Monday, February 26, 2007

The colors of harmony and discord

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, pianists, wolves

Intense focus, obsessive focus; distaste for crowds and for most human contact; wide-open emotionality; mixed-up senses: would you consider a combination of OCD, agoraphobia, social anxiety and synesthesia somewhat of a handicap? Couple unquenchable emotional directness with overpowering physical beauty: a dangerous combination? Without the piano, Hélène Grimaud would be a basket case.

In Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves Mlle. Grimaud positively drags one across the landscape of her memoir, that of a consistently misunderstood "problem child"; a rebellious and wilful teen; a musical career alternately triumphant and tormented. When at age seven she was introduced to music and piano lessons, she found the first great love of her life. It took her fourteen years more to find the second, the fulfilling great love: a wolf. Since then, she has founded the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, where she lives with three wolves she raised from infancy, and a number of others in various stages of rehabilitation. As of the writing of the book, she employed thirty people.

Listening to music samples found at her website and others, I find that she plays piano like no other. She is left-handed, as is my son and another pianist we know. This lends particular authority to the lower register of her playing, as it does to theirs. But even more, she plays with a lyricism I find unique. I found a track or two in which she plays pieces that I have played, and her interpretation taught me much in just a minute or two.

In most who have it, synesthesia is a handicap, a barrier to communication, at least. Visual artists profit from it. She profits much, as it lends several dimensions to her emotional response to music as she plays, and in turn to the response of the audience. This is not her only advantage, however. She reports learning English all by herself, from videos and recordings; from a standing start, in about six months. This reflects both obsessive focus, and mental brilliance. She brings these to bear on any piece she deigns to perform.

When a genius would communicate with a dullard, the burden is on the genius. She takes that burden in both hands and fairly blasts you with all the soul and sense of the piece. Compared to her, I am surely a musical dullard. Her music ennobles the dullard with glimpses of sublimity.

Her writing is as lyrical as her playing; it is equally unique. This attests also to the brilliance of the translation by Ellen Hinsey. Ms Hinsley knows how to bring Mlle. Grimaud's French prose into English idiom without losing this unique quality, even leaving certain words in French as appropriate. The book reads to me as in slightly French-accented English from someone with ambassador-level skills. I took the trouble to find excerpts in French, to be sure the translation did not exaggerate the sense of the text; it does not.

The writing provides us a glimpse of how the author's mind works. The memoir vignettes are in order, interspersed with bits of the natural history, mythology, ecology, and lore of wolves. In keeping with her synesthesia, she sometimes personifies music, or the soul, speaking directly to it in our presence, rather than about it to us. The writing is eminently charming, overwhelmingly intense. She nearly produces synesthesia in the reader.

Does she see herself as a wolf-girl, feared or hated by many for her very wildness and exuberance? She is clearly akin to these animals she so loves. She strongly emphasizes the love-hate relationship humans have with wolves, or their ideas of wolves. Dispelling the mostly-negative myths is a huge focus of the Center's educational program. She lives now in balance, between the order music imposes, and the freedom of a wild life, living with her wolves.

Friday, February 23, 2007

How we are learning cosmic history and destiny

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cosmology

When I saw the title, The Origins of the Future: Ten Questions for the Next Ten Years, I expected that John Gribbin, astronomist extraoidinaire, to pose a set of problems in the môde of David Hilbert with his 23 problems of 1900. What I found instead is an outline in ten points, beginning with the philosophy of science ("How do we know the things we think we know?") and continuing through the development of cosmology to its ultimate, prognostic aim: "How will it all end?".

I enjoy reading of big issues by the big thinkers. I have probably read a dozen books that cover the same ground, in the past decade or so, by authors from Christian DeDuve to Stephen Hawking. In such a brilliant assemblage, it takes quite a thinker to propound something new. On a couple of points at least, Dr. Gribbin does just that.

I am particularly enamored of his clear exposition of "theory" in the first chapter. He makes it exquisitely clear that a theory is a model. In particular, a scientific theory must be a mathematical model that calculates phenomena we observe, and to have value it must first make predictions of phenomena we have yet to observe, and particularly draw conclusions that can be tested by observation or experiment. Thus, Newton's theory of gravity is a model of the way objects move under gravitational influence. Though it has been superseded by Einstein's general theory of relativity, Newton's "classical mechanics" model is quite adequate to explain all the phenomena of orbital mechanics within the rather low-speed realm of planetary dynamics and stellar motions in clusters. It is not adequate to calculate with high accuracy the exact orbit of Mercury or the gravitational bending of starlight. In such "relativistic" realms, Einstein's theory is a more complete model.

Gribbin states several times that a scientific model does not explain why some phenomenon occurs, but rather it describes what will occur if the system being modeled were to behave as if the particular why were to be so. Describing the wave/particle duality of light, he writes,

Nobody should ever have said (or thought) that light is a wave, or is a particle. All we can say is that under appropriate circumstances light behaves as if it were a wave or as if it were a particle...

It is hard to keep this in mind, and I know of no writer, Gribbin included, who consistently does so. That's OK.

In the midst of developing the history and theory of cosmology (models of the behavior of the universe), Dr. Gribbin explains, better than any other I've read, why we draw the conclusions we do about the content of the visible universe (and perhaps a much larger amount that is too far to be visible at present). To wit, it has been determined that the universe is very, very "flat" in a mathematical sense, with a very slight bias toward being open. That is, the gravity of all mass and energy in the universe is very nearly sufficient to stop expansion and return everything to a "Big Crunch" to match the Big Bang that apparently started it all.

Therefore, step by step, we find that visible stars and nebulae in galaxies comprise less than one percent of the total gravitational potential; cold, unseen "ordinary matter" brings the total to four percent; "dark matter", whether cold, cool, warm, or hot, totals another 26%; and "dark energy", a kind of anti-gravity, makes up the remaining 70%. The expansion of the universe has proceeded to the point that the dark energy is overcoming gravity, and the stretching of space has begun to accelerate, perhaps in the past one or two billion years. This will result eventually in what I call the "Big Poof" (Gribbin likes the term "Big Rip"), maybe half a trillion years from now, when total density drops rapidly toward zero.

I can in no way condense the reasoning behind these ideas. The book does an admirable job. I must say, I didn't really give much credence to "Big Poof" before, but I do now.

Update Feb 25: I wrote the above without fully understanding the last chapter. Upon re-reading it, I can clarify the author's points, and my own. Assuming "dark energy" is a constant per unit of volume, as modern cosmology does, it is evident that its total influence grows as the universe expands. This will continue to what I call the Big Poof. Dr. Gribbin poses alternative scenarios if dark energy is not constant. Firstly, it may attenuate as space stretches. In such a case, the acceleration astronomers now (claim to) observe will reverse itself, and the universe will collapse into a Big Crunch, just as in a closed-universe scenario. Alternatively, it may increase, until it influences not just the distance between superclusters, but their composition, then galaxies, and so on until it stretches the quarks right out of protons in a grand dissolution called the Big Rip.

This is so purely speculative as to be simple mental gymnastics. I am barely converted to Big Poof, and may apostasize at any moment...not being wholly convinced that we are properly adjusting the brightness of distant supernovae. I think it likely that errors are still larger than the effects being posited, that we are building quite a structure on faint "it must be so" reasoning, not far removed from a "just so" story.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A thousand odd animal facts

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals

So why do pandas do handstands? To appear taller...when they're scent marking a tree. Only the males do it, to impress females. Why Pandas Do Handstands (and other curious truths about animals) by Augustus Brown explains this (very) briefly, along with some 900 variously interesting, odd, curious, and cute "truths about animals." Brown has gone to the trouble to list references for many of the items, so as to allay the suspicion that this is a collection of urban legend-level "knowledge".

The eleven sections and 56 subsections group the items together, rather loosely at times. For example, in a section on communication, we find the item

Male bronze-winged jacanas live in a harm ruled by the female of the species. The birds yell when they want to compete for her attention.

Personally, I'd have put this in a sexual habits or "family" structure section. Males everywhere vocalize to get female attention! But the male harem...that's different.

However, the information is generally accurate and few items exceed a short paragraph. It's an interesting miscellany, perhaps fodder for the next time a conversation lags.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Autobiography on borrowed time

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, AIDS, HIV, hemophilia

Some time last year, Shawn Decker reached age 30. He's coined some words to neutralize the connotations surrounding his medical situation. Thinblood: a hemophiliac or bleeder. Thickblood: everybody else. Positoid: A person who is HIV positive. Negatoid: everybody else. He hasn't coined a term to replace gay or homosexual; he'll leave that for those who live there.

Some time in his early twenties, Shawn Decker became one of the most famous thinblood positoids. By that time, it had been ten years since, at age eleven, he was given "a year or two" to live, by doctors who are now retired. Now it has been almost twenty years that he has lived as a thinblood, carrying not only his "pet virus", HIV, but at least a couple kinds of Hepatitis. Let's see, two-thirds of a life lived on borrowed time, a growing career in public speaking and education, marriage to a beauty queen...a pretty good time for an autobiography.

My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure (see chronicles his life, from birth until about 2004, a year or two after his marriage to Gwenn Barringer. By turns humorous, serious, raucous, vulgar, and touching, the book merits careful reading. On the surface, he sounds like an ordinary high-energy boy with a lot on his mind. His life illustrates the remarkable resiliency of children who must grow up bearing a terrible disease. Hemophilia is bad enough, but thinbloods seem, sooner or later, to add a number of other major diseases to their internal zoo.

I isn't hard to figure out why. A thinblood has to have, at least occasionally, transfusions with Factor VIII, and sometimes platelets, which are needed to avoid bleeding to death from seemingly minor events. It takes a hundred units of blood to produce one treatment of Factor VIII or of platelets.

A dental technician I once knew called herself a Platelet Queen. She had too many by far, so donated platelets at least monthly. It's more involved than donating a unit of whole blood, something I've done a few dozen times, until my body took to clogging the needle during the first minute...can't do that any more. In her case, they take a pint, leave the needle in place, spin out the platelets, then put the rest of the blood back in. That way she can donate more frequently, every week if she is willing. But it takes the donation from many people to boost the platelet count of one thinblood.

Naturally, not everyone who donates is aware of what they may be carrying. This is how, in about 1980, Shawn contracted Hepatitis A at age 4 and HIV at age 11. He later got Hep B also. Thus, his "pet" is part of a menagerie. While screening and testing have improved since then, a certain number of thinbloods still catch a Hepatitis virus or HIV yearly.

Shawn himself is unusual; he lived without HIV medications for some fifteen years, long past the time that most untreated HIV patients develop AIDS and die. His case of hemophilia is also milder than is typical, so it seems he's blessed with better-than-usual genes...except for the thinblood one, of course. He is also very fortunate in having unusually supportive parents. The parents of thinblood kids typically become strong advocates for their children, and must run interference for them in many ways. Shawn's mom is out on the bleeding edge of this elite community. Don't get in her way!

But what can I say about Gwenn!? The woman follows her heart, that is sure. She fell for Shawn, hard, and had the knowledge and fortitude to walk open-eyed into the minefield of his life, stick with him even as he became to ill to continue without antiviral medication, ask him to marry her, then carry it out. They are a hot item on the speaking circuit. She came within a whisker of becoming Miss Virginia 1998, on a platform of AIDS education and awareness. She was a veteran of the advocacy circuit long before she met Shawn. She had the right combination of experience to match his; possibly the unique combination...don't get in her way, either!!

I can't say the book is an enjoyable read. It's a learning experience. I don't recommend it for young people (below college age), unless the young person in question is at risk of contracting HIV...then I'd demand it!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The cream of his earliest crop

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, anthologies, golden age

Robert Silverberg reckons (he can't determine exactly) that he has written about a thousand stories. At some 25 per volume, should he anthologize them all, it'll take forty volumes. In the introduction to To Be Continued: Volume One (The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg), he makes it clear that isn't in the cards.

Unspokenly following Theodore Sturgeon's dictum that "90% of everything is junk", Silverberg presents the stories from the formative period of his career, 1953-1958, that best represent his growth as a writer. Should he succeed in his endeavor, we can expect two or three more volumes.

The 24 stories in To Be Continued display his explorations as he deliberately pushed the envelope of his growing talent. His writing paid the rent during his college years, and for two or three years after. He rapidly became known as a reliable "stable" writer, able to crank out a gut-buster space adventure in a day or two, to order, or to write a story to fit a painter's cover artwork. He'd gained the knack early of writing a readable story line and characterization, balancing action with background. He tried out various formulas, experimented with other authors' styles. He wrote for all markets, low (pulp), middle and high.
He didn't place many stories in the higher-paying glossies, but they didn't ignore him, either. Silverberg took tremendous advantage of the many outlets a SciFi writer had in the 1950s. It reminds me of the early Auto market. At one time, you could drive a Studebaker, a Reo, a De Soto, or a Stanley. There are fewer automakers worldwide today than there were just in America prior to about 1960. The popular magazine markets followed a similar trajectory.

The author prefaces each story with some autobiographical material. He was one of a lucky handful that had talent to spare in a decade that had hungry readers galore.

Legendary editor John Campbell used to say, "Present a problem, then solve it." That's still the best formula for storytelling, of any genre. Silverberg is still a master of the craft, and I appreciate a look into the roots from which the past fifty years of his work has sprung.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Nature's whack at the Dinosaurs' grandparents

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, paleontology, palaeontology, disasters, extinction

My favorite science authors write about difficult concepts in ways that those with less training can understand, or at least appreciate. Douglas H. Erwin has written a great detective story, with the culprit still not fingered, but whose outline is beginning to emerge from the shadows. Extinction: How Live on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago is about an event even more significant for life on Earth than the Dinosaur-killing asteroid that whopped into the proto-Caribbean some 65 million years ago.

What is the Permian? It isn't just a high school in central Texas, nor only a series of ridges the school is named for. Those ridges are named for a geological period four times as distant in time as the demise of the dinosaurs. In Texas, the Permian reefs are a fantastic source of oil, and oil is the heart of Texas's economy. But the Permian is famous for more than that.

To a geologist, the Permian era lasted from 298 million years ago to just before 250 million years ago (abbreviated "ma" hereafter). It is one of ten major divisions of "deep time", stretching from about 2 ma to about 600 ma. It is very nearly in the middle. One of the later ones, the Cretaceous, ended with the asteriod impact that took out all the larger dinosaurs, leaving us with the little ones, that became the birds. In each of these eras, rocks worldwide contain specific kinds of fossils, and record a suite of ecological conditions that changed rather abruptly from one to the next. At least five of these abrupt changes included a mass extinction, a short interval (a million years or so? or perhaps only a few years...or less?) during which many species vanished and after which new species arose. The great extinction at the end of the Permian era is the most severe.

We know the following: about 90% of marine species, and 75% of land species became extinct. This compares to about 25% marine and 20% land species that died with the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous extinction event. The kinds of rocks being laid down everywhere changed, from massive limestone reefs to thinly layered mudstones and clays. The thin layers are particularly clean because there were no bottom-feeding critters to stir them up or burrow through them...for a few million years. Even for those species that weren't eliminated, only perhaps a percent or two of the individual animals or plants then living survived the catastrophe.

What catastrophe? Another asteroid? Lotsa volcanoes? What?? Dr. Erwin makes it clear he cannot give us a final answer, but he is able to eliminate some possibilities, and outline the most likely few that are able to explain the clues that we have.

The fact is, we have lots of clues. Problem is, they are not sufficient to define exactly what happened or in what order. Finely precise age dating of rocks has yielded an upper limit for how long the disaster took: 160,000 years. Other indications hint that it was probably much, much shorter, but the evidence for that is still being eagerly and energetically gathered. Further, the destruction of land species and marine species occurred at the same time. Thus, we can rule out suspects that operate slowly, such as mega-volcanic eruptions occurring over millions of years. We can also rule out most scenarios in which land species died out because the marine species died; we retain only those in which the marine die-off was so abrupt and so pervasive that the land die-off followed within a very short time.

However, we cannot completely rule out mega-volcanoes, if we can determine that the huge volumes of basalt that were erupted in Siberia at that time were emplaced quickly enough. It is kind of hard: The volume of a small continent was laid atop central Asia. Could that have happened in a matter of a few thousand years? Imagine hundreds of Mt Pinatubo, or thousands of Mt St Helens, going off every year for thousands of years. Actually, the style of eruption was more liquid, like tens of thousands of Kilauea eruptions, every year. It beggars belief.

The author presents all the suspects in Chapter 2, presents and explains all the evidence in several following chapters, then discusses the current understanding in the last two chapters. It is fascinating. He tends to favor what he calls Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the suspects participated in a murder. Scientists are not comfortable with scenarios that include too many players. It smacks of "throw in enough special cases until you have everything covered." But it is unlikely that such a significant event in life's history on Earth could have a single, simplistic cause.

I once favored another asteroid hit, bigger than the dino-killer. There may indeed have been one, though perhaps not any bigger. Dr. Erwin presents Jack Sepkoski's proposition, that some kind of comet or asteroid has clipped Earth about every 26 million years... but he doesn't go into it. The mega-volcanic episodes are much rarer, only every 200-300 million years, perhaps. Should an asteroid have barged in just as the Siberian eruption was well under weigh, it could have provided sufficient extra mayhem to make the effects of the eruptions much deeper and more widespread. If big space rocks are landing on a regular schedule, one is bound to arrive when something else significant is happening. So I also now favor the multi-cause scenario.

The mystery isn't yet solved. There's lots of exciting work to be done. What fun!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

An animal a day...keeps you interested

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, environmentalism

Let's see, there's "My ancestors didn't fight their way to the top of the food chain so I could become a vegetarian"; and there's the biblical "have dominion over [everything]". That's one side. The other encompasses a range of environmentalist activists from the relatively pragmatic PETA to those who think humans need to go extinct to "protect the biosphere".

Overall, I admire vegetarians, because they must be so much more careful what they eat; it's much harder to eat a balanced diet when nearly all animal products are excluded, and hardest for the vegans. I remember in the 1960s and '70s seeing ghastly folks on the macrobiotic "diet". They looked like corpses that hadn't decided to stop moving yet. So I have to hand it to Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who claims to be a lifelong vegetarian; in his jacket photo he looks quite robust and vigorous, so he knows how to do it right!

Masson's newest book is Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals, and what a menagerie it is! Of the hundred essays, some address single species ("Bengal Tiger", "Narwhal", "Wallace's Flying Tree Frog"), some describe genera or family-level taxa ("Flamingos", "Geckos", "Mantises"), and a few cover huge groups ("Pinnipeds", "Beetles"). The essays are eclectic and informative, with a mix of detailed and broad-brush descriptions.

As it happens, more than half the hundred essays contain mini-essays on environmental themes. Many of these "favorite animals" are threatened or endangered, and this frequently seems to be the reason they were chosen. Masson makes his case to the point of tiresomeness, and best states it on page 351:

"Perhaps the hardest thing for us to do as a species is to realize that other life-forms do not exist for what they can give us in gustatory sensations or even in aesthetic appreciation, but exist in their own right, and are valuable simply because they exist. They need not provide us with anything to deserve to live, and the time will eventually come when we realize the best we can do is to leave other species alone."

I am in only partial sympathy with these sentiments. Humans are part of nature. We are, temporarily at least, very influential, though not perhaps as dominant as some folks would like to believe. For example, just considering how many sperm whales there are (at least 100,000; maybe a million or more); and that they eat only large squids; and that larger squid, including the giant squid Architeuthis, reproduce slowly: There's probably a ton of large squid, and likely several tons of smaller ones, per human. We're also outweighed by termites, ants, nematodes, and beetles. No matter how well-adapted we are, including our vaunted technology, many creatures live in environments few humans can even afford to visit briefly (even supported by giant research institutions).

On the other hand, we happen to be well-adapted to live with little technological help in the same environment that supports most of the hundred kinds of animals Masson describes. The ones we haven't domesticated, we're in the process of exterminating. Most of this extermination is being done, not by ravening hunters or even anti-predator ranchers and farmers, but by poor people trying to live to see tomorrow.

Poor people need shelter and food, and usually something to keep them warm, i.e. fire and clothing. While it is true that large "McFarms" in Amazonia are destroying habitat at a great rate, that pales in comparison to the four billion or more poor to wholly indigent people that can't afford to care if some animal might live on a certain plot of ground. They need to grow a crop, or gather fruits or roots, or collect firewood and building materials.

The author is a member of the Western middle class, living in New Zealand. As he is not a Maori, it is simple to infer that he is more prosperous than 98% of humans. He can afford to live as a vegetarian. Most people are near-vegetarians, but not by choice. They eat any meat or fish they can afford or manage to catch. A five-ounce fish or squirrel has equivalent nutrition to a pound of wheat or maize plus half a pound of rice or soy...and it takes less firewood to prepare it. By the way, no one grain has a complete protein, you need at least two, thus the wording above.

Just another side note: in one place the author notes that people who live by hunting and gathering prefer to eat herbivores over carnivores. I have experience in this regard...herbivores taste better. They are also easier to catch and more plentiful.

Well, back to the animals. Masson believes that animals have a rich emotional and mental life, and I agree. Many of the essays contain engaging stories of animal behavior that any of us can recognize as playful or thoughtful. Anyone who has kept pets, even snakes, frogs, or insects, knows they are more than a bag full of instincts.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

If statues could speak, would you want to hear what they have to say?

kw: book reviews, fantasy

It is some years now since I got over my youthful dread of cemeteries. Now I wonder... Not really!! Steven Stromp attempts to question the basis of every religious notion common to the Judeo-Christian culture, with his first novel, Cracking Grace. The title appears to refer to the collapse of a couple of pieces of staturary as they release spirits trapped within (But I'm not totally sure).

In this world, humans are the only animals that can't converse with the statues, and a ghost or two, that inhabit a cemetary. A young girl, the cemetary caretaker's daughter, has just lost her mother untimely, and her father is in ever-deeper denial about it. Denied ordinary friendship, she becomes aware of a ghost and can talk with it, and through it, to the statues, and to a bluebird.

In this world, the people, the priests, the statues, and the animals are equally ignorant of the meaning of death or life. The answer the author presents is "staging", and the novel ends with a few spirits that are ready entering a new stage. Well, it bears more resemblance to spiritualism than anything remotely Christian. That makes sense in this New-Age-addled generation.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Almost-supernatural almost-horror

kw: book reviews, fantasy, horror, hallucination

The best-written stories are often autobiographical. In the endpapers of American Morons {stories}, Glen Hirshberg confirms the origin of each story in an experience or conversation. The experiences were springboards, for the stories take wild tangents from the possible.

The title story, of the seven, is the most clearly rooted in an experience. Probably only the painful twist at the end is a creation. Of the seven, it only takes place outside Los Angeles County. The author is an Angeleno, writing of a Los Angeles I remember, having lived there three times, for as long as eleven years.

The stories can be thought of as a succession of hallucinations arising from overwhelming banality. Each has its unique setting and strange denouement. Or, given the banal milieu, they can be thought of as supernatural horror visiting the ordinary. Most clearly, "Flowers in Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" progresses through a series of ever-more-unsettling scenes, as the narrator grows to realize he's no longer on the real Long Beach pier, or no longer in the era in which he entered.

Many of the stories end on a leading note, inconclusively, so that you wonder, "Will the ranger and the light house keeper wind up together, or apart...and what will become of the lighthouse?", or "Did the old ladies die of neglect, or something more sinister?" You get to finish the story in your own mind.

Being of weak mind and impatient nature, I found myself halfway through another story before I decided what to think of the one I'd just finished. Perhaps that's good exercise!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

As different an alien as he could imagine

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space travel, aliens, first contact

Peter Watts is a very accommodating writer. Following an increasingly popular practice, he has appended to his novel Blindsight a section explaining and discussing some of his ideas. Blindsight is the first book by Watts that I've read, so I don't know what he did with his earlier Rifter series (four books). In this book, he plunks us down in a society that is taking genetic and cyborganic tinkering pretty far, to the point of restoring recently lost species such as the Vampire, a Human subspecies that, being a predator on the next-most-efficient predator (us), has mental skills needed to lead increasingly complex projects, such as the mission to an object in the Oort cloud that seems to harbor an alien intelligence.

The narrator is a Synthesist, Siri Keaton. In this case, that means he's someone who had half his brain removed to eliminate debilitating epileptic seizures (complete hemispherectomy is now rare; functional hemispherectomy, which disables one hemisphere but leaves most of it in place, is performed on a few hundred people yearly). While they were at it, the installed some equipment in its place. Now, he is able to read body language well enough to just about read your mind. He is one of a team of four heavily altered and enhanced people sent to study the object they call Ben, and contact any aliens they might find. Their team leader is a Vampire.

The novel's title comes from the ability of the aliens, once encountered, to hide in plain sight. In the presence of one person, they can take advantage of the saccades, the tiny movements our eyes make constantly, to trick the brain into ignoring them. These aliens are really something. Watts has posited an alien physiology for which magnetic fields (really strong ones) and ionizing radiation interact with super-resistant proteins and superconducting polymers to produce creatures that read the electronic signals in a human brain at a distance, and the myoelectric signals from muscles, to read the people much better than Siri could hope to. All this is discovered over much time, and for much of the book, things keep going on in one mysterious way after another.

The tensions of studying the alien Scramblers, and an intelligence—artificial or otherwise, we don't find out—that controls their city-size orbiting habitat, pale by comparison to the tensions between the four very different human/cyborg crew, and the most-different member, the Vampire. In the end, we find that selective attention, which enables conscious beings to function in a very stimulus-rich world, is a fatal detriment to us in the presence of creatures that seem not to be conscious as we know it, but can process all stimuli in real time; their attention is not selective, so they learn really, really fast.

The concept of a Chinese Room is used to great effect to explain the difference. This thought experiment by John Searle is used to question the meaning and usefulness of the Turing Test. One the one hand, Turing asked, if you communicate with a computer by teletype, and cannot determine whether it truly is a computer, is it intelligent? On the other, Searle proposed a person in a room who receives written or printed messages that he cannot understand, but that he can recognize and find in a large (very large, I'd think!) rule book. He doesn't even know they are Chinese ideographs. He just looks up in the rule book how to respond, and writes the response on a fresh sheet of paper and passes it outside the room to an observer. Is the Chinese Room intelligent?

Some think consciousness is an illusion. Descartes offered the best reply (I think, thus I am). I know I am conscious, and you know that you are conscious. That poor soul over there doesn't think either one of us is conscious, but perhaps he (she?) just suffers from impaired self-consciousness...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

If you think OIL is a trap...

kw: book reviews, science fiction, energy, political drama

I got about halfway through The Green Trap by Ben Bova and realized he'd presented all the technical secrets; the second half of the book would continue the chase-capture-violence-escape-sex sequence that I'd already grown tired of. So I "ruined" it and jumped to the last twenty pages to see the denouement. The title actually gives it away; there is no happy ending here. The "hero" dies, the girl proves false, the minor villain does die while the major one wins everything. Kind alike real life.

The core idea: Cyanobacteria (which I once knew as "blue-green algae") have been cracking water for its hydrogen, and releasing the oxygen they don't want just then, for three billion years. A little genetic tinkering, and they can be forced to overdo it, so they release both gases, which people can then separate and burn together to recapture the solar energy the critters used in the first place.

Secondary idea: Should it work, it's worth billions, or trillions, but will wreck the current oil-based economy, foreign relations, and a number of other dominoes. So of course, people get killed right and left by the varying powerful factions.

Interesting side idea: Rather than have big central hydrogen-producing stations, put a bug-containing membrane in each vehicle to produce it on demand.

Bottom line: Cyanobacteria are less than five percent efficient in catching sunlight. Suppose they are tinkered with until they catch 25%. Then you need that membrane to be the size of a barn, about ten meters on a side, to grab sufficient sunlight to power a 20HP (i.e. quite small) car motor. Secondly, consider the waste problem. Photosynthesis runs best when a plant or green cell is growing and multiplying, so you create a lot of waste. LOTS of waste. Perhaps a ton per driving mile. We have silicon solar cells that do 25% now, and all the waste that is going to be produces has been produced once you buy it.

Bova's writing style keeps one going, but the content eventually wore me down so I skipped half the book. It didn't take much thought to see the flaws enumerated above, so I give him only a D+ for this idea.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fantasy in '06, last look

kw: book reviews, fantasy, anthologies

For the record, I read the 23 stories in Year's Best Fantasy 6 (edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer) rather quickly. I usually find short fantasy charming for the variety of voices in which the authors write. In their Introduction the editors vaunt the breadth of stories they admit to the genre, and just so, the voices range the gamut. Though I do not look to fantasy for ideas, the way I do SciFi, there were a few bonuses.

I have read several pieces of Korean and Korean-inspired fantasy lately, and find the voice much like American Indian narrative: simply-stated and powerful. "Eating Hearts" by Yoon Ha Lee is this collection's examplar.

The largest group of stories use a voice typically found in mainstream mystery (for isn't fantasy about mystery?): "Shard of Glass" by Alaya Dawn Johnson and "Inside Job" by Connie Willis (a find SciFi and mystery writer) are the two I liked best.

There are spoofs such as "Single White Farmhouse" by Heather Shaw and straight supernatural horror like "The Imago Sequence" by Laird Barron. Some explore ideas more deeply, like "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant: what if crossing a national border—or having it pass over you—endowed you with the language and culture?

Just a sampling, enough to exhume the question, "Who is this, really?"