Zero History by William Gibson

William Gibson just has a knack for taking you to a different world, whether a dystopian future of post-war America or into the marketing frenzy of fashion in contemporary London, he has a way with words that is both foreign but oddly captivating.  The first book of his I read, his classic Neuromancer, epitomizes this: he is throwing around fictional names and brands and events as if they are something everyone is familiar with.  It took me a while to just stop thinking about every name and let myself get absorbed into his universe.  Neuromancer is one of, if not the, first cyberpunk novel, set in a world where humans interface directly with machines, cybernetics is commonplace, and cyberspace is all pervasive (Gibson coined the term cyberspace).

Since then, his novels have actually become less rooted in science fiction and set more in the contemporary world.  This is particularly true of his latest novel, Zero History, which follows a set of characters involved in, of all things, fashion and the development of new brands.  The driver behind the events of the story, Hubertus Bigend, owns an advertising agency and is trying to cash in on the latest fad in fashion: a brand that is so exclusive that it does no advertising, people are just alerted to random shipments.  In the background, though, Bigend has bigger things going on, specifically trying to predict the stock market, get that extra bit of information that will let him predict trends.

The main characters, Hollis Henry and Milgrim, really drive the story forward.  Milgrim is a paranoid ex-druggie who Bigend has helped clean up.  Hollis is a former rock star who does journalism gigs, sometimes for Bigend.  In trying to find the people responsible for this viral fashion marketing campaign, they team up.  While there are no world-scale dangers involved here, the action is just tense enough to keep things moving, driven in large part by Milgrim’s paranoia.  He doesn’t know who to trust and begins doubting not only the people around him, but the things around him too.

Technology doesn’t play the same overriding role it did in earlier Gibson novels, but it is ever-present, especially in how it can be used, in the particular case of Milgrim, to track him around the globe.  Gibson touches on things like locative art (location-specific art that is virtual, you can only see it on your phone/computer), guerrilla fashion, advanced computer algorithms for predicting the stock market, and how just by using your phone or computer you can be easily tracked.

These hit home even more than the more far-off tech that he used in prior novels as this could happen now.  Whatever we are familiar with, whatever we think we know about the state-of-the-art, the fact is that governments, militaries, and corporations have much more sophisticated technology.  Gibson explores this secret world, drawing us in to that world in a way that both entertains and educates us, just a bit.  It’s a world where forces bigger than us are at play, where we are small compared to everything around.  And it is a world that probably isn’t all that different than our own.

Ladybug Marker Holder

I finally busted out some of the tools I’ve been collecting with the hopes of doing some woodworking.  I’m working on a toy tree house for my daughter, something that goes with the doll house she got from her grandma, and when it’s done, I’ll post some photos on here.  I had an extra half-sphere and, inspired by a groundhog I’d seen on another blog, created this.  Nothing too fancy, but starting with half a sphere, drilling some holes, adding a few dowels and small wooden balls, then dremeling some detail, a ladybug emerged.  Lisa then painted it, bringing it to life and giving it character.

I think it turned out great and I’m planning on making some more, though just not ladybugs.  I was thinking a porcupine or a dinosaur might look good.

Peter Falk

I’m sure a million postings have been made today in remembrance of Peter Falk, but, given the place he and his character holds in my memory of my childhood, I thought I’d add one more.

I don’t have the best memory, barely remembering what I did yesterday, much less much from my childhood.  But I do remember a time when my parents had a very small TV — smaller than the monitor of my Airbook — in their bedroom.  Black and white, if I remember right.  And I remember all of us — my parents, my brothers and me — squeezing into their bed late at night (for little kids, anyways) and watching a bit of TV.  And I remember my favorite show being Columbo.  I don’t remember any episodes and barely remember the characters, but I do remember the guy in the trench coat solving mysteries.  And I remember thinking it the greatest thing.  Columbo and The Rockford Files were my two favorite shows.

Looking back and seeing an occasional rerun now and then, Columbo still holds up.  The character Peter Falk created is just great.  The guy no one thinks is at all competent, but is really the smartest guy around, unassumingly solving crimes while those around him don’t realize he is doing it.  I tried to get my wife to watch an episode of The Rockford Files a few years ago and it sure felt dated, especially Jim Rockford’s attitude towards women.  But, I expect Columbo would hold up a lot better.

They were talking about Peter Falk on NPR on the way home today.  They mentioned he had a glass eye and he used that to great affect to create the bemused and sometime befuddled expressions Columbo had.

There seem to be a lot of shows from my youth — Columbo, MASH, and, yes, even The Rockford Files — that had great characters and, to me, just aren’t matched today in quality.  Maybe I’m becoming that grumpy old man that will soon be saying “Back in the old days…” But, it really does seem that they just made them better back then.


The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

These are questions as old as humanity itself: why are we here?  where did everything come from? what does it all mean?

Humanity has tried to answer these questions in a multitude of ways.  It is, in my opinion, the reason religion started, as one way to answer these questions.  One way, with a nearly never-ending variety of answers.  Philosophers had been the standard bearers of more systematic approaches to understanding and answering these questions, but also with a vast variety of results.  Relatively recently, science has also weighed in.  As science evolves, the insights into these fundamental questions also change, from the clock-work determinism of Newtonian mechanics to the relativistic view of Einstein’s universe to the inherent randomness associated with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, is the latest attempt to use modern physics to try to answer some of these questions.  Regardless of what you might think about the authors or their basic premise, the book is both very easy reading and gives some interesting perspective into what modern physics “means”.  I put means in quotes because there are two very different camps about finding meaning in modern physics and, in particular, quantum mechanics and its brethren quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics.  One view is that the math that underlies these theories is just that, math, and should not be interpreted any more deeply than that.  The words we give different constructs in that math, such as “path” or “particle”, are the consequence of our trying to impose familiar concepts onto physics that are entirely outside our ability to make direct connections to.  The other view is that one can take a more literal interpretation and see where it takes us.  That is the view of Hawking and Mlodinow.

The strangeness of quantum mechanics can be summarized in one simple experiment, the double slit experiment.  As the name implies, the experiment involves a board or paper or some obstacle in which two slits have been cut.  If you imagine throwing particles at it, each particle goes through one or the other slit and the pattern that appears on the detector on the other side consists of two groups where the particles hit the detector.  Imagine throwing tomatoes at the slits.  On the other side, you’d get two stains corresponding to the two slits.  However, when you throw quantum particles at the slits, you get a much more complex pattern, an interference pattern, a pattern that is associated not with particles but with waves.  If a wave passes through the two slits, such as a wave in water, it will go through both at the same time, interfere with itself, and create an interference pattern that consists not of two groups of “stains” on the detector, but many at a given interval.  The amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that you get this interference pattern even if you throw one particle at a time.  What is the particle interfering with?  Itself.

One way to formulate quantum mechanics, developed by Richard Feynman, is that the particle, an electron perhaps, takes all paths from where it starts to where it ends.  That is, you have to integrate over all possible paths.  This is the mathematical construction and is where Hawking and Mlodinow take the next step.  They interpret Feynman’s “path integral” formulation of quantum mechanics as saying that the electron did take all possible paths.  However, in any given universe, clearly it only took one, so there are other universes where the electron took a different path.  This is the so-called Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics.  In the Copenhagen interpretation, the electron only did one thing, but that thing was random.  In the Many Worlds interpretation, the electron did all things, but in different universes.  Further, Hawking and Mlodinow take the additional step in saying that Feynman’s path integral formulation says that the electron we see could have had one of many histories, so that history is also an indefinite thing.

I have to say that I don’t understand everything they are claiming.  I’ve had a few courses in quantum mechanics, but they were certainly more focused on calculating things than interpretation.  So, here, as in a few other spots, I don’t follow everything they say.

But, if you then apply this interpretation to the universe as a whole, you end up with the conclusion that there are an infinite number of universes and each has its own physics in the sense that the basic physical constants of each universe are a bit different.  We happen to be in one that has the right constants for life to exist.  This is a variant of the weak anthropic principle, which says that the world we live on is one of billions that just happened to have the right conditions.  That there are such planets is not surprising, given the shear number of them.  Applied to the whole universe, this is harder to suggest.  If there is only one universe, it had to be just right, but there were no other random choices, so its a much tighter constraint, called the strong anthropic principle.  However, if you have an infinite number of universes, each with its own constants, then we again are just in the one that of course supports life.  The others don’t.  The strong anthropic principle again becomes weak.

They make further claims, such that at the beginning of the universe, time as a concept breaks down (in the four-dimensional space-time of relativity, time becomes more space like in those first few moments) and there is no beginning.  They suggest it is the same as asking what is south of the South Pole.  Well, nothing, the question is meaningless.  To them, what occurred before the universe was created is the same meaningless question.  This line of reasoning also suggests to them that there is no need to invoke a God as creator of the universe.  The universe comes about naturally as a consequence of the laws of physics.

I don’t feel like I’m giving the book nor Hawking and Mlodinow’s ideas justice.  The book is certainly very interesting with a lot of deep concepts that will take a few readings to absorb more fully.  However, the ideas are presented in a rather logical and straightforward way that I found compelling.  I thought they did a good job of presenting their reasoning.  Along the way, I also learned quite a bit about modern physics that I hadn’t appreciated.

The only complaint I have is that the book is sprinkled with “jokes”, phrases that are meant to be amusing or to connect with the lay reader, but to me they were just jarring and out of place.  I think the book would read much better without those phrases.

Overall, while the book has generated its share of controversy, I would recommend it to anyone interested in these big questions.  You may not agree with them (some reactions, positive and negative, are here), but it will give you a different perspective on what these questions mean and one view towards understanding the universe around us.

Mosquito Doctors and Warriors

There was a story on NPR last week (see this link) about how a scientist at the University of Maryland, Raymond St. Leger, has found a way to essentially infect mosquitos with a fungus that kills the malaria parasite within the mosquitos without killing the mosquito itself (at least not very quickly).  This last point is important, as, since the death is slow, the mosquito won’t adapt to the fungus so quickly, evolving to fight it.  By infecting the mosquitos thus, the malaria parasite is killed and the mosquitos don’t fight back.

It got me thinking (as I’m sure it has people who work for the government) that maybe using this kind of technology, one could do other things with mosquitos.  Two things jump to mind…

First, the good: why not infect the mosquito with a fungus that, instead of or in addition to killing the malaria parasite, also injects it with some kind of medicine, maybe a vaccine to say measles or antibiotics to help against maybe a cholera outbreak that occurs during some natural disaster.  The mosquitos would be released into the population, acting as mini flying syringes, and inoculate or administer drugs to the populace.  Large portions of the populace could be treated easily and quickly, without the need for doctors to visit each individual person.  And the mosquitos could likely access more remote areas that would be hard for doctors to reach. Of course, one could easily imagine abuses, which leads to second point…

If the mosquitos could be infected with a fungus that conveys some benefit, they could also be used in more nefarious ways.  They could transmit a disease itself, something that could be used to knock out a chunk of a population or army during wartime.  In the very least, if they transmitted the flu, it would weaken an army such that opposing forces might be more likely to be victorious in battle.  And, possibly, the disease would be so severe as to just directly kill the opponent.

As with most things, it isn’t the technology itself that is good or bad, but the uses of it.  It seems to me that “mosquito doctors” have a lot of potential beyond just eradicating malaria, but “mosquito warriors” could devastate not only the opposing army, but whole populations.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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