Saturday, December 30, 2006

For those of you who haven't had the good fortune to stumble across him on your own, John Scalzi, an excellent sci-fi author, has put up a "Best of 2006" for his blog, The Whatever. It's a great introduction if you haven't read him before, and a must-read if you're a fan.

I'll be reviewing his book, The Ghost Brigades, soon.

Ann Althouse: "A benevolent law plays out unfairly in real life. Surprised?"

This is a great prank on a lecturing professor:

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

It reminds me of, well, me (and maybe my buddy Mike)...

You just can't make this stuff up:
A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that if a motorist is carrying large sums of money, it is automatically subject to confiscation. In the case entitled, "United States of America v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit took that amount of cash away from Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez, a man with a "lack of significant criminal history" neither accused nor convicted of any crime.
(emphasis mine) This is just disgusting. Any cop can confiscate your money if you get pulled over or searched, on the presumption that it is ill-gotten, no trial required. And they have a very powerful incentive to do so: confiscated cash goes straight into their budget. Fourth amendment, anyone? This certainly sounds like precisely the type of "unreasonable seizure" it was designed to prevent.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas to anyone who actually reads this blog! Okay, the rest of you can have a Merry Christmas, too...

Friday, December 22, 2006

Book Review: The Fountains of Paradise

The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke

This is the book that popularized the concept of the "space elevator." A scientist/engineer by the name of Vannevar Morgan has just completed a bridge spanning the Straits of Gibraltar and wants his next project to be even more stunning. Using (fictitious) diamond monofilament, he proposes that a "tower" be constructed to geosynchronous orbit. Unfortunately, there's a problem. There is only one place on the surface of the earth suitable for the tower, and that particular mountain peak is occupied by a several-thousand year old temple.

This book focuses on the interplay between science and spirituality - I hesitate to say religion because it is more a Buddhist-style state-of-being thing than any sort of theology - and how the demands of each may (or may not) be reconciled. Clarke spends the early chapters of the book flitting back and forth between the "present" and the distant past, leaving the reader temporally confused, as he draws subtle (and not-so-subtle) comparisons between the "historical" figure of Kalidasa and Morgan, both of whose endeavors are affronts to the religious establishments of their respective times. The tale suffers somewhat due to its Starglider gimmick and the subsequent unreasonable evaporation of religious sentiments, but the narrative depends so little on these events that they are easy to ignore - and indeed, one wonders why they were included.

The Fountains of Paradise is a compelling tale of an engineer meeting and conquering the challenge of a lifetime. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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Heh. AP vs. bloggers as a Mac vs. PC commercial!


Thursday, December 21, 2006

This is the funniest thing I've seen in a long time: The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook, a fictitious diary about his efforts to "create an omelet that expresses the meaninglessness of existence...." I just about died laughing. The best part:
Tuna Casserole

: 1 large casserole dish

Place the casserole dish in a cold oven. Place a chair facing the oven and sit in it forever. Think about how hungry you are. When night falls, do not turn on the light.

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Interesting post from someone who attended the recent American Geophysical Union conference. He says that "In perhaps a short decade, climate change has rapidly surpassed seismology as the primary membrane between the public and the geophysics research world. Climate is now what most makes the American Geophysical Union relevant to non-members..." Keeping that in mind, this is what he has to say on the attitude of the scientists in the field right now:
To sum the state of climsci world in one word, as I see it right now, it is this: tension.


I speak for (my interpretation) of the collective: {We tried for years – decades – to get them to listen to us about climate change. To do that we had to ramp up our rhetoric. We had to figure out ways to tone down our natural skepticism (we are scientists, after all) in order to put on a united face. We knew it would mean pushing the science harder than it should be. We knew it would mean allowing the boundary-pushers on the "it's happening" side free reign while stifling the boundary-pushers on the other side. But knowing the science, we knew the stakes to humanity were high and that the opposition to the truth would be fierce, so we knew we had to dig in. But now they are listening. Now they do believe us. Now they say they're ready to take action. And now we're wondering if we didn't create a monster. We're wondering if they realize how uncertain our projections of future climate are. We wonder if we've oversold the science. We're wondering what happened to our community, that individuals caveat even the most minor questionings of barely-proven climate change evidence, lest they be tagged as "skeptics." We're wondering if we've let our alarm at the problem trickle to the public sphere, missing all the caveats in translation that we have internalized. And we're wondering if we’ve let some of our scientists take the science too far, promise too much knowledge, and promote more certainty in ourselves than is warranted.}
As always, taking cutting edge science with a grain (block?) of salt is warranted. Never forget that the numbers you hear flung about may have enormous margins of error that go unreported in the national media.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Book Review: Singularity Sky

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

Stross' first novel is a truly odd tale, with part of its charm being the fact that it takes a significant portion of the story to figure out anything more than the broad outlines of the universe in which it takes place.

I'll quote liberally from the Booklist editorial review on "In the twenty-fifth century, human society has depended for several hundred years on faster-than-light travel and an artificial intelligence called the Eschaton. Interstellar colonies are scattered all over, and one, the New Republic, has become a classic refuge for antitechnological holdouts. But the New Republic is suddenly under attack, literally, by the technology it has tried to suppress, which now appears under the name the Festival."

This book is fantastic, in the original meaning of the word. When the Festival shows up with cornucopia machines - portable, self replicating, nano-assembly units - the neomarxist revolutionaries within a society of technological Luddites really do go into a post-economic society, with results that are by turn scary and hilarious (infinite sporks!). On top of this you have a plot featuring multiple secret agents trying to foil the New Republic's intended abuse of what is essentially time travel, flirting with the edge of their light-cone, potentially provoking the wrath of the Eschaton, which brooks no playing with time for fear of the disruption of its own origin.

The thing I enjoy the most about this book is its exploration of the impact of real spooky-stage nanotech, both immediately, in the case of the New Republic, and the distant future, which could lead to the Festival.

This is impeccably written hard sci-fi, but loses a bit due to some of the far-fetched, Mission Impossible style thriller scenes. In the stereotypical rating system of our time, I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Book Review: Between The Rivers

Between the Rivers, by Harry Turtledove

Turtledove is one of my favorite authors for his alt-history books (Ruled Brittania, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, but I wasn't sure what to expect in this one. In BTR he takes us back to bronze-age Mesopotamia, with a twist. All the local deities, demons, and hobgoblins are real. It's told from the perspective of Sharur, the son of a reasonably prosperous merchant from the city of Gibil. The city's god, Engibil, has grown lazy and distracted, allowing the citizens to (gasp!) think for themselves. The other gods don't like the results, and begin a passive-aggressive series of sanctions against the city of Gibil before their own cities can be corrupted. Unfortunately for the gods, independent thought is one genie that can't be put back in the bottle.

First let me say that the story is fun. It entertains and is well written, but I do have some quibbles. First, it contains the annoying overconfidence-is-the-downfall-of-ridiculously-powerful-beings cliche. The gods act stupid for the sake of the plot - even the actively hostile gods seem to disengage their metaphorical brains when interacting with the protagonist. Second, I think he bent a little too far to current sensibilities by portraying the protagonist's betrothed as a strong willed woman for her character to be credible. From my grasp of Mesopotamian cultures at the time, such a personality would have been ruthlessly quashed by society if not displayed hidden while in public. Finally, it falls prey to the false dichotomy of being forced to choose between independent thought (atheism) and religion (which is explicitly equated with slavery in some cases in the book). In spite of his probable intentions, he painted religion with a bit too broad of a brush, leaving me (a devout Lutheran) with a sour taste in my mouth.

All told, however, it's a thoroughly enjoyable trip to a land that wasn't. In the stereotypical rating system of our time, I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Book Blogging!

Since I've been failing recently to do much political/economics blogging, I've decided to expand my horizons and do a review of all the books I read. I have a bit of a recent backlog to get through, so this is what you can expect in the coming days:
I'm still reading, and so you can also expect reviews of:
And hopefully the local library will come through for me and you can expect reviews of Shaman's Crossing and Forest Mage by Robin Hobb (the first is likely, the second less so), and A Meeting at Corvallis by S.M. Stirling (which looks unlikely, due to my spot in the queue - 9 of 9). If I can't get them before I have to head back to school, maybe I'll actually have to break down and buy them!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Some brief selections from the late, great Milton Friedman. I highly recommend you take a look, if only to acquaint yourself with what he was all about.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Remembering a day that still lives in infamy.