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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:2015-11-01 21:29
Subject:November Fitness

11/1 - walk in the park with Maggie

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Date:2015-10-03 20:45
Subject:Nerding out on the Martian

The whole family went to see The Martian Thursday night. Great show. It got the heart of the story right. Alas, my favorite line didn't make the cut. People who pick up the book after seeing the movie still have many surprises awaiting them.

It could only have been better if we'd gotten to see trailers for upcoming SF movies instead of depressing award-bait.

Being me, I'm going to nit-pick some the tech and plot stuff. But since it's opening weekend, I'll hide the spoilers. Collapse )

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Date:2015-09-29 17:12
Subject:Con Report - Panelist at Fencon

This was the first time I'd been scheduled to be on a panel. I was drafted as a panelist at LosCon in 1998 or so. I was so brutal with questions to the guy giving a talk on Rockwell's X-33 proposal that when the reusable launch vehicle panel started next he dragged me out of the audience. In fairness I was working for a competitor in the RLV business.

Which is exactly the experience that made a few folks nominate me as Fencon panelist so I could bring that to the commercial space panel. Then the commercial space panel was cancelled. So I was assigned to an eclectic collection of sci/tech panels and had a great time.

The noon Friday panel looked interesting. But I've never made it to a con by noon Friday and this year was no different. Still arrived in plenty of time to sit on the manufacturing panel, which focused more on the impacts of displacing people with new tech than what we could make with it.

Then fascinating science presentations followed by the Soonercon party. I'd been thinking I was 80% likely to go to Soonercon again. Seeing that Toni Weisskopf is doing a writing workshop made that 100%. I chatted with another writer at the room party and we wound up talking each other into buying more writing advice books.

Saturday I was on the "Future of NASA" program. I managed to not massively offend anyone. Made the point that having two Commercial Crew suppliers meant that contractors could be judged on their results instead of their promises. Then more great science presentations. Also a panel on self-publishing which . . . well, when the panelists are trading "Openings I hate seeing in the slush pile" they've lost track of what self-publishing is. The "Technology: Boon or Bane?" panel was a free for all. The family came to see the show. They were entertained.

After more science panels I joined several new players in a Firefly game. My plan was to start slow to go easy on them then do a come-from-behind victory. Actuality: Alliance arrested Zoe, one of my crew was killed on a job, which also got me a Warrant, and when the Reavers came for me I couldn't do a Crazy Ivan because the guy killed was my pilot. But it's still a fun game even when I come in last. The NSS room party had entertaining videos, but the best part of the evening was chatting with friends in the hallway.

Sunday I started off with the "Secret Lair" panel. This drew a much younger crowd than my other panels. Supervillians are starting out early. We concluded hiding in plain sight was the best strategy, and you can get away with all sorts of stuff as an amusement park. My last panel was focused on helping writers get the science right in their stories. I praised Babylon 5 as a show that got a lot of science right, and talked about ESR's "Deep Norms" concept for why we need to get it right.

Other great things at the con: telophase gave me a lovely print of the cover art she did for me. I gave away a few ARCs of my book. The kids had a good time. James camped out in the video room much of the con, and Maggie started volunteering. celticdragonfly rode a scooter dressed as Princess Peach, and I'm an idiot who didn't get a picture of it. I didn't take any pictures at all this year. Too busy, I guess.

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Date:2015-09-08 18:05
Subject:Fact-Checked Policy Recommendations

The Washington Post has announced:

You can print your own guns at home. Next it will be nuclear weapons. Really.

No. Not really.

A 3D printer can make a gun. So far the ones produced have been oversized single-shot pistols but we can expect that to improve.

The article is fearing nanotechnology. Instead of using a specific kind of plastic or metal to make its products like current 3D printers, a nanotech assembler can mix and match atoms to make whatever design it's been handed. That could include weapons of mass destruction. There are biological experimenters who could make a lethal plague without using nanotech. With nanotech chemical weapons, explosives, and gnat-sized killer robots become possible.

But not nuclear weapons.

3D printers and nanotech assemblers are just building things from the inputs they're given. They can't break or combine atoms to make new ones. Carbon in, carbon out. Creating your own atoms would be picotechnology, and nobody's forecasting that yet.

An A-bomb needs fissile material. Uranium and plutonium are preferred. You're not going to find that at the local hardware store when you buy feedstock for your 3D printer. You can't even settle for any uranium or plutonium atoms--it has to be the right isotope. There are people with the full time job of noticing when someone goes looking for that stuff.

H-bombs also need an A-bomb as their trigger. On top of that they need deuterium and tritium. Sure, you could try extracting that out of your own water supply, but it'd take a long time and be noticable.

So don't be afraid of the neighborhood hacker making nukes. He can make lots of other WMDs, but not nukes. So be afraid of him for that. Be afraid of political science professors who don't know enough to realize when they're making public fools of themselves. And be afraid of editors who don't know how to fact-check technology articles. Politicians listen to them.

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Date:2015-04-11 22:37
Subject:Eric S Raymond on Science Fiction
Mood: thoughtful

ESR has written some fascinating essays on the definitions and meanings of science fiction. Last year's were good enough for me to put him as a Hugo nominee for best fan writer, but he was nominated for his fiction instead. For reference I want to share a few of his better essays (and the comment sections are often worth reading too).

A Political History of SF

How different waves of political enthusiasm passed through SF in the 20th century, and how they relate to the nature of the genre.

What I have learned from science fiction

ESR's list of ways of thinking he picked up from SF. This made me realized that I've been influenced in very similar ways.

Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter (and follow-up here)

SF has a mission. There’s a valuable cultural function that SF, alone of all our arts, is good for. SF writers (and readers) are our forward scouts, the imaginative preparation for what might come next, the way we limber up our minds to cope with the unexpected future. SF is not just the literature of ideas, it’s a literature of thinking outside the box you’re in, one that entwines escapism with extrapolation in ways that are productive for both ends. At SF’s best it provides myths and role models for people who want to make the world a better place in a way no other art form can really match.

Or as my muse puts it, "Science fiction needs to succeed in making the people that will be leading and causing change into "genre savvy" changers."

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Date:2015-04-09 23:31
Subject:Worldcon, Hugos, and Sad Puppies

(Bringing over a post from FB)

I just found someone who perfectly explicated the attitude that Sad Puppies is reacting to. This is a quote from Moshe Feder, an editor at Tor, on his Facebook page:

[Larry Correia] continues to be deeply confused, like many SF&F consumers of the post-ghetto era, about the definition of "fan" [admittedly, a confusingly generic word; we probably should have gone with STFnist] and "fandom."

Until he can understand that he wasn't lied to when he was told that the Hugos represent all fandom's imprimatur, because the worldcon community and historical fandom are synonymous, he's never going to get why he's wrong.

As long as he insists on acting like anyone who buys an SF book, or a comic, or who watches SF movies or TV, is a member of fandom, I'm never going to be able to take him seriously.

As I've said before, you can read all the native literature you want, but until you learn the language and come live on the reservation, you'll never be a member of the tribe, especially if you refuse to respect the fact that they were here first."
(Comment left about 7pm on 4/9 on his post made 4/8 at 6:27pm)

So here I am. I've been attending SF cons since 1985. That includes cons from New York to Los Angeles and Spokane to Atlanta. I've written stories, fanfic and original. I've cosplayed. I've gamed. I've even published some RPG articles. I've written book reviews. I've been a con panelist explaining how real world rockets work to the fans.

But according to this guy I'm not a member of "the tribe." I'm not a Worldcon regular so my vote isn't welcome on the Hugos. Well, that's not how the Hugos were described to me when people were excited to have Larry Niven at my first con (Icon on Long Island). It's not how I've seen them discussed since. It's not how they were defended against Correia's complaints when Sad Puppies first appeared.

In previous years whenever anyone complained about the Hugos the response was "So get a membership and vote yourself." Well, I have. I'm a supporting member. I made nominations (a fifth of which made it onto the ballot). I'm going to read as many stories as I can. And then I'm going to vote.

Because I believe the Hugos are for all science fiction fans, not just the ones attending a single con.

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Date:2015-03-29 20:53
Subject:Life Imitating Fiction

I often generate character names by picking a semi-random country and mixing up the names of their cabinet ministers. Today that led me to discover that Burmese/Myanmaran Home Minister Ko Ko, has the same name as Lord High Executioner from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado. Given that the guy is in charge of suppressing domestic disorder, was granted the job by the military junta, and has kept it during the transition back to a nominally civilian government, he's probably the closest thing the country has to a Lord High Executioner.

The bogglement over this discovery has cost me at least half an hour of writing time.

I wonder if he's ever seen the play? Reminds me of when some classmates discovered the MIT faculty included a Stanley Kowalski, PhD.

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Date:2015-03-11 01:17
Subject:Lovely Blender
Mood: cheerful

I've been experimenting with various 3D graphics programs searching for one that would let me make models of the spaceship from my novel. My instinct was to look for CAD software, since that's what I have experience with. But my employers paid for that software. The typical free sample version would only last a month and/or have restrictions about using my output commercially.

So I looked at freeware options. FreeCAD is powerful but the documentation lags behind the code too much for me to get anywhere with it. I'm too old and cranky to spend hours fiddling with each option to see how it works. Some cheaper commercial 3D graphics software tempted me but I'd get a little bit in and snarl "Powerpoint handles that better!" before closing it forever.

Then I found Blender. Powerful software. There's great tutorials out there. Katsbits were the best I found (much better than a tutorial linked from the main site which had me telling celticdragonfly "This is not a tutorial, this is a final exam"). An evening of going through parts of two tutorials let me make a rough model of my ship in action. "Action" defined as hauling up a cargo container with the crane--it's a freighter.

FF blender model

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Date:2015-02-25 11:49

A joke I've made about writing is that somebody should attempt doing a story entirely in second person future tense. Today I realized that it's been done, I read the book, and I liked it. It was a kids book: You Will Go To the Moon. Arguably laid the foundation for my early career goals.

Now somebody needs to try that for an adult book.

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Date:2015-02-13 00:09
Subject:Hugo Nominations

As a voter for last year's Hugos I may nominate for this year's. Here's my ballot so far. I may be adding some more as I find ones I like amid the discussions and flames. The Martian's eligibility is disputed, though there's precedent for it with Old Man's War.

Best Novel:

The Martian, Andy Weir, Random House
A Sword Into Darkness, Thomas A Mays, Stealth Books
Owner's Share, Nathan Lowell, Indie
Islands of Rage and Hope, John Ringo, Baen
Wood Sprites, Wen Spencer, Baen

Best Novella:

Bare Snow Falling on Fairywood, Wen Spencer, Baen

Best Novelette:

Whoever Fights Monsters, Wen Spencer, Baen
Tokyo Raider, Larry Correia, Baen

Best Short Story:

The Golden Knight, K.D. Julicher, Baen
Sucker Punch, Eric Raymond, Castalia House
Totaled, Kary English, Galaxy's Edge

Best Related Work:

Why Science Is Never Settled, Tedd Roberts, Baen
Robert A. Heinlein, Vol 2: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, William H. Patterson Jr., Macmillan

Best Graphic Story:

Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, Howard Tayler, Hypernode Press
Quantum Vibe Volume 2: Murphy, Scott Bieser, Big Head Press

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form):

Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn, Marvel

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form):

Outlander, "Both Sides Now", Diana Gabaldon/Ronald D. Moore, Sony
The Verse, Julian Higgins, Loot Crate

Best Professional Editor (Long Form):

Toni Weisskopf

Best Fan Writer:

Eric Raymond http://esr.ibiblio.org/
Jeffro Johnson http://www.castaliahouse.com/posts/

The John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo):

Andy Weir, The Martian
Thomas A Mays, A Sword Into Darkness

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Date:2015-02-04 23:00
Subject:He Makes a Case

I wouldn't advocate dropping out of school to my kids, but this British rapper makes a solid case that the traditional school curriculum isn't much use to students. His list of subjects not taught would make a good set of high school classes. Some of them do have algebra as a prerequisite, but statistics is more useful to citizens than calculus. I'll be trying to teach the missing material to my children.

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Date:2015-01-29 14:20
Subject:Great Book, Lousy eBook

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

"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

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

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?

Edit Apr 2015 - the second wish has been granted.

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

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

“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:2014-08-04 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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