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The Unseen Sea August 31, 2011

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I have shown my photos of the San Francisco bay, but this fellow’s time-lapse photography shows what I see much better than any set of stills I ever made.

Technology in the Wrong Hands August 30, 2011

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I knew it was a bad idea for the TechShop to open up here in San Francisco. If ever a community was interested in creating life to satisfy egocentric motives, unleashing entities beyond human control and comprehension, tampering with the life-sustaining forces of the Universe, exceeding the limitations of the human body via grotesque metamorphoses, new applications for old technologies (alchemy, necromancy, etc.), ill-advised collaboration with alien and/or supernatural intelligences, life-long devotion to researching the pointless and inane, callous disregard for human experimental subjects, or exacting bizarre revenge on contemptuous and derisive peers, it would be San Francisco, or possibly Moscow.

I’m just sorry I was out of town that day. 😦

Why Lassen Isn’t Open Year-round August 30, 2011

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This image was taken June 27, 2011.  It’s not even the summit, just a piece of the road to it.

100 Years of Style, Stylishly August 30, 2011

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If my sainted, white-haired mother would read Boingboing.net I wouldn’t have to repost this.

Donner Party August 30, 2011

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When relatives come to dinner.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys August 27, 2011

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Once again, primarily of interest to history geeks and others of my ilk, the Diary of Samuel Pepys Excerpts audiobook is probably the best in episodic drive-time listening.  Lots of juicy historical stuff here, especially as it is re-interpreted by the reader to make a little more sense to the modern ear.  It suffers from a lack of context a little when one hears references to the Fifth Millenium men, for example, making me wish that Wikipedia could whisper in my ear while I drive (I did just look it up.  No reference in Wikipedia…see?  there’s plenty of writing left for history geeks to do).

Pepys’ entries about the Great Fire of 1666 are pretty damn riveting, too, but really there’s just a lot of juicy historical background for the period of the Restoration wherein Pepys was a high-level government official who didn’t think his diary would ever come to light…and therefore is remarkably candid. Following what is apparently a very old tradition indeed, the racy parts are all in French.

Pepys was candid enough that he has a well-deserved reputation for, uh, well:

Very Bad Deaths by Spider Robinson August 27, 2011

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One of Spider Robinson’s most interesting stories, Very Bad Deaths has the author reading his own creation (and, what sounds a lot like his life story), the story of a man on the edge of suicide after the death of his wife from cancer who receives a visit from a ghost—not his wife but his college roommate, a guy who smelled so bad everyone avoided him.

It turns out Smelly had a reason for his hygiene choices.

Smelly (also known as Zander) is a telepath, but listening to other minds is distance-sensitive and very, very painful so he adopted a coping strategy.  He’s dropped in on Russell (protagonist and persona of the narrator) to enlist his help finding a serial killer.

Yeah, that got my attention, too.  Interesting introspection, divergent and even tangential thoughts and/or vignettes and self-description are sometimes the hallmark of great writer, and I think Robinson is one of them.  I certainly enjoyed listening to his podcasts when I was subscribed to them (a while back).  This book has some truly chilling moments and heart-warming ones as well; a good read by my admittedly peculiar lights.

There is a sequel of sorts called Very Hard Choices which I may review when I have the energy.  It’s also pretty good.

Fabulous Footage (Eight Feet, Actually) August 27, 2011

Posted by stuffilikenet in Octopus, Video.
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Science Friday video.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick August 26, 2011

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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is an interesting history of the development of information theory, from African Talking Drums through Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (she the originator of virtual computing, by way of imagining a programming method for a computer which did not exist), past Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell,Turing, Nyqvist, Shannon et. al. to the modern notions of information theory and its many modern descendant/dependants.

I do not hesitate to mention that this is of interest only to the unique intersection of history buffs and science geeks, like me.  This book offers lots of things to look further into, like the African Talking Drums (which really do mimic African speech by rhythm and are therefore magical to Europeans…now sadly no longer in use, since cell phones seem to work OK there. John F. Carrington, in his 1949 book The Talking Drums of Africa explained how African drummers were able to communicate complex messages over vast distances. He found that to each short word which was beaten on the drums was added an extra phrase, which would be redundant in speech but provided context to the core drum signal).

Lots of stuff here for further inquiry (Carrington’s book is only available on Carey Kingsgate Press, and Amazon does not carry it!  Blasphemy!!…neither does spfl.org, which is much, much worse), if I can find the time.

Echo, by Jack McDevitt August 26, 2011

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Echo is more of a whodunit than a science fiction story, although it does take place in a future with faster-than-light travel and at least one alien species known (but not much liked).  It is the unlikely story, told from the perspective of his secretary personal assistant, of an antique dealer (Alex Benedict) who gets the idea that a strange monument to be sold is an artifact of a yet-to-be-recognized alien race.

The antiquarian’s search for the provenance of the artifact has innumerable twists and turns, each but the last leading to a humans trying to discourage further searching:  First, the last girlfriend of the original(?) owner, who tries to destroy the artifact, then her  former employer, now a hugely successful entrepreneur and ambitious politician, then a retired survey pilot. The antiquarian’s search comes to a strange, tragic end, more truly frightening than the mere uncertainty of first contact.

I found Echo pretty interesting in  a matter-of-fact sort of way; not riveting at all, but I did want to see where the puzzle was going so at least it didn’t bore me very much.  It seems more like detective fiction to me, although I don’t have much experience with that genre.  I’m not sure who the market is for this kind of work, but it seems to combine detective fiction with science fiction in a pleasant enough mix.

Apparently there are other Alex Benedict books as well, but I haven’t had the time (so many books, so little time).

Darth Vapour August 26, 2011

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Can’t remember where I got this, but it does make me snicker.

Magnificent Abscession August 23, 2011

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brilliant words, Video.
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Wisdom teeth removal need not be all tears, sorrow and abscessed gums.  It can also be insight into the creative process.

The Ware Tetrology, by Rudy Rucker August 23, 2011

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Brain, Brilliant words, Mutants, Uncategorizable.
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Sometimes I am aghast at how little I can express some things, like my appreciation of this set of novels by CSUSJ computer science professor Rudy Rucker.  Funny, complex, mystic, psychedelic and yet down-to-earth are all descriptions that apply to this work equally.  Surreal works pretty well here, too.

The first book, Software, deals with Cobb Anderson, a retired computer scientist dying of a cheap knock-off heart wearing out, who is offered immortality by robots living on the moon (they revere him as the programmer who gave them sentience and independence from the Three Laws).  Since he did that, however, he’s considered a traitor to the human race and has police problems, which forms part of the (non-philosophical) plot.  The other part is the method of immortality: chop up his brain and encode it digitally.  The robots don’t mention this aspect of it, since they themselves get copied over to new bodies frequently and don’t see it as frightening in any way.  Anderson recognizes that consciousness is software plus the body to put it in…the robots give him a robot body.

This novel has some really surreal bits in it, notably that Florida is a reservation for elderly baby boomers (much like today) and is pretty much a squalid hell-hole for anything more than subsistence.

The second book, Wetware, is largely about the efforts of robots on the moon to incarnate robot consciousness into meat bodies on Earth, a plan which goes badly awry and results in the extermination of the robots by a human-engineered chipmold which kills their silicon chips…but infests the plastics they use to communicate with and creates a different sentient race (“moldies”).  Interesting action and all that, and subtle philosophical stuff (what is consciousness, what is evolution)—did I mention Rucker is the great-great-great-grandson of Hegel?

The third book, Freeware, concerns alien invasion by radio waves, which encode the information for personality and embodiment.  Some of the aliens are benign…others not so much.  I had the notion while reading this book that alien signals are being sent to Earth all the time, but we have trouble detecting and interpreting neutrino streams (I was  very sunburned and had a little whiskey.  This sort of thing doesn’t happen that often, I swear).

The fourth book, Realware, concerns the benign aliens’ gift to humanity—basically, anything anyone wants—and the effects on primitives of sufficiently advanced technology.  This is sort of the end of all of this train of thought as well, since it introduces a four-dimensional god of sorts which takes Cobb Anderson (now a “moldie”) into this higher dimension in a mystical kind of way.  I’m not sure I consider this lame or not;  people sort of run out of ideas when confronting infinity as a concept (see also “God”, elsewhere—in fact, anywhere else).  This is hardly an uncommon problem; in one of the dialogues of Plato Socrates, when asked to describe love stops being logical and clear and gets all mystic and shit.  When the greatest mind of his time has trouble with this, why shouldn’t everyone else?

Context is Everything August 21, 2011

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Hawaii is fun, but I hate it when Pele parks in my driveway.

From fark.com.

Cyteen, by C. J. Cherryh August 21, 2011

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This is a nifty little audiobook that I got as a bootleg so I don’t even know who the reader is, but the inflections of the reader of this incredibly claustrophobic tale of slavery and psychology in the space-faring future are just right to bring the listener into this brutal little world.

Cyteen is a planet run largely by Reseune, a corporation with a monopoly on cloning and psychological conditioning of clones (and in fact everyone through educational “tapes”—funny how technology advances make the science fiction jargon laughable while the actual science marches on).  One of the founders sexually manipulates a minor and is (probably) murdered by the boy’s “father” (actually the boy is his clone).  Because the corporation is as powerful as it is, the boy and his companion are held prisoner for the next twenty years as hostages to the good behavior of the father, with frequent drug-assisted interrogations, constant surveillance and paranoia-induced security monitoring.  That’s pretty painful to listen to, and especially since it’s such a long book, but it’s only part of the story.

The murdered woman set in motion a clone of herself, raised to reproduce the conditions which made her original a genius and with rather better education and training.  The clone comes to resemble her original in genius and in capability, and begins to investigate her original’s murder, and the real reason for it.

This book really hurts to listen to, since the prisoner’s point of view is pretty well drawn and the clone girl’s pain is pretty poignant, too, although less intense.  Certainly, this is one of the most human dramas I have read recently in science fiction and I do like it, but it’s not frivolous or light fare by any means.  It is a Hugo Award winner and a Locus Award winner.

C. J. Cherryh is an interesting person in her own right; she taught Latin, Ancient Greek, the classics, and ancient history at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City, is a board member of the National Space Society and the Foundation for Endangered Languages, and has an asteroid named after her.

Fully Stretchable Light-emitting Device From Nanotubes August 19, 2011

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This sheet was made using single-walled carbon nanotube-polymer composite electrodes as both the electron and hole injection electrodes. Both are metal-free and can be linearly stretched up to 45%–every part of the device is intrinsically stretchable. It was made by the researchers at UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and is just a start to making the roll-up electronic newspaper/ebook reader with video, et. al.

The future is here; it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Intrinsically Stretchable Polymer Light-Emitting Devices Using Carbon Nanotube-Polymer Composite Electrodes Zhibin Yu, Xiaofan Niu, Zhitian Liu and Qibing Pei.  Article first published online: 28 JUL 2011 | DOI: 10.1002/adma.201101986

Plastic With Good Conductivity and Conversion Efficiency August 19, 2011

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[This press release is so well written that I have hardly touched it—editor]

Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) has developed a new polymer that not only produces a high charge mobility of 0.2 cm2/V.s, which is the same value achieved by commercially available semiconducting materials (!!!) but also has a high solar power conversion efficiency of 6.3% (!!!). This makes IMRE’s polymer one of the few that has both these properties (!!!). In addition to this, polymers of the same class as IMRE’s, which are those that use thiophene and benzothiadiazole as the building blocks, could only achieve 2.2% power conversion (!!!).

“Current polymers are usually good in one aspect or another, either as a good conductor for use in electronics or endowed with high power conversion efficiency – but not both”, said IMRE Senior Scientist, Dr. Chen Zhi Kuan, the principal researcher working on these polymers. “IMRE’s polymer functions not only as a good material to make electronic components, the same material can be used to convert sunlight to electricity efficiently”. The polymer can also be easily applied in roll-to-roll printing techniques which is similar to how newspapers are currently printed making it possible to manufacture large area-scale printed electronics and organic solar cells quickly and cheaply.

With IMRE’s polymer, manufacturers could save cost using just a single bulk resource for making both printed electronics and organic solar cells. The material could also possibly be used in designing new devices where both power harnessing and electronics are needed in a single component. An example of this would be chemical sensors based on organic thin-film transistors and powered by organic solar cells.

“This breakthrough will help speed up the development of plastic electronics and organic solar cells, and make them more readily available in the marketplace,” said Prof Andy Hor, Executive Director of IMRE.

Printed electronics often rely on organic materials like polymers that can be easily processed and manufactured as opposed to traditional electronics (or metal electronics) which rely on inorganics such as copper or silicon. The polymers can be made into thinner, lighter and cost-effective electronic components and organic solar cells.

The research and results were recently published in Advanced Materials.

Provided by Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

Gene Therapy Delivery System August 17, 2011

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GeT, pictured here above, is a model peptide sequence used to wrap around pEGFP, a gene that encodes fluorescent green stuff used in the proof-of-concept work described in the paper1 published in Chemical Communications.  GeT “penetrates eukaryotic cells and promotes active DNA transport into mammalian cells (EGFP positive) by undergoing differential membrane-induced folding, which renders it both endosomolytic and antibacterial”–fancy talk meaning that we can start delivering gene therapies that have languished due to transport-into-living-cells issues.  I hope this gets the attention it needs from gene therapy/gene transfer researchers.

1 GeT peptides: a single-domain approach to gene delivery, Baptiste Lamarre, Jascindra Ravi and Maxim G. Ryadnov, Chem. Commun., 2011, 47, 9045-9047

Universal Antivirus Medicine From MIT! August 17, 2011

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This is truly exciting news, truly. In their July 27 paper1 in the journal PLoS One, researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory tested their novel drug against fifteen viruses, and found it was effective against all of them.  The tested viruses included common cold, H1N1 influenza, stomach virus, polio, dengue fever and (other) hemorrhagic fevers.  Todd Rider, a senior staff scientist in Lincoln Laboratory’s Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group who invented the new technology explains that it works by signaling virus-infected cells to commit suicide, breaking the virus’ reproductive chain.

Rider and his crew assembled Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizers (DRACOs), which activate the cell-signaling suicide in the presence of the double-stranded RNA that viruses use to reproduce themselves (mammals don’t use double-stranded RNA anywhere in normal metabolism).  They also attached a set of proteins that allow the DRACOs to enter and leave a cell.  With no double-stranded RNA to set the DRACOs off, they leave the cell and enter another.

Besides the stunning technical achievement of assembling this drug, I’m impressed as hell that Rider could even come up with the idea for it.  I’m sure the Nobel committee will notice this little trick one of these days.

1 Broad-Spectrum Antiviral Therapeutics, by Todd H. Rider, Christina E. Zook, Tara L. Boettcher, Scott T. Wick, Jennifer S. Pancoast, Benjamin D. Zusman of the Lincoln Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lexington, Massachusetts, United States of America

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore August 16, 2011

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This cheery little book had me in stitches, and I am a grumpy old man.  Boy from the sticks meets girl vampire and hilarity ensues; that totally does not convey the quality of the humor.  Boy first finds himself engaged to seven Chinese immigrants who will marry anybody to get green cards. Boy meets modern Emperor Norton (“Emperor of San Francisco, and Protector of Mexico”), who gets him a managerial job nights at the Marina Safeway here in Baghdad-by-the-Bay (back when it wasn’t 24-7 operation) stocking shelves.  The Animals, his crew, find themselves amateur vampire hunters and pretty much heroic by the last pages.

Christopher Moore’s book is hysterically funny in that lovely deadpan manner I can’t resist.  There are, however, less humor-sensitive individuals out there, like nansee555.  She gave it one star on Amazon.

“This book is truly bad in so many respects. In case anyone will ask, "Well then, why did you buy it?", I’ll clarify that I was given it as a gift (I enjoy vampire and Gothic fiction and my friend liked the cover art.) And I finished it because I like to finish books, plus I was curious to see how the train wreck would end. If there is anything nice I can say about this book, it’s that perhaps I am not the right audience. And it has appealing cover art.”

I had to see what could be so different about her views and mine, so I entered the dark portal that is See all my reviews.

Oh, my.

Apparently she does enjoy gothic fiction, literary criticism and poetry.

I have often speculated about the personalities of people who could find social constructs like these satisfying.  It’s a little like the old joke:

“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

“That’s not funny.”