Karl Gallagher's Journal
20 most recent entries

Date:2025-09-14 15:02
Subject:Favorite Posts
Mood: cheerful

If you're new here there's some posts I'd like to share.

Requirements Kill: How projects can be ruined by the sheer number of requirements on them.

Feeds, Seeds, and Gray Goo: Nanotechnological manufacturing will be driven by logistics--and that's what keeps the "gray goo" scenario from being a real danger.

Other engineering essays:
The issues with engineering as a career, the problems with engineering education, and how to become an engineer if you just can't resist it. The reasons to avoid government projects. Don't be this kind of whistleblower. Why licensing software engineers is a bad idea. Even in fiction it's hard to keep ahead of advancing technology.

Analyzing specific spacecraft: Rocketplane's tourist design, the hypothetical Blackstar RLV, and off-equator space elevators.

Medical doctrine: I have issues with the childhood vaccination schedule and the innumeracy of medical researchers. They're not all bad though.

I've written a few pieces of fanfic and a whole bunch of book reviews.

Playing MMOs has gotten me thinking about how we could use one to test changes to our real world and what would be the signs that we're actually living in a simulation.

I've written a few things specifically about World of Warcraft. A rant on the brainpower needed for tanks to taunt mobs. A missing piece of backstory on the Defias. A suggestion for monetizing add-ons within the Blizzard rules. Reflections on how much more the Horde storyline focuses on PvP. And a discussion of how the Iliad would look in WoW terms.

My opinions on war and politics have been given a blog of their own.

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Date:2014-10-31 12:19
Subject:Writing Progress

Being the sort of nerd I am, I have an excel file with a running count of how much I've written. With job, Guard, family, and everything else my productivity varies. How easily the story is flowing is a big factor too. October was amazingly productive, over 19,000 words. Most I've written in a month ever. So . . . not going for Nanowrimo. I can pull off 2000-word days but I can't do it every day.

I am pleased with my productivity. At that rate I could finish the current novel in three more months. Not that I expect to. I'm reaching the end of the clear portion of the outline and getting to the fuzzy part, so I'll need a lot more thinking time before I can scribble at top speed again. Also some of those words were a short story I knocked out in an afternoon (inspired by the possible creation of an anthology that I may not be invited to even if it does come to pass).

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Date:2014-08-04 14:22
Subject:Talking Rockets

For the Texas contingent: I'll be giving a talk about the rocket start-up I worked on at the local National Space Society chapter's monthly meeting.

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Date:2014-07-31 20:47
Subject:Hugo Votes

The categories I care about, in voting rank order. DNF = did not finish. NA = no award.

Best Novel

Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, Larry Correia - Stirring adventure and confronting the tradeoffs between freedom and security.
Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross - Far-future financial skulduggery.
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie - DNF. Loyal ronin on quest to avenge lord. Stupidly.
Parasite, Mira Grant - DNF. I like McGuire's Cryptid stories, but not the zombies.
The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson - NA. Didn't like the first book. A series is not a novel.

Best Novella

"The Chaplain's Legacy", Brad Torgersen - Explaining religion to aliens.
The Butcher of Khardov, Dan Wells - Gamefic backstory for a berserker.
Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente - Fairy tale in the Old West. Worked, but felt forced.
"Equoid", Charles Stross - DNF. Imitating Lovecraft at his worst gets old fast.
"Wakulla Springs", Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages - NA. Beautiful, but not SF/F.

Best Novelette (The fiction category where I didn't No Award anything)

"The Exchange Officers", Brad Torgersen - Heroes (virtually) in space.
"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", Ted Chiang - Facing the truth is painful.
"Opera Vita Aeterna", Vox Day - Explaining religion to elves.
"The Waiting Stars", Aliette de Bodard - Forced assimilation is bad
"The Lady Astronaut of Mars", Mary Robinette Kowal - "one last adventure" vs "until death do us part"

Best Short Story (worst category)

"Selkie Stories Are for Losers", Sofia Samatar - The selkie tale from the abandoned child's POV.
"The Ink Readers of Doi Saket", Thomas Olde Heuvelt - Granting wishes is hard.
"If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love", Rachel Swirsky - NA. Surreal daydream =/= story.
"The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere", John Chu - NA. This got its own rant.

Best Graphic Story

Saga, Volume 2 - Space fantasy I discovered through the Hugos. Beautiful with fascinating characters.
"Time" (XKCD) - Great webcomic, intriguing way to tell a story, but not an actually gripping story.
Girl Genius, Volume 13 - GG starts to pull out of the Mechanicsburg slump. Yay Zeetha/Higgs.
"The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who" - Cute fanservice.
The Meathouse Man - NA. Ugh. Horrid squick.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

Gravity - Despite some physics gaffes that annoyed the hell out of me, a great survival in space movie.
Frozen - The power of family and an argument against love at first sight.
Pacific Rim - The world would be so cool if it wasn't for the cube-square law
Iron Man 3 - Tony vs PTSD
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Reprise of first one.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Game of Thrones: "The Rains of Castamere" - not actually enjoyable but very well done
Doctor Who: "The Day of the Doctor" - A dramatic war story with a crucial moral decision
Doctor Who: "The Name of the Doctor" - Exciting, but pales next to "Day".
Orphan Black: "Variations under Domestication" - Didn't get that far into the series. Fascinating concept but the plot holes bugged me too much to stick with it.
An Adventure in Space and Time - About the show not as interesting as the show.
The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot - I'm not enough of a fan for this fanservice to amuse me

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (The category which made me glad I had the voter packet)

Ramez Naam - Nexus should have been up for Best Novel, and I hadn't heard of it. Fantastic take on the impact of possible near future technology.
Max Gladstone - Magicians and applied theology in a complex setting.
Wesley Chu - DNF "Lives." Cubicle nerd fanservice.
Sofia Samatar - DNF "Stranger", worldbuilding to plot ratio was too high for me.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew - Short stories mixing space opera with surrealism.

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Date:2014-06-25 12:00
Subject:Hugo Twitches

The Hugo voter packet is giving me some unusual variation in my reading. There's some great stuff in there. Some horrible squick. And there's also . . . well, this is a rant about one of the short story nominees. Tor has "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" up on its website, so if you want to avoid spoilers, go read it right now.

It's a slice-of-life story. Gay Chinese guy wants to come out over his traditional sister's objections. This becomes a running battle at the family Christmas dinner. The big reveal is that while brother and sister were fighting in the kitchen the guy's boyfriend had been told, "Oh, don't call us Mr. and Mrs. Ho, call us (the Chinese words for father-in-law and mother-in-law)." So it ends happily except for the sister.

A good, classic, well-done coming-out story, fit for any literary magazine. I wouldn't bat an eye at finding it in the New Yorker.

So what does the title mean, and why is this in the Hugo nominations? "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" is literal--the world has magically changed so that anyone telling a lie has water fall on them. Amount of water depends on the severity of the lie. Okay, that makes it a fantasy story, modern setting, one impossible thing. Good start for an SF/F story. This magical lie detection turns the story into . . . well, it doesn't affect the story at all. No lies are revealed that people wouldn't know from facial expressions, body language, and pre-existing knowledge. There's no surprises coming from it.

Which is boggling, when you think about it. Revealing all lies? That would shake every part of society. Politics and law enforcement are obvious. But it's going to affect everyone. High school girls turning down dates. Bosses asking for "voluntary" overtime. Marital disputes. This would be world-changing. But none of this shows up in the story.

There are great stories in that concept. My favorite is Spider Robinson's "Satan's Children" where the heroes use a new drug to force a few score people to be honest as a test before deciding whether to release the drug to the world. There's another on the subject in this year's nominations, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, by Ted Chiang (my current favorite of the stories I hadn't read before getting the voter packet). It examines the impact of a new technology that confronts people with the lies they've told themselves, remembering old disputes with themselves in the right.

But there's none of that in "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" even though the writer displays enough skill to tackle the issue. Instead it's a mundane story with a bit of window-dressing to sell it as SF. That was enough for 45 or so people to nominate it, but I'm ranking it as No Award.

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Date:2014-06-10 13:13
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 30

Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

This probably isn't a surprise to anyone who's been following along: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. My username is the remnant of my dream of working in a lunar base. TMIaHM is probably the seed of that obsession. What makes it my favorite: humans expanding off Earth to stay. A struggle for freedom from oppression. Contemplating what the start of true artificial intelligence would be like. Finding a political structure that will maximize people's freedom (I love Prof's speech brainstorming alternatives). Exploring love in different family structures. Friendship and loss, even for a non-human. Exploding spaceships. Striking sparks.

Yep, I need to read that again soon. Wish they'd put out a Kindle version.

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Date:2014-06-09 18:29
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 29

Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked

"Everyone hated" is a high bar for a book to cross. I think the best I can do for this meme is pick a book that lots of people hated (and I haven't already blogged about, so Starship Troopers is out).

So, behold an object of much hate: Friday by Robert Heinlein. Why I like it is no surprise--it's a fun adventure story with fascinating world-building and some of the best examples of smoothly integrating exposition into the story. Add in predictions of websurfing on the internet and California politics and we have a great contender for a classic SF story.

Why the book is hated is also no surprise. Many refer to it as Heinlein's most sexist novel (to which I can only reply "There goes someone who hasn't read Beyond This Horizon"). Our heroine is an "artificial person," created in a lab, and raised as a "domestic animal" rather than as a person. This is a vehicle for an extended discussion of race and identity as Friday "passes" as a real person but still has the psychological scars from being treated as a social inferior from birth. Part of how Heinlein showed that is Friday's complete lack of personal boundaries, to the point where she'll oblige any casual friend's request for sex, scheduling permitting, and a vicious rape is considered only a challenge in maintaining her cover identity as a secret agent. She treats the rape lightly enough that at the end of the story she marries one of the perpetrators, their common identity as APs outweighing her minor grudge. Good characterization? Or dirty old man's wish fulfillment of his fantasies? Assuming my analysis of what Heinlein was trying to do was correct he still came far too close to turning Friday into a Gorean courtesan for readers to not get derailed. Anyone scarred by rape, or by encounters with men who want to turn women into Gorean playthings, is not going to care what the author's intent was.

The other reason I've seen people hate Friday is the ending's portrayal of unwed teen motherhood as a happy outcome. I'd certainly oppose it here and now, but the frontier they'd settled on was much closer to Heinlein's rural Missouri childhood than a 21st Century American suburb. I think Friday and her daughter Wendy were making the best of where they were, even if they weren't making the best possible decisions.

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Date:2014-06-06 17:46
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 28

Day 28 – Favorite title

Not a book, a short story: "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison. Totally nonsensical to those who haven't read the story, yet capturing its essence completely. It's the tale of a rebel in a dystopia where being late is the greatest crime, punished by death. Not for a first offense, no. It's just that all the time you're late is deducted from your lifespan and when you exceed what's left of your allocation the Ticktockman turns off your heart. In this land of conformity and control the Harlequin fights back with practical jokes.

I described this to celticdragonfly as "The weirdest story I like."

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Date:2014-06-05 12:12
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 27

Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending

Implied Spaces starts off deceptively, with our hero wandering a low-tech world, earning his keep with his sword. But that's just one corner of a Singularity-level multiverse that's about to face the greatest danger ever. The middle of the book plot twist is such a massive spoiler I can't bear to ruin it, even for a book that's been out for six years. So, the spoiler-free version: compared to the villain of this book, Sauron is shaking kids down for their lunch money.

ROT13ed spoilers:
Gur ivyynva vf n pybar bs gur ureb, perngrq gb tb rkcyber nabgure fgne flfgrz, naq gubhtug ybfg sberire va n angheny qvfnfgre. Vafgrnq ur fheivirq ubeevoyl genhzngvmrq. Uvf tbny vf gb havgr gur ragver uhzna enpr haqre uvf pbageby sbe gur checbfr bs jntvat jne ba Tbq (be jubrire perngrq gur havirefr) gb rkgenpg ercnengvbaf sbe nyy gur fhssrevat gurer unf rire orra.

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Date:2014-06-04 13:16
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 26

Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something

I used to believe institutions were reformable. A new administrator and focused mission would make NASA a useful contributor to getting humans into space again. Sanctions could force Baathist Iraq to back down. Companies could adapt to changes in their market.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger was a big part of ending that belief. The story of how the shipping industry changed from putting cargo in random piles to fitting everything into a forty-foot box is straightforward, technologically. But no institution adapted to it. The shipping companies went out of business as new ones sprang up. Old ports went out of business. Major unions shrank to a bare handful of men. The government agency regulating rail rates was quietly disbanded.

At first I thought it was a unique story of one odd change happening to cut a wide swath which made it hard for companies to adapt. But if it was just hard, then 80% or 90% of the old guard should have survived, the most nimble fraction. Instead they're all gone. Which crystallized a feeling I've gotten from watching other areas: mature institutions don't adapt. Growing organizations can change as they find their niche, but once they settle down they won't change. Sometimes one gets replaced while carrying over the name but in general they keep doing the same thing until the collapse.

So now I don't look to reform an organization that's not working well, I look for ways to by-pass it.

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Date:2014-06-03 13:03
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 25

Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most

Leo Graf, the liberator protagonist of Falling Free by Lois MacMaster Bujold. Leo is an engineer, assigned to inspect the construction of a new space station and train junior engineers. The juniors are even more junior than he expected, not just newly educated but a newly created species designed to live in free fall. The company considers them property, not people, and Leo leads a rebellion to take the "quaddies" to someplace they can be free.

I identify with Leo because he's an engineer first and last. He comes up with his plan to save the quaddies by redefining the situation as an engineering problem. Early on he gives a stern lecture to his students on how reality cannot be fooled that's a model for one I'd like to tell engineering students.

(Sidenote: the edition I linked to above has the worst cover I've ever seen for it, one of the worst book covers ever, which is a true shame considering how many very good ones have been done for this book)

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Date:2014-06-01 21:48
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 24

Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read

There's a book I'd like lots of people to read: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. This looks at progress in the long view, going all the way back to prehistory. The trend is improvement: more knowledge, more options, more babies growing up. There's been a constant drumbeat of pessimism but the longterm trends are always improving. Trade has been the driver of progress, not just in material goods but in ideas. "Ideas having sex" is Ridley's catchphrase for new concepts being spawned from the meeting of different old ones. (More comments and links at my original review of the book)

My hope is that the more people read it the less our politics will be dominated by fighting over a fixed pie and the more we'll work at increasing growth so there'll be more for everyone in the future.

Honorable mention: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which explains facets of human behavior that can drive us in unproductive directions. My original review is here.

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Date:2014-05-31 21:51
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 23

Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. A classic I've heard much about but never stumbled across in the bookstore. Still not available as an ebook. I may have to get it as paper after all.

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Date:2014-05-30 12:00
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 22

Day 22 – Favorite book you own

My college graduation present from my mother was a hardcover first edition of Starship Troopers. She knows me well. It's one of my favorite books and that's a beautiful edition of it.

As for why it's my favorite: Heroism. Duty. A hard look at what governments are, why we have them, and discussions of some alternatives from the defaults we grew up with. Encounters with aliens who are actually alien. The eternal issue of how a boy becomes a man.

Someday someone should make a movie of it.

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Date:2014-05-29 15:38
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 21

Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood

I don't remember when I first read it, but it goes way back: Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. Wonderful story, wonderful science fiction. It examines what's constant against what will change. Human nature is fixed, no matter what cultures it forms into (and we see four in this book). Evil people will do evil things when they can get away with it. Good people must keep fighting the evil ones. People want you to conform to society's rules, even when nobody's bothered mentioning what the rule is. All among newly settled worlds, alien races, spaceships, and other bits of the future.

A graphic novel version of the book is in work. I got to see the artist and some of his work in progress at Dallas Comic Con. I've ordered a copy, I hope the kids will like it as much as me.

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Date:2014-05-28 11:39
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 20

Day 20 – Favorite romance book

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. The author took two stock characters, the decadent rake and sheltered ingenue, and played them against type to make a wonderful story. Then at the point where some romances would have wrapped up the whole thing, she knocked over the gameboard and sent Venetia away from her love, much against her will. And I'd love to go on but I'd be spoiling some amazing surprises. The whole story is a dear delight.

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Date:2014-05-27 10:36
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 19

Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie

This is a tough one. Starship Troopers? Hanging the title on a disgraceful movie doesn't make it a movie of the book. Puppet Masters? Not as bad a movie, but it's a long way from the book. I liked the "Ender's Game" short story but thought the book version was bloated (and haven't seen the movie yet). So, gratuitous plot changes and all, this will have to go to The Lord of the Rings. Great book, great movie, lots of overlap.

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Date:2014-05-26 13:26
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 18

Day 18 – A book that disappointed you

I was very disappointed by a book not long ago, though in retrospect I was being a bit unfair. The book in question: The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure by Kevin D. Williamson. It's a lovely anarcho-capitalist manifesto, detailing everything wrong with our current system and how much better things would be under completely decentralized voluntary arrangements. Not that I agreed with all of it, but I enjoyed it quite a bit (I'd picked up because I loved the writer's blogging so the style was to my taste as well).

In fact I enjoyed it all the way to the end. When I got there I was angry that Williamson had laid out why things can't go on as they are, and described a better way of doing things, but not put forth any plan for getting from A to B. My review focused on that lack, and how there were much worse places than B we could end up in. This is my main worry about current politics and I'd been hoping the book would have reassurance or at least useful suggestions for the transition. Instead the author skipped the transition. I was mad.

Which was unfair--Williamson hadn't promised a transition plan, and if his book wasn't the one I wanted it to be that doesn't make what he did produce any less. Someone else writing up the transition plan I was hoping for eased my worries a bit and let me look back at The End Is Near more evenly.

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Date:2014-05-25 21:20
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 17

Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book

In terms of morals, there is no such thing as 'state.' Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.

From Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. This is a key point in my personal philosophy. People argue about whether certain tasks should be done by the government or businesses or by families. To me, there's nothing magic about any of those institutions that will get a job done better. It's all individuals responding to their incentives. The worst situation is when someone is given power without any accountability for the results. Large organizations are prone to it because they have enough support (through taxes or other profitable parts of a corporation) to carry someone doing damage a long time.

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Date:2014-05-24 18:18
Subject:30 Day Book Meme - Day 16

Day 16 – Favorite female character

This one is a tough choice. Some Heinlein characters, some Heyer characters, many Bujold ones. I think I have to come down with Fawn Bluefield, of The Sharing Knife series. Fawn starts out as a very naive and powerless character, but she still has the moral strength to keep herself together in a situation of horror she'd never imagined. She seeks out her own happiness in defiance of both cultures in their society. She's brilliant without a lot of education and grabs all the info she can. Which lets her save the day repeatedly in ways big and small.

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