Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Best of Science Fiction

I began reading science fiction novels almost by accident. One day I saw an Alfred Bester book on the shelf at a book store. Viewers of Babylon 5 (the best TV show ever) will recall a character by this name. I had read many Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 books, and I followed science fiction TV with ardor. So I assumed this book was in the same vein. It was not. The B5 character was named for a writer from the 50s.

Alfred Bester is best known for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. They’re both amazing, and I recommend them. “The Demolished Man” works on a simple premise: how would someone go about getting away with murder in a society in which telepaths existed? “The Stars My Destination” (loosely based upon the Count of Monte Cristo) explores what would happen if people could transport themselves at will. How would prisons work? How would you prevent theft? “The Demolished Man” won the first Hugo Award in 1953. “The Stars My Destination” has been credited as perhaps the creator of cyberpunk.

After Bester, I was hungry for more. I scoured the web for lists of the best science fiction novels. Here is one good list of the top novels, though it is somewhat weighted towards older books. I also tried to read the winners and nominees of the Hugo and Nebula awards (you can find a list of wins by author here). Wikipedia lists the Hugo Award wins according to year here. I personally strongly prefer the Hugo Award books to the Nebula Award books, but you may find differently.

So after all that hunting, here are my top 5 science fiction novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)– A human envoy visits an alien world, hoping to convince them to join an alliance. The aliens have no set gender, but phase in and out of male, female, and neuter. The book explores the culture of this planet, both due to the unusual gender of its people, and the extremely cold climate. For whatever reason, men tend to be unimpressed with this book, but women I’ve recommended it to like it. The book explores gender and cultural topics without getting heavy-handed or obvious. The two main characters are amazingly drawn. The book is filled with little amazing legends and folklore from the culture.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)– A post-apocalyptic story with a very different twist. Broken into three parts at very different times, the first part opens in a Catholic abbey in Nevada several centuries after a devastating nuclear war. The novel has a charming humor and levity despite the settings. It explores religious themes (not very common in scifi).
  • The Forever War (Joe Haldeman 1974)– A story about a man involved in a space war. As the battles are waged, centuries pass, and the man is isolated from his own life by a questionable war. Haldeman was a vietnam vet, and it shows. I have read at least a dozen novels by Haldeman, and I would recommend every single one. He writes science fiction with a focus on heart. “The Forever War” is one of the best science fiction love stories I’ve read.
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester 1956)– discussed above.
  • Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch 1968)– a dark and twisted “Flowers for Algernon”. A conscientious objector is sentenced to prison. He is then subjected to experiments that greatly increase his intellect, along with a number of other prisoners. This book is very literary to the point of sometimes being maddening. I skipped through some of the literary aspects that I didn’t relate to. But the story and the science fiction and the humor are spot on and excellent.

You may notice the heavy slant to the 50s and 60s. This is no accident. These books are old enough to be reprinted and therefore available, but old enough for the reprints to be available used (used books are so wonderfully inexpensive!). Some more modern very awesome scifi books are “Snow Crash“, “Mathematicians in Love“, “A Fire Upon the Deep“, and “The Windup Girl“.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, check out my top 20 science fiction novels.

I could talk all day about science fiction, so drop a comment!


Drawing Books: Andrew Loomis

I always find a good drawing book to be very motivating. When I draw, I do best when I have a good visual aid, especially when posing people. Alas, I have no models living in my attic to call upon for posing when the need arises. So a good book of poses is the best substitute I have.

Andrew Loomis was as illustrator in the middle part of the 20th century. He wrote several drawing instruction books as well. These books were very well-regarded and popular, but they went many years without being reprinted. Old copies of the books would sell for over $100 on eBay.

Happily, his books started being reprinted a couple of years ago. They are lovely hard-cover reproductions, available for about $25 each on I believe four have been released:

  • Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth– A book about drawing the figure. I’ve found in the past many figure books are more men than women (which I always thought was strange). If anything, this book has more female figures, but men are covered as well, as well as various proportions, and the proportions of children.
  • Drawing the Head and Hands– About drawing the head and hands. As you’d expect, this covers the head and hands from all kinds of angles, for different ages and backgrounds.
  • Successful Drawing– I don’t have this one. I find its title vague. I like to imagine I can already draw. But if anyone has read it, I’d be curious to hear.
  • Creative Illustration– I just got this one, but I haven’t had a chance to go through it in much detail. This is the one I’ve been anticipating most, based upon the title. I have observed many heads and hands and figures, but illustration is a way of interpreting the scene to make it more engaging.

The Beautiful Lab

Across the country, thousands of labs study thousands of topics. In my lab, we study nonlinear dynamics in electrochemical oscillators. The dynamics of these oscillators can be used to make math models for other oscillators we might be very interested in, like heart cells, breathing, and neurons in the brain. Oscillators and their dynamics show up in many places. In a previous post on synchrony, I discuss some of these dynamics.

My experiments aren’t particularly much to look at. The beauty in mostly in the data. But here are a few of my better snaps over the years. There can also be science in the photographic technique. The bottom two photos were taken using reverse lens macro, a cheap way to do great zoom shots.

From top to bottom the photos below show: the electrochemical 3 electrode cell, the variable resistance resistors for each electrode, and a capacitor. The featured image is of some resistors.



50 posts, and 50 countries

This post is my 50th post. Huzzah! Coincidentally, exactly 50 countries have now visited this blog as well.

I worried that posting might become a chore, but it’s been fun to document the little things that delight me from week to week. From Russian Xmas Cards, to synchronization, to fractals, to birds in Florida, to bookbinding, to pop-up books, and of course all my own hair-brained-but-exciting projects.

Thanks so much to those who have visited. Drop me a note and let me know what you think. I’ve also enjoyed visiting the blogs of those I’ve met on WordPress (I will compile my favorites in a future post). I look forward to our mutual pending posts and interactions.

To 50 more! (and more!)


The Value of Play for Adults

The value of play for adults is something I must believe in… or else I waste a great deal of my time. Last Monday I wrote about playing with dolls; not long after that, I saw an article on boingboing about the value of self-directed play. The article discussed what we understand about play scientifically, and its functions for children and adults.

One quote from the article I particularly appreciated: “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” For me, play is the remedy to worry, both at work and at home. As a scientist, the days that can feel like play are far and away the best and most useful. Sometimes I wonder if academia suppresses this needed time for play, as new professors are spending more and more time writing grants, which I cannot imagine as a play activity.

Play is also a reason I massively value unscheduled time. I like to have hours and hours of undevoted time. If my time is parsed and allotted, there is no time for valuable wanderings of the brain. In my unscheduled time over the years, I have learned some of the things I use a lot now, like sewing, bookbinding, drawing and painting.

There is also research that suggests that when play turns to work, creative output is damaged. For us many aspiring writers and creatives here on wordpress, I think that these are topics to keep in mind.

Book Review: Holy Fire (Bruce Sterling 1996)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing past the first 20-30 pages or so. You can see more reviews and an excerpt of the book here.

Rating: 4/5 stars

I really enjoyed “Holy Fire”. Though it is high-tech, low life in the fashion of cyberpunk, I found the characters much more believable than most cyberpunk books. The characters still have ambitions and hopes and don’t just spend their time dwelling on how awful life is (any more than we do now). The book is set about 100 years in the future, in a society where the very elderly call the shots and society is about collectively minimized risk and efficiency. The main character, Mia, is an elderly woman who partakes in a medical procedure to extend her life, and her subsequent adventures. Mia struggles with the effect on the young of a society dominated by the old and her own risk-averse tendencies. Along the way she meets a lot of fun people.

Before I read “Holy Fire”, I was aware of Bruce Sterling and his reputation as a cyberpunk author. I had read the canonical cyberpunk work “Neuromancer” by Gibson, and I was not impressed. Cyberpunk seemed just like rebranding dystopia. But a friend (check out her well-received science fiction work here) loaned me “Holy Fire” by Bruce Sterling, so I read it.

The book is also populated with cool gadgets that are irrelevant but colorful. Sterling doesn’t dwell on any particular one, and the book is peppered with fun droplets of future tech. There is a dog that has been technologically enhanced to be able to talk, but in the fashion that a dog might. There are cities built of edible bio-materials. There are programmable wigs.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if the book hangs together fully in the end for me. I’m not sure if the tales of Mia add up to say something to me. So perhaps it is not a masterpiece. But I enjoyed it thoroughly the entire time I was reading it, which is a rarity. Also a vivid female protagonist is nice (this was actually why my friend recommended the book). To anyone interested, I would definitely recommend a read.

Soviet Comedy Movies

Soviet comedy movies are surprisingly awesome and funny. They also provide a window into a culture that was otherwise pretty cut-off from the west. A rather groomed and cultivated window, but still a window. And you can watch them on youtube, since they have no formal distribution in the west. This link contains a whole list of them; I will discuss a couple specific ones in this post.

The Diamond Arm (Russian: Бриллиантовая рука, Transliteration: brilliantovaya ruka) (number 6 on the playlist): A slapstick style comedy. Criminals conspire to smuggle jewels into Russia. The protagonist wins a vacation abroad, and due to a mix-up, unwittingly becomes a mule for the jewels.

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Russian: Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!, Transliteration: Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!) (Number 9 on the playlist): This is the “it’s a wonderful life” of Russia. They apparently play it all the time for New Year’s. A group of men go get very drunk at a bath house, before one of them flies out in the morning. They are still drunk in the morning, and accidentally put the wrong man on the plane. The man, who has been passed out, does not realize he is in the wrong city. He takes a cab to his street and building, and his key even opens the door, even though he is now in Leningrad, not Moscow. This is a spoof of the homogeneity of the Russian building style at the time. All the same street names, all the same buildings, even the same locks. The man gets a glimpse at how his life could be different.

The video below is a charming song from the movie called “esli u vas”. It’s an interesting study in Russian optimism. Basically, the lyrics of the song are about the things that can’t happen to you if you don’t expose yourself to them, but then you will have never experienced life. If you don’t have a dog, your neighbor can’t poison it (!), if you don’t have a house, you won’t fear house fires, if you don’t have friends, you won’t fight with them, etc. I couldn’t find a link with a nice translation.


Kid at Heart: Playing with Dolls

This weekend I was going to be good and productive. Work on some technical writing, workout, do some science fiction writing. Then I looked at my bin of dolls and nope. I played with dolls well into high school. I picked it up again a couple of years ago and discovered, yup, it’s still fun. As a decided introvert, there’s something about the dolls that lets you be maniacal and crazy, just a little.

When I picked the habit back up, I decided to try something I hadn’t as a kid: make a doll. I found this tutorial about making ball-jointed dolls. It took forever, but I made Calliope, shown below. By no pre-planning, she ended up almost exactly barbie sized (1/6 scale). I made everything shown below but the wig. She has two left feet (literally, oops), and is a bit gangly, but I still love to play with her.

IMG_0011 - Version 2


Sometimes it’s tempting to feel like it is a waste of time to do things like play with dolls. Doubtless many would agree with that statement. I think this kind of play has been an invaluable resource for my writing projects, especially the kid oriented ones. And still, it’s just fun. And fun is as important as productivity.

Fun Science: Astronomical

I first became interested in science when my brother told me there was a black hole under his bed (this was a ploy to prevent me from snooping there– this is how nerd children fight). Once I could read, I wanted to know if this could be possible; one should be skeptical of information provided by siblings. Frustratingly, none of the books I read discussed if an event horizon could be put under a bed. Pretty shoddy science. There was much discussion of micro-blackholes, with some description of their size. But what the heck was a nanometer? Bigger or smaller than a bed?

Even now, the scales of the universe boggle my mind. A human is so small. The diameter of the Earth (a small planet), is roughly 7 million times the height of a typical person. If you lined up every person in the state of Virginia head to toe, you would roughly approximate the Earth’s diameter. The diameter of the Sun is 100 times bigger (two orders of magnitude) than the Earth. If you lined up every person in the United States head to toe, you’d only get to half of the Sun’s diameter. The red giant Betelgeuse (the reddish star that is Orion’s left shoulder) is 700 times bigger than the sun.

The solar system is bigger yet–Neptune is 30 times as far from the Sun as Earth, at about 3200 times the radius of the Sun. It takes light 4 hours to reach Neptune. The Oort cloud, the farthest reach of our solar system and the hypothesized source of most comets, is a light year from the Sun.

From Wikipedia

Our solar system sits on one branch of the Milky Way, which is a galaxy 100,000 light years across (7×1011 times the diameter of the Sun–a meter is roughly 1012 times as big as a hydrogen atom). Our galaxy is 2.5 million light years from the nearest galaxy, Andromeda. Our galaxy is one of more than 50 galaxies in the Local Group. This piece of the universe is about 10 million light years in size. Wikipedia suggests there may be 100 billion galaxies in the universe. We have observed as far as 47 billion light years away, but the universe might be bigger (more intimidating statistics here).

And all of these things are slowly interacting. With all that, how could we not write science fiction?

Book Review: The Absolute at Large (Čapek 1922)

The Absolute at Large was written in 1922 by Czech author Karel Čapek (free web translation to English here). It is about the advent of a machine called the Karburator. The Karburator split atoms into two parts: useful work and a mysterious force called the “absolute”. The absolute is a god force which causes intense religiosity in people, and allows them to perform miracles. As the Karburator spreads across the planet, so does the absolute, and the book describes what follows.

I really enjoyed this book, and I would highly recommend it. First, it’s smart science fiction. In 1922, forces such as radiation were pretty recent science. Radium was discovered in 1898. Čapek describes something very like fission well before its invention. Second, this book is subtly very funny. Through the book, Čapek lampoons religion, communism, and nationalism at least. Third, the book is a short and simple read. My copy was about 200 pages with large print and lots of white space. If you enjoy this book, you can try out Čapek’s possibly more famous work, R.U.R., the book in which the word “robot” was created (derived from the Czech word for serf labor). I haven’t gotten around to that one yet myself.

I had a special reaction to The Absolute at Large, which is largely set in Prague. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in Prague, during which time I was able to talk at length with older residents. The Absolute at Large captures a certain essence of the Czech spirit. The Czechs are cynical in a very witty way. They’ve had religion thrust upon them (read about Jan Hus, the Hussites, and the First Defenestration of Prague). They’ve had nationalities thrust upon them (read about the Second Defenestration of Prague). In 1922, Czechoslovakia had been an independent country for only 3 years following the fall of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Unlike the Poles, who seem to resist forcefully, and the Hungarians and their patriotic sorrow, the Czechs have resorted to humor to endure their less-than-dominant place in geopolitical events. A few years ago, the Czechs held a contest to vote for the greatest Czech ever. The Czechs voted for Jara Cimrman, a fictional man who had no official face (the sculpture had become smooth, they couldn’t find him in this photo of a few hundred, etc). However, fictional Cimrman was credited with many wonderful feats: he suggested the Panama Canal, he was briefly an obstetrician, he consulted with Zeppelin, Eiffel, Mendeleev and Curie. If you are ever in Prague, there is a free museum to Cimrman under the Petřín Tower.

The Absolute at Large has a similar sense of humor to Cimrmanology; Čapek lampoons the inevitable powers of the world and their effect on the Czechs. And how appropriate that the Karburator should be invented in Prague… perhaps Cimrman lent a hand.