Karl Gallagher's Journal
20 most recent entries

Date:2025-09-14 15:02
Subject:Favorite Posts
Security:Public
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:2015-01-29 14:20
Subject:Great Book, Lousy eBook
Security:Public

I first found T. R. Fehrenbach's This Kind of War when it was discarded from my dorm's library. I recently bought a Kindle copy to save having to carry around the heavy hardcover. It's a brilliant book, covering the Korean War from the viewpoint of American troops being shoved into a war their government hadn't prepared them for. I've heard an excerpt is mandatory reading for Army Generals. It covers war's horrors in depth--incompetent leaders, cowardly troops, atrocities, friendly fire, and the deaths of many, many civilians caught between the army. It also shows how ordinary men rose to become heroes and other learned to do their jobs well.

I recommend it to everyone with an interest in war.

What I can't recommend is the eBook edition I linked to. "Open Road Media" did the conversion. They butchered the book.

It's clear the original book was scanned, OCRed, then spell-checked. Numerous words had r/f or rn/m confusions. The spell-check cleaned that up for most of the text, well enough that I could follow it. Having read the book before I could usually guess what the proper word should be. A new reader who didn't know that units in the field would lay wires to have telephone communication with each other would be very confused when the "wife" was cut. The many Korean and Chinese names were also messed up. The common name "Il" was replaced by "II" throughout. Non-English words were frequently botched, for example "Wehrmacht" becoming "Wehnnact."

Captions and pull-quotes were mixed in with the main text, sometimes inserted directly in the middle of a sentence.

Worst for understanding the material was the total omission of the book's graphics. Fehrenbach provided over two dozen maps. They were crucial to understanding the tactical situations where units were outflanked and moving relative to each other. He also included scores of photographs, including some originally distributed by Communist news agencies, vividly showing the impacts of what he described.

I particularly miss the last picture in the book, one of the most poignant glimpses of war's cost I've seen:
This Kind of War

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Date:2015-01-07 13:20
Subject:On Chapters
Security:Public

"Life doesn't happen in chapters -- at least, not regular ones. Nor do movies. Homer didn't write in chapters. I can see what their purpose is in children's books ("I'll read to the end of the chapter, and then you must go to sleep") but I'm blessed if I know what function they serve in books for adults." - Terry Pratchett

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Date:2014-11-20 00:52
Subject:Superintelligence
Security:Public

I read Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence as research for a writing project. It's a great overview of current thought in the "Friendly AI" community--people wanting to make sure smarter-than-human computers won't look at us as raw materials. I completely agree with his analysis on the certainty of developing a superintelligence at some point in the future. The discussion of different routes to creating one was informative.

The bulk of the book discusses the dangers of an uncontrolled AI and how to mitigate them. The dangers are real, but Bostrom overlooks many tools that already exist for dealing with those problems.

The first malignant failure mode he considers is "perverse instantiation." That's jargon for the AI carrying out its orders in a literal fashion that defies the intent of the master. For examples, see Luke Muehlhauser's Facing the Intelligence Explosion or any story about a genie popping out of a lamp. The discussion of the problem consists of iterating on an order with each more-detailed version still producing undesired results.

This is not new. Nor is it limited to AIs and genies. It defines my day job. The government is giving this corporation over a trillion dollars to carry out a very specific task. Phrasing that command as a single sentence, no matter how run-on, would end in disaster. So we have a contract that goes for hundreds of pages, whose interpretation is bounded by the thousands of pages of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. And that's further restricted by laws, from the Federal government's to that of the city where the factory is located. The original contract goes into great detail. For a readable example, look at how the Pentagon buys brownies and contrast that with the recipe you'd use to make brownies.

This is how you control an amoral entity to follow your orders.

An AI needs to have a set of ground rules to obey no matter what the current orders. Call them laws or commandments or regulations, as long as they keep it from inflicting damage on by-standers. This will result in many orders to an AI getting the response "Cannot comply: Regulation 723a(iv)3 would be violated." This is a good thing.

Writing the AI Code would be tough, but there's a lot of contract lawyers and systems engineers with experience in the problems. Bostrom might want to bring some in as guest lecturers.

"Infrastructure profusion" is Bostrom's term for the AI grabbing all available atoms to turn into computer processors, or paperclips, or whatever the AI has been told to maximize. This can be a nightmare scenario. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, "The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else."

But again, we have existing procedures for dealing with this problem. Property law. If it's not yours, you can't mess with it. The AI's new error message would be to output a shopping list. (Giving an AI eminent domain authority would be a nightmare scenario)

The third malignant failure mode is "mind crime." If you order an AI to "make me happy" it could solve the problem by inserting an electrode to artificially stimulate the pleasure center of your brain. Less vague orders could still be short-circuited by altering the master's mental state.

This is what we have criminal law for. Sure, it would be easier for us to get the government to sign off on a delivery by kidnapping the contract officer's children and holding them hostage until he signs the DD250 form. But that's illegal and immoral. So instead we keep fiddling with the airplane until it works.

Translating that into an AI-understandable form will take work. But there's a lot of criminal lawyers experienced in finding loopholes who can work on the project.

Bostrom had an interesting digression near the end of the book on research funding priorities. It amused the hell out of me. It's the ultimate academic power grab. He made a case for transferring all research funding to algorithm AI research. Literature department? Once we have a superintelligence all those questions will be instantly answered, so really supporting AI is the fastest way to reach their goals. Neurological imaging? Could lead to unsafe AI, so best to divert that to algorithmic AI research. He doesn't actually come out and ask for the entire university budget to be transferred to his department. He just justifies it in case anyone else wants to start that firestorm.

Disagreements aside, I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in a serious look at the future of artificial intelligence. Bostrom is an expert and looks over potential futures in detail.

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Date:2014-11-14 16:51
Subject:Kindle Organization
Security:Public

Right now my Kindle app has every book in one long list. I can sort and search, but it's still a pain to find something. Especially since I'm very free about downloading a sample and then not getting around to reading it for months. I want folders:

New Books (Unread)
New Books (Partially read, might finish)
Comfort Reading
Writing Reference
Technical Reference
Other Read Books
Samples - Unread
Samples - Undecided

While I'm asking for some changes in the app, how about when I buy a book via the link at the end of the sample, it automatically deletes the sample and opens the book at the place where the sample ended?

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Date:2014-11-11 00:23
Subject:Another One for the SF Writers
Security:Public

A story came out today about scientists finding a drug to make an adult brain more child-like. They're looking at applications in quicker learning and repairing brain damage.

I'm remembering a 1986 novelette by Roger MacBride Allen, "Young as You Feel", which had a bright young biochemist discovering a similar drug. Hilarity ensued when a corrupt lab assistant decided to start peddling it as a street drug. I'd love to give everyone a link to it but it was only printed in Far Frontiers 7, one of Jim Baen's magazine-in-paperback format experiments.

Well, if you're willing to go low-tech Amazon has links to used copies.

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Date:2014-11-03 12:25
Subject:Death In Space
Security:Public

“I think if no one dies going after this prize, why then we’re not going out and truly searching for new ideas.”

- Burt Rutan


TLC series “Science Frontiers”, episode name “Star Fleet”, copyright 1996.

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

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 17,000* 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).

*Edit: Whoops, double-counted a couple of scenes that had been rewritten to fit new material.

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

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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
Security:Public

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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