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Buzzing? . . . Oh, I’m Just Shaving my IQ January 21, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in Blackberry, fiction, information management, literature, Management, Other, Science Fiction.

I just got a new Blackberry last week. Lovely, sleek little device, and I must confess that I’ve always wanted one, even before they started actually making them. I wanted something that would let you type in text and store it and send it places, etc.

But what amazes me is that I can already see what they do to people a little more clearly. If you attend meetings with others who have these things you are already familiar with how distracting they are. Any time an email comes in, these people pull theirs out and look at it to see if the email is something important. My assumption was always something like the following:

What a jerk. They actually don’t know how insulting it is to constantly monitor some hand-held electronic device while somebody is talking about something that they consider important.

And I immediately draw the following conclusion: This person is stupid.

But I have revised my analysis a little, after getting one of these myself. You see, these people didn’t start out stupid. Actually it was the reverse (no, really, bear with me for a second.) They rise up in the company hierarchy because of their brains and other abilities. Then the organization decides that they need to have access to a constant stream of data, so that they can be more efficient. They must be constantly available for consultation. They are then given a Blackberry, or Treo, or other electronic device that does this sort of thing (even phones which are used for instant messaging, I suppose, although I know very few executives who would do this).

The stupidity creeps in at that point, the receipt of this handheld device. The experience of being outfitted with one of these things has, thus far, reminded me of a great story by the late Kurt Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron.” In this story the United States government makes everyone equal by imposing handicaps on the most able. So if you have really good vision, they give you blurry glasses, for example. Or if you are really strong, they make your clothing really heavy (although I have doubts about this one; the clothing would just make you increasingly stronger.) Finally, if you are very smart, the government makes you wear a radio-earphone thing that emits a loud, irritating buzzing noise every once and a while to break your concentration.

Which is where the Blackberry comes in, of course. These people started out relatively intelligent. But the constant interruptions handicapped them.

The thing was sitting on the counter buzzing away this morning while I was trying to help my son with his mathematics. My wife, just back from Peru, said “aren’t you going to check it?” That’s when it all came together for me. Math’s hard enough, without a Blackberry going off.

My capable IT person showed me how to shut the stupid thing off. So now I’m all set.

The World’s Foremost Authority October 30, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, libertarians, Other, Robert H. Heinlein, Science Fiction, speculative fiction, web 2.0.

One of the most generally prescient science fiction authors, and one of my favorites, has always been Robert A. Heinlein.  That first sentence requires a lot of qualification, which I won’t do in this post–perhaps later when I have more time.  I’m posting this today for two reasons. 

1) My wife reminded me this morning that it only takes five minutes or so.

2) My nine-year-old son was doing research for his Spanish class last night using Youtube (looking at and listening to Flamenco music and some other things.)

So that research reminded me of a passage in a book called Friday, by the aforementioned Heinlein, written, if I am not mistaken, (no, I won’t take the two minutes it might take to look it up) in 1990.  The protagonist, a young, genetically engineered combat courier named Friday, is doing some research at a facility in Pajaro Sands, California.  She gets off on a tangent, as researchers often do, following links on a world-wide web that did not yet exist, and sees a video of Professor Irwin Corey, the World’s Foremost Authority. So I’m linking to one here:

He’s pretty funny.  The crowd is perhaps funnier, in an entirely different way–they know all the gags and repeat the lines, ad tedium.  I chose this particular one because it popped up first on the list.

Kinda makes you think.

Once upon a time April 24, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Other, Rock, Science Fiction.

My son, Hoops (yes, I’ve finally decided to give people at least a pseudonym for him.  It is short for Hoopenslaaga, which is what my Mom called him when she saw him for the first time.  Her Scandinavian Grandmother {if I remember the story correctly and if I may insert braces inside of parantheses like this} used the word to refer to particularly large farm animals.  I would render the word phonetically if I had the time and the HTML skill to do so), asked to listen to Pearl Jam this morning on the way to school.  All I had in the car was Ten, which is a pretty good album, and the album that introduced me to the band, so I stuck it in the cd player. 

Like many Pearl Jam albums Ten starts out with a short little snippet of sound effects and music.  I noticed this morning that the sound effects were very similar to those in the opening of Ultraman, so I told him that.  When the next song, “Once,” started, he tried to impersonate Eddie Vedder’s voice, yelling “He’s our hero Ultraman!” 

It was pretty funny.  But the lyrics to that one seem to resonate with Hayata (whose character on the show is fused with Ultraman and can become Ultraman by using his “beta capsule.”)

I admit it. What’s to say?
I’ll relive it without pain.
Back street lover on the side of the road.
I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode.
I got a sixteen gauge buried under my clothes. I play.

Once upon a time I could control myself.
Ooh, once upon a time I could lose myself.

It’s like Hayata finally, after the ability to become Ultraman has left him (which apparently happens in the final episode of the series) comes face to face with his own bifurcated and dangerous existence. 

That or I’m reading to much into both.  It was funny anyway. . . .

Lost in Translations April 18, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Japan, Other, Science Fiction, speculative fiction.
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My lovely wife told me yesterday that she couldn’t find the post on Ultraman on my blog.  I had to tell her that that was because I hadn’t finished it yet.  My son and I have been watching old episodes of Ultraman, which we have been renting from Netflix.  And I intended to start a series of posts about this latest interest, but the fact is, I’m having some trouble with it.

For those who didn’t grow up with Ultraman, the show is basically a series of abbreviated Japanese monster movies (less than 30 min long) that were dubbed in English and imported to the U.S.  In a typical episode a monster appears and begins to wreak havoc, the elite Science Patrol attempts to dispatch the monster, then Ultraman steps in to save the day.  My brother and I watched the show for a while when we were the age my son is now (nine), back in the early 1970s. 

Here’s a picture:


I’m having trouble posting about the show, though, because I’m extremely confused about what to make of it all.  The first hurdle is the fact that the DVD lapses in and out of English at odd moments.  Since it is a DVD, I just turned on the subtitles (my son is a pretty fast reader).  This unearthed a new dimension to making sense out of the show, though.  The subtitles are radically different from the English dubs.  Take the theme song, for example, which has an early-1960s surf music feel to it.  The English dubbing goes like this:

Ultraman, Ultraman, here he comes from the sky,
Ultraman, Ultraman, watch our hero fly.
In a superjet he comes from a billion miles away.
From a distant planet-land,
comes our hero Ultraman.
[repeat first verse]

Incredibly insipid, yes, and there are problems with what little is reported: 

  1. Ultraman did not come in a “superjet.”  He was chasing a monster and crashed into Hayata’s VTOL jet crashed, and saved Hayata by absorbing him and becoming him.  I guess that one could argue that Hayata came in a superjet, but not from a billion miles away.  Hayata came from Science Patrol headquarters, which seems to be near Tokyo.  Ultraman came from the M-78 nebula, which can be seen in the constellation Orion (RA: 5:47, Dec: 0:03), which is 1.6 thousand light years away.  So, it is like 9.4 quadrillion (thousand trillion) miles away, which screws up the meter of the song.  But it is not as if it would be screwing up perfection.
  2. “distant planet-land.”  That’s just bad writing–word chosen to rhyme with “man.” 
  3. Our hero doesn’t “come from the sky.”  With a couple of notable exceptions, like the episode where Hayata has to jump off a building to reach his beta capsule, Ultraman appears standing firmly on the ground.  Then he sometimes flies around.  He exits by flying away, but only as a cover to keep Hayata’s dual identity secret. 

The subtitles to the theme music are very different, much more cryptic, and much more interesting: 

The emblem on the chest is a shooting star.
With the pride-worthy jet, shoot the enemy.
From the Land of Light, for our sakes,
he has come, our Ultraman.
The capsule in hand, Flashes Sparkling
It’s a shine of one million watts.
From the Land of Light, for justice’s sake,
he has come, our Ultraman.

The subtitled version is problematic, too.  Watts, for example, are not units of luminousity, they are units of power.  Light is measured in lumens, a common American confusion, because we purchase lightbulbs according to wattage.  (The reason we do that has more to do with heat generated by the things than their light output, but these are closely related with incandescent bulbs, of course.) 

But mostly we are left with more questions.  Why is the emblem a shooting star?  “Our sakes”?  Justice’s sake”?  Is that sake, with a long A sound and silent “e”, or sake, like the rice wine?  Why is “Flashes Sparkling” capitalized? 

The theme music is just the easiest thing to point to with regard to the dual translation problem.  The dubbing and the subtitles are constantly at odds in unexpected ways.  I could just examine these episodes based on the reactions of ill-informed American pre-teens.  But everytime I think about this show now I get caught up with the additional questions that the dual translations reveal. 

I’m paralyzed, but in a good way. 

This is so cool–Skrbl Online Whiteboard March 1, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, information management, Other, Science Fiction, Skrbl, web 2.0.
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I just found a link to this thing on Lifehacker and decided it was the coolest thing I have seen today.  You set up an account and it creates a whiteboard online that you and others can use to collaborate on stuff. 

Here’s what it looked like when I posted the link (click for a larger picture):


Click here and draw all over it, or leave a comment on it, or upload a picture onto it, or a chart, or something.  I don’t know what I’m going to use this for, but it is free, and cool. 

Who knows what it will look like when you finally get around to looking at it.

The Code February 12, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in fiction, literature, Other, Philosophy, Science Fiction, speculative fiction.

Both my son and I were sick this weekend with some sort of stomach/intestinal plague that’s going around.  So yesterday I went to the video store to find something to stare at for a few hours.  He used to be interested in Dinosaurs, a phase that lasted only about four or five years.  So when I saw that Dinotopia, a miniseries, had been released on video, and that it was in the “Family” section of the store, I hoped that he might retain enough interest to agree. 

My interest is not in dinosaurs so much as utopias, although I certainly don’t mind dinosaurs.  I love reading utopian novels because the authors self-consciously attempt to make a whole society fit together.  These tales tell every bit as much about the author as they do about the society the author lives in, and they stretch “systems-thinking” to its limits (usually they go past the author’s ability to think about social, economic, and environmental systems, and that is sometimes their charm.)  Utopian novels, of course, also delineate the authors view of contemporary problems, which is also fun.  Speculative fiction often does these things, too, but speculative writers are usually too narrow in their interests to make a good case for social change (and often they are writing about technological change as their primary interest anyway).

Anyway, he agreed to watch it, and I think he enjoyed the four-hour-long set of two DVDs.  I certainly did.  The original Dinotopia novel, by James Gurney, lays out the foundation of Dinotopian society as a code.  I love it when utopian writers codify their thoughts so concisely.  In the novel the code is:

  1. Survival of all or none
  2. One raindrop raises the sea
  3. Weapons are enemies even to their owners
  4. Give more, take less
  5. Others first, self last
  6. Observe, listen, and learn
  7. Do one thing at a time
  8. Sing every day
  9. Exercise imagination
  10. Eat to live, don’t live to eat
  11. Don’t p..

Late in the miniseries you find out what the 11th rule was, and it’s kinda dumb, mystical.  But I prefer my own interpretation, which for this weekend was: Don’t puke.

Rules to live by.

Note to Self: Do not make a spaceship out of cement February 2, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, libertarians, Other, science, Science Fiction.

I ordered a bunch of the original Star Trek episodes from Netflix, and my son and I have been watching them.  (I sometimes neglect his educational needs, and this project, as well as the school of rock conducted on our morning commute are part of my effort to redress that.)  Anyway, I’m scrambling to extract lessons from these old television shows.

I’m scrambling because I find the whole Spock thing very confusing.  I tend to identify with the character more than with the “human” ones.  I have a particularly difficult time with Spock’s nemesis, the Doctor, Bones McCoy.  Bones is always needling Spock, saying that he lacks a heart, trying to get him to be more “human” and then rubbing his nose in it when he sometimes seems to do things out of human motives.  What a jerk.  Spock’s always trying to do the right thing.  Spock does have this weird notion that he is motivated by logic (logic is a tool, it has no capacity to motivate), but most people don’t really analyze themselves well enough to figure out why they do what they do.  Why get on Spock’s case about his own pet theories regarding his own motivations?  Why doesn’t Bones look at his own capacity for being a pain in the neck during stressful situations.  “Physician, heal thyself,” I say.

There’s lots of grist in these things for science and engineering lessons, of course.  I find it striking that the Romulans wouldn’t realize that a spaceship made out of cement would be a bad idea.  My son and I watched them cough their lungs out in the control room during a battle near the Neutral Zone (from the dust) and watched one of their commanding officers die after being crushed by a huge concrete beam.  And we laughed and laughed. 

But then my wife pointed out much more important lessons to draw from the show regarding race and gender roles.  As a stupid highly educated upper-middle-class white guy this stuff often goes right over my head.  The producers of Star Trek tried to look ahead and see how things were going to be in the future.  And they really made an effort in these areas, but they were also bound by the social mores of the time in some really sad ways.  So I’m going to turn my efforts toward that for a while in our studies of Star Trek. 

Books–Sixth Column, by Robert H. Heinlein January 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, China, Constructivism, Japan, libertarians, Other, Science Fiction.

I had been reading Hyperpat’s reaction to a recent article that mentioned Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers in an unflattering and baseless screedlet (Um, not Hyperpat, he was right about Heinlein’s book.  The New York Times, not so much), and corresponding with Hyperpat about said screedling.  And while I was doing that I realized that I might never have read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, or at least I couldn’t recall much of it.  This was a little important to me because although this is an embarassing thing to admit (Heinlein’s treatment of sexual relationships has been a repeated embarassment to me over the years) I have read pretty much everything Heinlein ever published, which is a considerable amount, and had even visited the Heinlein archives at UCSC to peruse what few scraps the Trustees of the Heinlein Estate would allow.  I considered myself an expert of sorts but could not have outlined the plot of this thing to save my life. 

So I got a copy through paperbackswap.com and tackled it last weekend.  And I was pretty surprised.  I knew that Heinlein didn’t care for this book, because he had noted his opinion publicly several times.  But I seem to recall that his objection to it was founded on the fact that the outline of the plot and main speculative elements (the idea that the other forces, the weak nuclear force, gravity, the strong nuclear force, could be harnessed and projected in various ways) were given to him by John Campbell, and that he had no real interest, just did it for the money, etc. 

But boy oh boy there are so many reasons to hate this book.  Perhaps the most offensive aspect to the book, aside from the lackadaisical, disinterested writing, is racial, I’m afraid.  The forces I mentioned above are used by the protagonists to drive the Asiatics (conquering hoards of those with “yellow” skin whose culture originated in Japan, um, apparently during the Tokugawa Era, if I had to guess) and spread as they conquered first Mainland China, then the Soviets, then, finally, in the opening page of the book, the US.  The attacks came as a complete surprise to the US, of course, (this post has nothing to do with the space weapons tested yesterday by China, by the way).  But new technologies allow the scientists to focus these different forces to distinguish people by race, so that they can aim their weapons at a mixed crowd and kill only the Asiatics, sometimes explosively disrupting the cells of their bodies, turning them into a big, messy cloud, sometimes just making them dead.  But the protagonists, hopelessly outgunned and disorganized, since they have become the slaves of the Asiatics, turn the tables by using the power of the new technology, under the cover of a new religion, to demoralize the Asiatics, forcing critical military commanders to commit honorable seppuku, ritual hara kiri.  Oi!

Yeah, so it’s pretty icky, and obviously conflicts with current understanding of race (postulating very solid and discrete biological differences), which seems to be that it is mostly socially constructed, of course. 

I don’t think of Heinlein as a racist.  He was probably as unracist as possible for a white libertarian guy born in Missouri near the turn of the century to be.  No wonder he hated this book.  It was written in the late 1940s and copyrighted in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, if I’m not mistaken, but still. . . .

Books–The First Immortal: A Novel Of The Future by James L. Halperin January 14, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Other, Philosophy, Science Fiction.

I’ve been putting this review off.  I finished this book back at the end of November, I think, and it just seemed like too much of a pain to actually respond to it. 

First off, the Foresight Institute has an excellent and fairly comprehensive review of it here.  Halperin’s vision of the future pace of political and technological change, despite some dogged attempts at hedging, comes off far too optimistic for my taste.  But that stuff is too complicated to get into here, so I’m just adding my personal observations to what’s already been written for Foresight. 

I know that when reading fiction I tend to try to see what the author is thinking, and that this is not usually fruitful or possible.  But in this case, because of the political nature of the subject matter, and because of Halperin’s stated interest in cryogenics, it is impossible not to read this book and think to oneself, “Hmmm.  This guy is absolutely terrified of and obsessed with death.” 

Look, I don’t want to die either.  Last night my wife and I had a discussion about mortality.  She has recently lost her beloved grandmother.  We had both lost in the spring a West Highland White Terrier that had been with us since just after we got married, through our first house, graduate schools, a move to the East Coast, career changes, all sorts of disasters.  Anyway, my wife said that part of the fear of death comes from the fact that people tend to visualize the future in terms of events happening to us as we are now.  The example she used was of a boy who wants to marry his mom when he grows up, because he thinks that he will need somebody like that when he grows older.  So I guess I’m thinking that there will be a time when death does not seem the horrible prospect it does now.  I’m certainly less scared of death than I was when I was younger. 

But the over-the-top urgency with which Halperin infuses the fear of death and the prospect of cryonics into this story baffles me.  For example:

Even before Wendy’s suspension, I’d begun studying the phenomenon of aging with an obsession matching my previous delvings into nanotech and neuroscience.  My own appointment with death-or-ice seemed too distant to warrant preparation . . . but the impending demise of my first golden retriever had filled me with an overwhelming sense of urgency.

I’ve popped over to Amazon.com and noticed that a lot of the favorable reviews of this book seem to come from people similarly terrified about death and similarly optimistic about cryonics, and technology in general.  I don’t know, should we fear death this much?

Book–Variable Star January 13, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Other, Science Fiction.

Another posthumous offering from the mind of Robert H. Heinlein, or almost.  This was written almost entirely from eight or so note cards and a few pages recently discovered in the bowels of the Heinlein archives at Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp (what everybody called UCSC where I went to school). 

First off, it reads nothing like a Heinlein novel, with a few notable exceptions. The world in which it takes place is structured in a fashion similar to some of Heinlein’s writings, for example.  (It takes its historical back-story from Heinlein’s “Future History” stories.)  It is logical and internally consistent.  And it is very well-written, another Heinlein hallmark. 

All that aside, it is a tremendously good read.  I had no idea that Spider Robinson could write like this.  I’d always been put off by his name, I suppose.  Why would anybody change his name to “Spider?”  I realize he was born well before that They Might be Giants song (“Spider, he is our hero / Spider, get rid of . . . ,” but still, what is the deal?  It is only worse if his parents named him that.  What would it be like growing up with such a name?  Or maybe it was a nickname that he got tagged with early on.  “Hey kid, the way you suck out the insides of predigested bugs, we should call you ‘Spider.'”  “Hey kid, the way you lie in wait for your prey to fall into your foul and sticky trap, we should call you ‘Spider.'” 

Anyway, I’m going to mooch some of his books.