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The Galactic Watercooler Podcast is a new one I'm trying that I picked up via the Podcast Awards site, as I'm trying to branch out from my TWiT.tv monoculture.

It's basically three geeks (two guys, one girl) talking about Sci-Fi/fantasy kinda stuff. To be honest, 1½ episodes in (199 and 201, because 200 was a retrospective 'best of' that I decided to skip), I'm not wholly convinced of the hosts' credentials (they couldn't remember which was Merry and which was Pippin), and they unreservedly love everything about Avatar, but I'm giving it a whirl nonetheless, to see how it fares over the longer term.
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pɹᴉǝʍ ɐpuᴉʞ sᴉ sᴉɥʇ
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Just watched the watch flick past 09:09:09 on 09/09/09.

Yes, you did need to know that
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Pandora's Star and its sequel, Judas Unchained are, by far, Peter F Hamilton's best work to date - an excellent, intricate, smart story that has just about everything.

The set-up, from the outset, is smart: Dudley Bose, an astronomer on a remote planet of the Commonwealth (humans have spread across the galaxy, courtesy of Ozzie Isaacs and Nigel Sheldon's interstellar wormhole technology) notes, one night, two stars suddenly disappearing from view.

At this point, Hamilton demonstrates his committment to physics in these books: the observation of the stars' disappearance is light-based. However, the wormholes allow Bose to travel to the other side of the Commonwealth faster than the light waves will, so that he can set up a full recording rig to preserve this singular event for posterity. Clever.

Anyway, this event naturally generates a lot of speculation and the conclusion is drawn that the two stars have been contained within a Dyson sphere. But to what end? To keep everyone else out? Or to keep whatever was inside in?

Humans, being humans, can't resist sticking their nose in to find out, so an expedition is mounted to the Dyson Pair, as they get called, and they unleash a malovelent species known as The Primes upon a Commonwealth ill-prepared to defend itself.

That's not the only tale being told, though... Hamilton, as with The Night's Dawn Trilogy, deploys a huge array of characters (some do feel a little familiar to veterans of Hamilton's ouevre, I confess), all of whom are involved in their own stories, in addition to being caught up in the whole business with the Primes.

Hamilton's really taken care to think about what kind of infrastructure it would take to support the Commonwealth - how the wormholes would work. What people would do with extended lifespans. What kind of environments there would be, and what individual planets' roles might be in a Commonwealth.

Seriously, this not only stands head and shoulders over all of Hamilton's other stuff, but it stands comparison with the best SF out there at the moment, IMHO.
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This Week in Tech is an excellent, slightly rambling podcast hosted by Leo Laporte, where he gets in a few fellow geek luminaries and they discuss, er, the week's technology news. Episode 208 for the week just gone was an absolute scream, and meant Mali had to do a few extra ups and downs of the Avenues so that we listened to it all in one sitting.

As part of the 'cast, we learnt that Alive in Joburg was the YouTube film by Neill Blomkamp that convinced Peter Jackson to be the producer of District 9 (which I'm most definitely looking forward to). HBO are making a mini-series of [livejournal.com profile] grrm's Game of Thrones, and that there's going to be a reboot of V...

The 'cast also started waxing lyrical about Pandora's Star: "Peter F Hamilton is a god," quoth Leo, and I'll be waxing lyrically about the two books very shortly.

Anyway, if you're a tad geeky, and don't mind the rambling nature of the discussions - they range from the insanely dry techy to, as above, geekfests as above, or conversations about spaceship design in Star Trek - it's a 'cast well worth subscribing too.
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My Geekology of Series continues with the Tithe, Valiant and Ironside trilogy by Holly Black ([livejournal.com profile] blackholly), a YA series about modern day Faerie set in/around the state of New York.

I actually read these out of order, reading Valiant first, which turns convention on its head, somewhat, by having a troll as the main character's romantic interest. Val, the protagonist, ends up running away from home after she discovers her mother carrying on with her (Val's) boyfriend, when he's stood her up for... a concert, I think.

Anyway, Val ends up spending time with Lolli, Luis and Dave, three homeless teens roughly her age, who sleep in an abandoned subway station, and are keyed into Faerie through using Nevermore, a drug used by the Fey to make them resistant to the iron in modern day life, but that is addictive to humans, and has unpleasant side-effects.

On top of this, there's been killin's</Hagrid-voice> in the borough, and Val's path through the story leads to her solving the puzzle.

That got me hooked into the story as a whole, so I then read Tithe and Ironside, which actually deal with a different set of characters, although there's some overlap (and they all come together at the end).

As I write this, I find myself unusually hazy about the 1st and 3rd instalment, but they were decent reads. I liked the whole contemporary setting for Faerie, I liked the sinister side to the Fey - they view humans in much the same way we might view insects - always there, sometimes pretty, but completely indifferent to their presence, should it choose not to chime with our own particular wishes.

I also liked the whole run-down, seedy flavour to the settings - the kids sleeping in the abandoned subway station, the run-down seaside setting of the first novel. So, even though the details are frustratingly hazy (unlike other geekology posts, I've only read this lot once), I still reckon they're worth posting about.
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Mandorellan: What say you, Barak? There can only be a couple of hundred of them...

The Belgariad by David Eddings is not good writing... But it was the first, non-LotR fantasy series I ever read, and as such it warrants a mention.

Five books: Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry and Enchanters' End Game (and if you think the titles are just a smidgen laboured, I'll certainly concur).

Garion is a farm boy, who lives on a farm with his 'Aunt', Polgara, and another farmhand, Durnik. I forget the exact set-up, now, but Polgara's father - Belgarath - turns up and drags Garion and Polgara off on a quest to complete a prophecy. Durnik comes along too.

The 'Bel' in front of 'Garath' denotes that he's a sorcerer, just like the 'Pol' in front of 'Gara'.

Anyway, The Gang set off across their world, slowly picking up a team of characters as required to fulfil the prophecy (which speaks to Garion directly, in often sarcastic manner), and Do Great Things.

Even as a 14-year old kid slap bang in the middle of this book's target market segment, The Belgariad made me uncomfortable with its casual racism: all people of a given land have exactly the same characteristics. Come from Drasnia? Then you're a thief or a spy. Garion's home land (whose name I forget, but which obviously also accounts for Durnik) is supposedly home to honest (but slightly... dim) good workin' folk.

OTOH, it has its moments - X'Nedra's kinda cool - although Eddings chickens out of showing and gives us a tell when she gets to be the great orator of her time and delivers a rousing battle speech to the masses. Definitely cheating.

Garion goes through a whole 'coming of age' thing with regard to the prophecy, X'Nedra starts off painful, but gets better, and it all moves towards one BIG FAT HAPPY ENDING, but it's a pretty nice, brainless ride there.

There's a sequel (series), The Mallorean, which I think I staggered through, but have (I hope) managed to scrub my brain free of most of the detail since.
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Continuing my Geekology of Series:

The Liveship Traders is the middle trilogy of a trilogy of trilogies by Robin Hobb... although with the recent publication of Dragon Keeper, that definition looks set to change, which is a shame, because I like the recursivity of the definition.

Anyway, the titular Liveship Traders are families who own sailing ships made from 'wizardwood', wood with magical properties - albeit properties that lie dormant for three generations of captain. These ships are called Liveships, although it transpires through the tale that the ships' owners don't actually know what wizardwood actually is.

Unlike the prequel and sequel trilogies, which are concerned with FitzChivalry Farseer in the Kindom of the Six Duchies, and told solely from his point of view, Liveships embraces a much wider cast of characters, and a corresponding wealth of viewpoints. And although there are some (not many), references to the Assassin books, Liveships can be read as a freestanding trilogy (if you follow).

Robin Hobb has built a fantastically deep world within which to place her characters, and given rein to employ a variety of viewpoints, we get a much richer set of characterisations in this book (IMHO). There's Althea, the daughter of the family that owns Vivacia, but who, rather than ascending to captaincy of her ship, as she'd expected, ends up being shunted sideways and out. So we follow her as she attempts to reclaim what she believes is rightly hers.

There's her spoilt brat of a sister Malta, who goes through quite an epic transformation of her own. Wintrow, their brother, has taken holy orders, but is pressganged into service on Vivacia because the ship needs family blood on board.

There's the Pirate King Kennett, and the rather enigmatic Reyn who lives in the Rain Wilds, from where the wizardwood's actually harvested. I've mentioned before that I think Hobb's take, in particular, on second-hand magic is excellent: the characters here are employing magical items that they know not the provenance of, and as you might expected, unexpected consequences come home to roost.

I should also mention that we have this rather bizarre (at first) sea-serpent point of view, but as the tale progresses, it soon becomes apparent that this is not quite so random as you might first think.
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Array Formulas in Excel )


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Yesterday's one-on-one with the Auditor ran to 3½ hours, but was actually a lot of fun. We were collectively geeking out over the potential of Array Formulas in Excel (I was demonstrating this, 'cos they'd not heard of them), talking about books and HP films and discussing how they were going to explain the divination of what the Horcruxes might be in Films 7 and 8.

Oh, we did a lot of work too. But it was fun. So my worries on that score, at least to date, proved ill founded.
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Alastair Reynolds writes space opera. The same could be said of Peter F Hamilton. However, whereas Hamilton's space opera has the vague hint of detergent to its aroma, Reynolds is pure Wagnerian Ring Cycle.

This is the heavy stuff. Which is unsurprising, since Reynolds' day job was as a physicist at the European Space Agency.

You start off with Revelation Space, then shift back in time for instalment two, Chasm City. Then it's Redemption Ark and then it's Absolution Gap. There's also some short stories: Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, Galactic North and another freestanding novel, The Prefect.

The central premise of Revelation Space is this: all across the galaxy, as human space-faring civilisation has spread, they come across remnants of ancient civilisations, all of whom have suddenly died out just as you'd expect them to have taken off completely. And, it transpires, there's a reason for this: The Inhibitors exist solely to stamp out any race that looks as though it's getting too big/too advanced. And the humans are just about to come up against that particular non-negotiable barrier.

Revelation Space is a hard, gritty universe peopled by characters who are, on the whole, not universally likeable. But they're excellent characters, with wonderfully duplicitous motivations running through almost each and every one.

The other really neat thing about Revelation Space is that Reynolds doesn't allow faster-than-light travel. And runs with the implications of this: vis, if it takes 40 years to reach a distant colony, then conditions there are going to be 80 years out of step with the latest possible news you had of your destination as you set out (the ship bearing the latest tidings arrived in port 40 years after setting out, and you, just setting off, are going to take 40 years to get there). Which means that things can change.

In particular, The Glitter Band, the high-living high-flying (literally) marker of Chasm City's belle epoch, succumbs to the Melding Plague, and becomes the Rustbelt - an orbiting collection of derelict junk, confusing passengers disembarking, expecting to be arriving at the absolute pinnacle of society.

So many things to talk about with these books, so many stories that cross the novels, and you very slowly build up a picture of the Universe that Reynolds has created. But it's mesmerising stuff.

However, they're also a long, hard slog of a read, and I maintain this suspicion that each tome (short stories aside) is about 20% over-written.
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Julian May's Saga of the Exiles was first drawn to my attention back in 1984, when I was at secondary school. As it happened, I was on the second tier of 'friends-to-lend-books-to' of the guy who actually owned the book, so since he'd lent the first instalment out to someone else, I started reading Book 2 first.

There are four instalments
  • The Many-Colored Land

  • The Golden Torc

  • The Non-Born King

  • The Adversary


The basic premise is this - following the advent of metapsychic operancy in the nearish future, the human race is embraced by the Galactic Milieu, a confedartion of alien races, all of whom have mind powers to varying degrees of strength. The upstart humans, it turns out, have dazzling powers in this respect, despite the relative youth, and a power-struggle develops, with two brothers - Marc Remillard and Jack Remillard on opposing camps, fighting what becomes the Metaphsycic Rebellion. Marc lost, and disappeared, taking his band of rebels with him.

Now, not everyone is happy with how things work in the Galactic Milieu, but fortunately for the disenchanted, a French professor of theoretical physics has managed to construct a one-way time portal in France. It only works one-way (6 million years back in time), and it'll only work in one place (that particular valley in France), so although it's quite a neat thing, since application seems limited, it's left to gather dust.

Until, one day, a German hitchhiker turns up at his widow's door, begging to be let through to the Pliocene era, to make his adventure there.

Madame Guderian consents, and gradually word spreads out that there's this gateway to a primitive world, one without the Galactic Milieu and its laws, regulations and alien races, and this appeals to a large number of people for many different reasons.

Eventually, the Milieu itself takes over operation of the portal, and each week a group is despatched through the portal, to make their life anew in the Pliocene.

The Saga of the Exiles follows Group Green, a spectacular collection of individuals (Aiken, Elizabeth, Felice, Amerie, Claude, Richard, Stein, Bryan), as they land in the Pliocene and discover that a) not only was the Pliocene not as unpeopled by exotic races as they'd hoped, and b) it's not going to prove the idyllic escape that they'd anticipated.

On the other side of the gate there's this dimorphic race, the Tanu/Firvulag (if those names seem slightly familiar, it becomes apparent that the tale manages to foreshadow some of the old English legends in both race names, legends and place names, although much of this eluded me on first reading), who have metapsychic powers, but only as allowed by their wearing of cybergenetic enhancing metal collars, known as torcs. Unbeknownst to them, these torcs also worked on humans - operants (those with active powers) weren't allowed to pass through the portal, but those with latent powers could have their abilities activated through the application of a torc.

Anyway, the tale itself spans four epic volumes, and follows the immense changes that Group Green manage to effect on the Pliocene landscape (both politically and, in one spectacular case, physically).

It's immense, and epic and fantastic.

Unfortunately, it also starts off reeeeeally slowly. But persist with it, because once Group Green has made it to Castle Gateway on the other side of the portal, things start to kick off.

So, who else likes these?
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[personal profile] glittertine prompted something like a geekgasm in me yesterday when she mentioned that she was reading The Reality Dysfunction. For the genuine effect, my comment there should be read outloud at about 600 words per minute, with no pauses. :-p

So, The Reality Dysfunction is the first instalment in Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, comprising The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God.

It's a fun read - Hamilton takes care with (most of) the physics, and I absolutely love love LOVE the setup and the world building that's going on. Hamilton has a vast array of characters, operating across a huge number of worlds attempting to counter a really evil threat that first emerges amongst a group of convicts on, if memory serves, Lalonde, a world famous for its legendarily tough wood Mayope (I hope I'm remembering this OK - it's been sooooooooooo long since I read the books (I read the first one in '96, I think)).

Anyway, our main hero, Josh, lives on Traquility, an O'Neill habitat (huge spaceborne cylinder that creates gravity for its inhabitants through spinning). I would jump at the chance to live on Tranquility, because it sounds like an awesome place (and amongst habitats, Tranquility has its own... uh, unique attributes), and not just because Ione's there.

I totally <3 Ione.

Josh has inherited his father's spaceship - the spacecraft in this universe have two basic models - there are the voidhawks, which are organic, and can 'swallow', that is, make interstellar jumps through wormholes, and there are the mechanistic spacecraft which are spherical in shape, because of the nature of the field generation they use to transport from A to B.

Anyway, Josh ends up on Lalonde (if I've remembered the planet's name correctly) picking up a load of wood to ship to Norfolk (a determinedly backwards planet, and everyone thinks that he's attempting to ship coals to Newcastle on this one) at the point where the whole evilness thing explodes. So naturally he's at (part of) the centre of the storm as the whole Confederate Universe comes under attack.

Sadly, Josh is a bit of a GaryStu, but the rest of the characters make up for this laziness, and if you disengage the brain, the trilogy is a hugely compelling, entertaining romp through the 26th Century.
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One of the cool, sort of buried features of Firefox has evidently been borrowed from vim (greatest text editor on the planet, bar none).

In vim*, in command mode, to search for text, you press the '/' key, and then type what you're trying to find.

Because this is so ingrained, I do this quite a bit in Firefox too. And it works :-)



* - OK, technically it's true of vi, too. But vim's cooler.
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</blues>Woke up this morning (da-da, da dum....)</blues

'twas weird indeed, though: there was only my Micra, girly opposite's Micra and bloke two doors down's Focus parked outside our respective houses. All the other residences, from Castle Fox down to the Chinese take-away, had vacant roadspace outside.

This almost never happens: competition for parking spaces can be quite intense outside Castle Fox - sometimes I have to park as much as 10 metres* away from my front door. That said, the lines of parked cars are normally pretty solid, even if the odd sort of Brownian Motion that exists in the whole vehicle storage game 'round these parts does seem to work out in my favour more often than not.

Apple are selling the old, 2nd generation Shuffles off cheap, so I've got one - £31 all in, including my email address engraved on the back. I was going to get the square root of two engraved on it instead (1.4142135623... from memory+), but decided that that would be just a bit too strange. Even for me.

Anyway, the Shuffle seems to play nicely with Banshee under Linux (although obviously not with DRM material), so that's good. The only slight drawback to the Shuffle I've noticed to date is that, when ambling along with the hound, and the Shuffle clipped to my trouser pocket, it's possible to accidentally skip tracks through inadvertant brushing of the controls. So that's what the 'hold' function's for, then...

* - just to annoy [personal profile] glittertine, for whom I know parking is a genuine issue ;-P

+ - why yes, I do have the square roots of the integers from 1 to 10 memorised to 10 decimal places. Because you never know when this knowledge might prove useful...

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