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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reading List: Escape from Hell

Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Escape from Hell. New York: Tor Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1632-5.
Every now and then you read a novel where you're absolutely certain as you turn the pages that the author(s) had an absolute blast writing it, and when that's the case the result is usually superbly entertaining. That is certainly true here. How could two past masters of science fiction and fantasy not delight in a scenario in which they can darn to heck anybody they wish, choosing the particular torment for each and every sinner?

In this sequel to the authors' 1976 novel Inferno, the protagonist of the original novel, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter, makes a second progress through Hell. This time, after an unfortunate incident on the Ice in the Tenth Circle, he starts out back in the Vestibule, resolved that this time he will escape from Hell himself and, as he progresses ever downward toward the exit described by Dante, to determine if it is possible for any damned soul to escape and to aid those willing to follow him.

Hell is for eternity, but that doesn't mean things don't change there. In the decades since Carpenter's first traverse, there have been many modifications in the landscape of the underworld. We meet many newly-damned souls as well as revisiting those encountered before. Carpenter recounts his story to Sylvia Plath, who as a suicide, has been damned as a tree in the Wood of the Suicides in the Seventh Circle and who, rescued by him, accompanies him downward to the exit. The ice cream stand in the Fiery Desert is a refreshing interlude from justice without mercy! The treatment of one particular traitor in the Ice is sure to prove controversial; the authors explain their reasoning for his being there in the Notes at the end. A theme which runs throughout is how Hell is a kind of Heaven to many of those who belong there and, having found their niche in Eternity, aren't willing to gamble it for the chance of salvation. I've had jobs like that—got better.

I'll not spoil the ending, but will close by observing that the authors have provided a teaser for a possible Paradiso somewhere down the road. Should that come to pass, I'll look forward to devouring it as I did this thoroughly rewarding yarn. I'll wager that if that work comes to pass, Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will be found to apply as Below, so Above.

Posted at 23:24 Permalink

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading List: In Search of Jefferson's Moose

Post, David G. In Search of Jefferson's Moose. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-534289-5.
In 1787, while serving as Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson took time out from his diplomatic duties to arrange to have shipped from New Hampshire across the Atlantic Ocean the complete skeleton, skin, and antlers of a bull moose, which was displayed in his residence in Paris. Jefferson was involved in a dispute with the Comte de Buffon, who argued that the fauna of the New World were degenerate compared to those of Europe and Asia. Jefferson concluded that no verbal argument or scientific evidence would be as convincing of the “structure and majesty of American quadrupeds” as seeing a moose in the flesh (or at least the bone), so he ordered one up for display.

Jefferson was a passionate believer in the exceptionality of the New World and the prospects for building a self-governing republic in its expansive territory. If it took hauling a moose all the way to Paris to convince Europeans disdainful of the promise of his nascent nation, then so be it—bring on the moose! Among Jefferson's voluminous writings, perhaps none expressed these beliefs as strongly as his magisterial Notes on the State of Virginia. The present book, subtitled “Notes on the State of Cyberspace” takes Jefferson's work as a model and explores this new virtual place which has been built based upon a technology which simply sends packets of data from place to place around the world. The parallels between the largely unexplored North American continent of Jefferson's time and today's Internet are strong and striking, as the author illustrates with extensive quotations from Jefferson interleaved in the text (set in italics to distinguish them from the author's own words) which are as applicable to the Internet today as the land west of the Alleghenies in the late 18th century.

Jefferson believed in building systems which could scale to arbitrary size without either losing their essential nature or becoming vulnerable to centralisation and the attendant loss of liberty and autonomy. And he believed that free individuals, living within such a system and with access to as much information as possible and the freedom to communicate without restrictions would self-organise to perpetuate, defend, and extend such a polity. While Europeans, notably Montesquieu, believed that self-governance was impossible in a society any larger than a city-state, and organised their national and imperial governments accordingly, Jefferson's 1784 plan for the government of new Western territory set forth an explicitly power law fractal architecture which, he believed, could scale arbitrarily large without depriving citizens of local control of matters which directly concerned them. This architecture is stunningly similar to that of the global Internet, and the bottom-up governance of the Internet to date (which Post explores in some detail) is about as Jeffersonian as one can imagine.

As the Internet has become a central part of global commerce and the flow of information in all forms, the eternal conflict between the decentralisers and champions of individual liberty (with confidence that free people will sort things out for themselves)—the Jeffersonians—and those who believe that only strong central authority and the vigorous enforcement of rules can prevent chaos—Hamiltonians—has emerged once again in the contemporary debate about “Internet governance”.

This is a work of analysis, not advocacy. The author, a law professor and regular contributor to The Volokh Conspiracy Web log, observes that, despite being initially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the development of the Internet to date has been one of the most Jeffersonian processes in history, and has scaled from a handful of computers in 1969 to a global network with billions of users and a multitude of applications never imagined by its creators, and all through consensual decision making and contractual governance with nary a sovereign gun-wielder in sight. So perhaps before we look to “fix” the unquestioned problems and challenges of the Internet by turning the Hamiltonians loose upon it, we should listen well to the wisdom of Jefferson, who has much to say which is directly applicable to exploring, settling, and governing this new territory which technology has opened up. This book is a superb way to imbibe the wisdom of Jefferson, while learning the basics of the Internet architecture and how it, in many ways, parallels that of aspects of Jefferson's time. Jefferson even spoke to intellectual property issues which read like today's news, railing against a “rascal” using an abusive patent of a long-existing device to extort money from mill owners (p. 197), and creating and distributing “freeware” including a design for a uniquely efficient plough blade based upon Newton's Principia which he placed in the public domain, having “never thought of monopolizing by patent any useful idea which happened to offer itself to me” (p. 196).

So astonishing was Jefferson's intellect that as you read this book you'll discover that he has a great deal to say about this new frontier we're opening up today. Good grief—did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary even credits Jefferson with being the first person to use the words “authentication” and “indecipherable” (p. 124)? The author's lucid explanations, deft turns of phrase, and agile leaps between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries are worthy of the forbidding standard set by the man so extensively quoted here. Law professors do love their footnotes, and this is almost two books in one: the focused main text and the more rambling but fascinating footnotes, some of which span several pages. There is also an extensive list of references and sources for all of the Jefferson quotations in the end notes.

Posted at 01:23 Permalink

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blooming Jade Plant


Click image to enlarge.

The Fourmilab Jade plant (Crassula ovata) is waking up as the days lengthen and has burst into bloom. This picture captures one of the many clusters of tiny flowers which emerge from stems amid the succulent leaves. This photo was taken with a Nikon D300 camera and Micro-Nikkor 55 mm macro lens and PK-12 extension tube with an aperture of f/22 and exposure of 1/60 second with ISO 200 sensitivity.

Posted at 23:54 Permalink

Monday, March 16, 2009

Need an inflatable building?

The readership here is sufficiently zany and enterprising that one of you may actually have a use for this unique item.


This is a semi-trailer (the tractor shown in the picture has already been sold and is not included) which inflates into a building of 185 m² which seats around 150 people configured as a conference centre. The inflated building is anchored to the ground by a water ballast ring, and can be erected and struck by a crew of 3 to 4 persons in half a day.

For further details and additional pictures, see the brochure. The inflatable building is five years old and cost CHF245,000 new. It is being offered for sale at CHF140,000, from which will be deducted the cost of several planned repairs. The purchaser can take delivery of the trailer in St. Blaise, Switzerland (near Neuchâtel), and bears the cost of transporting it onward from there.

I have no financial interest in this sale. I have been a contributor to the foundation which operated this nomadic conference centre, but will not receive any proceeds of the sale. I mention it here purely because it's the sort of one of a kind gizmo which intrigues folks like us and, who knows, maybe it's just what you've been looking for.

If you're interested in acquiring this “Agoramobile” contact Jacques de Montmollin at +41 79 437 03 12 or via E-mail: info at fondation-proregio.ch. Do not contact me; I'm out of the loop.

Posted at 23:54 Permalink

Sunday, March 15, 2009

First Blooms of Spring

The snow is mostly gone (at least for the moment), and the first signs of Spring are at hand.

Click images to enlarge.


As usual, the crocuses (Crocus longiflorus) got there first. Developing patiently beneath the snow pack, they burst into bloom shortly after its melting exposes the buds to the direct Sun. This has been a hard winter, and the way to bet is that they're going to be buried under one or more big snowfalls before Old Man Winter finally yields the field, but at least for moment it's a welcome change from months of a pure white landscape.

The top photo was taken with an ALPA SWA 12 camera with a Schneider 72 mm Apo-Digitar lens and Leaf Aptus 75 digital back. Exposure was 1/2 second at f/32 with ISO 100 sensitivity. The close-up at bottom was taken with a Nikon D300 camera and forty-year-old Micro-Nikkor 55 mm macro lens on a Nikon PK-12 extension tube. Exposure was 1/15 second and f/32 at ISO 640; I used the high sensitivity since the close-ups were taken handheld and the flowers were moving slightly in the breeze, so obtaining the required depth of field while avoiding blur required accepting a bit more noise due to the high ISO setting.

Posted at 20:32 Permalink

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading List: Communism: A History

Pipes. Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Doubleday, [2001] 2003. ISBN 978-0-8129-6864-4.
This slim volume (just 175 pages) provides, for its size, the best portrait I have encountered of the origins of communist theory, the history of how various societies attempted to implement it in the twentieth century, and the tragic consequences of those grand scale social experiments and their aftermath. The author, a retired professor of history at Harvard University, is one of the most eminent Western scholars of Russian and Soviet history. The book examines communism as an ideal, a program, and its embodiment in political regimes in various countries. Based on the ideals of human equality and subordination of the individual to the collective which date at least back to Plato, communism, first set out as a program of action by Marx and Engels, proved itself almost infinitely malleable in the hands of subsequent theorists and political leaders, rebounding from each self-evident failure (any one of which should, in a rational world, have sufficed to falsify a theory which proclaims itself “scientific”), morphing into yet another infallible and inevitable theory of history. In the words of the immortal Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!”

Regardless of the nature of the society in which the communist program is undertaken and the particular variant of the theory adopted, the consequences have proved remarkably consistent: emergence of an elite which rules through violence, repression, and fear; famine and economic stagnation; and collapse of the individual enterprise and innovation which are the ultimate engine of progress of all kinds. No better example of this is the comparison of North and South Korea on p. 152. Here are two countries which started out identically devastated by Japanese occupation in World War II and then by the Korean War, with identical ethnic makeup, which diverged in the subsequent decades to such an extent that famine killed around two million people in North Korea in the 1990s, at which time the GDP per capita in the North was around US$900 versus US$13,700 in the South. Male life expectancy at birth in the North was 48.9 years compared to 70.4 years in the South, with an infant mortality rate in the North more than ten times that of the South. This appalling human toll was modest compared to the famines and purges of the Soviet Union and Communist China, or the apocalyptic fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot. The Black Book of Communism puts the total death toll due to communism in the twentieth century as between 85 and 100 million, which is half again greater than that of both world wars combined. To those who say “One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”, the author answers, “Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter.” (p. 158)

So effective were communist states in their “big lie” propaganda, and so receptive were many Western intellectuals to its idealistic message, that many in the West were unaware of this human tragedy as it unfolded over the better part of a century. This book provides an excellent starting point for those unaware of the reality experienced by those living in the lands of communism and those for whom that epoch is distant, forgotten history, but who remain, like every generation, susceptible to idealistic messages and unaware of the suffering of those who attempted to put them into practice in the past.

Communism proved so compelling to intellectuals (and, repackaged, remains so) because it promised hope for a new way of living together and change to a rational world where the best and the brightest—intellectuals and experts—would build a better society, shorn of all the conflict and messiness which individual liberty unavoidably entails. The author describes this book as “an introduction to Communism and, at the same time, its obituary.” Maybe—let's hope so. But this book can serve an even more important purpose: as a cautionary tale of how the best of intentions can lead directly to the worst of outcomes. When, for example, one observes in the present-day politics of the United States the creation, deliberate exacerbation, and exploitation of crises to implement a political agenda; use of engineered financial collapse to advance political control over the economy and pauperise and render dependent upon the state classes of people who would otherwise oppose it; the creation, personalisation, and demonisation of enemies replacing substantive debate over policy; indoctrination of youth in collectivist dogma; and a number of other strategies right out of Lenin's playbook, one wonders if the influence of that evil mummy has truly been eradicated, and wishes that the message in this book were more widely known there and around the world.

Posted at 21:29 Permalink

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reading List: The Lightness of Being

Wilczek, Frank. The Lightness of Being. New York: Basic Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-465-00321-1.
For much of its history as a science, physics has been about mass and how it behaves in response to various forces, but until very recently physics had little to say about the origin of mass: it was simply a given. Some Greek natural philosophers explained it as being made up of identical atoms, but then just assumed that the atoms somehow had their own intrinsic mass. Newton endowed all matter with mass, but considered its origin beyond the scope of observation and experiment and thus outside the purview of science. As the structure of the atom was patiently worked out in the twentieth century, it became clear that the overwhelming majority of the mass of atoms resides in a nucleus which makes up a minuscule fraction of its volume, later that the nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons, and still later that those particles were made up of quarks and gluons, but still physicists were left with no explanation for why these particles had the masses they did or, for that matter, any mass at all.

In this compelling book, Nobel Physics laureate and extraordinarily gifted writer Frank Wilczek describes how one of the greatest intellectual edifices ever created by the human mind: the drably named “standard model” of particle physics, combined with what is almost certainly the largest scientific computation ever performed to date (teraflop massively parallel computers running for several months on a single problem), has finally produced a highly plausible explanation for the origin of the mass of normal matter (ourselves and everything we have observed in the universe), or at least about 95% of it—these matters, and matter itself, always seems to have some more complexity to tease out.

And what's the answer? Well, the origin of mass is the vacuum, and its interaction with fields which fill all of the space in the universe. The quantum vacuum is a highly dynamic medium, seething with fluctuations and ephemeral virtual particles which come and go in instants which make even the speed of present-day computers look like geological time. The interaction of this vacuum with massless quarks produces, through processes explained so lucidly here, around 95% of the mass of the nucleus of atoms, and hence what you see when stepping on the bathroom scale. Hey, if you aren't happy with that number, just remember that 95% of it is just due to the boiling of the quantum vacuum. Or, you could go on a diet.

This spectacular success of the standard model, along with its record over the last three decades in withstanding every experimental test to which it has been put, inspires confidence that, as far as it goes, it's on the right track. But just as the standard model was consolidating this triumph, astronomers produced powerful evidence that everything it explains: atoms, ourselves, planets, stars, and galaxies—everything we observe and the basis of all sciences from antiquity to the present—makes up less than 5% of the total mass of the universe. This discovery, and the conundrum of how the standard model can be reconciled with the equally-tested yet entirely mathematically incompatible theory of gravitation, general relativity, leads the author into speculation on what may lie ahead, how what we presently know (or think we know) may be a piece in a larger puzzle, and how experimental tests expected within the next decade may provide clues and open the door to these larger theories. All such speculation is clearly labeled, but it is proffered in keeping with what he calls the Jesuit Credo, “It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission.”

This is a book for the intelligent layman, and a superb twenty page glossary is provided for terms used in the text with which the reader may be unfamiliar. In fact, the glossary is worth reading in its own right, as it expands on many subjects and provides technical details absent in the main text. The end notes are also excellent and shouldn't be missed. One of the best things about this book, in my estimation, is what is missing from it. Unlike so many physicists writing for a popular audience, Wilczek feels no need whatsoever to recap the foundations of twentieth century science. He assumes, and I believe wisely, that somebody who picks up a book on the origin of mass by a Nobel Prize winner probably already knows the basics of special relativity and quantum theory and doesn't need to endure a hundred pages recounting them for the five hundredth time before getting to the interesting stuff. For the reader who has wandered in without this background knowledge, the glossary will help, and also direct the reader to introductory popular books and texts on the various topics.

Posted at 02:36 Permalink

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Hacker's Diet Online: Trend computation in monthly logs changed

I have just put a new version (Build 5017) of The Hacker's Diet Online into production which changes the computation of the weight trend and calorie balance information displayed below the monthly chart in the Log page. Trend computation for charts in the application generally works on a “what you see is what you get” philosophy—a linear trend is fit to the data plotted in the chart, whatever time period it covers. While this makes sense for historical log charts and long term charts, it can lead to confusing and potentially misleading trend reports as daily entries are added to the current month's chart. At the start of the month, only a few data points are plotted, so small changes in weight and trend can lead to large changes in the slope fit to the trend. As the month progresses and more and more entries are made in the log, the slope is computed from an ever-increasing number of trend points, so the trend reported grows from a trend based on only a few days to the trend for an entire month as the last day's weight is entered in the log.

With the change just implemented, the trend analysis for the most recent monthly log in the database (which will be the current month's log for users actively recording their weight) will be based on the last seven days' trend values, including those from the previous month's log when less than a week's weights are present in the current log. This eliminates the instability in the trend analysis at the start of a month and causes the trend analysis reported in the current monthly log page to consistently be based on the last week and consequently agree with the “Last Week” analysis in the Trend page. The trend analysis shown in logs for previous months is unchanged and will continue to reflect all of the data in the chart for the month.

In an unrelated change, it was possible for a monthly log with sparse entries to create a situation where the trend analysis would divide by zero trying to fit the trend and consequently return an incomplete log page. This is now fixed: if insufficient data are present to define a linear trend, the weight gain/loss trend and calorie balance will be reported as zero.

As of today, there are now a total of 7,779 Hacker's Diet Online accounts open, of which 1,379 are active (defined as having made a weight entry in the last 30 days). Of the active accounts, 516, or 37%, permit public viewing of their results under a pseudonym. A total of 225 accounts have Web badge generation enabled, permitting users to display automatically updated status of their progress on a Web page. A total of 54% of active accounts have made a weight log entry within the last three days and fully one third within the last 24 hours.

Posted at 14:18 Permalink

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reading List: Without Warning

Birmingham, John. Without Warning. New York: Del Rey, 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50289-6.
One of the most common counsels offered to authors by agents and editors is to choose a genre and remain within it. A book which spans two or more of the usual categories runs the risk of “falling into the crack”, with reviewers not certain how to approach it and, on the marketing side, retailers unsure of where in the store it should be displayed. This is advice which the author of this work either never received or laughingly disdained. The present volume combines a political/military techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition with alternative history as practiced by Harry Turtledove, but wait—there's more, relativistic arm-waving apocalyptic science fiction in the vein of the late Michael Crichton. This is an ambitious combination, and one which the author totally bungles in this lame book, which is a complete waste of paper, ink, time, and money.

The premise is promising. What would happen if there were no United States (something we may, after all, effectively find out over the next few years, if not in the manner posited here)? In particular, wind the clock back to just before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and assume the U.S. vanished—what would the world look like in the aftermath? You ask, “what do you mean by the U.S. vanishing?” Well, you see, an interdimensional portal opens between a fifth dimensional braneworld which disgorges 500,000 flying saucers which spread out over North America, from which tens of millions of 10 metre tall purple and green centipedes emerge to hunt down and devour every human being in the United States and most of Canada and Mexico, leaving intact only the airheads in western Washington State and Hawaii and the yahoos in Alaska. No—not really—in fact what is proposed here is even more preposterously implausible than the saucers and centipedes, and is never explained in the text. It is simply an absurd plot device which defies about as many laws of physics as rules of thumb for authors of thrillers.

So the U.S. goes away, and mayhem erupts all around the world. The story is told by tracking with closeups of various people in the Middle East, Europe, on the high seas, Cuba, and the surviving remnant of the U.S. The way things play out isn't implausible, but since the precipitating event is absurd on the face of it, it's difficult to care much about the consequences as described here. I mean, here we have a book in which Bill Gates has a cameo rĂ´le providing a high-security communications device which is competently implemented and works properly the first time—bring on the saucers and giant centipedes!

As the pages dwindle toward the end, it seems like nothing is being resolved. Then you turn the last page and discover that you've been left in mid-air and are expected to buy After America next year to find out how it all comes out. Yeah, right—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, not gonna happen!

Apart from the idiotic premise, transgenred plot, and side-splitting goofs like the mention of “UCLA's Berkeley campus” (p. 21), the novel drips with gratuitous obscenity. Look, one expects soldiers and sailors to cuss, and having them speak that way conveys a certain authenticity. But here, almost everybody, from mild-mannered city engineers to urbane politicians seem unable to utter two sentences without dropping one or more F-bombs. Aside from the absurdity of the plot, this makes the reading experience coarsening. Perhaps that is how people actually speak in this post-Enlightenment age; if so, I do not wish to soil my recreational reading by being reminded of it.

If we end up in the kind of post-apocalyptic world described here, we'll probably have to turn to our libraries once the hoard of toilet paper in the basement runs out. I know which book will be first on the list.

Posted at 23:36 Permalink