Saturday, February 17

Over the last few months, you may have noticed that there are generally less links than there were back in the beginning of Vavatch. I don't think that this was a conscious decision I made, it's just something that gradually happened.

I've come to the feeling that Vavatch isn't so much a weblog that does links and commentary as a place on the web where I can just write about anything I want. It's not really a diary, but then I hardly ever link to more than one site per post so it can't really be called a traditional bread-and-butter weblog either. I'm not particularly bothered about this though; I find that I have much more fun writing Vavatch these days since I can concentrate on things that I (and hopefully you) find interesting rather than spending my time trawling the web for links.

And that's the thing - I do read maybe three or four other weblogs regularly, and I always notice that they have links to stories that I've already visited from the innumerable computer/science/technology/world news websites that I keep track of daily. While I have to admit that I'm probably one of the very few people who has the time or inclination to bother doing this, I just can't see the point of mentioning these stories in Vavatch if readers may have already read about them.

So what do I write about, then? Anything and everything - you'll have seen the book reviews or the interesting bits of science I include fairly often. There are posts where I talk about cameras, or computers, or Cambridge or ideas that I've thought up. They're longer than usual as well - I don't like trying to sum up my thoughts and arguments in a trite one-paragraph long soundbite. In fact, at a point a few months ago I was getting worried about the content-free nature of many of my posts.

Anyway. What do you think of Vavatch? Too much science? Too little book reviews? Should I include more links to articles I read about? Tell me what you think in the 'discuss' link. I can't guarantee that I'll actually do anything based on what you say but it'd be interesting to hear what you think.

10:01 PM | permalink | discuss

I managed to get the Astrobiology: The Living Universe website a new home at Ibiblio (formerly known as SunSITE or MetaLab at UNC) and we're currently in the middle of getting it online and revamping the interface. The new URL is much more easily remembered than the last one, being www.ibiblio.org/astrobiology. In your face, Thinkquest!

7:48 PM | permalink | discuss

Conclusive proof that BBC News Online is one of the most amusing sites on the Internet. In their weekly round-up of stories run by tabloids, they comment on a feature that the National Enquirer has been running about the types of hats celebrities wear:

You may think that the fact that a person is wearing a hat is not very interesting.

But you would be wrong. Hat-wearing is a matter of great importance and the National Enquirer rightly devotes a lot of attention to the subject.

Interesting conversation today: someone mentioned that I generally precede any thoughtful comments or replies I make with a long, drawn-out and introspective-sounding 'Wellll...' I thought about this for a while, then said 'Wellll... I suppose it's true.'

And it is. I've more or less eliminated the words 'uh', 'um' or 'like' from my vocabulary (my philosophy is that if you're just going to say 'um', you might as well save yourself the energy and say nothing). However, this hasn't come at a price - instead, I've replaced them with a smaller number of phrases such as 'The fact is,' or 'Of course,' or 'Wellll...'

While this isn't the perfect solution, it's not too bad as saying those phrases generally gives the impression that I know what I'm talking about and have been taking other things into consideration, rather than, say, buying myself time to figure out what it is I want to say next.

2:23 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, February 16

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge

It's hard to believe that the person who wrote The Peace War also wrote Marooned in Realtime.

Actually, no, it isn't - that's just the dumb sort of comment that reviewers tend to say. Marooned in Realtime is a vast leap forward from The Peace War in terms of writing style, plotline and proficiency, which consequently means that it's pretty damned good. Here's a quick synopsis:

The Peace War took place in 2050. Since then, technology has progressed at such a startling rate that by the 2200's, people separated by a decade find it almost impossible to recognise each others computers or equipment. In other words, things are looking up. Then, sometime around 2250, the entirety of human civilisation both on Earth and throughout the Solar System just... disappeared, leaving empty cities and no records of why they moved on.

Seeing as Marooned in Realtime takes place after 2250, obviously some people were left behind or otherwise there wouldn't have been much of a story. These 'survivors' were all residing in bobbles during the period from 2220 to 2250 and in many cases, for much longer than that period. As you might think, they all entered their bobbles at different times and set them to pop at different times, so some come from as early as 2050 or as late as 2210, and emerged a few decades after the disappearence - or fifty million years later. This makes for an extremely interesting (and huge) disparity of technology and resources between the survivors.

One of the more teched-up group of survivors, two women called the Korolevs, decide that they want to try and re-establish civilisation and so spend a few million years jumping around from place to place rounding up bobbled individuals so they'll have enough people to start up a colony (they get 300 people - just enough genetic diversity for it to work). Unlike most of the other survivors, the Korolevs can do this since they had an inkling that something altogether weird might have happened to civilisation while they were bobbled up and conseqently took a fairly large amount of equipment with them, including the capability to generate their own bobbles.

On their last final jump to round up the last 100 people, one of the two Korolevs is pushed outside of the designated bobbling area for the people they've already gathered and so is... you guessed it... Marooned in Realtime!

[In case you're wondering why these ultra-high-tech Korolevs didn't think to bring along exowomb technology with them, they did. It broke.]

Before you say it, no, the story is not about the adventures of this person who is Marooned. As you discover from the first 50 or so pages, this unfortunate individual manages to survive on her own, with no technology, for several decades but eventually dies. The remaining Korolev puts a detective from 2100 called W. W. Brierson on the case of the murder. It turns out that Brierson didn't enter a bobble for a hundred thousand years just for fun - like some of the other survivors, he was 'shanghaied', or bobbled against his will.

Vinge really does show off his prodigious imagination in Marooned by extrapolating the use of the bobble technology from The Peace War. For example, many of the 'high-tech' survivors have fleets of spacecraft that can propel themselves to relativistic speeds by dropping a nuke behind them and bobbling up as it explodes, thus riding on the wave of the explosion. However, he reveals that staying bobbled up doesn't mean you can be invulnerable - you might bobble up to escape from an attacker, but your attacker could simply catch your bobble and drop it in the sun - when the bobble eventually pops, you're toast (the solution to this involves a highly-connected fleet of smaller subsidiary craft that bobble in and out quickly to defend the main bobble).

Stuff like this crops up regularly within Marooned, but even so it remains secondary to the strong plotline where our detective is trying to single out the murderer from among the three hundred humans who are left alive on Earth; this provides a good excuse for him to talk to some of the more eccentric high-techs (as only a high-tech could have had the equipment to subvert the Korolev's systems) and give the reader a great deal of fun. We also get to see some of the characters who were featured in The Peace War take part in the goings on in Marooned.

I don't want to give much of the plot away, but suffice to say that it's extremely compelling and Vinge really has thought out the implications of bobbles and super-high-technology. After all, Marooned is (to my knowledge) the first novel in which he introduces the concept of the Singularity. The idea behind the Singularity is that science and technology will continue to accelerate at exponential rates until it'll get to the point where we (at this moment in time) cannot possibly predict what life will be like - we'll have become so unimaginably powerful that the poor unenhanced Homo Sapiens brains we have now will not be able to comprehend the type of activities and thoughts we might have in just a hundred or two hundred years.

Possibly my favourite part of Marooned is towards the end, where Brierson interviews a 'survivor' who bobbled up in 2210 - the latest of all the survivors. The Korolevs bobbled up in 2200, and they don't have a clue how his spaceship works except for the fact that it's more powerful than their entire fleet and is made up of material a million times the density of lead. The survivors talks candidly about life in such an advanced society, and some of the incredibly ambitious projects humanity is toying with at the time - pure heaven for a SF fan like myself who enjoys a bit of hard science every so often, mixed in with more interesting stuff like bobbles.

[In case you're wondering why this 2210 guy isn't in charge what with his equipment, it's because he didn't enter his bobble entirely of his own will and so hadn't been able to prepare for any unforeseen nastiness when he emerged (e.g. the total collapse of civilisation), unlike the Korolevs.]

Marooned is a piece of true, Vinge-style space opera with just a few simple fundamental ideas that he extrapolates into incredible scenarios and universes. While it's not quite as polished as A Fire Upon the Deep or A Deepness in the Sky, that fact shouldn't put you off reading Marooned in Realtime at all. A true classic.

An essay by Vernor Vinge on the Singularity

8:11 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, February 15

The Peace War by Vernor Vinge

Written in 1984, The Peace War isn't by far a member of the newer science fiction in the bookshops; it belongs to the curious style of SF writing that seems to be characteristic of the 80's and early 90's, a rather relaxed and speculative type of fiction that was generally quite feel-good and more optimistic about developments in computers and space travel than they should have been. A recurring theme through these novels is the environment and large world-shaping wars that happened in near-past (don't ask me why they are). David Brin's Earth is a prime example.

I enjoyed Earth quite a bit - unlike many of my friends I actually like this style of writing as it makes a good change from the nouveau cyberpunk and hard SF that seems to be taking over these days. Since I'd heard that there was a particularly juicy type of McGuffin (neat plot device) in The Peace War and that it was written by the same author as the outstanding Fire Upon The Deep/A Deepness in the Sky series, I was quite eager to read up on it.

Spoiler warning: I have to say that I'm going to unleash a few very obvious spoilers that crop up in the first 50 pages of The Peace War - if you really don't want to know anything about the book, don't read on. But of course, you're reading this review to find out more so everyone should be happy.

The McGuffin in The Peace War turned out to be very juicy indeed - in the story, a group of physicists working at Lawrence Livermore labs in 1997 developed a way to project 'bobbles' - completely reflective bubbles that sealed off the volume they enveloped into a self-contained universe - anywhere on Earth. Within a few days they managed to knock out most of the military capacity of the major powers and over the following years they assumed control of the world. Naming themselves the 'Peace Authority', they outlawed all computers, high technology and high energy power sources from the world (excepting themselves, naturally). A few unfortunate plagues later and we arrive 50 years into the future where the countries of the present day don't exist any more, populations have been decimated, people ride around on horseback and right on cue... Something Big Happens.

A bobble bursts, releasing a just-exploded missile. Bobbles aren't supposed to burst, and initially the physicists think that they're simply decaying, just like the half-life decay of radioactive particles. Of course, it isn't as boring as that as we later discover that bobbles are essentially stasis machines - if you're bobbled, then time ceases to pass for you or anything else inside the bobble until it bursts. As you can imagine, with the bursting of these bobbles and the unveiling of a super-bright kid, an almost-as-bright wise old guy who was alive back in the pre-bobble days and a recently emerged bobble-ee, there is a huge potential for Hijinks to Ensue. The Peace War quickly develops into a Race Against Time for the Tinkers (a group of people hiding in plain sight who have illegally developed really cool computers with remarkably good AI) to defeat the Peace Authority (the bad guys - who else could they be, with a name like that?)

From this, it sounds like a rollickingly good SF novel. Except it isn't quite that rollicking. The Peace War is one of Vinge's first novels, and it shows. While he does have excess numbers of good ideas to spare, the execution of the story is wanting - the beginning of the novel is quite slow and there was a whole load of unnecessary exposition about the super-bright kid who becomes good. A more exacting editor could have tightened the story up considerably, and I have no doubt that if Vinge were to write this book again it would be first class.

I felt that the characterisation in this novel was adequate although there were some of the usual stereotypical characters you have to expect (the weary wise old guy with a lost love and a secret to match, etc. etc.). A common complaint of The Peace War is that while Vinge set up an excellent premise with his bobbles, he didn't think of enough applications for them (shields, frictionless bearings, waste-disposal, etc.). This is undoubtedly true, but I personally believe that detailing innumerable application of the bobbles would have hampered the flow of the story.

The Peace War was an above-average book with a good idea, but there are plenty of above-average books out there, and more than enough excellent novels, for that matter. However, I did enjoy reading The Peace War, if only for the fact that the idea of physicists ruling the world with an iron-fist to enforce peace is, well... highly unusual - and you'll certainly be wise to read this novel for background to the much-superior sequel, Marooned in Realtime.

(NB: In the UK, The Peace War and Marooned In Realtime are only available in the collection called Across Realtime - a link to Amazon is at the top of the page).

Tomorrow: Marooned in Realtime. Sorry I haven't done it today - I intended to finish it and in fact most of it is, but it doesn't read well to me and I hope you won't mind waiting a day to get a superior review.

7:45 PM | permalink | discuss

Someone's collected a list of all the exclamations uttered by Captain Haddock in Tintin novels. My favourites include hydrocarbon, macrocephalic baboon, ectoplasm, olympic athlete and of course, technocrat.

Seen on a window in Cambridge today: a poster advertising a play called 'The Second Amendment Club'.

5:21 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, February 14

No large updates today, sorry, but I can promise that I'll have proper in-depth reviews of both the Peace War and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge (favourite author du jour) by tomorrow.

For the last few days, the Heffers bookshop that I pass on my way to lectures has been displaying enticingly beautiful postcards of planets, galaxies, calligraphy and other Neat Stuff. Every day, I go in, stare at them for a few minutes while my mind goes into an agony of indecision of whether I could justify spending 1 on a piece of card. And then I walk out.

The thing that bothers me is that it probably costs less than 10p to print those postcards. I could print those cards for less than 10p each, if I had the capital on my hands. An idea I've been thinking of for a while is (for want of a better term) an open-source marketplace, where high quality goods are sold at cost price. 'Why would you want to sell something at cost price, though?' I hear your capitalist voices cry. Why not? Why can't we do it out of the goodness of our hearts? There's no point charging for everything - the amount of enjoyment I would get out of making lots of money from postcards isn't equal to the amount of enjoyment people would get for buying high quality yet intensely cheap postcards.

A very silly and amusing scientific video of how a ear hair cell responds to a particular kind of music.

8:27 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, February 13

Today's Neat Science Fact

Have you ever had the experience that when you pick up or lay your fingers a hot object, it seems fine for the first one or two seconds, but right after that the sensation of heat registers in your brain and you snatch your fingers away mumbling expletives? Ever wondered why there seems to be a lag time for this to happen? Thanks to the wonders of Vavatch, you will wonder no more after reading this post.

Information about heat, or touch, or sight or smell or any other sensation is transmitted through our body via very long cells called nerve fibres. This information is encoded as a series of impulses along the nerves that are basically waves of chemicals, and they're generally triggered by a very small electric shock (they can be triggered by chemicals as well, but the end result is that an electrical potential builds up).

When this wave of chemical travels down a nerve fibre, the chemicals change the electrical charges within the cell (because the chemicals are charged particles - ions - themselves). These electrical charges are what causes the wave of the chemicals in the first place - they basically open up channels in the membrane of the cell that lets the chemicals in, creating the wave. So you can imagine the electrical charges and the current field they generate surfing down along a slender nerve fibre, creating a wave of chemicals that maintains the current field and lets it continue surfing.

However, in practice this doesn't travel all too quickly at only a few metres per second. This is because the membrane of the nerve fibre cells is 'leaky' and so the current field generated by the electric charges dissipates at a short distance. But what would happen if you insulated the nerve fibre cells and so the current field is contained within the cell, meaning it could extend for much further ahead than the wave of chemicals? Well, obviously the nervous impulses would travel much faster. And this is exactly what has happened in vertabrates and humans - we've evolved a new type of nerve fibre that is coated in myosin - insulation for cells, if you will. Myosin is simply lots of cell membrane wrapped around the nerve cell dozens of times.

The bulk of our nervous system (with the exception of some of the shorter nerve fibres in our brain) is coated in myosin to speed up nervous impulse transmissions. The thing is, though, it's metabolically expensive for the body to make and maintain this myosin layer - after all, you don't get anything for free. This means that myosin is only used where it is necessary.

Back to the original question. Heat is detected by receptors just below our skin. For 99% of more of the time that the homo sapiens species has been in existence, these heat receptors have only been required to measure the ambient atmospheric temperature outside our bodies - i.e. whether it's hot or cold. Since the ambient temperature hardly jumps about much, we don't need to know it very quickly and so the body hasn't bothered wrapping the nerve fibres that conduct heat receptor impulses with myosin - as a result, the impulses travel much slower and that's the reason why it takes a few seconds for you to realise that you've just picked up an extremely hot pan of boiling water!

Those crazy cephalopods

Cephalopods, or squid as we know them, are agreed among biologists to be extremely intelligent animals. They have a highly developed nervous system, they're one of the fastest swimmers in water with their use of jet-propulsion and their singular eye is even more sophisticated that the human eye (which is not, as some believe, the best there is out there). In fact, their eye has been described by scientists to be the 'perfect eye', one reason for which is because it hasn't been wired the wrong way round (but that's another story).

As one of my lecturers put it, 'Squid. They've got good movement, good vision, great brains.'

Alas, squid, being completely unrelated to vertebrates, did not evolve the trick of using the myosin covering to speed up nervous transmissions. However, squid still need to have fast nervous transmissions or else they wouldn't be able to catch fish quickly or run away from predators - the split-second in which you see a predator and tell your muscles to get moving truly is a matter of life or death.

So instead of using a myosin layer, they simply use damned huge nerve fibres with a diameter of half a millimetre across (as opposed to vertebrate myosin-covered fibres that are 20 times thinner).

'Well, that's not so bad,' I hear you think. But it is. For each of those huge nerve fibres, the squid could have had dozens or hundreds of myosin covered nerve fibres in the same space. This would have allowed them to convey much more information from sensory receptors to other parts of the body and they would have been even smarter than they are now. In fact, I wonder exactly how smart they could have been if they had the advantage of myosin...

2:54 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, February 11

Practical Charity

One of the things that has struck me about the Internet are the opportunities it presents for individuals and organisations to raise funds across the world. Through PayPal and the Amazon Honour Scheme, anyone with a credit card can send money to anyone else in the world in maybe a minute. Surely, you would think, with the basic fundamentals of the donation system working, we can sit back and watch the donation revolution unfold.

Well, no. Online donations leave much to be desired. The two schemes I mentioned above do not support a system where you can tally up the amount of money that has been raised for an item, and most fundamentally, they don't work in the LetsBuyIt way.

I'm a great admirer of the LetsBuyIt system of payment, even though the company doesn't know how to run its business. Exactly what I admire is the way you can 'pledge' money towards buying an item providing that enough other people have also pledged their money. So if, by the deadline on which the item has to be sold, not enough people have put their names down, you pay nothing. But if there are enough people, you've already been entered into a contract so money is deducted from your credit card.

Why would this work any better than simply donating money instantaneously like we do now?

What we use now is a 'bottom-up' approach; people make donations sometimes without knowing how much has already been donated, and without any assurance of what will happen to their donation if the amount required isn't raised. They often don't know what they're paying for, and no amount of ease-of-payment through PayPal can assuage that uncertainty. So consequently, online donations have only really worked for organisations and communities that have earned a large amount of trust from their users, such as Blogger and Metafilter (which are incidentally both weblog-related).

Unfortunately, not all organisations have the time or the pulling power to build up that trust - yet if only they had some seed money, they could earn that trust...

What's required is a 'top-down' approach. Organisations raising money via online donations should firstly make it clear what they will spend the donations on. Secondly, a system should be introduced where people can 'pledge' money towards a cause, and if the total amount of pledges reaches the target within a set amount of time (this is important) then the relevant amount of money is deducted from their credit card. Not enough pledges? Then you don't have to pay a penny.

This way, people can donate money without really have the psychological barrier of knowing that they are paying straight away, and they can be absolutely sure that their donation will truly count towards a cause and not be used on half-measures. On a larger scale, it could be a new way of raising extremely large sums of money that simply weren't possible before.

Let's examine a few gedanken - thought experiments.

A while back, the Mars Society had to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to build their Mars Arctic Research Station. They eventually got the money from corporate donors, but what if that wasn't an option? Using the new scheme of donation, you could launch a large Internet publicity campaign asking for x tens of thousands of people to pledge $10. People would flock to this because they would know that their money would only be deducted if there was enough other people out there doing the same, and they would be more willing to donate since it doesn't feel as if they're spending anything.

Okay. How about something bigger? How about the probe the Mars Society purportedly wants to send to Mars in a few years time, costing several million dollars? The system still holds up, and even better, it would interest a greater number of people - millions could pledge money and once the total amount is met - bam! - you have enough money to build a probe. It's really the only way to go.

On a slightly more down to Earth scale, how about these micropayments weblogs are using? Why not have a system so that the weblog author could say 'I want to buy this book costing $10. If 10 of you pledge $1 each, then I can buy it, but if you donate money and not enough is raised, I'm not going to be able to waste your donation on a non-book related expense because I won't get it in the first place.'

Obviously there are significant technical challenges to this. However, LetsBuyIt has the scheme running seemingly without hitch and while we can't expect people to be able to do this on an individual basis, it's clear that an enterprising and innovative new company could set up a system wherein they could generate money via the PayPal business model - by creaming money off the top.

10:33 PM | permalink | discuss