Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

What You Really Need for Retirement

Posted by hyperpat on December 23, 2013

If you look at advice from financial adviser after adviser, they all say you need to have 70 to 80 percent of your pre-retirement income and at least 10 times your earnings in savings in order to maintain your same living standard in retirement. Is this really true, or is there a certain amount of scare tactics in all all this advice (after all, you more you save and invest through those same advisers, the better their income will be!)?

 

Let’s look at what changes when you retire. The big change in income sources is from your paycheck to social security, pensions, and money you withdraw from your savings (instead of adding to those savings). The other big changes deal with what you do in retirement – at the least, there is no more daily commute to work, which might mean no need for two cars, but might also include more vacation type travel that you couldn’t do while working. Let’s put some numbers behind this.

 

Assume a total family income of $100,000. Out of this, you normally pay a net of about $13,000 in federal and state income taxes, plus an additional $7400 in social security and medicare taxes. In California, there’s also another $900 in worker’s compensation taxes. So your net after tax income is about $78,700. If you’ve been following the advice about savings, you’ve also been stashing at least another $5000 in your IRA/401K, and paying another $4000 in medical insurance, assuming a typical employer/employee split of this cost. So your actual cash income to handle everything else is about $69,700. This number matches up pretty well with the low end of what they say you’ll need in income, but will you still need this much?

 

As alluded to earlier, one of biggest changes when retiring is no more commute or need for a second car. Just how much does this cost? The annual cost of car is about $2500, assuming a typical car bought and held for 10 years. Gas for a 20 mile commute 250 days a year at 25 mpg at $3.35/gallon is $1340. Car maintenance is another $800 (tuneups/oil changes/smog checks/tires, etc). Auto insurance is another $600/year. Total cost/year $5240/year, which is not insignificant. Let’s reduce what you need to retire by this amount, leaving us with $64,500 that we need to find somewhere.

 

The other big change is hopefully you have now paid off your mortgage on your house, or, if not, you have enough equity to buy another smaller house (after all, there probably aren’t any kids to house any more) free and clear. This is probably the biggest variable in calculating what you’ll need; obviously if you’ve been renting all your life, you’ll still need to rent or take enough out of your savings to buy one. As a mortgage on a $250,000 house runs about $1250/month or about $15000/year, whether or not you’ll need to fund this in retirement is a big deal. I’ll assume for the moment you don’t need this, leaving us with only $49,500/year to come up with.

 

Social security at full retirement age for someone who earns $100,000 (and has earned similar amounts adjusted for inflation through most of his/her working life) is about $2500/month, or $30,000/year. This leaves about $20,000 that we need to get from our savings. Assuming you’re withdrawing at 4% from your IRA/401K, that means the account balance should be $500,000. Note that at this income level, your federal and state income taxes are near nonexistent. If you haven’t paid off your house, let’s add another $250,000 so you can buy one. This makes the total savings needed is $750,000, still quite a bit less than the advisers advocate.

 

So it would seem from all the above that the advisers are inflating the requirements by about 1/3 to ½, which is quite a bit. More might be better, but some people are being scared so much by the advertised numbers that they are delaying retirement, and possibly missing some of the best times of their lives.

Posted in Economics, General | Leave a Comment »

Ayn Rand and the Gold Standard

Posted by hyperpat on December 22, 2013

This is the first in a series of posts that will look at the philosophical points Rand presented in Atlas Shrugged. I picked on this particular item to tackle first because its probably the easiest to debunk, and it’s an item that I flagged as invalid even on my first reading of this book back in 1965, when the US was still nominally on the gold standard.

Rand makes several references throughout the book that gold is the only ‘true’ money, that anything printed by a government is essentially valueless as governments can always print more bills, essentially creating value from nothing. But she is making a very basic logical error, that just because gold has been used for many centuries by many cultures as a yardstick of value, that gold has an intrinsic real value. This is obviously false. If you are standing naked on an iceberg, which would you rather have: a nice warm parka or a pound of gold? If you answer this by choosing gold, then I’m afraid you’ll not be around for very long.

Gold’s value is relative to what use it can be put to. Clearly it won’t directly help in a survival situation, and gold has very few everyday uses other than for jewelry and electronics. But if there was an Inuit standing on the other side of that iceberg who had an extra coat that he would be willing to give you in exchange for that pound of gold (because he likes how it looks, and he’s not freezing!), now that gold has some real value. This illustrates that the value of any gold you have is dependent on what other people are willing to exchange for it.

So why has gold been used as a currency standard by so many for so long? Gold has several properties that make it useful (but not essential) for this purpose. It doesn’t corrode (do you really want that money you stuffed under your mattress to turn into crumbling powder a year from now?), it’s not flammable and resists acids quite well, it’s quite malleable and easy to strike into coins that are easy to carry, it is relative rare and takes a fair amount of effort to find, extract and refine (if your money was based on, say, timber logs, then everyone could go chop down their backyard tree and presto! they have more money – except, when everyone does this, no one would want more timber logs) . It’s this last property that Rand seized on – governments can’t just create a new ton of gold whenever they want; the supply is limited and not likely to grow substantially in any human-life time frame.

But gold is not money! Money is merely a medium of exchange, a human invention to allow for the exchange of goods between various parties without the hassle of barter – my bushel of wheat for Joe’s ounce of salt, that I will then use to trade for Jimmy’s rabbit – barter as a system is unwieldy and does not scale with increasing population densities. Anything can be used as such a medium, from cowrie shells to, yes, salt (they’ve both been used as such). All that is required for something to serve as money is that all the parties in a society will accept the item as a marker of value, and the same people have pretty much the same appreciation of what the value of one unit of that marker is.

So what will change people’s valuation of the worth of that marker? Like almost anything else, the value of a currency is dependent on supply and demand. If a government prints more and more markers, supply goes up, but the value of each marker will only thereby go down if there is not an equal increase in demand. What causes the demand to increase? Production of more goods, things that have intrinsic value (food, clothing, housing, etc), and more people. If the supply of markers was totally static, population increase alone would eventually increase the value of the markers (only so many to go around!), so governments (or whoever is controlling the supply) do need to make more markers available over time. How many to make is not clear cut; clearly if way too many are made, you end up with the hyperinflation of post WWI Germany; too few can lead to a brake on growth and recessions.

But forcing a government to limit its marker supply to the amount of gold it has in its treasury (as Rand basically advocates) is idiotic. Money is a tool, and like any tool needs to be used correctly. Using gold as a basis for a currency does impose some limits that would help curb irresponsible spending, but the real answer is for the government to act in a responsible manner at all times – and if it doesn’t, it’s time for a new government, which will almost automatically occur if hyperinflation sets in.

The ultimate value of any currency is dependent on the people who use it having confidence that everyone else will accept it, will be willing to trade things of value for it. Here the Tea Party has some valid points. They are insisting that the US government limit its spending and have a concrete plan for how to pay for the things the government is funding. Both of these items are likely to increase everyone’s confidence in the long-term viability of the dollar. But adamant, no compromise allowed, stances on these issues to the point where the government must shut down does just the opposite, and can do real harm to our economy and everyone’s standard of living.

Posted in Books, Economics, General | 1 Comment »

Atlas Shrugged as a Novel

Posted by hyperpat on December 19, 2013

Got to wondering about just what makes the Tea Party members tick after their disgraceful showing in the government shutdown debacle, so I decided to re-read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which many Tea Partiers will list, if not as their Bible, at least as their inspiration.

WARNING: There are major plot spoilers below. If you haven’t read this book yet, and don’t know what happens within it, stop reading here!

Now this is a massive tome, clocking in at near 500,000 words, and is basically Ms. Rand’s magnum opus, laying out in detail (very detailed!) her philosophy of life. I first read it when I was about 18, along with her other novels and some of her non-fiction works like The Virtues of Selfishness. Many of her points registered very well with my younger self, though even then I could see some problems with parts of her stated positions.

This post will try and tackle the merit of the book as a novel, without (as much as possible) delving into the philosophy; later posts will tackle that aspect. Now this book has, in various reader polls, been highly touted as one of the best in American literature in the 20th century, so one might expect to see a truly impressive work that delves deep into what makes people act the way the do and provides great illumination into the mysteries of life. Unfortunately this is very much not the case.

First is how Ms. Rand depicts her characters. Every character who stands on the ‘good’ side is depicted as standing straight, with forceful demeanor, with great pride in both body and mental outlook. Every character on the ‘bad’ side slouches, won’t look other people in the eye, and has either confused or poor images of themselves. This is not a realistic depiction of people in real life, but rather the type of characterization typical of melodramas. In real life you can find heroic characters who are fat and slovenly, and lowlifes who look great and have both charisma and strong positive interactive traits with other people. The constant depiction of all the characters in this manner eventually becomes quite annoying.

Then there is the aspect of her major characters on the ‘good’ side all knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives at a very early age (like 12), and who actually follow through with those initial choices. Again, not realistic. On top of this, the three major characters all work their way up through their occupation of choice, starting at the very bottom of their industries, even though they did not have to, while those characters on the ‘bad’ side either directly inherit their positions or obtain them from friends in high places. Then too, her ‘good’ characters are always superbly competent at whatever task they try and tackle, while the opposition is portrayed as remarkably incompetent and incapable of making any decision of any import. Even her minor characters follow this template, this either-or construct of being very competent at what they do or totally incompetent, not capable of doing anything constructively. This black-and-white depiction of people is more suited to an allegory than a novel about real people in a real world.

The portrayed sexual relationships of her characters are also far removed from reality. Each of them, just at the sight of someone of the opposite sex who embodies Rand’s ‘perfect’ traits, falls immediately in love with same. And if someone comes along who is even a better match for what Rand considers ideal, well, the love allegiance immediately switches to this new person, with hardly a guilty glance backward to the prior lover. Also noteworthy is that same-sex relationships are carefully not touched upon, even though there is a stated strong bond between those who respect each other. And it’s a very white world that is depicted; people of color don’t seem to be part of it, or if they do show up, it is in very minor roles.

So why do so many readers so closely identify with her protagonists, who find these characters intriguing and very much worth emulating? I think the answer to this lies in the fact that they are presented as out-and-out heroes, a thing that has become very uncommon in American literature from about the mid-20th century onward, replaced by Joe everyman, the man in the street, the psychotic, the down-and-outers, the milquetoasts and just-get-by people (as a prime example of this, and a very good one, see Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). There is an element in most people that needs someone to look up to, someone who is much better than they are, that they can imagine themselves as possibly having some of the same traits, and Rand’s heroes certainly fit this need. Then too, Rand’s heroes actually change the world by their actions, overcoming obstacle after obstacle, and fighting a seemingly never ending battle against the forces of obvious evil. This, I think, produces the same kind of attraction that something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does; everyone has at least a small fantasy of being able to change things for the better.

Let’s look at the setting for this work. It imagines an America that is slowly falling apart, where industrial production of goods and services keeps falling, and company after company is failing. It is an America that is very much dependent on the railroads for essential transportation of most resources and products, which will probably strike a modern reader as a little odd. Here I have to give Ms. Rand a little slack, because at the time she starting writing this work (1946), this dependency was actually true. Like many authors trying to predict a near future world, she did not foresee certain advances such as the rise of the airlines as cargo carriers and the interstates with 18-wheel semis that made her depicted world somewhat anachronistic. And it is still true that the railroads do carry the lion’s share of natural resources and bulk items around the country, although their passenger business has declined radically. Where this becomes important is exactly in the passenger area; the ability of people to get from place to place quickly hinges in this novel almost solely on the railroads, a great odds with the world as it is today.

Also highly visible in this setting is the role of government in commerce, in taxation, in the setting of rules that companies, unions, and the working man must abide by, a stifling, omnipresent octopus invading every aspect of American life. Some may claim that this intrusion of government into everyday life has gotten far worse than what prevailed at the time this work was written, that there has been a steady erosion of individual freedom to do as they wish, but many of these things are at least intended to help the individual avoid catastrophic risks (think airport security checks). Within the confines of this work, Rand sees the government as the ultimate looter, taking from all those who are productive and giving some to those who are only looking for handouts while lining their own pockets. I will cover this aspect in greater detail in the posts on the philosophy of the book.

In terms of plot, the first two-thirds of this work mainly follows Dagny Taggert, Vice President of of the largest railroad company in America, and Hank Reardon, a self-made man who has invented a new metal considerably better than steel and who has built a large company of foundries and forges, becoming one of the preeminent suppliers of this basic construction material. Each faces opposition, Dagny from her brother James, who as President of the company takes all the credit for her successes, and is the one with so-important ‘connections’ with Washington, even though he himself never seems capable of making a decision or have an idea of his own, and Hank from his wife, who doesn’t understand his obsession with making the best structural metal in the world, who wants him to be her slave, who feels entitled to everything he does, without any effort on her part.

Both Dagny and Hank, in order to perform their job, are dependent on the products of other companies (iron, copper, coal, oil, railroad switches, diesel engines, etc). The best companies that can supply these things are headed by forceful, decisive, and forward looking people, people of the same mold and mindset as Dagny and Hank themselves. But mysteriously, one by one these company heads are disappearing, ‘retiring’, even though they have very vocally and publicly declared they would never do such a thing, that their companies were their lives. As these people disappear, their companies are taken over by incompetents, and can no longer be depended on to supply the things Hank and Dagny need. The government’s reaction to this problem in the supply chain is to declare an economic emergency that freezes pay and profits and makes it a crime to leave a job, and intellectual property must be ceded to the government for proper ‘use by all’. Seemingly as a sidelight to this, Francisco D’Ancona, head of the largest and oldest copper mining company in the world, is portrayed as a wastrel, a party-hound, out to destroy his own company, even though he is clearly highly intelligent, competent, and keeps making statements that are in direct opposition to this image.

These elements do make for a fair amount of suspense (who is making all these people disappear, and why?), and much of the middle section of the book focuses on Dagny’s search for the “Destroyer”, all the while battling the increasing problems of continuing to make her railroad operate properly. However, I have a serious problem with Rand’s assumption that companies need to have super-competent and driven people in charge in order to function, and that therefore the removal of these people would cause an economic crisis. First, there are simply too many companies producing all manner of goods, in a very complicated interweave of interdependencies and with a large amount of redundancy, for the demise of merely a few companies to seriously impact the economy. Second, many companies function quite well without having a hotshot in charge – sometimes a cautious, risk-averse company head is exactly what’s needed to keep the company producing its goods on time and on budget.

And this is the prime assumption underlying the plot – that a strike by a few main ‘producers’ of the world will eventually bring the entire world economy to its knees and force a realignment of the social order. Clearly this assumption does not have a good basis in the real world, so when this is revealed as the basis behind all the disappearances, it makes the reader feel like he has been cheated somewhat, that the entire framework of the novel as a novel is based on something that is not real.

Dialog within this work seems to go on forever, as character after character spouts multi-page discourses on morality, sex, economics, the goal of science, what constitutes ethical behavior, the value of money and the gold standard, looters and moochers, and every other part of what constitutes Rand’s philosophy. This all culminates in a 60 page (!) speech by John Galt, the person who instigated the strike. Once again, normal people do not speak like this, and the repeated statements of various parts of this philosophy become quite wearisome by the end of this work.

Given all the above, I find it remarkable that this novel is not only still read today, but is immensely popular. As a novel, this work is blatantly bad. It only really has two points going for it: its portrayal of real heroes, and a presented philosophy that seems to resonate with many people who don’t look at its underpinnings too closely.

I’ll look at those underpinnings in later posts.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy | Leave a Comment »

Congress Critters need to become Roadkill

Posted by hyperpat on October 14, 2013

Congress is still working at making assholes out of themselves. At the present moment, they have a simple job: fund the current government day-to-day operation, and increase the debt limit enough to cover what has already been passed for appropriations. This takes a very simple bill, and an even simpler up-or-down vote. There’s absolutely no need to try and drag other issues into this bill; the Tea Party members who insist that this bill must also de-fund the Affordable Care Act are quite simply completely out of touch with reality.

In fact, since if the government does default on its debt because they can’t get their act together, then I think it’s time for impeachment proceedings against these idiots, as it is clear that their actions will be causing real harm to this nation, which should qualify as flat out treason.

There are problems with the Affordable Care Act, and Congress certainly has the both the right and the duty to discuss and amend this act. But trying to shoehorn this discussion into something totally unrelated is doing exactly what the President has characterized it as: holding a gun to the country’s head to try an implement changes that these Tea Party wackos so desperately seem to want that they can’t get any other way.

Posted in Daily Happenings, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Bowling Update

Posted by hyperpat on April 21, 2013

Last weekend, I played in a small local tournament that used the U.S Open oil pattern. I managed to place 5th (out of 69 players), and won a little money, but I only averaged 194 on this pattern. Not as good as I had hoped, and the main reason for such a low average was failure to make all the simple spares. The strike percentage was lower than normal, also, but I expected this, with such a difficult oil pattern. Tonight I get to try again, in a slightly different format, where they cut the field to the top 50% after four games, then cut to top half again after the 5th game, and 6th game establishes final rankings. Oil pattern shouldn’t be quite as difficult, a Kegel Main Street, but still challenging. Let’s see if I can at least place again, and, hopefully, not screw up the spares this time.

Posted in Bowling | 1 Comment »

A Bit of Everything

Posted by hyperpat on April 14, 2013

Well, it’s been a while (uh, make that a long while) since I posted anything here. Partly this was due to real-life demands of work and family, partly it was simple burnout, of not seeming to have anything to say that was new or needed saying. The same happened to my reviews of books on Amazon; it just didn’t seem worth the effort anymore. But things do change over time, and I’m feeling that urge to write (something, anything) again, as can be seen from the new reviews I’ve put up in the last couple of weeks.

So what has happened to me in this period? Perhaps the biggest change has been in my family situation, as both my children are now out of the house and on their own, one fairly successfully, the other not so much. This has left just my wife and I in the house, with a fairly stable routine from day to day. It has also meant a bettering of my financial condition (it’s amazing just how much money children eat up), to the point where our plans for retirement show a good chance of becoming reality. Also helping in this regard has the been the slow economic and housing recovery – my house is now almost worth what I paid for it in 2006. And of course, the engineering of this improvement has much to do with the changing political environment and the antics of the Fed, both of which have occasioned some rather irascible messages to the leaders of both parties about getting their act together from me.

Then there is the change in my bowling prowess. I’ve gone from about a 200 – 205 average to about 215-220 in the last three years. Along with this is I now have a much greater experience level with various playing conditions from bowling in a fairly large number of tournaments, from local, tiny events to PBA regional ones (still haven’t tried the PBA national ones – I’m still not in that league), with a fair amount of success, averaging out to winning enough to at least pay my entry fees. This has also meant a recognition by both me and my wife that this endeavor is an important part of my life, and our retirement plans need to keep this in mind. Related to that, we did some scouting for a retirement home recently, and had found what we thought was a good fit with what we wanted, to suddenly have the place get scratched off our list, as the only bowling alley in that town was abruptly closed, with no foreseeable time when it would re-open.

I do plan on doing some new posts here on my favorite subjects; the science fiction world has obviously added some new ideas, new works, new authors, all of which are deserving of some comment. So too the political world; the current divide and deadlock between the two major parties needs some observations. Changes in the US economic environment, Wall street vs Main Street, the world terrorist picture, the North Korean idiocy, cultural changes at home and abroad, new scientific discoveries, the state of space exploration, the social effects of the internet, movies and television — it would seem there will be enough things to talk about.

Posted in Bowling, Daily Happenings, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

2010 Hugo Award Nominees and download packet

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2010

The new nominee list has been out for awhile, but now Aussiecon has put together a very nice download package that is available to any member of the con (either attending or just supporting). This package includes all the novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, related works, etc that are on the list, which works out to a rather impressive amount of verbiage. An Aussiecon supporting membership cost $70 Australian (about $64 US), and there is simply no way you could assemble all the material in this package for anything close to that price. Aussiecon membership can be purchased online here. Especially for things like the short stories, it is difficult for an individual to obtain copies of all of these works, as they have been published in a wide variety of sources, of which some are fairly obscure. Of course, the intention of this is allow con members to make informed choices for the Hugo awards; it does not obviate the need to support the authors of this material with real purchases that they get royalty monies for.

The novel nominees are diverse, and of those I’ve read so far, well deserving of being on this ballot:

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor)
The City & The City by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

So far, my choice is The Windup Girl, but final decisions will have to wait till I’ve read all of these. As Hugo voting closes on July 31, I need to get cracking (and so do you if you haven’t been doing your homework!).

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 5 Comments »

Religion and Science Fiction

Posted by hyperpat on November 10, 2009

Religion seems to be endemic to the human condition. Every culture around the world and throughout recorded history (and probably much further back than that) seems to have some belief in a higher power, even though, to date, there has been zero directly observable and possible to confirm evidence for such. So it is no surprise that science fiction has occasionally delved into this area of the human condition. What is surprising is just how few sf works have really looked deeply at it, and even more surprising that of those that have done so, almost all are excellent works.

There are many, many sf works that paint very detailed pictures of future societies, but in most of these religion, if mentioned at all, is relegated to the side-bar, not front and center. Perhaps this has been due to a reluctance by some of the authors to tackle such a deeply controversial subject, while others may have felt that it was not germane to the story they were telling, and still others may have felt that religion would eventually end up in the dust-bin of history as a failed concept, or antithetical to the basic rules of science that science fiction has as its base. But as science fiction uses precisely this ability to depict future, different societies as mirrors for our current society and its problems, books that ignore the great influence that religion has on the great majority of people are, to some extent, missing the boat.

Happily, those books that do tackle religion head-on almost invariably seem to have something very cogent to say about it. There are those books that look closely at the disturbance to established religious dogma that meeting up with other intelligent species would cause, both from a personal and societal viewpoint. In this category would be things like James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Grass by Sherri S. Tepper, and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.

Then there are those that look at religion as a force that helps shape a society and its rules for living, morality and ethics. Here we have the great A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dune by Frank Herbert (Maub’dib and the Fremen Jihad have much to say about just how powerful a force religion can be), Soldier, Ask Not by Gordon Dickson, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (a very unusual look at a non-Christian belief system), and Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

But perhaps the most important category are those books that are sharp satires on established religions. Here we have Davy by Edgar Pangborn (the Holy Murcan Church is the lynch-pin of this imagined future world, and comes in for some heavy satirical commentary), Towing Jehovah by James Morrow, Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert Heinlein (so sharp an attack on Christianity, using the exact words of the Bible, that this book was denounced by several religious groups), To Reign in Hell by Stephen Brust, and of course the elephant in the room, the book that not only tore gaping holes in some practices by certain established religions but invented a new religion so believable it led to the establishment of a new church based on it, Heinlein’s Stranger in Strange Land. Whether this book really did grow out of a bet between Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard over who could create the best ‘invented’ religion (I don’t include Hubbard’s writings on and the establishment of Dianetics and Scientology as science fiction, but more as a deliberate attempt to con the connable, and which has unfortunately, to my mind, been all too successful), or was merely the outgrowth of things Heinlein wanted to say for many years and only slowly found his way to crafting this work, it still reigns supreme as one of the best books science fiction has ever produced.

Regardless of your own religious beliefs, reading the books I’ve listed here should be a journey of exploration. While many of these books are scathing in their attacks on certain aspects of religion, at the same time I think they can reinforce a person’s confidence in his own belief systems, by forcing the reader to examine exactly why he believes as he does, and thereby giving him a better foundation for that belief. And it should be a great journey as every book I’ve listed has either been nominated for or received the Hugo Award, a marker of just how well these books are written.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Hugo Awards, religion, science fiction, SF | 3 Comments »

Big Brother and Stupid Monkeys

Posted by hyperpat on October 29, 2009

It would seem that the monkeys who dominate executive boardrooms are incapable of thinking rationally. The latest case in point is a patent awarded to Amazon that specifies a method of computer substitution of one or more synonyms into electronically distributed text that will allow the later detection of unauthorized copies of that text (text of patent is here) .

Now I can almost understand the logic behind Amazon looking at doing something like this, as their site allows users to ‘Look Inside the Book’ and read a couple pages of the book, a feature that many users like as it is similar to a book reader’s normal method of book selection in a book store, where the reader can browse through the potential purchase to see if he really likes it. The trouble is, such a feature allows for multiple automated requests for excerpts, looking at different points of the book, and it then becomes possible to stitch these requests together to get the entire contents of the book – for free. And which could then be distributed far and wide across the net, with no income going to either Amazon or the author. Obviously this is even easier with ebooks, where the entire text is already available electronically.

But the idea behind the usefulness of this patent is that you can make synonym substitutions that do not alter the meaning of the text in any meaningful way, i.e., the reader will never know the difference. This is dumb and stupid on its face. “It was a dark and stormy night” might become “It was a caliginous and raving night” or “It was an obscure and disorderly night” – not exactly conveying what the original does. Authors, I think, would be very upset if their precious text is altered in this fashion, and would more than likely cry ‘foul’ and sue for copyright infringement, as clearly this method alters the text slightly and then attempts to sell for profit the end result, which at least would normally be considered plagiarism. And there really is no need to actually alter the text this way as there are plenty of other ways to uniquely digitally watermark text, say by changing kerning, spacing, pitch, or font for only certain words or sentences, that will not alter the meaning the of the text (with some caveats that some poetry depends on some of these characteristics – how it looks on a page – to achieve its effect).

Somewhere along the line, company execs need to get hip to the fact that the best way to stop piracy, whether it be books, songs, or movies, is not to add ‘security’ (whether it be DRM codes, ‘watermarking’, or whatever other method they might come up with) to the product, but to make the product cheap enough that it doesn’t make sense to go to the effort of illegally copying it.

But there is also a notable and frightening feature of this patent in that it specifically mentions that the requestor of the digital information can be uniquely identified and tracked. Now I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like the idea of anybody being able to determine what I’m reading. If the government starts doing this, then what’s to stop Orwell’s 1984 from coming true? Because once some authority can do something like this, it is a very short step from such monitoring to arresting the poor slob who has the temerity to read something that says nasty things about said authority.

Posted in Books, General, Writing | Leave a Comment »

A Journey into PBA Land

Posted by hyperpat on October 22, 2009

I finally qualified for and joined the PBA. Yeah me!

Of course, I immediately had to try my hand at a PBA regional tournament to see how well I really stacked up against this crowd. The one I picked on was held in Palo Alto from Oct 9-11, choice driven by the fact that’s it’s close enough that I didn’t have to stay at the tournament site overnight, as these things are already expensive enough ($220 entry fee) without adding hotel bills and such. And I had additional expenses getting a couple of shirts embroidered with my name (PBA requirement) and getting a couple of new pairs of slacks (another PBA requirement, jeans not allowed). Net out of pocket was $300 for this tournament, plus my PBA membership initiation fee ($99), plus the annual dues ($144). This is not a poor man’s game. Of course, all that would be made back if I could win the tournament (first prize $2500).

So how did I do? In a single word: terrible. First, the lanes in Palo Alto are real wood, not synthetic, which means the oil on the lanes gets soaked up more rapidly than on the now more common synthetic surfaces. Second, the oil pattern for this tournament was the Chameleon, which has never been my favorite. But in the practice session on Friday I did quite well, running about 50% strikes and staying in or very near the pocket about 90% of the time. And my first frame in the qualifying round on Saturday was a strike, following exactly the line that the practice session had shown me. And then disaster struck.

For some reason, when the front desk set up the lanes, they did not set them up for normal cross-lane bowling. Of course, this was immediately discovered at the beginning of the second frame, and play was halted to correct this problem. Trouble was, it took them almost 15 minutes to get everything set up right and all the various scores corrected, while everyone stood around. By the time I got up to throw in the second frame, my muscles had tightened up some, and I ended up yanking the ball a hair, with maximum penalty paid of a 6-7-10 split. And another split in frame 3. This did not do good things to my mental outlook. I ended the first game with a 177, which is clearly not competitive in this crowd. Game 2 was going OK till the 10th frame, when I got bit with an 8-10, and finished with a 184.

But game three was the killer. By this point, the lane conditions had started to change, and I simply could not seem to find the right adjustment, or if I did manage to find the pocket, I left either a solid 8, 9, or 10 pin. Result: no strikes, and a 147. This effectively killed any chances I had of winning, as even with a later games 205, 166, 222, 203, and 176, I was well below the par value of 200, and the cut line ended up at par +92 pins. By the time of that last game, there really wasn’t any oil left, and I had moved left about 11 boards to try and hold pocket, which is a huge (and normally never required) move for me. On top of that, I found that by the time of that last game my hand was quite sore, which surprised me, as I often do 8-10 games in practice sessions. But what I don’t normally do is do that much practice bowling and then bowl again on the very next day.

So what did I learn? One: don’t practice so much on the first day, do just enough to find out where the line is and see if there are any great variations from lane to lane. Two: if there are future delays of game such as in this one, make sure to do several arm swings with the ball prior to resuming play to loosen myself up. Three: I need to practice more on throwing deep inside lines on dry lanes. Four: see what I can do about keeping a decent mental outlook in the face of patently unfair leaves. Five: start making adjustments for changing lane conditions more quickly – assume that I’m throwing correctly, and the reason for a bad result is the lane change, as my more common assumption is that I did something wrong in the delivery.

Did I get my money’s worth out of this tournament? I think I did, as I’ll probably become a better bowler for it, and I really can’t ask much more than that.

Posted in Bowling | 1 Comment »

RIP, Mary Travers

Posted by hyperpat on September 17, 2009

Mary Travers is now gone, finally succumbing to leukemia at age 72. But far from forgotten. With her partners Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, the group practically re-defined folk music, made it not only appealing to a very large swath of humanity, but added a richness and vibrancy to the genre that perhaps was lacking prior to their advent. Anyone who grew up in the early to late sixties were influenced by them, even if they didn’t listen to their music, as the group also made their songs into a very effective weapon against social injustice, prejudice, and war.

I have all the group’s albums, and all of their solo efforts. I still play them, listening to at least something by them on a weekly basis. I probably know all the lyrics to just about all their songs, and will often find myself singing them. I don’t think I can say the same for any other musical group, past or present, except perhaps the Beatles, who in their own, very different way, were just as radical and influential.

I had hoped, perhaps, for one more album, one more concert from them, but alas, such is not to be. I am left with my memories and collection of albums, and that will have to do.

Posted in Daily Happenings, music | Leave a Comment »

A Warmer World

Posted by hyperpat on August 31, 2009

The UN is holding another conference this week about strategies to ameliorate the possible consequences of global warming, from floods and droughts to more severe tropical storms. Pointedly, they are not addressing anything having to do with CO2 emission caps or reductions in fossil fuel consumptions. And for a very good reason: agreements about such matters are almost assuredly not going to happen in the near future, or perhaps ever. What’s not being discussed is just how difficult such caps will be to implement, or what their true economic cost would be.

A quick look at the current state of energy production in the world would show that the overwhelming percentage of such production is fueled by fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. Water, wind, and solar represent only a tiny fraction of the total. Nuclear has a fair percentage, but it faces a very large uphill battle against greatly expanding its use.

A fair question is, can the so-called ‘green’ methods of water, wind, and solar actually be expanded to sizes great enough to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels in a reasonable time frame and with a reasonable economic cost? And even if they can be, what effect(s) will they have in their own right on the world’s ecology?

Let’s look at wind power, to start. The UK actually has a plan to deploy about 3000 wind turbines in the ocean over the next ten years (I picked on this set as they do have a fairly comprehensive plan, unlike many other developed countries). But the numbers are daunting: to achieve their stated goal would require the erection of a turbine almost every single day in that next ten years. The result of actually doing this would increase their total wind power generation from less than 1% of the total electricity generation to about 5%. Not a bad start, you might say, but look at the cost: about $1M per turbine, or a total of $3B for just the UK effort. And this does not count the equipment needed for distribution and load balancing. But you argue that surely wind power is the most ecologically friendly way to produce power? Perhaps, but it does have at least four impacts: large wind turbines are not the most sightly things to have cluttering up the horizon, they do produce a fair amount of noise, there are impacts on bird populations, and a final impact that I don’t think anyone has modeled, that of ‘stealing’ energy from the world total of wind production. What effect that might have, if these turbines were installed in significant numbers around the world, on things like cloud formation, storm generation, or rainfall patterns is a complete unknown.

Dramatic increases in solar and water power have similar costs and problems associated with them. Nuclear can be increased from its current level, and can make a significant dent in the need for fossil fuel generation, but it is also a very high cost solution, with its own ecological problems of waste generation and possibilities of both significant accidents and of being terrorist targets.

Now, just for argument’s sake, let’s assume that the current targets that have been agreed to by most countries actually happens. What’s the end result? Do we suddenly have a world where the total CO2 level is stable or even declining? Not by a long shot. Even with the 20% reductions being aimed for, this only gets us back to about 1988 levels of CO2 production. Which means that while the rate of increase of this stuff in the atmosphere might decline, the absolute level will continue to climb. To actually stabilize this level calls for far more draconian measures of 50% reductions along with strategies to increase sequestration of CO2. And the only foreseeable way to achieve anything close to this is for the developed world to drastically reduce their total energy consumption, while at the same time forcing the undeveloped world to stay where they are (the quickest route to developing is to employ the cheapest method of increased energy production, and that implies the dirtiest method, burning coal). How would we go about reducing our energy consumption, especially considering that any reasonable projection shows we will continue to increase that consumption? Conservation only goes so far, there is only so much that is wasted, and is a self-limiting strategy. We could go back to horse and buggy days, if we were willing to somehow get rid of 4/5 of our population – people forget that the current world population is only made possible at all by high-tech and energy-intensive farming methods. I don’t think this is a solution that many will sign up for. The basic answer is that it’s not going to happen.

So what do we do? We learn to live with a world that is going to get a little warmer. Whether CO2 is actually the driver for the observed increase in temperatures since about 1850 is still highly debatable. Another theory states that almost all of the observed increase is due to variations in the sun’s output, and such variations happen over a 1500 year cycle. In support of this theory are the known historical data of the Dark Ages warm period of about 900-1300AD (which, by the way, was apparently about 2 degrees warmer than today’s world, and saw the Viking colonization of Greenland, which really was green, then), the ‘Little Ice Age’ from 1300-1800, and our current warming trend; much longer data points obtained from ice cores, sedimentation data, tree ring growth; astronomical and satellite observations, and a host of other points. But regardless of which theory you subscribe to, both point to this world heating up about another 2 degrees C in next century. Given that it doesn’t look at all feasible to make significant changes to the CO2 generation or overall level, and we obviously can’t do anything about the sun’s output level, it looks to me, at least, that much more effort should be going into developing methods to live in a warmer world. And this probably means more energy generation will be needed, not less.

Generating more power via alternative sources from fossil fuels does make sense, but not because of all the scare tactics that are being tossed around by the advocates of the CO2 warming theory. It makes sense for the simple reason that those fossil fuels are a very finite resource. When they’re gone, and if we don’t have good alternatives in place, then we really will be up the creek minus paddles. But crash programs to switch over, even if you could get everyone to agree to them, driven by unrealistic fears, will do nothing but at the least cause a global depression that will make the current economic crisis look trifling, or cause resource wars that make the current set of brush conflicts seem puny.

Posted in Economics, Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Science Fiction, The Undead Genre

Posted by hyperpat on August 26, 2009

Probably somewhere around 1930, someone was stating that science fiction was dying, that all the story lines had already been mined for whatever treasure they might contain, and science was overtaking all the good ideas. They’re still saying exactly the same things today. Is there any more cause to believe these doomsayers now than way back when? Let’s examine the issues:

1. Print magazine sales numbers are down. And not just down, but way down. And the number of magazines devoted to SF has tailed downward since the mid-fifties. Surely this is an indication of a moribund and comatose field? I would argue, however, that to some degree this decline is a product of SF being too successful (see also my prior post on the death of the sf short story). Back in the fifties SF was almost totally a ghetto, written and consumed by a very insular group that had almost no contact with the larger literary world. Then came the New Wave, a few SF authors hitting the best-seller lists, a smattering of critical analysis of the field that didn’t totally dismiss it as fantasy for little boys, a few mainstream authors who gingerly put their toes into speculative waters, and the ghetto walls started to crumble. At the same time, real, visible scientific and technological advances and a couple of spectacular movies were making the general public aware that that crazy Buck Rogers stuff wasn’t totally crazy. From the sixties through the late eighties, this broadening trend continued. A few colleges started to offer SF as a course in literature. Science fiction has become at least somewhat ‘respectable’, or at the very least not easily dismissed as just ‘adolescent male fantasy’ . Nowadays a writer has far more potential markets for his science fiction writing than just those magazines that specialize in the form.

2. Science marches on, and stories that dealt with simple rockets to the moon have obviously been overtaken by such advances. This is a congenital hazard to writing stories in this field – regardless of what scientific concept is the driving force for a story, at some point in the future it’s entirely possible that new scientific theories and actual technological gadgets based on those theories may make the story obsolete, old hat, or worse, shown to be impossible. But people forget (especially those who claim that SF is running out of ideas) that SF is not just about possible new nifty gadgets, but rather about how humans live and react and form societies based on such gadgets (or the gadgets’ long term effects, such as all the A-bombs in the world being set off), and that viewpoint, which is outside of what can be achieved via mundane fiction, will never lose its impact or relevance. Which is why it’s still possible to read and enjoy something like Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A corollary to the continuing advancement of science is that new concepts and theories appear, such as string theory or quantum entanglement, which can become fodder for new SF stories based on same. As long as science doesn’t run out of new things to discover, or the engineers can no longer design new gadgets that impact how people live, science fiction writers will have new things to incorporate into their stories.

3. There are only a limited number of human-centric plots (I think it was Heinlein who boiled it down to just three actually different plots), regardless of what genre it is being written in. SF, however, has a greater range than common mundane fiction, allowing for plots that deal with man (or alien) vs universe as their conflict point, rather than just man-vs-man. But within that limited number, there is room for an infinite amount of shading and subtlety. This applies just as much to sf as to mundane fiction; clearly, there will always be room for a ‘new’ story.

4. Some writers and publishers are scrupulously trying to avoid the label ‘science fiction’. Partially this is due to the still not-totally-respectable odor associated with that label in literary circles, and partially due to the general reading public’s impression (still, even after thirty years of acknowledgment that there is some mature value to things written within the genre) that it’s ‘kids stuff’. There’s also a fear by many potential readers of just not being able to understand the concepts and science in today’s works, a fear which is at least partially justifiable, as there are certainly some (but also certainly not all) sf works today that call for far more understanding and knowledge of modern science than the average man in the street has. However, whether works by such writers are labeled sf or not by either themselves or their publishers, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t actually sf. Cormac Macarthy’s The Road is definitely sf, regardless of how academics or the general public view it. Perhaps, however, it does mean that sf, as a distinct, easily separable and identifiable genre of writing, is disappearing, becoming more and more incorporated into the general field of just ‘fiction’, another tool for certain types of story ideas to be used whenever appropriate.

Science fiction is not dying. It has matured some; it has become more ‘literary’, its minimum standards have improved drastically, its markets have broadened and become less easily identifiable. None of these are bad things.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 5 Comments »

The Demise of the SF Short Story?

Posted by hyperpat on August 13, 2009

There’s been quite a bit of moaning and groaning in the SF world that the SF short story is dead, supported by the fact that SF magazine subscription and newsstand sales have been falling, falling, falling… While the decline in sales figures are very real (as an example, Analog had sales over 100,000 copies in 1984, it now sports just about 30,000 in sales), does it really indicate a decline in readership for short SF, or is it merely an indicator of something else?

Once upon a time, I used to subscribe to all the SF mags: Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Analog, F&SF, Amazing, Fantastic, etc. When these issues arrived, they got devoured in short order. How did I get started on these things? By seeing them on the magazine racks and checkout counters at just about every grocery and convenience store, where their often garish (and often much maligned) covers really stood out from the rest of the material on those same racks. Which indicates the first point: people won’t get involved with these mags unless they know they are there, that they are positioned and designed to attract the casual browser. How long has it been since I’ve seen one of these mags at such places? Years. Distribution and display space is certainly one item that is causing the decline in their readership. What would it take to attract the casual reader today? In lieu of suddenly being able to place the magazines everywhere due to some miracle change in distribution methods, perhaps something like a YouTube presence or ads placed on Amazon or some of the most popular blogs – not cheap, but somehow these mags have to make their presence known.

How many SF mags do I subscribe to today? Zero. Why? Almost all my current SF reading today is novels, with only a rare (and usually single-author) anthology in the mix. The reason for this is something that Analog’s AnLab highlighted a long time ago, namely that longer pieces are typically more popular due to the fact that there is room to fully develop characters and environments. The SF short story is an extremely difficult form to do well, due to the inherent needs of SF to build entire worlds that the mainstream story can just take as background givens. In testament to this, I can rattle off literally a hundred excellent and highly memorable SF novels, stories that I can remember quite clearly even though I read them forty years ago, but I would be hard pressed to name more than 10 short stories that have had a similar impact. The difficulty in writing a great sf short story also leads to one of the complaints I hear today, that these stories keep treading the same old ground and the only people reading them are a graying and declining in numbers group of people. I don’t really agree with this; a look at the Hugo nominees in short fiction categories shows there’s still vitality here, but as has always been true, memorable short stories are a rarer beast than memorable novel-length ones.

Although having the SF mags run serials was always controversial with some segments of their readership, they were often a great draw to go get the next issue, and at one time the best novels were being initially published this way (Herbert’s Dune, for example). My impression is that there have been fewer serials receiving a Hugo nod in the last ten years or so, which may be due to several factors: limited space in only a few mags, more available ways for authors to market/publish the books from self-publishing to online distribution, more traditional publishers accepting first-novel works without prior magazine exposure, etc. Here is one area where online publication can help, as there aren’t any space/page limitations to be worked around to fit a novel into the magazine, which was (is) one of the constant objections the print magazines see from readers to serials, as they just take up too much space and crowd out a larger number of shorter works.

Which brings up the cost issue. The mag’s prices today are nearly equal to what you pay for a full paperback book. And the price needs to be that high to pay the authors, editors, illustrators, and printing costs. Online publication, instead of the dead-tree format, at least eliminates the printing costs, and allows for more flexible pricing/bundling – the online music model of price per song/story or price per album/entire magazine might make sense here. To make this work, though, would require probably several years of investment to grow the online version and get current readers of the hardcopy format to switch over.

There are new models appearing. Tor.com is one such, kind of a cross between a blog and an online magazine type format, with lots of comments, articles, and even artwork, with the occasional short story, and just recently, a serial novel. Quite noticeable is that its scope is much broader than traditional SF mags, including things like comics, anime, SF convention news, and links to other sites and happenings in the SF world, along with its own sales cart for books and such that are offered by Tor and related companies. Also noticeable is that the site has something new every day, something the print mags simply can’t do, and this may be key in keeping readership in the wide world of the internet – day old news is just so not there. I haven’t seen any readership or page hit counts for this site, but just from the sheer number of comments it gets on a daily basis indicates it has a fair following. So far, I haven’t seen any advertising from anyone outside of Tor itself, nor do they charge anything for access to the site. Which brings to fore the question of how financially viable this model is for anyone else that doesn’t have the deep pockets of a major book publisher to sustain them. Still, it, along with several other online SF magazines, shows that the market for short SF fiction still exists, there are still readers of this type of material. The fact that there are quite a few of these online mags, many started within the last few years, may in fact be a contributing factor in the decline of the print magazine, as more and more people get their SF fix from their computer, not the newsstand rack.

I’m afraid that the SF print-format magazine really is a dying animal, with almost no hope of saving it in that format. If these publications wish to survive at all, they really must embrace the web, and not in just a trivial manner. But the SF short story is not. Actually, there may be more short pieces appearing today that anytime earlier, but the market is far more fragmented. It used to be that probably 90% of all short SF was published initially in the print mags. I doubt if that figure today is more than 30%.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

People Do Judge a Book by its Cover

Posted by hyperpat on August 12, 2009

There’s been quite a dust-up over the cover art originally chosen for the American ARC edition of Justine Larbaliester’s new book Liar, which portrayed a white girl with long hair, when the actual person inside the book is bi-racial with nappy hair. So much of one that Bloomsbury, the publisher, has now made the decision to change the cover for the hardback release, scheduled for late September. I’m happy to say that the new cover is both appropriate and quite stylish. The cover, along with Justine’s comments about it, can be viewed here.

The reason for the original cover? Unfortunately, it was apparently a marketing decision that felt that a cover with a black person on it just would not sell as well. Now marketing folks should be focused on the color green (as in money), but, as Justine herself says here, this is neolithic besides being racist thinking, fed by bookseller’s impressions with little hard apples-to-apples comparison data to back it up. Plus it showed just how little power an author really has in terms of how their work will be promoted.

The cover art for this book is important. I think the book itself is pretty damned good (see my review), and if it doesn’t get the promotion it deserves, it will be a shame. Because there aren’t many speculative fiction works that have protagonists that are people of color, and covers with white faces will probably not attract (and may actively discourage) young people of color from picking up this book, and discovering a marvelous person who has severe problems with who and what she is and how she eventually comes to grips with those problems. Not bad lessons for any young person of any color, nor for that matter any adult reading this (and they should!).

While I applaud Bloomsbury’s decision to change the cover, it makes me sad to think that this whole fiasco ever had to happen in the first place.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

The 2009 Hugo Awards

Posted by hyperpat on August 10, 2009

The final list:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)

Best Novella
‘‘The Erdmann Nexus’’ by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Novelette
‘‘Shoggoths in Bloom’’ by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)

Best Short Story
‘‘Exhalation’’ by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)

Best Related Book
Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John
Scalzi (Subterranean Press)

Best Graphic Story
Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones
Written by Kaja & Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, colors by Cheyenne
Wright (Airship Entertainment)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
WALL-E Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter, story; Andrew Stanton & Jim
Reardon, screenplay; Andrew Stanton, director (Pixar/Walt Disney)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Joss Whedon, & Zack Whedon, & Jed
Whedon, & Maurissa Tancharoen, writers; Joss Whedon, director (Mutant
Enemy)

Best Editor, Short Form
Ellen Datlow

Best Editor, Long Form
David G. Hartwell

Best Professional Artist
Donato Giancola

Best Semiprozine
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal

Best Fan Writer
Cheryl Morgan

Best Fanzine
Electric Velocipede edited by John Klima

Best Fan Artist
Frank Wu

I was somewhat disappointed that Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother did not win in the Novel category, as to my way of thinking it was clearly better than Gaiman’s effort – but Gaiman has that aura of win to him every time he’s on the ballot. Little Brother did manage to come in second, overtaking Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in the second round of vote counting. (Full voting results are available here).

Wall-E taking the Dramatic Presentation was almost a given; it’s only serious competition was The Dark Knight, and the voting reflected that. Why the Academy Awards couldn’t recognize this movie as the best of the year, well, I’ve expounded on that earlier.

And unlike last year, where almost all my picks ended up winning, the only ones that made it this year were Scalzi’s Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, Cheryl Morgan as best fan writer (long overdue) and Wall-E. Most of my picks ended up at the very bottom of the voting lists.

There has been a fair amount of yack-yack out in the blogosphere that this year’s list of nominee’s, especially in the Novel category, were all a bunch of mediocre, standard fare, popular but not significant, or that somehow the Hugos are all a conspiracy by the SMOF’s to keep the best (read: their choice) works off the nominee list. With this I must violently disagree. First as to the quality of those that did get on the list: Little Brother is possibly the best YA novel to appear in the field in the last 20 years, and touches on social and political themes that are both important and highly relevant to today’s world. Anathem is cutting edge experimental, and a difficult, mind-bending read, which should put paid to the concept that such books are not recognized as significant by the average SF fan. Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale shows just what clear, unadulterated space opera can be, with great characterization and not cluttered up with a hundred pages of esoteric scientific theory.

Yes, I would have liked to see Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World or Le Guin’s Levinia make the short list, but the ones that did make it are certainly reasonable. People need to remember that the best literature must be readable and entertaining; those that have these qualities will normally rise to the top of any popularly voted award (as opposed to those awards given out by jury selection). And for those that didn’t like how this year’s nominee’s and winners worked out, I highly suggest they quit whining and become members of next year’s World SF Con, and send in their own nominations and votes. I note that there were 1074 voting ballots sent in this year, more than in past years, but still not anywhere like the number it could be if those who care about these awards would get off their duffs and vote.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Hugo Awards, Movies, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Bowling with the Big Boys

Posted by hyperpat on June 8, 2009

I went and played in the Santa Clara County Masters bowling tournament about a week ago. I entered it without too much in the way of expectations, but more as a way of finding out just where I stand competitively – i.e., can I really play with the big boys?

The answer is a qualified yes. For the the five rounds of qualifying, I averaged 210.6, or, as is the more common way of stating results for things like this, I ended with a +53 (sum of the total number of pins above the 200 level for each game). And it would have been about 35 pins better than this without two really bad breaks (a 7-10 and an 8-10 on good pocket hits) and one bucket spare that I missed by a cat’s whisker. This was not a bad result.

However, my place standing in this group was only 25th out of 33 participants. I beat the last place person by almost a 100 pins, and I was within 50 pins of 15th place, but missed the qualifying level by 150 pins, as the average amongst those who qualified for the next round of this tournament was 240+. When I did a check on all the people who played, I found six current or former PBA members, and of the rest, every single one of them had posted averages higher than my current league average. And several of them were regulars at the bowling house where this tournament was held, and were thus already familiar with the prevailing lane conditions. So I exceeded expectations based on posted averages, but it’s also obvious that I still need to to improve at least another ten pins in average to really stand a chance of winning something like this.

So I think I got my money’s worth from my entry fee for this, as now I have a much better idea of how I stack up against this crowd.

Posted in Bowling | Leave a Comment »

Prop 8 Thoughts

Posted by hyperpat on May 27, 2009

The California Supreme Court issued its ruling on the validity of Proposition 8, which bans gay marriages, yesterday. While the court decision was very narrowly based, only stating that the proposition was truly an amendment to the state constitution, not a revision, which would require legislative action, and also held that those marriages performed in the period just prior to the passage of the proposition are still valid, it is still a very disappointing result.

The court also re-iterated that civil unions, or domestic partnerships, or whatever name is being used for those relationships that cannot have the ‘marriage’ label, must be afforded all rights and privileges that accrue to those that can have the ‘marriage’ label. Since that is not totally the case under current California law, the court has effectively tossed the ball back to the legislature to enact appropriate law that truly does make civil unions equal in all ways to a ‘marriage’, in so far as state law can make them (as the federal government does not recognize such unions as marriages, there will be an obvious disparity as far as federal tax treatment, but this is not something the state can do anything about). Given that I doubt the California legislature will enact anything along these lines in the near future, it at least provides a small crack in the armor of the this amendment, allowing it to be challenged again, though on different grounds than were brought forward for this ruling.

A far more likely event is a new proposition to be put on either the 2010 or 2012 ballot that would rescind this proposition. Hopefully, if such happens, it will pass this time around. To my way of thinking, it can’t happen soon enough. But at the same time, I thing the initiative process itself needs to be tweaked; it simply doesn’t make sense that Californians can effectively remove rights and make second-class citizens of any group of people merely by a majority vote of those that bother to go to the polls. Constitutional amendments should require a 2/3 majority plus a ratification by the same amount by the legislature (which is similar to how amendments to the Federal constitution can be enacted – Federal law is even more restrictive, requiring 3/4 of the states to ratify amendments); after all, these amendments are changing the basic rules of law for the state.

This ruling makes legal sense, given the current laws and constitution of this state, but it does not do anything to truly resolve the moral problem of a majority depriving a minority of basic rights. Separate-but-equal has been shown many times before to not work, but that’s the best this court can offer at the moment.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The 2009 Hugo Nominee Download Packet

Posted by hyperpat on April 21, 2009

Like last year, the World Science Fiction Convention is making available a package of nearly all of the Hugo nominated works available for download. This is due to the efforts of many people, most especially John Scalzi, who have done a lot of grunt work to obtain the author and publisher permissions and getting these works into a format that can be easily downloaded and read. The purpose of this is to have a group of informed Hugo voters.  The items included in this package are:

Best Novel

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen; HarperVoyager UK)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury UK)
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (Tor)
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK)

Best Novella

“The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
“The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
“True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
“Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

Best Novelette

“Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s Jan 2008)
“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2)
“Pride and Prometheus” by John Kessel (F&SF Jan 2008)
“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Mar 2008)

Best Short Story

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Jul 2008)
“Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe Oct 2008)
“Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal ( The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang ( Eclipse Two)
“From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)

Best Related Book

Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan University Press)
What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications) (Extract only)
Your Hate Mail Will be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 by John Scalzi (Subterranean Press)

Best Graphic Story

Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic Story and art by Howard Tayler (The Tayler Corporation)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

METAtropolis by John Scalzi, ed. Written by: Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder (Audible Inc) (instructions for download)

Best Semiprozine

Clarkesworld Magazine edited by Neil Clarke, Nick Mamatas & Sean Wallace
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal – Year in Review

Best Fanzine

Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
The Drink Tank edited by Chris Garcia
Electric Velocipede edited by John Klima
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer

Best Professional Artist — Art samples by:

John Picacio

Best Fan Writer – Writing samples by:

Chris Garcia
John Hertz
Cheryl Morgan
Steven H Silver

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer – Novels and/or writing samples by:

Aliette de Bodard
David Anthony Durham
Felix Gilman
Tony Pi
Gord Sellar

As is obvious from the above list, this is a lot of reading material. And the fact that they’re all Hugo nominees means that the quality level of this material is absurdly high. So how do you get this goody package? Simple. Become a member (either supporting or attending) of Anticipation, the 67th World SF Convention being held in Montreal, Canada on August 6-10.

Joining is $195 US/$250 CAD for attending membership (which means you plan on coming to Anticipation this August) or $50 US/$55 CAD for a supporting membership (which allows you to vote for the Hugos). When you join you will receive information on how to download the Hugo Voters Packet.

Now you might think this is an awful lot to pay, but consider: the retail value of the included items in this download packet alone are worth more than the cost of an attending membership. In addition, joining gives you the right (and to my way of thinking) the responsibility of voting for what you think is best of all of these works. Many years, the number of people who actually vote for the Hugos, sf’s most distinguished prize, is distressingly small (much smaller than the number of people who are members of that year’s convention, and a terribly small number compared to the number of sf fans). One of the excuses commonly given is that people didn’t feel qualified to vote because they hadn’t read all the nominees. Besides the fact that you don’t have to have read everything to vote – if you think some work is good enough for the Hugo, then vote for it! – this download package will give you the opportunity to get, all in one place, all the material you’ll need to make that informed decision. Besides all of this, membership will give you the right to nominate works for next year’s Hugos, and vote on potential sites for where the next WSFC will be held. And of course, if you actually attend, you’ll be treated to a truly great party amongst a group of people who share your passion for science fiction.

I’ll check back in later with what I think is the best of the nominees, but don’t wait for me. Join, get this package, read, and make up your own mind. You’ll thank yourself for doing so.

Posted in Books, Hugo Awards, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | Leave a Comment »

BSG: The Final Episode Train Wreck

Posted by hyperpat on March 25, 2009

This is perhaps a little late, but my reaction to the final episode of Battlestar Galactica was: WTF? This was perhaps the lamest conclusion to any TV series I’ve ever seen, and it’s made doubly bad due to the prior excellence of the series. Basically the ending wrapped everything up by introducing a huge deus ex machina, and the audience is just supposed to swallow this whole and not choke?

On top of this, the thing that made BSG so good, its gritty, dark tone that wasn’t afraid of making sharp commentary about just about every human and government foible was just thrown overboard in a happy, happy ending (not counting the foreshadow that the whole cycle would repeat many years later). And rather than close the plot holes that had been hanging around from prior episodes (just who is Daniel, what is his relationship to Kara, etc, etc), it managed to introduce some new ones so large you could drive a Mack truck through them. Just for good measure, there’s a couple of places here that have characters acting totally contrary to their portrayed earlier character, without any explanation or even a gloss over to support their current actions.

If you want details about this episode, see the discussion over at Tor.com. WARNING: massive spoilers in this discussion, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet (and still want to), don’t go here.

There was an announcement during this show that there will be a new series starting in the fall that will look at the whole thing again, but this time from the Cylon viewpoint. Given the mess of this conclusion, I don’t think I’ll tune this in. I’m one very dissatisfied customer.

Posted in science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, TV Series | 1 Comment »

 
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