July 23, 2005

All of an Instant by Richard Garfinkle

Time is earth and water.

The lower half of time where most people live is solid stone, a hard mass of cause and effect confining human life in walls of inevitability; the stone of time has many strata with gems and metals and a thousand varied riches buried in the multitude of layers that comprise the hard crust of prisoning/treasured temporality.

The upper half of time is an ocean of clear water, rippling with tides of action and change, created wave upon wave by those few people who live in that eternal sea. The waters of atemporality follow the tides from past to future, rippling and crashing with the surf of man-made change. The ocean is varied in calm and storm with neap tide and riptide, with safe swimming currents of alternation and killing whirlpools of transformation, but everywhere from the shallows of time to the deeps the ocean is one and the same water.

No one is born into the waters of time; each ocean dweller lived first in the earth of time, before either pulling himself or being pulled out of the hard strata, yanked away from the prison of causality into the freedom of change.

This is one book that has little hope of being the next summer sci-fi blockbuster. For one thing, most of this book is impossible to visualize.

Let me try. Sometimes on a computer screen, if you're having problems with the video card that's refreshing your monitor, you can see the mouse pointer leave traces as you move it across, leaving a solid imprint that reflects a timeline.

Now imagine you can similarly extract ten minutes of your life or ten years and construct a single entity just like the trail of the mouse pointer on the screen. Such human entities form the characters in this book inhabiting a space that is outside of the natural flow of time. A place called the Instant.

The novel begins with a full chapter of exposition without the introduction of any of the main characters. Only after the strange universe is described can the author populate it with his characters.

The world we inhabit where time flows inextricably is called the Flux. The Instant is outside of the Flux, where changes can be made to the Flux with a little skill. The first human to enter the Instant was Dhritirashta, taking a year of his life with him. Soon there were tribes of four-dimensional humans fighting for control of the Instant, for the power to control all that could be in the Flux. Each tribe with its own intuition about utopia.

Three inhabitants of the Instant come together to investigate a strange anomaly. One unlike ever seen before in the Instant. The first is Nir, the War Chief of the Ghosts that guard the first humans. They inhabit the Now, a place which if changed could result in the retroactive extinction of all humans. The second is Quillithé, the largest inhabitant of the Instant, a monster who came into the instant with a 100 years of her life. She is the strategist for the only army in the Instant which controls the far future in the deeps of time. The triune is completed with Kookatchi who only has a minute of his timeline making him so small in the Instant that he is impossible to detect, which suits his profession as the Thief perfectly. As human consciousness and memory cycles through their timeline brought into the Instant, Kookatchi loses all of his memory every minute causing his life to be about the constant acquisition of the experience of beauty. This unlikely group bands together to understand the anomalous and perhaps dangerous changes occurring in the Instant.

In a book like this, one would expect to discover some allegorical message or a hidden cryptogram. However, this book seems to me to be a straightforward story. While some of the character names are clearly taken from different mythological sources, notably from Hindu mythology, the plot stands by itself as a story with no gimmicks (other than the premise itself). I found this the most satisfying part of reading this book.

Be warned that this is not an easy book to get into. While the story combines hard-sf and a fantasy-like atmosphere in a compact unapologetic way, this book is not a sequel machine like the usual sf fare. You will have to meet it more than halfway. Occasionally, the use of metaphor to illustrate the Instant sometimes makes the prose inscrutable. But the skill of the author in holding this novel together is remarkable.

Update, Oct 21, 2005, I found on the author's web site, a quote about the book which contradicts one of the assertions I made in my review:

Some critics were a little puzzled by this one. It helps if you know that this is a Buddhism-based allegory for putting the mind in order.

However, I stick by my claim that you should not read this book expecting an allegory. Despite the author's best efforts, the allegory is inscrutable (maybe that is what was intended), but the book is rewarding enough without this angle.

%T All of an Instant %A Richard Garfinkle %I Tor Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0312866178 (hc) %P 383 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/02/25

Posted by anoop at 08:39 AM

July 22, 2005

The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

Collapsium is an artificial material made of atoms with their binding energy reduced so they sort of collapse in upon themselves and are dense and heavy and that sort of thing.

Harry Harrison, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, page 103

Wil McCarthy writes a science column for an online magazine, Science Fiction Weekly. His descriptions of scientific discoveries or phenomena are cogent, short and well-written (a collection of these essays would make a good book). Unfortunately, with this sf work, by my count, he fails to deliver the same kind of punchy, readable and interesting material.

Bruno de Towaji lives in the Kuiper belt trying to produce an absolute vacuum using his own invention, `collapsium'. Collapsium has made him the richest man in the solar system and he spends it on his solitude and expensive building materials for his project (di-clad neutronium spheres weighing one billion metric tons called neubles and semiconductive fibers that can transform into any kind of material called wellstones). In the first section (previously published as a novella, see below), he is called in to save the ring made of collapsium that the Queendom of Sol is constructing to encircle the Sun and provide a the most optimal communication channel possible between the human colonies on the various inner planets. This first part is very entertaining. However, this part is followed by two other sections in which de Towaji is called in again to save the same collapsium ring from ever increasing threats. This kind of plot recycling could have worked if the sections were published as separate novellas, but in the same book?

McCarthy commits two other cardinal sins: each section repeats information from previous ones as if our memories will have been selectively erased while reading this novel, and he puts information in the appendix for no reason other than some notion of idiosyncratic play with the form of the presentation. Despite this, and you may even like the repetitions and the appendices, the novel does contain some interesting infodumps about high energy physics.

The part about the Queen of Tonga being the last remaining monarch when it is scientifically proven that the best type of government is a constitutional monarchy is a good parody of a common sf trope (cf. "Dune" by Frank Herbert) but causes all types of plot holes as well: is the Queen powerful or not?

McCarthy tries to adopt the fabulist style used by Stanislaw Lem in the "Cyberiad". The style works perhaps in the first chapter, but degrades rapidly after that.

I would suggest reading only the first chapter, which was previously published as a novella, "Once Upon a Matter Crushed" (first published in SF Age, May 1999 and quite possibly will be published part of some collection). The remaining science that you can imbibe from this book is more easily found in the Popular Articles section at the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics.

This novel was even more of a disappointment as it follows after Wil McCarthy's earlier, more successful novel, "Bloom",

%T The Collapsium %A Wil McCarthy %I Del Rey %D 2000 %G ISBN: 034540856X (hc) %P 325 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/06/20

Posted by anoop at 07:57 PM

July 20, 2005

The Tragic Tale of a Genius by Freeman Dyson

500px-NorbertWiener.jpg
© Image courtesy of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT.

In The Tragic Tale of a Genius Freeman Dyson (published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 52, Number 12, July 14, 2005) reviews Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman (Basic Books). (temporary url)

His review also includes information from Norbert Wiener's two autobiographies: Ex-prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (Simon and Schuster, 1953) and I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy (Doubleday, 1956).

In academic computer science departments there is often a science/engineering split, where one side of the split prove theorems, and the other side build systems to solve 'real-world' problems. Some of the most admired computer scientists like Alan Turing, Don Knuth and Norbert Wiener (to name a few) teach us how to bridge this gap. From Dyson's review:

Wiener was unusual among mathematicians in being equally at home in pure and applied mathematics. He made his reputation as a pure mathematician by inventing concepts such as the "Wiener measure" that have passed into the mainstream of mathematics. Wiener measure gave mathematicians for the first time a rigorous way to talk about the collective behavior of wiggly curves or flexible surfaces. While continuing to publish papers in the abstract realms of mathematical logic and analysis, he loved to talk with the engineers and neurophysiologists who were his neighbors at MIT and Harvard. He became deeply immersed in their cultures, and enjoyed translating problems from the languages of engineering and neurophysiology into the language of mathematics.

Unlike most pure mathematicians, he did not consider it beneath his dignity to apply his skills to the messy practical problems of the real world. He understood, more clearly than anyone else, that the messiness of the real world was precisely the point at which his mathematics should be aimed.

Norbert Wiener is best known as the founder of cybernetics:

As an applied mathematician, he worked out a general theory of control systems and feedback mechanisms, a theory which he called "cybernetics." Cybernetics was a theory of messiness, a theory that allowed people to find an optimum way to deal with a world full of poorly known agents and unpredictable events.

In 1940 he wrote a memorandum explaining in detail why digital language would be preferable for the computers whose existence he already foresaw. But his own contributions to communication theory happened to be written in analog language, for four reasons. First, his work as a pure mathematician had mostly been in analysis. Second, his practical experience with antiaircraft prediction was concerned with analog measurements and analog feedback mechanisms. Third, his conversations with neurophysiologists had convinced him that the language of sensory-motor feedback signals in the brains of humans and animals is analog. Fourth, the transmission of signals by chemical hormones is evidence that the action of the brain is at least partly analog. For all these reasons, Wiener's book Cybernetics, which summarized his thinking in 1948, was written in analog language.

Meanwhile, also in 1948, Claude Shannon published his classic pair of papers with the title "A Mathematical Theory of Communication," ... [It] was mathematically elegant, clear, and easy to apply to practical problems of communication. It was far more user-friendly than cybernetics. It became the basis of a new discipline called "information theory." ... Electronic engineers learned information theory, the gospel according to Shannon, as part of their basic training, and cybernetics was forgotten.

But Wiener was not ignored everywhere. His theories had wide circulation in India and Russia, and he was welcomed personally by Nehru and other leaders in India. Wiener did advocate founding of technical institutes and the encouragement of home-grown technical industries, but I find Dyson's claim that this is why India and to some extent Russia is now strong in information technology as too simplistic.

Dyson also compares this new book about Wiener with two previous biographies "John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death" by Steve Heims (MIT Press, 1980) and Norbert Wiener, 1894–1964 by Pesi Masani (Birkhäuser, 1990). About the Heims book, Dyson says:

The Heims biography emphasizes politics. It is mainly concerned with Wiener's activities as a social critic in the last third of his life. It presents the parallel lives of von Neumann and Wiener as a simple struggle between black and white... In a review of the Heims book which I published in Technology Review in 1981, [February/March issue, pp. 17–19] I wrote:

If Heims had been willing [to stay in the background], to present his work as a historical narrative with the protagonists speaking for themselves, he would have made an important contribution to the understanding of the great moral dilemma of our age. Unfortunately, ... he stands at the front of the stage between his characters and the audience, making it difficult for us to hear their voices and to see the drama of their lives [in historical perspective].

And about Masani's book, Dyson writes:

Pesi Masani's biography is from a scholarly point of view the best of the three. Masani was a professional mathematician, born in India and settled in the United States. He collaborated with Wiener and published several substantial papers with him in the 1950s. After Wiener died, Masani edited his collected papers for publication. ... The Masani biography is the only one that portrays him as a working mathematician.

Masani explains Wiener's mathematical ideas with admirable clarity, and he has found and reproduced many historical documents that the other biographers have missed. One particularly illuminating document that Masani reproduces in full is a long and friendly letter from von Neumann to Wiener, written in November 1946, discussing the mysteries of the human brain and the various ways in which the mysteries might be explored. ... Von Neumann's letter shows how far he had come in foreshadowing the era of molecular biology that he never lived to see. The letter also shows how far Heims diverged from the truth when he portrayed von Neumann and Wiener as polar opposites. They shared a passionate interest in biology. Both of them saw a deeper understanding of biology as the ultimate goal of their explorations of the science of computing and information.

So after two biographies, why a new one? As Dyson says:

After Heims has described Wiener's politics and Masani has described his mathematics, what is there left for a third biography to do? This third biography give us a new and intimate portrait of Wiener as a person, and describes his stormy relationships with his friends and family. ... Their aim is to explore the roots of Wiener's lifelong malaise and often weird behavior.

Wiener's personal life was marred by several problems, some of them perhaps because of his genius:

The drama of Wiener's personal life begins with his years as an infant prodigy, tormented by his brilliant but tyrannical father. Either as a result of his father's training or from genetic predisposition, he suffered from violent swings of mood that continued throughout his life. ...

Another major theme of this biography is Wiener's marriage. His wife, Margaret, was a student of his father, and the marriage was arranged by his parents. Margaret was chosen to take over from his parents the job of caring for him and organizing his life. ... She coped with his moods and raised his daughters.

But Margaret was in some respects even crazier than Wiener. She had emigrated from Germany to America at the age of fourteen. She was a fervent admirer of Adolf Hitler and kept two copies of Mein Kampf displayed prominently in her bedroom, one in German and one in English. She made no secret of her political views, to the intense annoyance of Wiener, who was himself Jewish and had many friends who were victims of Nazi persecution. When the daughters were teenagers and began to acquire boyfriends, she made their lives miserable by accusing them of nonexistent sexual delinquencies. ... As a result of her paranoid accusations, both daughters escaped from home as soon as they could and thereafter had little contact with her or with Wiener.

The most tragic episode of Wiener's life happened in 1951 when he was fifty-seven years old and passionately involved in a collaboration with his friend Warren McCullough and a group of young colleagues that he called "the boys." ... Margaret was insanely jealous of McCullough and his boys, and resolved to break up their friendship with Wiener ... she informed Wiener that McCullough's boys had seduced his daughter Barbara when she was a teenager staying at McCullough's house. This story had no basis in fact, but Wiener believed it ... and immediately wrote an angry letter to the president of MIT dissolving all connection between himself and the McCullough team.

Dyson tries to find some balance in this story:

Margaret is now the one who is accused and will never have a chance to answer her accusers. She never spoke with the authors, and left no friend behind to speak for her. The evidence against her is well documented and seems convincing. And still, the reviewer wonders.

Wiener is in many ways a forgotten hero of computer science. I certainly have not read any of Wiener's books on cybernetics: and nobody in contemporary AI seems to bother to read them either. The digital-analog war is pretty much over and no prizes for guessing which side won: Shannon's theories seem highly relevant for research in AI and machine learning today while Wiener's theories are, for better or for worse, left behind.

If you've read this far, you might want to read my review of Steve Heims' biography of Norbert Wiener which touches on Wiener's ethical ideas on responsible behaviour as a researcher. That book was also reviewed by Rudolf Peierls in Odd Couple (New York Review of Books, Volume 29, Number 2, February 18, 1982).

Posted by anoop at 01:30 PM

July 19, 2005

Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories, ed. by Damien Broderick

Once in a while, an anthology of science fiction gets published that does not have Gardner Dozois' name on the cover. This is one of those times. Lonely Planet Publications, known for their travel guides, decided to have a book of science-fiction travel stories that their readers can carry along with them to presumably exotic locales to compensate for any boring bits in their journey.

It is a surprisingly eclectic collection which collects stories from the 1970s upto the 1990s. The first story is a remarkably constructed "Tourists" by Lisa Goldstein (from 1985) about the karma of an arrogant tourist jaded from his many visits to poor countries. Next in line is "Yeyuka" by Greg Egan (from 1997) which is about a doctor visiting Uganda: the sf plot is a thinly veiled condemnation of drug companies making unfair profits on the supply of AIDS medications to Africa.

"The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica" by Brian Aldiss (from 1986) is an old school sf short story about a trip by an American soldier on a war-ravaged Mars to photograph Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system. "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe (from 1978) is a novella length story with the same complex characteristics of his novels. There is always the doubt of whether what is being portrayed is the truth or if you being lead on by the ungoverned unfaithfulness of the narrator. The story arc follows the descent of a rich Iranian tourist to a post-apocalyptic America coming out of a nuclear winter.

"Tourist Trade" by Stephen Dedman (from 1996) is a short, well executed piece about an android with a guest personality risking a visit to the theme park of New York City for some thrills in an Earth ruled by aliens. "In the Bowl" by John Varley (from 1975) is a minor effort about a Martian amateur geologist visiting a terraformed Venus to gather some interesting rocks.

"Useful Phrases for the Tourist" by Joanna Russ (from 1972) is an amusing collection of phrases for the savvy tourist to The Locrine. "Trips" by Robert Silverberg (from 1974) is the story of an obsessive traveler searching for things that he never lost in the first place in the infinite space of parallel worlds where all possible branches of time are played out. Finally, "All Tomorrow's Parties" by Paul J. McAuley (from 1997) is not to be confused with the novel by William Gibson published in the year 2000. McAuley's story invents at breakneck speed the story of a celebration being held to commemorate five million years of human Galactic colonization. Separately and artificially evolved clades of immortal transhumans gather for this celebration on a theme park constructed on a grand scale: a re-created Earth and Moon orbiting a distant G2 star.

%T Not the Only Planet %T :Science Fiction Travel Stories %A Damien Broderick (ed.) %I Lonely Planet Publications %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0864425821 (pb) %P 250 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/02/14

Posted by anoop at 02:00 AM

The Giants Novels by James P. Hogan

All three Giants novels were published in one convenient paperback for a reasonable price, and not having read James Hogan during my teens at the same time as I was devouring Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, I thought I should see what I missed. Unfortunately, these novels have dated considerably. Many aspects of the writing concentrate on technology which is hopelessy anachronistic now.

The plot of the first novel "Inherit the Stars" presents a speculative story about the origins of man and a missing tenth planet. The story-telling is straightforward and tries to be pedagogical about the scientific method. "Inherit the Stars" is interesting and well-written enough to hold one's attention for its short 188 pages. The other two novels however have not aged as well and are tedious enough not to be worth the effort.

%S The Giants Novels %A James P. Hogan %T Inherit the Stars %D 1977 %T The Gentle Giants of Ganymede %D 1978 %T Giant's Star %D 1981 %I Del Rey Books %G ISBN: 0345388852 (pb) %P 696 %K science-fiction

Review written: 1999/11/03

Posted by anoop at 01:47 AM

July 17, 2005

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep is a careful meditation on the idea of intelligence and the varying power it can yield based purely on varying substrates and different implementations. It is an examination of the impact of technology on augmenting the intelligence of a species. In explaining this idea, Vinge coined a term: The Singularity. It is loosely defined as the instant beyond which the species changes so radically due to augmentation by its technology that any attempts to predict the future beyond that point is impossible.

Vernor Vinge has written about the Singularity in other works such as "Marooned in Realtime" and "The Peace War". Vernor Vinge's academic paper on the notion of Singularity explores this idea on a more literal level than is available in his fiction.

**many spoilers below**

Like many space opera novels, Vinge needs to invent a method for superluminal travel. He uses an ingenious device where the laws of physics change drastically in the various regions of the galaxy. On the rim of the galaxy is the Slow Zone (in the neighbourhood of our Solar System) where faster than light travel is impossible and there are inherent limits to machine and biological sentience. Closer to the galactic center is The Unthinking Depths where any kind of automation or sentience is impossible. Above the galactic plane in a vast space is the Beyond. Here is where FTL travel is possible and sentience can accumulate to become great Powers.

Humans have successfully managed to get a foothold in the Beyond, but they are relative newcomers in a crowded field of transcendent species and sentient machines that are so powerful that they are considered to to have god-like Powers. One group of human scientists from Sjandra Kei have founded a lab called the Straumli Realm to investigate an archeological dig of great significance.

The human inhabitants of Sjandra Kei and Straumli Realm are brown-skinned and are organized as a matriarchy. Apart from their Scandinavian-sounding names and the name of their language, Samnorsk, they could be from any matrilineal society, like for instance the one in Kerala, India.

They attempt to awaken from an ancient data library the remnants of a once-great Power. Things go wrong quickly, and they discover that they have awakened a Blight, a sentience of such great potential for dominance of all others that it could affect the entire Beyond.

A few humans survive the Blight and escape the Lab only to crash onto a backwater planet near the edge of the Beyond where the only sentient inhabitants have only medieval levels of technology and a brutal feudal political system in place. The aliens in this world, ultimately called the Tines, are one of the best realized aliens ever created in science-fiction. They resemble packs of wolves but look vaguely rat-like. Each member of the pack has a low-frequency purring noise which coordinates the pack and creates a sentient group-mind in the entire pack. Upto six members of the pack act as one. (Incidentally, as a measure of Vinge's attention to detail: The Tines also have a base-four notation.)

Only two humans survive the landing on the planet: fourteen year old Johanna Olsndot and her eight year old brother Jefri. Johanna ends up with the Woodcarver nation while Jefri is trapped in the Flenser empire (run by Steel, a thinly disguised version of Stalin), each unaware of the others survival. The cold war between these two nations heats up because of the injection of space-age technology.

The pack-minds of the Tines not only give a feeling of a completely alien sentience, but also serve to illustrate the transcendence possible even with simple technology: the defining moment of the book.

Meanwhile, the Blight rages on in the High Beyond and it seems as if the only solution to the Blight is in the crashed spaceship on the Tines world. A rescue mission is mounted by the Relay. The Relay is the corporation which provides the physical layer for the Beyond communication network. Due to the vast distances, the messages are mostly text and Vinge uses this to create a far-future parody of the contemporary nntp netnews system, where alien civilizations flame each other via series of automatic translations.

The Relay assigns the sole human under their employ: Ravna Bergsndot and a couple of mercenary Skroderiders, another species who have passed the Singularity due to the incorporation of technology. Skrodes are sentient frond-like plants who have been merged with an artificial means of transport by a benevolent alien species called Riders. The fourth member of their team is Pham Nuwen, who is a human that appears to have been created by a Power interested in stopping the Blight.

This unlikely team has to rescue the two humans and extract the solution to the Blight which is rumored to be on the spaceship stranded on the Tines world.

As you can see from even the simplest of plot summaries, this book is dense and richly rewarding. You might have to read it twice to appreciate its detailed construction.

There is one small continuity error in the plot: one of the characters stranded on the Tines world, Johanna picks the name Tines in her language to describe her saviors/captors. In the next chapter, the other human also trapped on the same planet but with a different group altogether uses the term Tines as well. It's a subtle mistake, of course.

In 1999, Vernor Vinge published a prequel to this book (the return of Pham Nuwen!) called "A Deepness in the Sky" set 10,000 years before the events in this book. Like this book, it also won the Hugo award for best novel.

%T A Fire Upon the Deep %A Vernor Vinge %I New York: Tom Doherty Associates %D 1992 %G ISBN: 0312851820 (hc) %P 391 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/05/21

Posted by anoop at 01:40 PM

July 14, 2005

Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization by Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin is a plasma physicist and rocket scientist and a well known advocate for the human exploration of Mars. He is the president of the Mars Society that has the above purpose. He has written a previous book on this subject (with Richard Wagner) called "The Case for Mars".

This book is a more general attempt at advocacy laying out the various arguments for converting a (perhaps evanescent) global society into a spacefaring one. In the first section of the book: "Type I: Completing Global Civilization" Zubrin concentrates on various details of the space program run by NASA in the U.S. giving fascinating details on the development of the Space Shuttle and its potential replacement, and the International Space Station. He says little about the title of the section, assuming perhaps that global civilization is inevitable or that U.S. itself can be taken to be a global power and thus represent mankind. There are two good reasons to colonize Earth orbit and the nearby Solar System: one is business and the other science. A lucrative space business is difficult to come by as Zubrin himself points out in great detail. Science undertaken by a major superpower or a world at peace is the remaining reason. But when will this happen. On this point, Zubrin is silent.

The first section does have a detailed description of the various scientific and engineering aspects of spaceflight. This helps set the tone of the book which could easily drift into pie-in-the-sky speculation. Zubrin grounds all discussion in what is really feasible.

In the second section "Type II: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization", Zubrin lays out the various possibilities of human settlements on the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt and the Outer Solar System. The focus is on creating economical conditions where these settlements can be self-sustaining, usually by trading with Earth the local mineral resources unavailable elsewhere. Zubrin gives detailed information about chemical reactions that can be industrialized on the Moon and on Mars to produce valuable raw materials. These industries are also crucial to produce oxygen, nitrogen and water for sustaining these human settlements without constant supplies from the Earth. For many of these reasons, Mars seems to be the most likely candidate for a self-sustaining human settlement. Zubrin spends little time on a detailed Mars settlement plan since that is the topic of his earlier book. But the general arguments are well presented.

Once Mars is settled, Zubrin makes the case for the industrial exploitation of the Outer Solar System. The main reason to care about asteroids, of course, is because they are projectiles that can occasionally impact on the Earth. The only feasible solution to defend ourselves from these impacts is to catalog the asteroids exhaustively and to have a human presence in space which is capable of diverting them early at a point when the force needed for the change of orbit is feasible.

The third section: "Type III: Entering Galactic Civilization" gets increasingly speculative. Zubrin reviews the various techniques that would permit interstellar travel. As in other chapters, Zubrin debunks many ideas that are still commonplace in hard-sf. An interesting method for interstellar travel that Zubrin himself was involved with is one that merges the idea of a solar-wind or laser-pushed light sails with the Bussard ramjet to give a mode of transport called the magsail which seems a practical alternative to fusion-powered rockets for interstellar travel.

The last few chapters talk about terraforming and other extraordinary engineering projects (spending some time debunking the impossible-to-construct Dyson sphere), the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and spends the last few pages on unabashed speculations. Zubrin does give a good description of the Drake equation and a discussion of Fermi's famous question: ``Where are they?''

In the end, at the very least, you will come away with an appreciation of the delta-V required for launching rockets into space, a notion of the kinds of chemical processes we could sustain on the Moon and on Mars and perhaps elsewhere in the Solar System, and just perhaps you could end up sharing Zubrin's dream that humans will settle another world in our lifetime.

%T Entering Space %T :Creating a Spacefaring Civilization %A Robert Zubrin %I New York: Penguin Putnam %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0874779758 (hc) %P 305 %K astronautics, space-travel, science

Review written: 2001/05/07

Posted by anoop at 11:37 AM

Software by Rudy Rucker

Haf'N'Haf seemed to be having some trouble starting the little cutting machine up. It was a variable head blade. They were going to cut off the top of Sta-Hi's skull and eat his brain with those cheap steel spoons. He would be able to watch them ... at first.

This novel is the story of two characters: Cobb Anderson and Sta-Hi. They both go the moon and they come back to Earth. That's the basic plotline. However, the plot is used to make a few well-chosen points about consciousness, politics and robotics. Rudy Rucker hits these high points clearly and does it in a sometimes overbearing and inconsistent trippy writing style.

Cobb Anderson is the scientist who managed to create the first sentient machine by evolving them into existence in 2001 at which point they promptly revolted and set up their own independent existence on the moon. In 2020, Cobb Anderson is a pheezer, old and decrepit, living on a financially depressed Earth which survives on special trading relations with the boppers on the moon. Cobb gets a call from his first creation, Ralph Numbers, with an offer of immortality. It could be the answer to his physical ailments Or it could be a bopper trick.

Sta-Hi, on the other hand is a lot like his name. A name he has chosen because it `wiggles' better than his real name, Stanley Hilary Mooney, Jr. Sta-Hi accompanies Cobb to the Moon to get away from some people who are intent on eating his brain. And what is the deal with the Mr. Frostee icecream truck, anyway.

The novel has dated since its publication. On the other hand, it is a short and sometimes thought-provoking read about the nature of anarchy and the injustice of the Asimov laws of robotics.

%T Software %A Rudy Rucker %I Avon Eos %D 1982 %G ISBN: 0380701774 (pb) %P 167 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/04/25

Posted by anoop at 11:32 AM

July 05, 2005

Do the other things

kennedy_rice.png

If you have watched any documentary on the Apollo space program, you've heard (and seen) the following excerpt from John F. Kennedy's address delivered at Rice University, Sept 12, 1962.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

I have always been bothered by this excerpt because the referent for the other things is almost never included in the video or audio clip (I can't think of a single documentary which includes the referent). So what does the other things refer to? Is it unambiguous?

The answer is clear from watching video footage of the entire speech. Here is the paragraph that precedes the previous paragraph in the transcript of Kennedy's speech:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard ...

So it seems that the referent for the other things is the set: { "climb the highest mountain", "fly the Atlantic 35 years ago", "Rice playing Texas" } . Apart from the last item, it is quite easy to grasp Kennedy's comparison. The same set is also presumably the referent for the second case of anaphora: one which we intend to win, and the others, too. Climbing the Everest and transatlantic flight are clear analogies for going to the moon, but the 'Rice playing Texas' item requires some further explanation.

Here is what Bill Little has to say about the Rice-Texas football rivalry in an article published on 9/24/2004:

It began 90 years ago, when Rice, playing in only its third football season, lost to a Texas team that included six players who would enter the Longhorn Hall of Honor after it was started more than 40 years later.

They were legendary names, folks like Louis Jordan, the team captain, and Gen. K. L. Berry, Pig Dittmar and Clyde Littlefield. And that was only the beginning.

A year later, Rice and Texas met on October 16, 1915, in the Longhorns' first game in a new league alignment called the Southwest Conference. For 82 years, from that beginning season in 1914 through 1995, the two schools played every year. In its time, it was longest continuous streak of any Longhorn opponent.

Texas controlled the series in the early years, but the fledgling Owls did post a notable win in 1924 under their new coach, a guy named John W. Heisman (for whom the famous trophy is named). But beginning in 1930, the series between the university on South Main in Houston and the guys from the Forty Acres in Austin was second only to Texas A&M as the Longhorns' biggest rivalry until the mid 1960s.

In 1937, Texas hired D. X. Bible, and Rice followed in 1940 with the hiring of Jess Neely. Heisman not withstanding, the two coaches brought credibility and respectability to both the game and the coaching profession that was unsurpassed.

From 1930 through Neely's final win over Texas in 1965, Rice actually held the edge in the series, 18-17-1. In 1957, Darrell Royal took the Texas job, and he would go on to become the fourth member of the prestigious College Football Hall of Fame to coach in the series.

Royal was the winningest coach in Southwest Conference history. Neely finished tied for second in a career that spanned 26 years.

For years, the Rice-Texas game was the social event of the football season, and when the Owls opened their state-of-the-art stadium in the mid-1950s, it was usually packed with 70,000 folks for the meeting with Texas.

The series also took on an unusual quality. From 1954 until the Longhorns snapped the string with a victory in Houston in 1964 and Rice returned the favor by winning in Austin in 1965, the home team won. The only exception was a 14-14 tie in 1962, when a heavy underdog Rice team knocked Texas from its spot as the No. 1 team in the nation. Otherwise, Rice won in Houston, and Texas won in Austin.

But beginning with Neely's final season of 1966, Texas reeled off 28 straight victories until Rice ended the streak on a rainy Sunday night in Houston in 1994.

Presumably, the comparison of the Apollo program to a Rice-Texas football rivalry was due to the unlikely victory of the Owls against the Longhorns in 1962. If you watch the entire video footage closely, you will notice that Kennedy, every bit the accomplished public speaker, gets the loudest applause just after his line: "Why does Rice play Texas?". On the video footage, watch closely for the cigar smoking man just to Kennedy's right for a good example of the crowd's reaction to Kennedy's comparison of the Moon missions with the Rice-Texas football rivalry.

Posted by anoop at 04:09 PM