.

A cow's second stomach chamber is called the reticulum. Fact or crap? (Fact.)

A cow has how many stomachs? Four. Can you name them? Nobody could.

Currently there are only 2 functioning human made satellites in orbit around Mars. Fact or crap? Crap. There are 3 of them.

Name the 3 functioning spacecraft orbiting Mars. Mars Oddyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

A modern archeological project begins with 1 or more surveys. Fact or crap? (Fact.)

Name two types of archeological surveys. Aerial survey, geophysical survey, region survey.

Carbon dioxide will dissolve in water. Fact or crap? Fact. It's called soda.

The property of a substance to dissolve in water is called what? Solubility.

Climate is usually defined in terms of temperature and rainfall. Fact or crap? Fact.

Climate of a particular place is often summarized by an annual diagram called what? The climate graph.

Among the more difficult questions were "Calcium occurs most commonly in the sedimentary rocks. Name 1 of the 3 minerals that contain calcium." It was answered correctly by Gregory Benford: carbonate. Or: "A hydrate is a crystal that has water molecules trapped inside: fact or crap? (Fact.) Heating hydrates will drive the water out of crystals. It's called what?" Benford tried "water sublimation". Tim Morgan said he had "water crytallization", but deferred to Benford since he has a PhD. Actually, a quick look at Wikipedia does not give me a definite answer one way or the other.

Funny questions

Not all questions were dull and geeky. :-) Tim made sure to put some funny questions into the mix. Some of them were funny mostly because the people were so confident in their knowledge that they did not even wait for Tim to finish the question before jumping in with an answer. This lead to some moments of hilarity.

"The supercontinent that existed before the continents separated into their current configuration was called..." People started waving their rattlers hands without waiting to hear the end. "You're sure you want to answer before you heard the question?" Tim asked. "OK, go ahead." Fact! yelled one person. Crap! answered Tim. It's not Sangria. It's Pangaea.

"Fact or crap?" was the one and only science track event I attended at Fencon 2008. Yay to Fencon for having a science track. Maybe next year, if hotel fairies grant me some sleep, I'll be able to stay till the end and attend more of them.

Pictures from this game and from the rest of Fencon are available in my photo gallery.

Throughout Fencon Gregory Benford shared his thoughts on such topics as American dominance in the world and its role to play in the technological future, and how geoengineering can save the Earth's climate. Read more about it on my web site.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Fencon: costumers

The Unseelie Court at Fencon 2008
The Unseelie Court. More pictures of Fencon 2008 costumes can be found in my photo gallery.
The queen and king of the Unseelie Court at Fencon 2008
The queen and king of the Unseelie Court. More pictures of Fencon 2008 costumes can be found in my photo gallery.

While I did not stay for the Fencon masquerade, I got to see some of the spectacular costumes on the Catwalk. It was a pre-masquarade event where the costumers discussed their creations with those who wanted to know the what, why and how behind a costume.

The Unseelie court were truly stunning. The level of detail in those costumes was jawdropping. But these people are not amateurs. The queen and the king of the Unseelie court are professional performers who appear in Renaissance faires and other such events where elaborately costumed persons are desired. At the Catwalk they told us more about what it takes to produce such a spectacular costume. One by one, starting with the queen, the costumers climbed on a chair and showed off their creations. The queen asked the audience to take a guess at how much just the fabric of her costume costs. To spare you the guessing, it was a jaw-dropping 800 dollars. And if you wanted her to make you a dress of that level of complexity, it would add up to ~ $1500, the other half of the sum being labor. Sooo, she pointed out, those of you who are dreaming to quit your boring job, take heart: it is possible to make a living off costuming, if that happens to be your hobby.

The Unseelies are "not the good guys", as the queen said; accordingly, their court contains an assortment of assassins, including Rose, or this young girl, whose tender age causes people to underestimate her, making her job as an assassin easier. They also contain mischief-makers, such as this Spriggin (behind Rose in the picture. Click on the image to see a bigger version). One of her contacts is opaque, causing her to see out of one eye only. During long appearances at Ren Faires she has to occasionally switch the opaque contact to the other eye, or it becomes too uncomfortable.

Rose, an assassin from the Unseelie Court A teenage assassin from the Unseelie Court
Rose, an assassin from the Unseelie Court A teenage assassin from the Unseelie Court
Gargoyle at Fencon 2008

This gargoyle was also part of the court, though I would have sworn gargoyles are of French, not Celtic, origin. :-) As one may note, this gargoyle did not have wings. His costume, like those of others, was incomplete when he showed it off on Catwalk. Yes, it's hard to believe that any of these splendid costumes was lacking something. But they were: I guess the costumers were saving the best for the Masquerade. The queen, for example, was only 2/3rds dressed! I can't imagine what else she was going to put on, or just as importantly, how was she able to walk under all that weight. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the full costumes: one of the disadvantages of leaving early.

Dach the Barbarian Scottsman Dach puts his kilt on
Dach the Barbarian Scottsman Dach gives a demo on how to put on a kilt

A barbarian-Scottsman named Dach demonstrated the process of taking a kilt off and putting it on. Well, no, he did not remove his kilt completely. True to the tradition, he wore nothing underneath (or so he said. The audience was spared a demonstration ;-)) so he just showed us how to arrange the kilt fabric around the upper body. Like a sari, kilt is just another very long strip of fabric, hence takes some skill to turn it into a garment.

Skinwalker at Fencon 2008

Not all the characters were Celtic or even European: an exception was Skinwalker, a Native American mythological figure with powers of shapeshifting. She seemed to be friendly with the Unseelie court; I guess they could always put her murderous powers to good use. This confirms that Columbus certainly wasn't the first European to discover America. :-)

Klingon women at Fencon 2008

The last people on the Catwalk were these Klingon women, who I already met a year ago at ApolloCon 2007. Their tag line was "doncha wish your girlfriend was hot like us!" sung with a belligerent growl.

All these and more pictures of Fencon costumes are available in my photo gallery.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fencon chatter

Just heard a knock-knock joke about Harlan Ellison in the Fencon Consuite. The joke was rather straightforward, hence not very funny. Also heard a story about Harlan Ellison taking part in a dating game (a reality show). The highlight: Harlan's answer about his ideal first date involved taking a woman to a dump and shooting rats' eyes out. The tape never aired (big surprise :-))

Here's a funny term I heard at Jay Lake's "Slush pile live" panel. Rejectomancy: trying to figure out from a rejection slip what the rejection meant. For example, if you get a rejection from Realms of Fantasy, it is simple. If you get a blue slip, it means the first reader rejected it witout passing it up. If you get a yellow slip, it means it was passed up to the editor and she rejected it without giving it much thought. If you get a letter of rejection, it means the editor considered it before rejecting. With most other magazines, it's not that clear.

In "Slush pile live" Jay Lake talked about the nuts and bolts of how short story anthologies are created. Some of the considerations that go into putting together an anthology are amusing. For one thing, the stories must be ordered in such a way that they would vary in length, so that the reader could read some 2000-word-long story as a breather between 5000-world-long stories. Among the less obvious considerations, story titles should not accidentally make up a bizarre poem in the table of contents. Also, the editor must take care to not put together stories in such a way that the beginning of one story ties into the end of the previous story in an unintentionally humorous way. As an example, he used the stories from the writers' workshop he taught at this convention. One of them ends with "He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell." There is another one that starts with "The house was awake." Imagine how weird it would look to the reader if story B immediately followed story A. Especially if the end of A and the beginning of B were on facing pages.

It's little moments like that that make conventions fun.

Some pictures from the writers' workshop and from Fencon in general can be found in my photo gallery.

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Fencon opening ceremonies: somber and cheeky

There was a rather striking fact mentioned by the woman who represented FenCon's charity for this year. It is Reading & Radio Resource: an organization that records audiobooks for the blind and for kids with learning disabilities. Many kids drop out of high school because of learning disabilities that make them unable to follow written text, and not because they are dumb. They never learn how to read, and end up at a much higher risk than average population to be unemployed and to turn to crime. Here is what she said: future prison capacity is planned based on the number of third-graders who can't read.

That was the somber part of the opening ceremonies. The rest was, of course, humorous. The two toastmasters, who shall be referred to as BD and DLA, paid homage to (read: shamelessly riffed about) a certain well-known writer who could not come to Fencon, as he's still recovering from heart surgery. To avoid search engines' prying eyes, the missing writer shall be referred to as So-And-So. :-)

BD was talking about So-And-So's works. Then he asked DLA: what's your favorite So-And-So's story? DLA answered: my favorite So-And-So's story is how cheap he is. With that response he set the theme for the opening ceremonies. BD and DLA traded a few embarrassing stories about the So-And-So. When So-And-So had heart surgery, it was discovered that he had a silent "coronary event" in the past -- a heart attack with no symptoms. When So-And-So was telling BD this, he added: "it probably happened during vigorous sex." BD responded: "yes, and since you were alone, nobody noticed". BD added: this was one of maybe two times in my life I made So-And-So laugh. He laughed so hard he probably busted a stitch! DLA responded: "and that was before his surgery. That's how cheap he is!"

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Fencon writers' workshop

It is amazing how people who write stories I can't relate to at all, also are able to give useful critique on my story, as different as it is from theirs. It makes me feel that much worse when the only critique I can give them is a polite version of "this story sounds like a recount of Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Could you put an original idea or two into it?" It's even worse when it turns out the majority of the group loved the story, and I'm the only one there who found it "bla". I still don't know how to critique a story not based on my personal taste, but looking at it through the eyes of potential audience. I.e. if it is a run-of-the-mill fantasy, how do I put myself in the shoes of an audience who can't get enough of run-of-the-mill fantasy, instead of counting its strict adherence to the genre against it?

Then again, I am capable of finding merits of stories in the genre I don't like, and having an interesting, complex character would be one of them. Such a story could potentially interest me despite being not my genre. However, just like there are people who read science fiction not for characters, but for the inner workings of the science-fictional world, there are probably people who read fantasy not for characters, but for the mechanics of the fantasy world. Those people would probably satisfied with a garden-variety fantasy plot. I just can't put myself in their shoes.

Some pictures from the writers' workshop and from Fencon in general can be found in my photo gallery.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another gadget snafu

This morning was wasted by my hare-brained last minute initiative to get an audiobook to listen to during my trip to Fencon. Not long ago I bought an iVO Sound MP3 player. No, I haven't heard of this brand either. As it turned out, this proved to be the problem.

I bought an download of an audio recording of Robert Charles Wilson's "Axis" from When you buy a recording from them, it does not come in a clean, neat MP3 file. No, you have to install an Audible Manager software on your computer. Then you use the manager to transfer the recording, which is in a proprietary format, to your MP3 player. Before you begin that process, the Audible Manager asks what kind of MP3 player you have. Lo and behold -- in the list of 20-30 players, there was no iVO Sound! So I called their customer service. After putting me on hold, the guy determined this player was not compatible with Audible format, because it lacks some kind of universal plugin.

I asked him for a refund. (Those audiobooks are not that cheap.) The customer service guy tried to remind me that I have other ways to listen to audiobooks, such as on my computer. I told him I bought this recording specifically for listening on a trip, so playing it on a computer is not an option. After putting me on hold (probably to confer with a manager) he said they'll issue me a refund. It should show up in my account in 24 hours. We'll see if it does or not.

What a waste of time. It all could have been avoided if listed the MP3 players they support on their website! How hard can that be?

When I come back from Dallas, I may actually return the iVO Sound to the store and buy a more common brand of MP3 player. The iVO is decent, but not the easiest player to operate. Its user interface is kind of screwy.

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