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21 January 2012

Gardens Of The Sun by Paul McAuley

This book is the sequel to The Quiet War. Having thoroughly enjoyed that book I expected great things from this novel. And I wasn't disappointed.

There's a smooth transition from the first book to the second. In fact, there are so many references to Quiet War characters, events and story lines, I can only encourage everyone to read that novel first. After all, it's an excellent book.

Once again, I found my imagination stimulated by the richly described gene-engineered gardens. Spectacular habitats created by gene wizard Avernus and Sri Hong-Owen (Sri is Avernus's biggest admirer and would-be successor). These passages endow a convincing sense of realism, no doubt greatly helped by McAuley's Botany Ph.D, research activities and lecturing experience.

Yet I'm also impressed by McAuley's ability to craft a rich collection of three-dimensional characters, high-quality dialogue and any number of fully believable scenes - whether they be on Earth, the Moon or within the gas giant systems of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. When combined with its great sense of pace and fast moving plot, I found the 439 pages simply whizz by.

The only low point for me was the weak penultimate chapter. It exhibited such a different voice, style and pace, I had to wonder if it was written by the same person. But it couldn't spoil my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

There are more of Paul McAuley's words at his unlikely worlds blog site.

19 January 2012

3D Printing In The News

My four page article, uncovering some of the most innovative and intriguing 3D printing news stores of 2011, is published in this week's Micro Mart magazine (issue 1192).

The wide-ranging list of applications includes architect's models, designs in chocolate, nylon bicycles, a UAV plane, and a collection of pioneering bio-engineering successes - such as printed blood vessels. Plus there's a look at some of the latest desktop 3D printing hardware and software for the DIY enthusiast.

Here's a couple of extracts from the article:

The eminent Radio 4 In Business programme presenter Peter Day covered the rise of 3D printing in manufacturing (goo.gl/XTxIr). It contrasted the difference between old-fashioned 'subtractive engineering' and the new Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) approach, which is based on 3D printing technology.

Using traditional subtractive methods rough blocks of raw material are moulded, machined and finished. It requires factory space, expensive tooling and can be a time consuming process. Invariably, much of the original material is discarded to create the final product.

An ALM process requires far less material. It builds up the final shape in a single process, fabricating a multitude of individual layers in a precise, computer-controlled pattern. The raw material can be metallic, ceramic or plastic powder, which is fused together by a precisely focussed laser in the printhead. The finished artefact is retrieved from the unfused powder, rather like pulling a child's toy from a sand pit.

March 2011 saw a news story on 'printed' bicycles from EADS, an organisation better known as owner of hi-tech manufacturing companies such as Airbus aircraft and Astrium satellites.

Called the 'AirBike' (because Airbus originally developed this technology) it's constructed in a factory next to the Airbus site at Filton. EADS use an ALM process similar to the one highlighted by Peter Day's programme. The print materials they use are powders based on metals such as titanium, stainless steel or aluminium, along with nylon and carbon-reinforced plastics, which are all manipulated at the molecular level.

To demonstrate their engineering prowess the complete cycle is fabricated in a single step operation. A dramatic process where a complete, fully operational bike is fused together within the powder - wheels, bearings, axle, saddle and all. The result is a cycle that's around 65% lighter than a traditionally manufactured alternative, yet just as strong. And one that only uses around one-tenth of the materials normally required.

Download the free Micro Mart iPad/iPhone app and purchase the magazine for only £1.49.

12 January 2012

Beginner's Guide To HTML

HTML is an essential skill for anyone with a website or blog. Find out how to get started with my six page Beginner's Guide to HTML article in Micro Mart magazine issue 1191.

All the HTML code examples from the article are in this GitHub repository.

Here are a couple of extracts:

HTML standards and specifications are managed by an International organisation called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These standards are posted on their website (w3.org), along with additional information of web protocols, languages, technologies and tools.

While there's been a succession of HTML specifications, version 4 proved to be the de-facto standard of the modern web - lasting from early 2000 until 2009, when version 5 started to appear. These long reigns provide a sense of stability for web browser and web tool software developers.

Importantly, each new version is largely backwardly compatible. So, as HTML5 contains almost all of HTML4's features, HTML skills gained a decade ago are still highly applicable and relevant today. And knowledge gained today will still be applicable for many years to come.

The special !DOCTYPE tag on the first line is purely optional and informs other software that this is an HTML page.

The header section is contained within the <head> tag pair, and often contain quite a lot of HTML functionality. One notable header element to look out for is the <title>, which defines the text you'll see at the top of the web browser - a key factor in a search engine finding a blog or website.

In the header you're also likely to see a collection of <meta> tags containing document information, and <link> tags to reference external files such CSS stylesheets or XML documents. And there might also be a collection of <style> definitions and a some JavaScript code in the <script> element tag pairs.

Download the free Micro Mart iPad/iPhone app and purchase this issue for only £1.49.

1 January 2012

Breaking The Page by Peter Meyers

This guide to the embryonic world of electronic books is full of observations, ideas and suggestions. It discusses the ebooks of today, their capabilities, relative immaturity and shortcomings. And it hints at the ebooks we might own tomorrow, ones based upon innovative approaches, designs and techniques.

Even in this shortened three chapter preview edition, there are rich veins of information to be discovered. With plenty of useful material for anyone interested in the future of ebook creation and publication. Subjects covered include effective navigation, table of contents integration and the true purpose of indexes.

Peter Mayers makes the case that ebooks shouldn't try to slavishly copy the best features of our printed books, but instead replicate the actual experience of a physical book. Something that can be achieved with carefully considered, reader-focussed design. Certainly not an easy trick to pull off, but essential to realise the ebook's inherent advantages and rich potential.

There are so many topics to consider. Content scanning, intelligent searching, intuitive gestures, smart hyperlinks, interactive material, even user-defined flow - all unobtrusively combined with uncluttered readability.

Peter exploits his extensive publishing industry experience, knowledge and contacts to deliver a collection of interesting and up-to-date examples. Examples that are carefully chosen to highlight both good and bad practices. Examples that encompass competing technologies, such as EPUB, MOBI, HTML5 and apps. Examples that work for basic electronic ink screen e-readers, and ones aimed at the latest multifunctional tablets with their full colour displays.

We are just the beginning a journey towards building a better ebook. It's far from obvious which initiatives will be ultimately successful, and there'll be many failures along the way. I'd suggest that thoughtful, elegant and purposeful ebook design, is more likely to succeed over any particular technical standard, file format or technology. But it will certainly be a fascinating journey.

The full version of this book promises to help illuminate this journey. And I for one can't wait to read it.

(Here's a few innovative ebook company websites: Inkling, Touch Press.)