Thursday, December 20, 2012

eBooks and the Library

David Vinjamuri, writing at Forbes, points out that how libraries lend books will change as more and more people read eBooks. The problem is that neither pricing nor usage has stabilized  as a result, libraries are spending a significant amount of money on eBooks that a limited (but growing!) amount of patrons use, and publishers are looking to charge higher prices - and dictate more limitations - for eBooks than they do for printed books. Money quote:
For better or worse, Big Six publishers are unlikely to adopt a pricing model for eBooks that mirrors how print books are sold to libraries.  But current pricing and lending restrictions unfairly penalize libraries to the detriment of publishers and readers.  A system based on actual use would more fairly allocate cost and risk as long as eBooks are not governed by the First Sale doctrine.
Personally, despite reading more and more eBooks, I use the library less and less because I don't really understand the lending process and so few eBooks are available for lending. It's a problem that will need to be solved at some point, between the lack of eBooks at the library, the question about what happens to eBooks when an account goes dormant, and other factors, a real availability issue may be starting to take shape.

H/t to the Dish for pointing out the article. Also interesting at the Dish is the reading trends graphic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

First Lines of "Wool"

"The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads."

- Hugh Howey, Wool (omnibus edition).

The first novella in the collected omnibus edition is absolutely fantastic. I'd recommend it to anyone. The fact that it was originally self-published makes the story and its success that much more impressive. The second novella is less immediately compelling  but part of the reason for this is that his purpose has changed - he's quite obviously building up a world for future stories. I'm really enjoying his breezy yet thought-provoking style, and the storytelling is top-notch.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Theory Behind the "Cloud Atlas" film

Emily Eakin writes a somewhat arch but interesting article behind the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, one of my favorite books. Her point is that Ken Wilber - the author of an ambitious effort to reconcile empirical knowledge and mystical experience in an “Integral Theory” of existence - provides us the proper framework to view the movie (and also, presumably, read the book). She details his thinking as:
"...reality is composed exclusively of holons, a term borrowed from Arthur Koestler to denote that which is simultaneously an autonomous whole and a part of something larger. Just as a brain cell is both a self-contained unit and part of a larger organ, so, too, a human being exists as a single individual and as part of a larger collective—a family, an ethnic group, the human race, all living things—in a pattern that extends indefinitely in both directions."
Sounds interesting! And she even includes some nifty graphics from his books to illustrate his points. It sounds a little complex and ratholeish to be my cup of tea, but it's always interesting pondering these things.

Eakin also details what sounds like what sounds like what might be the biggest criticism for the movie. SPOILER ALERT! She writes: "With these gestures, the directors made literal what Mitchell had left playfully ambiguous: characters in later sections are the spiritual embodiments—reincarnations—of those in earlier ones." Not sure I like things spelled out in this way but that's Hollywood for you.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Moral Courage

"Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men."

- George S. Patton Jr.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

First Lines of Octavia Butler's "Dawn"


Still alive.

Alive... again.

Awakening was hard, as always. The ultimate disappointment  It was a struggle to take in enough air to drive off nightmare sensations of asphyxiation. Lilith Iyapo lay gasping, shaking with the force of her effort. Her heart beat too fast, too loud. She curled around it, fetal, helpless. Circulation began to return to her arms and legs in flurries of minute, exquisite pains."

- Octavia Butler, from Dawn (Book One of Lilith's Brood). A really intriguing first contact book so far. I alternate from thinking it's written really well and not so much, but regardless I haven't been able to put it down.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Might As Well Be Infinity...

To expand upon this post a bit, Voyager I is almost at the edge of our galaxy. To put that in perspective, TPM writes, it's "some 11 billion miles away from the Sun, with its signal taking about 17 hours to get back to Earth." It took Voyager - a nuclear-powered spacecraft - 35 years to travel to the edge of the solar system.

It's always hard to really grasp distances like this, but Alan Lightman devotes an entire article ("Our Place in the Universe") to it in the December 2012 issue of Harper's:
"...Newton correctly concluded that the nearest stars [beyond our solar system] are about 100,000 times the distance from the Earth to the sun, about 10 trillion miles away. ... If we traveled in the fastest rocket ship ever manufactured on earth, the trip would last 100,000 years, at least a thousand human life spans." 
Pretty stunning numbers. And that's just to our nearest star, to say nothing of other galaxies. Lightman quotes a scientist studying a galaxy named UDFj-39546284 that is 100,000,000 trillion miles from earth. Damn.

Practically, this means that, since our current understanding is that speed-of-light travel is impossible, the rest of the universe is out of reach for manned space travel. Its reasons like this that make SciFi authors like Kim Stanley Robinson limit themselves to our solar system: the distances between systems are just too vast. And they're getting bigger all the time!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

When Plunder Becomes a Way of Life

Frédéric Bastiat wrote of this human trait in 1848, "When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dave Brubeck, RIP

One of my favorite breakfast albums is Dave Brubeck's Time Out. It's an amazing album whose polyrhythms can entertain without overwhelming the moment - but is not strictly background music either. So it was with sadness that I heard that Brubeck died recently at the ripe age of 91. Rest in Peace.

If you've never heard the guy, go to YouTube or check out this 1966 concert to listen to what you missed.

The Big Primary-Color Emotions of a Dog

"This state of being-in-the-moment is what’s so compelling about dogs. It’s hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can’t figure out that it’s being measured for its grave. ... if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience."

 - John Homans, from What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend

h/t Brain Pickings

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Whispers Against the Great Roar of the World

"I wouldn't have done it this way!" Sax exclaimed. 
Ann stared at him. He steadfastly regarded the TV.

"I know," she said. And then she was tired of talk again, tired of its uselessness. It had never been more than it was now: whispers against the great roar of the world, half-heard and less understood.

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, page 555

Sunday, December 2, 2012


“When I’m alone”—the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange.
“When I was young,” he said; “when I was young...”

I thought of age, and loneliness, and change,
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,
And how unlike the selves that meet and talk,
And blow the candles out, and say goodnight.
Alone. . . . The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.

- "Alone" by Siegfried Sassoon (h/t The Dish)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Words and Action

"It was a world of acts, and words had no more influence on acts than the sound of a waterfall on the flow of the stream."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, p. 461

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review: "Now Wait for Last Year" by Philip K. Dick

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -  Philip K. Dick
It’s hard to relate how strange it feels to be immersed in a Philip K. Dick novel. In both subject matter and style, he’s a very eccentric writer. At his best, his books are journeys into paranoiac alternate realities, containing one plausible mind-bending idea after another, but you still have to forgive him a lot – his awkward turns of phrases, the continually jumping from one topic to another, his obsessions with overbearing, bitchy women, etc. In addition, he fancies himself an experimentalist. This means that many of the bizarre and silly things that occur in his books are often the result of him “playing” with form rather that extensions of his sometimes poor writing.

But I’m selling him short. Now Wait For Last Year is a good novel. It tells the tale of Eric Sweetscent, an artiforg (artificial organ) surgeon working for Gino Molinari, the leader of the Earth, who has allied with the wrong group of aliens in a struggle for control of the galaxy. Most of the book centers upon Molinari’s efforts to keep these alien “allies” from overrunning the earth forces by sacrificing his health. But, this being Dick, it also deals with misadventures with JJ-180, an instantly addictive drug that causes you to slip backwards or forwards in time. These two threads twist around each other in bizarre ways as Dick creates a multi-layered reality that leaves you standing on unsteady ground, never knowing who – or what – to trust.

Dick loved chaos, and was one of the first proponents that the future will basically be an extension of the present with all of its political quagmires, shoddy craftsmanship, and corrupted power structures – but with cooler technology. He also insisted that the fake had as much validity as the real. In other words, he felt that the social fantasies that we make up in our heads end up replacing our reality, leading to some serious disconnects when we do abut up against “reality.”  He combines these ideas together in a heady brew that – like his best novels – lead you to false conclusions and uncertainty so that you acutely experience the same feelings as the protagonist as he struggles with political, emotional, and temporal problems. For this reason, I don't want to give too much away about the plot since to do so would rob you of this experience.

Having said that, I was surprised at how powerful and deep Now Wait for Last Year is – it carries real psychological heft. Dick’s novels at times go too far, leaving you with shallow characters and tinny prose, but not here. For instance, the mutually destructive relationship between Sweetscent and his wife Kathy is compelling because you can tell that Dick has lived it (he was married five times in his short life). Similarly, the oppressive nature of the book's military situation drives its characters towards the darkness: when Sweetscent meets up with Molinari for the first time, they bond over their “yearning for death. [They] could envision it as a release—the only dependable release that existed…” p. 56

I loved the trip of Now Wait For Next Year, but it’s hard for me to recommend to people because it was such a bizarre experience. If you’re interested in Dick, you might do best to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Martian Time-Slip first. Or you can wait for the movie!

Cross posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Quick Jolt of Nostalgia or Sentimentality

Jordan Bloom, commenting on other writers thoughts of "upper middlebrow art" (think Wes Anderson), asks:
Is there a music “ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices”? Or how about one that “stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook”?
And points to Mumford and Sons as an indie folk representative of this idea. While I don't disagree with him (that style of music doesn't speak to me), I don't believe i'd be so harsh. He concludes, however, that
In music, I wonder how much of this has to do with the expectation, especially among young people, that every moment of their waking lives be soundtracked. Though we spend more time listening to music than at any time before, that rarely leads to listening to longer compositions or a broadening of one’s musical horizons. If you have time to listen to a few tracks on the way to work, this kind of indie folk suits your purposes well. I’ve heard people defend this music as “life-affirming.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like nonsense. Functionally, the music is life-distracting. It’s like emotional crack; a quick jolt of nostalgia or sentimentality to get you through the day. Some throwaway lines about mountains or trains to consume on the subway before sitting at a computer for eight hours. It seems like most people don’t expect anything more out of music than this, and that’s tragic.
It's a thought that haunts me in my darker moments: is my love of music shallow? I've moved more recently to listening more and more to wordless electronic music, most of which serves both as background music as well as something I can listen to more deeply as the situation arises. Or can I? Is the meaning I'm getting from these songs merely because I've listened to them so many times at work or during dinner with the kids? Am I using music to control the mood rather than to challenge, move me, or even entertain? Is it, god forbid, a "a quick jolt of nostalgia or sentimentality"?

I don't think it is, although my listening habits are certainly more lazy then they were before my kids came along. But they're already grooving to Ulrich Schnauss at the dinner table, an accomplishment i'm proud of. If my kids are going to see music as a soundtrack, at least it will be a damned good soundtrack. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

First Lines of Pete Townshend's "Who I Am"

"It's extraordinary, magical, surreal, watching them all dance to my feedback guitar solos; in the audience my art-school chums stand straight-backed among the slouching West and Northern London Mods, that army of teenagers who have arrived astride their fabulous scooters in short hair and good shoes, hopped up on pills. I can't speak for what's in the heads of my fellow bandmates, Roger Daltrey, Leith Moon, or John Entwistle. Usually I'd be feeling like a loner, even in the middle of the band, but tonight, in June 1964, at The Who's first show at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, I am invincible."

- Pete Townshend, from Who I Am

A brutally honest wild mess of contradictions, this guy is endlessly fascinating to me.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Should I Care... If He Has No Hair?

It's a Who week here at Thought Ambience. I picked up Pete Townshend's Autobiography Who I Am, and am headed into Boston tonight to catch the Who at the Garden, where they'll be playing Quadrophenia in its entirety. Given that this is one of my all-time favorite albums, i'm pretty excited about it!

In celebration, I thought i'd share a pix I drew of the man a few years ago. Really excited to see the old guy tonight and see what he's got left in the tank. I'll let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: "The Stand" by Stephen King

Many Stephen King fans regard The Stand as his greatest novel. After finally completed the 1153 pages (of the Expanded Edition), I can see why they think so, even if I don’t agree with them. Certainly everything that makes Stephen King such a powerful and interesting writer is in place here—the propulsive narrative that drives you to keep turning the pages, the compelling character relationships, the chilling elements of the supernatural and horror – but, to me, the book is just a hot mess. A fascinating mess, but a mess nonetheless.

King kicks it off by tracking a plague—dubbed Captain Trips—as it narrowly escapes from a Top Secret military facility to infect the rest of the world. The way that King coldly details the spread of the disease, the effect it has on people, and the devastation that results is chillingly powerful. This is the spookiest part of the book – as when Stu, trapped in a CDC containment center, wanders through halls of dead and dying victims while searching for the exit.

After people have (mostly) stopped dying and the .04% of humanity that are immune to the plague take stock of what’s happened, they all start dreaming one of two dreams: of Randall Flagg, a “dark man” setting up camp in Las Vegas, or of Mother Abigail, a Christ-like 104 year old woman. Survivors are drawn towards one side or another depending on their nature, with King setting up a confrontation between them. He obviously wants to explore religious ideas, and what he calls “rising above adversity through faith” so, to this end, and despite his well-deserved reputation for wallowing in the darkness, King spends a long time with the “good” folks who congregate in Boulder, CO to re-establish society. This attempted rebirth of America is interesting, and SK is typically at his best when describing the interconnections between people in close knit environments, but the book’s pace falters as King includes too much sociology and politics while neglects Flagg’s group. The rest of the novel repeats this pattern: lots of interesting stretches that ultimately don’t really serve an important point in the big good vs. evil showdown – the Stand – that concludes the book.

In short, I liked The Stand, but I feel that King could have cut out a lot of material and ended up with a taught thriller in line with the gripping first third of the book. Many, many people have fallen in love with The Stand, but although I liked it, call me a simple acquaintance.

Related Posts:
Book Review: "The Wind through the Keyhole"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: "Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer

I picked up Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback on the strength of two things: 1) the author’s pedigree (he’s won the Best Novel Hugo and Nebula awards) and 2) the fascinating premise. The book takes place far in the future when mankind has received a second transmission from Sigma Draconis. Sarah Halifax, the woman who decoded the first message is now 87, and so a rich benefactor offers to pay for a “rollback procedure” – medically improving the body so that you’re physically 25 again – so that she can continue the correspondence with our neighbors 18.1 light years away. Sarah agrees, but only if her husband Don is rolled back as well. Unfortunately, the rollback only works for Don, and the couple has to deal with the implications of their 50-year age gap as Sarah works towards deciphering the second alien message.

While Rollback was a good book – I plowed through its 300-something pages in less than a week – I was a bit disappointed that Sawyer spent so time focusing on Don. Entire chapters cover the challenges of dealing with his new youth – of being an old mind in a young body. Sarah’s predicament as an 87-year old working to decrypt the alien message - to me, the more interesting scenario - felt like an afterthought. In the end, Rollback was an interesting story, but I was hoping of more of an examination of how aging scientists would cope with challenges.

For me, the highlights of the novel were the examinations of first contact theory, even if the characters didn't so much talk to each other as much as promote theories. Still, I liked the discussions about what Sigma Draconis culture would be like. Forgive the long quote, but it will give you an idea of what these sections of the book is like:
“The aliens have an obligation to let us know they’re there. …Because they’d be an existence proof that it’s possible to survive technological adolescence—you know, the period during which you have tools that could destroy your entire species but no mechanism in place yet to prevent them from ever being used. … [one] solution is that time-honored sci-fi cliché, the hive mind. … you all think with one mind. Of course, if you do that, you might even lose any notion that there could be other individuals out there. … There’s another solution too. Absolute totalitarianism. Everyone’s still got free will, but they’re constrained from doing anything with it. pages 53-4
He continues this interesting line of thought by offering another way to survive technological adolescence: by refusing to evolve as a species through a lack of procreation, etc. that Sarah calls “transcend[ing] Darwin.” In the end, the novel neatly wraps itself up with some touching pictures of mortality and a continued picture into what life will be like several hundred years from how. It’s an entertaining little self-contained book that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in first contact, even if it didn't blow me away.

Cross-posted on Reading, Writing and Red Sox

Digging into the Petraeus Scandal

So General Petraeus gets caught cheating on his wife. I'm having a hard time seeing any big problem with this other than the usual arguments - proves the guy's untrustworthy, leaves himself open to blackmail, etc. So despite this "hero goes down" narrative, i'm having a hard time seeing what all of the fuss is about. However, I did stumble across this excellent Robert Wright article in The Atlantic in which he argues that we're focusing on the wrong Petraeus scandal:
But in many ways, [Obama] is no improvement over the last one, and Exhibit A is the acceleration of a far-flung drone-strike program that is shrouded in the secrecy of the CIA. The vision implicit in this program is of an America whose great calling is to lead the world into a future of chaos and lawlessness.

This prospect was vividly highlighted when, a bit more than a year ago, Obama had David Petraeus turn in his stars so he could move to the CIA and keep fighting wars. There have been other military men who headed the CIA, but never has there been one whose move to Langley brought so much continuity with what he was doing before he went there.
The revolving door between the military and the industries that support them has always been a problem. Wright's larger point is that the CIA - partly led in this by Petraeus - has morphed from being an agency that indirectly contributed to killing people to one that directly kills them, leading to questions like this one:
If the CIA is psychologically invested in a particular form of warfare--and derives part of its budget from that kind of warfare--can it be trusted to impartially assess the consequences, both positive and negative, direct and indirect?
Scary question, because i'm sure the answer is that no, it can't be trusted. Without knowing all of the complex details, all I can see is a growing picture of a country whose military and intelligence agencies are running amok. IMO, Obama's biggest fault was not only to continue but to expand upon the drone attacks of the Bush years under the guise of being "tough on terror." Can you imagine what our reaction would be if another country used drones to kill as many people and destroy as much property as we do?

Monday, November 12, 2012

To Be Unborable

"The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

- David Foster Wallace, from The Pale King

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Go Vote!

It's that time! Go to your polling place and cast your ballot. And when you do so, be sure to keep in mind these important words from Chris Rock:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Good is Knowledge?

"What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything."

- Don DeLillo, from White Noise

Observing Nature

"What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our questioning."

- Werner Heisenberg

Friday, November 2, 2012

When Heroes Fall...

So it turns out that not only did Lance Armstrong dope his blood when he was winning all of those Tour de France titles, but, as Michael Specter writes in the New Yorker: "he was the king—better at doping than he was at pretending to win bicycle races through grit and determination." There are a lot of sordid details, many of which are incredible to read, but the kicker is this statement by the USADA: "the evidence in the case against Lance Armstrong is beyond strong; it is as strong, or stronger than, that presented in any case brought by USADA over the initial twelve years of USADA’s existence."

That's an incredible statement, and really does put everything that Lance has ever said into a different perspective. I mean, not only did Lance deny doping, but he did so vehemently, so passionately that it's hard to believe it was all an act. It was like he thought he'd never get caught - although in the end, history always people always get caught. Lance's image is in shambles, his biking titles (and marathon finish!) stripped from him, and he's currently laying low,  not defending himself publicly and stepping down from the head of Livestrong.

Other then wondering what kind of man can lie so vehemently about what he knows to be true, the question of what this means to Livestrong is the most fascinating question to me. Lifestrong is a good charity regardless of Lance's actions, and has (and will) achieve a lot of good in the world. But how it moves forward in the face of the disgrace of its figurehead will be very interesting. As Suzanne Vega sings in "When Hereos Go Down" (linked above):
When heroes go down / They land in flame
So don't expect any slow and careful / Settling of blame
I'm not expecting, or even advocating, that Lance's forming Livestrong to somehow mitigate his lies and cheating on the playing field. But the issues, and the person, are complex, and it's good to keep that in mind as we ponder the meaning of Lance Armstrong's rise and fall.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

First Lines of "Red Mars"

"Mars was empty before we came. That's not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses--except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, from Red Mars.

A few chapters in, this book is even better than I had expected, and I came into it with high hopes after reading 2312.

Related Posts:
Book Review: 2312
Obscure References

Governmental Roles in Disaster Relief

Now that it appears that the worst of Sandy's destruction has passed, the cleanup has begun. A good chunk of the work is being done, directed by, or funded by the federal government. So it's worth noting that Mitt Romney and most of the GOP have for some time now been promoting the dissolution or de-funding of emergency-relief agencies like FEMA. Johnathan Cohn details the role the feds play in the disaster and what removing this line of defense would mean. Money quote:
States do many things well and, frequently, the most successful federal programs are the ones that let states innovate or take charge in those instances when they are positioned to do so. Emergency management happens to be one of them: Fulgate’s mantra at FEMA is to let states take the lead, with the federal government giving them the tools to do their job. But even programs like FEMA require presidential-level commitment to a vibrant bureaucracy and, yes, serious federal spending. And that’s not something Romney, or his allies, endorse. On the contrary, one of Romney's core campaign commitments is a cap on federal spending that would require drastic cuts to domestic spending. If Romney sought to spare FEMA, as he has other popular programs, that’d simply mean more cuts to other programs—from food inspections to health clinics to air traffic control—on which public safety and well-being depend.
Romney really does believe that the private sector could take the place of the government. But I wonder what private company would have the resources to offer major disaster insurance, how much it would cost, and who could afford it. I also wonder what would happen to the many, many people who most likely would not be able to afford that insurance. IMO, a healthy (and not over-strong) federal government is necessary for these large-scale areas of public interest, like infrastructure, health care, and disaster relief. By deferring these costs onto all of us, we make them manageable while also recognizing economies of scale.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Watched The Cabin in the Woods last night. Holy crap. It's now one of my favorite horror movies, up there with The Silence of the Lambs and Alien and all of the other classics in my queue. I don't want to expand upon why the movie's so damned good - part of the enjoyment is the utter surprise of what happens - but I will say that the story is self-referential in a manner that is respectful of its subject matter (horror movies in general) while still acknowledging the absurdity of it all. And done in such a way that it's still scary too!

As Jamie Frevele puts it on The Mary Sue:
"It’s awesome because it’s incredibly effective and well-done. The script, by [Joss] Whedon and Drew Goddard, who also directed, is just spot-on and clever, while also being scary and gory without being gratuitously violent. (It is, after all, slasher movie at heart.) One-dimensional characters are given depth and reasons for being there besides dying. Every scene has a purpose. Everything works beautifully in The Cabin in the Woods, and by the time it’s over, you can’t believe what you have just been through. It’s a movie that happens to you, because it hits you over the head with its sexy, beautiful brains."
IMO, I love the playing of horror movie paradigms in the same manner of Bill Willingham's Fables or some of Neil Gaiman does with fairy tales - by combining characters from different stories together and watching the fireworks. Good stuff!

The Embodiment of the Machine

Thomas Frank has an excellent examination of Paul Ryan ("All the Rage") in the November 2012 issue of Harper's. Money quote: 
"A telling incident in the life of [Paul] Ryan: back in April, the New York Times reported that he was a fan of the Nineties alt-rock band Rage Against the Machine. The members of the band, however, are well known for their leftist causes, and in August their guitarist, Tom Morello, declared that Ryan "is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades."
This exchange represents, I think, something more than an amusing cultural clash: it is a metaphor for Paul Ryan's career. His meteoric rise over the past four years is partly due to his appropriation of symbols and rhetoric and, indeed, rage that used to belong to the left. Raging against power is how the machine--which is to say, the conservative movement itself--gets its business done."
A wolf in sheep's clothing, Ryan's public persona very eloquently masks his quite extreme position on many things. Frank does a good job pointing out some of these positions and tying them into the larger scheme where Republicans couch their support for moneyed power in the voice of indignant outrage. One example he chooses is Ryan's argument that corporations use regulations to stifle competition (he posits that small companies can't afford to comply with the fees and regulations that large companies can, so large companies gladly pay fees to keep their smaller brethren out of the picture), so all regulations are bad. This argument  sadly, misses the lesson that so many missed in our most recent financial crisis, namely that a certain amount of regulations are needed to protect society from powerful companies and industries. Hiding this support for the "machine" behind passionate & progressive-sounding rhetoric is a cynical yet powerful tactic that progressives have yet to find an effective way to combat.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The New Language of the Cinema

David Mitchell's reaction to having Cloud Atlas adapted into film:
"None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable. In the German edition of my last novel, my translator Volker Oldenburg rendered a rhyming panoramic tableau by rescripting the items in order to make it rhyme in German too. He judged that rhythm mattered more than the exact items in the tableau, and it was the right call. Similarly, when the Wachowskis and Tykwer judged that in a translation (into film) of “Cloud Atlas” Zachry’s and Meronym’s future needs more certitude, then I trusted them to make the right call. They want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril."
It's interesting that, in general, authors appear to give movie directors benevolent license to do whatever they have to do in order to make it work the big screen. Only occasionally do you hear of big disagreements like Stephen King's dislike of Kubrick's version of The Shining. It's very different than the typical reaction of the reader, who often intensely dislike having the pictures in their mind overwhelmed by the overpowering images of a movie.

Originally posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

As a Reminder for the Next Two Weeks

"Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."

- George Orwell, from Politics and the English Language

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

First Lines of "Rollback"

"It had been a good life.
Donald Halifax looked around the living room that he and his wife.Sarah had shared for sixty years now, and that thought kept coming back to him. Oh, there had been ups and downs, and the downs had seemed excursions into the flames of hell at the time--the lingering death of his mother, Sarah's battle with breast cancer, the rough periods their marriage had gone through--but, on balance, when all was said and done, it had been a good life."
- Robert J Sawyer, from Rollback

Picked up Rollback as my "easy" book as I work my way through Tom McCarthy's C (which has gotten much better than I wrote about the other day). One of the reasons I'm so excited about Sawyer's novel is because it's about older people dealing with new challenges, as opposed to most of SciFi which typically deals with young people. Here, the premise of this book is that an older woman has to get back into the game after a series of communications she sent out into space are answered 60 years after they were sent. There are complications - that's what makes the story really interesting - but the focus on older people is refreshing.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

First Lines of "C"

"Dr. Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Bersoie House. He has sore buttocks: the seat's hard and uncushioned."
- Tom McCarthy, from C

I've heard a lot about this novel but, 27 pages in, I can't say I'm impressed. Low sample size - I know - but I'm bored and wondering why I should care about these characters. I've seen hints of McCarthy's "literary pyrotechnics" but, then again, a large majority of the first chapter consisted of nothing but descriptions of rambling around a large estate. Will stick with it, but I'm not left with a good first impression of this Booker Prize finalist. Here's hoping it's just a slow starter!

Update: The book has become much more entertaining after the first chapter, and I can see why people speak so highly of it now. Still, that first chapter had me worried for a while.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Art and Science as Two Entirely Different Things

"How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things... That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers."

- Isaac Asimov

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bringing Back What Was Washed Out

Looks like the Bills really are desperate.

Short story: regardless of who they sign, until they find a real quarterback (Sorry Fitz, you're a backup and always have been), the Bills are doomed to be no better than .500. (Need proof, see "The Bad" section here.)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Space News

More and more potential diamonds are being found in space. The latest is "55 Cancri e," "a planet 40 light years away from Earth [that' has at least a third of its mass made up of solid diamond."

As rare as they are on earth, being the most stable form of carbon, diamond is theoretically much more common elsewhere in the universe. This notion first grabbed my attention in Clarke's 2010 when he postulated a Jupiter with a diamond core larger than the size of the earth.

Bonus space item: An incredible unraveling Helix Nebula as tweeted out by NASA.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

First Lines of "Now Wait for Last Year"

"The apteryx-shaped building, so familiar to him, gave off its usual smoky gray light as Eric Sweetscent collapsed his wheel and managed to park in the tiny stall allocated him. Eight o'clock in the morning, he through drearily. And already his employer, Mr. Virgil L. Ackerman, had opened TF&D Corporation's offices for business."

- Philip K. Dick, Now Wait for Last Year.

Tackling one of the last well-regarded PKD books I haven't yet read, in advance of the upcoming movie. The first lines already are reminiscent of his other books: The put-upon narrator, the bizarre words, phrasings  and names, and the throw-away scifi elements, devoid of any glamour. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Pumpkin Beer

Was at a party this Saturday that served up a bunch of Pumpkin beers. Here's what I tried:

  • The Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale smelled and tasted a bit like cinnamon at first, but finished just like a regular lager. I liked it but it was a bit thin.
  • Cisco Brewing Pumple Drumkin. Way too much going on in this beer - the  nutmeg and pumpkin overwhelmed everything else. Tasted like a candy bar to me.
  • Harpoon UFO Pumpkin. Meh.
Comprehensive review of the sub-genre at here. I'm not impressed.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Russian Flight to Venus

This is cool: Don Mitchell's website that details the history behind and some crazy pictures from the Russian Venera landers, which landed on the planet in the 70s and 80s.

New Murakami Book Covers

Vintage has redone all of it's Murakami book covers in a standardized minimalist design by artist Noma Bar.
More information here. Murakami's books have really raised the bar for book design, IMO. Makes me wish I didn't already have most of these books on my shelves!

For more on other excellent Murakami book designs, check out:
IQ84: Paperback

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Intellectual's Discovery

"An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex."
- Aldous Huxley

Monday, October 1, 2012

Yesterday's Debacle, Explained

"The Pats ran against what can effectively be described as a 4-1-6 alignment for most of the game, [and] ...the Pats' ground game, which picked up 6.2 yards per rush."
From an accurate write-up by Buffalo Rumblings, the premiere Bills blog out there.

6.2 yards per run! No wonder the Bills got their asses handed to them. Despite all of the money laid out on defensive players this off season, the Bills still have the same old question marks. And I have no faith that they'll be able to address them anytime soon.

The only good news? Brady will be retired in a few years.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bride of Tab Dump

Who has time to write up thoughtful reactions to all of the cool things out on the internet? Isn't it easier just to throw you some links and let you read what you want? Enjoy!
  • A collection of excellent old SciFi Illustrations by Shusei Nagoka. Although it's incongrous to see cool spaceship art side-by-side with cheezy 70s band cover art. 
  • Los Bros Hernandez are continually singing the praises of Bob Bolling's Little Archie comic books as the inspiration for their work on Love and Rockets - in particular the awesome "Lil Kids" segments. Big Blog Comics shows us an example of his work, and it's as fun as you expect.
  • Thinking of working in some fartlek work into my running, but haven't actually done so yet.
  • Cool footage from Pavel Klushantsev's The Road to the Stars film, an inspiration for 2001
  • Miles Davis: Genius, Hustler, and Superstar.
  • David Byrne recently published what sounds like a fascinating book: How Music Works. Brain Pickings has a synopsis, while Smithsonian published an excerpt that includes his interesting thoughts on silence:
    In 1969, Unesco passed a resolution outlining a human right that doesn’t get talked about much—the right to silence. I think they’re referring to what happens if a noisy factory gets built beside your house, or a shooting range, or if a disco opens downstairs. They don’t mean you can demand that a restaurant turn off the classic rock tunes it’s playing, or that you can muzzle the guy next to you on the train yelling into his cellphone. It’s a nice thought though—despite our innate dread of absolute silence, we should have the right to take an occasional aural break, to experience, however briefly, a moment or two of sonic fresh air. To have a meditative moment, a head-clearing space, is a nice idea for a human right.
    John Cage wrote a book called, somewhat ironically, Silence. Ironic because he was increasingly becoming notorious for noise and chaos in his compositions. He once claimed that silence doesn’t exist for us. In a quest to experience it, he went into an anechoic chamber, a room isolated from all outside sounds, with walls designed to inhibit the reflection of sounds. A dead space, acoustically. After a few moments he heard a thumping and whooshing, and was informed those sounds were his own heartbeat and the sound of his blood rushing through his veins and arteries. They were louder than he might have expected, but okay. After a while, he heard another sound, a high whine, and was informed that this was his nervous system. He realized then that for human beings there was no such thing as true silence, and this anecdote became a way of explaining that he decided that rather than fighting to shut out the sounds of the world, to compartmentalize music as something outside of the noisy, uncontrollable world of sounds, he’d let them in: “Let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for manmade theories or expressions of human sentiments.” Conceptually at least, the entire world now became music.
  • What successful people do with the first hour of their work day
  • Warren Ellis awesome talk on on "How to see the Future" A must read, filled with interesting stories and facts. My favorite is this:
    The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space. Mars has a big, puffy atmosphere, taller than ours, but there’s barely anything to it at that level. 30 Pascals of pressure, which is what we get in an industrial vacuum furnace here on Earth. You may as well be in space. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you could quite literally walk to space.
    That’s actually got a bit more going for it, as an idea, than exotic red deserts and canals. Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Black Hole: A Dam

Never thought of it in this way, but in Tess Taylor's review of Caleb Scharf's Gravity's Engines, the case is made that a Black a dam:
On earth, in a dam, there is pressure on one side and a lack of pressure on the other. Water forced through spillways, driven by gravity, generates enormous energy that we harvest as electricity. In a black hole, there is the universe on one side and a void on the other. And as stars and particles rush towards black holes, they pick up speed, sloshing in much the same way water does heading towards a dam or drain. Just as sloshing water represents lost energy we hear converted to gurgling sound waves, stars and gasses rushing towards the brink of a cosmic drain lose particles that can be "seen" translated into other forms of energy. The edges of black holes are thus always spewing matter, a kind of cosmic splatter paint. Although things pulled towards black holes are mostly swallowed, over time the sloshing of nearly swallowed stars spews the universe with a mess of Jackson Pollock-like cosmic goo.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu gives nerds everywhere hope: perhaps warp speed isn't impossible after all:
An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind.
Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all. 
I love reading about developments like this - it makes me happy to know that there are still irrational dreamers out there. My understanding is that travel in this way is impossible, but i'm glad someone is trying nonetheless. Although I had to laugh at the vague “exotic matter” reference: I'd like to know what kind of exotic matter could protect someone from a distortion in space/time!

The Most Terrifying Fact About the Universe is not that it is Hostile but that it is Indifferent

“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism – and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

- Stanley Kubrick, from a Playboy interview, 1968

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

First Lines of "The Stand"

A mutter.
"Wake up now, Sally."
A louder mutter: leeme lone.
He shook her harder.
"Wake up. You got to wake up!"
Charlie's voice. Calling her. For how long?
Sally swum up out of sleep.
"Sally, honey, don't ask questions. We have to get away. Far away. You just go get Baby LaVon and get her dressed."

-Stephen King, The Stand.

I'm hoping to burn out my current Stephen King obsession by finally tackling the last major novel of his I haven't read: his famous  plague novel from 1978 (although i'm reading the Complete and Uncut version published in 1990 since that's the copy my wife has). I'm about 416 pages in and so far it's really, really good, if a bit too long winded at times. The guy really knows how to get your blood moving!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Last-minute Desperate Solutions to Impossible Problems

This is how I feel at work sometimes:
Casey Ryback: What made you flip like this?
William Strannix: I got tired of coming up with last-minute desperate solutions to impossible problems created by other fucking people.
Casey Ryback: All of your ridiculous pitiful antics aren't gonna change a thing. You and me, we're *puppets* in the same sick game. We serve the same master, and he's a lunatic and he's ungrateful. But there's nothing we can do about it. You and me, we're the same.
William Strannix: Oh, no. No. No. No. There's a difference, my man. You have faith. I don't!
[a knife fight erupts between them]
From the classic Stephen Segal flick Under Seige

Graphic Novel of "A Wrinkle in Time"

Hope Larson has created a graphical version of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It's a fantastic book, and the example pages not only look great but appear to be a very honest adaptation.

I recently re-read A Wrinkle in Time and came away very impressed yet again. Part of that is that I have such fond memories of the book from my youth, but most of it is just that it's very well written. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bequeathing eBooks

Something I've never thought about before: when you die, what happens to your eBooks? Turns out, they might not be able to be passed onto your next-of-kin like the physical objects:
...with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them. Apple and grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.
According to Amazon’s terms of use, “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.
I knew something was fishy with eBooks because of the tight restrictions in loaning them out that obviously don't exist on physical objects, but this is even more disturbing. Part of the fun of building up a library is knowing that it's yours and that you can do with it what you will. Or is this just scaremongering? I have a hard time believing that someone who has a collection of 1000 eBooks won't be able to pass some of those along to his kids. After all, couldn't they just use the original account to access the content?

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Wind Through the Keyhole"

Stephen King, never one to let a good story lie, returns to the world of the Dark Tower with his latest book, The Wind Through The Keyhole. The novel is really three short stories, each embedded within each other. We start off watching Roland the gunslinger and his ka-tet seeking shelter from a powerful storm called a starkblat, and, while the storm rages, he tells a story about a (disgusting) encounter he had with a shape shifting animal when he was a boy. During that encounter, young Roland tells the "The Wind Through the Keyhole" story, and this engaging fantasy takes up the majority of the book, a sprawling combination of quest, revenge myth, and make-a-deal-with-the-devil story. The book hits all of Stephen King's strengths and weaknesses - it's propulsively entertaining, imaginative, and yet sentimental and somewhat predicable.

For those of us that have read all seven of the original Dark Tower novels, jumping back into Mid-World feels like coming home and slipping on an old comfortable flannel shirt. SK has created a special world here, a slippery mixture of fantasy, horror, scifi, and meta-fiction. Having said that, I'd be lying if I didn't think that the framing added anything to the story. Other than placing the story in the Dark Tower universe, the old Roland story didn't do anything to me - it didn't tell me anything new about the characters or shed any light upon the stories that followed--it merely felt like a repeat of the second half of Wizard and Glass. The other two stories can stand-alone by themselves, although readers not familiar with SK's world may find themselves somewhat confused by the way the characters speak as well as the particulars of the "fallen world" of the Dark Tower. Regardless, those who sit back and let a master storyteller drive for a while won't be disappointed.

I enjoyed this book immensely, ripping though it all 307 pages in five days. I've greatly enjoyed his "mature" writing style ever since Bag of Bones (the bloated Under the Dome aside), and this book's no exception. Check out this writing:
"At some point he slipped down their covering enough to see a trillion stars sprawled across the dome of the sky, more than he had ever seen in his life. It was as if the storm had blown tiny holes in the world above the world, and turned it into a sieve. ... He felt awe as he looked up at those stars, but also a deep and abiding commitment, such as he had felt as a child, awakening in the night, safe and warm beneath his quilt, drowsing half in and half out of sleep, listening to the wind sing its lonely song of other places and other lives."

Monday, September 10, 2012

First Lines of "Wizard and Glass"

"The town of Candleton was a poisoned and irradiated ruin, but not dead; after all of the centuries, it still twitched with tenebrous life--trundling beetles the size of turtles, birds that looked like small, misshapen dragonlets, a few stumbling robots that passed in and out of the rotten buildings like stainless steel zombies, their joints squalling, their nuclear eyes flickering. "

- Stephen King, from Wizard and Glass

SK ends The Wastelands with a cliffhanger, with our heros about to confront Blane the Mono, and so of course you have to read what'll happen, even if - like me - you're reading it for the second time. That's what SK does to you. He makes you read past your bedtime, caught up in the world he creates, desperate to find out what happens. I'm not sure I'll read the flashback portion of Wizard and Glass - a huge percentage of the book is a retelling of Roland's first adventure - but I'll read about Blane and the last formative story of the ka-tet, the last step of the first part of the Dark Tower series. After this book, the last three books conclude the saga in a feverish rush (if you can describe over 1500 pages of text in that way). Damned good stuff - had forgotten how fun it was!

The Who's "Amazing Journey"

As many of you know, i'm a Who obsessive. As such, when Dangerous Minds posted links to the Amazing Journey video, I dove right in. I haven't watched the entire thing yet, but what I have seen is another reminder that this group of talented individuals created glorious noise - something larger than the sum of their parts.

Really looking forward to seeing Pete n' Roger play Quadrophenia at the Garden this November.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sublimity From the Silence of the Night

“At the dead hour of the night, when the world is hushed in sleep and all is still; when there is not a sound to be heard save the dead beat escapement of the clock, counting with hollow voice the footsteps of time in ceaseless round, I turn to the Ephemeris and find there, by calculations made years ago, that when that clock tells a certain hour, a star which I never saw will be in the field of the telescope for a moment, flit through and then disappear. The instrument is set; the moment approaches and is intently awaited—I look—the star mute with eloquence that gathers sublimity from the silence of the night, comes smiling and dancing into the field, and at the instant predicted even to the fraction of a second, it makes its transit and is gone. With emotions too deep for the organs of speech, the heart swells out with unutterable anthems; we then see that there is harmony in the heavens above; and though we cannot hear, we feel the ‘music of the spheres.’”

— Matthew Fontaine Maury, in an 1849 presentation to the Virginia Historical Society. Maury was superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

H/t Boing Boing

Friday, September 7, 2012

One of Those Divine Fools

"At this point, Si roused himself, and his voice captured the travelers at once. He spoke in the hoarse, cadenced tones of a lifelong teller of tales--one of those divine fools born to merge memory and mendacity into dreams as airily gorgeous as cobwebs strung with drips of dew."

- Stephen King, The Wastelands, page 242

Book Review: Brian Greene's "Hidden Reality"

The sub-title of Brian Greene's Hidden Reality is "Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos."  It's advertised as an accessible examination of the physics behind parallel universes (both the multiverse and the many-worlds theory of Quantum physics). The subject it covers is fascinating, if complex: Greene details nine actual theories that detail the existence of other universes in addition to the one we know and love. The most basic of these theories claims that if the universe is infinate, since there's only a finate number of ways that you can arrange matter, then logically patterns of matter would repeat, leading - somewhere out there - to duplication of our universe. The more complex of the theories rely on very abstract theoritical frameworks like the probability of Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. For another taste of this, get it straight from the man himself:

Greene is a good writer, and does his best to simplify the science behind these complicated theories However, it's a daunting task: string theory in particular is so abstract and antithetical to our everyday life that it's very hard to follow - particularly if you're reading the book in segments. For example, here's an interview where he attempts to explain the brane multiverse:
...the brane multiverse, in which our universe is envisioned to reside on a giant membrane, an ingredient that comes out of string theory. It’s actually a three-dimensional membrane, but thinking in two-dimensional terms is easier. Think of our universe as if it were a huge slice of bread, with all the stars and all the galaxies sprinkled across its surface. The math of string theory suggests this picture, along with the possibility that there are other universes, other slices of bread, all constituting a big cosmic loaf.  
In the book, he expands upon the three-dimensional idea by stating that "...few of us can picture two coexisting but separate three-dimensional entities, each of which could fully fill three-dimensional space." (page 130) His loaf analogy is a nice attempt, but he has to keep revisiting it whenever new details arise, until the whole thing gets incredibly complicated - just like the theory. For that reason, I can't recommend this book to the layman; it's just not an easy-to-grasp, high-level explanation of the concepts behind parallel worlds. It is an interesting book on a fascinating subject, but in my opinion it couldn't get over the hump that simply grasping the meaning of theoretical physics can be difficult, much less following them to their logical conclusion.

Note for the Kindle edition: I found the footnotes and graphics to be problematic, mainly because you can't jump back to where you were without making note of the page number and manually entering it in. Would it really be that hard to make the footnote a two-way street? Also: there was obviously no color in the graphics. These two factors combined made me wish I had purchased the dead-tree edition of this book.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Unadulterated Genius

Well, maybe a little bit adulterated:

John was the rock (or the Ox) on which the Who's music lay. His bass swoops in the context of the song are incredible.

The Shadows of Vesta

Check out this spooky picture of the giant asteroid Vesta, as taken by the Dawn spacecraft. Pictures like this send shivers down my spine, not only because it shows the deep shadows of a lifeless eerie rock but also   accurately captures the static silence of space.

Dawn is in the process of leaving Vesta - a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter - to travel to another huge asteroid called Ceres. What's interesting bout Dawn is that it uses xenon ion propulsion, which I didn't even realize was a live technology. You hear a lot about them in SciFi, but now they're in use in everyday life. Amazing.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

First Lines of "The Wastelands"

"It was her third time with live ammunition, and her first time on the draw from the holster Roland had rigged for her."
- Stephen King, The Wastelands

Reading The Wind Through the Keyhole showed me how much I had forgotten about the Dark Tower universe in the 10-something years since I read the original seven novels. I remember the first one pretty well and remember not liking The Drawing of the Three very much (I wasn't much of a fan of his work in the 10-year period of time between the incredible It to Bag of Bones), so I'm rereading the third volume. Mixed bag so far, but the ideas in the overall series are a lot of fun to fall back into.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Sunshine Bores the Daylights Out of Me

"The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Chasing shadows, moonlight mystery.
Headed for the overload,
Splattered on the dirty road,
Kick me like you've kicked before,
I can't even feel the pain no more."

- Jagger/Richards, from "Rocks Off" off Exile on Main Street

I'm listning to the classic Exile album again as I read Bill Janovitz's ode to the LP, an entry in the 33 1/3 series.  It's a fun book, filled with antidotes about the making of the great album, and it's been fun to listen again after learning some of the album's history. Plus the music just kicks ass! It's easy to let our image of the Stones today overwhelm how great the band was in its heyday, but this  the atmosphere of 3:00 AM jamming in this song in particular is infectious. And as Janovitz points out, doesn't "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me" just personify so much of what the Stones were about?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Drought is the New Normal?

The evidence continues to pile up about how climate change is affecting weather patterns across the United States. It's been affecting temperatures, and now it's manifesting itself as the severe weather incidents and droughts facing large sections of the country. For proof, check out these pictures of how low the Mississippi River is this year. It's a dramatic depiction of how much this year's weather is affecting things. And the uncertainty about what's the new normal continues.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What's Wrong with a Little Destruction?

"Some say you're trouble, boy
Just because you like to destroy
All the things that bring the idiots joy
Well, what's wrong with a little destruction?"

- Franz Ferdinand, "The Fallen," from You Could Have It So Much Better

Friday, August 24, 2012

Old SciFi Book Covers

Check out this compilation of classic Penguin's Science Fiction covers. This are the type of covers that I grew up with. Some of these are historically bad, but most of them are either fun and campy, interesting but executed poorly, or just plain awesome. I particularly like the ones from 1973-4.

The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942

The Starship Sofa's August podcast featured "The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942" a Kim Stanley Robinson story about a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It's a great story, filled with very nuanced (and dramatic) observations about the music. KSR incorporated a lot of interesting observations about music into 2312 so he obviously spends a lot of time thinking about music. And while I can't say that I understood everything that he wrote about, it was a lot of fun to listen to. And the reader was excellent as well. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Watching "Sight"

This short video has really stuck with me in the few days since I've seen it. Really did a great job depicting what life might be like with embedded technology bringing virtual information into every moment of your life. Also: killer ending!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Whoever Just Sat Down has Decided to Die

Be sure to read this excerpt from Francis Slakey's "To the Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes." It's described as a description of "...the myriad physical and mental challenges in summiting the world's highest peak." The scene described in this small portion contains a confrontation between Buddhism and science in the dire conditions at the top of the world. To wit:
As he sits in the snow, reflecting back on his days, he is reassured by one simple fact: he is a good man. That, to him, can mean only one thing. He will be reincarnated into a life no worse than what he has had. His conclusion, then, is that he can be calm amid the chaos. Buddhism is his universal health coverage. ...
Reincarnation is a wonderfully serene worldview. But I don’t buy it.
Riveting stuff!

When the Machines Fail

"When the machines fail . . . when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching into the night can seem pretty cheerful compares to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant."

- Stephen King, "The Mist" from 1985's Skeleton Crew

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Governance of the Imagination

"It is imagination that has taught man the moral sense of color, of contour, of sound and scent. It created, in the beginning of the world, analogy and metaphor. It disassembles creation, and with materials gathered and arranged by rules whose origin is only to be found in the very depths of the soul, it creates a new world, it produces the sensation of the new. As it has created the world (this can be said, I believe, even in the religious sense), it is just that it should govern it."

- Charles Baudelaire, Lettres à M. le Directeur de 'La revue française,' III: 'La reine des facultés' (1859)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: "Pushing Ice"

Alastair ReynoldsPushing Ice starts off with a scene that smacks of Space Opera - the SciFi subgenre that he’s always accused of writing - when Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird (the name alone almost made me close the book) makes a political gambit in the Interstellar Congress. Thankfully, the book quickly moves to a more traditional – and interesting – plot: when Saturn’s moon Janus turns out to be a an alien spaceship jetting out of the galaxy, a ship of ice miners is recruited to track the ship back to its destination.  Along the way, unexpected events occur and the miners are cut off from the rest of humanity, forcing them to land on Janus. 

Reynolds skillfully paints a picture of the pervasive paranoia that overtakes the crew as they attempt to figure out a way to survive. He convincingly portrays the mysteries of alien technologies – the lava canals are a nice touch! – and has some really interesting alien interactions, especially with the race called the Fountainheads. Towards the end of the book, more revelations come to light that dramatically expand the scope of the novel – all I’ll say is that the “structure” the crew discovers introduces the true epic nature of the book. All in all, it was a compelling read for my beach vacation. In fact, the only real problem I had with the book was that the characters were a bit too stubborn or noble: there’s a mutiny that occurs and the absolute rigor with which it’s pursued over the years, even in the face of the crew’s overwhelming predicament, is hard to believe. In addition, the nobility of Perry – a well-respected man in the crew – is difficult to swallow, as is his honesty in dealing with the crisis that overcomes him. Some of these melodramatic interactions bordered on soap opera, but didn't prevent me from enjoying Pushing Ice, which was much better than I anticipated - especially after that name!

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Belief is Both Prize & Battlefield

"Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surly brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the foutuniate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this:--one fine day, a surely predatory world shall consume itself. ...

Is this the doom written within our nature?"
- David Mitchell, from Cloud Atlas. If you haven't read this book, run to you closest book outlet right now. I've been rereading it after watching the movie trailer and it's been confirming what I thought: it's one of the 10 best books I've ever read. Pure entertainment.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vangelis Bringing It Home

Check out this early electronic music jam of Vangelis performing live for a Spanish television station and tell me that he basically isn't the equivalent of a gothic vampire, pounding away dramatic tunes on his pipe organ in a 75 room mansion in Transylvania. Really intense and fun stuff!
Back in the 80s, Vangelis (along with Tangerine Dream) was about all I knew about electronic music. This shit was hot back in the day!
h/t Dangerous Minds

Cloud Security Fail

Mat Honan was hacked recently, and notes a huge problem in some of the cloud based security systems: the systems offered by separate vendors don't always work nicely together:
What happened to me exposes vital security flaws in several customer service systems, most notably Apple’s and Amazon’s. Apple tech support gave the hackers access to my iCloud account. Amazon tech support gave them the ability to see a piece of information — a partial credit card number — that Apple used to release information. In short, the very four digits that Amazon considers unimportant enough to display in the clear on the web are precisely the same ones that Apple considers secure enough to perform identity verification.
Scary stuff. h/t Boing Boing.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Viva Roxy Music!

I didn't see Roxy Music looked like until I was already a fan. Hard to believe in this day and age, but when I started listening to the group's incredible ahead-of-its-time music a while back, all I had was a series of ripped CDs and static pictures from the internet. Of course, their visual look was always a large part of the band's appeal, and you can see them in all their glory in this sweet Roxy Music documentary (hat tip: Dangerous Minds). I got a kick out of seeing Brian Eno with long hair, and really just can't hear enough of their first four albums.

Friday, August 3, 2012

First Lines of "The Wind Through the Keyhole"

"During the days after they left the Green Palace that wasn't Oz after all--but which was now the tomb of the unpleasant fellow Roland's ka-tet had known as the Tock-Tock Man--the boy Jake began to range farther and farther ahead of Roland, Eddie, and Susannah."

- Stephen King, from The Wind Through the Keyhole, in his return to the world of the Dark Tower. Reading the book is, so far, like crawling back into your own bed after a long vacation.

Sunday's Touchdown on Mars

This Sunday, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's rover Curiosity will attempt to land on Mars. There's an extremely complicated delivery mechanism designed to get the rover to the surface, with a lot of interacting parts. The video above describes the hot mess. Keep your fingers crossed that the rover will survive the 7 minutes of terror!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Everything is Broken

People sleeping in broken beds
Ain't no use jiving
Ain't no use joking
Everything is broken.

Broken bottles broken plates
Broken switches broken gates
Broken dishes broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken.

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground
Broken cutters broken saws
Broken buckles broken laws
Broken bodies broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath feel like you're chokin'
Everything is broken.

Everytime you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face
Broken hands on broken ploughs
Broken treaties broken vows
Broken pipes broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken.

- Bob Dylan, off the Oh Mercy album

It's a Long Way from Momento

Christopher Nolan has develped a reputation for writing and directing the thinking man's summer blockbusters. Ever since his incredible debut Memento (still worth watching today), he's delivered solidly entertaining movies with food for thought. However, I caught The Dark Knight Rises last night and after having pondered it all day, I think that Nolan has lost his way.

This is not to say that TDKR was a bad movie. Far from it - the movie had more than its fair share of SFX thrills, great acting (Anne Hathaway was a relevation), creepy bad guys (for 3/4s of the movie, Bain is about as good as a villain as you can ask for) and dramatic scenes. And like Nolan's previous Batman movies, he poses pleanty of interesting questions about justice and society. What's been bothering me is how he's either refrained from answering those questions or has answered them in a way that seems logically incoherant. For instance, (and SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn't seen the film,) when Bain takes over Gotham in a strange mix of populist and anarchist leadership, I think we're supposed to believe that the people of the city are all participating in the mahem of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor - we just don't actually see any of this happening. Instead, we see either people we're led to believe are hardened criminals or Bain's League of Shadows trained army doing the looting. Where are the common people in the movie? Are they blindly accepting Bane or is there resistance? Is anyone ambiguous about what's occurring? It's never really clear, partly because the movie moves so fast, lurching from one dramatic moment to the next, resulting in another superhero movie where the elete (leaders or superhumans) debate and control the lives of millions of people without us actually seeing or hearing from any of these people - a contradiction of one of the main themes of the movie!

I write the above as just one example of the messiness of the film. There's pleanty more where that comes from, but i'm not enough of a geek to list them all - I honestly don't care that much about it. But for a movie that so obviously strives to be so much more that strict popcorn entertainment, I get the sense that Nolan has started settling for simply posing deep questions without attempting to deal with them in any serious manner, leading to my suspicion that his recent films are morally hollow. And there's nothing wrong with that! I like empty entertainment as much as the next guy. It's just not where I suspected such a promising director to end up.