Thursday, November 29, 2012

Again this Contest?

Finished National Novel Writing Month a day early this year, with a few words to spare. And I immediately edited some of the words out. Sometimes the story's done before 50,000 words.

On to other things: Anyone want to read a novel about a guy who goes crazy while he's wandering the surface of Iapetus alone -- with the ghosts of Richard Nixon, Jack Kennedy, and Bebe Rebozo? (And my wife thought my Nixon obsession would never pay off.) Let me know if you want to read it.

Da Moon!

Gru wanted to – and did, at least temporarily – steal the Moon.

Back in 1958, the United States military had kind of a similar plan: They were going to send a nuclear bomb to the moon and detonate it.

It would not have blown up the moon, nor even have an explosion visible from Earth. But it might have intimidated the Soviet Union and initiated a space-based Cold War that, if anything else, would have offered us the chance of vacationing in refurbished Cold War Moon facilities after the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989.

So, both good and bad here. Mostly bad, of course.

CNN has a rather interesting article on the secret project, including the tidbit that science populist Carl Sagan worked on the project and blabbed about it on a job application when it was still classified as secret. The most interesting line from the article, at least from a writer’s point of view:

[Physicist Leonard] Reiffel [who led the effort] had some brilliant minds on his team. One of them was an up-and-coming graduate student named Carl Sagan. Sagan went on to become one of the world's most renowned astronomers, creating the book and popular TV series "Cosmos."

But after working on the moon program, Reiffel said, Sagan violated security when he mentioned the still-classified project on a job application. "He did formally break the classification status of the project", Reiffel said of Sagan, who subsequently died in 1996.

That last sentence made me laugh. I would not have written it that way because in some sinister minds (like my own) you could easily and erroneously draw the conclusion that Sagan’s death was somehow linked to his violation of the project’s classification, not the cancer that done him in.

Here’s something else that struck me as funny:

"We didn't want to clutter up the natural radioactivities of the moon with additional bits of radioactivity from the Earth," Reiffel said. The project was abandoned.

I’m sure environmentalists would be pleased to know that one of the motivators in scrubbing the project was that they did not want to introduce Earth-based radiation to the Moon, where it would have competed with radiation already appearing naturally in the environment.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Big BIG News? No, Just Hyperbole.

National Public Radio got nerds like myself all keyed up a week ago when they published a story title “Big News from Mars? Rover Scientists Mum for Now.” It included the following titillating tidbit:

[John] Grotzinger [principal investigator for the Curiosity rover mission] says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something remarkable. "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good," he says.

That, of course, sent the Intertubes and science geeks ablaze with speculation that NASA had discovered something on Mars – a pretty interesting feat for Curiosity, seeing as this was one of the first samples put through the rover’s testing apparatus.

But it appears this is less an announcement that they’ve discovered some fascinating bit of evidence of life on Mars and more like a reporter simply jumping to conclusions and not asking the right kinds of follow-up questions, because the only big announcement that came from NASA yesterday is backpedaling.

Slate credits Mashable for doing the legwork to reveal the misunderstanding, but Mashable gets a critical part of the story wrong.

The quote heard around the world came shortly after Grotzinger explained that NASA had just received the initial data from Curiosity’s first soil experiment using a new Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is capable of identifying organic compounds.

Naturally, the public assumed that this meant Curiosity had discovered a complex organic molecule. But while NASA does have the latest soil samples, the mission team tells Mashable that researchers haven’t determined that particular groundbreaking discovery. In fact the rover drove away from the location just five days later, taking more samples along the way.

Mashable puts the blame squarely on the eager geek public, drooling for an announcement of some big, big discovery on Mars – when the true misunderstanding occurred not with public interpretation of Grotzinger’s quote, but with how NPR presented the quote in the first place and on how subsequent media outlets reported not the news, but NPR’s version of the news.

Slate reveals another problem that better fits Mashable’s interpretation of a gullible, eager-to-find-Martians public: NASA tried to correct the story by responding to subsequent news outlets requesting information saying the quote was taken a bit out of context and by turning to their own social media outlets. Problem is the announcements got lost over a long holiday weekend.

Additionally, if they made any effort to contact NPR to correct the original source of the trouble, there’s no evidence of it. Writer Joe Palca’s story, complete with breathtaking announcement, is still intact at the NPR website.

I’m less inclined to think this whole situation is similar to an announcement by NASA earlier this year that they’d discovered bacteria in California that were using arsenic rather than phosphorus in their metabolism (a finding that fell apart pretty quickly as other molecular biologists got wind of the story and poked holes in it quite rapidly) and more of a situation where a reporter eager for a scoop and a source prone to hyperbole met up and mutually misunderstood each other.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ebook Argle-Bargle. With Aristotle!

I’m reading a print book right now, and it’s rather uncomfortable.

There’s nothing wrong with the subject matter – it’s a book on Richard Nixon, who fascinates me to no end.

Problem is the spine of the book is broken, or is breaking, so the book wants to flop open oddly, hanging and slipping as gravity tugs on its weakening points. I can’t leave it to lie open on a table; because of the break, it wants to flop closed. When I read it on the bus – under the pallor of ghastly blue reading lights – I have to practically hold the book upside down in order to read it and keep its pages where it should be.

This, if I read Andrew Piper’s screed at, is how books are meant to be read. Uncomfortably. Under poor lighting conditions. And in a way that occasionally makes me just put the book down because it’s so awkward to hold open.

So I’m probably not reading Piper right. He has a paen to the printed book because only in the printed book do you get the tactile pleasure of holding and reading a printed book. I say it’s a paen, but it’s kinda hard to tell, since rather than write about how he enjoys the sight and feel of books, he writes about how St. Augustine and Aristotle felt about the senses. He tries to tie it all together this way:“Reading,” he writes, “isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely part from it.”

Yes, yes. Absolutely. That’s what I love about reading.

But Piper confuses me. He seems to be against ebooks since they lack the “tactile” pleasures of printed books – turning pages, holding the spine, the smell, the feel of embossed inks, etc. But he never really tells me why ebooks lack that tactile pleasure.

Here’s what he says:

Nothing is more suspect today than the book’s continued identity of being “at hand.” The spines, gatherings, threads, boards, and folds that once gave a book its shapeliness, that fit it to our hands, are being supplanted by the increasingly fine strata of new reading devices, integrated into vast woven systems of connection. If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense. What this means for how we read—and how we are taken hold of by what we read—is still far from clear.

He cites some rather avant-garde examples of ebooks as examples of why all ebooks are bad, evil things, such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloqy which, as an electronic text, I have to confess is difficult to read. But how many ebooks are like that? That kind of thing is artsy, but that kind of thing has been tried in printed books as well, so to blame ebooks for the phenomenon is misguided.

He writes that ebooks have changed how we “manually interact with [books] and those change matter for how we read.” There are no longer pages to turn. There is no “density” to books, outside of the battery for the ereader. “What lies after the digital page? An abyss,” he writes. “No matter what the page number says, we have no way to corroborate this evidence with our senses, no idea where we are while we read. Instead of turning the page, we nove have the button.” There is a “repetetiveness to pressing buttons that starkly contrast with the sedate rhythms of the slowly-turned page.”

But he’s worried that all this button-pushing will give us carpal tunnel syndrome. Like trying to hold my printed Nixon book together is doing my wrists any good.

I admit to being a printed book snob – but for a different reason. I can’t, as of yet, buy used ebooks like I can printed books, so I continue to purchase more printed books than ebooks. But when I sit down to read, I get the same kinds of physical and mental exercise and pleasure from either kind of book. I just don’t feel the lack of tactility with an ebook that Piper does.

I have to go now. A button beckons.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taxing the Rich, or, I Don't Want the World, I Just Want Your Half

So. President Obama feels he’s been given a mandate to tax the rich more, given his re-election.

I’m on the fence with it.

What’s knocking me off the fence is NOT anything from the following list:

1.      I think those who make tons of money ought to pay more in taxes.
2.      I’m not rich myself, so HA HA SUCKERS!
3.      Taxing the rich more will/won’t stimulate job creation.
4.      Taxing the rich will encourage them to move elsewhere.

What’s knocking me off the fence is Rich Kids of Instagram, whose motto is “They Have More Money Than You and This is What They Do.”

I don’t see a lot of job creation here. Oh, I suppose there’s a little of the famous trickle-down economy – these folks are buying gas to fuel their hybrid boats, cars, planes, etc., and I imagine the people who supply the flowers, the Dom Perignon, the peeled grapes and who also work as pool cleaners, “staff” and such are grateful for the opportunity to service them – but I’m not seeing a lot of bootstrapping.

I’m not jealous. I’ve got what I need, and have a few of the wants. I get back more in tax credits than I pay in income taxes, and I’m not even doing all these funky things with accounts in the Cayman Islands and stock losses and such.

But what’s more important? That Junior Rich Britches have an Aston Martin for that night on the town, or that the freeloaders and parasites get free food and health care and other Welfare Queenish stuff for the rest of their lives?

Of course, it’s not like that.

It’s more like this: In the Book of Mormon, everyone’s at their happiest when they’re treating each other equally, when there are no rich and poor among them not because the government is there with a rake in one hand and a shovel in the other, but because people want it that way. Everyone wants is that way. There’s no selfishness or greed or jealousy. The rich guys didn’t hate the poor guys because they were poor, and the poor guys didn’t hate the rich guys because they were rich. They just helped each other out. To him that had nothing, it was given.

That’s how the United Order worked, folks.

Am I ready for it? Not hardly. I won’t be a liar and say I am. And I’ll leave it at that.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Named Storms: Good for Social Media

I think I remember reading something about this, that the Weather Channel was going to start naming winter storms.

So as we prepare for Winter Storm Brutus, I thought I’d find a little refresher to figure out why the naming is so significant.

But first, this. The first thing that came to mind when Brutus was mentioned:

(Start at 7:34. Big rat wielding the pike is named Brutus. The big meanie.)

Now that nostalgia is out of the way, on to the reasons the Weather Channel is naming storms. I’ll sum up from their explanation here.
  • Naming a storm raises awareness.
  • Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress.
  • A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness.
  •  In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication.
  •  A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future.
So, we all know how much I love the word awareness. And they use it twice. And, well, there are two pretty closely aligned reasons here that naming storms will make it real neat for those social media folks.

Yes, social media clicks, folks. That seems to be the big draw. See here:

Yay! What impact will it bring? Well, snow for one. A sharp increase in my overall reluctance to go camping with the Scouts Friday night/Saturday morning way in the hell out in the boonies on a rough bumpy dirt road. Yeah, there is a hot spring-fed swimming pool there, but you know what? It’s still freakin’ winter camping. Maybe the import of having a named storm bearing down on us this weekend will give extra weight to my argument against going. “Sorry, I’d love nothing more than sleeping in a tent on the frozen ground out in the wilderness, but Winter Storm Brutus is coming, and the Weather Channel wouldn’t give it a name if it were just a case of the snowy sniffles, would it?”

Here, by the way, are the winter storms we have to look forward to this season.

I know fans of a certain book series will be looking forward to WS Draco. Lovers of Greek or Roman philosophy will enjoy being snowbound by Euclid, Plato, or Virgil, and everyone in the known universe will be wondering where’s WS Walda? I know. Not quite a perfect fit, but it’s close enough.

And one person in particular is looking forward to WS Khan: