Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Passing Of A Great Mind

Today the literary world mourns the passing of one of the greats, Norman Kingsley Mailer. Mailer was known for a great many works; he received the Pulitzer prize twice, the National Book Award once, and just two years ago was awarded the Medal For Distinguished Contributions To American Letters. Some of his many works include "The Naked And The Dead", his first big novel that launched his name throughout the American conscious, a tale of Mailer's experience in World War II; "An American Dream"; "Armies Of The Night";"Of A Fire On The Moon"; "Ancient Evenings"; "The Executioner's Song"; and his most recent, "The Castle In The Forest" a story of Adolf Hitler's childhood, as seen through the eyes of a demon.

Norman Mailer was 84 years old and died following a lung surgery in New York City. You will be missed, sir.

"There are two kinds of brave men: those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will." - Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Welcome To Sunny Orange County, CA

I just finished, last week, the "first" novel in Kim Stanley Robinson's "Three Californias" series, also know as the "Orange County Trilogy" or the "California Triptych". This is a series of books, each featuring the same character, in wildly different settings; each book looking at one possible future of California. The other two novels are "The Wild Shore" which recounts a California of 2047 after the ravages of nuclear war withe the USSR and "Pacific Edge", a 2065 vision of the possible sane reclamation of our world in a ecological utopia.

"The Gold Coast" however, takes place in 2027; a future all to likely and easy to imagine. It is a natural extension of where we are heading. The "autotopia" if you will, of mass commercial development, rampant consumerism and an endless sprawl of condos, freeways, and malls. A multi-level pavement paradise.

Jim McPherson, the main focus of the story, is a twenty something just drifting through his existence, feeling a undefinable ennui and discontentment with his life but blurring it with rampant drug use, mindless part time jobs, casual sex and his aberrant poetry. Jim's life is out of focus, living like a teenager, well into his adult life. His parents don't understand him and Jim's one sole focus is his passion for history; the past Orange County, with which he feel a quintessetail connect and longing.

In a unfocused attempt to bring some sanity and direction to his life, Jim joins his distant friend Arthur on a domestic terrorism plan, sabotaging the multiple aerospace companies and the "war machine" they feed. Via portable missile attacks on unmanned manufacturing plants the duo wrecks havoc and chaos over the defense industry, shaking the very foundation of Jim's life to the core. But when Jim finds out the true nature of Arthur and his missions, everything falls apart...

"The Gold Coast" is a insightful book on an already too eminent future. Dis-heartening in the extreme, Robinson warns us to watch our present in order to guide our tomorrows.

"The problem with our times is that the future is not what it used to be." - Paul Valery (1971-1945)

I'll definitely be reading the other two books in the series shortly, however right now, I'm in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy streak. Possibly even more bleak than "The Gold Coast". :-)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

There's A Red Moon On The Rise

The Chinese government has finally thrown down the gauntlet. Today they launched their first in a series of missions that will eventually lead to a manned lunar landing. The way things are going with NASA and U.S. Federal government funding they will probably beat us back there and you know what? They deserve it.

The joint venture of the International Space Station was (is) a money sink. The consortium of the United States (NASA), the Russians (RKA), the Japanese (JAXA), the Canadians (CSA) and the Europeans (ESA) has, in this authors opinion, been a travesty of historic proportions. The estimated overall costs of the program from it's conception in the late 1980's through it's estimated completion in 2010 (not including shuttle flights) runs in at $130 billion US Dollars. And what have we got out of the deal? A bunch of tired astronauts/cosmonauts/etc...ronauts boring a hole in the sky. Now don't get me entirely wrong here; much good science has come out of the ISS, but I firmly believe we could have spent this money much more successfully in a permanent manned moon base.

First off, there are the risks of the orbiting station inherent in it's design and purpose. Being on the moon would allow the "colonists" (may I use that hopeful of a term?) a stable platform in which to procure their own resources to survive. While Terran slag (the waste by-product of mining operations) is still more plentiful in resources than virgin moon regolith (the loose crumbled material above solid rock), there are plenty of options available to the enterprising Lunarist. Only a couple of the many examples are as follows. Large amounts of iron reserves are know to be on the moon and could be extracted and used in a wide variety of ways, most notably in the construction of future habitats and infrastructure. Helium-3 is also present in ridiculously higher quantities than on Earth (where it is almost non-existent in accessible form) and has a very large array also, of potential uses. The current market value of 3He is about $5.7 million per kilogram and is needed for a safe (non-radiological) form of fusion. It also has many potential applications in other fields such as medical imaging and cryogenic storage. Many other potential metals would also become available in light of the new alloys and tensile strenghts of current metals that moon production (in low or zero gravity) would allow.

Second, the moon would act as an excellent and efficient base of operations for further explorations of the solar system. Due to the moon having about 1/6th the gravity of Earth, launching of exploratory vehicles, Lunar communication devices, and observation satellites would be a virtual breeze. Because of the lack of atmosphere the moon would make a fantastic observatory, especially, since the moon is tidally locked with Earth, one could place the devices on the far side where they would be shielded from the electro-magnetic interference coming from here.

Finally the Moon is close to the Earth. Apollo astronauts made the trip in three days and direct communication has virtually no delay, only about three seconds; all allowing Earth support and services in relatively quick time in case of emergencies.

So where are we headed as a world in regards to the moon? Russia is contemplating a cosmonautical landing in 2025 and construction of a base in 2027-32. The Japanese are looking at 2030 before a possible base is constructed and Bush has given a proposal (a very casual and optimistic one, it seems, given the current budget proposals) date of 2008 for robotic exploration return and 2019/20 for a return in person. No word on a base for the U.S. yet.

Now the Chinese have not announced official dates yet but the consensus seems to lie in the 2017 range for human landings. While this is not much further ahead than any other country this last detail makes my final point. The failure and disastrous accidents that have plagued NASA over the last decades have crippled us. We, as a nation, are afraid to commit and explore. It was a tragedy the lives lost in the Columbia and Challenger accidents, but these men and women knew what they were doing and the price of frontier advancement has never been free. And I think the Chinese understand this. They will not be quagmired in the poisonous red tape that binds our hands. And they didn't just spend $456 billion in the last 6 years on a futile war. Imagine for a moment if we spent that money on scientific research instead of death. I bet we would be pretty close to a re-usable direct, earth to orbit space plane that has been our goal since they mothballed the shuttle program. Heck, we could have a great start on our own moon station right now.

But we can't go back in time and our mistakes cannot be undone. If the Chinese can make it, more power to them. The Russians have talked about joint ventures with them and if that's what it takes to get humans up there, then they have my support as well. Some one needs to make the sacrifices and just do it. The smart dollars are betting on China.

Just don't come crying to me when the U.S. doesn't even have any heavy launch capabilities left and we're stuck at the bottom of this gravity well, paying the rest of the world just to launch a tel-com satellite for us.

"We may go to the moon, but that's not very far. The greatest distance we have to cover still lies within us." - Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stay Tuned This Week For: Write One Off My Life To Do List, or, A BookMooch Revisited

So I wouldn't normally blog about this here since it's not about science or books (at least directly) but in relation to recent events and regarding my previous post last month, I kind of felt the need for an update.

Last Tuesday I was online at the BookMooch discussion forums and John, the creator/founder dropped a notice that a reporter from the New York Times was writing an article about BookMooch and wanted to talk to a few members. Being the fan of the site that I am and that I kinda thought it would never go anywhere, I gave John my number to forward to her. And surprise, surprise, she called me about an hour later. We chatted about BookMooch for 15 minutes or so; about the mechanics of the site, what books were on my "wishlist" and what types of book I have given away. She didn't really seem to "get" it, but it was fun to be asked about my book habits and I left it at that.

Wednesday the ever lovely wife and I had the day off together and we decided to go Christmas shopping for our new place over in Frankenmuth; the "Little Bavaria" of Michigan and home to Bronner's, the largest Christmas store in the world. Anyway, while we were down there I got a call from the reporter again asking a couple more basic questions on the site and when she was finished she asked me if it would be okay to have my picture taken for the article. I thought to myself that with all the other people being interviewed along with John (the founder) that the odds of getting any pics in the paper were safely small and it might be pretty funny so I said "Sure!". Within 45 minutes I had the Times photo editor calling me setting up an appointment for the following evening at my home with a local free-lance photographer.

So Thursday night rolls around and after 4 hours of hard cleaning/organizing/throwing junk in the basement J and I finally have the library in presentable condition. A chatty photographer complete with a tweed jacket and fedora shows up at my place. After setting up his camera and lights and umbrella and other photo equipment he sets down to shooting me about 75 times in "different" poses. All of them sitting down with the laptop in my, well... lap and giving me suggestions like "Now! You've just noticed the most sought after book on your wishlist has just become available!" and "Reach for that Orwell like you are cataloging it to be given away" (as if I'd ever give George's complete works out!). It was quite strange to say the least. He kept talking and taking pictures until he thought I finally was relaxed and natural enough to get some good shots. After telling us about how Chicago is nothing more than Grand Rapids writ large and to get real culture you have to go to London or Tokyo he started packing up his bags and took off. Before he left he assured me the photos would appear on the Times website at the very least and probably in the paper too. I had my doubts. (P.S. - For legal reasons I have to state that the above picture was taken by Adam Bird and is property of the New York Times Company)

The weekend goes by without a word. I talked to some other people of the BookMooch forums and the consensus was that the reporter was less interested in understanding how the site works and the community that has grown up around it and more interested in finding some dirt and bad experiences to write about. Hey, but then, low and behold, Monday's edition hits the news stands and who's mug graces the 7th page of the business section? Yeah, it's mine! And to top it off, the article was not half bad either. She wrote some decent copy. She mentioned a couple of bad things, but these are realities of the site and she had to put some examples in there or it just would be a glorified advertisement.

So, very cool. I now have made the largest metropolitan newspaper in the country. I didn't know it was on my Life Time To-Do List last week but... it turns out it was. And now it's checked off. I'm very geeked about it and I will soon have a matted copy of the article hanging in our library.

The only problem now lies in the fact that the BookMooch servers are so slammed with new traffic that the site has been up and down and running excruciatingly slow the past 12 hours. But I know John will get it fixed sooner or later. He always does, so for now, instead of cruising for new books to mooch, maybe I'll just read for a while.

"People everywhere confuse what they read in the newspaper with news." -A.J. Liebling (1904-1963)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blatant Free Advertising

Okay, they can't all be about science, my cats and kittens. Today I'm going to tell you why BookMooch is pretty much the best things to happen to books since Gutenberg (and LibraryThing). I'll get back to the science next time (thinking about a discourse on Saturn's moon Titan, maybe? Or the Voyager deep space article I was working on?)

For those of you who don't know, this is the quick answer to how BookMooch works:

1. List books you would not mind giving away (this is the hardest part... I had to buy used ones I had no interest in)
2. Get 1/10th of a point for every one you list.
3. When you have more than 1 point, browse the site for a book you want. They have a ton of stuff. 3000+ books a day being mooched.
4. Request the book from the owner, thereby giving them one of your points, allowing them to grab a book from someone else.
5. They owner then mails it to you for free.
6. When someone else wants one of your books they give you a point and you mail them the book, choosing the cheapest postal service thereby keeping your costs to a minimum.
7. Read, repeat & enjoy.

Now, this is why it's been so much fun for me. I've received these books for free (so far):

Moonseed, Transcendent and Exultant, three by Stephen Baxter (pretty much the best SF author working today) - Oracle Night by Paul Auster (a very cool and diverse "literary" author I love) - River Of Blue Fire and City Of Golden Shadow, two by Tad Williams Books 1 & 2 of 4 book epic techno/fantasy called Otherland) - The Eyes of the Dragon, Different Seasons and Storm Of The Century, three by Stephen King (anyone who knows me knows my King obsession) - Complete & Unabridged by George Orwell (about the most important writer ever) - Dreamside by Graham Joyce (very unusual, but very decent, British fantasy/horror author) - 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (as if he needs an explanation... "Big Three") - The Panda's Thumb and The Flamingo's Smile, two by Stephen Jay Gould (preeminent natural historian and essayist) - Adam's Curse by Bryan Sykes (renowned geneticist) - Me Talk Pretty One Day and Holidays On Ice, two by David Sedaris (autobiographical humorist and essayist featured frequently on This American Life on NPR... hilarious) - Life Of Pi by Yann Martel (my favorite book written in the last couple years, Booker Prize, brilliant) - A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking (the next Einstein: physicist, genius) - Foundation, The Gods Themselves, Prelude To Foundation, I, Robot, Pebble In The Sky, Caves Of Steel, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation, eight by Isaac Asimov (another with no explanation needed... "Big Three" again) - Across The Sea Of Suns by Gregory Benford (nifty sf) - Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties, three by William Gibson (founder of the Cyberpunk movement) - Venus and Moonrise, two by Ben Bova (Bova wrote the epic "grand tour" series of novels exploring humanity's growth through the Solar System) - Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (probably one of the most famous SF books of all time) - The Postman by David Brin (remember that Kostner movie? this is way better, apocalyptic) - Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (two of the most talented British fantasy authors alive) - & Watership Down by Richard Adams (the famous book about... well... rabbits.)

On top of those I also got about a half dozen books for J (baking & mystery, mostly). Very flipin' cool. That's about 42 absolutely free books by my count. That I would, for any one of them, have paid at least $5 for. A few of them, even more. The coolest part about this whole business is that almost all of these books are hardcover first eds. Those 8 Asimov books I mooched? Special collector editions, absolutely beautiful! And they go for $30-60 a piece on Amazon.

So what did I have to give up all together to get this great bounty, you might ask? How about 28 used books that I did not want anyway and that I bought for a dollar or less each (most about $0.20) and about $45-$50 in postage. Packaging I re-use from books sent to me AND I still have 15 unused point in my account (There are other ways to get points such as "charity" and over-seas mooching).

The point is, is that BookMooch is... phenomenal. I don't know how else to say it. It's like book porn, like a free all you can eat book buffet, drowning in a sea of book delight. It's booklicious. So go sign up and lets trade something.

"A room without books is like a body without a soul." -Cicero 100BC/43BC

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When I was your age, Pluto was a planet

Monday marked the one year anniversary of our tiny friends demotion from planet-hood.

While this was a sad day I understand and agree with the decision completley. I even bought this --> shirt from my friends at Threadless to commemorate the occasion.

See, the major problem is that Pluto's orbit is too eccentric. While other planets orbit the sun pretty close to the ecliptic, Pluto is almost 17 degrees off. If you would imagine an cantaloupe, for instance, lying in small depression on the ground. This is the sun. The other eight planets are from the size of pebbles to maybe, say, a small tomato (for Jupiter) in various places on the ground around the "sun." Now imagine you are lying down on your stomach looking at our playground solar system. Pluto would be largish dust mote somewhere above your head, spinning about the sun once every 247.9 Terran years. It's way out of line with regards to the rest of the planets.

Another problem is with Pluto's largest "moon," Charon. Technically Charon and Pluto make up what is known as a binary system due to the fact that they rotate each other. Their barycentre (center of gravity) is actually above either body's surface (although quite a bit closer to Pluto) and they are tidally locked. So, if you were to hang out in spaceship between the two, it would appear that both Pluto and Charon would spin around your ship always with the same surface always facing you.

Anyway, with these reasons and others; including what kicked off this whole debate in the first place, the discovery of many other Pluto sized objects outwards of the Neptunian orbit; scientists, in 2006, from the International Astronomical Union redefined what it means to be a planet and kicked the old boy out. It was a pretty good run, I think, for being such an odd-ball to begin with and everyone should be satisfied by the decision. Our solar system is now a happy and uniform family with (currently) 8 planets and 3 "dwarf planets"; Pluto not even being the largest of these.

While Pluto was still a planet, NASA launched the New Horizons mission to what, at the time, was the only unexplored planet in the Solar System.Voyager 1 had a shot at a Pluto flyby but the mission controllers opted at that time to have it explore the Saturian moon Titan. Not a bad plan overall, since Voyager's trip partially lead to the more recent mission of Cassini–Huygens which proved Titan to be the only other body in the Solar System to have stable bodies of surface liquid (very cool, but off topic). Anyway... New Horizons was launched (as the fastest vehicle to date) in early 2006 to examine Pluto, it's three moons, and possibly other Kuiper Belt objects in the vicinity. It should arrive at Pluto on July 14, 2015; coming within approximately 6,200 miles of the surface and travelling roughly 30,000 miles per hour.

It was also confirmed by NASA, that the launch contained a portion of Pluto's discoverer's ashes. Yup, that is right. Enjoy your flight Mr. Tombaugh. We can all only dream of our ashes making the journey home to the stars.

"It may be that the old astrologers had the truth exactly reversed, when they believed that the stars controlled the destinies of men. The time may come when men control the destinies of stars". - Arthur C. Clarke

The only question that then remains is one of mnemonics: Now that My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas no more, just what is she going to do?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Books, World History & The Digital Age

**Note: Credit for all original research, data plotting & illustrations, is given to David Petrou & Matthew Gray; both software engineers for Google**Book Map
You know how when you look at pictures of the planet from space, you can see "maps" of the population from the city lights and see where the Earth is highly populated? Well, using that idea two engineers at Google have developed a program that has mapped the world based on specific locations named in all published novels that have been scanned and recorded by Google Books; a newer service from Google that lets you find information from pretty much any book ever published and scan/search for keywords, view summaries, and even read whole books if available and released from copyright protections.

This is some pretty cool stuff, even if you are not a bibliophile like myself. Above is the current world map of the book universe. Each pixel intensity (blue: lowest; red: highest) is based on the number of times it's specific location is mentioned in any of these books. Shockingly (or not) this gives us a quite detailed map of the world...

Some parts of the world have not been given much representation (are Canadian authors not even writing about themselves?) but most of it is pretty detailed. The next cool thing is filtering the map based on publication dates. Matthew Gray notes that you can see some pretty interesting trends, also. The westward expansion in population in the US in patently obvious; ergo it's mention in the literary world. You can also see the colonization of India and Africa, if largely from a British literary perspective...

1800'sFrom books published before 1800 AD.

1830's From books published before 1830 AD.

1860'sFrom books published before 1860 AD.

1980's From books published before 1890 AD.

It continues to amaze me how the digitization and condensation of pretty much all human knowledge into useful, practical and most importantly searchable databases (ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US) yields ever increasing and delightfully unexpected uses.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

It's Like A Purple Sausage!

Please note the following blog is rated "G": for Gross that is!

So I was selling my plasma at Biolife the other day. I do this about twice a week, it's good money for sitting around with a needle in your arm and reading a book! Anyway for those of you that do not know how this works, they stick a needle in you vein and suck a pint or so of blood out. Then in a machine, the blood is spun and all the plasma being lighter, is forced out of the blood. After this the remaining blood (the red cells) are pumped back into your arm. See my wonderful art to the left for a cross section view of this process. Please note the position of the needle. So they do this about 10-12 times and then they have about 800 ml of your plasma and you have $30. Its a pretty sweet deal for poor folks like me. Well Friday morning, I was just about done with my appointment (maybe 80 ml short) when I started to get uncomfortable. I try adjusting myself and I accidentally jog my left arm forwards. Oops! The needle punctures through the back side of my vein and since I am in the phase where they return the plasma-less blood back into my body, my bicep starts quickly filling with blood. See example #2, to the right, again noting the new position of the needle.

So now about a pint of blood is being injected into the inside of my arm and I really have no idea since I can't feel anything and the needle generally does not hurt. Very quickly my arm starts to swell up like a sausage as noted in the drawing as well. Now, I'm noticing for certain. I call over to the nurse and she stops the machine and pulls the needle. Immediately, I start to get pale and dizzy. The doc comes over and takes a look at it but because she can't see the swelling compared to my other, clothed arm thinks nothing is wrong and I'm just dizzy because I forgot to eat breakfast. Oh yeah, and I need to be at work in 20 minutes. To make a long story short, they finally let me leave and I rush home to change and go to work. My arm is very sore and stiff, however other than that I notice nothing.

Friday night I get home form work and sure enough there is a little bruising. Not picture worthy or anything, but cool. "Whatever" I think, "I expected that." Then this morning comes. I am taking off my PJ's, readying for the shower when I notice my arm: Wow! That’s really gross (left pic)! Again, though, not a huge deal. However, when I got home from work Saturday, I found this mess on the right. Sweet! That is the biggest bruise I have ever seen in my whole life. I am thinking of licensing the picture on Wikipedia for the article "hematoma" . My bruise walks all over all those other pussy photos...* I'll try to get more pictures as the bruise worsens.** It should be high entertainment. As it is right now I can barely move it! I normally sleep with one or the other arm under the pillow. Now, I wake up to crazy pain every time I roll over and slip my left arm under. The funny thing is? They still let me donate with my right arm.

I am the king of the purple sausage!!!

*Update One: Me being a little slow on the draw, wikipedia now has better hematoma pictures. Ones that may even beat out mine, although if I had actually gotten pics from that weekend following, I still would have "won." :-) Too bad.*

**Update Two: The bruising did get worse, unfortunately I got no more pictures. It eventually covered my entire arm; from the top of my bicep all the way down to my wrist. As the blood pooled over the coming days, eventually puddling mostly in my wrist, it finally began to heal by turning a wicked shade of green, yellow and brown.**