Thursday, July 30, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: On The Steel Breeze (Poseidon's Children, #2) By Alastair Reynolds

On The Steel Breeze is the second book in Alastair Reynolds latest space opera saga called Poseidon's Children. The first book was titled Blue Remembered Earth. Sadly, these books are being released in America more than 6 months after their British/European release dates. The first book was released there in January 2012 but not in the USA until June 4, 2012. The second book was released September 26, 2013 but did not appear in the USA until June 3, 2014. Distressingly, the third and final book in the trilogy was released on April 30, 2015 but people in the USA will not have access to it until February 2, 2016. I suppose we Americans should be thankful that we don't have to wait until June 2016 to finally get our grubby little hands on the conclusion of the latest Alastair Reynolds trilogy!

On The Steel Breeze is set more than 200 years after the events of Blue Remembered Earth. The main characters are three clones of Chiku Akinya, granddaughter of Eunice Akinya, the macguffin from the first book, and in this story, the primary force behind humanity spreading out into interstellar space. In On The Steel Breeze we have Chiku Red, Chiku Yellow and Chiku Green, who split off and go have separate adventures, This is a very clever device to allow the author to use his prodigious imagination to dazzle us with compelling far-future scenarios. Chiku Yellow remains on Earth, which is in control by an all-seeing, all-powerful AI called the Mechanism (or the Mech) which monitors all human activity and prevents (or punishes) any forms of physical violence. Chiku Green is part of a fleet of generational colony ships (mined out asteroids under constant acceleration called with living space for several thousand people) aimed at the planet Crucible where signs of an intelligent structure called the Mandala have been detected. Chiku Red jumped on a ship in an attempt to follow and catch up with Eunice Akinya and has not been heard of since.

So, the story mainly follows Chiku Yellow and Chiku Green. Chiku Green's was the more compelling arc to me because there is plenty of action and intrigue as the long space journey to Crucible drags on and even though Chiku has the option of going into suspended animation, the situation on the colony ships change drastically as secrets are revealed about not just the ships themselves (hint: there are stowaways!) but also their destination (the data which the Mech showed humanity about Crucible turns out to have been selectively edited). This leads to a lot of political intrigue and exciting action.

That's not to say that Chiku Yellow's story is boring. She ends up interacting with the genetically modified humans called the merfolk who have formed an autonomous nation in Earth's seas (successfully minimizing surveillance by the Mechanism) and she goes on a somewhat meandering quest for information that will hopefully help Chiku Green that takes her to Venus, Phobos, the asteroid belt, the Akinya ancestral home in Africa and finally back to her home in Lisbon. She also has numerous unpleasant (and dangerous) run-ins with the Mech which lead to a cliffhanger showdown at the end of the book.

Reynolds includes a lot of interesting themes in the book: conflict between man and machine, the limit and consequences of human genetic modifications/adaptations, systems of governance among humans who are in an isolated society, the nature of familial and generational compulsions and responsibilities.

Overall, On The Steel Breeze is not Reynolds at his very best, but that still means that it is better (more interesting, more compelling, more complex) than the vast majority of science fiction out there and well worth a read. I am definitely looking forward to read Poseidon's Wake as soon as it is released domestically!

Title: On The Steel Breeze.
Alastair Reynolds.
Paperback: 496 pages.
Date Published: June 3, 2014.
Date Read: June 21, 2014.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

QUEER QUOTE: Boy Scouts Rescind Homophobic Ban On Openly Gay Adult Troop Leaders

The Boy Scouts of America announced on Monday that their board of directors had voted to lift their blanket ban on openly gay scout leaders, simultaneously allowing individual chapters sponsored by religious groups to maintain their own separate bans on openly LGBT scout leaders.

Both LGBT groups and the Mormon church are unhappy with the Scouts announcement. Their responses are excerpted below and are today's Queer Quote.

Zach Wahls of Scouts for Equality said:
“While we still have some reservations about individual units discriminating against gay adults, we couldn’t be more excited about the future of Scouting. We look forward to collaborating with our supporters, progressive faith partners, allied non-profit organizations, and the Boy Scouts of America to ensure a fully inclusive Scouting movement.”
Human Right Campaign's Chad Griffin said:
"[I]ncluding an exemption for troops sponsored by religious organizations undermines and diminishes the historic nature of today's decision.  Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period. BSA officials should now demonstrate true leadership and begin the process of considering a full national policy of inclusion that does not allow discrimination against anyone because of who they are."
But the heterosexual supremacists of the Mormon Church were not happy either, and intimated they might sever their relationship with the Boy Scouts over the move:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America. As a global organization with members in 170 countries, the Church has long been evaluating the limitations that fully one-half of its youth face where Scouting is not available. Those worldwide needs combined with this vote by the BSA National Executive Board will be carefully reviewed by the leaders of the Church in the weeks ahead.
There ya go!

Monday, July 27, 2015

EYE CANDY: Zion Babb (black/white)

Zion Babb has appeared as Eye Candy here once before (May 11, 2015). He is a former college football player who has been doing some modeling since then. There is not much information about him since he does not appear to be active on social media.

Hat/tip to the Man Crush blog.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

SATURDAY POLITICS: Texas Sup Ct Tells Houston "Repeal Equal Rights Measure Or Place On Ballot"

The Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday handing opponents of Houston's Equal Rights ordinance (HERO) a victory when it said that the City Council must decide by August 24th to either repeal the measure or place it before voters for a vote on the November 2015 municipal ballot. The Houston City Council enacted HERO last summer with openly lesbian Mayor Annise Parker's strong support. This is a shocking ruling because earlier the religious extremists who opposed HERO had turned in double the number of signatures needed to pace the measure on the ballot but more than half of those petitions were deemed invalid by the City Attorney. However the City Secretary had certified that there were enough signatures and it is this certification that the Texas Supreme Court has said must be obeyed. The court suspended the non-discrimination ordinance, and gave the city counvil 30 days to decide to repeal the ordinance or place it before voters.

In response to the Republican-dominated state high court ruling, Mayor Parker issued a statement which said:
"Obviously, I am disappointed and believe the court is in error with this eleventh hour ruling in a case that had already been decided by a judge and jury of citizens. Nonetheless, we will proceed with the steps necessary for City Council to consider the issue. At the same time, we are consulting with our outside counsel on any possible available legal actions. Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance is similar to measures passed by every other major city in the country and by most local corporations. No matter the color of your skin, your age, gender, physical limitations, or sexual orientation, every Houstonian deserves the right to be treated equally. To do otherwise, hurts Houston’s well-known image as a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive and embracing of its diversity. Our citizens fully support and understand this and I have never been afraid to take it to the voters. We will win!"
Of course t's always a bad idea to be forced to vote on the civil rights of other people but if that's what the haters want, we will be ready!

Friday, July 24, 2015

CELEBRITY FRIDAY: Grigor Dimitrov and Maria Sharapova Split Up

Tennis supercouple Maria Sharapova and Grigor Dimitrov have broken up, more than two years after they publicly acknowledged they were a couple in May 2013 (although many people believe they started seeing each other well before that date.) Dimitrov, who is now ranked #16 but has been in something of a slump for most of 2015, gave a press conference to confirm the break-up after multiple reports said that Sharapova had gone on vacation without him to Montenegro after being beaten by Serena Williams for the 17th time in a row in the Wimbledon semifinals earlier this month. Sharapova, 28, is back up to World #2 in the WTA rankings and was in the 2015 Australian Open final.

The 24-year-old 6-foot-2 175-pound Bulgarian is considered one of the best-looking men on the ATP tour, although he was cryptically described by Serena as a "guy with a black heart." Somehow, I don't think it's his heart that has made him so popular! Maybe he should share notes with Radek Stepanek.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy written by Cixin Liu, China's most well-known and accomplished science fiction author (family names of characters are written first, in the Chinese style, although strangely, the author does not do the same for his name). The books were published in China starting in 2008 and have become a sensation. There is a Chinese-language film adaptation poised to be released in summer 2016. It is therefore not that surprising that the book has become the first Chinese-language science-fiction book to be translated into English and published in the United States by a major publisher in a very long time.

Happily, The Three-Body Problem has been well-received by non-Chinese speakers as well, and has been receiving a lot of attention and acclaim in the SFnal community. The book has been nominated for two of the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction: the Nebula and the Hugo. It lost the Nebula award to Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation but (as of this writing) is still up for the Hugo award, where it is considered one of the leading contenders. In fact, it is my vote for the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2014.

There are many reasons why The Three-Body Problem has struck such a chord with so many people. First, it's really good. Second, it's simultaneously unique and unusual but with surprisingly familiar elements. At it's heart it is a first contact novel, but the aliens are not the central characters of the story, humans (and humanity) are. The book is split into three parts and Part I starts with a chilling scene set in rural China in the 1960s during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie sees the gruesome death of her father (a Physics professor) at the hands of four teenage girls who are trying to prove/demonstrate their loyalty and ideological purity. Wenjie is a graduate student in Physics at the time and despite her father's "crimes" is shipped off to a strange labor camp and then to a secret military project which resembles the SETI project (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). The depiction of China in the 1960s throughout Part I is fascinating and provided me (as someone unfamiliar with this history) the same sense of wonder I have had when being exposed to a completely fictional alien universe.

Part II of the book occurs "forty plus years" after the events of Part I and introduces the main character of Wang Miao, a "nanomaterials researcher." Much of the criticism of The Three-Body Problem has centered around Liu's characterization of Miao, who has been described as "unconvincing," "pedantic" and "appallingly passive." I would agree that Miao is not that interesting a character (Wenjie is far more compelling, although this may be because her actions are much more disturbing) but this only marginally impacted my enjoyment of the book. I don't think that Miao is any less well-written than some of the characters in less Asimov books, for example. Like Asimov, what appeals about Liu's writing is the ideas that he includes in his story. The central metaphor of the Three-Body Problem (a well-known problem in Newtonian mechanics which involves trying to completely describe the motion of three bodies orbiting each other but which is known to have chaotic solutions) is a lot of fun. The aliens in the book are called Trisolarians because their planet has three different suns and there is an immersive virtual reality game with the same name which Miao plays and is an interesting device used to forward the plot.

Part III of the book is when multiple threads of the story are wound together. By this point Miao has learned that there is a conspiracy to kill off scientists around the world and he has become involved in the fight to learn the truth: there is an organization of fanatical environments who are working with aliens to prepare Earth for a future genocidal invasion. This is a very striking idea (what would it take for a human to betray humanity itself?) but there are even more mind-bending developments before the book ends. There are multiple scenes that occurs on Trisolaris which give us a sense of the technological advantages that our future alien overlords possess over humanity.

Overall, The Three-Body Problem is a very compelling story told from a unique perspective which has an interesting central premise and cliffhanger ending.

Title: The Three-Body Problem.
Cixin Liu.
Paperback: 400 pages.
Date Published: November 11, 2014.
Date Read: March 11, 2015.

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

After 21 Year Gap, United States Places First In International Mathematics Olympiad

For the first time in 21 years, the United States has placed first in the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad. National Public Radio reported:
This week, the top-ranked math students from high schools around the country went head-to-head with competitors from more than 100 countries at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And, for the first time in more than two decades, they won
Po-Shen Loh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and head coach for Team USA, says the competition is held over the course of two days. Students work on three math problems each. 
The U.S. team last won the Olympiad in 1994. Reports in recent years have raised concerns that American math students are falling behind those in the rest of the world. But, Loh says, "At least in this case with the Olympiads, we've been able to prove that our top Americans are certainly at the level of the top people from the other countries." 
Concerns have also been raised over the years about a persistent gender gap in U.S. math achievement. All six members of this year's winning team are boys. "That is actually something that one hopes will change," Loh says. "The top 12 people in the country on the United States Math Olympiad happen to have two girls in it. One might say, 'Only 2 out of 12, that's terrible.' But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero." 
Loh says it's important to teach math as more than mere memorization and formulas. He says this is one reason, perhaps, that the subject hasn't attracted as many American students as it could.

I think there are other reasons why mathematics doesn't attract students: there is this overwhelming belief that mathematical ability is some inherent essence that you either have or you don't AND there is no cultural stigma about "being bad at math."

POLL: Support For Marriage Equality Holds Steady In Post-Obergefell Era

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land everywhere in the United States thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, activists and pundits have been waiting to see what impact this fact would have on public opinion. One poll released earlier this month from the Associated Presss showed a decided decrease in support for marriage equality (of 6 points), but the well-respected Gallup organization is out with its new poll, which it released with the headline "U.S. Support for Gay Marriage Stable After High Court Ruling."
Though the Supreme Court's decision has not immediately influenced Americans' overall opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage, this is not to suggest it will not affect opinion in the long run. 
Even after a 1967 Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriages, Gallup's polling in 1968 found that only one in five Americans (20%) approved of such marriages. It took three more decades to reach a majority of support. 
The path to legality of interracial marriage differed from same-sex marriage, though, in that the Supreme Court led public opinion bylegalizing something that Americans largely disapproved of at the time. Approval of same-sex marriage, however, has ascended significantly faster, and has enjoyed majority support for a few years before the court's decision. Still, a long view of the trend on gay marriage illustrates that support for it was steady and incremental, and that the movement's big victories in statewide ballot initiatives and legislature-enacted laws had limited effect on public opinion at large.
I really do not understand how one person's civil marriage affects someone else's. Hopefully even Republican Presidential candidates will figure that out eventually!


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