Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Zero has no reciprocal...that doesn't mean they won't stop trying

kw: book reviews, science fiction, futuristics

A couple of chapters into the book, I nearly set it aside. A sex scene was way too explicit. But I skipped ahead a little, and continued. Another scene followed, much less explicit, then smoother sailing for the rest of the book. I know why the author did it. It is quite predictable that by the mid 2010s, the continuing epidemic of AIDS and other drug-resistant STDs will make "ordinary" sex unpopular...you know, the kind that involves bodily contact, skin to skin. There must be a way to get that point across that doesn't leave me with such sleazy memes.

Accelerando by Charles Stross has more ideas per kilo-word than any other book I've seen. Basic premise: Moore's law continues, and accelerates once manufactured computing power exceeds the natural-born kind. Then a Singularity occurs, an acceleration that tilts up to infinite, or tries to. Hence the title.

The author likes Avogadro's Number (6.02x1023), the number of nucleons in a gram of matter. An avabit is that number of bits, or nearly 1023 bytes. He also uses this as the number of MIPS of processing power present in six or eight billion human brains. He doesn't use the word (I wonder why not), but this could be called an avaMIP.

[Let's see: The highest-density "concept" memory chips using 45-nm technology have memory cells measuring 588 nm (0.346 square microns per cell). The minimum cell size for gamma-radiation stability is about 100 Si atoms, maybe 5x5x4 atoms, or a cell size of 1.36nm x 1.36nm (1.84 square nm), and 1.08nm thick. An avabit of such memory cells would weigh 2.8 kg. Further: a 2005 Pentium 4 at 3.3 Ghz runs about 1000 MIPS. There're 100 million of these in use right now, so their composite computing power is 1011 MIPS. About a trillionth of an avaMIP. If aggregate power doubles yearly, we are about forty years away from the first artificial avaMIP.]

Whether computation is carried out in silicon or some other material, if it isn't biological, the author calls it Computronium. Once computronium becomes independent (we're close), it grows without limit, eventually turning all the planets into a haze of heat-engine-powered processors that become a fuzzy Dyson sphere about the Sun. The lives and survival of "meat people", with this process as a backdrop, over a century or few, are the structure of Accelerando.

Stross's universe is one only an MBA could love. I have no mind for business, so I found all the talk of predatory business plans involving hundreds of interlocked, virtual corporations quite hard slogging. Seems to me, business is warfare with primarily economic and legal weapons. Seldom any need for actual blood to be shed (it isn't ruled out...).

The people and computronium grade into one another over time. People move more and more of themselves, first memories, then intelligence, outside their brains (the process began with books, and continues with PDAs). Then they load into computronium for various amounts of time, load back to flesh...death becomes optional. A robot cat that takes over its own upgrade process becomes a demigod. Eventually there is little room in the Galaxy for entities with less than an avaMIP of processing power...each.

Bleak? Certainly. Likely? No. Fun to consider alternatives, though.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Beautiful Downtown Mudville

kw: opinion, new orleans, political blindness

The news about hurricane damage continues to sputter along, and will do so for months yet to come. Most of it is so inane, it is beyond belief. The "land" on which New Orleans formerly sat wants to be a lagoon. Some of it presently is. All of it will be a lagoon some day, whenever the current crop of idiots known as Louisiana politicians either wakes up and smells the coffee or, more likely, gets hammered by a further disaster a few years from now, when the ocean will be another few inches higher yet, to start with. Their idiocy is certain to cost more lives (Darwinism uses real bullets, folks. Still live in Old New O? Get out). It is time for tradition to be replaced by practicality.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Looking forward to the rest of their lives

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, interviews, centenarians

According to a table I once saw in a book on futuristics, I can expect to live about twenty years longer than my father, and his generation can expect to live ten to fifteen years longer than their parents. Both my grandfathers were old, old men by the age of 65. Both died at about 72. My father is 83 (for another month or so), keeping himself busy. He shows no signs of the 5-year decline that typically precedes a "natural" death. I've watched other aged family members as their world narrows toward the end... If I live to be 103, at that time I am likely to have a level of health and general well-being that he enjoys today.

About one American in 9,000 is 100 or older today. That comes to some 40,000; 34,000 women and 6,000 men. The oldest members of the baby boom generation are in their 50s (I am 58). Fifty years from now, there ought to be quite a number of them still living; in all, some three million boomers are expected to live more than 100 years.

Why is this happening? We hear of "life expectancy" being 40 in 1900, in the 20s in Classical times, and in the 70s today. This is the average life span at birth. The main factor is reduced infant mortality. Average (remaining) life expectancy for 20-year-olds hasn't changed nearly so much: from age 60 in classical times, to 75 in 1900, to the late 80s today. Maximum life expectancy (at least since the patriarch Jacob died at age 137) hasn't changed at all; it remains near 120 years.

Actual maximum life span hasn't changed at all in 4,000 years. Rather, the chances of living to older ages has increased, as more and more causes of early death are reduced and eliminated. At one time, smallpox killed one in a thousand; now the virus is effectively extinct. All kinds of infectious diseases have become minor irritants. Most people die of chronic diseases now: vascular disease or cancer. We are increasing health span and eliminating causes of early death. The "population triangle" is becoming a "population rectangle". It is conceivable that one day accidents will be nearly the only cause of premature death, and nearly everyone living to their 90s and beyond.

Is there any special insight to be gained from those who outlived the dangers of the early and middle 20th Century? Any wisdom, anything besides luck (including the luck of the genetic draw) to account for their greater survival?

Six years ago, Neenah Ellis embarked on a project for NPR, to interview people who had lived through the entire Twentieth Century, to get their stories, to present a picture of life as it changed from 1900 to 2000 or so. She got more than she bargained for, lots more.

Her memoir of her experiences with fourteen centenarians, If I Live to be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians, (almost) unflinchingly chronicles the change in her own thinking that resulted. At first, the people she interviewed reinforced a stereotype: feeble, senile, crotchety oldsters who hadn't had much to live for since they were about seventy. Then she met Anna Wilmot.

Here is a lady, widowed for about thirty years, who rows back and forth across a little lake any day it is warm enough—because it is fun, she says. Still able to do much of her own cooking, getting out and about, looking better than many 60-year-olds.

A few others are clearly right up against the limits of their life. Indeed, about half the people she interviewed died within two years of the interview. Yet there was a couple with eighty years of marriage to their credit, and others with seventy or more married years. A woman who married at 98, to a 78-year-old. A centenarian who married shortly after the interview. A professor still tutors students at 103. Tell him the page of the textbook that you are on, and he can just about quote it.

Ms Ellis didn't get nearly as many stories as she'd planned, about life throughout the Century. She got a lot of childhood memories, and a smattering of young married life anecdotes, but the centenarians were mostly forward-looking, living for today and planning the next good thing. Many of them seemed unmoved by the past. It had happened, it was over.

Somewhere along the line, the author experienced a connection she describes as "falling", a kind of flow between her and her new acqaintance. Later, with a 103-year-old evangelist, she experienced it again, and his exhortation to her to think seriously of the end times and the state of her soul made the hair stand up on her nape. She happened on a book about falling in love that spoke of "limbic resonance," and one chapter records her visit with the author.

It seems we all have a powerful means of connecting with another emotionally, getting a "vibe" of someone. Mostly we hide it; the experience is too overpowering for everyday use. Yet a number of these old folks just don't have time for slower means of getting to know you. In their way, they have short shrift for fools: connect now, or forget it. It is not a lack of caring, but a husbanding of resources.

Many of the people she met were generous and hospitable to a fault. Many were caring for people younger than they. A good number were living on their own, needing at most a little housekeeping help. They'd seen two world wars, been through the great depression, retired about the time the Boomers were busy dropping out and getting high, and now have grandkids getting ready to retire...or not.

Centenarians are different. There is a little hook in the actuarial curve. For most people, from the age of 65 onward, half will die between today and the day they'd reach age 85. But for those who live past 85, there is a big dip in death rates. There is another population that tends to live healthy for another 15-20 years, and some go on past 110. As one old gent put it on his 107th birthday (a different source, not this book), "See you all next year. Nobody dies between 107 and 108."

Today Neenah Ellis is different. She was changed by these few years of interviews. Reading her book has passed on some of that change to me.

Living planet, Dying cultures.

kw: book reviews, science fiction, intertstellar intrigue, shape-shifters

In 1830 the Congress of the United States passed the "Indian Removal Act." It took a couple more rounds of lawsuits and a supreme court decision, then a forced treaty, but in 1838, the Cherokee were driven from their land along the "Trail of Tears" to "Indian Territory", which later became Oklahoma after a further land grab, the 1889 Land Rush. Thereafter the Cherokee were confined to reservations, where most of them languish today. Some "assimilated" to white culture; those not willing to give up their culture had to remain "on the Rez". As time passes, the culture is vanishing anyway...

What if Oklahoma had had its own opinion on the matter? Or if another place would take the Cherokee, but somehow nobody else could get in? A place so much like their original land in Appalachian North Carolina, they could live there, restoring the best of their culture, living as they want to live?

This will give you a flavor of the politics underlying the Petaybee series by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. They wrote a trilogy on the discovery and settling of the sentient planet Petaybee: Powers That Be, Power Lines, and Power Play. This planet turns out to have a distinct opinion about the kind of people it will allow to immigrate and settle, and it can enforce it. Now, in Changelings, the authors begin another trilogy, about the next generation of Petaybean settlers.

The human planets are pretty much under the control of Intergal Company, which runs their part of the galaxy much like the 19th Century USA was run by the administrations of Jackson, Van Buren, Cleveland and Harrison, who oversaw the "Indian Removal" and "Land Rush" stages of national expansion. The various peoples displaced by Intergal, from planet to planet to asteroid to orbital habitat or wherever, are denoted "Inconvenient Peoples" or IPs.

The changelings in question are Sean Shongili and his twin offspring, who are selkies, shape-shifters, that change into seals when immersed, and back to human form when dried off. (Remember Daryl Hannah drying her tail so it'll turn into legs in Splash! ?) Their special abilities are one key to the resolution of the various crises the authors have devised.

McCaffrey and Scarborough bring a warmth to SF writing. I find here, as in most fiction, good folks that are overly good and bad ones that are overly bad. Ya gotta have a hero to cheer and a villain to hiss, and ya gotta know the difference, I guess. They don't overdo it as much as most, however, and they avoid the over-sexualization that is rampant in most modern fiction. The book is one of those, when I finished, I could say, "I'm glad I read that!"

Sunday, January 22, 2006

First, assume a spherical cow of uniform composition...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collections, science journalism

OK, I assume you know the joke about asking a physicist to help improve the yield of dairy cows. That's how most folks look at physics, isn't it? Physics is math on steroids, right? Here's another one:

Are you an engineer or a mathematician? You enter a room. A sign says, "Boil the Water." You see a mug of water on a table just to the left of a microwave oven. OK, no prob; just put the mug in the microwave, and heat for a couple minutes.

Another sign says, "Go through the next door." When you do, you see a sign, "Boil the Water." You see a mug of water on a table just to the right of a microwave oven.

What do you do? Would you put the mug in the microwave, and so forth? If so, you're an engineer. A mathematician would move the mug to the left of the microwave, and state, "I already solved the rest."

What is Physics, really? Jennifer Ouellette's book will give you a good beginning, of seeing how physics has progressed during its 500-year history. Of course, "physics" wasn't its name in the 1500s. Instead, it was the major element of "Natural Philosophy". The 38 re-edited columns in Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics present highlights of the past half-millenium from a very human view.

The author is editor of American Physical Society News (APS News), and her monthly columns have been used by physicists worldwide to help their "physics-phobic" friends understand a little of what they do. Physics is not just math and esoteric experiments. It is a most human endeavor, and the stories Ms Ouellette tells are very human. Her love of history and fascination with the way science really happens come through loud and strong.

I am going to take a long sidetrack here. Nobody can be an expert in everything, and the author's blind spot seems to be optics. In particular, when discussing the compound microscope, and then telescope optics, she gets something very crucial completely backwards. I'll explain.

Simple, single-lens microscopes worked better than compound microscopes until the invention of the achromatic lens, which uses two lenses of different types of glass to cancel out most of the color aberration that is present in any single lens.

A single lens is used as an adjunct to your eye's lens to let you look at something really close. Most younger people's eyes work best at distances of ten inches or greater. We use a ten-inch distance as a benchmark. A lens with a 1-inch focus allows you to look at something one inch from your eye, so it looks ten times larger. The smallest lenses made by Leeuwenhoek in the 1680s had a focus of 1/30th inch, so they "magnified" by 300x. But you had to hold the lens so it nearly touched your eye. That is why his microscopes are built the way they are.

The compound microscope uses a kind of image relay to achieve large magnifications without sticking something right into your eye. If you have a large magnifier, try this. Instead of holding it close to your eye, hold it farther away, at arm's length, but a few inches from something. If you hold it close to the object, you see the object a little magnified. As you move the lens farther, the image you see gets bigger, then starts to be really distorted. Farther yet, and you see an enlarged image again, but upside-down. It may be hard to focus on also, because it is closer to you than the lens is. That is called a "real image", because if you put a piece of paper there, the image will be visible on it.

A compound microscope works by making an enlarged real image, then magnifying that with an eyepiece lens. For example, an ordinary school microscope might have a 10x objective, and a 10x eyepiece. The objective is made so that when it is 16mm (0.63 inch) from an object (the "slide" on the microscope stage), it produces a real image 160mm (6.3 inches) farther up the tube. Another 25mm (1 inch) farther up, the eyepiece, with a focal length of 25mm, works with the lens of your eye to focus the image on your retina, and it is magnified 100 times, compared to the slide.

While you can make a rudimentary compound microscope with two simple lenses, there will be strong rainbow effects, because the color aberrations of the second lens will multiply those of the first. So, special glasses are used to make lenses that don't have much color aberration, so you can see a clear image.

Now, in Chapter 3, Ms Ouellette states that the lenses in a compound microscope are "complementary", "one convex, the other concave." She states elsewhere that the concave lens (which spreads light, doesn't focus it) is the objective, while the convex lens (which does focus light) is the eyepiece. I have seen one of these historical microscopes, and I can assure you, both lenses are convex. What is going on here? Where did she get this idea?

It may be from an imperfect understanding of achromatic lenses. These do have a complementary pair of convex and concave, but the convex is the stronger. We want these lenses to focus, after all. But I think it might have been from partial knowledge of Galieo's telescope, and of common nautical "spyglasses" of the 19th century and earlier. These do use a convex and concave lens, one at each end of the tube. However, the convex lens is the objective, and the concave lens is the eyepiece. How this works is subtle.

The long-focus convex lens at the "business end" of a telescope has the job of producing an real image near the observer's eye. The eyepiece then has the job of relaying this image into the eye. Galileo and others of his time used a concave lens, which is easy to use. Concave lenses don't focus light by themselves. However, when light is coming to a focus because of a nearby convex lens, a concave lens can shift the focus, or even reverse it, so to speak.

A concave lens has a "negative focal length". If you produce a real image using a convex lens, then put a concave lens at just the right distance from that image, but intercepting the light before it gets there, it will just counteract the focusing effect, so the light seems to be coming from an object much farther away, but of a different size than the original object being imaged. They, when you place your eye near the concave lens, this nearly-parallel light will be focused by your eye's lens onto the retina and you'll see a magnified image. If you move the concave lens a little closer to the convex one, the size of the image will decrease a little, and you'll need to focus your eye as though the object were closer, but it is like a zoom lens.

This makes spyglasses easy to use. There is one setting where you get maximum magnification, and your eye's lens is relaxed. There are other settings with a little less magnification, as long as you can accommodate to viewing an image that seems to be closer. Of course, if you push the eyepiece in too far, you can't focus at all.

If this is so easy to use, what is the drawback? The geometry of the arrangement means you have a very narrow field of view. Looking through a spyglass, you see a small circle with a magnified image in it. But when you look through most modern telescopes, you see a much larger circle. Sometimes, you even have to look around to see the edges of the view. Why?

This is because they use convex lenses as eyepieces. A "positive" eyepiece stands farther from the real image produced by the objective, and relays it to your eye. Because a convex lens is a focuser, it can gather light over a larger angle and put it into your eye, so the view is much wider. There is a further, really big difference. A spyglass has its view right-side up, while a modern telescope has its view upside-down. There are simple ways to turn the image back over if you need to (binoculars use internal mirrors or reflecting prisms). Finally, though, the focusing range is more narrow, compared to a spyglass eyepiece. That is why most spyglasses just have a slide tube holding the eyepiece, but most telescopes use a mechanical focuser.

So, whether it is a microscope or telescope, an objective lens produces a real image of an object, and an eyepiece accommodates that image to your eye, further magnifying it in the process.

OK, back to the book. I really like the author's approach. She uses everyday analogies and popular culture (Addams Family Values, or Back to the Future...) to associate physics concepts to more familiar things. So, let's think about this. What do you do when you get curious about something?

Did you ever see the rainbow in the spray of a sprinkler on a sunny day? If you look closely, you can see that as a droplet of water moves, the color it sends to you changes. Perhaps close to the sprinkler head, it is silvery, but not very bright. Then as the drop moves up, it'll brighten to blue, green, yellow, red, then back to a dimmer, silvery color. Perhaps you'll see it fall back through the colors in reverse order before it hits the grass. If you want to, you can hold a drop of water in a tiny wire loop indoors, and shine a flashlight on it, to see what angles give you what colors. You're doing physics!

The big, theoretical formulations by Einstein, Dirac, and others, are one thing. Yes, there can be some really heavy math involved. But the foundations of physics rest in simple things like rolling a ball on a tilted table with a stopwatch in your hand. Ms Ouellette is to be thanked for bringing physics a bit closer to the everyday world.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

We coevolved with What??

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ornithology, cultural evolution, coevolution

The great irony of ornithology: corvids are songbirds. Yeah, I'm talking about crows, ravens, jays, magpies, rooks...all those mainly black birds (that aren't blackbirds), with awful-sounding voices. To an ornithologist, "song" has a broader meaning, than to the average Ipod addict. So, it makes scientific sense, but the idea still makes me giggle.

Professor John M. Marzluff and illustrator Tony Angell have teamed up to produce In the Company of Crows and Ravens, half zoology and half enviro-polemic (as all naturalist writing must be these days, to get published). That means, out of 300 pages, plus apparatus, about 150 pages tell us about corvid natural history. Actually, a good chunk of that is a discussion of six threads that illustrate Prof. Marzluff's hypothesis that crows and humans co-evolved, or perhaps that the human-plus-wolf versus crow-or-raven creative tension has affected what all these species are today.

I many ways, corvids are more like primates than they are like other birds. They recognize themselves in reflections (dogs usually don't), they play, they gossip, and many species make tools.

Humans and corvids are social, inquisitive, problem-solving, and highly communicative. The peak of corvid evolution seems to be the American Crow. Crows do best in human-disturbed habitat. They don't favor untouched forest the way ravens do. Crows like the crops we grow, but even more, they thrive on the bugs that eat our crops and on our garbage.

People have a love-hate relationship with crows. It may be quaint—even beneficial—to have a few crows frequent your yard to pull up earthworms or decimate the lawn grubs. But if your house is near a spot they choose for a night roost, say 10,000 or so, every evening, in a shrieking, milling gabble, you're likely to become a card- and rifle-carrying member of NRA in short order!

I have to remark on the illustrations. Tony Angell has a deft hand, rendering a bird on scratchboard (I think that's the original medium). But I had a bit of nostalgia. I used to draw, a few birds and animals but mainly plants, mushrooms, and scenery. Whenever I tried to draw a person, somehow I couldn't get a human look. I wanted to be able to draw anything, but the human figure was my bugaboo, and by my twenties I gave up drawing altogether. I am glad Mr. Angell didn't give up drawing. His human figures are nearly as bad as mine were. In fact, he has a real problem drawing mammals in general. But his bird figures are sublime.

I'll have to think a while about the coevolution ideas. Meanwhile, I've a bit better appreciation for the noisy critters.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Exposing our most devastating affliction

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, depression, bipolar, mental health

I think of it as having lost seven years. Not at the end of life. I don't know when that might be. Rather, two major periods that total seven years were spent unfeeling, in sadness beyond weeping, vascillating between paralyzing lassitude and desperate attempts to feel good, or feel anything.

I underwent psychoanalysis as a pre-teen because I was considered "withdrawn." That was before. As a youngster, I didn't feel so numb; I felt a lot, just most of it was bad, or mixed at best. Yet, there were times of great energy, when I was just the opposite. This became important later. As a young adult, and into middle age, I simply thought I was depressive.

When a third very low period arose in my 50s, I realized I was thinking about suicide quite a bit, so I talked to my doctor. He prescribed Zoloft. That made me rather sluggish, then set me off. On my next visit, I was a full-blown maniac. He suggested I was really cyclothymic, a diagnosis also called Bipolar 3. Bipolar 1 is the worst, the well-known Manic-Depression, and 2 is in between. A couple of other medicines were tried, but had very distressing side effects.

I went to a Psychiatrist. She determined Bipolar 2, with some Social Anxiety thrown in. The more common medications hadn't worked, so I saw one of her colleagues for cognitive therapy and learned to cope, to observe any trend in mood and compensate for it. However, I am now considering that further trials with medication may be in order.

A large part of my change in thinking came through reading Against Depression by Peter D. Kramer. His earlier, better-known book was Listening to Prozac. Let us hope that this new book becomes at least as well-known and -read.

Dr. Kramer's book clearly shows two things, which run parallel courses through the volume. He performs a very valuable service by demolishing the various myths of depression as somehow noble or enlightening. Many people have asked him, "What if Van Gogh (or pick your favorite agonized artist) had used Prozac?" He can clearly state, "We would have a much larger body of even better artwork."

He performs an even more valuable service by showing that depression is, as he states early in Chapter 12, "the most devastating disease known to humankind."

Have you heard or read about the view by AA leaders that Alcoholism is a progressive, terminal illness, that cannot be cured or reversed, but can be treated. That holds in spades for depression. Contrary to a number of other chronic diseases, depression is found to be one thing, a progressive decrease in resiliency of the central nervous system; a brain disease that progressively reduces the size of those portions of the brain that retain memories, enable higher thinking, and feel our most precious emotions.

Dr. Kramer dares to hope that we can eradicate depression, without eliminating ourselves. Someone may have a melancholy or introverted personality. That doesn't guarantee depression, though it is a pretty likely result. Someone properly medicated for depression can still feel sadness at sad events, without the consuming, obsessive anhedonia that many experience.

All told, about 16% of people experience major depression; and twice as many women as men. As mentioned, it is progressive and terminal. These 16% not only have a high risk of suicide, they have more heart disease, diabetes, and tendency to strokes. Their lives are measurably shortened. Using MRI, doctors now can observe the progressive destruction of brain tissue as the disease progresses.

The 18th chapter parallels depression with bipolar disorders. The chapter title is "Art," because of the common belief that depressive and bipolar artists produce more profound and creative art. Here is where the rubber hit the road for me. One writer stated, "When I am manic I write; when I am depressive, I edit." I have known for years that I get most of my creative work done in a few days each month or so, and the rest of the time, I am better doing stuff where I can sit alone and plod away at less demanding work.

However, the author made it clear that bipolar disorder is also progressive and terminal. Some of the brain areas affected are different than in depression, but there is progressive damage in either case. While brutal medications such as Lithium definitely dull the creative edge—and working artists will purposely go off Lithium when they need to make a buck—others of more recent vintage do not.

It may take another generation or longer for society to view depression in a clear light, as a disease with no nobility about it whatever, and set about making life better for one-sixth of the population (and the much greater number of those who love them). A smaller number are bipolar, but need similar levels of help. Until then, if I can get one doctor to take bipolarity as seriously as Dr. Kramer takes depression, I may be able to make life better for at least myself and those who love me best.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Who you are depends on what World you've learned.

kw: book reviews, science fiction, interstellar colonization, first contact, posthumanism

About five years ago, walking in the park with my wife, I saw two little girls—third grade age or younger—running and skipping along, while talking on cell phones. I said to my wife, "In ten years or so, we won't buy cell phones. They'll be installed just behind the ear from birth. You'll tell them who to call." It will probably be quite a bit more than another five years, but I believe people will have built-in communications available in my lifetime. We just need to get speech recognition into a chip the size of a fingernail, powered by body heat (the 5° difference between core and skin).

My father's pacemaker, just a bit bigger than a man's wristwatch case, has some of the enabling technologies. It communicates by low-power radio with the doctor's computer (only within the office at present), can be reprogrammed easily, and has a five-year battery life. Newer models' batteries can be recharged by an induction loop (you need to do slow, overnight charging, to avoid excessive heating).

Fast-forward fourteen thousand years, at least. The humans of Earthly origin in Learning the World by Ken MacLeod, have Virtualities and other services, delivered by a synergy between circuits in their heads and public carrier services. The cell phone has morphed into an experience as immersive as you'd like. That is but one good idea from this book.

Another is fully translating the words and lives of two mutually alien species. Consider this: How would you translate, «Cette phrase est écrite en français», from French to English? There are valid arguments for translating it either "This sentence is written in French" or "This sentence is written in English." A certain novel, with dramatic tension based on the historic animosity between French and German people, and written in French, has been translated into several languages (sorry, I don't recall the title, just the story). The action takes place years into one of the occupations of France by Germany. It contains a number of short German phrases, and some phonetic dialog in French with a German accent. One wise translator, rendering the book into Polish, substituted Russians and Russian for the Germans and their language, and used phonetic dialog of Polish spoken with a Russian accent! It is by all accounts the most effective of the translations, because a Polish person reading it feels the same feelings a French person feels when reading the original French novel.

I have read many science fiction novels written from the viewpoint of interstellar aliens. Even in those most sympathetic to the nonhuman protagonists, there is a tendency to have them call themselves something like "Gvorch", and speak sentimentally about "gvorchkind". Often, the English language is distorted, and maintains thus a consciousness in the reader that the "alien" is really alien.

Ken MacLeod will have none of that. Both species' words and thoughts are presented in clear, straightforward English (except when the person is being deceptive). Both call themselves "human", "man", "woman". From the first transmission of images and sound until the two kinds of people meet, each thinks of the other in quite a xenophobic way, mixing fascination with disgust.

Actually, the batlike residents of the planet Ground are more cohesive and uniform than the interstellar travelers from the vicinity of Earth. The ship has three populations: Founders, parents of the Ship generation, which is the second, and Crew. The founders have been aboard for four centuries, as have the crew. But the crew live in free-fall, in a section of the habitat having an ecology adapted to microgravity, while the founders live in the rotating section of the ship. The ship generation is trained to colonize and settle an asteroid belt, and perhaps the occasional planet, though they are more comfortable in enclosed spaces. Once a system is colonized, the ship will go onward, with some of each population switching allegiance so that some ship generation become founders to the next colony trip, a few founders and crew remain behind, and so forth. There are more details, of course, but this gives a bit of a flavor.

Another good idea: the stock market. The ship is full of futures traders, and their fortunes wax and wane based on perceptions of which colony segments will do better or worse.

And another: that the spread of a planetary race into its home system gradually changes the color of its star, perceived from afar. Freeman Dyson posited that a really advanced society would gradually englobe its star with solar-powered orbiting habitats, changing it to an infrared-emitting body. MacLeod instead expects the plant life of largely transparent orbiting habitats will make the star greener. This has implications in the progress of the story.

A word on morals: While the story is a morality play, the characters are amoral as regards sex. This is the most consistent characteristic of science fiction since the 1960s, so is unremarkable, but must be borne in mind.

I read because of ideas. Ideas are our most powerful tools and weapons. This novel is packed with both new ideas older ideas further developed. Hands down, it is the best-thought-out story of interstellar colonization I've read.

Monday, January 09, 2006

...and a side of local culture

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, regional foods, hamburgers, burgers, fries, french fried potatoes

I remember when the plain McDonald's burger cost 15¢, they'd just sold their first million nationwide, and hamburgers most anywhere else cost at least a quarter. A decade later, my first year of college, the big Hardee's burger was almost seven inches across, and when the first Arby's opened (the first widely successful loose meat burger place), their Super was as big. Today, go to an Arby's for a Big Montana, and it is almost as big as the old Super; there isn't a seven-inch burger available from Hardee's or any other fast food place, and there are about ten kinds of burger variety at any of them.

The Boomer generation is about nothing so much as about variety. The 60s kids didn't invent cultural diversity, but act like they did. At least, they had a hand in making it a positive, rather than a stigma.

There are about four things you can do to make a burger different: add various things to the patty, put different things on top, use various breads to hold it, and cook it different ways. Just a fun bit of combinatorics:
  • Patty additives: cheese (inside the meat), chorizo, peppers, onions, sugar (5 items).
  • Toppings: mayo, tomato-y mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, bacon, cheese, peppers (8 items).
  • Buns: Kaiser roll, soft "burger" bun, potato roll, French bread (4 items).
  • Cooking: Grilled on wire, grilled on flattop, deep fried, broasted, steamed (5 ways).
The above list just scratches the surface. However, let's ask two questions: First, pick one cooking method and bread, and zero or one item from each of the other two lists; how many combinations are there? Second (harder), pick one cooking method, one kind of bread, and any or all from the other two lists; how many combinations are there? Answers at the bottom of the post.

John T. Edge, who seems bent on eating his way across America once for each kind of food with regional variations, has followed his earlier books Fried Chicken and Apple Pie with his newest, Hamburgers & Fries. He opens with a bit of research, and we are not surprised to find that hamburgers, at least of a kind we'd recognize as such, began in poverty, with many additives and toppings initially chosen to make the poor fare palatable. Some bread-loaded burgers are more like meat loaf sandwiches, for example. (As much as I like meat loaf, it is really an exercise in feeding four hungry people with a half-pound of ground beef...or a quarter pound in a pinch.)

At the outset, the dozen or so recipes in the book make it worth the getting. From the Onion-loaded burgers of Oklahoma, born of depression-era cheap onions and costly meat; to the "Deconstructed" (loose-meat) burgers of Iowa; to the Hawaiian "local burgers", sugary, like a few other varieties; all attest to the creativity of legions of cooks doing what they can to feed their folks, and perhaps make a buck or two in the meantime.

There is just a bit too much "looking for the perfect burger" going on in the book. Otherwise, it's a great window into the many, many things people have done to ground or chopped beef, to produce one of America's favorite foods. By the way, he tips his hat to fries, but we don't do nearly so much with them, so a couple short chapters exhaust the author's enthusiasm for them.

Answers to the quiz above: 1,080 (single item from each list) and 109,200 (any mix&match). That's just with my short lists above. Put together all the variations that Edge remarks, and there are easily millions of varieties of the humble burger.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Whales Sing Because They Like It

kw: book reviews, science fiction, whales

Remember Pinocchio, and his brief sojourn in Monstro? What if (at least some) whales were like that, a vessel to voyage the sea? This is the great new idea presented by Christopher Moore in Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings.

About midway through the book, Dr. Nate Quinn discovers that some whales are actually living submarines. Sabotage done to his work and data about whale song had the purpose of keeping him from finding out how digital messages are being transmitted, hidden in the songs.

There is a pivotal moment, where Quinn's coworkers have transcribed binary bits that seem to be found in the subsonics of whale song, and someone accidentally saves the file of 0 and 1 entries as text. Upon re-opening the file, which the computer now treats as an ASCII text file, some of the material is readable, and is clearly a message from one humpback submarine to another "occupied whale".

At that point, I thought, "OK, this is not just a time-is-now story, but perhaps one with a time frame prior to 1990." My reason? After 1990 data encryption and text compression became cheap and simple enough that the binary bits would not have been sent "in the clear," as ASCII text. The story states that they are getting 50-60 bit-per-second transmission rates using subsonics. Quite a trick, given that subsonics have a maximum frequency of 20 hz. Of course, they must use several different frequencies. However, when you are constrained to such a narrow band, text compression, which often gains a 3:1 or 4:1 advantage, is a great boon.

I know, the reality is the story wouldn't work without ASCII transcription. It would strain credulity too much if a cetologist somehow could de-compress the text and then read it.

(I'll just mention as an aside, a story I read in which the SETI project has finally found a transmission in space that indicates aliens are there and communicating. However, the transmission is similar to a modem signal, with encrypted text. The scientists there get scared, thinking, "Must be military. Who is really out there?" My response was, "Bankers." Bankers and businesses use encryption more than anyone.)

Fluke is a great yarn, with good ideas.

Everything Nobody Else Will Tell You About College

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, tips, advice, college, college experience

The cover boldly proclaims, The Naked Roommate: and 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College. The author, Harlan Cohen, writes the syndicated column Help Me, Harlan, for teens, particularly those in college. After interviewing many students on about 200 campuses, he has collected the 106 tips in this book, grouped into 14 chapters. The tips and the story behind each are the product of the students interviewed. Harlan follows with his own comment and further, related resources. Here is an example, a tip of my own, showing the format:

TIP # 108
Frosh Week Follies

The Tip
If your school has an orientation week for Freshmen, go...you never know what you'll learn.

The Story
I began my college experience living in a dorm. Freshmen started a week early, "Frosh Week." There were plenty of planned activities aimed at helping us learn our way around—it is a big campus—and to get acquainted as a frosh class, with no older students present.

The last day, there was a meeting for the administration, the faculty, and many parents in an auditorium on the edge of the campus. There was no planned activity for us. In midafternoon one guy climbed onto the roof of an atrium of my dorm and began playing bagpipe. He was good. Pretty soon the whole dorm was on the yard below, clapping and yelling. He was presuaded to come down, and proceeded to lead us in a spontaneous march. We marched across campus, circled the auditorium where the big meeting was going on, then returned to the dorm, with our piper skirling the whole way.

I don't think there is another way on the planet to have such an experience. By the way, I made one good friend, in my first roommate. Frosh week was definitely worth it.

At this point, Harlan adds his piece. There are many mini-tips from other students peppered throughout also. The sum of many voices makes this a valuable reference.

The author deals frankly with the issues faced by a young person who is probably on his or her own for the first time. The temptation to push every boundary, felt by every teen, can be indulged to the max. Mr. Cohen not only advises the wisest way to keep out of a dozen or so kinds of trouble, he often has sections that say, in effect, "OK, if you are determined to do this anyway, here is how to keep from dying in the process".

A squeamish parent is sure to find something that causes hesitation about giving such a book to a 17- or 18-year-old. I confess to being rattled a time or two. But kinds can't afford not to know how to deal with even the sleaziest of situations. I do plan to get a copy for my son before he begins college...and a copy for me to have here.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Cats Rule

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, illustrated, cats, cat lovers

This picture, taken in 1987, is my most recent cat on top of her scratching pole. We had her from 1982 to 2000, when she died of cancer.

We haven't replaced her, but we will, once our son is on his own. Keeping a cat (one never owns a cat) is a commitment that is incompatible with the time consumed by a high schooler.

I grew up with cats, and my wife grew up with dogs. But when we lived in the countryside near Rapid City, SD, and had frequent invasions by mice, we agreed a cat was the critter to have.

She was a small silver tabby—never weighed more than 2 kilos (4½ pounds). She was a great mouser, though the festivities sometimes got noisy in the middle of the night as she raced about after her latest prey. Once the house was saturated with cat scent, we had no more murine visitors. Then she took to prowling the neighborhood, including the cattle yard across the street, and soon cleared out all the small mammals. She never took after birds, as some cats do.

Well, 18 years is a long time to have a cat, and we miss her.

As I said, I grew up with cats. I have an old picture of my mother at age five with a cat in her arms. During the years I was between 7 and 12, I had several litters of cats born in my bed or sleeping bag. Our cats trusted me.

So, it was with great pleasure that I found Cats 24/7 by Rick Smolan and David Elliot Cohen. They have previously produced America 24/7 and Dogs 24/7, the companion volume to this one. It is full of pictures. The 200 or so bigger ones are captioned, and many pages also have a row of thumbnail images along the top edge, numbering 420. It is a coffee-table-sized book, 24x29.5 cm.

Though there are three short story-length pieces, this isn't a book to read, but a feast of eye-candy for cat lovers. I went through it several times.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

OK, who is this...REALLY?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, automata, artificial intelligence

It takes a real master of the craft to write a large novel (380+ pages of 11pt type), containing large swathes of dialog and internal soliloquy, that keeps me interested. In her first novel "Silver Screen", Justina Robson proves to be such a master.

Furthermore, she has interesting ideas. Ms Robson is but one of many who explore the boundaries around life, consciousness, and what it means to be human. What's it like for a copy of a human mind to exist in a computer network? What's it like for a real artificial intelligence to live in a human world? Would you believe none of our categories matter?

If I write more than a little on this, I'll spoil it. Instead, I'll touch a side point I noticed. A number of male writers have written in a female voice. With few exceptions, their female protagonists are men with boobs, women as many men would like them to be. And with only one exception I can remember, these male-created females are drop-dead gorgeous. The main woman in "Silver Screen" is probably attractive enough, but thinks of herself, and describes herself, as unattractive. For the female characters in general, looks are secondary to attitudes. I think this reflects the general female attitude...but what do I know, I am a man!

I'll keep an eye out for future work by this author.