Wednesday, January 28, 2004
Established in 1960, JASON is an independent scientific advisory group that provides consulting services to the U.S. government on matters of defense science and technology. Most of it's work is the product of an annual summer study and they have done work for the DOD (including DARPA), FBI, CIA and DOE. FAS recently collected and published several recent unclassified JASON studies on their website. They cover a wide area of subjects, ranging from quantum computing to nanotechnology to nuclear weapon maintenance. There is way too much material there to summarize, so here are just a few that cought my eye:
Posted by Mark on January 28, 2004 at 08:13 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Pynchon : Stephenson :: Apples : Oranges
The publication of Cryptonomicon lead to lots of comparisons with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in reviews. This was mostly based on the rather flimsy convergences of WWII and technology in the two novels. There were also some thematic similarities, but given the breadth of themes in Gravity's Rainbow, that isn't really a surprise. They did not resemble each other stylistically, nor did the narratives really resemble one another. There was, I suppose, a certain amount of playfulness present in both works, but in the end, anyone who read one and then the other would be struck by the contrast.
However, having recently read Stephenson's Quicksilver, I can see more of a resemblance to Pynchon. With Quicksilver, Stephenson displays a great deal more playfulness with style and narrative. He's become more willing to cut loose, explore language, fit the style to the situation he is describing and even slip out of "novel" format, whether it be the laundry list compilation style of Royal Society meeting notes (for example, pages 182 - 186), the epistolatory exploits of Eliza (pages 636 - 659 among many others), or theater script format (pages 716 - 729). Stephenson isn't quite as spastic as Pynchon, but the similarities between their styles are more than skin deep. In addition to this playfulness in the narrative style, Stephenson, like Pynchon, associates certain styles with specific characters (most notably the epistolatory style that is used for Eliza). Again, Stephenson is much less radical than Pynchon, and only applies a fraction of the techniques that Pynchon employs in his novel, but Stephenson has progressed nicely in his recent works.
Most of the time, Stephenson is considerably more prosaic than Pynchon, and even when he does branch out stylistically, it is done in service of the story. The Eliza letters again provide a good example. The epistolatory style allows Stephenson to write for a different audience. We know this, and thus Stephenson has a good time messing with us, especially towards the end of the novel where he takes it a step further and shows Eliza's encrypted letters and journal entries as translated by Bonaventure Rossignol (in the form of a letter to Louis XIV). All of this serves to further the plot. Pynchon, on the other hand, is more concerned with playfully exploring the narrative by experimenting with the English language. The plot takes a secondary role to the style, and to a certain extent the style drives the plot (well, that might be a bit of a stretch) and while Pynchon is one of the few who can pull it off, Stephenson's style doesn't really compare. They're two different things, really.
Nate has a great post on this very subject, and he shows that a comparison of Quicksilver with Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon is more apt:
The style of Mason Dixon is a synthesis of old and new that hews remarkably close to the old. Stephenson, on the other hand, writes in a much more modern style, only occasionally dotting his prose with historical flourishes ... The distinction here is an old one; classical rhetoricians spoke of Asiatic versus Attic style - the former is ornate, lush, and detailed, while the latter is lean, clean, and direct. Stephenson is a master of Attic style - a fact that's often obscured because, while his sentences are direct and elegant, their substance is often convoluted and complex. You can see it more clearly in his nonfiction - look at his explanation of the Metaweb for an excellent example. Pynchon, as an Asiatic writer, will elicit more "oohs" and "ahhs" for the power and grace of his prose, but will tend to lose his readers when he's trying to be florid and tackling difficult material at the same time. Obviously, both authors will tend toward the Attic or the Asiatic at different points, but in general, Stephenson wants his language to transparently convey his message, while Pynchon demands a certain amount of attention for the language itself.I haven't read Mason & Dixon (it's in the queue), but from what I've heard this sounds pretty accurate. Again, he makes the point that Pynchon and Stephenson are on different playing fields, appropriating their styles to serve different purposes... and it shows. Stephenson is a lot more fun to read for someone like me because I prefer storytelling to experimental narrative fiction.
I recently read Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and was shocked by the clarity of the straightforward and yet still vibrant prose. In that respect, I think Stephenson's work might resemble Crying more than the novels discussed in this post...
Update: As I write this, Pynchon is making his appearance on the Simpsons. Coincidence?
Posted by Mark on January 25, 2004 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Saturday, January 24, 2004
I will be doing some work on my beloved computer tonight and tomorrow. Mostly an OS upgrade, or several, depending on what I like. I am amazingly still running Windows 98. It has treated me well, but has become somewhat unstable over the past year, so I figured it's time to switch. I'll be starting with Windows XP, but I have a copy of Windows 2000 to fall back on if I hate XP (judging from some horror stories, that might be the case). I'll probably also take this opportunity to play around with Linux. Again. In the near future, I'll probably be getting a new hard drive and a DVD burner.
All of which is to say that if things do not go well tomorrow, I might not be able to write my regular Sunday post. Wish me luck.
Update 1.25.04: Things went well. Repartitioned the drive and started formatting it, went to the movies to kill time, and when I came back installation was waiting for me. 20 minutes later, I was good to go. Spent some time downloading and installing programs this morning, but I still got a bunch of stuff to do. So far, I like it. The many "helpful" features of XP don't seem to be bothering me much, so it looks like I might be sticking with it. Then again, little minor things can build up over time, so I guess I'll just have to wait and see.
Posted by Mark on January 24, 2004 at 08:16 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
NASA, Commercialization, and Agility
The Laughing Wolf comments on the "new" space initiative, paying particular attention to commercial interest in space... and the lack of any mention of commercialization in the new plan. He reads something into this which goes along with my thoughts on the institutional agility that will be necessary to make it to the moon and beyond.
You know, the President is not nearly as stupid as his critics try to portray him to be. In fact, he has been pretty shrewd and smart on many major issues. He may not be the best spoken person around, but he is not stupid. Do you think that he may have had some method to his madness here? For what if private industry does create and provide launch services? What if they do send probes on to the moon? Do you think that maybe NASA might, by dint of budget and language, be encouraged to make use of it? It is an intriguing possibility, since the actual language and such is not yet fully available, or perhaps even fully worked out.In my post on this subject, I didn't write about what the next big advance in space travel would be or who would create it, only that it would happen and that NASA would need to be agile enough to react to and exploit it. I noticed that the proposal didn't make any mention of commercial efforts, but I didn't pick up on the idea that the absense of such points was something of a challenge to the private sector.
Also, for more on the space effort, Jay Manifold has been blogging up a storm over at A Voyage To Arcturus. There is too much good stuff there to summarize, but if you're interested in this subject, check it out. Alright, one interesting thing I saw there was this conceptual illustration of a modular Crewed Exploration Vehicle. Of course as both Jay and the Laughing Wolf note, the CEV is meant to accompish many and varied goals, which means that while it may be versitile, it won't do any of its many tasks very well... but it is interesting nonetheless.
Posted by Mark on January 21, 2004 at 06:08 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
I've noticed a trend in my writing, or, rather, the lack thereof. There are generally four venues in which I write, three of which are on the internet, and one of which is for my job. In the three internet venues, my production has started relatively high, and steadily decreased as time went on. (I suppose I should draw a distinction between writing and simple conversation. Email, for example, is not included as that does not represent the type of writing I'm talking about, though I do write a lot of email and email could possibly become a venue in the future.)
My job sometimes entails the writing of technical specifications for web applications, and this, at least, does not suffer from the same problem. It can be challenging at times, especially if I need to tailor them towards both a technical and non-technical audience, but for the most part it is a straightforward affair (it helps that they pay me too). Once I have all the information, resources, and approvals I need, the writing comes easy (well, I'm simplifying for the sake of discussion here, but you get the point).
This is in part because technical writing doesn't need to be compelling, which is where I stumble. It's also because collecting information and resources for this sort of thing is simpler and the information is easier to organize. I'm not especially articulate when it comes to expressing my thoughts and ideas. If I ever do it's only because I've spent an inordinate amount of time polishing the text (and if I don't, I'm in trouble, because I've spent an inordinate amount of time polishing the text). Hell, I tried to be organized and wrote a bit of an outline for this post, but I had trouble doing even that.
And, of course, I notice that I'm not following my outline either. But I digress.
The other three venues are my weblog (natch), Everything2, and various discussion forums.
This weblog has come a long way over the three and a half years since I started it, and at this point, it barely resembles what it used to be. I started out somewhat slowly, just to get an understanding of what this blogging thing was and how to work it (remember, this was almost four years ago and blogs weren't nearly as common as they are now), but I eventually worked up into posting about once a day, on average. At that time, a post consisted mainly of a link and maybe a summary or some short commentary. Then a funny thing happened, I noticed that my blog was identical to any number of other blogs, and thus wasn't very compelling. So I got serious about it, and started really seeking out new and unusual things. I tried to shift focus away from the beaten path and started to make more substantial contributions. I think I did well at this, but it couldn't really last. It was difficult to find the offbeat stuff, even as I poured through massive quantities of blogs, articles and other information (which caused problems of it's own). I slowed down, eventually falling into an extremely irregular posting schedule on the order of once a month, which I have since attempted to correct, with, I hope, some success. I recently noticed that I have been slumping somewhat, though I'm still technically keeping to my schedule.
During the period in which I wasn't posting much on the weblog, I was "noding" (as they call it) over at Everything2, which is a collaborative database project. There too, I started strong and have since petered out. However, similar to what happened in the weblog, the quality improved even as the quantity decreased. This is no coincidence. It takes longer to write a good node, so it makes sense that the quantity would be inversely proportional to the quality.
Of the three internet venues, discussion forums are the simplest as they are informal and require the least amount of vigor (and in that respect, they resemble email, but there is a small difference which we will come to in a bit). Even then, though, in certain forums I have noticed my production fall as well. These are predominantly debating forums where I was making some form of argument. What I found was that, as time went on, I tended to take the debates more seriously and thus I spent more time and effort on making sure my arguments were logically consistent and persuasive. And again, my posting at these forums has slowed considerably.
One other note about these three: it seems that at any given time, I am only significantly contributing to one of these three. When the blog posting slowed, I moved to E2, for example, and when that slowed down, I focused on the forums. Now that I've come back to the blog, the others have suffered. There are all sorts of reasons why writing slows that have nothing to do with the process of writing or choosing what to write, but I do think those things contribute as well.
In effect, this represents a form of self-censorship. I'm constantly evaluating ideas for inclusion in the weblog. Johnathon wrote about this a few weeks ago, and he put it well:
...having a weblog turns information overload into a two-way process: first you suck all this stuff into your head for processing; and then you regurgitate it as weblog posts. And, while this process isn't all that different from the ways in which we manipulate information in our jobs, it's something that we've chosen to do in addition to our jobs, something that detaches us even further from "real life". I suspect that the problem is compounded by the fact that weblog entries areoverwhelminglyexpressions of opinion and, to make it worse, many of the opinions are opinions about opinions on issues concerning which the opinionators have little, if any, firsthand knowledge or experience. Me included.As time goes on, my evaluation of what is blog-worthy has gotten more and more discriminating (as always, there are exceptions) and the quality has gone up. But, of course, the quantity has gone down.
Why? Why do I keep doing this? It is tempting to write it off as laziness, and that is no doubt part of it. It's not like it takes me a week to write a post or a node. At most, it takes a combined few hours.
Part of the problem is finding a few uninterrupted hours with which to compose something. In all of my writing endeavors, I've set the bar high enough that it requires too much time to do at once. When I didn't expect much out of myself on the blog or on E2, I could produce a lot more because the time required to do so was small enough that I could do so quickly and effectively. Back in the day, I could blog during my lunch break. I haven't been able to do that lately (as in, the past few years).
The natural solution to that is to split up writing sessions, and that is what I often do, but there are difficulties with that. First, it breaks concentration. Each writing session needs to start with several minutes of re-familiarizing with the subject. So even the sessions need to be reasonably large chunks of time. In addition, if these chunks are spread out too far, you run the risk of losing interest and motivation (and it takes longer to re-familiarize yourself too).
Motivation can be difficult to sustain, especially over long periods of time, which might also be the reason why I seem to rotate between the three internet venues.
There is an engineering proverb that says Fast, Good, Cheap - Pick two. The idea is that when you're tackling a project, you can't have all three. If you favor making a quality product in a short period of time, it is going to cost you. Similarly, if you need to do it on the cheap and also in a short period of time, you're not going to end up with a quality product. I think there might be some sort of corollary at work here, Quality, Quantity, Time - Pick Two. Meaning that if I want to write a high quality post in a relatively short period of time, the quantity will suffer. If I want a high quantity of posts that are also of a high quality, then it will take up a lot of my time. And so on...
This post was prompted by something Dave Rogers wrote a while back:
I find I have less to say about things these days. Often I feel the familiar urge to say something, but now I'm as likely to keep quiet as I am to speak up. This bothers me a little, because I've always felt it was important to speak up when you felt strongly about something. Now I'm not so sure about that.Despite all that I've said so far, I actually have been writing here for quite some time. Sure, I swap venues or slow down sometimes, but I have kept a relatively steady pace among them in the past few years. Dave's post made me wonder about why I want to write and what kept me writing. There are plenty of reasons, but one of the most important is that I am usually writing about things I don't know very well... and I learn from the experience. Blogging originally taught me to seek out and find things off the beaten path, Everything2 gave me an excuse to research various subjects and write about them (most of what I write there are called "factuals" - sort of like writing an encyclopedia entry), and the forums forced me to form an opinion and let it stand up to critical testing. I'm not exactly sure what it is I'm learning right now, but I'm enjoying myself.
Posted by Mark on January 20, 2004 at 08:31 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
To the Moon!
President Bush has laid out his vision for space exploration. Reaction has mostly been lukewarm. Naturally, there are opponents and proponents, but in my mind it is a good start. That we've changed focus to include long term manned missions on the Moon and a mission to Mars is a bold enough move for now. What is difficult is that this is a program that will span several decades... and several administrations. There will be competition and distractions. To send someone to Mars on the schedule Bush has set requires a consistent will among the American electorate as well. However, given the technology currently available, it might prove to be a wise move.
A few months ago, in writing about the death of the Galileo probe, I examined the future of manned space flight and drew a historical analogy with the pyramids. I wrote:
Is manned space flight in danger of becoming extinct? Is it worth the insane amount of effort and resources we continually pour into the space program? These are not questions I'm really qualified to answer, but its interesting to ponder. On a personal level, its tempting to righteously proclaim that it is worth it; that doing things that are "difficult verging on insane" have inherent value, well beyond the simple science involved.We should, and I'm glad we're orienting ourselves in this direction. Bush's plan appeals to me because of it's pragmatism. It doesn't seek to simply fly to Mars, it seeks to leverage the Moon first. We've already been to the Moon, but it still holds much value as a destination in itself as well as a testing ground and possibly even a base from which to launch or at least support our Mars mission. Some, however, see the financial side of things a little too pragmatic:
In its financial aspects, the Bush plan also is pragmatic -- indeed, too much so. The president's proposal would increase NASA's budget very modestly in the near term, pushing more expensive tasks into the future. This approach may avoid an immediate political backlash. But it also limits the prospects for near-term technological progress. Moreover, it gives little assurance that the moon-Mars program will survive the longer haul, amid changing administrations, economic fluctuations, and competition from voracious entitlement programs.There's that problem of keeping everyone interested and happy in the long run again, but I'm not so sure we should be too worried... yet. Wretchard draws an important distinction, we've laid out a plan to voyage to Mars - not a plan to develop the technology to do so. Efforts will be proceeding on the basis of current technology, but as Wretchard also notes in a different post, current technology may be unsuitable for the task:
Current launch costs are on the order of $8,000/lb, a number that will have to be reduced by a factor of ten for the habitation of the moon, the establishment of La Grange transfer stations or flights to Mars to be feasible. This will require technology, and perhaps even basic physics that does not even exist. Simply building bigger versions of the Saturn V will not work. That would be "like trying to upgrade Columbus?s Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria with wings to speed up the Atlantic crossing time. A jet airliner is not a better sailing ship. It is a different thing entirely." The dream of settling Mars must await an unforseen development.Naturally, the unforseen development is notoriously tricky, and while we must pursue alternate forms of propulsion, it would be unwise to hold off on the voyage until this development occurs. We must strike a delicate balance between the concentration on the goal and the means to achieve that goal. As Wretchard notes, this is largely dependant on timing. What is also important here is that we are able to recognize this development when it happens and that we leave our program agile enough to react effectively to this development.
Recognizing this development will prove interesting. At what point does a technology become mature enough to use for something this important? This may be relatively straightforward, but it is possible that we could jump the gun and proceed too early (or, conversely, wait too long). Once recognized, we need to be agile, by which I mean that we must develop the capacity to seamlessly adapt the current program to exploit this new development. This will prove challenging, and will no doubt require a massive increase in funding, as it will also require a certain amount of institutional agility - moving people and resources to where we need them, when we need them. Once we recognize our opportunity, we must pounce without hesitation.
It is a bold and challenging, yet judiciously pragmatic, vision that Bush has laid out, but this is only the first step. The truly important challenges are still a few years off. What is important is that we recognize and exploit any technological advances on our way to Mars, and we can only do so if we are agile enough to effectively react. Exploration of the frontiers is a part of my country's identity, and it is nice to see us proceeding along these lines again. Like the Egyptians so long ago, this mammoth project may indeed inspire a unity amongst our people. In these troubled times, that would be a welcome development. Though Europe, Japan, and China have also shown interest in such an endeavor, I, along with James Lileks, like the idea of an American being the first man on Mars:
When I think of an American astronaut on Mars, I can't imagine a face for the event. I can tell you who staffed the Apollo program, because they were drawn from a specific stratum of American life. But things have changed. Who knows who we'd send to Mars? Black pilot? White astrophysicist? A navigator whose parents came over from India in 1972? Asian female doctor? If we all saw a bulky person bounce out of the landing craft and plant the flag, we'd see that wide blank mirrored visor. Sex or creed or skin hue - we'd have no idea.Indeed.
Update 1.21.04: More here.
Posted by Mark on January 18, 2004 at 05:16 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 11, 2004
Update: Films I
Knock two off the list.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was pretty much what I thought it would be, a straightforward and all-around mediocre affair. Which is a shame, because the concept is so compelling. Much of the time is dedicated to action sequences which aren't bad, but don't really stand up to comparison with what's going on in the movie industry today (and the special effects were less than spectacular). What was really missing was characterization. One of the neat things about the League is that they all have skeletons in their closet, so to speak. We're only given a glimpse of that, just enough to piss me off. I guess I'll have to check out the comic book to see what can really be done with this concept...
This stands in stark contrast to my other viewing choice this weekend, Owning Mahowny. I originally described it as "Bank clerk played by Philip Seymour Hoffman takes on Vegas," but that isn't quite accurate. First, though he makes a few trips to Vegas, he spends most of his time in Atlantic City. Second, I should have said he takes on Atlantic City, and loses. This isn't what I thought it was going to be, but it was still very good. Rather than exciting gambling scenes where we get the inside scoop on how someone cheats the Casinos, we get a fascinating study of addiction. Such films aren't very pleasant to watch, in part because a happy ending is something of a cop-out, and Owning Mahowny doesn't (er, does?) disappoint. Worthy of a mention are the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the gambling addicted Mahowny, and John Hurt, who turns in a great performance as the slimy casino director who schemes to keep Mahowny gambling. A worthwhile movie, if you're into this sort of thing...
Posted by Mark on January 11, 2004 at 08:53 PM .: link :.
Thursday, January 08, 2004
Top 10 Movies I Haven't Seen This Year
I was reading this New Yorker piece about Top Ten Lists and I thought to myself, I should do a top ten list. Those who know me know I'm awful at this sort of thing, in that I have a hard time choosing favorites - especially when the options are varied and diverse. That said I'm usually able to pull it together for movies, if a little late (best of 2001 coming soon!). This year I find that I'm not sure I could compile a top 10 (possibly even a top 5), but that is at least in part due to the fact that I didn't see a lot of movies this year. It is also due to the fact that I didn't love a lot of the supposed "great" films this year. There were several films I considered to be really good and entertaining, but very few blew me away.
So instead of producing a substandard top 10 best films of 2003, I'm going to try something a little different. I tried to emphasize offbeat films in this list, though there are a few mainstream flicks in there as well. This means that several are foreign films, indy pics, or even documentaries. Also keep in mind that I haven't actually seen any of these films, so they're not really recommendations... just films I think sound interesting. Make of that what you will, and enjoy:
Top 10 Films I Should Have Seen in 2003
In no particular order*
Damn, that list filled up quickly. Honorable mention: Irreversible (described by James as "Memento on Heroin"), Capturing the Friedmans, Cold Mountain, Mystic River, The Fog of War, Elephant, Swimming Pool, Cabin Fever, Dirty Pretty Things, and Underworld.
Whew. I probably won't even get around to seeing all of these films, but they all seem interesting and at least worthy of consideration. Check them out if you're in the mood for something different... I know I will.
Update: Knock a few off the list...
Update: Oh damn! How could I forget Bubba Ho-Tep! Still not playing in Philly, but it appears to still be making the rounds, so I'm crossing my fingers...
Posted by Mark on January 08, 2004 at 08:05 PM .: link :.
Thursday, January 01, 2004
I'll be traveling this weekend,
I'll be traveling this weekend, so there will most likely be no new post on Sunday (as my schedule normally dictates). In the mean time, as always, there are other things to do at Kaedrin than just the blog. Check out the Tandem Stories for some interactive storytelling, or stop by and have a chat in the forum. There's lots of other stuff to do here at Kaedrin, so check it out if you're so inclined...
By the way, I am typing this post on Zempt, basically a local Movable Type client (running on Windows) that can interact with the Movable Type installation on my server. It has some nice features, including a much better entry GUI, but it is lacking in some things as well. It has some nice shortcuts for inserting code (links, bold, centering, etc...), a nice preview function, and (my favorite) a spellchecker. The interface is somewhat customizeable, but at the same time I rather like how the browser interface has all the post options visable on one screen. The options are easily accessed in Zempt, but the operation isn't quite intuitive. For instance, I don't know what will happen when I say "Publish New Post" here. I was playing around wiht this earlier, and wasn't acting the way I thought it would...
All in all, I like it, but I'm not sure it will completely overtake the standard browser interface. Then again, I'm using version 0.3 of Zempt, so perhaps the future releases will exceed expectations
Well, I'm off, have a good weekend, see you soon...
Update: Funny, the words "blog" and "Zempt" were not included in the dictionary for spellcheck...
Posted by Mark on January 01, 2004 at 01:42 PM .: link :.
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