Thursday, January 31, 2008

Building Harlequin's Moon by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper

Utopia Lost and Found

Utopia always goes wrong; the best laid plans, etc. is truth as well as a cliché. Sometimes it takes generations. In Building Harlequin's Moon, a novel by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper, the plan to build utopia goes off the rails right away for the John Glenn, a colony ship fleeing a Solar System filled with rogue AIs. They were supposed to come out at the planet Ymir side-by-side with another colony ship, ready to deploy nanotechnology to terraform Ymir into an ideal place to build a new Earth. Instead, their engines go out of kilter, delivering them to Harlequin.

Their only option is to assemble the material from Harlequin's rings into a moon, then wake the frozen colonists and lead them through terraforming the new moon, Selene. It will take generations of effort to re-create the supplies and fuel they need to go on to Ymir — which by this time, may be already terraformed by the crew and colonists from their sister ship.

It will mean centuries, even millennia, of effort. They must take care not to let the AI tools they have grow too intelligent, lest the same thing that happened on Earth occur in the Harlequin system. And there will not be room in the rebuilt ship for all the colonists on Selene when they are done.

How they balance the needs of the ship with the needs of the colony, the growing tension between the Earth-born ruling elite from the original ship's crew (who seem to live forever due to repeated freezings) and the Children of Selene (the short-lived colonists), and the dawning realization that Ymir might not be the last best hope for the human race after all, give this novel a strength that we haven't seen since Ringworld.

I had trouble getting into the novel; there is a confusion of flash-back and dreaming in the opening chapters that takes some deciphering. Once I had these sorted out in my mind, however, the remainder of the story was very engrossing. This is mostly due to strong characters — an Earth-born woman refuses to take take further restorative Sleep, Selene's Children are growing aware of the way way they are being short-changed by the ship's crew, and Gabriel, the leader of Earth-born and teacher of Selene Children, will have to make a drastic decision about the future of Selene itself.

It is also absorbing because of Niven's strength in describing future technology and cosmic-sized engineering works. We are there for the building of a planetoid from what is essentially space-dust; we come along while the assembled moon cools and is made habitable. This story is even more enjoyable because all the engineering is the works of Man — no aliens lurk in the corners of the narrative. The closest thing to them is the deliberately-crippled AI pilot of the John Glenn, Astronaut, a character strongly reminiscent of Heinlein's Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Larry Niven has a genuine talent for finding collaborative writers, and nurturing them with his other well-known talent: creating elaborate, but believable, technological cultures. With Brenda Cooper, he has written a worthy shelf-mate to Ringworld.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

To Cork or Not to Cork by George M. Taber

The conflict has already become both emotional and vicious... Some... have turned into shills for one camp or the other, often making unsubstantiated and outrageous claims about their favorite products, while self-righteously condemning someone else's...
    Friendships wither away when people can no longer carry on a civilized dialogue about something that in the large scope of things is pretty inconsequential.

George M. Taber has the knack of bringing his readers into the world of wine. He follows the brilliant Judgement of Paris, in which he chronicled an industry-shaking blind taste test in France that awarded top position to a California wine, with To Cork or Not To Cork (subtitled: "Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle").

Anyone who has loving laid down a wine to age, postponing its enjoyment for years to allow it to mature in the bottle, only to be met with aromas of wet cardboard and mildew upon uncorking it, knows the problem. It's called "corked", that musty, unpleasant spoilage, and it utterly ruins the wine. As long as the incidence was low, it was a known but tolerated random risk with wine; vintners routinely replaced bottles that were found to be corked, and ate the loss. It was just part of doing business in the industry.

But as Taber details in this book, during the 1970s and '80s, the incidence of corking in wines grew alarmingly, even as the chemicals that caused it were finally identified. A sensitive palate could detect as little as 3 parts per trillion of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), but wine cork shipments to the US were sometimes measured with ten or even a hundred times that amount of TCA.

New World winemakers suspected they were being sent the rejects of European wineries, although it may have been due to the long-term effects of Spanish Civil War and World War devastation of the cork forests in Spain and Portugal more than a deliberate strategy to short-change Western vintners. When corked wines began to seriously impact their bottom lines, however, wineries began looking for alternatives to cork.

The problem with substitutes, though, as Taber reveals, was that they ran smack up against tradition and perception. The experience of pulling a wine cork was a crucial part of the romantic experience of enjoying a good wine. And the early association of alternative closures with cheap jug wines and low-quality, inexpensive product made consumers reject wines that were not stopped with cork.

Besides that, wine-making is not a science; it is an art form supported by science, experience, and guess-work. Vintners hesitated to use cork substitutes without knowledge of how the cork contributed to the production of wine. When the lead time for a wine might be ten or more years, testing alternative wine-bottle closures meant taking an immense gamble on their product. All agreed that something had to be done, but what?

With careful history interspersed with "Message in a Bottle" anecdotes, Taber tells us what they did in New Zealand and Australia, in the wine country of California and Washington, in the vineyards of France and Germany, and in the cork forests of Spain and Portugal, to battle TCA and build great wines.

I read this one with cork drawn from a Pastori 2003 port, with T-top pulled from a creamy Obsborne Coquinero Sherry, and with screw-top removed from a luscious Lawson Dry Hills Late Harvest Reisling from New Zealand. All wonderful wines — I tasted with a new appreciation of the art of making wine, in which the "inconsequential" choice of a stopper could make such a difference in the end product.


Monday, January 28, 2008

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Juvenile: 5th-9th Grade
Magical Adventure Series

The second book in the innovative series Percy Jackson and the Olympians finds many of the same heroes and villains from the first book, The Lightning Thief, back in danger from the monsters that seek out the sons and daughters of the Olympian gods.

For a change, Percy Jackson has nearly made it to the end of a school year without being expelled. The problem with going to school with non-heroes is that, due a phenomenon called "the Mist", they don't see the monsters that come after Percy — they only see the results: broken chairs and windows, burned school buildings, and bruised classmates. When the Laistrygonians, giant cannibal monsters, show up at Percy's laid-back school, the PE coach just sees the big kids taking on the little kids at dodgeball. If it wasn't for Percy giant (if a bit slow) friend Tyson, he would have been killed by the flaming brass cannon-balls tossed in that game.

Annabeth also shows up just in time to slay the last of the cannibals, but she's really come to tell Percy that Camp Half-Blood, the special summer retreat for the scions of Olympus, is under attack again. This time, the magical border that protects the camp is in danger because the tree of Thalia that gives it strength has been poisoned.

Even worse, Chiron is suspected of poisoning the tree, so he has been replaced by a nasty fellow named Tantalus. When Percy realizes that his friend Grover is in trouble, and rescuing him will also allow the tree to be healed, Tantalus awards the quest to Clarisse, the daughter of Ares, who is no friend of Percy's. Annabeth, Percy, and Tyson will need to leave the camp without permission if the quest is to succeed.

Once again, Riordan has crafted a winning story, full of action and witty dialogue. Percy is a nice kid without being a wimp or a wuss, and you want Percy and his friends to succeed, and their opponents to fail. A nice twist is introduced when Luke's father Hermes helps Percy as a way to help his son, even though Luke was hardly helpful to Percy in the first book.

The third book in the trilogy, The Titan's Curse, is out in paperback in April. Definitely worth watching for!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Princess of Wands by John Ringo

Trust a woman to get the job done.

John Ringo is known for his thrilling depiction of combat and the future weapons of war, and for the creation of steely-jawed heroes and loathsomely inhuman creatures born either to battle against humans, or fight at their sides. In Princess of Wands, however, Ringo takes a sidestep into the swamps of Louisiana to present a warrior of a different kind.

Barbara Everett is a sweet lady. A devout Christian, she believes it is her duty to stay at home, keeping the house clean and her family nourished in both the physical and the spiritual sense. Her hobby, though, is martial arts, and in her modest way, Barb has become a master at "all forms and all attacks". She's a good wife and Mom, but she's at the end of her rope with managing her children (and her husband's drinking problem). She's off to Louisiana for the weekend to find peace and sample Cajun food.

Detective Sergeant Kelly Lockhart is a skinny graying fellow trying desperately to find a clue in a vicious series of rape/murder crimes that police fear may be the actions of a cult. His hunt for a person of interest takes him to Madame Charlotte, a fortune-teller who warns him to find the "sign of the princess" if he wants to survive his search in Cajun country. One look at the too-small "Aloof Elven Princess" t-shirt stretched tight across Barbara's well-endowed figure, and Kelly suspects he's found his sign. Her familiarity with firearms and other arts of self-defense merely confirms his hunch.

Almadu is a demon. His latest attempt to break through to our world is the root cause of the case police call the Bayou Ripper. He's collecting the souls of those slain by his followers; three more and he wins the toaster. And humanity — especially Christians — is his idea of toast.

The intersection of these three deep in the bayous of Louisiana is simply the beginning of a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. Before they are done, Kelly and Barbara will need to battle Almadu's cult members in the swamps and also in the halls of a resort hotel during a sci-fantasy convention. With the help of a Wiccan and several gaming, technical and hocus-pocus-style wizards, they will fight the good fight against the evil demon. And once they're done, Barb will really have to do something about her home life...

John Ringo's heroine is a winner, so I hope we see more of Barb and her partner Kelly Lockhart. I was impressed with the way he was able to keep Barb sweet and Christian without making her mushy or preachy, and how well she and Kelly worked together without becoming sexually involved. Well-done all around, and a joy to read!

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Juvenile: 5th-9th Grade
Magical Adventure Series

In this innovative series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Rick Riordan has broken free of the Harry Potter chains, and given us a fresh hero in a brave old world of magical adventure. The first book in the series, The Lightning Thief, introduces Percy Jackson, a mouthy, dyslexic kid with a little problem: he's the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and he's not supposed to exist. He's come to the attention of the gods on Olympus, and not in a good way.

To protect him from that danger, his mother sends him to a summer camp for other children of Greek mythology. A witty re-working of summer camp frolics has Percy vieing with the other "houses" at the camp, making alliances with Athena's daughter Annabeth, a satyr named Grover, and other scions of the Olympians. Before Percy can relax into this safe haven, however, they learn that the gods are at war, Percy's father is accused of stealing Zeus's lightning, and they need to go to Hades' domain to retrieve it.

The adventure quest is a staple of this genre, and Riordan has given us a good one. The underworld is entered through a record label's offices in LA, and the summer camp is on the Atlantic coast. When they finally get there, Percy and his friends must convince Hades that neither Percy nor his father is the lightning thief. If they fail, the gods will destroy the human race.

The action is fast-paced, other characters from Greek myth who appear in the novel are lightly drawn with a fun twist, and there are plenty of plot twists to delight the reader. The vocabulary is pitched to 6th-grade level, but for reading aloud, those Greek polysyllabic names will be a challenge even to older readers — Poseidon, Procrustes, Charon and Dionysus are a mouthful for many adults!

In a welter of Harry Potter imitators, this series is a welcome relief, but it shares with Rowling's series the appeal for both boys and girls, the sense of wonder and power in a good story, and the joy of reading as a magic all its own.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson

Tickets for the End of the World Now Available

Colin Laney may be dying in a cardboard shelter in Tokyo, but he sees what's coming: the end of the world as we know it. Laney has a talent for seeing the shape of things to come by recognizing patterns in the ebb and flow of information in the Web. But as Heisenberg noted, "the observer interacts with the observed through the process of observation." Laney may be starving and sick in a cardboard shelter in Tokyo, but his detachment from life isn't helping — there is a perturbation in the shape of what he sees, and it may mean someone else is now able to observe it. And him, as well.

In All Tomorrow's Parties, Gibson has given us visionary insights into how the information age shapes us and the world we inhabit. Pattern Recognition introduced that concept in a current-time setting, while we met Laney and several other characters who appear in this near-future novel, in Idoru and Virtual Light.

These are solid characters, and we recognize them easily by their actions and choices. Laney hides, and obsesses, due to the action of the drug that initiated his skills; Rydell yearns to be a cop as he dances from one low-level job to another; Chevette the one-time bike-messenger/thief moves restlessly from one interstice to another; Rei Toei the idoru lives her virtual life and conspires to make the leap to flesh and blood.

Their lives intersect one final time on the quake-damaged Bay Bridge. Suspended between San Francisco and Oakland, they hunt through the cobbled-together dwellings and lives of the bridge people for the one thing that will trigger the end of the world. Because Laney has foreseen an event coming, and after it nothing will be the same.

Gibson's prose distills the objective style of 30s noir and gives it new vigor with a futurist edge: "Rydell knew that killing was not the explosive handshake exchange of movies, but a terrible dark marriage..."

He uses words with precision and grace, crafting phrases, sentences and paragraphs of such evocative power that they haunt you for hours. "Formal absences of precious things" describes the empty pedestals in a jewelry-store window at night; it also introduces a man whose concealed knife is "a key to a door", and he "is by trade a keeper of the door to that country", Death. Laney calls his interface with the world "Suit", because his black salaryman's costume is maintained with paint; also "the man's ankles are painted, in imitation of black socks, with something resembling asphalt."

As with the novels that preceded it, All Tomorrow's Parties is a feast of life both real and virtual, and not to be missed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Crunchy Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos from Frito Lay

Diet Reward: Intense Flavor and High Satisfaction

Whether you're trying to reprogram your eating habits, or actively dieting, when that need to nosh hits between meals, you can safely fill the hole with a small handful of spicy, crunchy Cheetos snacks.

Not the "Flamin' Hot" variety, which seems to be aimed at achieving a burn regardless of flavor — what I recommend as a daily reward for following a healthy diet is several yellow curls from a bag of Cheetos Crunchy Cheddar Jalapeño snacks. These are spicy, savory, cheesy, and have that satisfying Cheetos crunch, with a mouth-filling flavor that sates the snack urge quickly.

You are left with the feeling (after five to ten medium-size curls) that you have cheated the diet demon, done something slightly sinful. Yet a serving of 21 pieces is only 170 calories, and the secret is: you don't need a full serving to quiet that yen for a treat!

The corn curls are touted as having 0 grams of trans-fat, the latest nutritional jargon for "actually good for you", although the nutitional table on the pack reveals that more than half the calories are from fats, and 17% are saturated fats. To compare a perfectly satisfying handful of 10 Jalapeño Cheetos curls with another popular snack, a 3-cookie serving of Oreos® provides nearly twice the total calories and a little more than the total fat (7g for Oreos vs. 6.5g for the Cheetos). And as points out, can you stop at three Oreos?

That, in a nutshell, is why I reward my good eating with a break from the diet pulled straight from the Jalapeño Cheetos bag. Can't find them? Try the Frito Lay Item Locator!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin

Juvenile: 7th grade up

Some gifts are blessings. Some are burdens.

The people of the Uplands, whisper the lowlanders, are barbarians and witches. Still, their peculiar gifts are the substance of legends, and Emmon comes among them as a thief, bent on taking the wealth such gifts are sure to have procured. So he is baffled when the first Uplanders he encounters are blind Orrec and the gentle woman Gry. He does not believe them when they explain.

Le Guin has a powerful voice, most compelling when she whispers. That is how she begins Gifts, first novel in a new series, with a subtle, insidious whisper of power misused. For Orrec is not blind, he simply refuses to use the gift of his family, when fully Seeing a thing can mean its undoing. His is a wild gift, perhaps powerful, but uncontrolled.

Each line, or clan, in the Uplands has its gift, some of which descend through the male line, and some through the female. There is the twisting, the power to twist the form of one's enemy. One line is reputed to have the power of blinding, making deaf or dumb, another the ability to send a spellknife into an enemy's heart. The gifts of rein and broom let their lines take control of another's will, or whisk his brain clean of thought.

Orrec's father used his line's gift, the undoing, on the woods on the far side side of the border with Drummant, a ruthless, reiving clan. The gift of the Drummant causes living things to wither and die, and with his gift, Ogge of Drum has taken command of a large portion of the Uplands. The undoing promised by the blasted black stumps along their border fence has halted their advance for a long time, but now Ogge is making demands that Orrec's father hesitates to deny. The threat of power lurking behind Orrec's blindfold is all that holds him at bay.

Gry is Orrec's friend, perhaps his sweetheart, and she has also denied the gift that came with her maternal line. Her power is to call animals to her; her mother and ancestors have used it to call beasts to the hunt, bringing them to the slaughter. Gry refuses to do this, preferring to use her gift only in training horses, and dogs. Because she will not use her gift as her parents demand, they have sent her away from the Uplands, and she lives in poverty with Orrec and his father.

Why do the Uplanders have such hideous gifts, if not to battle with each other? From his darkness, Orrec must decide how to manage his gift. In her exile from her family, Gry must decide if her choice is the right one.

Le Guin's tale builds from one choice to another as these two voluntary rejects search for their purpose in the world. As with all her stories, compelling characters rise organically from the narrative. We want Orrec and Gry to make the right choices.

The young reader is guided by the story to see that the choices they make are not only the right ones for these two young Uplanders, but a better choice for all the Gifted.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart

On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

Nearly thirty years ago in Long Beach, across the street from the office building where I worked was a gooey black-caked field where once had been stored oil-field equipment, used pipes and barrels, all dripping with remnants of oil and refinery waste. One day, there was this barren plain stretching eight square blocks; the next there were mounds of soil curtained with poly sheets to prevent runoff trenching. It was part of an experiment to see how soil remidiation could be performed with one simple ingredient: earthworms.

Today, there are new offices, houses, cafes and shops on that ground. The earthworms accomplished it all. No measurable trace of toxins or hydrocarbons remains, other that what would be expected in rich soil. I thought a lot about that transformation as I read Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved, a paean to the accomplishments of the lowly earthworm.

An organic gardener, Stewart describes the worms she keeps in a composting bin beside her back door as an opener to this journey through the lives and doings of worms. She has brilliant company on the way: Charles Darwin, who spent the last years of his life studying the way worms produce compost, Thoreau and e.e. cummings and even Friedrich Nietzsche. But it is the worms who have center stage, from the giant Oregon worm (which may be extinct — we simply can't dig fast enough to find out) to the microscopic nematode.

Stewart's passion for the topic is evident as she details the ways, beneficial and not, in which earthworms affect our planet. For example, the toxic remediation I witnessed in Long Beach is one of the promising accomplishments of worms. In digesting organic matter in the soil, worms can balance methane outgassing, eliminate toxins by combining them into less-harmful substances, and erect a chemical barrier against certain kinds of garden pests. They also encourage the growth of molds and the mycelia of fungi, which help the roots of plants take up nutrients from the coil.

On the other hand, non-native worms released in some areas can do great harm: the native hardwood forests in the Northeastern US, for example, are in danger from introduced earthworms. As the worms move in from surrounding lawns and golf courses, or are introduced as discarded live bait, the ground layer or "duff" in the forest changes. Animals and plants that require the buildup of this duff layer are driven out by the action of the worms.

Stewart makes it clear that there is still much to be learned from studying this humble life form that is capable of so much. The lively prose coupled with her passion for these remarkable creatures makes this a fascinating, funny and informative treat.

The Green Trap, by Ben Bova

"These little critters take in water and carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. That's how the oxygen we breathe got into the atmosphere."
...Cochrane stared at the stromatolites, going about their business of life as they had been for almost four billion years. The only sound in the greenhouse was the gurgling of the water washing over the rounded pebbles and slightly larger rocks. It was hot inside the glass walls. Cochrane took off his jacket, pulled his tie loose.
    And asked himself, Mike got himself killed over these microbes? There's got to be more to it than this.

Green. It can connote money, or the politics of ecology, or naïveté. Or it can mean simply the color of photosynthesis, from microscopic algae to the leaves high in the redwood.

In Ben Bova's thriller, The Green Trap, it means all four, wound together in a twisted, jinking braid that begins with the murder of a microbiological researcher named Michael Cochrane. Cochrane's brother Paul, an astrophysicist and a loner since the death of his wife several years before, is thrown without warning into a world of sexual and political intrigue.

Cochrane's initial goal is to find out who murdered his brother. But as he learns more about his brother's research into cyanobacteria, his purpose shifts gradually. Michael Cochrane's discovery could mean the end of dependence on foreign oil, the end of burning hydrocarbons for fuel — and the end of sky-high profits for Gould Energy Corporation and its competitors. Lionel Gould, the hard-driven principal of Gould Energy, is determined that he will control the new fuel source.

Gould certainly is behind the sinister Kensington, who may have murdered Paul Cochrane. There are other players: Elena Sandoval, a siren who has attached herself to Paul's search; Mitsuo Arashi, who may be competition for Sandoval; Zelinkshah Samil, a UNESCO official from Chechnya who has been pumping funds into Michael Cochrane's research. Paul Cochrane must decide who to trust as he makes his way through the maze of competing claims and offers.

Bova's novel plays heavily on green (as in political) theories of man-made global warming and drags in the old shibboleth of the cheap fuel suppressed by greedy oil barons. Even so, the story resonates; hydrocarbons are not a renewable resource, so they will run out some day, and current methods of producing a truly green fuel like hydrogen involve releasing even more carbon load into the atmosphere than direct burning of gasoline, diesel or ethanol fuels. The cyanobacteria Ben Bova posits offer a possible escape from the green trap our industrial society has walked into.

Once again, Bova has written an intriguing mix of politics, near-future science, and thrilling action. To quote Lionel Gould, "It's very good."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wine & War by Don & Petie Kladstrup

The French, the Nazis, & the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure

The usual history of the French Resistance in World War II focuses on urban battlegrounds, with underground strategists meeting in cafes and cellars beneath Parisian landmarks. But outside the city, in Champagne, Burgundy, Vichy, Armagnac and Cognac, an equally fierce resistance was waged by the vintners of France.

In Wine & War, Don and Petie Kladstrup reveal the German plan to plunder the bottled treasure of the vineyards of France, and the determined struggle by the French in vineyard, winery, negociant and wine cellar to protect their wares. Why would they do so? The Kladstrups make it clear that to the French winemaker, their wines are more than product; they are family and regional history, cultural icons, and the heart of the French way of life.

It began with the fall of the Maginot Line on the north-eastern border of France. Wine-makers in the Champagne region relate seeing soldiers from the line fleeing through the vineyards because the roads were crowded with refugees from northern France who carried their worldly goods on their backs. As they fled, soldiers discarded their arms in among the vines — even today, rusting rifles are found when vineyards are plowed up.

When the fleeing French soldiers were followed by the German army of occupation, a two-fold battle began: protect the fine vintages of France, and sell the German the poorer qualities as rare old wines. In the Chateau Laudenne, the cellar acquired a new back wall that was carefully festooned with spiderwebs brought from all over the vineyard. Behind that wall, the Chateau's famous wines rested safe from the German troops. Meanwhile, ancient dust gathered from carpets cleaned at a certain company was bagged and distributed to restaurants. They would dredge this dust over the shoulders of a raw new bottle, then sell it to the unsuspecting Germans as aged and valuable wine.

In the Hugel vineyards in Alsace, the 1939 vintage was "disastrous." The weather that year did not cooperate, and the grapes did not develop in sugar. Wine making has such seasons, and the Hugels simply barreled the puny wine and stored it away. When their vineyards were occupied, the German army requisitioned wine by the barrel for the Russian front. "They never specified the vintage," Andre Hugel related. "So whenever we filled these requisitions, it was always the '39 we shipped."

From the weinfuhrers to the Champagne Campaign of liberation, this book is a trove of tales of how surrendered France fought the German occupiers with wit, wiles and bad wine. Lay in a good Burgundy, light a fire, and sit back to enjoy the rich adventure of Wine & War.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Roomba: Not Your Mother's Vacuum Cleaner

Robert A. Heinlein Scores Again!

In his classic time-travel novel, The Door Into Summer, Robert Heinlein's engineer protagonist Daniel Boone Davis invents a mechanical cleaning robot — not a humanoid device that dusts and pushes the vacuum cleaner, but a smaller gadget that runs around the floor looking for dirt, picking it up and returning to its charging station when it is full or it runs out of juice.

The device is promising enough that his scheming girlfriend and unscrupulous partner conspire to trick him into taking the "long sleep"; they freeze him and send him into the future. The rest is grist for a wonderful story.

But what happened to the wonderful cleaning robot? Other conceptual gimmicks (waterbeds, ATMs, manufacturing robots) from Heinlein's fiction have become reality. Where is the floor-cleaning wizardry we were promised?

iRobot has it — when I first started looking at the Roomba, and its partner mopping machine, that Scooba, I wondered if the patents had the name D.B. Davis on them. Here it was, that all-around time saver of a semi-intelligent vacuum cleaner. The Roomba Red is the basic version. At the push of a button (and a bleeping Tally Ho!), it starts out on a drunkard's walk around the room, flicking and sucking dust, pet hair, crumbs, etc. into a small cannister. A sensor looks for concentrations of dirt; when it encounters them, it switches into a spiraling pattern designed to focus on the dirty area. Another sensor backs it away from the brink of stairs.

Yep, you can turn it on and walk away. It will clean as long as its battery has power, and there is still room in the cannister for dirt. Unless it gets stuck. Or high-centered on something. Or plugged with something it can neither suck in nor disgorge. Even then, it has a plaintive little beeping song that tells you your Roomba has problems its chip can't solve.

Rather than walk away, I like to watch the little sucker work. It rolls easily up over non-fringed carpet edges, and has a back-and-turn trick to deal with the problem when a carpet edge gets sucked into the brushes. It bounces off of obstacles, then stubbornly returns just a touch to the left or right to see if it can get past. The circling movements when it runs into the out-trackings of the cat's litter box, and the sometimes-panicked, sometimes-stalking behavior of my cats, are fascinating.

When it can't complete its task because its bin is full, the Roomba halts wherever it is and plays a sad little "Oh, no!" melody. And its triumph when it returns to its charging station, finished for the day, is evident in the "Ta-dah!" it bleeps into the room.

Oh, you still have to pick up the bigger stuff before you set the Roomba loose — in my case, cat toys, books, and the occasional sock. I still have to hand-brush the fringed carpets; the Roomba just tries too hard to suck up that fringe. And although the Roomba Red has to be started manually, there are advanced versions that start on a timer, and they all run from hardwood to carpet, sweeping as they go. (For wet-washing floors, you want the mopping robot, Scooba.)

So Heinlein can put his feet up on a cloud, and chalk another one up on his predictive scoreboard. I'll just put my feet up down here, and watch my Roomba clean.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Trouble Magnet by Alan Dean Foster

Pip & Flinx Walk on the Dark Side

One of Alan Dean Foster's abiding creations is the telepathic orphan Flinx and his Alaspin mini-drag pal, Pip. In Trouble Magnet, Flinx continues the search he began in Running from the Diety, looking for a Tar-Aiym weapon powerful enough to defeat the dark forces headed for the Humanx Commonwealth from the depths of space.

Don't worry if the foregoing doesn't explain anything — it just means you haven't encountered this redoubtable pair before, but you don't need any prior knowledge to enjoy this novel. Suffice to say that Flinx has the power to read minds, and his flying pet has the power to kill those who threaten him.

Flinx is depressed, and wondering why he should sacrifice his time and efforts to save a society he can barely tolerate, when he could be sipping Margeritas beside the pool with his girl-friend, somewhat like a Marine musing why he is watching for IEDs in Baghdad instead of Wii Bowling back home in his parent's basement.

He diverts his journey to visit Las Vegas — sorry, make that the planet Visaria, another known sinkhole of depravity — to see if he can find a spark of human decency to persuade him that humanity is worth the effort. He's obviously loading the dice by choosing this particular place for his search (although Foster belabors the point again and again in case the reader missed it.) What he finds is a teenage thug named Subar engaged in a struggle with a pair of thranx, and a lively mystery. Why did the rescuing officers shoot at all of them, not waiting to discover who was assailant and who was victim?

Led to aid Subar in his escape by a hint of familiar motives and patterns of thought, Flinx sees a reflection of the young thief he was as he grew up. Will Subar provide the motivation for Flinx to continue his quest to save society? Or perhaps he is just another diversion that Flinx has seized upon, in his desire not to continue.

As Flinx is drawn deeper into the doings of Subar's gang, he learns something that further derails his determination to find the weapon that will save Humanx society: a hint of who is father is, and where to find him. Judging by the title of the next Pip & Flinx adventure, Patrimony, I guess the Commonwealth will be waiting a bit longer for the Tar-Aiym super-weapon.

As with all Foster's Pip & Flinx novels, this is a light, enjoyable read, nothing too demanding. You can even enjoy a Margerita by the pool as you read.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

1945 by Robert Conroy

Alternate History:
What if Japan Hadn't Surrendered in 1945?

Generations of military theorists have argued that the US did not need to drop atomic bombs in Japan; that the home islands were already destroyed by the American firebombs, and that their government was ready to sign the Potsdam Accords and surrender before the horrific devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Few outside the halls of academe are aware that Japan trembled on the brink of rejecting the unconditional surrender. Robert Conroy brings this alternate fate to chilling reality in 1945; subtitled: "What if Japan hadn't surrendered in World War II?"

Conroy is the master of the single-player scenario, and 1945 flips the decision of Japan's Defense Minister General Korechika Anami to set the scene. Anami refused to support a military coup when Emperor Hirohito decided to accept the Potsdam Declaration and surrender. Without his support, the coup crumbled, and Japan surrendered. What if Anami had supported the coup instead? With this question, Conroy sets the story of the prosecution of Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan to end World War II.

The details of battle and suicidal attacks by ill-armed and armored Japanese are obviously based on real historical action in the invasion of the Philippines. Conroy puts a paranoid General MacArthur in charge of the invasion, even as politicians back in the States plan for the eventual substitution of General Omar Bradley. Grand sweeps of men and materiel movement precede the inch-by-inch occupation of the southern island of Kyushu.

But to bring the story home, Conroy introduces individuals: Joe Nomura, the one-armed Nissei veteran of Italian combat, dropped behind the lines on Kyushu; Lt. Paul Morrell, who arrived in Europe too late to qualify to go home after VE Day, and now is headed for Japan; Dennis Chambers, an American POW in Nagasaki who got lucky and was in an underground cellar when the bomb fell, and then got lucky again and encountered a one-armed Japanese (Joe). He also uses a host of historical combatants: Anami, Hirohito, and sub commander Mochitsuro Hashimoto; MacArthur, Truman, and Bradley. The historical characters behave in ways consistent with their known philosophies and recorded deeds.

You do not have to be well-read in history to enjoy this novel, though — it is the fictional characters whose might-have-been lives are absorbing. The switches and turns of action are thrilling in the way any good combat yarn will be; you hang on the narrative to find out what happens next. Will Joe or Dennis be captured? Will Paul succeed in Japan as he did not in Europe? Will the mounting anti-war movement in America halt the advance of the front in Japan, or will the kamikazes succeed in halting it instead?

Engrossing and intellectually stimulating it certainly is. 1945 provides a marvelous view of a history that might have happened — if we hadn't all been extremely lucky.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dennett's Dangerous Idea: Breaking the Spell

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Philosophers have a natural interest in the nature of how we decide what we will hold as true or real (epistemology). Yet a major group of theories, of "known things", are held to be exempt from such inquiry. These are the religious beliefs — not religions alone, but all those concepts which are protected from rational inquiry.

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett has chosen to negate the protective charm that prevents such rational investigation. With careful steps, he hopes not to destroy the belief itself, but to shed light on why we believe.

He looks at formal religions and spiritualism alike; examines hauntings and UFOs, cults and cloisters; lays bare the foundations of jihad and jingoism.

This is not dry philosophy either — Dennett's approach is enjoyable and witty, even titillating. (If there is a "belief gene", could its success be attributable to the need for the male to promote sexual arousal in the female?) His careful explanation of intentional objects, our conception of God as a causative agent, as a combination of what we have already encountered (Father/Teacher/Judge) with a partially-understood effect (good or bad fortunes, weather, etc.), is introduced gradually so that the reader can put down the treatise at any time his belief is threatened.

Along the way, if you stay the course, you are also introduced to others who have dared this inquiry, and exposed to the musings of artists and authors, politicians and playwrights, scholars and scoundrels who have challenged belief — or used it as a tool.

And if in the end, the spell is broken for your particular belief, it will not be without support from Dennett. The final chapter, Now What Do We Do?, reveals that he has turned that searchlight on his own philosophy. There should not be a belief that is exempt from rational examination. That is a spell that Dennett has broken.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

All in the Family: The House of the Scorpion

High-school concepts, 8th-grade vocabulary

How does the practice of cloning impact those who practice it? In Nancy Farmer's well-written exploration, The House of the Scorpion, Matt is the clone of a rich landlord. In this society, cloning for spare parts and life extension is a common practice for those who can afford it. Most clones are effectively lobotomized in infancy, and are never aware of their fate, but El Patron Matteo Alacran, Matt's owner/father, has chosen to leave Matt's intellect intact.

So on one level, this is the story of a young man coming of age as a commodity. Matt deals with the shifts and changes in his status, never quite a sibling in the wealthy household of El Patron, but not a servant either; neither a son nor quite a slave. Matt struggles against his destiny with the aid of servants, and eventually escapes the fortress-farm where he grew up.

Does he find freedom? He finds an orphanage where, despite beatings and tyranny of a very familiar kind, he puts to use what he was taught by El Patron. And what he learns there challenges the concept of escaping one's destiny.

On another level, the story deals with the way that using humans as commodities always corrupts the user. It is not only Matt who is used by his father. El Patron deals with his serf-like farmers as if they were slaves; he has literal powers of life and death over them, his family, and Matt. The orphans are used by those who "rescued" them, and in the end, for both El Patron and his mimics at the orphanage, their corruption enables Matt's triumph.

This novel is far more powerful than Nancy Farmer's previous Newberry award-winner, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, yet it is equally enjoyable. Boys looking for an exciting story with plenty of thought-provoking action will not be disappointed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

90 Seconds to Satisfaction: Hormel Compleats

Hormel Conquers Lunch!

Their commercial gives the rationale: five minutes for lunch in a busy office, and pandemonium. Calmly, our heroine draws a single-serving pack from the stash in her desk, and 90 seconds later, she is eating a tasty entree, while her colleagues battle over stale peanuts from the vending machine.

Hormel Compleats are that astonishing commodity: a product that exceeds the hype of its advertising. Best, in my opinion, are the meals with mashed potatoes or dressing as the starch. The Beef Tips and Mashed Potatoes is a perfect size for a half-hour lunch, with rich gravy, tender meat, and the right amount of whipped potato to exactly match the gravy. Yum!

The Chicken Breast or Turkey with Dressing is also savory, and perfectly portioned. A crunchy vegetable addition (water chestnuts?) to the dressing gives it a wonderful texture and satisfying "tooth".

I also tried the pasta and rice products — it was tasty, but not as nice as the potato or dressing varieties. The chicken gravy in Chicken and Rice was too salty for my palate, for example, and the pasta in the Spaghetti and Meat Sauce was a bit mushy, while the sauce was closer to catsup than Bolognese.

Hormel also produces its signature Dinty Moore Beef Stew in the same 90-second pack, and it is just as tasty and satisfying as the canned version. What is next? Perhaps the iconic Spam will appear as a 90-second treat. Cue the Vikings...