Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cuil

Check out Cuil ... yet another search engine claiming it's better than Google.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Stupid Indians

The headline: Deadly blasts strike Indian city. Will these fucking people ever stop? I don't mean the bomb makers, or those behind them that finance their operations, plan the logistics and pick the targets. I mean the Indians themselves -- the whole lot of them, including the Pakistanis. When extremists go mainstream, it's only due to some level of acceptance in society -- some level of sympathy, support and tolerance. What will follow this latest attack is a counterattack -- and so it will go on -- an eye for an eye, until there's no one left.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Charles de Lint's The Blue Girl

I recently finished my first Charles de Lint novel -- The Blue Girl. I'm glad I had picked it up -- sometime ago, and just stashed it in the pile of books I had every intention to read -- eventually, someday. That someday came along recently, and I finished the book way too fast. It was a pleasure to read.

Charles de Lint writes fantasy novels, in an urban, contemporary setting, weaving magic into the everyday world you and I wander through without a second thought. The Blue Girl is set in the fictional North American city of Newford, which I place in Canada, since de Lint lives in Ottawa. The protagonists are two 17-year-old high school girls, Maxine and Imogene, who meet for the first time in their final year of high school. Both are outsiders, not fitting into the cool kids crowd -- because they're too smart, and weird. Maxine is the smart one, cloistered by her mother and endures the bullying any nerd would be familiar with. Imogene is the weird one, new to Redding High with a shady past, trying to reinvent herself for her final year. When the girls meet, they find they have way much in common, beyond being a target for the bullying cheerleaders and football players.

Things start getting weird for the girls after they befriend the high school ghost, Adrian and come to the attention of the malicious fairies living in Redding High. Imogene's childhood invisible friend starts to reappear in her dreams then comes to life outside her dreams. All this dabbling with otherworldly inhabitants is fun enough, but things take a turn for the worse when the creatures lurking in the shadows take notice and develop a hunger for the light of Imogene's soul. Imogene and Maxine will have to fight, with the help from their new-found allies, if they want to live.

De Lint crafted a great story, that got me hooked on the characters early on, and kept me coming back for more. It was a bit disappointing to have it end, as I felt there were more adventures in store for Maxine and Imogene -- not to mention the unexplored territory of Fairyland. I have one other de Lint novel on my bookshelf -- an earlier novel -- and since he's written quite a few books, I think I may yet have a chance to explore more of Newford and the world that lurks just beyond the well traveled urban path.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dyson sphere

The Dyson sphere, a hypothetical structure theorized by Freeman Dyson, would encompass an entire star in order to capture all of its radiant energy. It would make a cool engineering project.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RA DIOHEA_D / HOU SE OF_C ARDS

Check out Radiohead's House of Cards video ... fully interactive, on Google.

How the Universe Got It's Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space

I just finished reading Janna Levin's How the Universe Got It's Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. As the book's title alludes, Levin is a believer in a finite universe, with all the implications, even as she declares herself agnostic on the plausibility of free will. Levin supports her assertions of a finite universe, with the machinations of mathematics -- specifically, the branch describing topology. Levin is a theoretical astrophysicist.

The actual content dealing with topology and supporting the argument for a finite universe would actually fit into just one chapter of the book's 200-pages -- and it presented nothing revolutionary, nothing new -- at least to my popsci understanding of the topic. Levin wrote for popsci audience.
[Speaking of the CMB] This archaeological remnant of the big bang had journeyed from the farthest reaches of the cosmos that we can access and carries information about these earliest times, and so encodes all kinds of information about the large-scale landscape of the universe. In particular, we should be able to see an imprint of the geometry of space in the pattern of hot and cold spots in the sky.

We can see how the universe got its spots.
She grazed the surface of topology, and only lost me for a few moments when she plumbed the depths -- otherwise, she did excellent work to bring general understanding to a very hard to understand subject. I was especially grateful for the hand-holding to visualize multidimensional compact topologies.
Suppose there were a two-dimensional flatland where the indigenous population was totally unable to access the third dimension. Here I borrow from a truly peculiar book called Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott. It was written in the nineteenth century and chronicles a society of two-dimensional creatures. It would be impossible to discuss space, dimensionality and geometry without paying homage to this fantastical book.


Levin wrote How the Universe Got It's Spots via a series of letters between late 1998 and early 2001.
Writing this as the events unfold is different from writing about the events with the clarity of hindsight. The inane and the mundane are given equal importance in the present before select events acquire special importance in the context of a memory that stretches far into the past and far enough into the future.
While this style was distracting with its wandering, it worked well to set the tone of the book. There was a melancholy undercurrent pervading the book -- a result of the juxtaposition of Levin's tenuous grasp on her future, as her career tossed her from one academic assignment to another, and her study of the largest-scale structure of the universe -- looking for meaning.

For me, while the astrophysics was intriguing -- leaving me in wonder as I pondered the big everything, where it all came from and where it is all going -- it was the human stories that had the most emotional appeal. Levin's personal thoughts -- her fears and uncertainty -- and her reflection on the personal lives of the great figures in mathematics and physics that have influenced her work -- were engrossing.
[Writing on Gödel] I don't know all the details but have heard that the murder of an influential logician [Moritz Schlick] by a young National Socialist precipitated his decline. But then I've also heard he was lovesick. Despair followed the murder (or the heartache) and a breakdown pounced on the heels of despair. His life story wouldn't end well.

[On Turing] History tells us that Turing was tried and convicted of homosexual activity. He came forward to the police to pre-empt any accusations against him. The state subjected him to injections of oestrogen as an alternative to a prison sentence -- quite outrageous.


Levin opened How the Universe Got It's Spots by admitting her morbid "curiosity about the madness of some mathematicians." Wondering "if alienation and brushes with insanity are occupational hazards." Boltzmann and Ehrenfest are both remembered in this light.
Over a century ago the Viennese-born mathematician Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) invented statistical mechanics, a powerful description of atomic behaviour based on probabilities. Opposition to his ideas was harsh and his moods were volatile. Despondent, fearing disintegration of his theories, he hanged himself in 1906. It wasn't his first suicide attempt, but it was his most successful. Paul Ehrenfest (1880-1933) killed himself nearly thirty years later. I looked at their photos today and searched their eyes for depression and desperation. I didn't see them written there.
Levin also mentions that Pythagoras also killed himself -- so sure was he of the "sanctity of numbers" that his own discoveries, such as Pi, would shake his faith.
When I tell the stories of their suicide and mental illness, people always wonder if their fragility came from the nature of the knowledge -- the knowledge of nature. I think rather that they went mad from rejection. Their mathematical obsessions were all-encompassing and yet ethereal. They needed their colleagues beyond needing their approval. To be spurned by their peers meant death of their ideas. They needed to encrypt the meaning in others' thoughts and be assured their ideas would be perpetuated.
I also wonder about knowledge -- sometimes ignorance is bliss -- but once you know, it's hard to go back to ignorance. How can you not want to act on that knowledge? Knowing what I know of the universe, I take solace in being able to act -- to influence and change what I can around me. I tell myself there is meaning in my actions -- free will -- since knowledge of the universe loses much meaning -- is incomprehensible to our finite and insignificant lives.
It's hard for me to place the significance of culture and humanity in a universe that barrels along without concern for our welfare. Our city monuments are poignant, but maybe I don't know how to assess our significance. Why are we all struggling so desperately to survive? I don't know how to place us in the greater scheme of things. As Oscar Wilde said, 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'
I can understand how Levin feels -- knowing, but also knowing that there is a chasm of not knowing also in our knowledge. How do you move forward knowing that all the answers will never be revealed to you -- that our species may not survive long enough to discover what it's all about -- that maybe by just the virtue of being in the universe, we'll never be able to behold and comprehend it.
The inflationary paradigm offers a plausible explanation for how a lumpy, chaotic universe could end up vast and smooth. It gives us a chance of survival, since the universe must be vast and smooth to be inhabitable. Fifteen billion years later, we're here. Still, I do wonder if we haven't squandered that chance of survival. The dinosaurs managed to road for 250 millions years. All we have under our belt are a few tens of thousands of years, an opposable thumb, some fire and we've already nearly demolished the planet. Maybe we're not such a success as a species if you measure success by the likelihood of survival. Even if we do survive, we have to at least admit that it's possible we will not and that our demise could come tomorrow. We could poison ourselves, toxify the earth, drop a weapon of mass destruction. Are we a suicidal species? Will we be responsible for our own genocide? There I go, obsessing about our predilection for insanity.

Yet we can ask these questions: why? how? We can even answer them. The dinosaurs couldn't do that.


Another undercurrent in How the Universe Got It's Spots was the issue of gender. Levin is a female scientist in a field dominated by men -- where despite the intellectual endeavour, crass sexism still flourishes. I remember when I was in school, my program -- astrophysics as well -- only had a few females. I believe only one survived. It was a combination of sheer tenacity and stubbornness that made her a success despite the barriers. Levin comments on the silent acknowledgement that her female peers share. They don't talk about the gender bias. I was happy to find that Levin skipped on the use of the traditional male pronoun in her writing, and instead, uses the female pronoun in her writing. Only once did she give in to temptation and poked festering gender issue.
Physicists are obsessed with acronyms: WIMPs, MACHOs, POTENT, COMBAT. All allegedly stolen from the first letters of a meaningful phrase like: Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) or Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs). The acronyms fit comfortably into a lexicon replete with terms like 'sterile', 'impotent', 'the bulge' and 'barrier penetration'. I saw Rocky give a talk once where he swore the objects he studied were Not Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects (NACHOs). At least his acronym had to do with junk food and not male insecurity.


To reconcile the large-scale with the very small, Levin looked to quantum mechanics to describe gravity -- a feat not yet accomplished, but may have hope with string theory.
Quantum mechanics says that nature is fundamentally grainy when we focus closely enough. The fundamental grains are made from a handful of different kinds of particles: quarks, leptons, photos, gravitons and the like. A fairly thrilling theory threatens to overthrow this atomistic assumption. If we looked at the fundamental grains, we would not find point particles, but instead a collective of identical strings. The notes of the string correspond to the different particles that appear to make up the world. So ultimately there is not a handful of distinct particles but only one kind of something, a string. The apparently distinct fundamental quarks and leptons, gluons and gravitons are the varied resonances of these identical strings. Spacetime and matter unify as the intrinsic notes of a complex melody whose score is string theory, the ultimate Theory of Everything.
Married to the geometry of gravity:
So spacetime isn't a thing but rather a collection of events and their relations. Even more disarming, we may not even be things, just events.
And viewed from the perspective of topology and a finite universe:
Even time can be made compact. If time is compact, every event will repeat precisely as set by the age of that very peculiar world.

A universe that eventually stops expanding and begins to collapse can in a sense grow young again. If space itself were to collapse, we would be crushed back into the dust of the earth from which we came: the atoms that the sun, the earth and we ourselves stole from a dying star would be returned to space and broken into their subatomic constituents, to the stuff of pure energy where gravity and matter and light merge indistinct. As nature rushes to its demise, the entire universe would become smaller than a discarded speck of dust, and smaller still, and perhaps then it cold start all over again. The energy of the implosion would be so great that our cosmos explodes in a big bang, a cosmic rebirth in which space swells and our entire history repeats itself. The same galaxies form and the same stars and planets; and on at least one of those planets there is life. You are born. I am born. Even a proponent of free will can see that, at the very least, we would be limited in the choices we could make. We would live out the same lives, make the same choices, make the same mistakes.
But of course, in quantum mechanics, there's uncertainty -- and that could very well mean that things wouldn't be just the same.

Friday, July 11, 2008

HealthMap

Whether you're into diseases or not, HealthMap, will probably both be cool and damn scary. HealthMap, a product of the Children's Hospital Informatics Program, scours sources on the internet to find out the latest outbreaks laying waste to humanity, and maps it using Google Maps. The results ... well, let's just say you'll know where you need to avoid visiting. Toronto appears to be pretty safe tonight.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Extinction of the orangutans

Baby orangutan
Orangutan populations are in rapid decline on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo according to a just published study. This is leading scientists to warn that we may be at the cusp of the first extinction of a great ape species, our closest genetic cousins. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's top palm oil producers, have been aggressively expanding plantations to meet a growing global demand for biofuels -- which continue to destroy orangutan habitat. In addition, orangutans continue to be hunted for food and trade. Unless something is done immediately to turn the tide laying waste to these great apes, some researchers are predicting orangutans could be extinct by 2011.

Anyone for whale?

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) just wrapped up its annual meeting in Chile, and nothing has really changed. There are still two factions: those that support the hunting of whales, and want more; and those that oppose. I'm not entirely sure why the whaling industry is so important -- especially for a country like Japan, which has a special permit allowing it to hunt whales for research. The research permit allowed Japan to kill close to 1,000 whales in 2007, with the research meat ending up in the fat bellies of the Japanese. That doesn't even take into account the other whales that the Japanese consume, that were taken illegally from the oceans. The one surprise from the meeting, for me anyway, came from Denmark. The Danes, who we tend to look to with adoration because of their high scores in standard of living, want to increase the whales Greenland is allowed to slaughter for aboriginal subsistence. There's a load of bullshit. Japan shouldn't be doing it, and Greenland definitely shouldn't be doing it. Whale populations are nowhere where they used to be. Until populations increase and stabilize, hunting should be stopped.

Staying the course in Iraq

One thing the United States doesn't get about guerrilla warfare: It's not over until the guerrillas win.
Gary Brecher presents an alternative view of how the conflict in Iraq will end on AlterNet -- not in the US winning, even as it continues to claim the tide is turning in its favour -- but with the forces at work against the Americans in Iraq, eventually triumphing. I'm not sure I buy into the entire argument -- however, it's definitely a possibility given the zeal behind the resistance to American domination. America hasn't won the hearts and minds of Iraqis -- not even of the American people -- it stands little to no chance of winning a protracted war in a foreign land.

SUVs killing the malnourished

Yes, your gas guzzling SUV is not only contributing to the destruction of the environment, it's also putting the world's poor and starving in more jeopardy. According to the Guardian, a secret World Bank report finds that the production of biofuels has contributed up to 75% to recent rise in food prices. The report, completed in April, was not released in order to not cause an embarrassment to George W. Bush, who's championing biofuels to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Read more here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Digital Darwinism

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Happy 100, SOS

The SOS signal, the international convention for signalling distress, became effective on July 1, 1908. Prior, it was adopted by the German government in 1905. That makes the signal 100-years old, internationally, today. Umm ... happy birthday, SOS ...?

Happy Canada Day, eh!


Happy Canada Day, eh! My wife and daughters just came back from raising Canada at the drivers along Steeles Ave. There was much blowing of the horns, waving of the flags and hooting and hollering at drivers to honk!
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