Comic Report: Suspended in Language

Last night I had dinner with a few co-workers and conversation of course turned to what Albert Einstein would do if we extended his lifespan 1000 years. Would he ever get used to quantum physics? Fortunately, I was pretty well prepped for this conversation. I'm not a nuclear physicist (unlike one of the other folks in on that conversation), but I'd just read Suspended in Language.

It's another Physics biography from G.T. Labs comics, this one about... no, not about Albert Einstein. It's about Niels Bohr, a totally different physicist. This got into plenty of Phsyics which I didn't understand, some models of the atom that turned out to be wrong. (Not that I'm one to throw stones at Physics theories proven wrong, but...) I can barely follow the model of the atom that we've settled on, with its electron orbits and all. Trying to keep track of the also-rans... I kinda gave up. Fortunately, there's plenty of history, too.

There are also some short Bohr comics by some good artists, including Linda Medley and Roger Langridge. Langridge's comic includes a multi-eyed alien wearing some cool-looking sunglasses. That drawing made up for all of the hypothetical-but-wrong Physics theories I didn't understand.

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Comic Report: Girl Genius Collection #8 (Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones) | Act-i-Vate Primer

It seems kind of silly to post an online review a comic book when folks can go read the comic online and decide for themselves. And yet, here we are: Girl Genius. Girl Genius is a darned fun story of adventure, clockwork, romance, and mad science. It's been going strong for a few years now. If you haven't already, you should check it out.

I was prompted to mention this because the 8th printed collection came out. But mostly, I read this comic as it comes out online.

As long as I'm talking about online comics, another comic book that came out recently whose roots are online: The Act-I-Vate Primer. This is a bunch of comics from Act-I-Vate, which, if I'm understanding the intro correctly, is a cabal of comix artists who hang out on Livejournal. Anyhow, I got this comic book because it has a piece by Roger Langridge, but there was some other good stuff in there, too. It was quite a variety of stuff, so I didn't like everything... On the other hand, there was something in there for everyone.

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Book Report: Lewis Carroll in Numberland

This book is about Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson as a mathematician. There were errors in the parts that I understood. So I didn't trust the other parts to help me to understand new stuff. Maybe I could have learned something about math if I'd tried harder. Or maybe I would have wasted time chasing my tail around the author's mistakes.

The book's intro points out some places where math came up in Carroll's kiddie lit. It's nice--but for this you of course want Gardner's annotated Alice books, which have the math-y stuff and the other stuff as well. Once you get past the introduction, the rest of the book is organized in fits, a nice Snarky tribute.

The first chapter fit is about Dodgson's childhood, concentrating on the math-y bits. He learned geometry. Good for him, I guess. The second chapter is about college life. He took exams. He did well at them. Good for him, I guess. In the third chapter, he's still an academic. He tries to teach some young kids math, tries using recreational math to keep them interested. The book seems to be looking up...

And then, there was the cipher. It was around here that I had a crisis of faith with this book.

...two days later, Dodgson recorded that he had devised another [cipher], far better than the last:

It has these advantages.
(1) The system is easily carried in the head.
(2) The key-word is the only thing necessarily kept secret.
(3) Even one knowing the system cannot possibly read the cipher without knowing the key-word.
(4) Even with the English to the cipher given, it is impossible to discover the key-word.

This new one was his matrix cipher, which is based on the following grid:

E K P U/V *

...Following Dodgson, let us suppose that the keyword is GROUND, known only to the sender and receiver, and that the first word of our message is SEND.

  • to encode the letter S we go from G (the first letter of the keyword) to S: this is 2 places to the right and 1 place down, and we encode S as 21;
  • to encode the letter E we go from R (the next letter of the keyword) to E: this is 2 places to the right and 3 places down and we encode E as 23; ...
...and he finishes the example. I'm not a master of cryptography but when I look at this encoding scheme and look at the claim "Even with the English to the cipher given, it is impossible to discover the key-word", I call bullshit. Did Dodgson claim this? Was Dodgson wrong? That would be worth pointing out in the book--but that doesn't happen. Did the book explain the encoding scheme incorrectly, and maybe the real scheme really did have a way to keep folks from learning the key? Maybe.

A short while later, there's a sentence, in the context of Dodgson dispelling a rumor: "No British newspaper reports have been found that support Dodgson's account, so perhaps it was true after all..." This sentence--there were a few ways to interpret it, contradictory ways. Does he mean that British newspapers are unreliable so we should trust Dodgson? Does he mean that British newspapers are more reliable than Dodgson, so perhaps it (the rumor) was true after all? What is the author trying to tell me? Around here, I gave up on the book. I was just moving my eyes over the pages.

Maybe a good book to give to a budding nerd who liked the Alice books. On the other hand, you might do better to give that nerd The Annotated Alice.

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Comic Report: Ex Machina (the first several collections)

When I first heard about the comic book "Ex Machina", I stopped paying attention too soon. I heard that the protagonist is a superhero who can talk to machines. And those do what he says instead of beeping and complaining about syntax errors and/or blowing their stack or.. Yeah, they just do what he says, like they understand. I rolled my eyes. Yeah, I understand that the very fact that I read superhero comic books... I understand that I'm not allowed to roll my eyes at one more goofy premise... But I couldn't help it. And I stopped paying attention. So I never caught on to the fact that the protagonist is also the elected mayor of New York City.

But then I did. (Amazon recommendations recommended the series to me, so I took another look.) And then I bought every old collection I could get my hands on. This is a fun comic book!

This is a fun premise for a comic book, as long as you don't take it too seriously, and this book doesn't. There's more crime-fighting than budget-balancing going on here. The book skims over urban issues without getting bogged down in details. Society changes, the city changes with it--and in this comic book, most folks are inclined to be reasonable. Yes, I said reasonable... in politics... hey, quit laughing at me! Yes, I guess I'm reading escapist literature for people who follow politics. Cut me some slack. It's just a comic book.

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Book Report: Stiff (The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers)

There's some interesting stuff in this book about scientific, medical, and engineering-testing uses of human cadavers. There's some interesting stuff, but there's some "humorous" reportage to slog through on the way there. The writer is working with interesting material--and she obviously did some good research to dig up this material and presents it well--but didn't seem to think that material was sufficiently interesting to her audience. So she tells us her reactions, she makes unfunny jokes, she tries to keep us engaged... I got tired of slogging through that. I stopped reading.

There were anecdotes of resurrectionists--graverobbers who didn't rob possessions, but who dug up bodies for early medical anatomists. There was a story I hadn't heard before: a guy running a boarding house who killed a sick boarder and then sold the body.

One thing I want to remember out of this book: I'd heard that crucified people couldn't breathe if they let themselves dangle, that they had to push themselves up or suffocate. According to one researcher, that theory was based on a kind of torture in which folks have their arms tied above them; but if your arms are out to the sides, you can still breathe OK.

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Book Report: The Eyre Affair

This book is set in a parallel universe. In this universe, mad science reigns. People care about literature! There are vampires! It's all different from our universe! And yet somehow similar!

You'd think I would love this. Yet, I did not love this.

People talk about a concept called the "uncanny valley". It comes up when you try to make things that are like people. Like if you try to make an android. Or if you write a computer program that tries to hold a conversation over IM chat. If you make something that looks totally like a machine, people interact with it neutrally, as if it were a tool. If you slap a cartoonish smiley face on it, people react to the thing positively. People like cartoony things. If you make it seem a little more human, people react to it more warmly. But... if you create something that seems almost human but not quite, then people react against it strongly.

I want to propose a new concept, the "unsilly valley". This refers to a work of art that approaches the absurd, does not quite achieve it, and is thus trapped in a strange zone: too strange to inform, too normal to be interesting.

I think The Eyre Affair falls in this zone.

It's a popular book. I suspect it's popular with people who like the idea of an alternate universe in which more people care about literature. But in the book's world, Dickens is an example of stuff worth caring about. C'mon, really, Dickens? I can only suspend my disbelief so far.

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Book Report: He, She, and It

During BANG 18, I found out that plenty of local goyim puzzlists don't know what a "golem" is. A puzzle required players to recognize monsters by looking at pictures. I thought that was pretty tough--but I didn't think that a golem was the toughest monster to identify. But it was for plenty of folks. Back in my day, nerds were required to play Dungeons & Dragons, and were thus forced to learn the basics of Golemnity. It was right there in the Monster Manual. If you can't bring yourself to play paper and pencil RPGs, you could at least read Kavalier and Clay. If you can't bring yourself to read a re-hash of old comic book publishing industry tales, you could instead read He, She, and It.

This cyberpunk novel features romance, Jewish legendry, and "glop" as an abbreviation for "megalopolis". Fun stuff, check it out. Contains only 80% of typical patriarchy levels for a science fiction novel.

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Book Report: The Air We Breathe

This was a fun novel. As with other Andrea Barrett novels, the heroes are scientists, so I'm inclined to be sympathetic. This novel is narrated in the first person plural, by a community of people. It talks about how ideas--and hysteria--can move through a community. It talks about learning circles, sort of leaderless classes in which people share what they know. There's also plenty of symbolism to keep the literary types amused. Check it out.

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Book Report: iWoz

It is Steve Wozniak's autobiography, as told to Gina Smith. It's a fun read. Keep your wits about you as you read--they didn't fact-check all of this material. So when Wozniak tells you what was going on in the industry at this time, you need to remember it was his perception. Probably everyone at Apple was saying that the Apple ][ was the first to sell a million units, so when Wozniak repeats this... Well, maybe that means that Apple was an echo-chamber around 1983, believing their own PR.

But it's worth reading this book. Wozniak has had a fun ride so far, and it's fun to read his reminiscences. Just in case you don't read it, though, I'm going to quote some things from the end of this book, the ideas he was hoping to convey, the lies he hoped to correct:

  • He didn't drop out of college
  • He wasn't thrown out of the University of Colorado
  • He didn't go to high school with Steve Jobs (they went to the same school, but not at the same time).
  • He designed the Apple I and Apple ][ machines himself, not with Jobs' help.
  • If you are an inventor who works best alone, he advises you to work alone.
  • If you are an inventor, please invent. We could use some better inventions.

I'll quote the last paragraph:

I hope you'll be as lucky as I am. The world needs inventors--great ones. You can be one. If you love what you do and are willing to do what it takes, it's within your reach. And it'll be worth every minute you spend alone at night, thinking and thinking about what it is you want to design or build. It'll be worth it, I promise.

Wow, inspirational stuff. I hope more folks are inspired by that than by some of Wozniak's practical jokes, many of which seemed more mean-spirited than funny. (Although I'm sure he would assure you that he didn't mean them in a mean-spirited way.) Check it out.

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Book Report: The Middle Kingdom

I didn't plan to spend today filling out an alternative minimum tax form for my friends at the IRS, but they insisted. I thought maybe I'd write something. But I didn't write anything. Except numbers. And now I'm grumpy, so I doubt I'll write anything today. Anyhow, here's a book report I wrote back in a happier time, a book report on The Middle Kingdom:

It's another Andrea Barrett novel in which the main characters are scientists; thus, I am a sucker for this book.

How was the Cultural Revolution like a bad marriage? Why do I blame you for my personal problems? (Here, I mean the general "I" (except in this parenthetical phrase, I guess).) What's the difference between a memory palace and a dream palace? This novel touches on these issues, but it's a fun read in spite of that.

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Book Report: She's Such a Geek

This is a book of essays by women geeks. It's pretty inspiring. That's partially because geek stories can be inspiring. But also because the stories from several years back tend to be about women overcoming bias/stereotypes to fit into the geek world; but in the more recent stories, the adversity's largely vanished. Some of the modern women still had crises to overcome; academia is still a cut-throat world, full of bullies and credit-stealers and... and all that crap. But you look at the old stories, you look at the new stories... It seems like academia is approaching a situation in which its male and female members are equally miserable.

Not that all of these stories are of grad-school indenture. There's computer games, there's... there's a variety. Give it a read. If you don't want to do that, you can at least read the She's Such a Geek web site.

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Book Report: Girl Genius vol 4 (Agatha Heterodyne and the Circus of Dreams)

Tonight is Sleater-Kinney's last concert before they "go on indefinite hiatus." I tried to get tickets, didn't try hard enough. But you know, it's not the end of the world. Each of the Sleaterians may go on to do great things in other contexts. Pancakes still taste good. There are still great comic books coming out, comic books like Girl Genius.

You must buy this comic. Why? Because it contains the line of dialog, "None of that is working! I'm releasing my poisonous sky worms!" And that's one of the good guys. It's all mad science, all the time across an alternate history Europe in a post-war... Oh, why am I trying to explain this when they have a perfectly good Girl Genius website? This comic continues to be awesome.

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Book Report: 109 East Palace

July 4th is a holiday in the USA, celebrated with fireworks. On July 5th, I was looking at a stretch of road next to Candlestick Park on the southern edge of San Francisco. It was covered with cardboard debris. Had a truck overturned?... no. No, this was the packaging for fireworks. For many, many fireworks. Someone had come to this quiet spot to launch many fireworks. No doubt it had been very impressive. Several yards away, there was a patch of grass and trees, black and smoking. One or more fireworks had strayed. No doubt the brush fire had been very impressive. Sometimes, our love of freedom and nation causes us to create explosions; sometimes we get so caught up in the explosions that we forget that they can hurt our nation. Maybe we should ask people to study the history of the Manhattan Project before they set off fireworks.

Every so often, I read some book or other about the Manhattan Project. How often should one read a book about the Manhattan Project? Maybe once a year? I don't know. It had been too long since I last read a book about the Manhattan Project, and the details were fuzzing out of my brain. 109 East Palace did a fine job of blowing away the dust. It focuses more on the people-history than on the science-history. This book contained, for example, the most detailed timeline I've seen of the betting action that went on in the scientists' bunker during the Trinity test.

This book was pretty good. If I was just going to read one book about the Manhattan Project this year, I'm glad it was this one.

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Book Report: The Control of Nature

I'm still sick, a little. I'm better than I was. This morning I thought I was all better. So I hopped on the bus to work. I had a coughing fit on the bus. And another few during the day at work. I thought I was better, but it was just the germs lurking--lurking so that I would be lulled into going into a populated center, coughing, propogating disease. I like to think that I'm pretty smart, but today I was outsmarted by a bunch of microscopic critters that don't even have brains. I am no match for nature.

John McPhee wrote a book about engineering vs. nature. The Army Corps of Engineers really wants the Mississippi River to continue in its present bed, not escaping overmuch into the bed of the Old River. What does it do. People living next to volcanoes want lava to go around their homes. What do they do? The city of Los Angeles is next to some mountains which shower boulders and debris upon homes in the hills. What do they do?

It's pretty interesting in a "People are nuts" way.

In the Mississippi River section, there are some notes on the plight of New Orleans. This book was written before hurricane Katrina, and even then , we knew the city was in danger.

An Alexander Calder might revel in these motions--independent, interconnected, related to the flow at Old River. Calder would have understood Old River Control: the place where the work is attached to the ceiling, and below which everything--New Orleans, Morgan City, the river swamp of the Atchafalaya--dangles and swings.

Something like half of New Orleans is now below sea level--as much as fifteen feet. New Orleans, surrounded by levees, is emplaced between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi like a broad shallow bowl. Nowhere is New Orleans higher than the river's natural bank. Underpriveleged people live in the lower elevations, and always have. The rich--by the river--occupy the highest ground. In New Orleans, income and elevation can be corellated on a literally sliding scale: the Garden District on the highest level, Stanley Kowalski in the swamp. The Garden District and its environs are known as uptown.

Also in the section on the Mississippi, a note about documentation:

...for the ignorant river pilots and all uninitiated craft there's a very large sign hugh up the bank of the river--its first three words in red:

1 Mile--West Bank
Old River Control Structure
Corps of Engineers
New Orleans District

Spring high water often knocks the sign away.

People fleeing an erupting volcano may escape with strands of fallen molten glass in their hair. To remove the glass, they need haircuts.

A story of Icelandic fishermen trapped at sea when their boat sank reminded me of Lynne Cox:

...the fishing boat pulled itself stern first under the sea. It rolled over. Three survivors climbed up on the hull. The time was about 10 P.M. The ship's emergency raft was trapped and unreleasable. The air temperature was below freezing, the water not much above. No means remained available to create a distress signal. Lights of [the island of] Himaey were visible to the west. The three men considered their predicament for half an hour. Then--in their jeans, their wool sweaters--they slipped off the hull and began to swim. One died almost immediately. The two others--Gudlaugur Fridthorsson and Hjortur Rosmann Jonsson, the captain--swam side by side and kept talking. Birds, screaing in the darkness, swarmed around them. After a time, when Gudlaugur put something in the form of a question there was no reply.

Thereafter, he talked to the birds. In daylight, sailors who have fallen overboard have been found by shipmates who steered towards hovering birds. There was no hope of that in the dark of this winter midnight, but Gudlaugur--twenty-three years old--consciously struggled to keep his wits through dialog with shrieking birds. He knew that confusion was among the first symptoms of hypothermia and if he became confused he would die. Always, he saw the light on the island. He swam by preference on his back, but he thought that heat would be lost most readily through the nape, so he swam for long periods on his stomach. He swam about six hours--at least five times as long as anyone ever has in water that cold. [This was 1984]

When he reached Heimaey, he found himself in a hostile wave-battered niche in the new lava, up against a cliff. His purchase there being hopeless, he want back into the sea. He swam about half a mile south and, this time, climbed out on a broad flow of apalhraun, the sharpest and roughest texture of volcanic glass. Barefoot, he crossed it, and lost a good deal of blood. After he reached some grazing land, he saw a tub full of water for sheep, broke the ice with a fist, and drank. He came to a house about six in the morning, eight hours after his boat capsized. When doctors examined him, they could not find a pulse, and his temperature was too low to register on a medical thermometer. [But he did survive.]

The debris flows of Los Angeles wiped out the home of hat magnate G. Henry Stetson. That particular flow of debris came from Sombrero Canyon.

This book is full of great stuff. People are nuts when they go toe to toe with nature, and it makes for some good stories.

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Book Report: Tuxedo Park

Jennet Conant's biography of Alfred Loomis is fascinating.

Loomis was an interesting character. He was a physicist, founding a Physics lab in the hoity-toity community of Tuxedo Park, NY. When WWII started, he was one of the driving forces behind the Rad lab, where they developed American RADAR. I had already read about the Tizard mission, in which British scientists who came to the USA with a box full of wonders, including the cavity magnetron. Where, exactly, did they bring it? They revealed the cavity magnetron to the USA in Loomis' sitting room.

Loomis' life (and thus this book) had something for everyone: physics, physicists, war, mystery stories, private laboratories, government laboratories, high finance, an America's Cup racing yacht, RADAR, the Manhattan project, and an unlivable house designed by an architect.

Loomis made a lot of money as an biz guy before he retired to do what he loved: work on tech stuff with a bunch of geeks. I'm hoping that many of my recently-rich co-workers take Loomis' advice to heart: just because you have enough money to stop tinkering and hanging out with geeks doesn't mean that you should. Hacking is still more fun than your other choices.

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Book Report: The Curious Life of Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke was a scientist during the 1600s. Did you read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle? Of course you did. Or you at least got started. Robert Hooke was one of the mad scientists that figures large in the Cycle. Was he really such a weirdo?

This biography says yes. Do not read this biography for a great story. Hooke's life did not follow a clear narrative arc. He dabbled in many fields, was stymied, and occasionally overcome. But biographer Lisa Jardine chased down plenty of good bits and details. Some you will already be familiar with after having read the Baroque Cycle (if you made it through): kicking out king Charles, the fire of London, the Orange/Dutch invasion.

But the Baroque Cycle, despite its length, left out some good bits. Sure, you can read in there about scientists being "cut for the stone", but apparently things got worse:

On 16 November 1672, Hooke recorded in his diary that he had learned in conversation with Boyle and Wren that Wilkins was gravely ill 'of the stone', as it was thought. A team of Royal Society medical men prescribed remedies, including Hooke's Gresham colleague and personal physician Dr Goddard:

(16) Blackfryers, Bridewell, Dr. Wren, Mr. Boyle, Cox. Lord Chester [Wilkins] desperately ill of the stone, stoppage of urine 6 dayes. oyster shells 4 red hot quenched in cyder a quart and drank, advised by Glanvill. Another prescribed flegma acidum succini rectifactum cum sale tartari [acid precipitate of amber refined with salt of tartar]. Dr. Godderd advisd Blisters of cantharides [Spanish fly] applyd to the neck and feet or to the vains.


(19) Mr. Lee here. Lord Bishop of Chester dyed about 9 in the morning of a suppression of urine. ... Sir Theodore Devaux told me of Sir Th. Meyerns cure of stone in kidneys by blowing up bladder with bellows etc.

On 20 November, however, Hooke was present at dinner with other Royal Society members when the doctor who had performed an autopsy on Wilkin's body arrived and reported that no sign of kidney stones had been found... Hooke and his medical colleagues [had] administered highly toxic 'physic' to the body of their sick colleague, and watched for alleviating symptoms which did not come.

Wow, blowing up bladders of a living human with a bellows. Poisoning friends in pursuit of a medical cure... and this book is full of stuff like that. (Actually, I'm not 100% sure that the bellows didn't make it into the Cycle. I'm not going to go back and re-read the whole thing now to make sure. If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone will eventually correct me.)

I'd already heard of Hooke, though I didn't know it. He was the Hooke behind Hooke's law describing the behavior of springs. Apparently he figured that out while trying to develop a clock during the race for longitude. This guy was everywhere.

Anyhow, if you made it through the Baroque Cycle and asked for more Mad Science, please, then this is a good follow-up book.

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Publishing News: Opposite of Google Print

Today I went to a talk by best-selling author Neil Gaiman. There was a question and answer period. Someone asked for Mr Gaiman's take on the recent Google Print kafuffle. (Some authors did not deign to fill in the little "Please don't index my book" web form, but instead filed a lawsuit against Google.)

He raised some interesting points, including one I hadn't heard before. It's not just the danger-of-piracy vs. searchability-equals-higher-sales trade off. There might be some books which the rights holder doesn't want found at all. Back when he was young, unknown, and needed money, he wrote a book about the band Duran Duran. He is not proud of this work. He does not want any more copies of this book to sell. He wishes it would go away. (I'm interpreting what he said; perhaps I'm exaggerating.)

A couple of hours too late, I realized the solution to this problem. The embarassed author's best friend is: Google Purge.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for Google. I only speak for myself.

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