Alfaniel's Original Blog Title

Science fiction, fantasy, indie and new publishing models

Going for a Beer

Going for a Beer - Robert Coover Fast and impressive read. I'm still dizzy! And it only takes 5 minutes of your time. It's online for free.

In a powerful literary condensed style, the story throws at you words on a page. A mere page, of a lifetime.

Grab a beer, as Warwick recommended, or don't grab it, unless you already have, and enjoy it.

Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone

Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone - David Perlmutter
The perspective of cartoon characters, when their television show gets canceled.

Some might find this short story humorous. I don't, though not because it doesn't have its share of humor. It's a parody, if you will, of the world of entertainment networks, one that feels sad all the way, shadowing its funny twists.

There is money, narrow mind and ego, corporate power negotiations, threats and ruthlessness. There is no place for quality of a show, for feedback from the audience, for a kid's fun, in the decision making. Cartoon characters, the last ones out, fight their way and out of their way, for a few minutes on the air.


Note: I have received a copy for free from the publisher, with the purpose of an honest review.
The Secret of Castle Cant - K.P. Bath

Original review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/736557335

Cross-posted on Soapboxing.net
Look, I know everyone is sick of talking about the new moratorium on writing book reviews about "author behavior" here on Goodreads - dudes, that was so last week - but I'm not. I'm still pissed as hell.

Last week I compiled a database the book reviews Goodreads deleted from 13 of the 21 people affected by the "policy change". (And in your link-whoring department, full analysis of the deletions here.) Two of the users had reviews from this book deleted. Here is a screencap of one of the deleted reviews, because while Goodreads can delete something, Google cache is forever:



This book was written by a convicted pedophile. 'nuf said.


I'm not going to link to the dozens of reviews that note this fact and nothing else, but they are still up on Goodreads. You know why? Because this policy about author behavior is complete bollocks. This "policy change" was a witch hunt, pure and simple. 21 people had their reviews deleted because the management at Goodreads didn't like them personally.

21 people.

I aim for 22.

Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (Science Masters S.)

Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe - Martin J. Rees
Six numbers: if any was altered in a very small degree, the universe would not have permitted life to develop.
For example, if gravity wasn't exactly this weak comparing to other forces in the atom, but not weaker, the universe either would have collapsed right after Big Bang, or would have expanded so fast that no stars, galaxies, planetary systems could've formed.
Thus, no potential for life.

Writing and readability
Rees makes his case of fine tuning with regard to life very convincing. The book is written for the lay reader, and it's decidedly a must-read for anyone interested in cosmology, astronomy, physics. It's rare that I find books for popularizing science that don't have the faults of being clumsy written or assuming a much higher level of knowledge that they're advertised for. To bring science down to earth is no easy enterprise, and Rees, reputable cosmologist, succeeds amazingly.
The book makes many comparisons of the numbers and ratios it speaks of, with every day examples, or it creates elocvently frame by frame images, to convey just how precise (small or big) the numbers are. This is done so well that it leaves you feeling you now really - really - know more, understand the universe better, and estimate the extreme unlikeliness of our universe to turn out just right for life.

The writing style does wonders to convey to the reader a powerful case for the fine tuning of each number.

Critique
However, the thesis doesn't stand up to basic philosophical/logical objections.
Rees compares what would happen if each number varies, assuming everything else is equal. One at a time. And concludes from it, that they're extremely fine-tuned. However, what would happen if you vary two numbers at a time? How about three? How about varying relations between one of these numbers and the other elements, which Rees combines with it (according to laws of physics of our universe) to yield his results of dead universes?

Varying one at a time is not a throughout investigation. I can't conclude from it *anything*.

Example. Let us say we have six integer numbers, and their sum is 1000. Let us say that a "life-permitting sum" is in the range 999 and 1001.
If I vary one of the numbers, with 1 (plus or minus 1), I still get about 1000. If I vary that number with 2 (plus or minus 2), I no longer get my goal sum. If I vary it more, the sum will never be in the goal range. I had only two permitted variations.
But, if I vary 2 numbers at a time, I can obviously "succeed" with significantly more variations. If I vary 3 numbers at a time, ever more.
If I also accept that the "law" can be changed (the function may be a sum, or a product, or an exponential function, etc), I can have way more winning combinations.
I may have more failures than successes, true, but I have a bigger pool of wins, meaning the numbers themselves are not "just about right".

Rees' fine-tuning thesis assumes varying one number at a time, which is only a slice of the research to get a whole range of (potentially) life-permitting universes. After it limits itself this way, it asks for an explanation for such an improbable event of each number being exactly right.
I'll say it's not a defensible position, from a logical-philosophical perspective.

Rees' possible answers to his question are the multiverse theory and the creationist hypothesis, with a nod in the direction of a possible unified theory that will eventually explain why these numbers had to be as they are. Since I don't think the question was entirely correct to begin with, I don't feel compelled to jump to his conclusions yet.

Critique of the critique
When I read the book, I was left with the question: is fine-tuning, in the current mainstream physics and cosmology, assuming variation of one number at a time, and drawing conclusions from only it?
I don't know, I'm no physicist, and while I feel I learned from this book (and it's Cosmology 101!), I will say that the reasoning itself at the basis of the argument is flawed. However, it seems I received my answer, from another direction.

This week, in the discussion on Manny's review of The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, he quotes another cosmologist, Barnes, a supporter of fine-tuning theories. With this occasion (with this occasion I read Rees' book as well), I read more of Barnes' blog and articles, and I came upon this:
http://letterstonature.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/fine-tuning-and-the-myth-of-one-variable-at-a-time/

This gives me my answer, in no uncertain terms:
There is an objection to fine-tuning that goes like this: all the fine-tuning cases involve varying one variable only, keeping all other variables fixed at their value in our universe, and then calculating the life-permitting range on that one variable. But, if you let more than one variable vary at a time, there turns out to be a range of life-permitting universes. So the universe is not fine-tuned for life.

This is a myth. The claim quoted by our questioner is totally wrong. The vast majority of fine-tuning/anthropic papers, from the very earliest papers in the 70′s until today, vary many parameters.


Also, further down the page, Barnes refers to this book:
This myth may have started because, when fine-tuning is presented to lay audiences, it is often illustrated using one-parameter limits. Martin Rees, for example, does this in his excellent book “Just Six Numbers“. Rees knows that the limits involve more than one parameter – he derived many of those limits. But equation (1) above would be far too intimidating in a popular level book.

Indeed, I got my answer, spot on! The equation noted is above my (undergrad and forgotten) math level. However, the question I had while I was reading Rees' book had to do with internal logic of his thesis.

The road ahead
Which raises another question: what is then, the actual thesis/question of fine-tuning literature today?

According to Barnes, the only constraint in varying parameters to get possible universes, is for these universes to be logically possible. (non-contradictory)

That's a bold claim, if I ever saw one. And I mean bold. Particularly surprising when Barnes explicitly states that an universe is defined by (initial conditions, constants, laws of physics), and, according to him, *all three* are fair game, for the variance experiment, including laws of physics. I should add though, the claim strikes me as methodologically correct, because what else is there to assume about the possible universes? We can't necessarily assume they obey the physical laws that may have been set from the initial conditions (which we vary!) of our Big Bang for our universe. But the magnitude of the task, even if there are mathematical tools to make it more reasonable, leaves me in a combination of awe and disbelief.

Once she chose their universe(s) to examine, the fine-tuning-interested cosmologist then solves the equations for those possible universes. If the universe is not self-consistent, then it's trashed. Then estimate the probability for the universe under examination (actually class of universes) to be life-permitting.
The purpose: estimate the probability of life-permitting universes in the set of possible universes.

This is my current understanding of Barnes' paper and blog, and with them, a certain direction on fine-tuning today. I'd have more to say about those logically possible only universes (!), but I guess I'd better wrap up this review and read more.

Conclusion
Rees doesn't claim for his book to have another purpose than it does: to make general readership understand better a slice of one of the problems of cosmology today. He succeeds very well, perhaps too well. Apparently, we, lay readers, might get easily from it a too limited but powerful impression about the sides of the controversy of fine-tuning. :)
Luckily, the same is not the case on physics and cosmology. Controversies aside, I think this 101 in cosmology is one of the best written books popularizing science. Very recommended, and easy to read.


Creative Commons License
This work by Alfaniel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: Sorcery and Scholarships

Sorcery and Scholarships - Ian Isaro

Book Presentation

Everyone wishes the ancient prophecy would go away. Pixies commute to work and sirens make mp3s of their songs, yet antique forces stubbornly persist. They want to bring about a war between Light and Darkness in an era when most people just want to cash in on the merchandising.

Aki is struggling to make ends meet and hopes her scholarship can at least earn her a better apartment. Blake refuses to believe he could be something so cliché as a Knight of Darkness. Keisha is pursuing a career in law when she's told she has no choice but to serve the forces of Light. All of them will be attending the same university, whether they like it or not.

It's hard to think about dark omens when there's a term paper due, much less a party that night. But they'd better relax while they can, because after college is only the real world, which is stranger and more dangerous than they could possibly imagine.

 

My Review


An uncommon book in the fantasy landscape, Sorcery and Scholarships is an on-going trip in a rich fantasy world. Dynamic and complex, the world is too rich to catch in a few words, and it is a setting hosting a saga of magic, youth struggles, destiny and war.

Characters
The new students to Axis University are distinct, well sketched characters. We meet Aki, a girl trying to live on her own and struggling with basic spells to prove herself. Blake, a powerfully distinct character from the start, presented to us as a bearer of Darkness and from his very introductory scene the author shocks us with his behavior. I would rather not give spoilers, so I'll pass over the details, I'll just say that not everything is rosy, and that has caught my interest from the start. Then we have Keisha, the smart girl aiming for law school, an overachiever in anything she puts her mind to.

The book is well written on characterization and point of view, though not easy: it switches often the points of view, following the experiences of every of our students. However, thanks to the skillful depiction of the biases of each and the clear distinction between their take on Axis, on their entourage, on the war going on, we have no trouble following them and enriching our experience of the world of Sorcery and Scholarship through the superposition of their perspectives.

World Building
The world is complex, and more than once, at the beginning of the book, I've felt it rushing to the reader with many assumptions on history or events we don't know yet. We have to figure out as we go, the fey, the spites, races we're dealing with in this world, the magic system, or rather systems, since there are more areas of magic, the prophecy that lies above the events and puts things into motion at the time we enter the world.

The book doesn't have too long infodumps on magic, still it transmits a lot of information, through part-infodumps. That's somehow more confusing, because they're clearly only hanging parts, that we have to figure out how they relate in the bigger picture. The magic system is complex, with many areas and specific characteristics, partially dependent on the native abilities of the student as well as the willingness of their professors to train them. Weird things are happening, and in the course of the story we don't know much of what or why. Only that it's a war, a war between Light and Darkness, with many aspects we discover along the way.

Thankfully, the plot is character-driven, and very well done at that. We can easily sympathize and connect with Aki, and likely Keisha, from the start. Twists and surprises keep our interest alive as they move along, we can learn with them as they try to uncover the deeper meaning of what is happening in the university and in the world.

A complex fantasy with a complex magic world, Sorcery and Scholarship is an interesting read. Light, though snappy, switching fast through events, the writing style makes this book a pleasure to read, for the fantasy fans.


Note: I have received a copy for free from the author, for an honest review.
This review is part of Making Connections blog tour.

Well, that was interesting

Reblogged from Stewartry:

This post was reblogged (see ending).

 

Just when you thought it couldn't get any sillier.

 

Someone (*cough*Moira*cough*) built an author page for Goodreads' own Otis Chandler, to feature some pertinent quotes:

 

We love having authors on Goodreads. But, we are a site that's focused on readers first. If there is a choice between what is best for readers and what is best for authors, we will always err on the side of readers.”

 

Sadly, I didn't screencap it, and so I can't quote the other two exactly - because within about half an hour the author page was deleted, and the quotes with it. Now, it was about 11:30 PM that it disappeared here, on the East Coast, so it was about 8:30 PM at Goodreads Central. I don't believe I've ever seen any glitch or problem attended to at that hour; they seem to be pretty solidly 9-5. When it's not something guaranteed to cause further disgust amongst us rabble.

 

Was this one of the quotes? Either way, it's funny.

 

"I agree that it’s a shame some books have to suffer ratings that clearly are invalid. However I can’t think of a way to prevent it, and I didn’t see any ideas in the thread either (I did skim though). I hope you’ll appreciate that if we just start deleting ratings whenever we feel like it, that we’ve gone down a censorship road that doesn’t take us to a good place."

 

Not ha-ha funny, you see, but O-Lord-the-irony funny.

 

Then there's:

"We’re in the media business today. We’re in the business of helping authors and publishers market their books to readers. And that’s where we make our money. We sell book launch packages to authors and publishers and really help accelerate, build that early buzz that a book needs to succeed when it launches and accelerate that growth through ads on the site."

 

That would be AmazOtis talking, that.

 

There's also this, posted by Jennifer on the Big Giant Thread of Fail:

I've watched us deal with many author flame wars over the years, and they all started with an author commenting on a negative review of their own book.
Author Participation Thread, March 2, 2011

 

And They Called Her Spider (Bartleby and James Adventures - Galvanic Century - Book 1) - Michael Coorlim
What if Holmes' friend was an engineer, they both lived in a steampunk England, and their story told in a witty style in a fantasy?

They would be Bartleby and James, the fun couple in this steampunk story.

Well written and a light read, the story has been a surprise. I found myself smiling at the tribulations of the engineer, enjoying his use of the detoxification apparatus, in a world excellently sketched with all its steampunk flavor.

This story is now for free on Smashwords, and it makes a good read for steampunk fans, and also an easy introductory read for those curious to try steampunk.

Spar

Spar - Kij Johnson
I have no interest for alien sex, but I have enjoyed the rather rare occurrences I've read in the past.

Until now.
The experience of reading this short story is at the opposite pole of enjoyment. I didn't enjoy it. If I can still make sense of the concept of enjoyment.

I had no problem finishing it (it's a very short story), if there was more, I don't think I would have read it. Maybe. It's a mix of erotica and horror, where both erotica and horror refer to the same thing; in a science fiction setting. It makes sense. It provokes old questions seen in a new light. But alien sex, truly alien sex, is a auto-contradictory concept in a way: it has to be too alien and intimate in the same time. Maybe that's the source of horror.

I think this read is guaranteed to remain on my mind for a while. It's probably a good story. I'll have to reserve judgment until another read.

Schrödinger's Cathouse

Schrödinger's Cathouse - Kij Johnson
What'd be like to have sex in Schrödinger's box.

Nothing says it has to be only a loner cat inside, now, does it? This short story is a quick read, and one that made me laugh. It's not very well written, it seems to exaggerate the points it's trying to made. A fun read nonetheless.

The story available on the author's website.

Azazel

Azazel - Isaac Asimov
Isn't it weird, to remember almost nothing, of something you know you knew? I'd like to shake off this feeling, it isn't cool.

I must have read these stories many years ago, and all I remember is Azazel, the two-centimeter red demon. That image is imprinted in my brain, and nothing else.

If I think about the robot stories, I remember many plot pieces, their impact, some of their characters, their imaginative and provoking or their unrealistic "what if". On Azazel stories, however, I remember exactly nothing of the kind.

Other reviews say these stories share the common theme of the jinn granting wishes, which turn out differently than the grantee expected. Might as well be; and might as well be a reason why I remember nothing. It gets dull after a while, to keep warping at a theme with obvious limits.
The Last Question -
The Last Question is a beautiful and engaging short story. Whether you pick reading its 20+ pages, or listen to an audio recording, I recommend you don't miss this little gem.

Asimov gives a visual account of a cosmological theory, an answer to the question "how to reverse entropy?", or the wonder of creation of an universe at all.

You can find it online for free.
The Naked Sun - Isaac Asimov
Asimov doesn't like Solaria.

There are several suggestions in this book that he doesn't like Solaria, and in other books he'll make it very clear by drawing the course of Solaria's history to end up creating beings with a (lack of) morality meant to horrify the reader.

In this book, Solaria is at its peak. It's already self-sustaining as far as I remember, though it hasn't cut ties yet with the other worlds. Each of its rare inhabitants are almost self-sufficient on their domains, as well, served by their thousands robots (since the technological level and civilization permits it), and habituated to their solitude so much that they no longer stand to meet their neighbors face-to-face.

I love Solaria, myself. It's a world of solitude, with interesting contraptions (hey, robots, whaddyawantmore), a world where you can pursue your life research unalienated by politics, funding, envy behind your back. You don't have to make a living, either, and human lifespan is extended, but these are characteristic common with other Spatial Worlds, only the first are not. And the first are what I love most about Solaria.

I've seen reviews saying that Solaria is a dystopian world, and that it's a "natural" dead end of humanity. I don't think so. I feel the nagging moralizing sense of the author interferes with the narrative, and there is an agenda behind his transparent condemnation of Solarian life from some social/political perspective.

To exemplify the nagging judgmental preaching. When you lead your life this way, in reclusive research, apparently you're no longer a pioneer, you don't take chances, your life is "unreal" or detached from reality. And The Solarian Way is doomed to fail. Seriously? I hope the conditions of present day research WILL go the Solarian route. That it won't continue to be stranded by politics, by the ugly side of human interaction under scarce resources, by academic rush for publish or perish and its short time to do things, by the forceful public involvement (be it conferences or a job to a Big Name Center or marketing your book) in order to merely gain access to research results relevant to your work.

I love The Solarian Way. I guess we forgot already about past centuries hermits, lone monks in their monastery, yer olde mad scientist in their laboratory. OK, I guess science can no longer be made by building yer own telescope or radio or combining herbs in your home lab. Which is exactly why I love The Solarian Way, it's them, the ideal home of the hermit, of the lone monk, of the mad scientist, in a setting of our not-that-terribly-far future.

The Hydra (Monsters of Mythology)

The Hydra (Monsters of Mythology) - Bernard Evslin What?

Author: Manny Rayner
Originally posted at: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/730224213

In the shower just now, I suddenly had a Eureka moment. The aspect of this current censorship war that's been upsetting us most is the feeling of powerlessless. Goodreads can arbitrarily change the rules on us, and they hardly even bother to respond when we complain. But we are not powerless. There are twenty million of us, and only a few dozen of them. We just need to get a little more organized, and we can easily resist.

So here's one concrete way to do it, based on the legend of Hercules. You will recall that Hercules had a difficult time against the Lernean Hydra; every time he cut off one of its heads, ten more grew back. We can do the same thing if we adopt the following plan:

1. Back up all your reviews, so that you have a copy of everything you have posted.

2. If you think that one of your reviews has been unreasonably deleted by Goodreads, repost it with an image of the Hydra at the top.

3. If you see someone else posting a Hydra review, make a copy of it and post it yourself.

We can improve this basic scheme with a little thought; for example, it would be better to have a place where we keep HTML marked-up source of reviews, so that they can immediately be reposted with the same formatting, and we need a plan for duplicating deleted shelves. But we can sort that out later. Without getting too bogged down in the details, I'm sure you see what will happen. The net result of Goodreads unreasonably deleting a review will be that it immediately comes back in many different places.

People who know their Greek mythology will be aware that Hercules did in fact defeat the Hydra, and Goodreads can use the same method if they dare; they can close down the account of anyone who participates in the scheme. That will work, but I am not sure that anything less drastic will be effective. I think Goodreads will be reluctant to escalate to this level. A large proportion of the most active reviewers are now part of the protest movement, and they would be losing much of the content that makes the site valuable. Even more to the point, the media have already started to get interested (maybe you saw the article in the Washington Post). They would love the story, and it would create a mountain of bad publicity for Goodreads and Amazon.

I'd say the odds are heavily in our favor. Why don't we try it? I promise now to respond to any Hydra calls.

Religion and Science (Galaxy Books)

Religion and Science - Bertrand Russell Russell's clarity alone is a reason to read this book, any time.

The book is an easy read, articulate and entertaining. It's not a part of Russell's influential theories, rather an aside. Russell presents a history of refutations, from an analytical/scientific perspective, of arguments in favor of God's existence.

Written in a style accessible to the large public, the book can serve as introduction to the controversy between religion and science, as well as offer an enjoyable moment to the reader familiarized with it.

It's Russell, it won't disappoint unless you're looking for what he's not.
The Webs of Everywhere - John Brunner What if we invent a teleportation device?

Be careful what you wish for.

This is a lesser known book of John Brunner, which is strange to me, because it's one of the most inspiring science fiction books I've read. The plot is relentlessly paced, the twists catchy, and the fulfillment of the what if is making a lot of sense.
An unexpected sense.

The writing pushes the limits of a novel, breaking one of the common expectations for the main character, with amazing success. (and I didn't see it coming!)

Without wanting to give too much away, I wholeheartedly recommend this novel for anyone who wants to spend a few enjoyable hours.

American Tragedy

An American Tragedy - Theodore Dreiser, Richard R. Lingeman This is a great book, and I hated it.

I've read it many years ago, and I don't think I've ever re-read it. I remember its atmosphere of inexorable circumstances, of destiny if you will, in no noble sense, but equally powerful.

There were ordinary people we got to know, to connect with, to care for, driven masterfully to ruin, in a way impossible to escape. We understand them, we know why, and that makes it difficult to live with.

This book is enthralling, well written, consistent, believable, that I kept turning the pages. And I hated it, I hated that it made sense within, that you can't detach and play the spectator.

You don't get to play the moralizer from your cozy home on this one.

This is a great book. Perhaps I'll re-read it one day.

Currently reading

Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity
Lawrence Lessig
Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe
Lee Smolin