Ares is a series of new vehicle designs from NASA (well, okay, probably its contractors). Compared to the Shuttle, these are paragons of simplicity and common sense. Link.

More Stross

Charles Stross’ latest book Glasshouse is probably his best work yet. I highly recommend it (though it does have a few minor irritations). I’ll be surprised if it’s not up for a bunch of awards.

Glasshouse is set after the events in Accelerando (I’m not sure how long, hundreds or maybe tens of thousands of years). Humanity has gone through a number of “forgetting” crises (the first dark age being our present time, primarily because of the fragility of digital media). The second, well, let’s just say that a bunch of bad stuff happened, and nobody really remembers the details.

The hero of the story wakes up with his memory gone, with only a short note from himself prior to a voluntary memory wipe. With a bit of stumbling, he finds himself signing up for a research program into how Dark Ages society operated. Bits of his past keep coming back, though; he was a tank in a recent war, for instance. The research program turns out not to be all it seemed at the start. And, of course, the fate of humanity lies in his success or failure.

Glasshouse is inventive, thoughtful, funny, horrifying and very entertaining. It reads a lot like Varley’s The Ophiuci Hotline, with characters changing bodies, sexes and even memories with wild abandon. The first chapter of the hero’s encounter with Dark Ages technology is hilarious.

The end is somewhat predictable, and it happens fast (you can practically feel the deadline pressure). Stross over-uses some references to some events of 9/11, and things are just a little too perfectly sewn up; there are no real surprises once everything is on the table.

On the whole, this is one of the better SF books to arrive this year.

The theme of “waking up with no memory in a high tech society” has been mined over and over again, with varying degrees of success.

If you like some of the premises in Glasshouse, you also might like Michael Swanick’s Vacuum Flowers (technology-driven modifications to society-as-a-whole); it’s not terribly carefully plotted, and feels pretty random at times, but it does have some very interesting ideas.

Walter Jon Williams’ Voice of the Whirlwind is also well done, and has a gritty style and setting similar to Glasshouse.

Roger Zelazny mined this for nearly the entire Amber series (starting off with a character with total amnesia, which gradually faded away into a lot of “Oh, and I forgot to tell you…”). The first couple of books were okay, the remaining ones were obvious filler, but still entertaining.

Handy Terrorist Template

To save you time, here’s a template.


A top secret program to monitor

    [ ] Boxers -vs- briefs
    [ ] Sales of dental floss
    [ ] Frequency of over-sleeping
    [ ] Other

was today revealed by

    [ ] The New York Times
    [ ] The Washington Post
    [ ] Leaks from the White House
    [ ] Somebody in a trench coat
    [ ] A blogger

Bush Administration officials

    [ ] Denied the whole program
    [ ] Declared the program “absolutely critical to the war on terror”
    [ ] Threatened prosecution of the ( ) media ( ) internet providers ( ) registered Democrats
    [ ] Called anyone who disagreed with the administration terrorists, too
    [ ] Declined to comment
    [ ] All of the above

So much for rescue

I was bummed to see that there was no ‘Space Survival Equipment’ available on this surplus site, nor any rocket engines or components, to say nothing about space vehicles themselves.

I’ll have to keep looking. Link.

books again

A re-read: Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion is a simple, fun fantasy trilogy that starts with Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, in which a young (this isn’t obvious, is it?) sheep-farmer’s daughter runs away to join a local duke’s mercenary force. Good pacing and well drawn characters keep the story going, even though the things don’t really begin to move until halfway through the book. It’s obviously drawn from Moon’s own experiences in the modern military (to wit: different weapons and battlefields, but the same type of people). This is light fantasy; magic is thankfully rare and the world is not thick with elves and dwarves and hippogryphs and dragons.

There is a two-book prequel to Deed, starting with Surrender None. I liked the first book, but never finished the second, but Surrender is still worthwhile reading.

I have to admit disappointment with Charles Stross’s latest installment in his modern fantasy, The Clan Corporate. Perhaps I should have re-read the first two books just to get in the mood, but it seems like TCC doesn’t move at quite the pace of the prior two books. Is this a deliberate Zelazny-class slow-down where, taken to extremes in even later books, it will take a character four chapters to cross a room? I certainly hope not. While it is fun and easy to read entertainment, and by no means a waste of time, I’m hoping things will pick up. (Stross’ Glasshouse will be out next week, we shall see…).

Alistair Reynolds is in his late 30s and has published an enormous amount in the last four or five years. I can’t say that I liked it all; Revelation Space was neat, if ponderous, but I didn’t make it through Chasm City (it starts out well, then gets off track to the point where he appears to be channeling one of Richard Morgan’s characters from the Altered Carbon universe — by the way, another set of fairly okay techno-detective novels). Reynolds’ latest, Pushing Ice, is well done, and I finished it in about a week (or, about average for Life With A Toddler). It’s predictable, but not totally so, and for once I don’t resent seeing the clearly indicated pre-drilled holes where the sequel will be bolted on. Ice is worth a read.

The New Super Mario Brothers on the DS-lite has been consuming too much of my time the past couple of days. The DS-lite is a class act, by the way; more on this later.

Here’s a book I don’t own, and hope I never do: Conducting the Programmer Job Interview: The IT Manager Guide with Java J2EE, C, C++, UNIX, PHP and Oracle Interview questions!

Where to begin? Even a fast read in the bookstore made me pale.

This is supposedly a book about hiring top-notch engineers. Instead it’s a really great way to scare away talent. If you read this and it makes sense to you, and you use questions from it, you will not have top talent working for you, you will have it running away screaming from the interview. This book is a real gobbler.

There is a set of sample interview questions, and they are terrible, ranging from trivial (“How do you end a comment in C”), to mildly wrong (regarding correct declaration of main), to hilariously and incredibly confused:

Q: What would you say someone is doing if they are calling “mmap()” followed by “sizeof()”?

A: They are trying to get the size of a file.

Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Make it stop hurting, please.

Glancing at the other questions, they look about the same (I didn’t spot anything glaringly wrong, but I did see a lot of “What variable should be set to do X in order to configure Y in WebMumble 7.61 for IETF compatibility with mode 3 SDFG?” type questions, things that someone competent should be able to find in twenty seconds, and if you find that a candidate has memorized such garbage, it’s probably a bad sign). It’s really clear that the author had no expertise in the areas covered, but simply skimmed some books and made up questions with little or no research or technical review other than “It looked hard when I riffed through the Sam’s book in the bookstore’s coffee shop.”

And: If you think your next candidate is smart, you might want to ask them what they think of this book…

On the Offensive

Values training for the troops. Uh huh. link

A recent NPR segment on the forms of “Sensitivity training” required by many corporate HR departments had a bit where one woman who was interviewed said (paraphrased): “Before the training, we had a pretty decent work environment. Now we seem to go out of our way to make up offending stuff. It’s hilarious.” I’ve observed pretty much the same grunt-level attitude in the companies I’ve worked at where this kind of training is mandated; lots more offensive hallway talk, with added nervous laughter. When HR walks by, people look at their shoes.

That woman’s interview resulted in a call-in by a career HR type (“Ahv been doin’ this for twenty yeahs”), who said (sans accent): “Do you know that, by saying that, you’re opening your company up to being sued?”

So, yes, it’s all about the lawyers. I expect the troop training to be no different.

Trainer: “Don’t offend anyone!”

Troops: “Yessir!”

Trainer: “Remember to drink lots of water!”

Troops: “Yessir!”

Trainer: “And don’t lead the women and children so much!”