Friday, January 30, 2009

Further Conversations with Sidereal Jr.

How you know when you're raising them right.....

Sidereal: What are you looking at?

S Jr.: You and Mommy have a lot of books.

Sidereal: Well, you have a lot of books too. You have two shelves of books in your room.

S Jr. looks up at three six-foot tall bookcases double stacked with books, two rows deep on each shelf.

S. Jr.: When I'm big like you, can I read your books?


The Anti-Rant

Yours truly teaches at a major university located in secure bunker somewhere within the United States. As such, I deal with many, many students on a daily basis. Rarely do they make their way to my office, and when it does happen, most often it's to ask for some extra-credit; or to ask what will be on the next exam so they don't have to study everything, just what's important; or to ask for a make up exam, because they missed the regular exam when their guinea pig swallowed a gold fish and had to have emergency surgery to remove the intestinal blockage (and no note from the vet, of course, not even a bill....)

So it was with some trepidation that I read an e-mail from a student who took my course last semester, wanting to meet with me to talk about his final grade. My mind raced through the possibilities: a semester long case of sleep deprivation, a new computer virus that changed all the answers given in the on-line homework assignments, a dearly beloved pet snail who contracted a case of that flesh eating bacteria. Whatever it would be, it was sure to not be the student's fault that they got a low grade, and was there anything they could do six weeks after the end of the semester to improve their grade?

Imagine my surprise when the student arrived at my office and requested a breakdown of the grades earned for different parts of the course. Imagine my surprise when the student freely admitted that they hadn't spent as much time as they should have on homework, and had not come to class as often as they should have! And imagine my surprise, when after taking responsibility for his own actions, he didn't beg for a way to change his grade!

Wow, a new president in office, and already things are looking better.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: The Unnatural Inquirer by Simon R. Green

Next book up: The Unnatural Inquirer, by Simon R. Green, copyright 2008, published by Ace Books.


Noir-ish P.I. and all around magical bad-ass guy John Taylor lives in a hidden part of London called the Nightside, where he sticks up for the little guys (sometimes), sticks it to the bad guys (sometimes) and causes trouble for the Authorities who rule there (always). This is the eighth book in a loose series featuring Taylor, where there is always a new McGuffin to be sought, but some recurring characters and plotlines from book to book. In the current entry in the series, Taylor is hired by a sleezy tabloid to find a man who sold them a video purportedly showing hard evidence of the existence of an afterlife, but reneged at the last minute and went into hiding. It turns out that some people really, really don't want the reality of an afterlife confirmed, while others would literally do anything to get proof of life after death, and both sides are willing to kill, or worse, to get what they want.

Taylor's employers saddle him with one of their reporters as a sidekick, a half-succubus hottie who wields her magical sex appeal to get stories, and send him on his search, with a reward of 1,000,000 pounds for recovery of the video. Taylor's special magical talent is finding things -- literally anything he can think of, but someone or something is blocking his talent when he tries to use it find the video or its owner. This leaves him to rely on good old-fashioned leg work, and so (as is usual in this series) we get a mini-tour of the Nightside and its weird and deadly inhabitants as he tracks down leads.

Because this book is patterned after a mystery novel, successive clues lead Taylor closer to his goal, but with escalating encounters with baddies of escalating power, leading to a big reveal at the end.

My Opinion:

A good book, and a lot of fun. I've read a bunch of Green's books and have liked them all. The Nightside books (of which this is the eighth) all follow the same basic plot -- John Taylor is asked to find some object of power, or some missing person, wanders through the dark magical underbelly of society that inhabits the Nightside, discovers that more is going on than he really thought, and discovers something new about the nature of his home, something often distasteful, or horrific. Formulaic, but the formula works. What really makes these books work well is the interesting cast of characters Taylor encounters as he carries out his investigations, numbering punk demi-gods and characters from ancient myth and legend among his friends and acquaintances. Green excels in taking well known mythic characters, giving them a twist, and using them to populate the back alleys of the Nightside, as well as developing new modern mythic characters or borrowing them from other works (versions of C'thulu and Dr. Who are both mentioned in passing).

The Round-up:

Buy this book, and all the others in the series! They're great! Urban fantasy without the Vampire Shagging!

-- Sidereal

What other people have to say about The Unnatural Inquirer:

Michael M. Jones at Green Man Review

Max at Revish

Kimberly Swan at Darque Reviews

Maria at

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Shoulder Spreader, Arm Rest Stealer Guy

You know who these guys are. They do not weigh 400 pounds and have no choice due to their natural body configuration. They sit next to you on the airplane. They probably got to their seat before you specifically so they can stake out as much space as possible. They view the flight as a game of Risk, only they're staking out the territory with elbows, shoulders, knees and feet. The space they paid for ends at the mid-line of the arm rest, not two inches into my seat.

And short of physical violence, there is nothing you can do to get them back north of the 38th parallel. And no, shoulder spreader, arm rest stealer dude, I was not trying to pull a Larry Craig on the airplane, I just wanted to be able to sit in my seat without having the right hand side of my body jacked.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Conversation with Sidereal Jr. Today

S Jr. : Daddy, why do cats have tails?

Sidereal: I don't know. Maybe to help them walk?

S Jr.: Maybe so they can eat cat food and put it in their tails?


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Review: Deepsix by Jack McDevitt

Okay, as promised, here's my first review, of the book Deepsix by Jack McDevitt, copy 2001, published by Eos Books.


A starship full of scientists arrives on location in a star system which is about to undergo a very rare event, a collision between an interloping gas giant planet and a home grown terrestrial planet. They arrive a few weeks ahead of time in order set up equipment to monitor the impending destruction of the terrestrial planet. While in the process of surveying the planet from space, they discover evidence intelligent life.

In McDevitt's future, life is fairly common among the stars, but intelligent life seems to be rare -- humans have visited dozens of worlds and only found one other civilization, one which is centuries behind humanity in technological advancement. A handful of ruins have been found on other planets, so the discovery of even primitive structures is extremely exciting. One problem. The science mission wasn't intending to land on the doomed planet and so did not bring a lander.

A routine shuttle mission is diverted from ferrying passengers between star systems, and an impromptu archeological expedition is put together, lead by the shuttle's pilot (and main character of the series) Priscilla Hutchins (aka Hutch). It's not giving away anything to say that nothing goes as planned, and in short order the planetary explorers lose their ride and need rescuing. But there are still no landing craft close enough to reach the planet before it collides with the gas giant and is destroyed. The scientists who came just to observe the destruction of the planet must now cobble together a rescue plan or observe Hutch and her fellow ersatz archeologists die in the planetary collision.

My opinion:

Great book! It channels very strongly a disaster movie in a sf setting. As a non archeologist, I always find McDevitt's archeological details fascinating. As an astrophysicist I'm a little less impressed with his physics. He does at least give the appearance of plausibility in the details of the plan to rescue the crew stranded on the doomed planet, though it does rely on alien materials that are implausibly strong and light. But I'm not a fanatic about all science in sf being realistic speculations based on current science, so I'm happy to let that slide. I did find the likelihood of a gas giant being ejected from its own star system and encountering another star system to be so remote as to be impossible for all practical purposes, but again, to overanalyze something is to suck all the joy out of it. If it did happen, I suspect it would be much as McDevitt describes it.

I really like McDevitt's characters. Hutch appears in all the books in the "Academy" series and is a great character, as are most of the second tier characters. A few of the "spear carrier" types are one dimensional (above even what you'd expect for someone who only appears on two or three pages. Ian Helm, I'm looking at you!), but they are on stage so briefly that it barely matters.

The round-up:

Great disaster movie action, really good characters, decent science.

I'd read it again, and I probably will some day.


What did other people have to say about Deepsix:

SF Reviews

Hank Luttrell at SF Site

Mark L. Olson at NESFA

John Markley at

D. Douglas Fratz at Science Fiction Weekly