Recent blog entries for steve

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells make a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organizing the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in it’s own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

Syndicated 2015-02-28 18:52:57 from Steevithak of the Internet

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers still believe Jaynes theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question is has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.

Syndicated 2015-02-15 03:30:49 from Steevithak of the Internet

Rainwater Reptile Ranch Chili

It’s hard to believe I’ve been blogging for more than a decade and never posted the recipe for the Rainwater Reptile Ranch chili. The weather has been cold this weekend. We just made a big batch of it last night and the recipe card is sitting here in front of me. This recipe has evolved and changed over the years. It started out when I was dating Susan and wanted her to experience this staple of Texas cuisine. That early attempt was based on reverse engineering the ingredients listed on a package of Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili that I spotted in a grocery store. I figured if I had the right stuff in approximately the right proportions and threw it all in a pot, I’d get close. Every batch changed for a few years as we consulted other chili recipes and made patches. It eventually began to stabilize into this recipe. The cinnamon is a nod to the Cincinnati variety of chili Susan experienced in her college days.

It will be obvious as you read the ingredients list that we are not chili purists by any means. We add beans, tomatoes, and even use alternative meats in our chili. I blame my parents. They raised me on a chili recipe that would barely fit even the most liberal definition today. It was more like a ground beef stew or soup than actual chili. I’ve had a lot of different bowls of chili in my life and loved most of them. So don’t worry too much about purity and give it a try!

Rainwater Reptile Ranch Texas Chili
Revision level unknown [September 1993]

2.5 lbs ground turkey – we use 2 packages of Jennie-O extra lean. You can substitute ground beef or other types of meat if preferred.
1 or 2 large yellow onions, diced
32 oz salt-free tomato sauce (if you’re using canned, 4 8oz cans)
8 oz red wine
5 large fresh tomatoes without skins (or two 14oz. cans tomatoes)
1 cup dried pinto or pink beans (or two cans of ranch style beans, or no beans at all if you’re a purist)
2 tsp cumin
1.5 tsp paprika
.5 tsp ground mustard
.25 tsp cinnamon
.5 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup chili powder (that stuff from the grocery store simply will not do, and it’s mostly salt. For great chili you want the good stuff from someplace like Pendery’s – we use a combination of Pecos red and several other varieties – darker flavors with medium heat are our favorite)
dash of cayenne pepper
1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp cilantro
1 tbsp cornmeal

1 diced white onion
your favorite type of cheese

Prepare the beans first. Dump 1 cup of dried beans into a 3 quart or larger pot of water. Bring it to a boil, turn it down to medium low for two hours. Check the water level occasionally and add water if it gets to low. In the last half hour drop in .5 tsp salt.

In a 6 quart pot or dutch oven, put in half of the diced onions, the tomato sauce, wine and tomatoes. Put the pot on low heat. Stir in the dried spices and chili powder. Don’t put the cornmeal in yet.

Prepare the meat. Add a little olive oil to a frying pan. Set heat on medium-high. Put a quarter of the diced onions into the pan and let them sizzle a little bit. Add half the ground meat and brown it. With turkey and some other meats, you’ll need to use the spatula to break the meat into the granularity you want in the final chili while you’re browning it. I prefer fine granularity of meat in my chili but others prefer larger chunks of meat. Once the meat is browned, dump the entire contents of the pan into your your chili pot. With 2 lbs of meat, you’ll need to repeat this process twice. If you’re using a meat other than turkey, you may need to adjust the spicing. You may also want to add a little salt with some meats.

When the beans are ready, drain and dispose of the water they boiled in, rinse them in a colander, then add them to the big chili pot. By the time your meat and beans have been added, your chili should have reached a boil. Let it boil for ten minutes, then turn the heat on the pot down to simmer. If the consistency is too thick, add a little water. Let the pot simmer for several hours, stirring occasionally. The taste will continue to improve the longer it simmers. About 10 minutes before serving, stir in the cornmeal. With meats that tend to be a bit greasy, like ground beef, the cornmeal will greatly improve the consistency of the chili.

Serve in a bowl and garnish with diced white onions and cheese on top. Serve with crackers or fritos. Enjoy with friends on a cold day whenever possible.

Syndicated 2015-01-11 17:41:27 from Steevithak of the Internet

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, describes itself as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury”. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury’s fiction most of my life. Friends from my high school days may remember me sitting under the bleachers during Pep Rallies reading “R is for Rocket” or wandering the hallways with a copy of “Fahrenheit 451″. I most liked his early work; stories like Frost and Fire or The City. They blended conventional science fiction with Bradbury’s unique style which approached magical realism. I felt his later writing lost a lot by abandoning the science fiction aspect and focusing exclusively on the magical realism. In any case, I heard about this book and imagined it might contain Bradbury-like stories that recaptured the feel of his early work. Alas, this is not the case.

For the most part, the stories in the book aren’t really at all like Bradbury stories. At least, I’d never confuse any of them with the real thing. Most had supernatural or horror themes and lacked the connection to science fiction. They’re simply from authors who were, in one way or another, inspired by Bradbury. They’re not bad stories. Some are enjoyable and may appeal to Bradbury fans, if only to find out how other writers were inspired by him.

There were a few exceptions, however; stories that are intended to provoke memories of Bradbury or his stories in one way or another. The best of these, at least for me, was Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon. This story made the book worthwhile for me and was a real celebration of Bradbury in multiple ways. First, it was a story I could imagine Bradbury writing; second, it combined science fiction with a Bradburyesque magical realism, and lastly, Bradbury’s writing actually plays a part in the story’s plot. It’s the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the result of climate change and global war. There’s little plant or animal life left, and little hope for the future. The woman’s only joy in life is a trunk full of old book that she reads to herself. During a visit to a trading post in a nearby town, she’s given a useless machine from the dead past. The combination of a Ray Bradbury book and a machine designed for insomniacs leads to a new hope for a dying world.

If you can pick up the book inexpensively, it’s worth it just for that one story. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the other stories more than I did. Authors include Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, and others.

Syndicated 2014-07-03 02:14:55 from Steevithak of the Internet

Reasoning in the Rain

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.

School with rainwater storage tank, ca 1900. CC licensed image courtesy of Mallala Museum.

For many thousands of years, humans have captured and stored rainwater. One of the earliest known rainwater capture systems was used in 300 BC to collect water for irrigation of crops. This process of capturing rainwater, known today as rainwater harvesting, is still frequently used but faces a growing number of threats. Rainwater and other naturally occurring sources of water such as aquifers were traditionally considered part of the commons, and the traditional view of human rights includes the concept that everyone has a natural right to access and use resources from the commons. Air and water were commonly viewed to be “unalienable rights” of the sort described by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They were considered so fundamental and essential to life that no sane person would consider surrendering those rights.

But for people who grow too used to the availability of clean air and water, we sometimes forget how important they are and that leads to a loss of vigilance. There has been frequent talk lately of “privatizing” our water rights, that is, giving them away to big corporations who could then exercise complete control over who gets water and how much they pay for it. For example, the well known video circulating on the Internet in which the CEO of Nestlé maintains that all water should be privately owned (by Nestlé presumably) and that anyone who thinks they have a natural right to water is an “extremist”.

One of the important roles of government is to protect the commons and rights of citizens to access it. Lewis Hyde describes it this way in his excellent book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership:

“…this is a freedom that depends on the restraint of other freedoms. A commons is a stinted thing; it requires limits. If you want a viable democracy, you cannot sell your vote…If you and your neighbors live over an aquifer, none of you should be allowed to sink a well and sell the water to some thirsty distant metropolis. Each of these is a contraint on some freedoms but at the same time each is the foundation of others; the freedom to live in a democracy; … to enjoy a constant flow of potable water.

Essential resources from the commons could, of course, be very valuable to someone who could enclose (privatize) them. Many thirsty large metropolises these days have exceeded their available water supplies and rely on water bought elsewhere. Industrial processes like fracking use and contaminate massive amounts of water (millions of gallons per well). No sane citizen who lives in a drought-stricken, warming world would willingly allow water from the commons to be used that way. Thus the pressure to privatize water, to enclose the commons. As Hyde mentions in his quote, a functional democracy relies on votes not being a commodity that can be purchased. That’s not always the case today and the massive amounts of money that have been allowed into politics mean outcomes of democratic processes are no longer limited to what sane citizens would do. If an outcome is profitable enough for a corporation, regardless of its long-term sanity, it can sometimes be achieved through the influence of money.

I live in Irving, Texas. We’re in an ongoing multi-year drought. Earlier this year residents were told we’d reached “stage 3″ drought conditions and we can only water our lawns once per week. There’s a long list of other water restrictions that now apply. In an urban area like Irving, a resident is unlikely to have a river or a well on their property. However, rainwater still falls on everyone. Rainwater is one of the last remaining sources of common water in which we can exercise our natural right.

In some states, such as Colorado and Utah, this right to access the commons through collection of rainwater has already been restricted. Even here in Texas, Home Owners Associations, notorious for creating bizarre and draconian rules, have tried to restrict resident’s rights to harvest rainwater but fortunately, in 2003, the Texas constitution was amended to specifically protect the right of residential home owners and forbid HOAs from passing any rule that infringes the right to collect and use rainwater. Further, the awareness of the growing population, limited water supply, and warming climate has led the Texas legislature to enact additional laws. These laws encourage both residential and commercial building owners to harvest rainwater and allow for property tax exemptions as a reward for doing so. This is because when we exercise our right to access the common water, we also reduce the demand on the municipal water supply (as a further benefit, rainwater harvesting also greatly reduces runoff pollution) benefiting every citizen, even those who choose not to harvest rainwater themselves. In 2011, they improved the law further by removing restrictions, allowing harvested rainwater to be used for any indoor or outdoor purpose include potable usage, and allowing private harvesting systems to be interconnected with municipal water supplies (in much the same way that a home solar array can be connected to the municipal electric grid to benefit the entire community).

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was directed to develop a set of recommended rules for rainwater harvesting systems. These rules became Texas law (section C-1) in June of 2013 and can be used as the basis for city governments to create residential and commercial code, defining how an individual citizen can exercise their right to harvest rainwater in a way that is safe and doesn’t interfere with or endanger their neighbors.

This brings our story around to what I’m working on right now. As a member of the Air and Water Committee of Irving’s Green Advisory Board, I’m taking a first shot at drafting some code that protects our local right to harvest rainwater. The committee’s goal is to come up with code that will add no restrictions beyond those required by other existing codes and ordinances (e.g. permitting for plumbing or electrical connections, etc). The draft code we provide is extremely unlikely to be used verbatim as it will have to filter upstream through various departments and legal approval. But our hope is that the goals and intent of the code will survive to some final draft that is incorporated eventually in official City of Irving code.

Syndicated 2014-06-29 01:48:15 from Steevithak of the Internet

Road Trip to the Future

Ed Emshmiller cover art from the 1962 edition of Mario Zimmer Bradley’s “The Planet Savers”

Susan and I make the drive to work together at least three days a week. Lately we’ve been listening to audio books for fun. We started out with the 1973 BBC radio dramatization of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It’s available at no-cost (not free as in free-speech, however, it’s still under a proprietary license). The audio has not held up well and we found some parts of it wholly unintelligible. Fortunately, having read it a few times, I knew it so well I could fill in the missing bits for Susan from memory.

From there we moved on to a more modern audio book, Graphic Audio’s full scale dramatization of Texas author Elizabeth Moon’s series, Vatta’s War. It’s a series of five books with a total audio running time of 57 hours, so it kept us entertained for a quite a while. The series is hard science fiction and all the more enjoyable because Elizabeth Moon has a military background and has put a good deal of thought into the strategies which might evolve when managing large space battles with the limits of light speed communications. How, for example, do you deal with multi-minute light lag that would affect not only communications but sensor data? Once a space battle is started, how do you keep track of the expanding spheres of debris that create navigational hazards as dangerous as enemy weapons?

Also, bonus points for being the first science fiction book I can recall with mention of a Shiner Bock beer. The audio quality of the Graphic Audio production was excellent and it’s a complex production with multiple actors voicing the characters as well as sound effects and music. I highly recommend either the audiobook or printed versions of the Vatta’s War series.

Our most recent audio book is a LibriVox production of The Planet Savers, Marrion Zimmer Bradley’s first Darkover novel, which seems to have passed into the public domain already despite being published in 1958. This audio book is truly free (both as in “free beer” and as in “free speech”). It’s a reasonably high quality production but more primitive than the Graphic Audio productions. It’s just a simple recording of someone reading the book.

If anyone else has an audio book recommendation, comments are welcome.

Syndicated 2014-04-06 22:08:10 from Steevithak of the Internet

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth



I’m not a frequent reader of “graphic novels” or, as we called them when I was a kiddo, comic books. When I was very young, I used to look longingly at the fantastic covers of comic books and imagine the exciting stories they contained. My mother never allowed me to buy them or even pick one up and look at it, as she was convinced they were pure evil and would doom my soul to hell on contact.

But once, when my mother took me on a week-long trip to visit some of her distant relatives in Milam, Texas, something amazing happened. I was given the room of a son who had gone off to college and, as I was unpacking my suitcase into the closet, I noticed a large paper grocery bag in the back filled with Superman comic books. I never told anyone but I stayed up most of the nights while I was there, reading those comics. They were everything I imagined comic books might be. The stories were strange and intense. In my sheltered life of G-rated Disney stories, these were like viewing forbidden R-rated movies.

That week-long comic book marathon was a lone event. By the time I was old enough to buy my own comics, I had largely forgotten about the whole genre and started reading science fiction. I missed out on the resurgence of comics and the rise of graphic novels more so than others my age. Even my wife had Spiegelman’s Maus graphic novels on her book shelf when I met her. But it’s never too late. A few years ago, I picked up a copy of R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, a detailed, literal graphic novel version of the Biblical book of Genesis. That may have piqued my interest in the more literary uses of the graphic novel format. What I’m leading up to here, as you may have guessed, is a review of another graphic novel. This one contains a story as compelling as the Book of Genesis but one I could identify with on a more personal level.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, is the beautifully rendered story of Betrand Russell’s life-long quest to find out how we can determine what’s true; what’s really going on the Universe. It also contains a meta-story about the authors and illustrators of the book as they struggle to work with experts in the field of mathematics and philosophy to understand and accurately depict Russell’s life.

Russell’s quest starts as a young child. Bertrand is told that his parents have “gone away”, and he’s taken to live at Pembroke Lodge, his paternal grandfather’s estate. His strict grandparents provide many detailed rules to govern his life there, leading to Bertrand’s growing understanding that the Universe is likewise governed by rules. As he tries to sleep in a strange bedroom on the first night at Pembroke, his rest is interrupted by an “unearthly moaning”. As he listens, terrified, to the loud and lengthy cries, he becomes determined to know their origin.

The next day he asks everyone; maids, butlers, the groundskeeper, but they claim not to have heard it or that it “must have been the wind”. The strange howling returns nightly and presents Bertrand a problem that will define his life. Everyone around him denied something he clearly experienced. Was it possible he was mistaken? Was everyone else lying? Could it be a hallucination? Initially paralyzed by fear during the moaning, his obsession with finding the truth begins to overcome his fear. He spends countless nights sneaking around the estate and the grounds fruitlessly trying to locate the source of the moaning.

Later, tutors are sent to the estate to teach him languages and mathematics. His first encounter with geometry leads to an epiphany – mathematics provide a way of using reason to prove knowledge with certainty. He further learns that science is based on math and is, as his tutor describes it, humankind’s only hope of explaining the natural world. His childhood adventures continues when someone leaves him an anonymous note with clues to his parents disappearance.

The mysteries of the nightly moaning and his lost parents are solved and replaced with others as he grows into a mathematician, logician, and philosopher. His quest expands to nothing less than an attempt to define a set of axioms and rules that can be combined in symbolic logic to prove all mathematical truths. As the story progresses, the reader is given a whirlwind tour of the history of philosophy and logic: Descartes, Spinoza, Plato, Kant, Hegel, Euclid, Leibniz. Soon Russell is a Professor at Cambridge, actually meeting and collaborating with other notable people of the day, many of whom make cameo appearances in the story.

One day an eccentric Austrian named Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up at Cambridge, asking to be Russell’s student. Students of philosophy likely know the rest of the story. Kurt Gödel soon appears on the scene, finally proving that Russell’s goal is a logical impossibility. Wittgenstein goes on to be mostly misunderstood by everyone but seems to have shown that mathematics and logic are merely linguistic constructs and anything proven with them is just an internally-consistent language-game.

But along the way this group of thinkers pretty much invented the modern world as we know it today. They invented, proved, disproved, and debated all sorts of ideas in fields ranging from religion and philosophy to the logic and algorithms that underly modern computers. It’s a wonderful book and I can’t imagine anyone not being transfixed by the story, regardless of any previous interest (or lack thereof) in math and logic.

Syndicated 2014-02-17 05:34:13 from Steevithak of the Internet

The Texas Stream Team

Testing pH the old fashioned way

My participation on the Irving Green Advisory Board has made me aware of how little I know about the environmental aspects and activities of Irving, Texas. To remedy this, I’m taking advantage of every opportunity to get involved in local activities. On Saturday, January 18, I got up early to observe and photograph a Texas Stream Team educational activity at Towne Lake Park.

I noticed the event listed on Irving’s Green Events webpage and also noticed Karen Siddall’s name as the Irving representative of the Texas Stream Team. I had met Karen Siddall in 2012 through my civic hacking connections and knew she worked for the City of Irving but wasn’t aware of her exact job. Then late last year, I ran into her again at a meeting of the Irving Amateur Radio club. We talked a little about her work and I discovered she is in the Public Works department and her title is Drainage Programs Coordinator.

The Texas Stream Team is a group of trained volunteers who test and monitor local water resources. The program was established in 1991 as a partnership between Texas State University, the Texas Commission on Environmental quality (TCEQ), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s administered by the Meadows Center for Water at Texas State University. Unlike most government programs, this one doesn’t spend millions of dollars buying fancy equipment and paying an army of technicians. Given how many bodies of water there are in Texas, that approach wouldn’t be feasible.

Instead the program relies on citizen science, in effect crowd-sourcing the project to a network of volunteers, who are trained and provided with minimal support. The field work is done by volunteers who enjoy the chance to participate or who feel a responsibility to contribute to the well being of their communities. Their work makes possible a massive data collection network at a very low cost. The event I attended was a demonstration of what a Stream Team member does. With so many bodies of water in Irving, there’s a constant need for new volunteers. Several local residents attended the demonstration to observe and ask questions. Hopefully a few of them will choose to become team members.

So what does a Stream Team member do? Each team member is assigned one body of water. They select a day of the month and time of day that works for them. At the chosen time, once a month, they visit their location and make some simple measurements and observations. The measurements are made using basic tools in a provided standard equipment kit. Data collected includes ambient temperature, water temperature, dissolved oxygen level, conductivity, pH, water clarity, and a few other field observations. To keep the costs down, the test kit uses very basic tools like a plastic Secchi disk and a thermometer instead of the modern digital instruments costing thousands of dollars. Of course, that means instead of just pressing a button, team members have to learn some very simple chemistry but the procedures are easy to learn and well documented.

The data collected by Stream Team members goes into a database at Texas State University, where it can be monitored and used by various government agencies. The data is also available to researchers and to the general public. You can browse some of the recent data from Irving by going to the Texas Stream Team data viewer and selecting “City of Irving” from the “group” drop down field. For example, here’s a listing of data for the Towne Lake Park site that I visited: Towne Lake Park gazebo, site 16269.

Even with several people watching and asking questions, and with me stopping her periodically to shoot photos, Karen was able to complete the entire data collection procedure in about an hour. Without us there, she probably could have done it in a much shorter time. So a volunteer is only giving up about one hour a month to help maintain and protect their city’s water resources. If you’ve been looking for a volunteer opportunity that gets you out of the house, doesn’t take much time, and provides a real benefit to your city, the State of Texas, and the environment, this might be what you’re looking for. You can find out more about the Irving branch of the Texas Stream Team on their facebook page. If you live in another Texas city, visit the Texas Stream Team partner list to find out who to contact in your city. And, if you’re curious, you can see my full set of photos documenting the morning’s events.

Syndicated 2014-01-20 20:30:30 from Steevithak of the Internet

Common as Air

Benjamin Franklin open sourced an array of Leyden jars and named it a "battery"

One of many inventions Benjamin Franklin open sourced, an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”

Having just received several new books as Christmas gifts, I’m reminded that books I’ve already finished are growing into a pile and crying out for reviews in my blog. There’s never enough time to review them all but one that I’ve been intending to write about all year is Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership by Lewis Hyde. It’s a wonderfully written book about the history of the commons and property rights.

As a software developer who releases my work under the GNU GPL, a free software license, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a rant on these subjects. My contributions to a freely accessible cultural commons of creatives works, I’m told, is communism and will lead to the eventual downfall of the one true system of property ownership as expressed by God in modern copyright and patent law. I don’t take such rants seriously anymore but when I found a book offering an in depth look at how our modern laws came to be and what the founding fathers actually said about these things; well, I could hardly pass it up!

Hyde starts out with a brief survey of ideas on property rights from cultures all over the world. He then looks at the origins of modern western thought. It turns out, of course, that the founding fathers believed quite strongly that free access to ideas was critical to democratic self-governance and free enterprise. This comes as no surprise to those in the free software and open source communities, who have rediscovered many of the same principles, including the importance of creating a “commonwealth of knowledge”.

Hyde’s story crosses paths with the free software community once or twice along the way. It also crosses paths with the supreme court, Donald Rumsfeld, John Adams, Sonny Bono, John Locke, Noah Webster, and a host of other familiar people. It’s the story of how we slowly traded the long term benefits of a commonwealth of knowledge for the enticing profits promised by “intellectual property”. The story makes great reading as history even if you’re not terribly interested in property rights. You’ll read dozens of interesting historical anecdotes you may not have heard before. For example, there’s the story of Benjamin Franklin’s founding of what sounds like the first hackerspace. He and other interested amateurs in Philadelphia put some money together, got some space, and started doing weird things with electricity. They created a crowd-sourced procedure for collecting and dispersing information about electrical experiments and open sourced the results, like an array of Leyden jars he named a “battery”. No doubt my right-wing friends would considering Franklin a liberal hippy with communist leanings. A modern “intellectual property” lawyer would consider him a “pirate”; indeed, Hyde titled the chapter “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”.

Once Hyde gets to the end of the history, he ponders what can be done to protect what’s left of the commons and even restore it for future generations. He offers three examples of real-world attempts at fixing the problem. The most familiar and successful of the examples is Richard Stallman and the GNU General Public License. The software commons created by Stallman and the GPL is responsible for at least some of the software running on nearly every computing device in the world today from the largest supercomputer to the phone or tablet on which you’re reading this blog. Hyde notes also the example of folk singer Pete Seeger, who worked with other folk singers to protect a piece of music called “We Shall Overcome” using the earliest known example of the “claim and release” idea later used in the GPL for software and, more specifically, in the Creative Commons licenses for art and musical works. It worked as method of freeing information in a system that forces everything to be “owned”. The final example is the attempt at keeping scientific information free that was made through a formal declaration by the scientists working on the Human Genome Project.

What all three of Hyde’s examples have in common is that they were devised not by the government but by individuals working on their own or in groups to protect the freedom of ideas FROM the system enforced by the government. There are vast amounts of money and effort focused on the government by business to create more and stricter “intellectual property” laws (because they are very, very profitable for the few companies that hold the “property”). His examples give us some hope that, even if we the people can’t match the financial and lobbying resources of the corporate world, we can still outsmart them and protect the freedom of our ideas.

Syndicated 2013-12-28 16:02:06 from Steevithak of the Internet

Going Green

Last night I went to my first meeting of the Irving Green Advisory Board since being appointed. I learned that I’m filling a vacated position (officially “Place 8″) so apparently my first term will be slightly longer than the usual one year. I got to meet most of the 14 other board members and was one of two new members attending the meeting. It was the last board meeting for 2013 and not much actual work was done, it was mostly summing up what had been done in 2013 and listening to a couple of presentations.

The first presentation was about Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, which is a LEED Gold building and the first middle school in the US to be net zero – that is, producing the same amount of energy as it consumes. The building uses photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, geothermal wells, rainwater harvesting, grey water harvesting, xeriscaping, LED lighting, and a variety of other technologies. The presentation included data from the first years of operation, confirming that the building had successfully achieved net zero operation. Check out live telemetry from the school’s systems or read more about the technology.

The other presentation covered a leasing program for residential photovoltaic systems. A resident who had gone through process described the details and costs. She listed the rates three of our local electric utility providers charge for electricity vs what they pay. Two of the three charged twice the rate they paid (e.g. you pay them 10 cents per kWh but they pay you only 5 cents per kWh). Only Green Mountain offered a fair deal (12 cents both ways).

I also got an overview of the topics that we’ll be dealing with in 2014 for the City of Irving and it sounds like fun. It matches up pretty closely with topics I’m interested in anyway. There’s the obvious stuff like air quality, water quality, waste management, and recycling. But we’ll also be working on bicycle lanes, West Nile and mosquito control, urban gardens, fracking, residential solar and wind turbine systems, xeriscaping, bat houses, just to name a few.

The Green Advisory Board has several committees within it where a lot of the work gets done. So the next thing I’ve got to do is pick out which committees I want to be on. I’m also reading through minutes of past meetings so I can get caught up on work that’s already been done. I should be up to speed and ready go when we start meeting again January. It will be interesting to see what we can actually do.

We met in a conference room at Irving City Hall. I brought my notebook computer to take notes and so I could do any quick research if needed. I was quite surprised to find there’s no public WiFi in City Hall. I could see an SSID called COI, obviously a City Of Irving official WiFi. I asked a couple of folks if they knew the login but was told it was for internal use only and that the City’s IT staff refuses to allow public WiFi access within the building because of security fears. As I’ve learned from civic hacking efforts, IT departments can be the biggest impediment to engaging Cities through modern technology. For now I’ll tether from my Nexus 4 phone.

Syndicated 2013-11-20 22:40:42 from Steevithak of the Internet

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