Sunday, July 31, 2005

Yet another conglomerate

This weekend was fun. Alliances were forged, nations crumbled, and we saved the future without leaving justice behind. All this and more without mind-altering substances.

Six Feet Under. I totally called that [SPOILER] despite the apparent recovery Nate would die at the end, but I didn't tell Rachel because if it didn't happen I would look like a fool, and now I look like a poser for claiming to have called it. But really, I did. And wow. No wonder it's one of the best three shows on television.*

How 'bout that tenth planet? As someone who actually follows these things, I know that depending on your definitions, there are probably eight or 30-ish or a thousand planets** in our Solar System, but it's always nice to find a reason to revise the science textbooks.

* For the record, the other two are Lost and Battlestar Galactica. If you aren't watching all three of these shows, you are denying yourself what few shreds of intelligent and artfully-produced visual fiction exist amidst the flotsam and jetsam of the ravaging sea of molten feces known as "television." Sure, there are other programs worth watching, but those three stand apart.

** See, there's no formal definition of "planet." Pluto was pronounced a planet somewhat prematurely, before we knew of its small size and relative insignificance; if Pluto were discovered today, we would not call it a planet. One could arbitrarily declare that a planet is any object larger than Pluto, in which case the new 2003 UB313 is the tenth known planet. But there is really no fundamental reason to declare Pluto as the size limit, and both Pluto and 2003 UB313 are part of the Kuiper Belt, meaning that they don't dominate their orbits, something all other planets do. So some astronomers say that a planet must orbit alone, and there are only eight planets. Other astronomers accept Pluto for historical reasons, use it as an arbitrary size limit, and say planets can exist as part of a population. So by that standard, there are probably around 30 objects in the Solar System larger than Pluto, we just haven't discovered them yet. So there are 10 known of 30-ish planets. Finally, some astronomers say, "Look, a planet is any non-stellar object rounded by gravity, regardless of circumstance," which is basically the definition used for centuries, before we realized there were a bunch of small planet-like objects in addition to the eight big ones. This is the criterion that is the most physically-based and least arbitrary, but it also means that there are possibly around a thousand planets in our Solar System, most lurking in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Some already-discovered asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects would be planets, too. Personally, I like this one the best, since it seems the most rational and avoids just randomly choosing a dividing line. There are eight major planets that dominate their orbits, and a whole bunch of minor planets that don't. It's really a lot more complicated than any of this.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

But parking's a bitch

I'm blogging from Spider House, where I ended up after deciding that I couldn't bear to sit around the apartment any more. I figured I'd find some place to get coffee and hang out to write. I didn't want Starbucks. I usually go to Mozart's, but the only reason is the view, which requires sitting outside and it's hot. I had heard about a place called Pacha that specializes in South American, but when I drove by it was pretty small and empty and I didn't want to be the only jackass in there typing away.

So I meandered down to Spider House, a place I haven't been since I left UT five years ago. A poorly-lit, converted old house (as all good Austin restaurants are) with pretty good coffee and pastries, music ranging from Beastie Boys to Beatles, and filled with a combination of college students and occasional older folks. It's the coffee equivalent of Kerby Lane.

Also, they have a cat.

I want to take a grand tour of Austin's coffee houses one of these days. Atmosphere gets bonus points, but good coffee wins.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I promise I'm good for it

Russia's great leap for tourism - a $100m trip to the moon

Roskosmos (Russia's NASA) is offering a trip to the Moon for $100,000,000. Eighteen months after coughing up the dough, the tourist would spend a week at the luxurious International Space Station resort before blasting toward the Moon with a cosmonaut escort, enjoying gourmet biscuits and tube food. No landing or Moon golf, but you get to fly around the far side and take in the scenery.

So who's going to loan me the cash?

[via Slashdot]

Monday, July 25, 2005

Cat fancy

Did Sammy just knock my (thankfully closed) bottle of Dr. Pepper off the coffee table three times in a row to get my attention since it was getting close to feeding time, or merely to piss me off?

Either way, he succeeded. Not that I can stay mad at the lovable little furball for long.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Turkey City

So, I attended my first Turkey City Writer's Workshop yesterday.

The workshop was held at Lawrence Person's house. I live about ten minutes away, but I ran a little late and showed up at around 9:20 . . . which isn't that big of a deal, since 9:00-12:30 was officially reading and note-taking time. I, being the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed new meat of the workshop--and conveniently jobless for the summer months--had already read every story that would be critiqued at the workshop save Howard Waldrop's non-emailed, typewriter-produced, horrific, and utterly brilliant little fairy tale. It being the shortest piece at the workshop meant I had plenty of free time, so I ducked out to get a large coffee from a convenience store to power myself for what I imagined would be a grueling session to follow.

The rest of the morning was largely spent marveling at Lawrence's library--of which he is justifiably, and often vocally, proud. I'm a layman when it comes to book collecting, but even if these weren't largely first editions and signed copies, we're still talking about something in the ballpark of $50,000 worth of books in one room. I can't imagine their true value.

So who else was there? In addition to Lawrence and Howard (and myself), we had Chris Nakashima-Brown, Lou Antonelli, Mikal Trimm, Richard Butner, Steve Wilson, Stina Leicht, Jessica Reisman, Don Webb, and the special guest, Ted Chiang. I was not only the newest participant, but also wuite possibly the only one who has never sold a story. This shouldn't be surprising, given that I've only recently started taking writing seriously.

I am now taking it much more seriously.

The stories gone over at the workshop ranged from relatively hard science fiction through elf-magic fantasy through slipstream through mediapunk through vaudeville space opera. No two stories were even remotely alike, nor their styles, so there was a remarkably diverse cross section of genre writing represented. I am glad that I was "forced" to read them all, because I was exposed to a lot of things that I would generally skip over if I saw them in a magazine or anthology.

So how did my story go over? About like I expected. Most people seemed to think that I had a good idea going, and a relatively unique one. Ted said it seemed like I was trying to write a Greg Egan story, an "admirable goal," and I consider the comparison to be a compliment since Egan is a brilliant and creative writer. I know he was talking entirely about concept and certainly not execution, but at least that means my head is in the right place for what I'm trying to do. Lawrence said the story was very "Brucean" (appropriate, since it sprouted from a line in Sterling's Tomorrow Now) and that I should send it to him to get "ten deeper ways to think about the idea," which is something I'll do after a rewrite. Howard managed in one sentence to completely revolutionize the way I thought about the story and instantly transform it into something infinitely more complex, compelling, and moving. The rest of the commentary was equally valid and worthwhile, mostly dealing with how I handled (perhaps more accurately, mishandled) the characters.

I loved every minute of it. I am glad that most of the problems they pointed out were problems that I expected to be pointed out. It was a question of just how serious they were, and I'm glad that I know the answer. More importantly, I got suggestions that I would have never thought of, and inspiration for where to go from here. I hope I am able to attend many more Turkey City workshops in the future.

Now to keep writing.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

OK, my bad

I'm not going to be writing movie reviews until next week. I'm reading and critiquing the 6 Turkey City stories that have come in for Saturday, and after some time spent doing that, the last thing I feel like doing is more critiquing. I'm also in one of those blogging lulls, which doesn't help. Expect more action soon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

One of those catch-up posts

I'm not sure why I haven't made even a cursory post in almost a week. I always intend to, but never get around to it.

We saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Saturday. It was good, especially if you don't try to compare it to the classic Gene Wilder version. I'll review it (along with the other movies I haven't caught up with) tomorrow, I hope.

I'm gearing up for Turkey City on Saturday. It's been so long since I've workshopped, and this one is going to be pretty grueling. There are thirteen of us to be read and critiqued in one day. Four people so far have sent out stories via email so we can get a head start. I finished my story today, but I really want to go over it a little more. With luck, I'll send it out tomorrow. I hope it isn't entirely crap, though compared to the others who are going to be there--multiple Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Ted Chiang, for instance--it will probably be one of the weaker pieces, if not the weakest. Hey, that's OK, I'm just getting started here.

You should check out the Guns, Germs, and Steel miniseries on PBS. And the book, for that matter.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Quite the storm

Today was not the best time for one's power windows to get jammed in a down position.

I need to review THX-1138, The Professional, and Forbidden Planet.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Return to flight

If you know me, you know that I am an unabashed supporter of space exploration. And while I think that the space shuttle and International Space Station aren't the most efficient and useful manifestations of the explorer spirit, I still get a little excited when I see one of these things go up.

It's simple, really: I'm not in it for the science, I'm in it for getting our eggs out of this fragile and rapidly deteriorating basket they're in. The more decentralized humanity becomes, the better its chances for continuing to be around. I say, let robots do the science if you want, but still send people up there and get experienced at it so that others can follow and found a multitude of branches of civilization. If we say, "Robots are cheaper," and never send people up, then eventually those probes are all that will remain.

And for my progressive comrades who may argue that the money is better spent down here, I would remind them that:
  1. NASA gets a truly miniscule fraction of the budget and far less than social programs.
  2. The money doesn't disappear into orbit, it pays the salaries to thousands of workers and gets taxed and redistributed.
  3. The long-term survival of humanity is just as noble a goal as the short-term survival of individuals.
It isn't necessary to pick one over the other when both are achievable.

UPDATE: So it won't happen today, but still.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Test tube hotdogs

One of the standard props of science fiction is the vat-grown meat product, usually necessitated by the near-extinction of most livestock making real meat tremendously expensive. Or perhaps the story is set on a spacecraft with a long mission. Whatever the case may be, in "The Future" meat could be made artificially.

Now someone is planning to do just that. New Harvest is a nonprofit research organization that intends to develop cultured meat within a few years. The method is relatively simple: grow muscle cell cultures on nutrient-rich scaffolding. No animals required. At first, the products would only be useful for processed meats like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, or sausages. Eventually, it should be possible to achieve more realistic "natural" effects, making steaks and roasts, but that is probably a decade or more away.

As a vegetarian who can certainly remember how good meat tastes, I would love to get my hands on some of this stuff. Humans are evolved to enjoy meat (though far less of it that most omnivores consume nowadays) and if there were no cruelty involved, I'd gladly have some. I enjoy all of the meat substitutes, but it's not quite the same. And for the anti-GMO crowd, nothing about this plan requires genetic modification at all. The meat is all-natural, just grown in an unnatural place.

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Friday, July 8, 2005

Right on!

Advanced technology

I turned on CNN for a bit today and caught a segment that asked the question, "Where's Osama bin Laden?" They had an interview with a general in Afghanistan and a recap of bin Laden's apparent Tora Bora escape in 2001. Then the voiceover said something about how we're using the most advanced and top-secret technology to track down bin Laden. Naturally, they didn't have an image of this super-technology, so they put in a filler graphic--of a hand using a computer mouse with a scrolling circuit-board pattern overlaid.

Yes, you heard it on CNN. We're going to find Osama bin Laden with a mouse.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Good thing we invaded Iraq

London Attacks (BBC News)

London has been attacked by terrorists, coordinated attacks in the subway system and on a double-decker bus. Dozens dead, hundreds wounded. Every time something like this happens, I am astounded yet again by the human capacity to do harm. It is unfathomable to me the desperation that must drive someone to act out in violence due to anger. I sympathize with the mistreatment of people around the world at the economic and millitary hands of the United States and our allies, but killing people--especially in the political climate of today--is only going to make things worse.

So I'm glad we are waging war on Iraq, rather than focusing our efforts on actually finding terrorists. That seems to be working out well for the Londoners.

I have nothing to base this belief on, but I have a feeling that the people of the United Kingdom are not going to rally behind their Prime Minister in a chest-thumping display of juvenile machismo and military adventurism. If anything I hope this will increase anti-war sentiment in the UK, as people realize that it was probably their government's mindless following of America's mission of vengeance that made them a target.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005


We had a great time in Houston, as always. Good to visit the family, good to visit friends. Austin is a great city to live in, but nobody else is here.* If only all of our loved ones could be here, too. We need 350 mph maglev trains connecting all the cities, so the trip to Houston or Dallas would only take half an hour.

* Sure, there are new people we've met in Austin, but they can only supplement and never replace one's old friends. Unless they're super-awesome. Naturally.

Oh geez...

Astrologer Sues NASA Over Comet Probe

How much does mucking with the heavens cost? $300 million. Yes, apparently the slight deflection of Comet Tempel 1 by the Deep Impact probe will ruin poor Marina Bai's horoscope, and we all know that will actually have an effect on something. I can't wait to see the terror in astrologers' eyes when we start moving and mining the asteroids. And really, would she still complain if Tempel 1 had been on a direct course to hit her hometown and now will not? And how does she know that the comet's new location won't make her horoscope better?

Incidentally, NASA says the probe's impact had a negligible effect on Tempel 1's orbit.

[via Majikthise]

Friday, July 1, 2005

It's all downhill from here

Sandra Day O'Connor is retiring from the Supreme Court. Emperor Chancellor President Bush gets his first opportunity to appoint a justice.

Things could get really ugly.

We all knew this day would come. Things would be bad enough if Bush got to appoint a replacement for William Rehnquist, but at least Rehnquist was already known as a conservative justice. Anyone Bush would put up would retain the balance. O'Connor, while moderately conservative overall, was also a key "swing judge" on important issues such as abortion.

Now, I think the Democrats have gotten some of their spunk back when it comes to challenging Bush nominees, between the filibuster debate and John Bolton. I think that Bush knows this. Hopefully, he won't try to push anybody too radical through, but if he does, I have no doubt that it will be a contentious battle. And by "no doubt" I mean "for the sake of humanity, please." It's a given that we are going to get a conservative justice regardless of Democratic opposition. The question is how bad it will be.

And I have a feeling Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be the only woman on the court when this is over. There should be a requirement that the court alternates between five men and four women, and five women and four men, every time a position opens up. Realistically, I don't expect to see more than three women on the court at any time in my life, and I'm not betting on more than two.