Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Best Thing for Being Sad

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Friday, September 27, 2013

Water on Mars

Pretty amazing news from Curiosity - Mars does indeed have water! according to the report, there's a decent amount too: "[Curiosity] found water molecules bound to other minerals in Martian soil...  Researchers say that every cubic foot of Martian soil contains about two pints of liquid water. All things told, about two percent of the Martian soil is made of up water."

What's most exciting about this is it makes future expeditions to the red planet even more plausible. Money quote:
"We now know there should be abundant, easily accessible water on Mars," says Leshin. "When we send people, they could scoop up the soil anywhere on the surface, heat it just a bit, and obtain water."
Bring on the space colony!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

It's, Like, Pictures? But of Space?

io9 has a great space porn collection up called "The Most Spectacular Astronomy Images of the Past Year." My favorite: "Green Energy" by Fredrik Broms.

Friday, September 20, 2013

First Lines of Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge"

"It's the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, through some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school. Maybe they're past the age where they need an escort, maybe Maxine doesn't want to let go just yet. It's only a couple blocks, it's on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?"

- Thomas Pynchon, first lines of Bleeding Edge.

I have a tradition that started with Mason & Dixon where I go to my favorite independent bookstore and pick up the latest Pynchon joint the day that it drops. So while I've had the book since Tuesday, life has conspired to limit me to only about 35 pages so far. So far, it's somewhat similar to Inherent Vice in that they're both about private detectives and are chock full of TRP's trademark long sentences, humor, and worldview. What's very different is the vibe - this is a very New York novel, filled with attitude and unfamiliar (to me) Jewish terms. But there is a Zima reference - what more can you ask for?

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Sound of Interstellar Space

The JPL has officially determined that Voyager has left our galaxy and is now travelling in the empty space between stars. The video above is the synopsis of how they figured it out. If you want an isolated soundtrack of the eerie sounds of "dense, ionized gas (the "interstellar plasma" that fills the space between star systems...)", check out this i09 article. Cool stuff.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

First Lines of Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard"

"Having written "The End" to this story of my life, I find it prudent to scamper back here to before the beginning, to my front door, so to speak, and to make this apology to arriving guests: 'I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen. It turns out to be a diary of this past troubled summer, too! We can always send out for pizzas if necessary. Come in, come in.'

I am the erstwhile American painter Rabo Karabekian, a one-eyed man."

- from Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard. Fantastic book so far.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Spying is Everywhere

While it looks like the privacy conversation that Obama promised in the wake of the NSA spying scandals will be superseded by the absurd run up to a Syrian war (how convenient!), the revelations of corrupt NSA efforts just keep on coming. These are my favorites from the last few weeks:

1. Good to know that there isn't a national domestic spying program, and that safeguards are in place to protect us from it's misuse. Oh wait:
"National Security Agency officers on several occasions have channeled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests, U.S. officials said. The practice isn't frequent—one official estimated a handful of cases in the last decade—but it’s common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT."
Because everyone knows that giving people secret powers with little to no oversight doesn't possibly incentivize misbehavior.

2. The NSA bugged not only the United Nations' New York headquarters, but also...
"...spied upon the European Union's legation in New York, and included "plans of the EU mission, its IT infrastructure and servers." In addition, the NSA monitored the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The documents also detail bugging programs in more than 80 embassies and consulates called "Special Collection Service." Der Spiegel writes of the program that the "surveillance is intensive and well organised and has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists."
And big media wonders why we have problems getting international support these days.

3. More recently, we found out that the NSA has compromised many internet encryption standards in the interests of making it easier for them to spy on everyone:
"The National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees that internet companies have given consumers to reassure them that their communications, online banking and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments.
The agencies, the documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in their systematic and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest threats to their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – “the use of ubiquitous encryption across the internet”.
Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA control over setting of international encryption standards, the use of supercomputers to break encryption with “brute force”, and – the most closely guarded secret of all – collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers themselves.
Through these covert partnerships, the agencies have inserted secret vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software."
This last one is the most worrying because if a "back door" exists, it will soon be discovered and utilized by malevolent forces - that is, people more malevolent than the NSA.

As if it wasn't clear, everything about the NSA leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. As we learn more and more about the NSA's unconstitutional, illegal, and cynical tactics, it makes me sad to know that all of these deeds are being performed in our name. How far our once idealistic nation has fallen. At least people are aware of the problem now, even if the solution appears to be as daunting as "rebuilding the internet." In the meantime, here are five ways that you can use to try and regain your privacy. Aside from, you know, going offline completely.

Friday, September 6, 2013

First Lines of "I Am Legend"

"On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back."

- Richard Mathenson, from I Am Legend. Actually finished this good little book a while back and will post a review shortly.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book Review: China Miéville's "Railsea"

Imagine… a world… where oceans…. don’t exist. In their place are deserts covered with massive amounts of train tracks twisting every which way – a maze of tracks spanning the majority of the globe. Welcome to Railsea, a fantastic yarn by everyone’s favorite New Weird author China Miéville.

At its core, Railsea depicts the quest of Abacat Naphi, the captain of the “mole train” Medes, who is in obsessive pursuit of an ivory-colored “moldywarpe” (think monstrously large mole).  But it’s also a coming-of-age story of Sham ap Soorap, who starts off as an inept doctor’s assistant but through a combination of luck and self-growth finds himself at the center of a race to the edges of the Railsea in pursuit of mythical lands – and treasure! It’s a compelling story that blatantly lifts ideas from other books – the captain’s quest is from Moby Dick, the abandoned alien tech (called alt-salvage) that litters the landscape is from the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, etc.) – so creatively that the story never feels derivative or uninspired. In fact, with only one or two exceptions I didn't know what was going to happen next, a rare quality that makes all of his books extremely compelling.

I’m told that it’s a YA novel, a relatively meaningless distinction but does explain the (pre?) teen narrator and lack of serious swearing and sex. Regardless, all of the things I love about Miéville re here: unfettered imagination, linguistic wordplay, ample demonstration of his fierce intellect, unapologetic left-wing politics, and (of course) gigantic monsters. Relax and pour yourself a nice drink because this one’s a fun ride.

Related Posts: Book Review: "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Transit of Venus - in Ultraviolet

Last year, I posted a picture of the 2012 Transit of Venus and mentioned that it was the most dynamic picture taken of the event. I was wrong.

You're looking at the sun, filtered for three types of ultraviolet light, with the black dot of Venus crossing it. Damn! Check out the NASA website for a larger picture and a description of how the image was created. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Telling in the Language of Metal

I watched Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim a few weeks back. What a fun movie! Respected it's B-movie origins while updating the genre for our time. What's interesting to me about the movie is that the movie felt like so much more than the fun action scenes and the cool mecha. But most of the dialog in the flick is pretty bad. Cliche-level bad, to the point where Stacker Pentecost's speech at the end of the movie has inspired a lot of parodies. So what set the movie apart? I didn't really understand it until I read Storming the Ivory Tower's excellent post "The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim." It's worth a read in its entirety, as the author details exactly how del Toro uses visuals to tell a lot of his story. In addition, I loved the post's close:
"...a film like Pacific Rim is treated as somehow naive or insignificant because it dares, gasp!, to have not just a unified message, but a quite positive, affirmative message, spoken not in the language of Lifetime movies or this year's crop of Oscar-bait, but in the language of Metal, the language of force and bombast and people in giant fucking robots punching Godzilla in the face.
We have reached a point, and really let this one sink in because it gets more flooring the more you think about it, where it's more radical and unacceptable to say, "Humans can accomplish amazing things when we set aside our differences and disagreements and work together to make the world a better place," than to say something sour and bitter and cynical.
Cynicism used to be the radical thing.
Now it's as mainstream as Greenday.
So, what I'm asking is that you give the film a second look, if you're not already one of us fanatics who loved it the first time through. Give it a chance to speak to you in its own language. Be the Raleigh in this situation--just as he surprised Mako by knowing and speaking Japanese to her, undermining her skepticism, enter a dialogue with the film that speaks in images. Open yourself to alternate ways of thinking and understanding."
Well said. Can't wait to see this one again at home.