Thursday, August 29, 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

<a href=""><img border="0" src="" ></a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />D'oh
. I typed a bunch and then it seemed to disappear. Uggh. Lets try again. I had initially thought this book was science fiction. The title seemed science-ish, and the narrator of the audiobook narrates many of Orson Scott Card's science fiction books (hmmm... probably since he is her father.) When there was a statement about someone feeling they were a 70 foot tall tree, a took that literally and was looking for some outlandish space travel. I totally missed the part about the death of a teacher.

The book is written in the style of a college course (with a final exam.) The chapters have titles of literary works, and there are plenty of annotations throughout. It is a great, innovative style that keeps things interesting without distracting from the work.

The narrator of the book is smart girl that loves books and movies, but has very little social experience. This is her coming of age story. Her mom died when she was five and she had lived with her dad, an itinerant college professor. Her senior year in high school, her dad finally agrees to let her settle down in one place, "Stockton, North Carolina."

The one peeve I had with the book is the pseudo-place names. There are abundantly quoted "real" works of literature and movies. However, almost all the names of places and universities are made up. (I even tried to look some up.) I prefer to have my places "real" or non-existent. Having "almost real" places is just annoying.

She tries to fit in with a group of drama nerds that hang around the film teacher. She does stuff with them, and they all have experiences together. At one point, they sneak into an "adult" party, and see somebody die by drowning. This brings the first significant tragedy to the group. Later, the group goes on a camping trip with the favorite teacher. During the trip, the narrator discovers the teacher hanged, and the others get lost. This destroys the balance of the group, and narrator finds herself outcast and looking for answers to how and why. The police deem it a suicide, but she doesn't buy that. Her quest eventually leads her to uncover a link between the teacher, a crime organization, the early murder and her father. After she shares this with her father, he disappears in the night, never to see her again. It turns out that the university work, though real, was cover for her father's work with the organization. She even knew many figures in the organization. She never did find out who had killed the teacher, but she did find out a lot about herself during the course of events.

The style keeps the book interesting. The pacing could use a little work. The start of the book mentions that it is about the murder of the teacher. However, it spends a long time getting there. Once it gets to that point, it quickly zooms to the crime conclusion. There is almost no time spent going down false paths or building up suspense. It seems as if it is a coming-of-age tale that just had to have a murder tacked on to allow it to be a "mystery". This final bit is also the key point that completely changes her relationship with her father (and thus alters her life.) I am fine with the sudden ending, but would have liked to see it balanced with less exposition. (Or if keeping all the earlier parts, it would be nice to balance the ending by exploring the relationships in more detail.) Luckily, the style (and constant literary allusions) kept it interesting, even when the substance slowed down.

Sure, San Ramon will "accommodate" pedestrians

We had hotel points to burn, so tried out a hotel in San Ramon. The hotel backed up against the "Iron Horse trail" that we have heard people rave about. There was actual a gate that led directly from the hotel to the trail (which we, alas, discovered after we had walked around.) Kudos to them for actually thinking of access. Alas, the trail was flat and straight. I thus that is what you should expect for a rails to trails conversion. The local road on the other side of the freeway seemed like a nicer route (at least it had some shade.) Now, if they could get a get rail-to-trail route for the Sunol railroad, that would be a welcome alternative.

The trail seemed to be mostly mountain and utility bikers, with a few road bikers and pedestrians. After walking a little ways, we got bored and decided to explore some San Ramon neighborhoods. There was an elementary school right on the trail (I wonder if they are allowed to cross the trail to go to school.) Other residential neighborhoods seemed to have access, making it easy to explore. Eventually, we ended up on Alcosta Blvd, which seemed to be a downright bizarre case in bad urban planning. On one side of the road, there was a median an extra median separating the houses from the through-portion of the road. On the other side, the houses were right up against the road. On some portion of the road, there was a bike lane. However, it went away in the area where the extra median appeared. The road, for the most part had two narrow travel lanes in each direction, though traffic was fairly light. I simple reconfiguration could have made it a great bike and pedestrian road, with good access for the houses.

Closer to the hotel, one side of the road had "gated communities", the tell-tale sign of faux-rich. After all, if you are really rich, you will have a personal estate, and no-need of a gated "community". If you are a normal person, you will live with your neighbors. That leaves gated communities for those that think of themselves as better, yet don't really have enough money to fully separate themselves. In that area, we found one of the most truly bizarre negative pedestrian experiences below:

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If you are walking southeast on Alcosta, you will walk along an undulating sidewalk that goes up and down because - well, because it looks pretty. Then you decide you want to go to the shopping area, and need to cross the street. Only, the sidewalk doesn't meet the street. You have to continue walking a ways on the "undulating sidewalk" until you find another sidewalk the backtracks to get you to street level. And now you can cross the street. Only, this crosswalk is only on one side of the street, the side where the shopping center isn't. So you cross the street there. There is no sidewalk on that side of the street, so you need to cross another street to finally get the the sidewalk that leads to the shopping center. Why not just but a crosswalk connecting directly to the sidewalk? Well, it may cost a car there a few seconds of its time. That would, after all burn fossil fuels. It is much better to have the pedestrian stand there and breath in those fumes. Besides the pedestrian would then have the chance to cross two streets, causing more delays in traffic. Lovely. Lovely. Lovely.

And just to continue the loveliness, the sidewalk only runs on one side of the road through most of the shopping area - and that side of the road changes from one side to the other without warning. Luckily, pedestrians are smart enough to manage this.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Code Talker

This book is quite similar to the fictional "code talkers" juvenile book. Some of the key events were told in both books. However, as a true story, this is much more believable. It doesn't go overboard in the melodrama and name dropping as the fictional account does. However, it appears the fictional account was fairly well done. This is also a more complete biography. It starts with the battle to keep your attention up, then goes back to his birth, continuing to boarding school, the war, and his post war life.

Initially, Indian boarding school attempted to take the Indian out of the people. However, when World War II broke out, those that were bilingual in Navajo and English became indispensable to the war cause. However, after the war experience, they ended up willingly adopting more of the "white man's" customs.

It is amazing that the code talkers managed to keep their code secret during the war - and for a couple decades after it. If the Japanese had got even one to spill details of the code, it could have easily been cracked. (However, could they have been able to recognize the differences between the different words?)

This book is a war story wrapped in a native American History, wrapped in a memoir. At times it can seem a little self-congratulatory. However, it is well done. (And he is the last of the "original" code-talkers around, so his story is the one that gets told.)

Planet of the Apes

The book was written in the 1960s. It is told as a framing story, with some apes discovering a "message in a bottle" floating in space that tells the story of the voyage to a distant planet and the discovery of the ape society. Here it turns out that the planet once held a human society, but the humans got lazy and eventually the apes took over. The apes were good at imitating, but not so good at original thought. Thus their society had remained largely identical to the human society that it supplanted 10,000 years earlier. The humans had remained, but reverted to a savage state, wandering around naked, and not speaking or communicating. Of the three humans that arrived on the ape planet, one was killed by the apes as part of a hunting adventure and two were brought in to captivity. Of the two captives, one totally reverted to the beast state, not even engaging in conversation with the other man. The other man exposed himself as a man. He acheived noteriety and entered the ape society. However, when it was discovered that he had impregnated another human "beast", plans her made to exterminate him. With the help of some friendly apes, they escaped in their ship to planet earth, arriving 700 years after they had left. There they find earth largely as they had left it 700 years earlier, except now apes were in control.

This is largely a cautionary tale about laziness and degeneracy. Man doesn't take time to exersize his mind or body, and lets others do his work. Eventually, the apes decide they have had enough and take over. Since they are merely copying what existed before, they are no more than apes themselves. The real apes have no problem taking over and doing the copying on their own.

In the most recent movie, (Rise of Planet of the Apes), the cause is switched. Instead of man's laziness, it becomes man's excess intervention that is the downfall. The chemical that helps give the apes intelligence is rushed into trials without sufficient testing. While it does make the apes brilliant, it quickly kills humans. This gradually spreads around the world, leading to ape control.

In the earlier movies there were alternate causes. In the Tim Burton movie, experimental animals from the space ship led to the dawn of the ape civilization. (However, when the humans return to earth, they find a similar "ape society" there.)

In the Charleton Heston version, the ape planet is earth of the distant future. Here the human society had fully decayed and the apes had taken over. It seems to de-emphasize the laziness aspect, and focus on the decay. Could this be the few years that intervened? Could it be the change in the few years, from the early 60s of postwar complacency in France to the late 60s cultural revolution in the United States?

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Back in the colonial times, people would travel by boat from New England to New York and Philadelphia. Ben Franklin starts his biography with details of his genealogy. He then covers his childhood as line of the youngest of the youngest. He started in the printing business and dabbled in writing. Initially he was a rather poor writer, but he gradually developed his skills. He also worked on other areas of self betterment and gradually became more involved with politics. One of his "high points" was his lightening and kite experience which enabled him to receive recognition from scientific societies.

There are also bits of attempts at civic betterment that help tell us about their society. He suggests ways of improving the condition through cleaning and lighting. (He mentioned keeping ways for smoke to escape from street lights. Hmmm... We never seem to worry about that anymore.)

The Last Theorem

I never realized that Arthur C. Clarke lived most of his adult life in Sri Lanka. That explains the setting for The Last Theorem. The book centers around mathematician Ranjit Subramanian. We start with him in college, and later see him achieve great fame after proving Fermat's last theorem. He gets married has kids, becomes a professor, gets involved with the US government and eventually is given a "mechanical" immortality.

He also plays a role in some important events for the future of humanity.

Aliens picked up radio signals from earth. They also noticed the nuclear blasts. The "Grand Galatics" decided that the earth needed to be destroyed, so they sent out a crew of "1.5s" to do the destruction as well as "9 limbs" to communicate. However, a Grand Galactic passing near earth saw that the humans were not all bad, so he called off the invasion. Unfortunately, the other aliens did not have the resources to return home, so they occupied a vacant part of earth. The Americans initially tried to attack them. However, this failed miserably, and they eventually became friends, sharing technology and eventually leading earthlings to be the guardians of the galaxy.

Back on earth, a "peace coalition" uses "EMP" bombs (silent thunder) to disable all electronic activity in rouge states. They deploy this over North Korea and quickly dispose of the "benevolent leader". They also had a humanitarian crew standing by to provide supplies after the attack. Thus they are able to quickly install a peaceful leadership without bloodshed. They later use this on Colombia and Venezuela. (The drug trade had dried up in Colombia after it was legalized in America. However, the kingpins decided to join the trade in another lucrative addiction - oil. This led to a lot of fighting that was finally ended by "silent thunder".)

Earth has also developed greater space exploration technology, with a "space elevator" enabling Moon travel to be easier. Ranjit's daughter competes in the first "space olympics". She also competes in a "solar sail" race. However, in the process, her vehicle is commandeered by the 9 limbs who clone her body to use to interrogate leaders of the earth.

There is a lot of stuff going on. However, most of the narrative is spent talking about the life of Ranjit. While we get little bits of the alien activity throughout the book, actual human-alien contact doesn't happen until the end. Even here, it seems like it will be aborted before it is started. We finally get a quick landing and a paranoid US response. When that fails, they seem to make peace and live together nicely.

I liked the way that the novel started. We get a couple prologues about the life and interest of the authors, and these meld directly into the story of Ranjit. I was left wondering whether this was still a bit of "fact" related to the authors. Then the aliens pop in, and I finally realize it is fiction.

The ending seems to jump up a little suddenly. I was expecting some sort of bang with the aliens, but it is just a little whimper. The earth ends up in a highly optimistic peaceful existence. The US uses its technical warfare superiority to ensure peace. They almost go too far in their quest, but luckily, they are stopped by aliens and the earthlings are able to have a peaceful, educational co-existence.

After this seeming peace, another bit seems tacked on where Ranjit's wife dies in a Scuba accident. Her mind is saved in an "electronic" body, with her husband joining her. This seems to only allow the narrative to come back to them a few thousand years later after the Grand Galactics have returned and decided that earthlings should take over their role.

There is a lot of interesting content in this story, and a nice narrative style. The ending seems rushed, but manages to serve its purpose in spite of leaving out a lot that we were expecting.

Death By Black Hole

Death by Black Hole comes from a series of essays written by an astrophysicist. The work flows well and provides a good background on the greater universe. The title topic appears closer to the end and would be quite gruesome. Your body would be cut in half, then in half again until finally all the molecules and sub-molecules are split into one unrecognizable mass.

He does a good job of describing what we know and how we got to know it. Much of it is guesswork, with more data allowing better theories to be formed. Radio telescopes allow us to find even more about the universe at large. We may only have a few billion years before the universe is destroyed. But before, the sun is likely to go out. Even before that, life on earth may be wiped out by a stray comet or asteroid. (Though we may actually be able to help prevent some of those from being too destructive.)

The study of science seems a lot like reverse engineering a computer program. We just have to see what is there, and try to figure things out. There have been many past proclaimed "end of sciences". However, since then many new theories have been put forth that better explain what we see. A good scientist can be open to all new changes.

Alas, the ending somewhat spoiled the work. There, he attempts to provide a critique of "intelligent design". He argues that scientists simply use deity as a way to credit the things that they don't understand. (Thus, if deity does not have a place in science, does that mean scientists are omniscient?) He then posits that there are so many defects in lifeforms, that there must not have been a deity. (Why would one create all those problems? Well, why would a programmer create bugs?) Then intelligent design bears the brunt of his wrath as a force that retards the growth of science. I think that takes things a little too far, and may be a result of the atheistic pushing of Hawkins and other scientists. Science and religion can work nicely together. Religion is like the high level documentation. It explains how things were done and provides some APIs for doing certain things. Science is an attempt to dissect the details and find detailed hidden features and APIs. There is no need for them to conflict. It is easy to be both religious and scientific. Science rarely disproves religion. Rather it provides alternate explanations. Religion also rarely retards science. In fact, it may help it in providing a better focus. Evolution could be a good explanation for the relgious creation. Intelligent design provides another explanation. The only harm to science is if it spends too much time worrying about it to focus on other research efforts. (Isaac Newton made huge contributions to science in spite of spending years justifying his work with religion. Perhaps his output would have been more without the religious influence, but it could have also been less.)

Six Characters in Search of An Author

This is a play about a play. Characters talk with the people that they are playing and with others. Who has the real existence? Are the characters more real than the people. It is an interesting, fun play. The libravox recording was quite well done.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dilbert Principle

Dilbert is funny. This book grabs some of the humor. However, it often slips into a baser level of humor than the comic strips. The best parts of the book are the sections where he reads from the emails of real office experiences. Yes, truth can often be stranger than fiction.

The author's observation about the world of business, alas, tend to be quite accurate. Business books and management whims may work in one place, but may not be applicable elsewhere. Shortchanging employee compensation may lead them to seek it elsewhere. Bosses may ignore their underlings, but when an expensive consultant says the same thing, they listen. And on and on...

Pilgrims Regress

The Pilgrim's Regress was C.S. Lewis's first work after his conversion to Christianity. In it he presents a very forward allegory for his conversion to Christianity. John, the protagonist, lives in land controlled by the landlord. The stewards of the land make arbitrary rules and enforce them for the landlord. The rules can be bizarre and contradictory, but everyone must obey, or they will be cast out. However, some people say that the landlord never existed, and he is just something made up. These people can have names like "reason". John goes on to experiment with the beliefs of others as he desires to learn and do more. The work is not bad, but it is not up to the standards that Lewis would set with his later apologetic Christian works. It may be more accurate to compare it to the Narnia books, which also provide Christian allegory in the context of a literary story. However, even with this comparison it comes up short. Perhaps it is just Lewis having fun, experimenting with his own retelling of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Job:A Comedy of Justice

The main character is on a cruise to the Polynesian Islands. They watch a firewalk, and in response to a bet, he attempts to walk on the fires. At the end, he faints. When he wakes up, he is in a world that seems like his. However, there have been some minor changes in the past century, that have left this a totally different world than he knew. (Everybody knows him, but his name is different than the one he had before.) He meets up with a girl, they fall in love, and then they get zapped to more new time periods.

Eventually they are caught in the rapture and he goes to heaven as a saint. She isn't there, so he goes down to hell to find her. She isn't there either - she is actually out fighting with Loki. Eventually, he discovers that he was victim to a game being played, similar to Job. He also finds his girl and becomes happy.

The book has two distinct parts. The first part deals with the "universe shifting." This is the more interesting part. How would you react if at any moment, all your material positions (including identity) were stripped from you, leaving you to start totally over materially. How would you change how you live your life? How could the world be different based on small changes that happen at times? (All the worlds seem somewhat similar to our modern worlds, but they all have their differences.)

The second (and shorter) part deals primarily with the main character exploring the afterlife. This is played as a comedy, with heaven and hell being portrayed more as something like a fraternity. It starts to get old and pretty goofy. The devout religion of the narrator (whatever his name may be at the time) is somewhat muted by his experience, but still seems to maintain its theological and moral base. Alas, the book would have been better without this ending.

Digital Fortress

Digital Fortress is a thriller. It bears some resemblance to the spying issue that Snowden leaked to the country. However it is told from the NSA's point of view. The NSA people are the good guys who protect America from the bad guys by hacking messages. They have a supercomputer that they use for brute force decryption. However, a former NSA employee claims to have created a super algorithm that cannot be solved be brute force. He has released an encrypted version of this online and claims to be auctioning off the key to decrypt it to the highest bidder. He essentially dares the NSA to try to decrypt it. The head of the crypto department takes the bait. However, he hatches another scheme to let the NSA get the key, then modify it to give it a secret backdoor before releasing it to the highest bidder. However, things go wrong, lots of people get killed, the supercomputer is destroyed, a major data breach is barely averted and finally the main characters get to go on a date.

If you ignore the technical inaccuracies, this can be a great book. However these technical issues get really annoying. The main climax of the book is occurs because there is a worm in some code that the supercomputer is attempting the decrypt. The worm worm shuts down the defences of the NSA's data store (which is connected to the supercomputer.) The worm is being run because the head of crypto disabled the security "guantlet" that everything must be passed through before it is sent to the computer to decrypt. The holes:
1) How would a decryption spread a virus? These guys have some bad programming if they are trying to execute code as it is decrypted. Even if the computer was trying to crack computer code (by executing it), the code would be sandboxed before it is run. And even if there are other issues, they wouldn't be running code on the datastore, they would just pass stuff there.
2) If the programmer has not created an uncrackable code, why did the NSA's computer spend so much time chugging away at it? It should have either determined that it couldn't decrypt or that it was total garbage.
3) A head of crypto in the NSA can authorize the deaths of many people? And he would be so bold as to ask for the fiance of one of this workers to be killed so that he can have her?

That is just the start of the issues. It could go on. However, if you just sit back and suspend brain, this book can be entertaining.

Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz sacrafices his powers to save the world. Oops. Gave away some of the plot points. But that's the point of this blog. The librarians have nearly taken Mokia. Alcatraz decides he can lure more help be going there himself. He ends up becoming king due to the incapacitance of the existing King and the Smedry royal line. They capture his mother (because she has to appear somewhere in each book.) He begins to side with her views that it may not be a good thing for everyone to have a Smedry talent. They also meet the shattered lens librarians who really don't like glass and do a good job destroying it. Alcatraz gets a better understanding of what the Smedry talents are and channels his talent into the people protecting Mokia, thereby defending Mokie, but also eliminating the talents.

That's the plot. It is cool. But like the other Alcatraz books, the non-plot stuff is what really makes it.

Alcatraz breaks into a discussion of religions. He explains how they all differ (its all about what you can and can't eat.)

Teddy Bears are grenades. Some explode inwards, while others kill all non-living things but don't harm any living things. These come in handy when fighting against ro-bats.

A young Smedry has a talent at being bad at math. This talent can enable many more (or fewer things to appear)

And we have chapters. The chapter numbering sequence is bizarre with the chapters being all out of order (and numbers like Infinity +1 being used.)

For some reason, this book did not seem as engaging as the others, but that may be because I zoomed through it so fast. It does seem to bring things to a somewhat palatable conclusion, but also leaves enough open for further sequels.


This Pinsky translation of Inferno attempts to translate the "everyday Itanlian" of Dante to everyday English. At the start, this seems to work. However, Dante fills the book with details of many local Florentines. Alas, these don't translate well to modern days. (Perhaps if we add Bush, Tom Cruise and Obama we'll get a more true translation.) I also began to lose the flow of the narrative as it continued on. At the start, it seemed to go through degrees of "badness". The people were getting progressively worse. Dante was criticizing them for their sins, and comparing the sins of the well known to the sins of the not-so-popular. However, it later seemed to fall into a "tell-all" book where he criticized the local Florentine luminaries.