May 2008

Last night I went to hear Carl Hiaasen give a talk at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC. He is promoting his new book, “Downhill Lie“, a memoir about his foray back into the world of golf after 30 years. I’ve had his book, “Skinny Dip” on my queue for awhile, but haven’t read anything by him. Downhill Lie

Anyway, his talk was hysterically funny, covering everything from sinking a golf cart to doing battle with rats. Monkey golf and late-night Golf Channel adventures were also covered. I recorded the talk, and I’m officially bumping his books up on my queue (meaning I may get to them this year).

[Read 1/14/2008] History/Science. 2007

The Archimedes Codex is the story of the Archimedes Palimpsest, formed when a medieval prayer book was created by taking parchment (sheepskin pages) from several ancient codexes, scraping off the old text and re-using the parchment. One of these ancient manuscripts happened to be the earliest surviving copy of Archimedes Codex C. An informative website is dedicated to the Archimedes Palimpsest.

The old prayer book/palimpsest was purchased in 1998 at auction for $2million. The new owner entrusted Noel, the curator of the Walters Museum in Baltimore, to unlock its secrets. Netz is a Stanford classicist; the two authors alternate chapters.

I was more interested in the technology used to uncover the Archimedes text than in the text itself however a majority of the book is on the text and how it contributes to our understanding of Greek mathematics (geometry, combinatorics, etc.). Only the last 20 pages focus on what caught my attention initially, namely the use of a beamline at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) to do X-ray absorption studies on the palimpsest. These studies reveal hidden text via the iron in the original Archimedes text’s ink. I’ve done X-ray absorption (EXAFS) studies myself at SLAC so I liked the tie-in.

I think Noel is either being tongue-in-cheek or is a new earth Creationist (ick!). He once says that sheepskin evolved “or was Intelligently designed” with more antibiotic properties on the side facing out. In another passage , when discussing dates in the codex, says the dates as written by the orthodox monk were from the origin of the earth – “which as everyone knows was 5500 BC”. He can’t possibly believe that the earth was created ~7000 years ago! Anyway, the Archimedes text was written ~6-900 AD, while the Prayer Book it was made into was written ~ 1200 AD.

Interestingly (and sadly), as described in the book, most of the damage and deterioration of the book took place not in the past, but in the 20th century! The book today was very brittle, moldy, and glued(!) together.

[Read 1/3/2008] Science Fiction. 2006

Sun of Suns is “Book one of Virga”. The novel basically takes place inside a planet-sized balloon called Virga. We don’t know much about the “outside”, but inside Virga is a world of wooden ships and sword fights. Some tech remains (the “suns” are small fusion reactors) but most of the story involves intrique and “naval” battles. Since they are *inside* a sphere, there is no gravity unless they create some by spinning their habitats.

Hayden Griffin is from the nation of Aerie and is orphaned when Aerie is taken over by the nation of Slipstream. Hayden’s parents had been trying to build their own artificial sun (which the rival Slipstream doesn’t like). Hayden grows up to seek revenge on Admiral Chaison Fanning who led the attack on Aerie.

Venera is the admiral’s scheming wife, and gets in Hayden’s way. Eventually Hayden gets a job as Venera’s driver, and they both travel in the admiral’s ship, Rook. Lots of adventures ensue, but I really didn’t care for the ending. But there’s a sequel (and a third!) out.

This is a fun read, once you accept the premise of a “balloon” world. I would be interested in hearing more about the “outside”. One of the characters is from the Outside and helps Hayden and Admiral in their quest for “treasure” and a secret weapon…

Mildly recommended.

[Read 12/17/2007] Science Fiction. 2005

River of Gods is a long book (~600 pages), and while it gets off to a slow start with many small chapters revealing a bunch of characters and plot lines, the book does take off about halfway through and then doesn’t let up. McDonald does manage to tie all the characters and plot lines together.

This huge tome has lots of ideas:

The book takes place in India of 2047. The level of sentience of AI’s is limited by law, and nothing higher than “2.5” is allowed. Any AI’s with higher levels of intelligence are tracked down by the Ministry and “excommunicated” (i.e. killed). A popular soap opera features CGI characters played by CGI actors. Medicine is so advanced that you can undergo surgery to become a genderless “nute”. Also, parents can have genetic engineering done to create a “Brahmin” child – which is disease free and lives >2x as long as normal. However, they physically mature more slowly, so you end up with an adult mind in a child-like body. Technology is advancing so that they can generate energy from the potential differences between two universes. Also, an alien artifact is found in space that is older than the solar system and holds a bunch of mysteries.

The Indian states of Bharat and Awadh are close to war because of a long drought. Indian culture and Hindi terms permeate the novel – sometimes making it hard to follow. I discovered the book actually had a glossary of Hindi terms; unfortunately this discovery was after I had finished the novel.

Cast of characters:

Shaheen Badoor Khan is the Bharat Prime Minister’s secretary. He’s an important person in the government (and has a predilection for nutes).

Tal is a nute and a set designer for the (CGI) soap opera “Town and Country”. He (it) is Khan’s desire…

Najia Askarzada is a reporter who interviews the soap (AI) characters and then gets involved in a big conspiracy.

Mr. Nandha is a Krisna cop with the Ministry. He hunts down roque AIs with the help of his own AIs. He’s so involved with his work that he doesn’t realize the budding affair between his wife and the gardener…

Vishram Ray inherits a large part of his father’s power company. The R+D division is working on harnessing the energy from the differences in ground states of different universes (wild!!). Turns out you get more power back than the power needed to open the “door” to the other universes.

Thomas Lull is an AI researcher (genius) who drops out of society and works on a beach. His skills are needed by Lisa D., a scientist who also happened to have had an affair with Lull. She and NASA need him to explore a large, 8-billion year old artifact found inside an asteroid.

Aj is a young girl who meets up with Lull. She’s mysterious not least because she seems to be able to control AIs and can read info about anyone/anything out of the air.

Shiv is a thug/murderer who is brought in by some big players to find something and is then manipulated.

All of these characters have separate plot lines until about halfway through the book – until then it’s hard to keep track of all of them, but the story does congeal. There’s lots of symbolism and imagery in the language of the novel and this makes for a rich read. It’s well worth the (moderate) effort.


[Read 11/2007] Religion. 2007

In God’s Mechanics Brother Consolmagno discusses religion from a “techie” standpoint. Br. Consolmagno is an astronomer, and many of his friends/coworkers are either scientists or in other technical fields. He tells both his and their stories about how to reconcile a life of faith with a life in science. I enjoyed this book tremendously; Br. Consolmagno shows how he (and others) can have “unprovable” religious beliefs and still work every day in highly scientific or technical fields.

He poses three questions that postulating the existence of God is useful in answering:

  1. Why is there something instead of nothing?
  2. What is the source and object of my deepest yearnings?
  3. How do I make sense of my life?

Some notes on what Br. Consolmagno says in this very engaging book:

The urge to find something “out there”, or the longing to find meaning is the search for the transcendent. It is very unsatisfying to just have a God who is responsible for the creation of the universe (question 1) but then has no further interest in it. What then, would be the point of our lives?

Religion: The various “sacred” scriptures serve as a sort of database – a record of the community’s history of interaction with the transcendent. It’s a template against which we can compare our own experiences of the transcendent. The collective religious wisdom (and Tradition) gives us the tools to “throw out” data points too far from the norm.

Sacraments are a concrete “thing” that only a Church can provide. The function of religion is to get closer to God, and the function of God is to address the fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. However, you cannot insist (or assume) that religious doctrines are a complete and final description of nature and God. Our understanding of God is always incomplete – as St. Paul says, “through a glass, darkly”.

Catholic theology notes that all doctrine, no matter how authoritative, embodying divine truth, still requires interpretation because our understanding of that truth is expressed in a given time and in an historically conditioned language and culture.

He recommends Saint Augustine (~400 AD): “On the literal meaning of Genesis” (trans. by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. 1982). Augustine puts a creative spin on biblical passages, as when he says “Let there be light” actually refers to instilling rationality into intellectual creatures.

A particular strength of Catholicism over denominations where worship depends totally on music and preaching is that even the most tasteless liturgy with the most inane homily from a priest who’s an outright scoundrel doesn’t stop a Mass from being a valid and worthwhile source of grace.

The absence of an electron looks mathematically like the presence of a hole [ in a semi-conductor ], just as the absence of good can look like the presence of an entity called evil.

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