31 August 2008

Photos from Vienna - Mk1

We've posted a bunch of photos from our trip to Austria. We're still organizing things, so please excuse the dust. More to come.

News Roundup: Gustav Edition

It looks like Operation: Destroy New Orleans has a new chapter. The storm is currently (at least, as of this posting) over Cuba, at least a day from New Orleans. I guess that after the disastrous turn of events last time, the government of New Orleans isn't leaving anything to chance and is already evacuating the city. I'm not sure what to think about that. It takes quite a bit of certainty to evacuate a city when the storm is still over a day away, and still category three. It also shows that the government is pretty certain that the repairs made to the storm levees are insufficient to stop the storm surge. Additionally, the media is being strangely silent on what New Orleans is doing about its massive population of lower income residents, Are they fleeing as well? How? In any case, I'm not certain that New Orleans is handling this proto-crisis any better than they did the previous one.

In other news, the Republican convention is already being affected by the storm. I thought they were in Minneapolis already?

29 August 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech

I guess that Barack Obama has finally clinched the nomination, something which I believed had occurred about three months ago. His acceptance speech is a doozy, though. I didn't get to see it delivered -- not having TV sucks like that -- but reading it brought tears to my eyes. Here is a man who knows how to work a crowd. If he is even a tenth the leader that he is a public speaker, he will be a president for the ages.

Major highlights: Improved commitments to cleaner energy (including nuclear! No one cares about nuclear these days...), improved funding for basic research, tax breaks to small businesses, and a few more. These are the primary issues to me, so I'm glad that at least one of the candidates is addressing them directly. Bush's presidency has been an unmitigated disaster for the NSF and funding for basic research. If the US is to remain competitive in research, this situation will need to be fixed. If it can be.

28 August 2008

Book Review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

(Source: Amazon)

On my way to Vienna I read an older book by Jim Butcher called Summer Knight, which is part of his Dresden Files series of books. The Dresden Files are kind of like crack to me. When I start reading them, I just cannot seem to stop myself from reading to the finish -- Butcher has certainly happened upon a winning formula here. I'm not entirely sure what it is about the series, but Butcher's mix of action, mythology and traditional gumshoery is, well, captivating.

Summer Knight is book four of the Dresden Files, following Storm Front, Fool Moon and Grave Peril. All of these are full of action, mythology, and tons of Butcher's slightly flawed antihero, Harry Dresden, who always manages to just barely save the day -- usually at great cost to himself and those around him -- and inevitably manage to piss off nearly all the authorities in the process. Along these lines, Dresden has quite a bit in common with traditional, scrupulous gumshoes, such as Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade.

Summer Knight picks up nine months after the end of Grave Peril and largely deals with the events started in the previous novel. Dresden has spent the previous nine months researching a way to extricate his girl friend from the situation in which the previous book left her. Meanwhile, the White Council (a governing body of wizards) has spent the intervening time trying to decide what to do about Dresden and the war he inadvertently started. Meanwhile, the courts of Faerie are plotting something that will draw Dresden back into the middle of both, as well as dig up old wounds he had thought were healed.

As I said earlier, most of the Dresden books are packed page-to-page with action and mythological mayhem. Dresden is seemingly unstoppable as his situation goes from bad, to very bad, to worse, and finally to inevitably fatal. In fact, by chapter four, you would assume that Dresden is about three steps short of the grave. The only beef I have with this novel -- as a story, not as enjoyable reading -- is that everything is relevent in the bigger picture. Everything that happens to Dresden, ranging from his midnight excursion to Walmart to the rain of frogs at the book opening, turn out to be extremely important in not just the grand scheme of the novel, but also the grand scheme of the entire Dresden Files universe as a whole. Oh, and everything is linked directly with the book's core plot. Even knowing this fact, however, (this property also holds of the other three Dresden novels) the book will keep you guessing until the very end.

Summer Knight (as well as the other Dresden Files novels) are available through Amazon.com. Also available for the Kindle, which is the version that I read.

Odd Things in Austria

No vacation is complete without some odd stories and/or photos. Our trip was no exception. Here are a couple of my favorites:

This pigeon really, really wanted to go to Vienna from Salzburg. It took five of us to get rid of it, which partially answers the question of "How many Austrian train employees does it take to eliminate a pigeon?"

The (apparently) world-famous Opera Toilet in Vienna's Karlsplatz station. It cost 0.60 euros to enter, and it played very loud opera music the whole time. The mens room had a piano in it for reasons which I have not yet been able to fathom.

We saw these girls near the Parliament building in Vienna, and I later saw more of them near Wien Sudbanhof while on my way to the airport. They appeared to be handing out flyers to people either walking or driving by. What are they advertising? I haven't the slightest clue. I suspect that they may be ghost busters. Or vacuum cleaner repairwomen. Anyone with a more rational explanation please step forward.

27 August 2008

Back from Vienna...

Hi everyone! So I spent the last week in Austria with Urmi. Urmi had a conference (UC 2008) that coincided with our one year wedding anniversary, so I decided to tag along and see the sights. Austria is a pretty cool place, although we had quite a bit of trouble with the language and, I think, spent far, far too much time walking. Photos coming soon -- we took over 700 of them, and Urmi is (I'm sure) still snapping away. Until then, enjoy these...

Zell am See from Smittenhohe

Salzberg Old Town

Werfen fortress from the road to Eisreisenwelt (where none of our photos turned out very well)

An old castle we saw while biking on the Danube

I wrote a few other posts while on the plane back from Austria. The flight was over 11 hours long, and I had a decidedly unpleasant experience with the Atlanta airport while I was waiting to get back to Ronald Reagan. Anyways, expect to see a few reviews of books that I read on the plane, as well as a few photos of bizarre things we ran into in Austria.

15 August 2008

Out of Town

I will be out of town until Monday, going down to Durham to help Urmi move into a new apartment. Following that, we go to Austria for our first wedding anniversary. Wish me luck.

14 August 2008

News Roundup: Olympics Edition

  • Beijing's Olympic Cleanup Sends Migrants and Homeless Packing
  • The news has been full of this stuff for the last year. "China planning cloud seeding to ensure sunny weather at the olympics." "Chinese restaurants pondering changing names to appeal to tourists." (Glad to see that one worked out well) "China lipsyncs during Olympic opening ceremony." These games have already been much more exciting than I really expected them to be. I love it -- based on the news, you might think that China's only pressing concern is patching up Beijing enough for the Olympics to finish, then sending things back to business as usual.
  • The mystery of the black stuff on Kerri Walsh's shoulder
  • I'd seen this in several of the photos I've seen of the events. I haven't watched any of the games on TV, but it definitely looked weird in the photos. Along these lines, what's up with all the threads about the standard uniform for beach volleyball? I bet many other athletes also have similar medical equipment, but it's not as visible.
  • Phelps easily wins 6th Olympic gold medal in pool
  • Not unexpected, but quite exciting to some people, I guess. For me the most interesting thing is the last line in the article: "It was the 21st world record set during the swimming competition." I heard about this on NPR during one of my numerous trips out to Gaithersberg. It appears that the athletes this year are wearing some sort of new high-tech swimsuit which greatly reduces their drag while swimming. The person on the radio went so far as to say that she expected almost all the records to be broken during this olympics -- the suits are that good. Which brings me to an interesting question: What's up with the Blade Runner? I remember that he was disqualified from the Olympics because apparently his lack of normal feet was considered an advantage. NASA designed swimsuits which greatly reduce drag in water? A-ok. Artificial feet which give a marginal improvement over the original equipment? Not so much. Nice double-standard, Olympics.

Gmail Outage

Apparently Gmail went down for a while on Monday, starting at 2PM PDT, and was down for a few hours. I hadn't the slightest idea. I find it interesting that many people complained and were mortified that the service went down. Gmail is, after all, a free service (paid for via advertising), and there are numerous alternatives. I remember reading about a prominent professional blogger who felt that her job came to a skreching halt as soon as Gmail went down, and repeatedly swore never to use the service again.

It strikes me as a very odd decision to pull a freely available service into a critical position in your work flow. Kind of like deciding to depend on a free ride to make it to the airport. Mission critical parts of your job should be the kind that have redundant backups and support contracts; if your job depends on it working, then you had better have a way to make it work if it's not. Email accounts (with maintenance contracts and much more storage space than offered by Gmail!) are cheap and easy to find. Remember the immortal words of Robert Heinlein: TANSTAFL: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Gmail is a great service -- I use it every day -- but I get the impression that many people use it as a kind of email aggregator; they have multiple work-related email addresses filtering into Gmail, and then use the Gmail spam-detection software and filtering software to process the email. A great idea at the outset, but the critical path for the workflow is going through a component over which you have little, if any, control.

13 August 2008

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

The last few days I've been reading another Brandon Sanderson freebie, trying to keep myself occupied until I can maybe track down Mistborn: The Well of Ascension. The novel is called Warbreaker, and it's a freely available (for the time being) novel that Sanderson has been releasing as he writes it. The book has already been finished (at least, the first draft has been finished) and optioned, so it should be appearing in hard cover sometime next year. For the time being, however, it's available through Brandon Sanderson's website. The version I'm reading is version 6.1, but I'm reading a Kindlized version from the MobileRead forums.

The book seems to be a fairly typical fantasy story, except that in this story magic revolves around colors, sounds, and using parts of people's souls to animate lifeless objects. Pretty cool stuff. The story involves the amount of politicking I've come to expect from Sanderson (based on my oh-so-extensive two novels read thus far), so keep that in mind if you decide to pick it up. And did I mention it's free? As in, Creative Commons free? I'm still about a third of the way through the book. I'll write something more once I'm finished.

Frustration and Laptop Power Cords

A note for a future Erik: Very little is more frustrating than forgetting your laptop power cable at work and sitting there watching your simulation run at half-speed while you try to save enough power for aforementioned simulation to complete.

Edit @ 10:30 PM: Thankfully I own the world's largest battery -- I was able to get my runs done before my computer decided to give up the ghost. I find myself wondering if the Core Duo processor is designed to be able to speed-step the cores independently? My algorithm was single-threaded, so one of the Cores was idling the whole time.

12 August 2008

Honeymoon Photos

A few of my favorite photos from our honeymoon in March... I was going through these looking for a new profile photo for the top-left and remembered just how amazing the bottom of the Kiluea-Iki crater was -- although it was hot as all hell.

Clockwise from top left... Urmi and I at the bottom of Kiluea-Iki trail, road-closure at the end of the chain of craters road (no joke, huh?), Urmi on the Kalalau trail along the Na Pali coast, and Urmi looking out over the ocean on the northern shore of Hawaii.
More photos available through our wedding website. (Quicklink to the photos)

News Roundup - 2008.08.12

Some interesting news articles I've been following...
  • AFP: Hackers hacked at infamous DefCon gathering
  • I'm not sure how much sense the article title makes, but it appears that some crackers at the annual Defcon gathering presented an interesting technique which would exploit the trust-based routing protocols used on the internet to create a mass-scale man-in-the-middle attack. I'm not sure how feasible this technique is. A computer employing it would be flooded would so much data that there would be little chance to filter it and do anything interesting. Besides, using this to gather information would be a little like trying to cook a steak to medium rare using an atomic bomb.
    I've always wanted to go to Defcon and hear about all the cool stuff people come up with. Oh well, maybe some other time.
  • Abhinav Bindra wins 10m air rifle gold
  • It appears that India has won its first individual gold medal at any Olympics, with Abhinav Bindra taking the gold in the 10m air rifle event. The last time India won a gold medal at the Olympics was in 1980 for Field Hockey. Interesting fact: I remember reading an article about Bindra from last year where he was complaining because the Indian government was refusing to buy him practice ammunition, citing the cost. I guess it turned out okay in the end.
  • Russia and Georgia continue attacks--online
  • The physical battle appears to be more-or-less over, but the war continues in cyberspace, with Russian bot-nets attacking official Georgian websites. I find it fascinating that internet attacks are becoming more and more common alongside actual military maneuvers. Of course, some of this may be completely unofficial, but then, who can really say? I'm just glad things aren't turning out like in Charles Stross's Halting State.

11 August 2008

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I guess I'm on a bit of a Fantasy kick... I just finished my way through one of the last of the free ebooks given away with the launch of Tor.com, Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. Note: Brandon has one of the best designed websites I've ever seen.

(Image borrowed from Amazon)

This book is very well written. I had previously read Sanderson's debut novel, Elantris, which was quite enjoyable, although I felt it was somewhat one sided and two out of the three lead characters felt flat to me. Although the setting and story were quite atypical in Elantris, the characters felt like fairly standard fantasy archetypes. Mistborn shows that my initial assessment of Sanderson as 'just another fantasy author' was wrong. The characters start off as archetypes, but quickly diverge and take on a personality all of their own, equipped with a plethora of flaws and mistakes.

Mistborn considers what happens to a fantasy world after the dark lord is sealed away. What does the hero do with his limitless power? What happens to the world? Well, in the case of Mistborn, the hero forms an empire, with himself as not just the head honcho but as an immortal, living deity who enforces a life of servitude for the lower classes, or skaa. In this world, there are a small number of people (referred to as Mistborn) who have the ability to consume small amounts of metals in exchange for magic powers, such as the ability to attact or repel other metals, or sense things that others could not. The story follows the life of a young skaa thief who discovers that she is a mistborn; it follows her life through learning to control her powers and, well, growing up.

The book is excellently written and has an amazing balance between politics and action. Many fantasy stories addressing peasant revolutions get a bit bogged down in the details (Teckla, I think I'm looking at you), but I feel that Mistborn got it right. There's no point in the book that seems to drag on; in every chapter, Sanderson reveals more about the nature of the Lord Ruler, hinting at the truth behind the events which led to the present-day. It's really an amazing hook; I spent most of the weekend reading this book. It took a while to get going, but when it did, it didn't stop.

Unfortunately, Tor is no longer giving away ebooks of Mistborn: The Final Empire, but it is available for the Kindle and in paperback. Now I need to track down a copy of Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, which appears to be dead-tree only... *grumble grumble*

10 August 2008

2008 Hugo Awards

It appears that the 2008 Hugo awards have been awarded. The winner for Best Novel is Michael Chabon, for his The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an alternate fiction crime novel. This is one of the first times I've managed to actually read a Hugo winner before it won the award; in fact, this year I read two of the nominees. Usually I end up waiting until the books are available in paperback, which means I completely miss the awards.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union was a pretty good book that I bet I would've enjoyed much more if I had a better understanding of Jewish culture. The premise of the book is astoundingly interesting; the point of divergence for the alternate history occurs shortly after the formation of the state of Israel, where, IIRC, a war causes the state to collapse. Unwilling to abandon the concept of a Jewish state, the US government grants the freshly homeless a sizable chunk of Alaska (prime territory, I guess...). The story follows a detective working in the Union as he investigates an apparent suicide in his apartment building. As he does, he uncovers a plot that is much larger than it first seems...

I'm also pleased to see that Stardust won the Hugo award for 'Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form'. Stardust rates fairly high on my list of all-time favorite movies, as well as my list of all-time favorite novels. If you haven't seen it, do so. If you haven't read the book, pick it up. Both are excellent works, and unlike so many novel-to-movie translations, the movie actually stands very well on its own.

Tor.com has a list of the nominees for the award, including for several other categories, many of which are available online. Enjoy!


Hi everyone! (although I doubt anyone is actually reading this)

I've decided to blow the dust off my old blogger account and try out this whole blogging phenomenon once more. Maybe I'll actually update this time? Anyways, welcome and hopefully I'll make with the content soonish.