A Château in Provence

Château d’Entrecasteaux

Munn Family
Munn Family
While at her 102nd birthday lunch, my grandmother mentioned that she and my aunt had learned of a memoirs written by the son of one of her cousins on the Munn side of the family. She told me the stories in the book were “scandalous”. She said this grinning ear to ear. I looked up the book and confirmed that it is available on Kindle. I read it over the last week and it reads like second had history with Forrest Gump like references sprinkled throughout. As I read my Kindle version I highlighted the author’s witness to history. The heart of the book is about his acquisition and restoration of Entrecasteaux with his father, an my grandmother’s cousin, Hugh Ian Mcgarvie-Munn in 1974.

Chateau in Provence
This book takes the reader on an amazing voyage, from living in the presidential house as the grandson of the President of Guatemala, to the tribulations of life in an English boarding school and France where I study architecture and restore our first home, a château in central France. After six years I move to Château d’Entrecasteaux in Provence, which is central to the theme of my story. The pages are filled with history, political intrigues, presidential elections, coup d’etats, murders, illicit affairs, kidnappings and ghosts, all interwoven by a love story that weaves its way through the history of Château d’Entrecasteaux and makes for compelling reading.
I most appreciated the references to my own great-great-grandfather, “…Robert Munn, a deep-sea pilot, was one of the last sailors in my family. He was constantly at sea, and rumour has it that he would only return once a year, at Christmas, deposit a pouch of gold coins on the kitchen table, father a new child, and then be off again for another year.” The book is full of additional intrigues in the 1960’s references to the CIA front The United Fruit Company that must have come in handy for a later infiltration of Panama. The author’s mother also was a fascinating character standing up to Charles De Gualle to become the first ever woman ambassador to France.

Heart of the Horse
Heart of the Horse
Photography by Juliet Van Otteren
Iain’s second wife Juliet is a noted photographer. He portraits are part of permanent collections in places like the University of Texas in Austin. Originally from California, she’s also known for her tabletop book of horse pictures.

Growing up the author spoke Spanish, French and English. There are numerous British spellings in the book and even a recurring substitution of the word “thought” with “though”. I recommend this book as a fun page-turner for anyone with an interest in 1960 Central American politics. I think it should be required reading for descendants of Captain Munn. Reading this book makes me want to plan a trip to the south of France and Guatemala, although not the same trip.

Follow the Geeks

In 2015 I made a trip up to Pentaluma, California to visit the brick TWiT House. The proprietor of this establishment was featured in a chapter of the book, Follow the Geeks by Lyndsey Gilpin and Jason Hiner. I just finished reading this book and enjoyed the stories about people that I have listened to as guests of the TWiT network. If you are a fan of this network then I can recommend the book. Most of the stories were about people I knew from TWiT network. The star of the book is the profile of the amazing Maya Penn. Anyone interested in diversity and women in STEM should read her chapter 10 profile.

Visiting the TWiT brick house was a treat. You get a front row seat to a live production studio. I got to see the recording of MacBreak Weekly and Security Now shows. Leo Laporte took some time between shows for a meet and greet with a photo op.

 

Project Maigo (A Kaiju Thriller)

Jeremy Robinson’s sequel to last year’s Project Nemesis is a worthy successor. It takes the characters introduced in the first novel and turns up the volume. Instead of just one kaiju, we have five battling it out in the Washington D.C. Mall. Robinson manages to channel his inner eight year old to create fight scenes with 100 meter tall monsters that are right out of the classic Godzilla movie “Destroy All Monsters”. Just like Toho used famous landmarks like the Diet Building and Osaka Castle, Robinson lays waste to the US Capital building.

The story closes out Maigo’s story to create a complete loop. I’m not sure if a third novel is planned. There are ties to other Robinson novels. I put “Island 731” on my list.

Influx

20140301-105825.jpgImagine a government agency whose job it is to protect the world from disruptive technology and you have the basic premise of Daniel Suarez’s fourth novel, Influx. What started out as a good idea in the 1940’s when there were new radical ideals like nuclear power and rockets has evolved into an agency that resembles Men in Black 65 years later. This agency hoards disruptive technologies like cold fusion and the cure for cancer because the world is not ready for them.

Suarez leads us through this world through a character who lives with synesthesia, a condition where the brain is cross wired his sense. He can hear mathematics like music. This unique view on the world puts him in the same category as Einstein and Michelangelo. His characters believably inhabit the world that has been created for them. Suarez really tries to make the science believable. There’s quite a bit of comedy and references to pop culture including Steve Jobs and Winkelvos twins.

I did see one small plot hole in the story. At one point the main character is trying to find the location of a hidden base and tries to use a gyroscope to track his movements. This wouldn’t work in the story since the plane’s propulsion system uses his invention to overcome acceleration forces. If he cannot feel acceleration then neither could the device. It’s a minor plot point in an otherwise great script.

If you enjoy Michael Crichton or a good techno thriller then this author is for you. I would start with Influx and then follow it up with Daemon.

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Jumper

Jumper is the first of a series of novels by Steven Gould about a boy who finds out that he can teleport to any place that he’s previously been to. It is at its core a super hero origin story. The 2008 movie of the same name borrows the characters and the basic premise but leaves out the majority of the plot and character development. I have not yet read the sequel novels so I can only assume that the movie is borrowing elements from those other novels.

As a stand alone superhero origin story, I liked Jumper. We can believe the arc this 17 year old goes through as he learns about his power and chooses a path for his life. The story tries to follow its own internal scientific logic. The NSA reaction is much more believable in the novel. There is no mention of the Paladins. Perhaps that and his mothers fate are addressed in later novels.

The main character, David Rice, has to deal with mundane issues like getting an apartment while being a minor. He comes to the attention of the NSA for apparent border control error such that they think he’s working for another government agency. David’s attention turns toward anti terrorism in a day when the advice to pilots was to comply with hijackers and smoking was still allowed on a plane. The world has changed but this story holds up and is worth a read.

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The Martian

You may not have heard of Andy Weir. He has no Wikipedia page and he only has the one book listed on Amazon. His web site galactanet.com looks like a 1996 MySpace page. andy_weirWhat he does have is the best hard science book about Mars I have ever read. The entire book involves the main character using science to figure his way out of an impossible situation. Although he lacks the world building and character interactions of Kim Stanley Robinson he still manages to engage the author in this MacGyver tale of survival.

The basic plot takes place in the near future. There’s actually very little future tech in this movie. We find ourselves with the lone castaway of the Ares 3 mission. This is the third mission of a planned 5 mission program. Each mission has 6 members. The mission profile involves sending supplies and equipment ahead of time to the red planet. Our crew use a reusable interplanetary ship called the Hermes. The Hermes has an ion propulsion system and is expected to be used for all three missions although it will never make it to the surface. There’s a dust storm and an accident on sol 6 of the mission. Our hero and botanist, Mark Watney is presumed dead when his suit is impaled and all life support readings are lost. The rest of the crew are forced to abandon him. He awakes to find his ride is gone and his radio is broken.

What follows is a very detailed assessment of the resources on hand. Mark works the problem eventually figuring out how to create food, water, and oxygen enough to survive for 15 months until he can be rescued. The facts and figures are daunting. He even says things like, “you can trust me on the math.” He deals with the psychological challenges of the isolation and the horrors of disco music. The facts and figures can overwhelm and be a bit tedious but in the end the story progresses and you care about the character. There are some minor characters that represent what you expect of NASA’s response to such a situation.

I highly recommend this book. When you finish reading it, check out Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy.

The-Martian-A-Novel-by-Andy-Weir

When Worlds Collide

I’ve seen the 1951 Rudolph Maté movie adaptation of When Worlds Collide. It is near the top of classic 1950’s Science Fiction movies. I never gave its source material much thought. The movie won an Oscar that year for its special effects which involved the use of miniatures to convey the large scale of the story. The 1951 movie is also interesting in their views on how interplanetary space flight could be made possible if the scientific community decided to accomplish the task. Reading the book is increases that interest because it was written two decades earlier.

Co-authors Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer wrote When Worlds Collide as a six part serial. In the book and in the movie the hero of the story is a courier who starts out carrying a secret message from South Africa to New York. In the book this involved planes and a cross-Atlantic steamship. By the movie the entire voyage was flown. So right from the first chapter you can see who the twenty years would cause the stories to diverge. This opening seen was also the inspiration for the beginning of the movie Deep Impact with the discover’s name changed from Bronson to Biederman.

The books and the movie further diverge in the celestial bodies. In the book we have Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, two planets that are ripped out of the orbit of their own star and sent on a collision course with earth that culminates in a destructive flyby and then a pool ball like collision a year later. The two planets are a large gaseous body described like Neptune and a second Earth-like smaller planet. On the first pass the larger Alpha takes out the Moon. On the second pass it takes out the Earth before continuing out on a new trajectory out of the solar system. Meanwhile the Beta world is along for the ride. Through the mayhem of its sibling it is deposited in an eccentric elliptical orbit that ends up oscillating between Venus and Mars. These astronomical events are so mathematically improbably (possibly impossible) but the underlying message is the allegory of Noah’s Ark. You have to suspend disbelief and assume that there is a destructive hand at work.

Instead of two rogue planets, the movie version has the planet Zyra in orbit around the sun Bellus. I don’t recall the genesis of these names. They are sprung on the audience like the names of a Godzilla movie monster. The movie version dispenses with the near miss and introduces its own bad science. In the book there are earthquakes and volcanoes caused by the first pass and destruction of the Moon. In the movie those earthquakes happen as the planet comes into gravitational effect range. It is as if the earth crossed over an event horizon where gravity began to cause earthquakes.

To escape the planet and take refuge on Beta/Zyra the book and movie both built a space ship. In the book each nation was on its own and this seems like the more realistic solution. We follow about 500 refugees from the American contingency and there are references to British and Asian ships as well. In the movie a single United Nations effort that results in the salvation of just 40 persons.

The ships. I think the book version got a lot of things right considering that it was written 80 years ago. They assumed that atomic energy would be the source of power. The book contrives a ship with engines at both ends so that it could be slowed like a train as it approached the destination. They lined the ship with books to protect them from the engine’s radiation. The crew and passengers were strapped in and spent the 96 hour voyage in slings. At the mid point the crew turned off the engines on one end of the ship, climbed up against the force of Earth gravity and took their place at the other end of the ship. Here a duplicate set of controls allowed the duplicate set of engines to slow the ship and eventually land vertically.

In the movie version their rocket looked more like a traditional rocket. They refer to fuel and we can assume it is a more traditional chemical rocket. The plot focuses on the calculation of weight versus fuel, although we then see animals loaded in steel cages. It used a mile long rocket sled to accelerate up the side of a mountain and then used its own engines and stubby wings for the rest of the flight. The use of the sled was was popular at the time so this is a nod to the current science. As they neared their destination, they correctly realized they could turn the ship around and use the same engines for deceleration. Then they used their stubby wings to glide like the Space Shuttle for a belly landing in the snow.

Gravity. The affects of gravity are not well shown in either version. Gravity is seen as a force that is either on or off. Both versions recognized a transition at the midpoint of the voyage where where would be no gravity. They assumed that this weightlessness would cause unconsciousness and be a great physiological shock to our travelers. Once again this reflected the popular science theory of the time. It would be three years after the movie before Dr. John Paul Stapp’s famous experiments on the effects of acceleration on the human body.

The sequel After Worlds Collide was also published in serial form the following year. It never became a movie. It follows our adventurers as they explore the new world and deal with the remnants of Earth political rivalries of the 1930s that they brought with them. It is more political and makes overt references to Fascism and Communism. It is a nice complement to the first. It reminded me of later world-building stories like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy.

I recommend both books. They are both short reads. The ending of the second book is a little abrupt. I can only imagine that a continuation of the series was planed but never happened. You can see in these books the later works that they inspired such as Deep Impact and Superman.

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Project Nemesis (A Kaiju Thriller)

Project Nemesis

Project Nemesis by Jeremy Robinson and Matt Frank is the Kindle equivalent of a summer popcorn movie. It takes the basic Japanese Daikaiju movie, sets it in the US and sends a DHS officer who normally works on X-Files out to investigate. The book is mostly consistent. The main protagonist is endowed with remarkable perception and toys out of a 007 movie to help the plot along. I would have enjoyed more of his actual detective work and less flying squirrel. The story is mostly cop-show first person. The story is also full of death and destruction. The author does not shy away from the Stephen King tactic of introducing a character in a couple of pages just to kill them off in the next. The story features Japanese fatalism and guilt in the antagonist. The real origin is not fully disclosed so there is an opening for a sequel. We get to see how the US would cope and respond to a 300 foot tall monster wading ashore in Boston. If you like Godzilla and Gamera movies, then you may like this original story.

Project Nemesis

Project Nemesis

Nano Won’t Play Long Audible Programs

iPod vs Audible

Audible.com now offers single-file downloads of its audiobook programs. This is great unless you are listening to Stephen King or Tom Clancy. The 6th Generation Nano that I use for car audio will not play programs longer than 1440 minutes (24 hours). Actually, it will only play the first 1439 minutes. So for anything longer than 24 hours you’ll need to download the program in segments.

Apple Developer Forum discussion on topic

7th Sigma is a Crichton Wanna Be

Fans of Michael Crichton know the formula. You take a sliver of technology, let it go awry, and then send in a mixed team of experts to stop it or rescue the previous team. What you get is Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, Coma, Runaway, Disclosure, etc. These books are ripe to be made into movies as they are full of interesting characters and action. In the case of Lost World, the novel was written specifically to become a movie. One of Crichton’s latter books was called Prey. In this 2002 novel that follows this same formula we have a bunch on nano-sized robots escaping and our hero team has to stop them. The novel 7th Sigma starts off in a world that has been ravaged by a creature similar to the one we see in Prey. It is in fact s sequel to the the author’s short excerpt “Bugs in the Arroyo” from 2009.

This novel uses this as a plot device to strip the character of the use of any metal or anything with a magnetic field. It’s as if they are throw back into the old west but anachronistically instead of steel and iron they have ceramics, plastics, and carbon fiber. In this background we drop a street rat, Kimble/Kim, who is like Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggin but with dexterity. On the journey our street rat meets a female Kwai Chang Caine -like character who proceeds to take him as a pupil learning how to wax-on, wax-off. The next thing you know a CIA agent shows up and recruits Kim to infiltrate a drug cartel and other missions. There were so many things thrown in that the reader was left with a potpourri that actually worked.

Like any superhero genesis story you needed the right combination for factors in the right quantities to create Kim. My problem with the story is that it seemed to let Kim grow up too fast. In a Card novel Kim would be 13 for the whole novel. Another problem is that the characters are not moving to try to solve the core antagonistic device in the arroyo, the bugs. It would seem that everyone should be trying to find a way to destroy or disrupt the bugs so that the middle of the US could be reclaimed.

In summary if you like the Crichton novels formula then you will enjoy this author’s characters and this story. It is a fun read.

Fuzzy Nation

I just finished reading Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi. This is a reimagining of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. John Scalzi brought he bit of classic sci-fi up to a modern style. The story features a prospector, Jack Holloway, and his dog who stumble upon a valuable gem deposit on a planet devoid of intelligent life. Jack also finds an animal about the size of a cat that he calls a Fuzzy. The story continues into a legal drama to determine if the Fuzzy is sentient. The story is very good and a good homage to the original. John Scalzi’s writing style allows him to have fun with the characters like Carl, the dog who likes to make things go “boom”.

Retrieval Artist

Kristine Rusch has created a future where Earth is part of a sort of United Nations of planets but in this UN the Earth is about as important as Tuvalu. I’ve only read the first three of the novels but I am looking forward to the next one. I made the mistake of reading them out of order.

Retrieval Artist
Vol. 1: The Disappeared, 2002
Vol. 2: Extremes, 2003
Vol. 3: Consequences, 2004
Vol. 4: Buried Deep, 2005
Vol. 5: Paloma, 2006
Vol. 6: Recovery Man, 2007
Vol. 7: Duplicate Effort, 2009

Pandoras Star — Finally Finished

I finally managed to get to the abrupt ending of Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. It was agonizingly long. I stayed with it thinking that the end was drawing near. After nearly a thousand pages, the story stops at a minor cliffhanger. I did not realize it was just part one of a series of books. I don’t know if I’m ready to dive into book two just yet. The opening for this book is great and illustrates what happens when a disruptive technology is invented. The middle of this book introduces so many characters and sub-plots that it is hard to keep them all straight. By the end of the first book you are still waiting for the plot threads to come together. It’s good sci-fi but it is a commitment.