Archive for March, 2011


Ebook piracy aided by Google?

March 31, 2011

A Motie from Niven and Pournelle's books

This is from Jerry Pournelle’s site from a couple of days ago:

As most of you know, my daughter, Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, wrote a novel, Outies, set in the universe of The Mote in God’s Eye. It has been selling well, but the sales suddenly dropped. It happened so quickly that Jenny looked for reasons, and found that the event closely followed the appearance of pirate editions. Google was listing the pirate copies above the authorized copies. This is a serious matter. As Jenny says, she doesn’t mind if people give a copy to a friend, or make copies so that multiple people can read a legitimately purchased copy, but they ought to have a chance to buy a copy instead of having Google present them with pirate sites above the Amazon sites.

She has cut the price of the book. The new price is not yet reflected in the Google summary, but it is correct at Amazon. The book has also moved up in the Amazon sales lists. Alas, the Kindle edition of The Mote in God’s Eye is not yet posted. I think they are supposed to be working on getting an Amazon copy out.¬† I’m trying to get people moving on this, and I’m trying to get some of my older works onto Kindle.

WTF? Thanks, Google! So…I checked it out, and it’s fixed now, but still, it shows three incidences of the same illegal download immediately below the Amazon listings. I’ve only shown one of them below:

Now, I get that Google is run by algorithms, not by humans, but this looks like one of those that should somehow be put into place. I don’t pretend to know how. However, Google has already shown that it is, shall we say, not as interested in the copyright rights of authors as they could be. I’m as much for fair use as the next guy. I draw the line at freely downloading copyrighted books, though! That’s not fair use in anybody’s interpretation – it’s just theft!

Baen Books has had a longstanding policy of not using any kind of digital rights management (copy protection) on their ebooks. Jim Baen believed it actually helped his business. So does Cory Doctorow, who puts his books on his web site as free downloads at the same time as they appear in print. I don’t know how good a business model that is. I heard Cory talk about it live, last year, and he is still pretty adamant that it’s a good thing. Jim Baen has passed but the policy continues at his company. Still, an author or publisher should have the choice – not have his or her work stolen from them. This ain’t rocket science, people.

Luckily, Jerry is a big enough fish that apparently the folks at Google heard about it and somehow fixed it. Most authors of ebooks don’t have that kind of clout. Frankly, I’m surprised Jerry does – not that he shouldn’t, just that Google would listen and respond.

Oh, and go buy Outies. And if you haven’t, buy the other Mote books of Niven and Pournelle and read them first. Details are in my review.


GM might get me to buy this one…

March 31, 2011

Chevrolet Mi-Ray concept car

See, that’s the trouble with concept cars: they never put them, or anything remotely like them, into production. This is a product of GM’s South Korean design center. Carbon-fiber body, aluminum frame, electric/gas hybrid. Sporty lookin’ little thing, ain’t it? 60+ mpg with the 1.5 liter turbo four-cylinder that drives the rear wheels when the batteries run out or you need more power. Seeing that the electric motors driving the front wheels are only 20 hp each, that may be quite a bit. Still, it doesn’t look like a little Algore-approved box on wheels. I wouldn’t mind driving one of these babies!

Now that's a cockpit!

Looks like it's going faster than it probably will!


President Obama turns things upside down

March 31, 2011

I’ve got my thoughts about a recent piece by Victor Davis Hanson from National Review on my other blog, Keep Americans Free. It’s about how our Historic President has found a way to do many of the things he himself criticized his Republican predecessors for, and yet is able to give them the shine of Obama-ness.


Why is the U.S.S. Independence in San Diego?

March 30, 2011

Littoral Combat Ship USS Independence

There’s a piece by Spencer Ackerman in Wired Online in which he grouses because the two new Littoral Combat Ships, the USS Independence and USS Freedom, weren’t sent to Libya. They were designed for combat close to shore and are capable of operating in less than 20 feet of water.

He does make the point that the Independence was just commissioned in January and the Freedom in 2008, and they are relatively untested; putting them in harm’s way when it is unnecessary is probably not warranted in what is supposed to be a 20-minute war.

He doesn’t talk about some other issues. When we went to the commissioning of the USS Ronald Reagan, CVN-76, we found that it was being recrewed and then the actual workup would begin. There had been a crew on it for most of a year, but they now would move on, and the actual crew that would take it to sea for trials was coming on board. The complexity of a modern aircraft carrier is so great that it would take a year to get the bugs out of it before it would be ready to join the fleet as an active carrier.

These ships, I’m sure, are quite similar in that they are very high-tech, and since they are a completely new platform, the crews and officers are literally “writing the book” on operations. This has to be a very complex process, and no matter how much is done beforehand, there will be many, many changes as the ships operate in the “real world.”

Also, as anyone who has ever even watched a History Channel program can attest, modern warships are all custom-built, no matter how standardized they are supposed to be. The George H.W. Bush, the newest operational carrier, is of the same class as the Carl Vinson, but were commissioned almost thirty years apart. They are substantially different creatures. Even though these two ships are classed as Littoral Combat Ships, they are two different classes:

The Freedom (LCS 1) is a monohull design, built by Lockheed Martin in, of all places, Wisconsin.

USS Freedom, LCS 1

The Independence is built by General Dynamics and is a trimeran hull design, built in Mobile, Alabama.

USS Freedom-class cutaway (click to make larger)

So, you can say they are the same and since one has been out since 2008 the other should be able to use the same procedures, but you would be wrong. The ships are radically different in design. They may fight similar missions, even side-by-side, but the crews will operate differently. The LCS 1 design is said to be better at working with other ships, the LCS 2 design better with helicopters. They have been designed so that “mission modules” may be added – containers with specialized equipment for a particular mission. One possible mission for ships of this kind is drug interdiction or piracy patrol. They may even carry Marines.

Two of each design were originally to be built for testing purposes, with subsequent ships to be based whichever design proved superior. To date, the Freedom has had a number of problems and has spent very little time in actual operations, while it has required significant repairs. Cost overruns were high enough that it was decided not to build LCS 3 at all. LCS 4, USS Coronado, is under construction and is scheduled for delivery in mid-2012.

So there’s are several good reasons not to take these ships out to Libya. First, by the time they get there, they won’t be needed, if the President is right. (OK, that’s a stretch, I’ll admit it.) They are, after all, on the Pacific coast! Second, they aren’t tested enough to be effective alone, let alone integrated into the operations going on there. They’ve not been worked into missions with the rest of a carrier group yet, so they could be wasted, land possibly in danger, by hurrying things along. It seems good judgment prevailed in the US Navy on this one.

Pretty, isn't it?


Proof I recalled 1950s TV correctly!

March 27, 2011

Susan, flying on her magic chair from her kitchen

I was born in October of 1954, and I recall a black and white TV show from when I was very, very young with a girl named Susan and, believe it or not, a talking table named Pegasus. Recalling it later my parents said they remembered no such show. In fact, I couldn’t find anyone who had remembered ever seeing it. I knew I had, because when my brother was going to be born three and a half years after me I wanted to name him Susan, after the character in the show. That my parents remembered, but not why I liked the name. (I finally got my wish with my daughter – her middle name is Suzanne!

A rare color photo of Susan on the set

Anyway, teh intertubes is a wonderful thing, as we know. I finally decided to hunt on YouTube. It turns out there was one episode available – or at least part of one! Sorry – you’ll have to follow the link – it won’t embed.

The girl’s name was Susan Heinkel and she was a very grown-up thirteen years old when I saw her. Apparently the shows were broadcast live, hence no recordings. Videotape was in its infancy, and the first videotaped broadcast was only made in 1956. Kinescope recordings, essentially film recordings made from video monitors, had been made for some years but I have never seen one with very good quality. This episode must have been kinescoped. (It also must have been the one where the LIFE magazine photographer did his photo shoot; the sets all seem to be dressed identically. Perhaps I don’t remember, and the show looked about the same in every episode!)

Susan – all images must be from the same shoot at the same episode

Apparently the show started in 1956 as a local Chicago show, shot at WBBM’s TV studios on McClurg Court on the north side of Chicago. It was called “Susie’s Show.” The following year it was picked up on CBS, when I saw it, probably on WTOL Channel 11 from Toledo. At that time it was given the more formal name, “Susan’s Show.”¬† It was only on TV that one more year.

There were only three cast members: Susan, John Coughlin, who did all the voices, including Mr. Pegasus, and Rusty, a live dog. Broadcasting a live show with a preteen girl, an offstage voice actor and a live animal had to have been daunting!

Susan and Rusty, apparently admonishing Mr. Pegasus!

I only remember three TV shows from my very early youth…”Susan’s Show,” “Supercar,” and “Superman.” Yep, even back then I seemed to have an affinity for science-fiction and fantasy. None of that cowboys and Indians stuff for me!

(My parents say I was a great fan of the Mickey Mouse Club, though; I remember it from later, but not from that early age.)

I really was believing I mixed things up that I saw when I was young – maybe a skit on a special, or something like that – not a series. I couldn’t imagine it would have that much of an impact on me, though, if I had seen it only once. It turns out this show would have aired just prior to my brother’s birth, so it makes even more sense.

Anyway, this was a very fond memory. The actual clip is a little spooky, now. John Coughlin, who was a weatherman on WBBM Channel 2 in Chicago for many years, has that bit of an acerbic edge to him that I hear in a lot of 1950s men on TV and film…sort of like the one Clark Kent/Superman has in the Superman 1950s series. They almost sound a little PO’d, or something. Here’s an interesting article about her and the show, from Time Magazine. (Particularly interesting is that one of the mechanical characters in the orchestra is named Gregory – which was my brother’s name!)

The orchestra “operators”

What happened to Susan? The comments in the video said her married name was Susan Heinkel Bayer. A Google search found someone by that name who did some audio dramas, perhaps originally done for radio. There’s not much information to go on, so I don’t know where she is today!

Supercar – one of the first Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows

What is really odd is how Susan’s voice on the YouTube clip does sound familiar, somehow – and kids don’t talk like that nowadays! As a grandparent of girls roughly that age, I wonder how the huge amount of video they have been exposed to will affect them. We had so little, our parents even less, our children somewhat more. Now, it’s a constant onslaught. Kids learn to filter at a very early age – at least, I hope they do.

That’s something to ponder on another day. It was just nice to see Susan again, and to know that she actually did exist!

And thanks to alert reader thirteen (see comments below), here is her wedding announcement:


Be a part of the “Atlas Shrugged” film history!

March 26, 2011

One question I had about the reactors has been answered

March 20, 2011

There’s a lot we don’t know about the situation with the Fukushima reactors, but one nagging question I had was: why did they put spent fuel rod storage on top of the reactor buildings?

Well, here’s the answer:

You can click on this image for a larger version

This is a schematic of a typical GE Mark 1 BWR (boiling water reactor). That’s what they have there. As you can see, the fuel rods would be removed through the top of the steel containment vessel using a crane built into the building. It’s just easier to place them in a pool built right into the building, built of concrete. They are moved a minimum distance and because they are still, in effect, in the secondary containment, there is a greater degree of protection than there might be in a separate installation.

cutaway of the building (click to make larger)

Here you can see a little more detail of the refueling area on the top of the building. I read someplace, in someone’s comment, that buildings where explosives are handled are often built like this one – steel girders and relatively light roof and wall structures. In the case of an explosion the light parts of the structure blow out and the supports remain. I can’t cite that, however.

Spent fuel storage

Here you can see how these pools are set up. They are apparently not covered in any way, to allow gases to escape. If the rods are kept in place and cool, they should be fine. When the cooling fails, or the water drains, there are problems…as we see today.

But you can see that this is in no way connected to the reactor pressure vessel itself. That’s important to remember. There are good reasons to be concerned about releases of radioactive materials, but not so much about a “meltdown.”

Still, with six reactors in one facility and so much damage, the folks there have their hands full, and it’s going to be very, very difficult to get this cleaned up.

Just remember – an earthquake seven times greater than expected, a mammoth tsunami, total loss of power, and so far, no reactors have melted down. To me, that’s a pretty safe design – especially for having been designed in the mid-1960s and run for forty years.


E.T. is back…to save Earth!

March 19, 2011

Review of “Battle Los Angeles”

March 19, 2011

Duck! Incoming!

My son and I went to see “Battle: Los Angeles” this afternoon. It’s no longer the biggest movie out there, so even though it was a Saturday afternoon we had the VIP theater at Muvico Rosemont to ourselves. Pretty dang good home theater, folks!

My son had seen it last week, so he had a couple of things he told me to forewarn me about the movie. He told me it wasn’t a typical alien invasion movie, and he was completely correct. In fact, there was almost no backstory on the aliens – why they were here, how their civilization was organized, where they were from – nothing.

And it didn’t matter. With a 24-hour flashback at the beginning to set up the backstory for Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhardt), the remainder of the two hours is a nonstop battle. It focuses on a small group of Marines at first tasked with infiltrating past a line held by the alien enemy to rescue some civilians at an abandoned police station. The Marines end up doing much more – at least those who survive.

The movie focuses on the small group of Marines¬† and civilians (and one Air Force info specialist) in a small area almost exclusively. It could have been a battle film from any of many military actions. I’ve read that it has been compared to “Blackhawk Down.” I’ve still not seen that movie, but I can believe it. There is a lot of this film that is independent of the fact that the enemy is from another planet.

Aaron Eckhardt

It’s a pretty good ensemble cast, too. No single cast member has to carry anything big except Eckhardt, and he does a fine job. All the cast members contribute well to the tone of the film as well as the plot, and, as per Roger Ebert’s rule of thumb, you do care about them by the end of the film – even those that are killed off early on.

CGI is good but not the driving force of the film, which is kind of nice. It’s probably overall a bigger part of the movie than in “District 9,” but not much. Much of the EFX work is practical – explosions, guns firing, stuff falling and flying around. Nothing otherworldly or particularly deus ex machina about the plot. (Well, a bit at the end, but it doesn’t feel forced.)

The eeeeevil aliens!

There is one bit that is forced. The aliens, according to CNN, are here to take our water. Huh? According to the news report on the TV in the background, the aliens need water in a liquid state, not frozen. Really? They have interstellar travel, but they can’t mine comets for ice? They have high-tech weapons but don’t know how to melt ice? If you can travel in space, there are all kinds of places in a solar system where water is easier to come by that by attacking an inhabited planet. That’s wasteful of resources.

When I’m it a science fiction movie situation like this, I just sing the lyrics from “Mystery Science 3000”:

If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
And other science fact,
Just repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,
I should really just relax,”

(By the way, that was the motivation for the Visitors in the old “V” series. I know, not very clever, even for back in the day.)

Anyway, you don’t have to like military SF to like this film. It’s a military movie, yes, but very much about the trials of a small group, not an “Independence Day” style epic. I recommend it. It was well done.


Still no reason for panic over nuclear meltdown

March 18, 2011

I’ve found a site maintained by the students of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT that seems to give good information about the Fukushima Nuclear Plant situation in Japan. it’s at Besides explanations about terms used in the nuclear industry, it maintains updates about the situation in Japan free of purple prose.

As of this morning the spent fuel rod pools were being sprayed using army firetrucks. A power line had been laid from a main power line a kilometer and a half from the facility so there will be power soon to the emergency cooling systems. Backup diesel generators are running to cool the spent fuel rod pools at Units 5 and 6, and the temperatures are down to the mid 60s Celsius.

I’ve not seen anything that says any of the steel primary pressure vessels have been breached on any of the reactors, or that any have reached a high enough temperature to melt the intermal machinery. Most of the problems seem to be focused on the pools where the spent fuel rods are stored, not on the reactors themselves.

There will be a high price to cleanup of the site, and perhaps none of the reactors can be saved; I doubt that, though. I’ll bet that at least some of them will eventually be running again. What is really unfortunate is that this is taking center stage while so many thousands are still missing, presumed dead. The iPad newspaper The Daily had some before and after photos of areas that were destroyed by the tsunami, and it was horrible. Entire towns were just scoured off the map like they never existed.