May 19

Review: Anthem’s Fall

S.L. Dunn’s Anthem’s Fall (Prospect Hill Press) wants to be a high-concept SF novel. What it actually achieves is more like a bad comic book. Without the pictures.

In New York City, scientist Kristen Jordan (brilliant and beautiful, and very young, of course) is growing increasingly worried about an übertechnology she helped create, as the secretive leader of her research team seems to be developing ever more grandiose objectives. In the parallel world of Anthem, warfare and political collapse are destabilizing an empire. The teaser copy promises us that contending super-entities from Anthem will erupt into our world, requiring Kristen to unleash a technology against them that may be more dangerous than the invaders. DUM DUM DUM! And dumb, dumb, dumb.

But I never got that far. By fifty pages in it was clear that this is one of those books that, as Dorothy Parker put it, should not be lightly tossed aside; rather, it should be hurled with great force. I made myself soldier on a bit after that to give the Anthem-centered part of the narrative a fair shake, but it was no improvement on the parts set in New York City – if anything the smell of bad comic-book got stronger.

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May 17

Managing compatibility issues in ubiquitous code

There’s a recent bug filed against giflib titled giflib has too many unnecessary API changes. For a service library as widely deployed as it is (basically, on everything with a screen and network access – computers, smartphones, game consoles, ATMs) this is a serious complaint. Even minor breaks in API compatibility imply a whole lot of code rebuilds. These are not just expensive (requiring programmer attention) they are places for bugs to creep in.

But “Never change an API” isn’t a good answer either. In this case, the small break that apparently triggered this report was motivated by a problem with writing wrappers for giflib in C# and other languages with automatic memory management. The last round of major changes before this was required to handle GIF animation blocks correctly and make the library thread-safe. Time marches on; service libraries have to change, and APIs with them, even when change is expensive.

How does one properly reconcile these pressures? I use a small set of practice rules I think are simple and effective, and which I think are well illustrated by the way I apply them to giflib. I’m writing about them in public because I think they generalize.

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May 16

Review: A Darkling Sea

While most life on Earth is powered by chemical energy captured from solar radiation, deep in our seas there are entire ecologies powered by volcanism – specifically the hot water issuing from hydrothermal vents. Hot mineral-rich water supports a food chain based on chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea; it extends upwards in complexity through giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp. These animals live miles further down than sunlight ever reaches, in an extreme of pressure and frigid temperatures that would kill any surface life in short order.

In recent years planetary astronomers have come to believe that beneath the icy surfaces of some of our gas-giant moons there are dark oceans of liquid water. Tidal forces acting on the moons power volcanism; Europa, in particular (the smallest of the four “Galilean” moons of Jupiter) is suspected of having its own hydrothermal vents. Exobiologists think it is relatively likely that life has evolved around them.

James Cambias’s A Darkling Sea (Tor) transplants the Europa scenario to Iluvatar, a moon in a solar system roughly half way between future Earth and the homeworld of aliens called the Sholen who are attempting to limit human interstellar expansion. A peace treaty with the Sholen constrains human scientists living in a seafloor habitat beneath the ice. They chafe to make contact with the intelligent arthropods at the top of Iluvatar’s foor chain, but are forbidden from contaminating their culture.

After a human scientist attempting to spy on the Ilmatar is captured and dissected by Iluvatarans who do not realize he is a sophont like themselves, a Sholen mission shuts down the base and orders the humans to evacuate. Some humans, refusing, flee into the lightless ocean and must make allies of the Iluvatarans to survive. When the Sholen’s clumsy attempts at forcing the issue kill some of the mission crew, the survivors vow to strike back.

Cambias imagines a detailed and convincing ecology for Iluvatar. The natives have plausible psychologies given their evolutionary history (the way Cambias develops the operation and limits of the sonar that is the only distant sense of these eyeless beings is impressive). The gritty details of life in a cramped, smelly human dive habitat are also well handled. Even the villains of the piece are not mere cardboard; the Sholen have their own internal factional problems, and become dangerous not because the are strong but because they are divided, afraid, and dwindling.

Overall, this is a tense, well-constructed SF novel of first contact, done in the classic Campbellian style and lit up with the sense of discovery that such works ought to have. It could have been written by Hal Clement or Arthur C. Clarke if either were still alive. It works excellently on that level, even if you don’t notice that the author has embedded in it a sly parable.

I won’t spoil the fun by laying it all out for you. But the viewpoint character’s last name is “Freeman”, and the repressive eco-pietism of the Sholen echoes the attitudes of some humans in our present day. The second half of the book, without ever tub-thumping about it, delivers a satire of various human political delusions. Even the Sholen social pattern of achieving consensus by bonobo-like sexual bonding carries mordantly funny symbolic freight once you realize what it’s a comment on.

All in all, highly recommended. This is much the best first SF novel I’ve read in the last few years, and leads me to expect good craftsmanship from Cambias in the future.

May 15

Evaporative cooling and AGW

Earlier this evening an Instapundit reference reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s insightful essay Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, in which he uses a clever physics analogy to explain why cult-like groups often respond to strong evidence against their core beliefs by becoming more fanatical.

Glen Reynolds used the reference to take a swipe at what political feminism has become, but a more interesting example occurred to me. I think AGW (anthropogenic global warming) alarmism is beginning to undergo some serious evaporative cooling. Let’s examine the evidence, how it might fit Yudkowsky’s model, and what predictions it implies.

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May 08

On being a gentleman

So I’m walking down a hallway at Penguicon 2014 and I notice one of the people who had tossed intelligent questions at me during my Ask Me Anything panel. He’s rather hard to miss; you don’t often see guys who fit the description “huge blond viking” so well, and when you do they are not apt to be wearing full drag, including a wig and earrings. Beside him is a rather pretty woman emitting wife-or-girlfriend cues that are not readily reconciled with the drag.

“Hey honey,” he says “that’s who I was telling you about.” Addressing me, he says “I’ve made The Art of Unix Programming required reading in my IT group.” OK, that’s worth stopping for, if only out of politeness. I say something agreeable.

“I started that”, says honey “but I only got two chapters in. I didn’t understand it.” Closer up she is quite attractive, slender and blue-eyed and fit. Also a bit tipsy, and if I’m any judge not quite as bright as viking-drag-guy even when sober – though this being an SF convention her IQ is probably comfortably above average anyway. This judgment informs my response.

I suggest she try reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar instead, as it’s more accessible to people without a programming background. Mostly anthropology and economics, I explain. Viking-drag-guy says “Huh. I guess that’s true.” I say a few relevant things about praxeology and Hayek. “I think I have a copy at home,” he says to her.

Honey is developing other ideas; there is now a bit of sexual edge in her gaze. “I want a picture with you.” Viking-drag-guy pulls out a smartphone and positions it. Nothing loth, I move next to her and she promptly pulls me into intimate range. I look at the smartphone lens and feel something damp on my cheek. Honey is licking me playfully. I make a startled noise. Viking-drag-guy looks amused. Then honey asks me to kiss her.

She is quite attractive and viking-drag-guy doesn’t look inclined to try to drop-kick me into the next county (an intention I’d have to take seriously from anyone that large, hand-to-hand training or no) so I comply. She kisses me most thoroughly, and while I don’t exactly escalate I do my best to make it an enjoyable experience for her.

To understand my reaction to what comes next, you need to know that various women in my life have insisted that I am quite good at this, and I think I know why; when I kiss a woman she gets my total undivided attention to that moment, contrasting with a lot of men who are distractedly thinking about, oh, I dunno what – their next move, probably. This is why I’m a little surprised when honey breaks the smooch and complains.

“You didn’t give me any tongue!” she says. Er…viking-drag-guy is still looking amused, and she’s still pretty, so I mentally shrug and go in for round two, though I am growing slightly uncomfortable with the situation.

Honey can tell this. “You’re too tense,” she says. “you need to loosen your lips. That’s what makes it passionate.” Uh oh. Now I must risk giving offense.

“I’m sorry,” I explained. “I am, actually, feeling a bit inhibited. I strongly prefer kissing women when they’re completely sober and responsible.”

Honey makes a visible effort to think about this. After a pause, she says “Isn’t that a bit unrealistic?” Those were her exact words.

Boing! A dry, Spock-like voice in my brain informs me that I have obviously encountered a woman who considers inebriation a normal part of the mating dance. I am just reflecting that, by report, this is statistically normal behavior which I can consider exceptional only because I choose my social contexts rather carefully, when viking-drag-guy interrupts my thought.

“He’s being a gentleman, honey,” he says. Whereupon I mumbled “I’m afraid I’m stuck with that,” and took my leave as gracefully as I could.

May 06

Review: The Rods and the Axe

If you’re in the target market for Tom Kratman’s The Rods and the Axe (Baen) you probably already know you’re going to like it. Though nominally SF, this is in reality pretty straight-up military fiction. Bimpty-bumpth in his continuing series on the wars of Patrick Carrera on the colony world of Nova Terra, it delivers Kratman’s usual goods.

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May 06

Review: Right to Know

There are many kinds of bad SF out there. One of the subtler kinds is written with enough competence that it might be good if the author had any original ideas, but reads like a tired paste-up of familiar genre tropes and plot twists that an experienced reader can see coming a light-year off.

Edward Willett’s Right To Know (Diamond Book Distributors) is such a novel. Oppressive society on a decaying generation starship! Plucky, desperate resistance! Planetfall where humans with FTL drives got there ahead of them! Earth has mysteriously vanished! Fanatical planetside cultists mistake our hero for their messiah! Head of the Resistance is the Captain’s daughter! (That last one would only be an actual spoiler if you’re thick as neutronium, because it’s telegraphed with about the subtlety of a brick upside the head.)

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May 04

Review: Extreme Dentistry

Fearless monster killers have been a very popular trope in SF and fantasy lately, in a trend perhaps best exemplified by Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter sequence but extending to the dozens of nigh-interchangeable Buffy clones in leather clogging the Urban Fantasy subgenre lately. Hugh A. D. Spencer’s Extreme Dentistry seems to have been intended as a dark and mordantly funny satire of this sort of thing, and succeeds.

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May 03

Review: Child of a Hidden Sea

The orphan discovering that her birth family hails from another world is an almost hoary fantasy trope – used, for example, in Charles Stross’s Family Trade novels. What matters in deploying it is how original and interesting you can be once you have set up the premise. A.M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea averts many of the cliches that usually follow, and delivers some value.

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May 01

Penguicon A&D party heads up!

I, and a largish crew of the usual suspects, are at Penguicon.

Friends of Armed & Dangerous party will be 9PM tomorrow in 403 at the Westin Southfield Detroit.

Bloodmouth Carnist T-shirts will be on sale.

Apr 23

Sugar has passed on

Sugar’s NYT appearance last week was her last hurrah. We had to have her euthanized today. She died peacefully about an hour ago.

Her decline had been extremely rapid. Three weeks ago, even, Sugar barely looked aged and it was still possible to believe she might live another year. But the chronic nephritis, and possibly other organ failures, caught up with her. She started losing weight rapidly and her legs (already affected by arthritis) weakened. Her appetite waned, and her frequency of self-grooming diminished.

The signs were clear, but we hoped that she would bounce back – she was a very tough cat and had surprised us and our veterinarians that way before. Over the weekend she showed serious problems walking. When I saw her fall partway down the basement stairs Saturday evening because she couldn’t keep her footing, I suspected it was time. Sunday she almost couldn’t walk, and began sounding distress calls a few times an hour – stopped eating and drinking. Then I knew it was time. So did Cathy.

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Apr 17

Review: Sea Without A Shore

I’m not, in general, a fan of David Drake’s writing; most of his output is grimmer and far more carnographic than I care to deal with. I’ve made an exception for his RCN series because they tickle my fondness for classic Age-of-Sail adventure fiction and its pastiches, exhibiting Drake’s strengths (in particular, his deep knowledge of history) while dialing back on the cruelty and gore.

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Apr 13

Sugar’s health may finally be failing

This is an update for friends of Sugar only; you know who you are.

Sugar may not have much time left. She’s been losing weight rapidly the last couple weeks, her appetite is intermittent, and she’s been having nausea episodes. She seems remarkably cheerful under the circumstances and still likes human company as much as ever, but … she really does seem old and frail now, which wasn’t so as recently as her 21st birthday in early February.

We’re bracing ourselves. If the rate she’s fading doesn’t change I think we’re going to have to euthanize her within six weeks or so. Possibly sooner. Possibly a lot sooner.

Sugar’s had a good long run. We’ll miss her a lot, but Cathy and I are both clear that it is our duty not to see her suffering prolonged unnecessarily.

If you’re a friend of Sugar and have any option to visit here to say your farewells, best do it immediately.

If you’ve somehow read this far without having met Sugar: I don’t normally blog about strictly personal things, but Sugar is a bit of an institution. She’s been a friend to the many hackers who have guested in our storied basement; I’ve seen her innocent joyfulness light up a lot of faces. We’re not the only people who will be affected by losing her.

Apr 10

Does the Heartbleed bug refute Linus’s Law?

The Heartbleed bug made the Washington Post. And that means it’s time for the reminder about things seen versus things unseen that I have to re-issue every couple of years.

Actually, this time around I answered it in advance, in an Ask Me Anything on Slashdot just about exactly a month ago. The following is a lightly edited and somewhat expanded version of that answer.

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Apr 10

Review: 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

The Ring Of Fire books are a mixed bag. Sharecropped by many authors, ringmastered by Eric Flint, they range from plodding historical soap opera to sharp, clever entertainments full of crunchy geeky goodness for aficionados of military and technological history.

When Flint’s name is on the book you can generally expect the good stuff. So it proves in the latest outing, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, a fun ride that’s (among other things) an affectionate tribute to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and age-of-sail adventure fiction in general. (Scrupulously I note that I’m personally friendly with Flint, but this is exactly because he’s good at writing books I like.)

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