Author Archive: Jim Razinha
Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.
I read an interesting article today by Salon contributor Paul Lafarge on Why the book’s future never happened. Lafarge was referring to hypertext fiction, a non-linear “literature” that apparently was ahead of its time. When technology caught up, the genre was OBE (overcome by events ) and made obsolete like a four track tape (my father had a player and about 15 tape…superseded almost immediately by the eight track) by the Internet. Or maybe not. Read the article and decide for yourself.
I investigated a little hypertext fiction and found it to be quite irritating. Perhaps it was only the non-linearity … when I read fiction, I like it to flow (do not confuse “flow” with “stream of consciousness”). But I don’t think so. The links in the examples I saw seemed to be only links for the sake of linking…adding no value to the story, no continuation of the context. Bizarre plot devices are usually not received well anyway, so my annoyance with the hypertext genre of fiction is not surprising. I did find some of the comments to Lafarge’s article informative, so I encourage you to drill down.
I don’t know if hypertext is the future of fiction, but electronic books seem to be. I love printed books – clearly, as I/we own more than 5500 of them. But I recently (late to the game as always) inherited my wife’s iPad after she bought an iPad 2 and have discovered the convenience of electronic books. I read a few on my iPhone, but the seven or so page flicks to read a single page of printed text tends to tedium. A few folks I know have Kindles or Nooks that they like (my wife uses the Kindle app on her iPad), but I’m pleased to have an ebook reader and the other features of the tablet. I can take a few moments at any point of the day to read a couple of pages or sit down and read an entire book without having to carry the hard copy…unless I want to. I miss Borders, and hope other chains don’t die, but I’m liking the technological alternative.
I find one feature of the ebook reader I’ve settled on particularly useful. When I read a book to learn something, I like to make notes but too often never go back to them, as I’m reading new books and making more notes. With the electronic version, I can highlight the text or drop a bookmark and the reader keeps track of them for me. I’ve reloaded a couple of books I deleted after reading when I discovered that…embarrassing, as I’m usually pretty savvy with those things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could use the technology to even more of my advantage.
So, I’m not going to call myself a convert because I will always treasure the feel of paper in hand, but I foresee continuing to enjoy the benefits of electronic versions of books. I just wish my various apps I like to use could each see the others’ books. I like the some of the features of one, some of another, but iTunes and the brilliance (snort) of the iOS folks forces me to load multiple copies of a book to each app if I want to read it in more than one. Not the only flaw that annoys me, but one that pertains to this post…
Happy reading. However you manage it.
A few weeks ago, I found a treasure at a used bookstore: a copy of Tom Peters’s 1997 book “The Circle of Innovation” – with an extra treasure – the signature of the author). The book is filled with quotes to punctuate Peters’s themes. One in particular resonated with me:
Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.
– Steve Jobs [pre-iPod, pre-iPhone, pre-iPad]
Jobs was talking about art, poetry, history. Peters tied the quote to the Mac (I have all three of the above gadgets, but I’ve sampled the Mac Kool-Aid and the lingering cyanide taste was too much for me) and the mixing of artists with engineers to create the Mac and its operating system. Despite that, it’s still brilliant.
It struck a chord because I’ve recently gotten a baptism by immersion in the art world. Now that we’ve stopped moving and have established a presence here in North Texas, my wife last year took her art from “interests” to “profession”. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of new and different – for her and me. In that short time, she’s explored a variety of media (requiring reconfiguration of the garage – uh, studio – several times) and done things she never dreamed of being able to do. Shameless plug here: check out her website and you’ll understand the multiple reconfigs I’ve had to facilitate (drill deep – there is a lot there and all produced in just the last year and a half.) Collateral to this evolution, this spring she was elected president of one of the art associations she joined and just two weeks ago became the publisher of a fine art engagement book. Now she’s attending exhibition openings and receptions to support the artists of the association, network with sponsors of the book, scout out art for the book, and simply enjoy the art. And unless I have something more pressing, I am also going to these openings. We went to two last Friday night and have another tomorrow night.
I have worked with architects, engineers and contractors for nearly 20 years, managing the design and construction of all manner of facilities. As more than 18 of those years were in the public sector (15+ federal – military, 3+ municipal), function over form was unfortunately a primary design consideration. Where form did come into play, it was usually a more decorative stone face instead of some brick. Too often, I was working with budgets set down four to five or more years earlier, and in some cases with unchangeable scopes of work – the military construction (MILCON) program is rather rigid in that respect to ensure what is authorized is built (getting permission and funding for one thing but building another is verbotten). You can imagine that the crystal ball gets a little foggy out that far. And, by the time you get the funding to design and build, the budgets are usually too little to do what is needed, requiring creative scope cutting to get the most product for the buck. And that is why almost no federal, and very few municipal buildings are anything other than sterile designs that serve a functional and nearly never a visual need.
So you can probably see why architect Thomas Heatherwick, and his firm Heatherwick Studio are such a treat for me. His designs are visually stunning, incredibly creative and are slap-the-forehead wake-ups to what we should be able to do at no more cost than traditional design. I was amazed at the very innovative solution to a common construction requirement (no spoiler…it’s at the 4 minute point in the video), and even more amazed at the focus of his talk: the British contribution to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the Seed Cathedral. Imagine deliberately designing a building with 60,000 penetrations…and then making it work.
Thirty years ago, give or take, I read Lucifer’s Hammer (by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) for the first time. Published in 1977, it has a few dated elements, but apart from those, it holds its own in my mind. The novel describes a near future after a comet hits the Earth. I enjoyed it, but one very small reference stcuk in my head.
One of the characters has a library (that he preserves from the anarchy) and the one book he takes as currency to the outpost central to the novel is “Volume Two of The Way Things Work.” Google “The Way Things Work” now, and you’ll likely find mostly hits on David Macaulay’s illustrated book. Nice…and informative, but not the one Niven and Pournelle were talking about.
I searched for years, pre-internet, before finding my copy. It’s an eighth edition of the one originally published in 1963 by Simon and Schuster; subtitled “An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology.” It’s a single volume, not two, and although also dated (vacuum tubes), it is still an enormous, condensed wealth of knowledge. I’m not an end-of-the-world type person, but I have several survival books of this nature (Back to Basics, The American Boys’ Handybook, etc.) for my children and descendants…just in case. Not in case of the end of the world, but in case they get stranded or what have you.
Driving around to look in on various construction projects today, I listened to a few TED videos and one, very short by TED 18 minute standards, conveyed in four minutes one of the more amazing ideas I’ve seen at TED, host of hundreds of amazing ideas.
Marcin Jakubowski, a Polish American with a PhD in fusion physics, founded Open Source Ecology, “home of the Global Village Construction Set, developing community-based solutions for re-inventing local production” after starting a farm. I’ll let him describe what he’s done:
I’m adding this to my various “Way Things Work” works. It’s free, brilliant, full of maker ideals, and can deliver affordable technology to the world. Maybe I’ll even be able to contribute.
Mr. Edgar says:
The Super PAC launched Thursday by the satirist Stephen Colbert and blessed by the Federal Election Commission is a terrible idea.
It makes a mockery of our campaign finance laws, inviting politicians of all stripes to launch their own Super PAC-linked TV “news” shows and then use those programs to raise buckets of money from corporations, labor unions and other special interests.
It’s the sort of thing Common Cause has always been against. We hate it.
And it’s positively brilliant!
But “…inviting politicians … to launch their own… TV ‘news’ shows…”??? What if we flip it, and TV “news” shows launch their own politicians?
Uh, oh. Too late.
As I approach my 50th birthday, I’ve been having fun coming up with various lists of 50 things – 50 people I want to meet, 50 sitcoms I’ve watched at some time in my lifetime, 50 quotes I like, etc.
Among the lists of lists, I gen’d up two of books I want to read (50 is far too small a number for either list, but it fits with the age thing): 50 books I own that I have yet to read – I have many, many more than that, and 50 books that I do not own that I want to read. Of course, if I ever read any of them, I will likely find myself adding to my library (no surprise there).
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku happened to be first on my list of books that I do not own that I wanted to read. I picked it up last Monday when returning A Confederacy of Dunces to the library. I hadn’t planned on getting it – I was only looking to see if it was in – but was taken in immediately by the subtitle: “A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel”. Not unlike Star Trek – I’m Working On That by William Shatner and Chip Walter, the book promised a survey of science fiction concepts becoming a reality, but very unlike Shatner’s book, here was a theoretical physicist doing the looking and explaining why something could not be done or how it might.
It’s a rare scientist (or engineer for that matter) who is truly respected by his/her peers for research results/theories who can also communicate to the masses. Richard Dawkins certainly made that leap (his early books are more academic than his later works). When it comes to physicists, I think the pool shrinks. Stephen Hawking did a marvelous job conveying cosmological concepts in his books, as did Brian Greene – though Green’s books, while quite readable, are still fairly technical for the average person.
Michio Kaku writes a very readable book…for a physicist who is the co-founder of string field theory. Perhaps that is an unfair qualification. I have known many physicists who are wonderful conversationalists, but I don’t know if they are so because I am interested in their subjects or that they are simply wonderful conversationalists with everyone. Regardless, Kaku writes as one of those wonders. Peppered throughout this book are references to other books (a lot of fiction), a few movies, some history of the people and science behind the science. Those may make Kaku more accessible to the average reader, but I think it just shows that he has a life outside of theoretical physics.
In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku looks at science fiction to see what might possibly become science fact. He breaks down his subjects into three classes of impossibilities:
- Technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate known laws of physics and may be possible in some form in this or the next century (these are force fields, phasers, Death Stars, ETs and UFOs, teleportation, starships/antimatter engines, antimatter universes and certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility.)
- Technologies that “sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.” They may not be possible at all, and if so, will likely only be possible thousands or millions of years in the future (these are time machines, hyperspace and wormhole travel as forms of travel faster than light, and parallel universes.)
- Technologies that violate the known laws of physics, which if possible, will result in a fundamental shifting of understanding of physics (Kaku notes there are surprisingly few such impossibilities, examining only perpetual motion machines and precognition).
Of course, one should read the book before thinking that Star Trek’s transporters, phasers, warp engines, or shields (force fields) could ever become a reality. I won’t spoil your read by revealing what the “certain forms” might be, but you can guess that Dr. McCoy won’t be complaining about having his atoms scattered across the universe for many centuries to come.
I was intrigued by Kaku’s discussions of what one would call paranormal, but after he gently observes that there has never been any real evidence for telepathy, psychokinesis or precognition, he explains the physics behind how one might be able to realize a part of the first two (precognition violates the known laws of the universe, thus cannot be performed through any technology…but is not completely impossible.) I liked his summary of science and psychokinesis:
One problem with analyzing psychokinesis scientifically is that scientists are easily fooled by those claiming to have psychic power. Scientists are trained to believe what they see in the lab. Magicians claiming psychic powers, however, are trained to deceive others by fooling their visual senses.
He’s fair where research has had some seemingly positive findings, but does note that “fully half” of the successful trial of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Program “originated from a single individual” and that the results are always non-reproducible.
The lesson here is that while almost nothing is impossible (what scientists really mean is that these ideas are impossible for primitives such as us), the technology needed to overcome the impossible is impossibly advanced.
So, I strike one from one list and add at least seven, as I now want to read Kaku’s other books. I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible as a diversion from the contemporary news.
On my way home tonight, I listened to NPR’s Andrea Seabrook talk about “Politicians And Their Wives: What’s Fair Game?”
I recalled a political science class from the early 1980s and a professor who was examining the dignity of the office of Presidency…and how it was eroding. He related how when FDR got out of a vehicle, the media would turn their heads, examine their nails, look up at the birds, point their cameras away until he got in his chair and covered his legs. Regardless of the words, accusations, criticisms in print, the visual privacy – and dignity – was preserved.
I also recalled the (comical to me at the time) formal morning coat of the 1981 inauguration, as Reagan wanted to restore the dignity that supposedly was lost when Carter walked the parade route and had a “People’s Inauguration.”
I imagine the professor mentioned above would have been appalled at the television coverage of Reagan’s colon polyps a few years later and probably outraged at the media of today.
So what changed?
[More . . . ]
I watched Anil Ananthaswamy’s TED talk video “What it takes to do extreme astrophysics” last Sunday. I thought he was eloquent and passionate. Intrigued by his way with words, I picked up his book – The Edge of Physics, on which his talk was based – from the local library the next day. I now need to add it to my own.
Ananthaswamy has created a fascinating survey of history and extraordinary efforts of today’s cosmologists to uncover the knowledge of the origins and the fundamental structure of the universe. It’s a quick read, even though I found myself pausing to seek out (and read) Hubble’s 1929 paper “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae”; Ostriker, Peebles and Yahil’s 1974 paper “The Size and Mass of Galaxies, and the Mass of the Universe” and to look up where these researchers are working. I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative and particularly the composition of the book. Ananthaswamy’s wonderful story has exquisite descriptions of the exotic and dangerous locations where the investigative scientists have found the “environmentally silent” conditions necessary to the detection of theorized particles and energy or of nearly unimpeded observation of the universe. Transitioning smoothly from optical cosmology to detection of neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, Higgs bosons and more, Ananthaswamy excels at simplifying complex subjects, his narrative interwoven with the history of the building blocks leading to the current competing theories.
As an engineer, I wonder how knowing the nature of dark matter or the validation of supersymmetry or superstring theories is useful; or more practically, how that knowledge can be used. But as a former physics major who never lost interest in the subject, I love the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t matter if it can be used for anything practical.
I was asked in another thread what I might consider literature (with a capital “L”)…I’m thinking The Edge of Physics qualifies for me.
If you’ve lived in or spent any significant time in another country, you might have had to answer questions about why your country was doing certain things on the world stage. And if you took time to think of who was asking and how things appeared from their perspectives, your answer might be different than if you spent your life wearing parochial blinders.
I was in Korea when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. I couldn’t answer the questions like, “Why is the U.S. doing that?” or the more common one, “Why are Bush and Cheney doing that?” And these from a country that enjoys (not universally) a U.S. presence and strong relationship with the U.S. I couldn’t answer not just because I was in the military for part of the time I was there, but also that I tried to understand how things looked from outside the U.S. I was, after all, a guest in their country.
Sam Richards, in this TED Talk titled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy” illustrates a message that I think that every single American needs to hear, whether xenophobic or not. I’ve lived all over the U.S. and I am continually saddened, if no longer surprised at how Americans view the world. “Speak English!” “But you’re in our country.” “Speak English anyway.” I am also saddened that I know many people that will not understand this video, which is all the more disappointing because despite my other challenges regarding the nature of humans though their arts, I do.
The message is simple: Step out of your tiny world and understand the larger world differently.
It should open some eyes. I really hope it does.