Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cloud Atlas, Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You...

I'm always a bit ambivalent about movie adaptations of novels, especially novels as reliant upon the prose voice of someone as dynamic as the inimitable David Mitchell. But the trailer for Cloud Atlas - produced by the Wachowskis (the creators of The Matrix) and directed by Tom Tykwer (the writer/director of the fantastic Run Lola Run) - looks fantastic:
Damn was that exciting! Cloud Atlas seems like an unfilmable book, but this preview certainly looks like it might have pulled off the trick. And those special effects are incredible. I've found the Wachowski's movies post-Matrix to be visually stunning but emotionally disengaging, so I hope that Tykwer found a way to stay true to the story while allowing for all of this visual drama.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

First Lines of "Pushing Ice"

"Larry Boyce looked up from the rippled red surface of the comet. He cuffed down his helmet binocs, keyed in mid-zoom and waited for he image to stabilize.
Only a breath of thrust held fifty thousand tonnes of ship over his head."
- Alastair Reynolds, Pushing Ice.

So far, Pushing Ice is an entertaining, somewhat trashy, compulsive read - the SciFi equivalent of a Tom Clancy novel. Perfect for reading on my beach vacation.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Sound of Sorrow

the cricket’s song
has no words,
it sounds like sorrow.

- Izumi Shikibu (970-1030), Untitled, translated by Jane Hirschfield and Mariko Aratani.

Deep Thought

There's not much that feels better after a day at the beach than taking an outdoor shower and emerging into a cool ocean breeze.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 describes how life looks exactly 300 years in the future, when the combination of two major enabling technologies - space elevators on Earth, and self-replicating machinery – have enabled mankind to colonize the solar system. Being a “hard” scifi author (he writes stories that only depict realistic or potential extractions of current science), Robinson doesn't allow himself any faster than light travel, so this means that our nine planets consist of mankind’s final frontier. In this mix comes our two heroes: Swan, an artist/politician from Mercury, and Warham, a somewhat dour, frog-like Politian from Titan (one of Saturn’s moons). This odd couple are thrown together through a plot to help Earth overcome its political inertia and also a mysterious attack on Terminus, Mercury’s moving city, that may or may not involve intelligent quantum computers. They overcome their misunderstandings and different natures to forge a path forward in this distant future.

And what a future it is! Robinson throws lots of speculation at us - things like quantum computers, commonplace androgyny, surfing Saturn’s rings, and terraformed asteroids. These fascinating ideas are included as a matter of fact in the main narrative, and fleshed out in extreme detail via with minor chapters intertwined with the main narrative. They're like the minor chapters of Moby Dick except instead of being minor treatises, they’re fragments, feeling like you’re channel surfing past the history channel. Robinson pulled this blend of styles from dos Passos’ USA trilogy, in particular the 1st person stream-of-consciousness he assumes for his Quantum Walk chapters. In place of dos Passos’ Newsreels, we have fragments of histories, where little nuggets of facts or conjecture are dropped – just enough information so that we learn the details about this fascinating world, but not so much that we become bored or start feeling trapped in a textbook. It’s a canny way to approach the age-old problem of exposition in scifi.

However, as much as I loved this book, I can’t really say that I recommend it to a general reader. Despite all of its strengths, Robinson has a bit of a tin ear for character development, so the book can be slow going when Swan and Warham are talking to each other. In fact, their relationship – ostensibly the main focus of the book – pales at times against Robinson’s technological and historical ideas, which feel to be the book’s real heroes. After all, for all of its formal innovations, 2312 is also a book steeped in the traditions of SciFi, and so some aspects of the book may be lost on someone who hasn't read a lot of Science Fiction. If you read it with an open mind, I doubt you’ll be disappointed, but buyer beware. For what it’s worth, while I’m not sure it’s the best book I've read this year, it was certainly the most thought-provoking, inspiring, and also the one that’s stuck with me the longest. I’ll certainly be picking up more of Robinson’s work (probably his Mars Trilogy).

Related Posts:
Saturn and Iapetus
First Lines of KSR's 2312
Obscure References

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Big Space

"In between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom."
- Viktor Frankl

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Foggy Hiking

Here's an old poem of mine that I recently uncovered. Despite some awkward phrasings, it's fun and still reminds me of that day hiking through a foggy Pisgah State Forest:

The silence was deafening in the forest that day
When I walked along with nothing to say
Songs rang in my head with the greatest of ease
but meaning herself remained just a tease
I labored & sweat & drank like a fish
I watched & mused & perfected a wish -
Slogging though fog and walking through rain
Surprisingly alert and happily free of pain
I had never before looked without a view
but the shadowy distances spoke to me anew:
You’re trapped, too much, inside your own head
Away with your books - to the hills instead!

Qu'est-ce que Libor?

I'm not entirely sure, but everything that I read talks about it as one of the biggest financial crimes in history. Check out this graphic for details.

Break up the big banks!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Quick Review: Prometheus

Let me join the chorus of people proclaiming that Ridley Scott's Prometheus is a hot mess of a movie. In a pithy phrase, it's visually stunning but logically incoherent.

I'm not going to go into details here, but even acknowledging that blockbuster movies make money by displaying stunning images together in the most dramatic way possible, don't you think that you'd want to string together these images in a way that makes sense? After all, it can be done - just look at Christopher Nolan's movies, or even The Avengers. But no, Scott's movie lurches from scene to scene with little to no rhyme nor reason, and features characters whose development consists of lines like "i'm a geologist, okay! I love fucking rocks!" Ugh. If the writers had spent three minutes refining the dialog and characters in this movie, then it might have given the flick the credibility it so desperately needed in support of the big questions it was so obviously trying to address. However, having someone occasionally say something like "Wouldn't you want to meet your maker?" does not make your movie deep.

Another problem is that the effect of the aliens themselves have been weakened by continuted exposure to the Alien franchise. Honestly, nothing's really going to match the first time you see the alien pop out of someone's chest, so why even try? It would have been nice to see a twist on the typical themes, but instead we were fed a warmed-over version of what had come before. Dissapointing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Smart as a Dog

This article reminds me of Nikki, the smartest dog I ever lived with, who learned absolutely every synonym for "treat" that my family could come up with:
...mounting evidence shows that dogs understand human language better than previously assumed (except by dog lovers). They're about as smart as a 2- or 3-year-old child, the age at which most kids begin to initiate conversations and speak in simple sentences.
To acquire language, kids use a strategy called "fast mapping" -- forming quick, rough hypotheses about the meaning of new words after just one or two exposures. So do dogs. Recently, researchers found that a border collie named Rico was able to infer the names of more than 200 items using this method.
Four weeks after the initial exposure, Rico was still able to retrieve the items by name. Another border collie in South Carolina has memorized over 1,000 nouns. The dog, Chaser, reportedly loves her vocabulary drills.
A similar study out of the Max Planck Institute showed that puppies use human communicative cues to solve problems by as early as six weeks.

Is It In My Head?

The BBC produced an amazing documentary the making of Quadrophenia, in my opinion the best of their albums. It's the reason I continually hear French Horns in my head when I head off to battle (be it in a running race, a hard office meeting, or whatever). Despite what's shown in the screen capture above, there's lamentably little John in the production, but the rest of it is top notch.

Friday, July 6, 2012

I'd Like an Order of Higgs Boson with a Side of Particle Physics

I tend to get obsessed about things. Sometimes it’s music, other times it’s fiction authors. At the moment, it’s Science Fiction and the science underlying it. And, as luck would have it, this obsession happens to coinside with current events: as you may have heard, the fine scientists in in Geneva, Switzerland operating the Large Hadron Collider have discovered evidence of a Higgs boson particle.

So what the hell is a Higgs boson particle? Here’s my attempt to decyper it in my own words so I can figure it out for myself. To start off, physics has a Standard Model, which dictates how subatomic particles interact with each other. This model has proven to be remarkably accurate, and most of the particles mentioned in it have been proven to exist: all but the Higgs boson. Discovering this particle would fill in the last gap in the model.

So how did they prove that it exists? It's absurdly complicated, but Bad Astronomy has a good summary:
“This particle is very hard to detect, because it doesn’t live long. Once it forms it decays in a burst of energy and other particles (think of them as shrapnel) extremely rapidly. The only way to make them is to smash other particles together at incredibly high energies, and look at the resulting collisions. If the Higgs exists, then it will decay and give off a characteristic bit of energy. The problem is, lots of things give off that much energy, so you have to see the Higgs signal on top of all that noise.
So, you have to collide particles over and over again, countless times, to build up that tiny signal from the Higgs decay. The more you do it, the bigger the signal gets, and the more confident you can be that the detection is real.”
So it’s a particle and was really, really difficult to find.Why is it so important? Well, in addition to confirmation that the Standard Model is accurate, the HB particle proves the existence of the Higgs field. So what's that? The Higgs field is a ginormous field permeating space that controls how all particles have mass. What, you ask? I thought that mass was a measure of the amount of "stuff" that a particle contains? So did I - it's what I was taught in school. But counter to this belief, it turns out that particles implicitly have no mass; any mass that they exhibit is a result of them interacting with the Higgs field (through the Higgs boson). The more a particle interacts with the field, the more mass it has. Some particles fly through the field and have little mass, some are dragged down by the field and have more mass. Now that we know how much mass the Higgs boson has, we can use this solid foundation as a basis to continue exploration into other aspects of physics (although what exactly they may be is unclear to me.)

In the end, regardless of all of the other details, the short story of all this is that mankind has just created and measured the heaviest and most unstable (its mass starts to decay right after its appearance) subatomic particle ever seen by man. Pretty cool stuff!

Thursday, July 5, 2012


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

- Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Parkour Time

Loved this parkour but watching it made my knees hurt.