Monday, December 8, 2008

In the Steps of John Lennon

John Lennon died on this day in 1980. I realized this weekend that last month I stayed at the Montreal Hilton, the same hotel where John Lennon had his famous "Bed-in" in 1969 and recorded Give Peace a Chance.

I've also been to the University of Ottawa building where John Lennon spoke during a visit in 1969 and was given a tour of the city by a 21 year-old student named Alan Rock (a former politician and UN ambassador, he is now the University's president!).

This past February when I was in New York City I walked past the Dakota apartment building where John Lennon lived for several years until he was shot just outside. I also visited the nearby Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park.

I remember seeing John Lennon's psychedelic painted Rolls-Royce car when it was on display at the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa .

So without leaving North America, I've made a little John Lennon pilgrimage.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

This past weekend I finished reading this long awaited (by me) novel. Clarke had been working on it for a few years but was unable to complete it before his death due to ill health. He passed it on to another one of my favourite authors, Frederik Pohl, to complete.

I won't go into a full review because doing so would spoil the novel. I'll just say it was a very good read and has all the usual Clarkian elements. Much of it is set in Clarke's adopted home country of Sri Lanka.

My impression was that it was an Arthur C. Clarke story but was written in the style of Frederik Pohl's novels. The characters were perhaps more developed than in most of Clarke's books; that may have also been Pohl's doing.

Happily, Clarke was at least able to see the final manuscript before he passed away earlier this year.

All in all, highly recommended.

It is currently selling for about $20 on so order it now before the Canadian price goes up, or better yet borrow it from you local library like I did.

CD Review: Roy Orbison - The Soul of Rock and Roll

I'm a big fan of Roy Orbison. He had an amazing singing voice, was a talented song writer, and was a pretty good guitar player. And with his jet black hair and trademark sunglasses, he was cool. If you took the best of Elvis Buddy Holly and combined them, you'd have something close to Roy Orbison.

So when a new Roy Orbison CD compilation came out, I had to get it. The Soul of Rock and Roll is a set of four CDs containing 108 tracks. It covers his entire career, from his first hit Ooby Dooby recorded by his band The Teen Kings (when he was still in his teens) to a recording made two days before his death.

The CDs are roughly in chronological order. You can follow his career from the early rockabilly tunes to Rock and Roll songs to the ballads he became most famous for, and rebirth with the Traveling Wilbury's in the eighties.

The compilation includes most of his major hits spanning from the 1950s to 1980s. It also includes some demo recording and other rarities, some of which were not previously unreleased.

I particularly hearing some of the demos that feature just Roy and his guitar.

On the pros side, the compilation includes almost everything Roy Orbison recorded in one set. There is a generous number of tracks per disc. The tracks are of good quality. It includes a book of almost 100 pages about his life, pictures, and info about each of the tracks.

My only complaint is with the packaging. While it looks nice, it is too big to conveniently carry with you, so you will need some jewel cases or other holder (assuming you don't just rip the tracks to you MP3 player).

It is available from Amazon.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Humans, by Robert J. Sawyer

I just read Humans, the second novel in The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer. It was just the thing to pass the time flying back from Houston, Texas with a few hours to kill in airports and on airplanes. A few months ago I read Hominids, the first novel in the trilogy.

I won't spoil it for you by revealing any details, but the trilogy is about making contact with a version of Earth in an alternate universe in which Neanderthals, rather than humans, became the dominant species.

Sawyer did his homework when it came to Neanderthals. There is increasing evidence, some of it published since his novel was published, that Neanderthals may have been as intelligent as humans. Sawyer's insight into their possible religious beliefs is an extrapolation based on real evidence from fossils and artifacts. Their possible speech patterns is also backed up by recent computer models based on Neanderthal skulls.

As usual, Sawyer gets in his Canadian content, with some of the action taking place in Canada and several important characters who are Canadian. It also has events taking place in the United States, including New York City and Washington, DC. There is a particularly moving scene at the Vietnam War memorial that Sawyer thinks was one of the best things he's ever written.

I found it a great read. If you are not an SF fan you will likely still enjoy this novel -- like all his books it's not so much about technology or aliens, but about believable characters, interesting situations, and thought-provoking questions. It also has an element of crime mystery too.

The ending was particularly exciting and had a interesting plot twist that caught me off guard.

I'm looking forward to shortly reading the final book in the trilogy, Hybrids.

See also:

Sunday, August 24, 2008

2008 Olympic Results - Another Way of Looking at the Numbers

The 2008 Summer Olympics are over, and the results are in. The official rankings are weighted by the type and number of medals won, and with that system, the top ten countries were: China, United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Italy, France, Ukraine, and Netherlands (the last three were tied).

Canada came in 19th with 18 medals: 3 gold, 9 silver, and 7 bronze.

If you rank countries by the total number of medals won, the results are similar but the United States overtakes China for the number one spot. The rankings are United States, China, Russia, Britain, Australia, Germany, France, South Korea, Ukraine, Italy.

Canada comes in 15th when ranked by number of medals.

But we're a small country. Clearly a large country like China over a billion people has a larger pool of potential athletes to choose from. So how about looking at the medals won per capita? I reworked the rankings by sorting them by number of medals won per millions of population (the full table is at the end of this blog entry).

With this ranking, Bahamas comes in at number one. They won only two medals, but with a tiny population of 331,000 that puts them in first place. Second, not surprisingly, is Jamaica, which won 11 medals with a population of only 2.7 million.

Iceland, with a population of just over three hundred thousand, won a single medal, putting them in third place.

The only larger countries (more than 10 million population) making the top ten list were Australia and Cuba.

How did the big boys, the officially ranked top 10 countries, do?

China 69
United States 45
Russia 38
Britain 27
Germany 39
Australia 6
South Korea 32
Japan 58
Italy 40
France 33
Ukraine 34
Netherlands 23

None of them made the top 10 except Australia which was 6th, coincidentally the same as the official ranking. China is a big loser at 69th place as is the United States at 45th.

Dead last when ranking by population is India, which won only three medals with it's over 1 billion population.

When I started this exercise I had hoped that Canada would come up higher in the rankings. When ranked by population, Canada is 37th, so we don't come up higher in the rankings by population than by medals, although we come out ahead of the big players. At 0.54 medals per million people we're in the same range as many other similarly developed countries.

Medal Ranking Country Gold Silver Bronze Total Population Medals per Million Capita
56t Bahamas 0 1 1 2 331000 6.04
13 Jamaica 6 3 2 11 2714000 4.05
56t Iceland 0 1 0 1 316252 3.16
37t Slovenia 1 2 2 5 2029000 2.46
6 Australia 14 15 17 46 21394309 2.15
28t Cuba 2 11 11 24 11268000 2.13
19t New Zealand 3 1 5 9 4275100 2.11
19t Norway 3 5 2 10 4778500 2.09
56t Lithuania 0 3 4 7 3361100 2.08
56t Armenia 0 0 6 6 3002000 2
16t Belarus 4 5 10 19 9690000 1.96
28t Mongolia 2 2 0 4 2629000 1.52
56t Trinidad and Tobago 0 2 0 2 1333000 1.5
37t Estonia 1 1 0 2 1340600 1.49
19t Georgia 3 0 3 6 4395000 1.37
37t Latvia 1 1 1 3 2268000 1.32
37t Bahrain 1 0 0 1 760168 1.32
28t Denmark 2 2 3 7 5489022 1.28
19t Slovakia 3 2 1 6 5402273 1.11
56t Croatia 0 2 3 5 4555000 1.1
19t Hungary 3 5 2 10 10043000 1
10t Netherlands 7 5 4 16 16445000 0.97
28t Kazakhstan 2 4 7 13 15422000 0.84
37t Azerbaijan 1 2 4 7 8467000 0.83
56t Mauritius 0 0 1 1 1262000 0.79
4 Britain 19 14 15 48 60975000 0.79
28t Switzerland 2 0 4 6 7637300 0.79
37t Finland 1 1 2 4 5318105 0.75
56t Ireland 0 1 2 3 4422100 0.68
37t Bulgaria 1 1 3 5 7640238 0.65
7 South Korea 13 10 8 31 48224000 0.64
10t France 7 16 17 40 64473140 0.62
10t Ukraine 7 5 16 28 46059306 0.61
19t Czech Republic 3 3 0 6 10403136 0.58
56t Sweden 0 4 1 5 9215021 0.54
19t Canada 3 9 6 18 33354500 0.54
3 Russia 24 21 28 73 141888900 0.51
5 Germany 17 10 15 42 82191000 0.51
9 Italy 8 10 10 28 59619290 0.47
14t Spain 5 10 3 18 46063000 0.39
56t Kyrgyzstan 0 1 1 2 5317000 0.38
16t Romania 4 1 3 8 21438000 0.37
14t Kenya 5 5 4 14 37538000 0.37
2 United States 36 38 36 110 304943000 0.36
56t Austria 0 1 2 3 8340924 0.36
56t Greece 0 2 2 4 11147000 0.36
56t Serbia 0 1 2 3 9858000 0.3
37t Zimbabwe 1 3 0 4 13349000 0.3
37t Panama 1 0 0 1 3343000 0.3
56t Tajikistan 0 1 1 2 6736000 0.3
56t Moldova 0 0 1 1 3794000 0.26
19t Poland 3 6 1 10 38115967 0.26
28t North Korea 2 1 3 6 23790000 0.25
37t Uzbekistan 1 2 3 6 27372000 0.22
56t Singapore 0 1 0 1 4588600 0.22
37t Dominican Republic 1 1 0 2 9760000 0.2
8 Japan 9 6 10 25 127690000 0.2
37t Belgium 1 1 0 2 10584534 0.19
37t Portugal 1 1 0 2 10623000 0.19
56t Chinese Taipei 0 0 4 4 23000000 0.17
56t Togo 0 0 1 1 6585000 0.15
28t Argentina 2 0 4 6 40301927 0.15
56t Israel 0 0 1 1 7303000 0.14
37t Turkey 1 4 3 8 70586256 0.11
37t Tunisia 1 0 0 1 10327000 0.1
16t Ethiopia 4 1 2 7 79221000 0.09
19t Brazil 3 4 8 15 187529000 0.08
1 China 51 21 28 100 1325693000 0.08
56t Ecuador 0 1 0 1 13341000 0.07
56t Morocco 0 1 1 2 31224000 0.06
28t Thailand 2 2 0 4 63038247 0.06
56t Chile 0 1 0 1 16763470 0.06
56t Algeria 0 1 1 2 33858000 0.06
37t Cameroon 1 0 0 1 18549000 0.05
56t Colombia 0 1 1 2 44513090 0.04
56t Afghanistan 0 0 1 1 27145000 0.04
56t Malaysia 0 1 0 1 27170000 0.04
56t Venezuela 0 0 1 1 27953701 0.04
37t Iran 1 0 1 2 70495782 0.03
28t Mexico 2 0 1 3 106682500 0.03
56t Nigeria 0 1 3 4 148093000 0.03
56t Sudan 0 1 0 1 38560000 0.03
37t Indonesia 1 1 3 5 231627000 0.02
56t South Africa 0 1 0 1 47850700 0.02
56t Egypt 0 0 1 1 75231000 0.01
56t Vietnam 0 1 0 1 87375000 0.01
37t India 1 0 2 3 1137087600 0

Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Review: Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze?

Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? And 114 Other Questions
Penguin Canada 2006
ISBN-10: 0-14-305390-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-14-305390-3

I subscribe to New Scientist, a weekly science magazine similar to Scientific American, but published in the UK. The first thing I do when I receive my weekly issue is turn to the back and check out "The Last Word". This is the part of the magazine where readers write in with questions about science and other readers write in with answers.

Like it's predecessor Does Anything Eat Wasps? this book presents the best of the Last Word column in book form. It presents about 100 questions and answers divided up into categories such as our bodies, plants and animals, and food and drink.

The questions and answers are fascinating. Many of them make you think "that's something I see all the time but never asked why". It's also interesting that not all scientists agree on the answers. Some of the answers are quite humorous, even tongue in cheek And many of them I've never seen answered before.

My criticism with the previous book in the series was that, for some strange reason, they decided to use US measurement units rather than metric, even though New Scientist uses metric units as do most scientists even in the US. Thankfully they didn't continue this practice for Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze, at least in the Penguin Canada edition I read.

The book is highly recommended. Whether you consider yourself scientifically literate or not, you will get a lot out of it, both in the form entertainment and education.

The latest book in the series, How to Fossilize Your Hamster, was recently released and I'm looking forward to reading it once I get hold of a copy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Star Trek Gets A Facelift

I'm a big fan of Star Trek, especially the original series.

Recently I was thinking, how would the original series hold up against contemporary television shows? The scripts and acting were excellent, and the image quality holds up quite well as it was made on 35mm film. I think there is only one area where it would be lacking and that is the special effects. While spectacular for their time (1966-1969), modern audiences are used to computer generated images (CGI). The original series primarily used models and matte paintings, which limited what could be done.

Maybe someone at Paramount studios had the same thought. In 2006 they began syndication of a new version of the original series that was rendered in high definition with new CGI visual effects. Most of the external space shots of the Enterprise and other ships have been redone, and many bridge viewscreen images have been updated. But the live action has for the most part been left original, other than being cleaned up for high definition.

I recently received a DVD set of season one of the original series as a gift. After viewing the season one episodes I decided to buy season two. It seems that Amazon is no longer stocking the original DVD set, but the digitally enhanced version of season 2 was just released, so I bought that instead.

Overall I like the new version. The DVDs are similar to the original set, but have s few more extras. Apparently this was originally planned to be a hybrid DVD/HD-DVD set but the HD-DVD format was dropped when BluRay won the format wars, so the discs are one-sided but unlabeled as if they should be double-sided.

I was afraid that the new effects would be glaring when interspersed with the old footage, but they're pretty subtle. Take, for example, the episode The Doomsday Machine. There is a shot of the USS Constellation lying damaged in space. You can see some rocks or other debris around it, and in one shot a rock actually bounces off the ship's saucer section. This is something that wasn't feasible in the 1960's when they used models of the ship. (In fact, an interesting piece of trivia about this episode is that the model of the USS Constellation was actually a commercial plastic model kit that the effects team purchased, assembled, and added some damage to. The ship's registration number -- NCC-1017, used the included decals from the Enterprise, NCC-1710, with the numbers rearranged).

The digitally remastered version was controversial among Star Trek fans. Some felt it was tampering with perfection. After viewing a few of the episodes, I like it.

Although it is hard to believe, there are people who have never watched the original series. If the digitally remastered series exposes more people to the show (either on television or by purchasing DVDs) then its a good thing for Star Trek fandom.

So when it comes time for me to buy the season three DVD set, which version will I go for -- the original or enhanced? I think it will be the enhanced version. (That's assuming I buy the third season at all; it's definitely the poorest of the show's three seasons. But then again maybe new special effects can salvage my choice for the worst episode of the series The Lights of Zetar).

You can get the Star Trek DVDs as individual discs, boxed sets for each season, or as a boxed set of all three seasons. It's available from a number of sources such as Best Buy, Future Shop, or on-line from Amazon.

Wikipedia has more on the remastered series under the entry for the original series.

Youtube also has some clips of the new CGI scenes, including some side by side comparisons of the old and new.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Port Elmsley Drive-in

Are you old enough to remember going to the drive-in theater? Most of the drive-ins have shut down in the last couple of decades. Here in Ottawa there used to be one in the Bayshore area but it was torn down to build the Coliseum multiplex theatre.

Recently this summer we went to the Port Elmsley drive-in. It is located between Smiths Falls and Perth. After 55 years it is still in operation.

The sound comes through your FM radio so you don't have to worry about driving away and ripping out the speaker in the window like the old days. They have a snack bar with drinks, candy, popcorn, fries, burgers, etc. They even show retro drive-in commercials during intermission. The place has a family atmosphere -- the owner gets on the audio to announce the night's movies or even comment on the film during intermission.

The night we went there was a triple bill showing Wall-E, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Hancock. Most of the people there were families with young kids. There is a playground for the kids to enjoy before the movie starts. There was some rain during the second film but it didn't dampen our spirits.

We left after the first two movies because we had an hour drive home and it was just getting too late for us old folks. We had a great time!

If you live in Eastern Ontario, it makes a great outing for a summer evening. Check it out, but get there early if you want a good spot!

The web site is

Monday, August 18, 2008

Visit to The Henry Ford

I was recently in the Detroit, Michigan area (Ann Arbor) and had a rainy Sunday free so I went to the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, MI. I spent almost five hours there seeing all the displays, which are much more than just cars. Some of the highlights:
  • the rocking chair from Ford's Theater that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated
  • the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, a car in the shape of a hot dog
  • the Dymaxion House, a pre-fabricated house of the future designed in the 1940s by Buckminster Fuller
  • the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, starting the US civil rights movement
  • the car that John F. Kennedy was in when he was shot
  • a huge steam-powered electrical generating plant used in a Ford factory
  • George Washington's camp bed
  • Igor Sikorsky's prototype helicopter
  • lots of cars, airplanes, trains, and steam engines
On the same site you can also check out an IMAX theater, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, the Automotive Hall of Fame, and a theme park called Greenfield Village.

  1. Official Web Site
  2. Wikipedia Entry

Monday, March 17, 2008

Musings on the James Bond Novels

As of today I completed my collection of the original James Bond novels. Over the last few years at book sales I've picked up a few copies of the paperbacks published by Pan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I decided to see if I could complete my collection of the original 14 books, and thanks to ebay I received the last one (which was actually shipped to me from England).

Most people under about age 40 probably think of James Bond as a series of films and maybe only dimly realize they were based on books. In fact, in the late 1950s and 1960's the books were extremely popular. If you look at the printing history of some of the paperback versions you can get some idea of just how quickly the books must have been selling, sometimes with a new printing on a monthly basis.

The Pan books series were a typical paperback issue, selling in the US and Canada for 60 cents. Untold millions of copies were sold, and translated into many languages.

From 1953 to 1966 Ian Fleming wrote one Bond novel every year while he was on vacation in Jamaica at his estate Goldeneye.

Are the movies similar to the books? That depends on the film. The most faithful film version is probably On Her Majesty's Secret Service which was just about as close to the novel as possible.

Some films like The Man with the Golden Gun are very different from the novel.

And "The Spy Who Loved Me" has nothing in common between the book and film except the title.

All in all I think they hold up well when you take into account the time at which they were written.

I think they make great escapism, and I find them just the thing to read on a business trip when stuck in an airport or hotel with nothing to do for a few hours.

So now the question I'm pondering is, do I read the last remaining book now or save it for my next business trip?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Book Review: "Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer

Published 2007 by Tor Books
ISBN 978-0-7653-4974-3
Author's web site:

When it comes to Science Fiction, I'm a fan of the old masters and it takes a lot for me to risk reading a new author. There's a lot of mental energy required to get into a novel, and I really hate finding I can't finish a novel and have been wasting my time. I'd much rather reread a old novel by an author I know.

About a year ago I read a novel by an author new to me -- Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan -- and really enjoyed it. Then somehow I forgot to follow up and read more of his work. I've been traveling recently and the day before I left on a recent trip I happened to see a lecture on television by Sawyer on Science Fiction writing. It jogged my memory to look into more of his books. The next day while at the Ottawa airport I took a look in the gift shop and, despite only having a small selection of best seller books, his most recent book Rollback was there, so I eagerly picked it up.

Sawyer and I have a number of things in common: he was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada and now lives in Mississauga (just outside Toronto). I grew up Mississauga and now live in Ottawa. He and I were born within a year of each other. He is also a huge fan of Star Trek.

His books take place in the near future, say from the present to a hundred years from now. He has a rule that any historical facts in his books prior to the publication date are true. Many of the events happen in Canada and mention Canadian people, places, and events. Real people are mentioned. It's great to see a plug for some Canadian things - too many American writers seem to think everything happens in New York or Los Angeles.

If the two books I've read so far are representative, he puts a lot of himself in the books, and the lead character is someone you can identify with (certainly I can). The characters are well-developed, the plot is exciting and unpredictable, and he puts both humour and emotion into the story.

But getting back to Rollback, without revealing to much of the plot, the story revolves around Don and Sarah Halifax, a couple in their late eighties. Thirty-eight years previously, the SETI project received a message from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. Sarah, a SETI astronomer, was key to the decoding of the message. A reply was sent from Earth back to the aliens, who live in a star system 19 light-years away. Now, thirty-eight years later, a second alien message has been received, but it is encoded. Sarah, now retired and in failing health, could be key to decoding the second message, but may not live long enough. A billionaire philanthropist (no, not Bill Gates) offers to pay for Sarah and Don to undergo a "rollback", a new and incredibly expensive medical procedure that will rejuvenate them back to a biological age of 25, so Sarah can continue her research.

Sawyer uses the medium of science fiction to explore social issues. In Rollback ethical and philosophical issues such as birth control, capital punishment, the aging population, and racism are presented as the plot unfolds. But he doesn't preach to the reader -- he gives the reader the opportunity the think about the issues for themselves, possibly in a new light.

If I had to find some criticisms, the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, or perhaps it was simply my disappointment that the novel was over after enjoying such as good read. There are some similarities to his previous novel Mindscan, which is about an aging man who has his consciousness copied into a mechanical body, and it explores some of the same issues.

I read Rollback in a hotel room, airport departures lounge, and on an airplane flight from New York to Ottawa. All in all the book is highly recommended (and you don't have to be a Canadian to enjoy it).

Now I'm off to the pick up his two previous books.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

My Top 10 Science Fiction Authors - And Why

I've been a huge fan of science fiction for as long as I can remember. A list of top authors is of course a personal and subjective thing. They say the "golden age" is what you experienced when you were ten years old. My list is biased towards my early reading experiences when I was about that age.

So starting from the bottom, here is my list:

10. H.G. Wells

Herbert George Wells was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction but today is best known for his science fiction novels, most notably The First Men in the Moon, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds.

It is a testament to his work that his novels are still well known and are still being remade as films in the 21st century, even though they were written in the 19th century. His novel The Sleeper Awakes was said to be Robert A. Heinlein's favourite novel.

9. Jules Verne

Like Wells, the French writer Jules Verne was one of the pioneers of science fiction and is best known for writing Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. He predicted many modern inventions including underwater, air, and space travel.

8. Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton may tend to be overlooked by science fiction fans because his books are just too popular -- Science Fiction novels are not supposed to be best sellers. With over 20 published novels (not all science fiction) including The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Congo, Sphere, Jurassic Park, and The Lost World, I think he deserves to be on my top 10 list despite what the purists may think.

7. Edgar Rice Burroughs

Most famous for his Tarzan series, Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote over thirty science fiction novels, practically inventing the Space Opera genre. His Barsoom series about John Carter of Mars are the most well known, and my personal favourite. While arguably more fantasy than science fiction, his novels still hold up well for those who enjoy some pure escapism involving green men, princesses, sword fights, and flying wooden ships.

6. Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams is best known for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. He also wrote for television, including some episodes of Dr. Who. His style of humour was unique to Science Fiction and earns him a spot on my list.

5. Frederik Pohl

A childhood friend and one-time literary agent of Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl started as a fan, and moved on to be an editor and a writer of Science Fiction short stories and novels. The novel he co-wrote with Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, is a classic that is still relevant today, combining action, mystery, and allegory of the advertising business. He is said to be currently working on completing Arthur C. Clarke's unfinished novel The Last Theorem.

4. Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is the great poet whose work includes fantasy, horror, and mystery. He has said he only wrote one Science Fiction Novel, Fahrenheit 451. He is also well known for The Martian Chronicles and other collections of short stories. Born in 1920, he is still writing. I find that of all my favourite writers, his short stories are the ones that I can read over and over again.

3. Robert A. Heinlein

Like so many famous writers, poor health forced Robert Heinlein to take up writing for a living. His background in the military, engineering, and a wide variety of jobs was ideal preparation for a science fiction author. He is perhaps best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

His later works reflected his controversial beliefs on the role of the military, economics, and the nature of love, marriage, and sexuality. I, like many readers, prefer his earlier novels but appreciate anyone who challenges our beliefs and assumptions. As George Bernard Shaw once said "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

2. Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is best known as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as possibly the first to propose the idea of geostationary communication satellites. I feel a kinship for Clarke because we share a number of characteristics: a background in Engineering (specifically radio), interest in the space program and science in general, and an avid scuba diver. He wrote over 30 books, both novels and short stories.

1. Isaac Asimov

The prolific Isaac Asimov wrote over 400 books, from short stories and science fiction novels to non-fiction books on science. I can't decide what I like more: his science fiction or his books popularizing science. In fact he wrote books on almost every subject from limericks to the Bible. For many more reasons than I have time to relate here, he is a clear choice for my favourite science fiction author, and in fact by favourite author bar none.


Well, no surprises here. My top three are often referred to as the big three in science fiction.

There are others I would have included on a longer list: C.S. Lewis, Carl Sagan, E. E. Doc Smith, Frank Herbert, George Orwell, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, and more.

If you are a fan or even just occasional reader of science fiction, I encourage you to spend a few minutes thinking about who your favourite authors are, and why.

Friday, January 25, 2008

TV-B-Gone Kit Review

Okay, you might not get this at first. It's a TV remote control with only one button. All it can do it turn TVs off. And it works with almost every set on the market.

Have you every been in a restaurant covered with walls of television sets? Or a shopping mall or a school cafeteria? Did you find it distracting and annoying? Now do you get the idea?

I heard about the TV-B-Gone in Make Magazine and thought it was a pretty cool idea. When they came out with a kit version I decided I had to get one (I love electronic kits).

So I placed an order and shortly received a box of parts and some instructions. The full instructions are actually on the web.

I found it easy to assemble. It's a small silk-screened printed circuit board with less than 20 parts, all through-hole with no surface mount devices. The instructions are clear and you should have not have a problem putting it together correctly if you have some experience soldering. All parts are included, the single IC is socketed, and it includes a battery pack for two AA batteries.

It took me about an hour to assemble, taking my time and checking my work. I had no problems and it worked the first time. I didn't test it after partial assembly as they suggest, I just went ahead and assembled it all.

I also bought one of the assembled keychain versions. It is smaller and more discrete, but has less range than the larger kit version (which has 4 LEDs).

I found it worked with almost all of the TV sets I tried it on. I have to admit I had some fun in some big box electronic stores and restaurants, although I stopped short of turning off every TV in Best Buy.

  • you can buy a complete kit or just the PCB for $5 and/or microcontroller for $5
  • source code is available, and can be modified if you have a suitable device programmer
  • fun to build
  • high power (meaning it works over a large distance)
  • kit is for North America/Japan only (the forums describe some mods for Europe)
  • no case included (but that gives you opportunity to customize it yourself)
  • the kit doesn't offer as many TV codes as the assembled unit (but they estimate 90% of TVs)
Use it wisely or you could get in trouble like some people at CES who went overboard.

Now I must remember not to leave it in my coat pocket the next time I go on an airplane flight ("that's not a terrorist device, officer!").


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's in a Name?

I need a name for my blog.

Back in the 1980s when I was an avid reader of Byte Magazine, I enjoyed reading Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column. Working as a science fiction writer, computer user, and reviewer of computer hardware and software sounded to me like just about the best job in the world. As a telecommuter myself I work out of my own "Chaos Manor".

Using an on-line thesaurus I came up with "Havoc Mansion". That sounds too much like Maniac Mansion. Anyone remember the computer game? The television series? My house isn't a mansion, although it is bigger than Horace Rumpole's "mansion apartment".

The topics I cover here make it more of a "Hodgepodge Lodge". Or maybe "Scuttlebutt Lodge"? No, that was already used by Red Fisher and then adapted by Red Green as his "Possum Lodge".

I'll keep thinking about it.

Keep your stick on the ice,



Welcome to my blog. You can expect to find here an eclectic mix of discussion on new and retro technology and whatever else I want to talk (or just rant) about.

By career I'm an Engineer, software developer, and manager with 25 years of experience in the high-tech industry.

My personal interests include Linux and other Open Source/Free software, electronic hardware, science and science fiction, beer home-brewing, ham radio, motorcycles, and scuba diving.

What you won't find here are details of my personal life (boring) or details of my work (sometimes confidential).

Welcome, and feel free to comment.