Friday, July 31, 2009

Space opera for the new Century

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, robots

I must confess I haven't seen a single episode of Battlestar Galactica, neither the 1970s version nor the "reimagined" early 2000s version. So I went to the Wikipedia Article to get oriented, once I was about halfway through. Sagittarius is Bleeding by Peter David, who has written a handful of Star Trek-based novels, is based on the more recent series. For the two or three other computer-literate folks who may be as uninformed as I was, the Wikipedia material is a good grounding.

The book's core idea is, "What is Human?", which I understand is a recurring theme in the reimagined series. While most of the robotic Cylons are metallic minions whose appearance leads to their being called "toasters", a small but unknown number are "humanoid", and are apparently indistinguishable from humans, even upon autopsy or by blood tests (A supposed diagnostic blood test is found early in the book to be a mirage, at least to the reader if not the majority of the characters). Whan a Cylon prisoner is found to be pregnant, by a human father, the dilemma deepens.

The President of Humanity (one of several titles), Laura Roslin, is having recurring, disturbing dreams that turn out to be prophetic, or at least some kind of guidance. Not that it helps her much. Because the core cultural value of the 30,000 humans left living (at this time 150,000 years ago) is religious, prophecies abound, and the rather dreadful prophecies of the Edda (a scripture) of the Midguardians (a Norse-inspired construct: Midgard refers to the "world of men" in old German, but to a more mystical realm in old Norse) promise to have a more profound impact.

I found the going rather uneven. There is a lot of ruminating by all the main characters, so that I found myself spending too much time in their minds. This tendency, found in nearly all modern sci-fi, is unfortunate. After a rather wooden few opening chapters, though, the plot proceeded briskly enough. I finished rather glad I'd read it, and that is my criterion for a book worth reading.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another salvo in the evo-wars

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biology, evolutionary debate, polemics

Jerry A. Coyne isn't going to convince Duane Gish or Pat Robertson, but there's a chance that a good many people will at least find reason not to spend time and effort in fruitless combat. Dr. Coyne has written Why Evolution is True as a direct assault on creationism and "intelligent design", primarily among Americans. As he points, out, the primary resistance to education that includes evolution is found in the United States and in Turkey, the two nations that include large contingents of more fundamentalist believers, though the former is a "Christian nation" and the latter is Islamic.

In his introduction, he allows that religion by itself is not necessarily contra-evolution: "You can find religions without creationism, but you never find creationism without religion." I cannot speak for any Muslims, of course, but among Christians, I do know that the great majority are not zealous creationists, meaning that while they believe in God as the creator, they are not bothered by evolution as a biological explanation for the vagaries of life on Earth.

Isaiah wrote (45:15) to God, "Truly you are a God who hides himself…" I take this to mean that rationalistic inquiry is not useful for finding God. Job admonished his friends, "But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding." To those who count that the Bible is true, there is a spiritual organ within us that is the right means of learning of God. This spirit is not our mind. Based on this crucial notion, we understand that scientific search and understanding are about the material world only, and cannot research spiritual things.

Then, to take up the author's key arguments, let us use the briefest definition of natural selection, the one favored by Darwin: Natural selection is descent with modification. Every living things shows, whether in its embryonic development or in this or that bodily feature, signs of being modified from earlier beings. Thus, for example, a large class of fishes has four main fins; in a few groups these fins are on lobes that can function as primitive legs. Amphibian legs are clearly seen to be modified from these "lobe-fin" appendages. Reptile legs are a further, more robust development, and mammals and birds have legs that are further refined. Evolution has not changed the number of legs, but has developed the same four legs in various ways. Dr. Coyne writes:
"There is no reason why a celestial designer, fashioning organisms from scratch…, should make new species by remodeling the features of existing ones. Each species could be constructed from the ground up. But natural selection can act only by changing what already exists."
To that last statement, let me add the proviso, that the original features, such as the fishes' fins, were based on simpler structures, but eventually you get an ancestor that didn't have any limbs at all, and somehow they were developed. Producing the first fins apparently took hundreds of millions of years, once the first vertebrates came to be in the first place. Thereafter, amphibians developed from lobe-finned fishes in a much shorter time.

Cartoons like this pretty much sum up many folk's understanding of evolution (Cartoon © Baloo [Rex May]). Somehow, fish "wanted" to go onto land, and amphibians resulted. But, observing fish that can "walk" on their lobe fins, we find that they don't "want" to walk, they have to walk when food runs out or water dries up. Necessity was the mother of this invention also. By the way, lobe-fin fish have really good moisturizers in their skin; the cosmetics industry might wish to take note.

To me, living in a body composed of a large number of features, all modified from earlier beings, can he a bit of a drag. Back troubles that plague more than half of us could have been forestalled were our backbone Designed with verticality in mind! Human bodies are filled with makeshifts like this, that work well enough for thirty or forty years, enough for us to raise children and maybe give a bit of help to the parents of our grandchildren, before we begin to decrepitate and decline. A well-designed human body would function well for a designated span, pre-chosen by its Creator, then a valve would pop off somewhere and "Pow!" we'd be done for. Maybe we'd have a day's notice so we could notify our own next of kin, with a clear schedule. To put it rudely, if my body was designed by God, I have a bone or two to pick with Him!

The author marshals his evidence, like wave after wave of an infantry: embryo development (we start out looking like little fish), geographic patterns of species ranges, sexual selection (the peacock's tail for example), and the mechanisms of speciation, how one species becomes two and so forth. I find the timing of speciation most fascinating. Some creatures, such as the Coelacanth fish and the Ginkgo tree, many sharks and cockroaches, have remained unchanged for tens of millions of years. Other species, particularly among land vertebrates, split and split again every million years or less.

I once read that most mammal species have a natural span of about four million years, but that primates tend to last only a tenth that long. In other words, a population of lemurs, for example, may spread out in the landscape and, because of some barrier between one group and another, evolve into two new species, both of which differ from the "parent" species, in a few hundred thousand years (perhaps fifty thousand generations). Among a different sort of creature, the genetic changes might take ten or a hundred times as long to occur, though a change in environment will hurry things up considerably. However, how long should it take, to produce the great diversity of visible-sized living things?

There are at least ten million species on Earth today, and some claim there could be 100 million or even a billion living species. This is not counting bacteria, which are quite a bit harder to count! How long must the average doubling time be? Let us take our zero point as the end of the Permian, when 99% of living species were wiped out, and assume that ten million species of beetle have arisen from just one beetle species that "made it through" the great Permian extinction.

It takes just 24 doublings to produce more than sixteen million items, from one. The Permian extinction was 251 million years ago, and 251/24 = 10.46. Thus, if each beetle species splits into two new beetle species at least each 10.5 million years, at least 16 million species of beetle might be found today. Actually, beetles speciate faster than that, and many species go extinct without producing any new species.

The author scarcely addresses "young Earth" believers, who don't agree with all this talk of millions of years. They can barely handle the thought of ten thousand years, at the outside. I know some that accept a great age for the Universe, but not for the Earth.

But I also know of a hillside in Wyoming, part of the Yellowstone Petrified Forest, that is actually twenty petrified forests, one atop the next. Each forest contains trees with several hundred growth rings, and fallen logs even larger, so that each required more than a thousand years to develop. Each forest was killed by ashfall from volcanic activity at Yellowstone some time in the past. An unknown interval of time passed after the killing of one forest and the growth of the large trees in the next began. But it is certain that this one hillside contains at least 20,000 years of history, and probably much more.

I know of "varved lakebeds" in Scandinavia, in which a very thin layer of sediment (a varve, usually less than a millimeter thick) is laid down each year; some of these lake bottoms contain more than 100,000 varves. I know of the ice cores drilled in Greenland that contain a continuous record of 400,000 years of snowfall (and dustfall). These are all things that don't depend on radioactive decay measurements.

So, let me say a word to my Christian brethren (sisters included), who are wondering about evolution: it is not anti-God. Believing in Creation does not mean you are a creationist. Creationism is a certain set of beliefs about creation, based on a distorted view of what the Bible is saying. The "Gap" between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 is very real, and the language, fairly read, indicates a great upheaval that led to God's Spirit "brooding over the waters." The six-day sequence recorded in Genesis 1 is a restoration from a damaged condition, caused by events mentioned in quite a mysterious way by Isaiah (ch 14), and alluded to by Jesus: "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven".

How likely is it that a brief catastrophe, quickly righted by divine intervention, would show up in the sediments? Particularly as it occurred near the end of the last ice age, when the breakup of the ice sheets was causing cataclysms in a number of places, such as the Channeled Scab-lands of Washington and Oregon states.

Jerry Coyne wants to convince those who might be wavering, that evolution actually happened in the way that biologists now think, by natural selection operating over long spans of time. Whether you wish to believe this yourself, I hope that at least you will realize that such a theory does not lead to either better or worse morals, nor is it a threat to the sovereignty and goodness of God. God truly is a God who hides himself, but also One who lets those who seek Him find Him. He isn't afraid of evolution; neither should His people be.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back in pocket

kw: news

Shortly after my posting five days ago, we lost internet service in my area, which was only fully restored this morning. I had just taken the week off for a "staycation", and found myself with unusual amounts of time on my hands.

I went to a nearby church conference site and sat in on meetings in another language, listening to an interpreter through headphones. Because much of the subject matter involved the underground church in a "closed" country, that's all I can say about that.

We take our freedom of conscience for granted in the U.S., to the point that it is rather easy to casually put the life of a Christian from another country in danger. Those who hate us ("yanks") actually fear our freedoms, for in the light of freedom many dark deeds cannot be done. The "world" is still full of those who hate light and love darkness.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The brain's the game

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, surgery, neurosurgeons

"It doesn't take a brain surgeon . . . " "Haw, haw, haw!" You know how it goes. Katrina Firlik really is a brain surgeon, and in her new book she points out that, like other surgical specialists, a neurosurgeon needs to be a really, really skilled mechanic. I fully agree. When I had my cancer surgery in 2000, I cared most that my surgeon have great mechanical abilities. Whether he'd have much personality—I'd call it "adequate"—didn't matter much. I wanted a mechanically brilliant, obsessive-compulsive, highly focused pair of hands and eyes to do the rearranging of my insides. Thank God, that's exactly what I got.

Dr. Firlik has all this, plus a great writing style. I devoured her book at a speed I usually reserve for rollicking space opera. In Another Day in the Frontal Lobes: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside she takes us into her world, and a fascinating world it is.

Pre-warning: I have only one photo in this post, and it is likely to disturb you. Brace yourself.

After a couple chapters getting us oriented, the text roughly parallels the seven-year residency a neurosurgeon experiences (life starts at thirty-two!). The Mechanic analogy is fully explored in the first chapter, then we find what a neurosurgeon is and is not. For example, "brain surgeon" is an inadequate term: A neurosurgeon is equally responsible for the spinal cord and the major nerves that emerge from it. Orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons can both treat back pain, and if your back hurts, it is a good idea to talk to one of each before choosing a treatment option.

About 15 years ago a friend of mine had a tumor removed from the neck-shoulder region, and the surgeon cut a major nerve. He referred himself directly to Mayo Clinic, where a neurosurgeon located the two ends of the nerve, which is the size of a strand of spaghetti but somewhat softer, and reattached them. My friend regained the use of his arm. Somehow the brain and body figured out the scrambled joint, because there's no way to get every neuron re-connected to its own severed end. But without the neurosurgeon's work, he'd have had a "dead" arm the rest of his life.

But it is the brain that most fascinates most of us, and the author knows it, and focuses most of the book on brain work. She has another apt analogy for us: Surgery as "controlled trauma". The control part is key; it is what allows us to recover as quickly as we typically do from being re-plumbed or re-wired. She tells of a friend who wanted to see brain surgery in action. After seeing a mallet and chisel being used right between a patient's eyes, he remarked, "I could go out and get hit by a bus, and I'd be having a better day than that guy." He was wrong. Two days later, that patient was sitting up asking what was for breakfast. A bus victim would likely be incommunicado for a few days longer…if he lived.

It is a wonder that the nervous system can suffer such great insults and recover so well. Some strokes, injuries or surgeries result in the loss of quite a lot of the brain, but in time the patient recovers many skills that were initially lost. There is a limit, however, which is illustrated by the various results a bullet to the head may have.

A bullet that passes through the upper skull and brain may leave a person significantly impaired, for a while, but because of "brain plasticity" recovery can be surprisingly complete. A bullet passage lower down, that cuts off the deeper structures, is more likely to be fatal, or to produce a "vegetative state". In fact, if a CT scan or MRI shows that the brain is so profoundly damaged that survival is impossible, the surgeon will simply sew shut the bullet wounds and do nothing more. The brain is going to kill itself, and leaving the woulds open will make the process take longer and leave a bigger mess: half the brain will gradually exit the wounds if they are left open. The brain stem, that keeps an otherwise dead body breathing, is the most resilient part (it has been around the longest, and we're coming to that). It is judged better to let the swelling brain squeeze the life out of the brain stem. OK, brace yourself:

The baby in this photo, originally from The Neuropathology Web at Northeastern Ohio U College of Medicine, seems normal at first glance: it can breathe, suck, wave its arms and legs, coo, and even smile. But it will never see, hear or become human. The backlighting shows that there is no brain in the skull. More accurately, in the condition called Hydranencephaly, the brain stem is present, and perhaps part of the cerebellum, but none of the cerebrum and cortex are present.

Such infants seldom live longer than a few days, though a very few, with care, have lived twenty years or more. They never see, hear, or respond to anything but the painful stimuli that the brain stem mediates. The brain stem is the "reptile brain" that underlies all other brain structures. It has been around the longest, in an evolutionary sense, and is the most resilient. In mammals, the reptile brain has lost the structures that once dealt with seeing and hearing, and yielded those functions to the cortex. This baby has no cortex.

The cerebellum controls gross motions, so if it is entirely lacking the baby won't even wave its limbs. But there are several "superior" structures that have to be present for the infant to learn to eat rather than suck, or even to move the limbs in any coordinated way. Even more of the brain is needed for any trace of "humanness" to exist. A case like this is equivalent to the most damaging head wounds. There is nothing for a doctor to work with, no actual patient whose life could be saved, or even temporarily improved.

At the other end of life (many years later for nearly all of us), the lucky ones are those who die with their wits intact. That is about half of us. For the other half, various degenerative conditions set in toward the end of life, and for most, doctors can offer only "supportive" care. They can help you feel better as you lose your memory and reasoning abilities. This is particularly poignant for me, as I come from a family that is prone to Alzheimer's dementia. Will I be like my mother, who died almost mindless at age 82, or like my father, who is a robust and very intelligent 87-year-old (though he is getting a bit creaky)?

In her last chapter, Dr. Firlik speculates on the future of neuroscience. Will we one day be able to get a "brainlift", at a cost comparable to a facelift? Will the various dementias be conquered? I join her in hoping so.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The last egg

kw: nature, photographs, birds

This image, very close to life-size on a 100dpi monitor, shows the egg of a Carolina Wren that didn't hatch. As I wrote in early June, one of the nest boxes I keep track of started the season with five or six Wren eggs, and at least four nestlings fledged. A day or two after the fledglings left the next, we found a single egg in the nest. In hopes that the birds were trying for a second clutch, as they sometimes do, we left it alone.

That was two weeks ago. Today, that single egg was still there, and we concluded that it was one that never hatched in the first place. We cleaned out the nest box. This is the nest with its lonely, dead egg. But it provides a good record of the appearance of the egg. The eggs of Carolina Wrens usually have more definite speckles. This one is more nearly a smooth, graded beige-to-brown with the darkest brown at the large end. Five weeks ago all the eggs had this appearance.

I found it interesting that the wrens nearly filled the box with twigs before making a soft nest near the top. They really like the smallest cavity that will accommodate their brood, with no leftover. Maybe this discourages cowbirds, which would also have a hard time entering a box sized for bluebirds. The first time I saw a wren nest, I thought it was starlings; this was before we had a front with a smaller hole put on this nest box. But a colleague assured me that is how the wrens build their nests.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years of earthbound life

kw: musings, history, space policy

No photo, no link, no long historical discursion. The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing has become an unutterably sad day for me. Our hopes were so high, our excitement that we might soon have a lunar colony so keen. For nearly three years we hung on everything that came out of NASA, but by December 1972 it was clear that an era was about to end. The policy-makers of the human race turned inward, and December 7 of that year marks not just the end of lunar exploration, it was the last space flight with an altitude exceeding 2,000 km.

The first problem was, quite frankly, money. The government's budget then was a much smaller share of the gross domestic product, compared to now. Brought forward to the kind of dollars we spend today (a few months shy of 2010), the moon program cost about $40 billion. Isn't it ironic that the money spent in the past year to attempt to shore up a bunch of crooked bankers would pay for ten Moon programs? And that is only a quarter of what will eventually be spent in "stimulus" of an economy that will probably recover quicker if left alone.

The second problem was, and still is, that no technology so far discovered can produce the huge thrust needed, with a specific impulse greater than about 600 sec. Specific impulse (SI) is the number of seconds a one-gram thrust can be produced while using up one gram of fuel plus reaction mass. Since the masses cancel out, it is expressed as a pure time value. We need to attain SI closer to 5,000 to make the attainment of orbit affordable to the "only moderately rich" among us.

A third problem, seemingly less important at the time, is complexity. The Saturn V rocket was simple compared to the Space Shuttle, yet it had tens of thousands of components. How complex will the proposed Orion craft be? Possibly worse! Hey, NASA folks! Try for no more components than the average Chevrolet!! It'll work better and fail less often. Remember the old concept of Fail Safe? Recent history indicates you have. Design things so they can't cause a tragedy no matter how badly they fail, for starters.

Will we return to the Moon, and then go to Mars? Only after the economy turns around big-time. I say "after" rather than "if" because it will do so, but who knows when?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A visit to Hagley

travel, sightseeing, photographs

DuPont employees anad their families get into Hagley Museum and Powder Yard free this month, so my wife and I took advantage of the chance to see it. We haven't been there for several years. We mainly walked along the powder mill buildings.

More than twenty of these blast-resistant structures remain, and another dozen or so are in ruins or just the foundations are left. Most of them are in pairs; the waterwheel or turbine would be between with a shaft going each way to power the mill wheels.

A rectangular building has five "sides", four walls and a roof. Powder mills have three solid walls, about three feet thick, as blast protection for the rest of the powder yard and dwellings that were rather nearby, including the E.I. DuPont mansion, Eleutherian Mills. The fourth wall, facing the Brandywine River, was very lightweight, or that side was left open, and the roof was also lightweight. Thus, if there was an accident, the explosive force would be directed across the river. "Going across the river" was a euphemism for dying in an explosion among the 19th Century workers in the mills.

The earliest water wheels were "breast wheels" like this one; the water sluice hit the wheel on a level with the axle, at breast height, and pulled that side downward. This view is of the back of the wheel. It is about ten feet in diameter. Later wooden wheels were overshot, with about twice the efficiency of breast wheels. After about 1840 metal turbines, which are more efficient yet, were used.

To minimize the chance of accidental sparks, the walkways and rails in the vicinity of the powder mills were all of wood. Once metal turbines began to be used, they were enclosed in wooden barrel-like structures, and kept wet continually, so no sparks could ignite any powder dust, which was always in the air. Carrying metal on-site, even your wedding band, was grounds for dismissal.

I was told that, at the office and home of Mr. DuPont, there was a wash basin which had to be used upon entry, to make sure no powder remained on your hands. This was particularly important in winter, when anyone in the building might throw a log on the fire; invisible amounts of powder were enough to cause an accident!

Geared mechanisms like this one were used to raise and lower large gates, so you could start and stop the mill wheels as needed. I like mechanical stuff, and Hagley has a lot of it. This particular gate and its lift gears are still in use.

On a later tour of the DuPont mansion (no photography allowed), someone asked why the place is named Hagley. The guide answered that one of the larger properties that was purchased to make up the facility was bought from a Mr. Hagley, and much of the existing area (240 acres out of an original 1,000 acres) is composed of the land bought from him. However, it still could have been called "DuPont Powder Museum" or some such, so perhaps the wishes of company representatives entered into that decision.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Time travel - you bet your life

kw: book reviews, science fiction, time travel, paradoxes

Intellectual roller coasters I can handle. This one swept hither and yon with great abandon, but I suspect the author had to plan it out carefully beforehand. Most of the short chapters (what some call pericopes) have a date and time attached. In ChronoSpace, by Allen Steele, you need that kind of scorecard to keep your head on straight.

There is another, subtler indication. The dated references also have a day attached. I noticed an anomaly early on: a certain January 14 was noted as a Monday, then a few chapters later January 16 of the same year is also denoted a Monday. I put all the dates into Excel and used its date formatting to show the day. Then I found it easier to tell when things were on an alternate timeline. There is also one blunder, a date in 1997 that really ought to read 1998.

OK, with that aside, the book is a great piece of hard SciFi, in that it proposes a time travel mechanism based on general relativity. It is also an exploration of the idea that, sooner or later, if time travel were ever achieved, it would be much more potentially devastating than thermonuclear weapons.

At the crux of the story is a certain Dr. Murphy, who appears in at least three timelines, and in all three he is the fulcrum about which the timeways pivot. I am quite pleased with the way the author resolves the central dilemma, compared to two or three alternatives I thought of as I read along. Just a tiny spoiler: Murphy doesn't have to die or be annihilated.

What I find is that the author is making an argument in favor of free will, which genuine time travel would seem to threaten. Fermi's argument is still valid: if there are time travelers, where are they?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Skipping a roller coaster

kw: book reviews, science fiction, eating, obesity

My son loves roller coasters, and will ride absolutely anything. I can tolerate riding a few of them, but I seldom enjoy the experience. After the three of us visited a park with nothing but coasters, each scarier than the last, I said to him, "Do you know how many [our last name]'s it takes to ride a roller coaster? One to ride and two to watch!" His favorite is the eXtreme at 6Flags Magic Mountain. After climbing the hill, the cars flip the strapped-in riders face down and drop two hundred feet straight down. Guess where my stomach would be. I suspect they have good drainage to a big lagoon nearby.

It didn't take me long once I began to read Thinner Than Thou, by Kit Reed, to realize that this book is an emotional roller coaster that is quite a bit beyond my capacity. I jumped ahead to the denouement, which didn't surprise me at all, and figured, "That's enough!"

Usually when I skip a book it is because of anger at the author's premise. Not this time. It's really a great book, but like great roller coasters everywhere, not one I could tolerate riding. By the second page, I found myself daydreaming in a very paranoid way what I would do if dragged into the prison farm of a "perfect body" religious cult. It bore too much resemblance to the RPF treatment a relative of mine endured, yet he is still a member of Scientology!!! It just hits too close to home. I'd rather sleep at night.

Time, imagination and mountains

kw: book reviews, story reviews, continued review, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

Continuing the review of Kevin J. Anderson's stories in Landscapes, we have four more science fiction stories, seven of fantasy, and three items grouped under "The Great Outdoors", two of which are essays.
  • Paradox & Greenblatt, Attorneys at Law –Should time travel become practicable, it will of course result, as all new things do, in sundry legal conundrums. It is only by being just a bit sloppy that this client escapes conviction on charges of attempted murder by time paradox.
  • Collaborators – The ultimate virtual reality device is expected to be something that directly jacks into the nervous system. Once people get direct access to one another's total mentality, this cautionary tale postulates one possible result.
  • Prisons – "Iron bars do not a prison make", and a grudge can be just as confining.
  • Mammoth Dawn – Anderson reports that his friends often ask why he writes so many sad endings. While he is able to write happy endings, this sideways prequel to "Jurassic Park" is one of his sadder ones.
  • Sea Wind – This first of the "fantasy" stories has no fantasy elements; it is a straightforward tale of growing up just a little too fast.
  • Frog Kiss – A little fantasy here, in the form of a sorcerer who has turned the royal family into frogs, then conveniently died. Is it worthwhile finding the appropriate frogs?
  • Short Straws – One of the happier dragon tales (OK, it is sad for all but one dragon slayer).
  • Special Makeup – One of the better lead-ins to a classic actor's dilemma. Stanislavski should have had it so good!
  • Redmond's Private Screening – The first half is an unutterably sad story of Japanese honor and sacrifice, the second half a new look at the Japanese view of ghosts.
  • Splinter – A fresh treatment of Catholic relic-fantasy: what powers, if any, might a genuine sliver of the True Cross bear?
  • Santa Claus Is Coming to Get You – There is no fantasy here, except in the minds of some over-imaginative children. Yes, Kevin, I could have done without reading this one.
  • False Summits – A ruminative essay that likens the attaining of successive false peaks on the way to a real summit, to the progress of a successful career. It is harder to know when you've peaked in real life, except in retrospect. [Near where I live, the "Ebright Azimuth" is the highest point in Delaware, but is actually the spot where a rising ridge crosses into Pennsylvania, much of which is at a higher elevation yet. Sometimes you gotta get into a different environment to find higher peaks.]
  • Landscapes – A lovely story of getting one's head clear (while seeking a sublime, majestic view), to see what is right in front of your face. In that, it is like "Frog Kiss".
  • Above the Crowds – An essay based on one real ascent of the 54 the author undertook to belong to the "All 14000-plus" club in Colorado. When he described Knife-Edge Ridge on the flank of Capitol Peak, I realized I am just not the type to take risks at that level.
Well, I am sure sorry to have Landscapes come to an end. It takes a whole stable of idea factories like Anderson to keep me in reading material!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Photo day at Rockwood

kw: photography, nature, sightseeing

In May I visited Rockwood Park and Museum to scout the area for a photographic field trip (and posted on it here). Today was the field trip, with four photography students. I've put just a few more photos here, and you can click on each for a somewhat bigger version (up to 800px).

This is the house, from a bit different angle than before. I hoped to get a good picture of the other side of the house and its veranda, but it is being maintained, and there are blue tarps everywhere. This image is a panorama from three vertical images, so it is pretty wide angle, about 140°.

As luck would have it, today was the first summery day, warm and humid, that we've had this year. It has been a cool Summer so far along the mid-Atlantic. Nonetheless, we rather lackadaisically strolled about the grounds and tried out all kinds of photography. Since all the students this time are experienced in landscape photography, we spent much more time on intimate shots and even macro images.

Of course, we could not pass up the architecture. This "fruit cellar", which I can't tell from a root cellar, is not far from the main house. It could keep fruit longer just as a refrigerator can, for the same reason. Shaded by trees and built into the ground, it would stay 20°-30°F (~12°C) cooler than the house.

It seems we spent the first half hour making sure everyone could recognize poison ivy. The stuff is everywhere along the pathways outside the immediate grounds about the house. I didn't take any pictures of it; maybe I will for a future post.

Near the parking lot is "Edward's play house", now in ruins. Before the students arrived, I had my wife take this picture of me taking its picture. People have been wondering what I look like: I look like a tubby middle-aged guy, yes?

Perhaps this, or a similar shot, will be used by the Darlington folks for the promotion of future photography workshops. If you live in the West Chester/Concordville/Wilmington area, have a look at Darlington Arts Center as a place to learn music, dance, theater, and fine arts…and occasionally, photography.

The students were all interested in close-up and macro photography. These days it is pretty simple to put your camera in "flower" mode. Waiting for a live subject to "pose" is another story. In this case, it took a few minutes before this wild bee landed on a coneflower close to me, then I shot as soon as she crawled around the flower head. This is a full-resolution clip, a small part of the whole image.

It turned into quite a nature tour at one point: a few frogs and a snake, but I didn't get any usable photos of them. I was busy keeping everyone together. But there were enough insects to get another shot or two.

For example, this dragonfly kept landing on the same rock, so by keeping still a while, I got close enough for this somewhat distant shot. Again, this is a full-resolution clip from a much bigger image. To do justice to insects, I need to use a longer lens so I can photograph them without spooking them.

We were scheduled for four hours together, but the students all agreed they'd got what they came for by the three hour mark. We'd stopped and gone into the museum's ticket shop to get water, and it had begun to rain. I'm glad they liked it. It made for a pleasant day away from the office, and when I got home I had a nice, refreshing nap.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Time passing, unevenly

kw: book reviews, story reviews, continued review, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

Kevin J. Anderson is best known for around a hundred novels, including the "Seven Suns" series. His short fiction is little known, yet it contains the same diversity of ideas and settings. The 2006 collection, Landscapes, consists of 24 stories; 14 are SciFi, 7 are labeled "fantasy", and three "The Great Outdoors". This review involves the first ten SciFi stories, five of which are set in the Alternitech milieu, in which researchers visit alternate realities to find lost Beatle albums, medical remedies, and other technologies our reality might have missed.
  • Music Played on the Strings of Time – This story introduces the Alternitech stories. A musician in a creative rut is searching for "lost" music, and finds some of his own that, in his own reality, he hasn't written. That'll get you out of your funk…won't it?
  • Tide Pools – A remedy found too late. How do you come to terms with it? This question is confronted daily, without the need to look "sideways".
  • An Innocent Presumption – The prior two stories had their own protagonists. This is the first of two with Heather Rheims. She begins by fingering a mass murderer, but finds out there is more than one way to kill.
  • The Bistro of Alternate Realities – Heather has fortuitously met several alternate versions of herself, and found the values—and risks—of collaboration.
  • Rough Draft – In another take on the theme of Music Played, a "retired" author is confronted with a book written in an alternate reality. Will this re-start his career, or destroy him?
  • Job Qualifications – One of the more unpleasant implications of cloning: using clones of a candidate for global office to gather experience in many fields, which he can then assimilate through some kind of brain probe. He becomes much more qualified for the position. Too bad for the clones.
  • Rest in Peace – A what-if story of leadership, and whether a very exaggerated "conservative" or "progressive" approach will work better.
  • Carrier – A sad tale of self-sacrifice, with a darkly humorous twist, promulgated by a naive AI system.
  • Controlled Experiments – Make a bunch of rats super-intelligent, and you might just find yourself their target, particularly when they find out what the term "lab rat" means.
  • TechnoMagic – Clarke's Dictum, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", forms the basis for this amusing story. Would a real, highly advanced alien among us show such self-restraint?
Great ideas all, and I haven't even got to the Fantasy stories.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The ultimate cog life

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, social insects

Humans are social animals, but we limit our sociality, and fear overdoing it. Dystopian scenarios sometimes postulate the human race reduced to a hive-like existence; we may speak of being "worker bees", particularly those with assembly-line jobs; people angrily protest against being treated as "cogs" in some huge machine (think of the old film Metropolis). We put a face on these fears with the image of the bee hive, with thousands of workers serving an all-powerful Queen:

For a real queen bee, the reality is somewhat different. She is a slave as much as the others, condemned to lay tens of thousands of eggs over a life span of a few years. I hope egg-laying is pleasurable! Whether it is or not, she must lay an egg every few minutes, a few hundred daily.

Reading The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson, I found that a queen bee is a piker. The ant queens of certain species of leaf-cutter (fungus-growing) ants lay an egg about every three seconds. That is ten million eggs yearly, almost a million eggs per month.

By the way, if you saw The Lion King (and who didn't), you may recall an early scene showing leaf-cutter ants walking on a limb, then a refocus to gnus running across the African savanna. Oops! There are no leaf-cutter ants in Africa; they are all to be found in the Americas, from southern New Jersey in the U.S. to about midway down Argentina.

This National Geographic photo (from their animals pages), shows a typical species, possibly of Atta, the type genus of leaf-cutters. It is following a chemical trail, and we typically see all kinds of ants following such trails. By adopting agriculture and having incredibly fecund queens, ants of Atta and related genera produce huge colonies with millions of members, and "anthills" the size of a house, underlain by a tunnel system that required the removal of several tons of soil. These colonies typify what Hölldobler and Wilson mean by "superorganism."

Another characteristic of the larger, more complex ant colonies is several sizes of workers. These supermajor (or supersoldier) workers, next to minors, their "little sisters", are members of a Pheidole species. The mass difference can be 200:1. In many species there are also one or two intermediate-sized "medial" worker types. Ant species with smaller colonies tend not to have more than one size of worker.

These points together comprise the characteristics of those social insects the authors call Superorganisms: a special reproductive caste, large numbers (dozens to millions) of individuals working together with considerable levels of cooperation, and communication methods for holding a colony together.

There are a very few species other than insects that have similar social systems, most notably naked mole rats, but the book concentrates on bees and ants, with just a nod to wasps. All these insects are members of the Hymenoptera (meaning "membrane winged"), but practice sociality at different levels: a few wasps are social (hundreds of species out of more than 200,000); many or most bees (30-40,000 species total) are social; and all ants (20-30,000 species total) are social.

The book takes up nearly a hundred topics in ten chapters, so I'll barely scratch the surface. Many topics are investigated with evolution in mind. For example, a line of weaver ants will pull leaves together, sometimes forming living chains to reach across a gap. When the leaves are near contact, other ants bring larvae and move them back and forth like shuttles as they emit silk to hold the leaves together. The evolutionary underpinnings of such a complex event are no simple matter to understand, and I don't claim to have grasped the point; I do understand that it is emergent behavior arising from simpler actions that are a part of other, ordinary ant behavior patterns. In fact, most aspects of social insects' collective behavior is emergent, in which each worker, operating by simple rules, does a part of a larger whole that has no particular architect.

This is particularly evident in the way swarming bees choose a new nest. Scouts from the swarm investigate various sites, and each returning scout performs a waggle dance upon the surface of the hanging swarm. The better the site they are advertising (size, location, orientation, security), the more energetic the dance, and the longer a bee will dance. Those who don't dance very long wander about, and may choose to co-dance with some who seem to have come from a better site. Such bees may go there and return, to dance more. Within a short while, often less than an hour, a large number are promoting the best site, a collective decision is made, and the swarm takes off for the chosen site. Considering bees as analogous to single neurons, this is possibly how you and I make decisions inside our own heads, when we have several options.

Ants also need to find, or dig, homes. Many species with smaller colonies, and smaller needs, can decamp routinely. Others need more elaborate accomodations. But have you ever wondered what lies beneath that anthill in your yard?

Compared to the massive nests of leaf-cutter ants, this is a cast from a relatively modest nest: the anthill was about half a meter across, and low. Walter Tchinkel, who stands 178 cm (5'-10"), studies ant nests by pouring thin cement down all the holes of a hill, then excavating the hardened concrete a few days later. The species producing this nest was Pogonomyrmex badius, the Eastern Harvester ant. You'd be unlikely to tolerate a nest of these in your lawn!

But even the little (hand-width) hills we often see can have rather extensive burrows, often going down a meter or more. It is in the construction of such nests that we see how an ant colony is really more like a single organism, a superorganism.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The morning clears my head

kw: observations, astronomy

I awoke a couple hours earlier than usual, and fell right into one of those paranoid thought-spirals. It isn't worth trying to get back to sleep when that happens.

I got up, dressed and went outside. Our extraordinary weather along the mid-Atlantic is holding: cool and clear, very refreshing. As I walked about, I noted that the Summer triangle (Deneb-Altair-Vega) was almost right overhead. These stars are high in the early evening sky all Summer. Jupiter was near the past-full Moon, and I noted that Venus has now joined Mars as a morning star. Both were a few degrees above (Zenith-ward from) Aldebaran.

I missed the conjunction of Venus, Mars and the crescent Moon just over three weeks ago. Though I hope I sleep better this Thursday, that morning Venus and Aldebaran will rise together.

Such thoughts and the cool morning air were sufficient to "clear the air" inside my head also, and I was ready for an early breakfast.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Becoming the archetypical Wizard

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, legends

The brief version is this: In about the year 540 AD, twins were born near where Glasgow lies today. Their names were probably Langoureth, a girl, and Lailoken, a boy. The twins were scholarly kids, very bright. In her teens, the girl was married to Rydderch (sometimes called Roderick), who became king of Strathclyde, an area from Partick (now a suburb of Glasgow) northward. At about the same time, the boy was sent into battle, where he did not distinguish himself, but at least survived. He was a scholar, not a fighter, and came under the training of Druids, who were the intellectuals of the time. Though his sister became an outward Christian, he never strayed from the "old ways".

A turning point in Lailoken's life was his participation in the disastrous battle of Arderydd, 573 AD. He is said to have gone mad with grief, and at least he self-exiled to the woods north of Partick for about seven years. During those years, his sister, now queen, met him a few times in the woods, and eventually he was persuaded by emissaries of king Rydderch to return to court. Among those emissaries was one Mungo, a "Christian" priest (I use those quotes advisedly), who was nothing if not a psychopath in his hatred of the Druids and the old way. It must have galled him to "make nice" to the king's Druid brother-in-law. The two fought one another for decades.

One attempt by Mungo to surmount Lailoken's opposition was to accuse the queen of adultery. Though the accusation was true, the king was tolerant and unwilling to judge her. Her brother brokered a deal to save her and shame Mungo. Mungo, now revered as St. Kentigern, patron of Glasgow, went for about thirteen years to Rome, from which he returned with great authority and riches bestowed by Pope Gregory the Great. In his absence, Strathclyde prospered.

By the year 600, the twins were sixty years old, the "Mungo Christians" were gaining in power, and Lailoken retired, a pensioner of the king, to a hilly area west of Partick. There he had built, among other things, what people thought of as a great hall with seventy doors and seventy windows. It was probably a wooden henge, built in a circle, used by the old Druid for astronomical observations. He had a large staff to keep his records and assist his studies. During this time he was again considered a madman.

In 612 AD Mungo died, the king died, and the queen retired to her brother's complex. A rival king, known today as Mordred, had taken over the Dunipace area next to Strathclyde in 596. Rydderch's younger son Constantine was briefly king of Strathclyde, but turned out to be the Scottish Caligula and was deposed.

War with the Angles was looming, and Mordred summoned Lailoken to Dunipace to arrange some kind of truce between the Christian forces and those of the old way. He was briefly imprisoned and starved to induce compliance, but did not submit. He tricked his way to freedom and returned to Partick. However, in about 618 AD he was asked to return to Dunipace, and along the way, was assassinated at Mordred's command, instigated by his wife, who hated the old Druid even the more. He was hastily buried near the place he was ambushed, on a hilltop some 30 miles from Glasgow. The hill is no longer there. It was gradually removed in the 1830s to make a quarry for road building stone. A single grave was discovered during the excavation, containing bones and, oddly enough, rotted papers in a jar.

We don't know this man by his given name today. For much of his life he was called a madman, and the nickname stuck. A common Gaelic word for madman is Myrddin, with the "dd" having a soft "th" sound. Over time, that sound shifted to an "L" sound, and we know him today as "Merlin."

This is a summary of the content of Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey. Historian Ardrey had a hard job: a thousand years of labor to hide Merlin's true nature and history, and to move both him and Arthur hundreds of kilometers to the south, have yielded a written record in which reading between the lines is a bit like uncovering Troy; the archaeologists had to dig through a dozen later cities to get a few artifacts of Homeric age, and the author of Finding Merlin had to dig away religious romance, hagiography, anti-Druid prejudice, and sundry miracle stories to unearth the sparse facts that limn the remarkable old Druid.

Sadly, I must comment that the author uses terms like "this sound like that" and "it must be supposed" in such profusion that the book would be a quarter shorter without them. I'd prefer that he state once, like Sherlock Holmes, "Once you have excluded the impossible, that which remains, however improbable, must be the truth," then get on with straight narrative.

Why have I written nearly nothing about Arthur? Primarily because Ardrey is at work on the title Finding Arthur, and the only clue I can offer at this point is that Arthur, a military genius of Napoleonic stature, lived but 37 years before being betrayed by Mordred and killed in 596 AD. The modern portrayals of both Arthur and Merlin are composites, as are most of the other figures in the stories.

What has made Lailoken/Merlin the prototypical wizard? Why is he not forgotten like the rest of the Druids? In spite of the best efforts of medieval Catholic writers, his character could not be completely hidden. None of them can make a credible claim that he ever converted, though there are a very few overly fantastic stories to that effect. But as the brother-in-law to a powerful king, and for a short while an advisor to a great general who is now thought of as a king also, and as a leading scholar of the first two decades of the Seventh Century, he became a figure that could not be ignored.

Yet he was no lightning-throwing mage. People tend to think of Merlin these days as a cartoonish figure like the one shown here. Many even profess to wish that such things could have some reality. I don't know about you, but I am very, very glad such powers are beyond the reach of mere humans.

The powers of the medieval-romantic Merlin were much more restrained: primarily a facility with herbal remedies and the ability to prophesy, though he had the Cassandra-like curse that he was seldom believed.

The real abilities of Lailoken were founded in scientific knowledge and a keen understanding of human nature. When he retired, a few years after the death of Arthur, he could see the writing on the wall; fanatical "Christians" were growing in power, the king was aging, he himself was weakening and had never been much of a warrior anyway, and the likely successor to the king was a psychopath as evil as Mungo. By retiring away from the citified areas, he placed himself in the protection of a popular majority of non-Christians, who revered him as a scholar of the old ways.

So, by one means or another, once the story of Arthur was romanticized (and moved a lot closer to London), his trusted advisor had to become a figure of similar majesty, and the romantic wizard "Merlin" was created (the "madman" meaning had been forgotten).

In reality, I suspect Merlin/Lailoken looked a lot more like this old photo of John Muir. He enjoyed the woods as much as Muir did, and for similar reasons he opposed the encroaching cities that have, in the centuries since, seen the removal of all the old forests.

The popular imagination has turned Merlin into a Gandalf or Saruman, or even an avuncular Dumbledore. Were he around today, Lailoken would be a professor of geology or astronomy, dragging telescope or gravimeter hither and yon in an unending quest to find out what makes the universe tick. It's nice to see a scientist make good.

I just had a by-the-way thought: The new PBS series, "NOVA ScienceNOW", stars a favorite writer of mine, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who likes to wear a vest with alchemical and astrological signs on it. He, a real scientist, is taking advantage of Merlin's image also, and I reckon he knows it. I wonder if he knows just how deep his kinship with Merlin really is.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Here a henge, there a henge...

kw: observations, monuments, folk art

I stumbled upon an account of Carhenge, tried a search on "*henge", and found quite a collection of things people have "henged" since Stonehenge became famous (again) with the publication of Stonehenge Decoded a generation ago. Eventually I came across the Clonehenge web site, dedicated to "The 47 Large Permanent Replicas". A few of the images below are from that site; the others from sundry spots, mainly in the blogosphere and photoblogs. There are many more.

Carhenge was one of the first large installations, and has inspired other henges of castoff large, boxy things, such as refrigerators and toilet stalls and empty cable spools:

Large installations like these tend to be permanent, though I imagine a half dozen cars full of enterprising collegians could descend on almost any town dump and produce a Fridgehenge or Washer/Dryerhenge in a pretty short time. They'd probably be required to dismantle it pronto, if they didn't vamoose!

More ephemeral henges can be produced from whatever is available, such as split wood or beach stones:

I imagine little circles like these are fun and quick to build, and much less threatening to property values.

I've spent many an hour collecting beach stones for various reasons, such as piling up into walls, decorating sand castles, or painting as "pet rocks." I'll have to try a henge out at the next rocky coast I visit.

The most ephemeral of all are built with food (here, cheese, Twinkies, and potatoes). These no doubt vanished soon after being completed:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

July tumbler yield

kw: observations, photographs, gemstones

Over the weekend I unloaded the tumbler from the last run, which took five weeks. When I bought this tumbler, a Thumler Model T-100, it came with just over a pound of mixed agates and similar stones. Most were of rather ordinary quality, grab bag stuff. I added a pound of jasper from Lavic and a few pieces that a friend gave me, which did come from a grab bag he got at a rock show (I gave them back, polished) . The images below are close-ups showing about one square cm of two of the polished stones.

Lavic Jasper is a moss jasper, or filamentous jasper. The best specimens have these little blue "stars", tiny fortification agates, that fill vugs in the original rock. They represent a later stage of development, an agate filling of an initially soft, filamentous material.

The scattered white spots indicate that the polishing is not complete. I'll get out a leather lap and hand finish the piece.

It has now been about a year since I last collected at Lavic, as I reported last March. I have one piece that weighs more than a pound, consisting if this fine red-and-blue jasper. I am loath to break it up for tumbling. It is nearly spherical, so I may hand grind and polish it into a roughly spherical "quasi-tumbled" piece. That'll have to wait a while, until I have time to join a rock club that has equipment I can use. I don't really want to buy a Genie or similar setup for one project.

This piece is moss agate, the best piece of the ones that came with the tumbler. It is more multi-hued than most moss agate, and more finely filamentous also. Classic moss agate consists of mossy green filaments in milky chalcedony, so that it looks like a plant trapped in the rock. The green color is from reduced iron, just as red is from more oxidized iron. In the piece shown here, there is more than one coloring mineral present.

Sad to say, in both these cases, the areas pictured are the best area in a stone that is overall much less attractive. While I could cut them down, the resulting gems would be rather small. Jasper and agate look best when at least 2cm across. It is hard to see the charm in polished bits the size of a little fingernail.

The next tumbler load will be all jasper again. I'll wait to start until after vacation season; I don't like to interrupt a tumbler run, which needs 4-6 weeks of daily care.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The tenth Tesseract

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, story reviews, collections

The Canadians are at it again. The Tesseract anthologies have been going on for about twenty years, so I was glad to come across Tesseract #Ten: A Celebration of New Canadian Speculative Fiction, edited by Robert Charles Wilson and Edo van Belkom. Packed between two short essays, there are twenty stories and poems.

Threshold of Perception by Scott Mackay – A warm, evocative alternate history in which Percival Lowell predicts that Halley's Comet will hit Earth, and it does.

Frankenstein's Monster's Wife's Therapist by Sandra Kasturi – A cute, short poem with a rather expectable twist.

Puss Reboots by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime – I suspect the title came first. The story revolves around a computer worm that spreads via a modem-sound.

Au pays des merveilles by Wendy Warring – A library really is a land of wonders…

Donovan's Brain by Allen Moore – An oft-repeated theme of someone really getting into his work.

The Undoing by Sarah Totton – An unpleasant story; so far as I can tell, a convict is punished by slow dismemberment. "Eye for an eye, hand for a hand", et cetera.

Blackbird Shuffle (The Major Arcana) by Greg Bechtel – I decided to read this story in sequence, which was a bit of a challenge; some of the sequence indicators are not numerals.

Ideo Radio Poem by Jason Christie – It isn't a poem, I don't know what "Ideo" is, and it ends abruptly. Did I get the point, or not?

Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus by Michèle Laframboise, translated by Sheryl Curtis – Did this title also come before the story? Doesn't matter. A bit of wish-fulfillment, where hidden ingenuity is finally revealed and given its due.

Closing Time by Matthew Johnson – In this story's universe, ghosts hang around for a while so they may be properly mourned. This can pose a problem, or the solution to one.

Go Tell The Phoenicians by Matthew Hughes – The technical point is, imagine an alien species that grows up reversed from our way: the young mature mentally decades before they mature sexually, and the adults are mindless adolescents. The political point had me pumping "Yes!": these "natives" weren't satisfied with one-sided "trade" and had the means to do things their way.

Buttons by Victoria Fisher – A ghost story set in the French revolution and la Terroir. The buttons represent memories.

Findings at the Dump by Nancy Bennett – A poem that Tom Lehrer would love (think of his song "Garbage").

The Girl From lpanema by Scott Mackay – More wish-fulfillment, this time in a computer-generated intelligence. But who is exploiting whom?

The Intruder by Lisa Smedman – Human-size visitors to the planet of the shrews…and that almost gives it away.

Angel of Death by Susan Forest – Apparently a fight-to-the-death story; it starts out rather ugly, so I skipped it.

Transplant by Yvonne Pronovost – I almost skipped this one also. Plants are used to grow organs for transplanting. But the side story is "GAG".

Phantom Love by Rene Beaulieu, translated by Sheryl Curtis – Another one I skipped. Starts out as a visit to a whore.

Permission by Mark Dachuk – What plant could be so valuable as to buy one passage off-planet? This one draws a fellow in.

Summer Silk by Rhea Rose – I stopped about halfway. The mother figure is changing into a spider. I assume she begins eating her mate or offspring at some point.

Some quite lovely stories. Some, well, with the exception of "Permission", the final quarter of the book could have been left on the cutting room floor.

Choices we can afford

kw: fireworks, independence day, musings

Saturday, July 4, Independence Day 2009, was a (nearly) nonelectronic day for me. I work with computers, so spending time at home on the computer sometimes seems like the "busman's holiday". We slept in late, did some reading, scared up a little grub for a potluck lunch and went to see friends midday. These were church friends—a family whose house we hadn't visited before—and a number of other families came over, so we spent some time singing and talking before we ate. Then we talked some more, sang some more, and went home.

I napped, and I suppose my wife was either reading or watching TV. We stepped out at dusk to look at some of the illegal fireworks displays going on all around us, then watched "A Capitol Fourth" on PBS and turned in. Rather strange that this symbol of our freedom is restricted in so many states now.

I remember being asked, every year until 9th grade, to write something like "What Freedom Means to Me." At any age less than about forty, I don't think I ever had any idea. I sure am glad nobody preserved those meaningless essays! Even today, I reckon my ideas in that regard are repetitive and perhaps trite. I boil it all down to one word: Choices. In five words, "Am I free to choose?" In a few more words than that:
  • I blog on Blogger. I don't have to; there are several free blogging services that work equally well. If I want to pay, there are several fee-based ones with features some writers desire. But, I am free to blog.
  • Among all the social networking sites, I use only LinkedIn. I don't have time for Xanga, Facebook, or MySpace (though my son does), let alone Twitter, which I consider terminally inane. I have several cousins, all Mensa members, who must spend a third of their time Tweeting. But, they are free to tweet, or post on multitudes of Walls, as am I if I choose.
  • Searching using Google, Yahoo, MSN, AltaVista, or Bing yields uncensored results. This is not so everywhere. At least here, search servers are free of censorship.
  • The internet is not available everywhere. And it is quite costly in some places. Everywhere that advertisers are free to support it, the internet can be used at minimal cost. I use it heavily. My father almost not at all (just a little e-mail), but, we are free to do so.
  • I met with the church today. It is a nice little congregation, meeting in a rented office space. Maybe some day we'll own a building. We don't have any secrets; we don't have to hide. We are free to meet together.
  • My house is air-conditioned. I earn enough to keep it any temperature I want. Being a bit frugal, I keep the thermostat at 78° when I am home. My even more frugal wife sets it to 80°F when I am not home. Winters, we have a different set of negotiated temperatures. There was, at one time, a proposal to mandate by law the temperatures you could set. It was defeated, more than once. So far, we are free to set our thermostats, which have no recording or reporting devices attached.
  • The cars we own were bought from a huge array of choices. We chose economical cars, but big enough to fit me comfortably. We weren't forced to choose American makes, and our cars are of mixed "ancestry" (designed overseas, built stateside). So, we were free to choose the most reliable brand.
  • Don't get me started on food! We shop at least four supermarkets and a specialty store or two. Because we can. An elderly friend (now passed away) from China was visited by his sister after China eased visitation restrictions, some twenty years ago. They had not been able to meet for decades. She was full of propaganda, that she'd heard all her life, about how everything in China is better. One day he took her shopping. She stepped into the food store at the Produce end, looked around, and burst into tears. America is the best-fed nation on earth because farmers here are more free than anywhere else. Sadly I had to say "more free" because that freedom has been eroded for some fifty years, but it is still the best that exists.
That's enough. Point made.

Friday, July 03, 2009

I, alien

kw: book reviews, story reviews, continued review, science fiction, space aliens, space fiction

Continuing and concluding Tuesday's review of The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, the book finishes with five stories and a novelette:
  • Just Peace – One one level, a set piece contrasting three cultures that have arisen on a remote colony planet. It explores, just a little, the alienness we can feel among our own species. On another, the archetypical "I have to deceive you to save your life" story of love and seeming betrayal. Written with William Rupp, this is one of Vinge's rare collaborations.
  • Original Sin – How do you define "sin" when your life cycle requires murder and cannibalism? Does it help or harm to bring human-style religion to you?
  • The Blabber – One of the more delightful treatments of a multi-bodied entity, sort of a "secret princess" tale.
  • Win a Nobel Prize! – A story in the form of an advertisement, published as part of a series by the journal Nature. Another treatment of the brain enhancement theme that so fascinates the author.
  • The Barbarian Princess – Is this young girl, who becomes so skilled at portraying a warrior princess, a real goddess?
  • Fast Times at Fairmont High – The newest piece in the volume, written in 2001 and first published here. Vinge, who is also fascinated by the prospect of an imminent "technical singularity", brings us close to that point with a gaggle of eighth-graders who find multi-layered connectivity in an intelligent environment as normal as today's youngsters find life with smart phones, Facebook and Twitter.
This collection particularly showcases the author's ability to get inside aliens of all kinds and give us a glimpse of life from inside their skin. Yet perhaps the most alien, to each other, are the two extreme cultures of "Just Peace", one much stiffer than early American Puritanism, and one a few steps more hedonistic than Rome in the depths of its moral collapse. Clearly, we already know a lot more about "alien contact" than we are willing to admit.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The selfness of the alien

kw: book reviews, story reviews, continued review, science fiction, space aliens, space fiction

Continuing yesterday's review of The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, I've had time to read four more stories:
  • The Whirligig of Time – A deep-time riff on the theme, "What goes around comes around," with a nicely spun ending.
  • Bomb Scare – Possibly the first treatment of magically powerful aliens who aren't quite as grown up as they seem. At least one episode of Star Trek, starring Liberace, made use of the idea.
  • The Science Fair – Centauroid beings who inhabit a free-wandering planet (it takes a while to determine this) are about to pass by a normal star.
  • Gemstone – I've read this at least twice before, in different collections. Always a joy. One of those alien stories that sneaks up on you.
Six to go.