Jul 292011

Here is the new cover for ‘Bitter Seeds‘ by Ian Tregillis:

and here is the cover for ‘The Coldest War‘:

I am quite pleased that these are appearing. I really liked Bitter Seeds last year (I put it on my Hugo nomination form.) Then I waited just about forever and then Ian was kind enough to let us know that the sequel, The Coldest War was delayed in the Never Never Land that makes up the publishing industry. So, it is with great delight that I see they are progressing towards a reinvigorated release.

 Posted by at 8:19 am
Jul 282011

Congress continues to run in circles and all of the serious people are busy wringing their hands about debt and the deficit. The immediate problem is that the debt ceiling has not been raised. The debt ceiling is the total aggregate amount that Congress has authorized the US Federal government to borrow. The power to borrow money is granted to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution. So, if the debt limit is not raised, then the Federal Government runs out of money to pay all of its bills on approximately August 2, 20111. The exact effects of this are unknown but almost certainly bad. And here, bad means things like possibly plunging the whole world back into a recession. Not raising the debt ceiling is entirely a political problem. There are 0 structural reasons not to do so at this time. So, this part of the problem is wholly manufactured and can be resolved by a simple vote–if Congress just gets its act together.
Then, there is the problem of the actual federal debt and deficit. The deficit is the difference between Federal receipts and Federal expenditures for a given fiscal period.
Here is a graph of Federal expenditures versus receipts2:

Federal Expenditures vs. Receipts

The red line is receipts and the blue line is expenditures. As you can see, receipts are currently less than expenditures.
The debt (in this case) is the total amount of debt owed by the Federal government. As of June 29, 2011, the Total Public Debt Outstanding of the United States of America was $14.46 trillion. The trillion unit is a source of panic among many as people aren’t typically used to dealing with numbers in that range. For another number in that range, the total US gross domestic product (GDP) is about $14.94 trillion.
Here is a graph of Federal debt vs. total US GDP:

Total debt vs GDP

This means that the Federal government currently owes about 96.8% of the total value of the US GDP for one year. Now, how to interpret this data? Listening to sources from the Right would lead one to believe that the problem of the debt and deficit are immediate and about to result in the heat death of the universe in serious consequences. As near as I can tell, no actual data supports this. While it might be nice to have zero debt the total size of the debt should be viewed as a long time problem (think in terms of your mortgage–it is often greater than your yearly income, but is a long term (15 or 30 year) payback.)
Given the current state of the economy, it should be expected that Federal expenditures will be higher than Federal income. The economy is just barely starting to recover, unemployment is still high, and the rate of taxation is low compared to other developed nations. Here’s a graph:

As you can see, the US tax revenue as a percent of GDP is the bottommost number. A search of Google for “us federal tax rate” will give you a plethora of data and a vast number of ways to slice it that all show that US tax rates are low.
So, tax rates are low and the total taxable base is lower than it “should” be due to the effects of recession.
On the income side of things, then, there are two levers. As GDP increases, total revenue will gradually increase. The current rate (2011) of GDP increase is 1.9%, so that is a fairly slow increase in revenue over time. Increasing tax rates is a much quicker way of increasing the revenue side of the deficit picture. As the above chart showed US relative taxable income is low, so this lever is quite available–even now in a weak economy.
The other lever that is available is decreasing expenditures. As the economy is in a weakened state, an immediate decrease in expenditures would seem to be unwise. As a long term measure, expense control should certainly be part of any deficit reduction plan. In fact, the Health Care reform act is exactly an example of a measure that is expected to reduce the long term deficit. Reducing total unemployment would both raise revenue and reduce expenditure (through lower unemployment support) and so is an example of a measure that wins on both sides of the equation. Exactly how to reduce unemployment is, of course, a complex problem.
So, to summarize: The deficit can be addressed through a combination of income increases from structural and tax changes and from long term expenditure planning. Now, if Congress could just realize that.
1The August 2, 2011 date, is the date that from the Treasury Department, when the U.S. government would run out of cash to pay all its bills. There may be somewhat more money available from July receipts than was estimated and the exact date of payments may extend the actual default out to around August 15.
2Source, St. Louis Fed economic data

 Posted by at 10:47 am
Jul 222011

There are a lot of things converging right now to remind us of the rather sad state of manned space travel. Even the International Space Station isn’t really pumping out results. A culture of cheapness and caution seems to have slowed things down to a crawl. I’m feeling a bit perturbed about the whole situation, so here are some brief thoughts.
July 20 is the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (1969.) I was 5½ at the time, but I still recall watching Cronkite and Heinlein talk about the mission. It made an impression. I was pretty sure that easy space flight would be available by the time I grew up. Oh well.
The last flight of the space shuttle touched down on July 21. While the shuttle may not have been what we were expecting when it first came out, at least we were able to get people into space. Regardless, right now the only way to put people into space for the US is to have them hitch a ride. Now, of course, whether it is the US or some other country that really gets space travel working isn’t relevant from a human species perspective, but it is annoying from a national perspective.
Why is manned space flight useful or any space flight at all for that matter? All sorts of arguments (it costs too much, there are too many problems here on Earth, …) are raised for why spending money on space is a bad idea. I can pretty much imagine all of those arguments being raised about sailing to the New World back in the 16th century. And, I think pretty much the same answers to those arguments will pertain:
Space travel in general:

  • New resource sources (metals, rare earths, helium, …)
  • Technology improves and costs reduce as scale increases.
  • Exploration increases knowledge.

Manned space travel:

  • Free form laboratories — robotic labs too limited.
  • You can’t do colonization if you don’t send the people.
  • Man, I really want to go.
 Posted by at 10:19 am
Jul 212011

I’ve posted individual reviews for the bet Novel and Novella categories. In each category, you can rank your preferences (1 being best.) They encourage you not to vote for categories in which you have no experience (don’t just guess in other words.) Here are my picks:
Best Novel

  1. Feed by Mira Grant.
  2. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  3. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  4. Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
  5. Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Feed and The Dervish House were pretty close together in my thoughts. Overall, though, I found Feed to be the more griping read.

Best Novella

  1. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  2. The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand
  3. The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
  4. Troika by Alastair Reynolds
  5. The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky

Best Short Story

  1. “The Things” by Peter Watts
  2. “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
  3. “For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal
  4. “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn

I liked “The Things” quite a lot. It was fun (in a weird sort of way) and did a really good job of showing a truly alien perspective.

Best Related Work

  1. Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
  2. Writing Excuses, Season 4, by Brandon Sanderson, Jordan Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells

Best Graphic Story

  1. Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, written and illustrated by Howard Tayler; colors by Howard Tayler and Travis Walton
  2. Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright

As a whole story so far, I love Girl Genius, but for this particular years input, Schlock Mercenary edged them out by a hair.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan
  2. Toy Story 3, screenplay by Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich; directed by Lee Unkrich
  3. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, screenplay by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright; directed by Edgar Wright
  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates
  5. How to Train Your Dragon, screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders; directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  1. Doctor Who: “Vincent and the Doctor,” written by Richard Curtis; directed by Jonny Campbell
  2. Doctor Who: “A Christmas Carol,” written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes
  3. Doctor Who: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes

I loved “Vincent and the Doctor.” Truly wonderful.

Best Professional Artist

  1. Daniel Dos Santos

Best Fan Artist

  1. Randall Munroe

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  1. Dan Wells
 Posted by at 1:58 pm
Jul 182011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin is the last book in this years Hugo nominations for best novel for me to get to. It sounded a bit odd and I wasn’t sure I would like it from the blurb, so I did push it down the list. It turns out I shouldn’t have worried–I liked the book quite a bit. What sounded a bit odd, turned out to be a fairly fresh approach to a fantasy novel.
We join the book with the arrival of Yeine (the narrator) at Sky (the capital city of the planet.) We learn that her mother recently died and her grandfather has summoned her to the capital as an end to her mother’s banishment. Her mother had been a member of the ruling caste and had been banished for marrying Yeine’s father.
Yeine appears before her grandfather in an audience chamber and is (to everyone’s surprise) named a co-heir (there are two others.) So, young woman from the backwaters summoned to the big city into an unknown situation. Where this takes a very interesting departure from the usual fantasy is that it pretty rapidly turns out that the world is dealing with the aftermath of a God War and that the losers of said war have been imprisoned in the palace city of Sky. The losers of the God War are various gods who have been emplaced within mortal flesh and had many of their former powers constrained. These are real gods–beings involved with the creation of the universe rather than just kind of powerful creatures. Most of the book is then concerned with Yeine’s place within the complex plots of both her relatives in the palace/city and the gods.
Jemisin handles the introduction of the world through the first person point of view of Yeine quite well. We gradually learn the details of the world and the relationships of the various parties as Yeine also does. This especially works well in learning about the gods. Rather than seeing them as remote unknowable creatures, we see them first person and learn complexities from the ground up. We get to see transcendent beings from a small point of view that gradually enlarges.
Overall, the story moves along quite quickly and this was a fairly fast book for me (at least) to read. There were a couple of places where internal monologue just started to become a bit dragging, but only just barely.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in fresh new fantasy. This is another good candidate for this years Hugo’s.

 Posted by at 9:47 am
Jul 122011

Blackout (512 pages), February 2010 & All Clear (643 pages), October 2010 by Connie Willis are a book that won the Nebula for best novel for 2010 and are nominated for the Hugo for best novel for 2011. If that sentence seems a bit awkward, then it also indicates my feelings for the pair. They were published as separate volumes, but really form a single story. My first problem was that it certainly seemed to me that the books could have stood a good trimming and been reduced from two big volumes of 1155 pages to a single quite big book of say 800 to 900 pages. In other words, it seemed to get repetitive at times.
The second awkwardness is that while there was a great deal of historical detail in this book parts of it didn’t seem quite right even in my limited London exposure (I’ve only spent a week there.) Distances and details seemed off. After reading, I see that Jo Walton also mentioned this in her review over at Tor.com. When a book is that is supposed to be rich in historical details gets enough of the little things wrong to be noticeable, I start wondering about the bigger details. Wondering about the validity of details is one of the things that disrupts a story for me.
The third awkwardness lies in both the characters actions and in the ultimate resolution of the story. The characters actions seemed a bit strained at times even given the constraints in which they were acting. The final resolution seemed both a bit obvious and not quite in the direction I prefer my time travel stories to be.
So, unnecessarily long, not quite accurate, characters making obvious mistakes and an ending not to my liking–all of that would seem to mean that I really didn’t like the book(s). Interestingly, while it wasn’t my favorite book on the Hugo list, I’ve got to say that even given all the prior faults, it wasn’t a bad book. Willis does certainly know how to write in dramatic tension and the overall feeling of the Blitz and London were quite well done. It really does keep you reading. I can see why people were perturbed at the publishing gap between the two books (I waited for them both to be out before reading) and I would recommend reading them both at once. So, not a bad book, but it somewhat missed for me. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Jo Walton has another (spoilery) post over on Tor.com that pretty much nails my third awkwardness and has the spoilers that I didn’t want to include in this post.

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Jul 082011

Feed by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) is nominated for the 2011 Hugo for best novel. This was a fantastic book. Mira describes the ideas on how she came up with the story over at Scalzi’s Big Idea on Whatever.
The setting is the US about 30 years after a couple of viruses are released with good intentions that lead to a viral zombie apocalypse. This result in about 30% of the world population ending up dead and is generally called “The Rising”. Every mammal on the planet is infected with a dormant version of the viruses. This has the (intended) benefit that no one gets the cold or cancer anymore. The unintended effects of the viruses are that any mammal over 40 pounds in weight will (upon death or exposure to live virus–from being bitten for example) go into viral amplification mode. What this means is that the virus takes over the host body and then seeks out others to eat/infect. In other words you become a zombie.
The book follows a team of bloggers (Georgia “George” and Shaun Mason and Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier) as they follow the presidential campaign of Senator Ryman. When the viruses first began to take hold, traditional media were reluctant to believe what was happening. Word was spread via the Blogosphere and blogging as a news media became much more accepted.
In their blog group. Georgia is the newsie–the fact based hard hitting reporter. Shaun is an “Irwin” (see Steve Irwin) i.e. he goes into hazardous zones and pokes things with sticks. Buffy is the “fictional”–she writes poetry for their site and also is the system administrator.
The story is mostly told in the first person from the point of view of George with an intermingling of posts from the blogs of the three. We get to see the effects of the Rising on the US and people’s everyday lives. People live in very sequestered environments and blood tests for the live virus are everywhere. The zombies are not themselves the focus of this book. It is all of the effects upon society that the facts of dealing with the situation cause that provides much of the wonderful background. Grant has obviously done a lot of thinking about the situation and how it might effect the world at large–she has done it well.
In addition to being fascinating Grant has written a really well paced and gripping tale. I was up until well after midnight quite literally glued to my iPhone (that’s where I read it.)
Whether you like the idea of zombies or not, this book really delivers. Highly recommended.

 Posted by at 12:02 pm