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Ship_of_Fools,_Richard_Paul_Russo_(book_cover)

For many centuries, the starship Argonos, with thousands of people on board, has traveled between the stars looking for a planet to colonize. None has worked out. They never once encountered any alien civilization. About 275 years ago, there was a revolution on board which ultimately upset the balance of power and also destroyed the logs and records of the ship. Nobody knows how old the ship is, how long it has traveled, and where it has been.

Its society has fractured into the downsiders, those people born and living in the lower decks of the ship, where farming and labor takes place, and the upsiders, who are the crew, the educated and the religious elites. The Catholic church is strong and thriving. There is even a cathedral on board.

For the first time in recent memory, they find a planet that looks promising. They land to explore it, and in the process find a gruesome and shocking surprise. Eventually, a transmission from the planet into space leads the Argonos to an alien ship in deep space. They explore and find disconcerting evidence of what many call evil.

Bartolomeo Aguilera is the narrator of the story. He is the confidant of the captain of the Argonos, but an outsider in general, disliked by the elite as well as the workers. Through his narration we learn about the realities of life on the ship, where everyone on board was born on board and has lived their entire lives on board. They know no other life. The church teaches that the ship has existed forever.

I loved the first half of Ship of Fools. The story of the lives of the inhabitants is engaging and thought-provoking. I didn’t care much for the endless sections of religious exposition. The bishop of the Argonos and one of its priests are major protagonists, and their points of view and dialog keeps drawing the story into religious confusion and anachronisms.

When the ship reaches the alien vessel, the story becomes boring and pointless, and the climax really never gets resolved. There are two threads to the ending, and neither is completed. Perhaps the author wanted to set us up for a sequel. This was written in 2001, and it’s now 2015, and there isn’t one.

I had this book at three stars or above, until the second half just took a nosedive and left everything just – uninteresting.

Nevertheless, for lovers of generation ship stories, it is still a must-read.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

Bush and Clinton

It looks like there is a good chance that we’ll have a choice between a Bush and a Clinton in the 2016 election for president.

I was 24 when the first Bush became vice president and 32 when he became president. Until the last few years, I have spent my adult life with a Bush or a Clinton in the White House. At this rate, and the way it looks, I will spend my retirement years with a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.

Out of 330 million people, this is the best we can come up with?

We have a political elite in this country that buys elections. It’s an oligarchy.

And we, the voters, don’t seem to mind.

Jealous Siri

When I found this random funny post it occurred to me that anthropomorphism has taken on a whole new dimension in the last few years.

It started many years ago, when many of my readers weren’t born yet, when telephone answering machines became popular. The machines had little tape decks in them and callers could record messages. I remember people telling me they didn’t leave me messages because they “didn’t want to talk to a machine.” My response was always: “It’s not a machine, it’s me listening to your voice hours later. You’re not talking to anyone.”

But when humans talk, and when machines talk back, something happens in the human brain that anthropomorphizes the machine. We have all had the experience “talking” to a machine voice when we call our credit card company. We get frustrated when it doesn’t understand we don’t want one of its standard options.

Note how I used the pronoun it and not she, even though the voice is almost always female and seemingly always the same one.

The most famous talking machine is Siri, Apple’s trademark voice on its phones. Siri undeniably does more than talk. The image above is testimony to that. When we talk about Siri, invariably we talk about what she said, not what it – the machine – said. “Maybe you should ask Cortana for the movie times” is not something a machine would come up with, or so our brains reason, and we think of Siri as a person sitting somewhere just waiting for us to task her questions through our smart phones.

I use Google Maps for directions, and I use its voice feature. All is well when it tells me to turn left or right and leads me to my destination. However, if I decide to turn into the local supermarket to get a bottle of water and a candy bar along the way, it freaks out. It wants me to make a U-turn as soon as possible. It suddenly directs me around the block on side roads so I can get back to the main road where I should be. The chatter becomes annoying. I wish it had a “snooze” button that I could tap indicating, “yes, I know I am off course, but I just need to do this little thing before we can be on our way again.” I am sure somebody is working on that feature. But the overriding “feeling” I have when this happens is guilt. I feel like I am failing and the Google Maps program is frustrated with me that I am not getting it.

I have also felt bad for Siri when I have asked it questions repeatedly. Say I am looking for a Starbucks and it gives me a list of destinations, and I inadvertently pick the wrong one in the list and I can’t get back to the original list. Rather than navigating back, it’s easier to just invoke Siri afresh and start over again. After doing that three of four times I have found myself feeling awkward. What must it be thinking? That I am an idiot?

I have also noticed that I have the propensity to treat Siri with respect. I have said “please” and “thank you” before for its favors. I don’t like to ask the same question more than one time, and I don’t want to ask questions that it might think are stupid.

The borders between machines and humans are blurring.

What do you think, R2D2?

 

Some of our deepest emotions are associated with giving. I can remember two extreme situations associated with giving and not giving that I will always remember, because the emotions associated with them were so intense at the time.

The first is about giving. I have this personal rule to give a dollar to a panhandler when I pull up next to one in my car holding his “Hungry, Please Help” cardboard sign. I keep a stash of one-dollar bills in my car just for that purpose. To that effect, I remember the day I rode my bicycle in San Diego on the 21st birthday of my daughter. This was over 9 years go. I had a quiet private day of celebrations. It was a Sunday, and I went for an afternoon bike ride. I came across a middle-aged female panhandler on a street corner holding up a sign. Being on a bike, I could not easily stop and rummage through my pouch to find a dollar, so I coasted past her. I didn’t get very far before I realized that in order to celebrate my day, I really should give her some money. So I pulled over, found my wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. I wanted to make a difference for her that afternoon. I turned around and looped back, so I could pass her again. She probably didn’t even notice it was my second time, but this time I was ready. I slowed down to a walking pace, held out the bill in my right hand, and gave it to her. I never stopped or looked back. When I came back the same way 15 minutes later she was no longer there.

I still remember giving that twenty more than giving anything else specifically. It was a good day, and giving more than normal under the circumstances just felt really good.

The next memory is about not giving. Recently it was girl scout cookie season. I love girl scout cookies. Sometimes a colleague, who has a daughter in scouts, brings a stash to the office, and I always buy some. I also buy them in front the supermarkets, when the girls sell them. My favorite are the Samoas, but I would buy any of them. I believe in girl scout programs.

A few months ago, on a sunny and warm Sunday afternoon, I fell asleep reading on the living room couch. It was one of those deep sleeps that results in disorientation. When that happens to me, it takes a little bit of time to wake up before I can function normally again. Suddenly the door bell rang. Our door bell never rings. I almost didn’t register it, but then I got up and stumbled to the front door and opened it. I was half-way still in slumberland. A little girl, maybe six years old, greeted me with a big smile: “Do you want to buy some girl scout cookies?” About six feet behind her stood her mother, next to the pull cart with the wares. Befuddled, and not really comprehending the situation in my sleep, I simply said: “No!” and started closing the door again. I remember seeing the dark shadow falling quickly over the girl’s face, and I saw her mother’s disappointment in me in her eyes, all in a one quarter second moment after my “No!”

The door was closed, and I ambled back to the couch to proceed with the task of waking up, when it hit me. I had just so “not made” this girl’s day. I had been incredibly rude. The little girl didn’t know I was asleep. The mother didn’t know. I felt like running after them to apologize. I went out to the garden gate and looked, but they had already moved on, one direction or the other down the street, by the time I was collected enough, with some cash in hand, for my quest for girl scout cookies.

I hope she has long forgotten me, but I’ll probably never forget the dark, disappointed look of rejection on the little girl’s face.

And that’s what I have to say about the emotions of giving or not giving.

Crappiest Websites

[click to enlarge]

I don’t use Facebook much. I publish my blog posts there, let them linger for a few days, before I delete those posts again. I check what some of my friends, those whose threads I have not turned off, are up to.

On the first page of the timeline, there is usually some teaser with a picture and some fact that I might be interested in. When I click on those teasers, they bring me to an aggregator site like “odometer” above that shows the picture that was featured, usually one of multiple pages, followed by some text and a Previous and Next button.

Often these buttons are hard to find amongst the other buttons that litter the page, arrows that are simply advertisement hooks. The site is so sluggish that it hardly works, because it is packed with crappy advertisements that nobody is interested in, and the advertisements, should I click on one of them, lead to more such crappy pages full of ads.

Check out the above example. I was interested in the series about fun facts associated with the SR-71 airplane. But it teases me on the right with “Watch What Happens when you have Big Accessories.” Good thing I resisted to find out what the big accessories were. I am sure they were not what the picture suggested. I could not help noticing the Zero G boobs of Hot Kate Upton, and even there I resisted.

There are many such sites that are full of bad, annoying ads that make the sites virtually unusable. I have learned to detect them on Facebook and avoid them.

Is this how Facebook makes its money? Is this why Facebook is worth several hundred billion dollars? Because it provides a free site that bombards us with  useless, annoying advertisements? What happened to good old honest work in America to make money?

Time to hit Publish on this post and slave it over to Facebook.

I am sure this slows down bikers!

Slow Bikers

[don’t have photo credit]

Lamp

[Photo Credit: Jennifer Schlick]

Non-Stop - Aldiss

In the twenty-second century, humanity sends a ship to the fifth planet of Procyon, the eighth brightest star in the night sky, in the constellation Canis Minor. Evidence suggests that the planet is Earth-like.

Procyon is 11.5 light years away, so the trip is a one-way endeavor for the colonists on board. As a matter of fact, it will take six generations of humans before those that will actually land on the target planet are born. Imagine if a ship had left at the time Lincoln was president, and it would now arrive!

Conditions on the ship would likely be very different from those when the trip started. What would descendants six generations hence think of the original mission? Would they even remember?

Roy Complain is a hunter. He lives in the lower regions of the ship. There are 84 decks, and the lower decks are called the “Quarters”, the middle decks the “Deadways” and the upper 30 or so the “Forwards.” The Quarters are overgrown with hydroponics, plants out of control permeating the corridors, rooms and compartments. Humans live in tribes, defending themselves with primitive weapons, hunting feral animals and gathering plants to survive. Constants strife between tribes on different decks and in different areas of the ship makes life challenging and dangerous. When Roy’s partner dies, presumably after not coming back from a hunting trip, he and a small group of friends start on a journey into the unknown, through the mythical Deadways, on to the Forwards that nobody really knows actually exist. Roy and his companions don’t know there is a universe outside their cramped, mechanized and overgrown little world.

Non-Stop is a phenomenal generation ship novel, written in 1958, when the only comparable work around was Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, which only scratches the surface of the depth a generation ship story can provide. It is difficult to write about this novel meaningfully without spoilers. So I will stop here.

The beginning and middle of the book is somewhat slow at times, and the details tend to get tedious. There are a few hokey concepts, like intelligent rats and telepathic rabbits, but those don’t get in the way. But let me tell you this: Read Non-Stop from the beginning to the end, and then, when you are done, and you figure out what’s actually going on, you’ll want to start at the beginning once again.

Non-Stop is a powerful, compelling and thought-provoking generation ship story.

Rating - Three Stars

 

The DropBob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) is a lonely bartender in the grungy underworld of Brooklyn. His employer is “Cousin Marv” (James Gandolfini) who is doing shady deals on the side. One night the bar gets robbed and things go awry quickly. Bob finds himself entangled in the investigation, both by the authorities, as well as the local gangsters.

The Drop is a crime drama. The movie is James Gandolfini’s final film and was met with positive reviews for Gandolfini’s performance. The Tomatometer lists it with an 89%. His character, Marv, dies in The Drop. Gandolfini died of a heart attack shortly after the movie was finished during a vacation in Rome, Italy, at the age of 51.

The general theme of life in the underworld of New York has been portrayed in many movies. This one features pretty strong acting by some of the protagonists, but it’s also a confusing story. I am not versed with underworld and mob dealings, so maybe that’s why I had a hard time following what was going on.

The entire story plays in a gritty and most depressing environment. There is not a happy face in this story, ever, there is not a blade of green in this winter in Brooklyn, all the locales are decrepit and depressing. No wonder crime flourishes. There is nothing else.

Watching The Drop left me confused because I didn’t quite get the plot, and depressed. Maybe that was its objective. But I can’t rate it higher than one and a half stars – I wouldn’t want you to watch this and get depressed, too.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

You can sail from the west coast of Canada in a straight line around the world and arrive on the east coast of Canada.

This is pretty tough to watch.

A random traffic stop turns into a police assault on two teenagers. No Miranda rights read. The crime? The police smell marijuana in the car.

Then the police take the recording and delete it.

Read the details on the Free Thought Project.

Last Saturday, an unarmed man was pulled over by a cop for a broken tail light. Within a few minutes, he was executed.

Dead.

It doesn’t really matter why he was pulled over. It doesn’t really matter that he ran away when the cop checked on the car. It doesn’t really matter that he was black and the cop was white.

It matters that he is now dead.

Regardless of the crime – if there was any crime at all – he deserved his day in court, he deserved a jury, he deserved a sentence.

The cop had no right to execute him on the spot.

It’s called murder.

Rhea and Dione

[click to enlarge] Credit: NASA JPL Photojournal

A photograph taken by the Cassini space craft orbiting Saturn. Above is the south pole of Saturn’s moon Rhea (about 1,528 kilometers diameter) and in the background the moon Dione (1,123 kilometers diameter), with its southern part covered by Saturn’s rings, seen almost edge on, in front of Dione.

What a time we live in where we can see crystal clear images of moons of Saturn and its rings!

More information at photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov.

Norbert Haupt:

Here is a good article on the water problem in California. I have used the almond as an example. However, we grow rice, alfalfa, walnuts, and many other nuts and vegetables, all needing immense amounts of water. No – we can’t stop agriculture, of course not. But water should be traded like any commodity on the free market. If water were more expensive, we would not grow rice in California so we can ship it to Asia. That makes no sense.

Originally posted on Grist:

Almonds have become the poster-nut for human wastefulness in California’s drought. If you’ve been paying attention to the drought coverage, you’ve already seen the statistics repeated over and over: It takes a gallon of water to grow an almond, and almond orchards comprise 10 percent of our water consumption.

And I get it. I live in California, and it’s a little freaky right now. We’ve entered uncharted territory: Never in our history have we gotten this dry. There’s an innate urge to seek out a villain — you know, put up the bat signal, catch the bad guy, and live happily ever after.

The first problem with this reasoning, as Alissa Walker points out in this piece, is that it’s arbitrary. Almonds (“THE DEVIL’S NUT” as she has it) are nowhere near the most water-hungry crop — in fact many farmers have switched to almonds from cotton, which requires slightly more water. But…

View original 631 more words

orphans of the skyAfter reading a science fiction book centered around the concept of a ramjet ship that could travel close to light speed (Tau Zero), I decided to go back to another favorite subject: generation ships. About three years ago to the day, I read Lungfish by John Brunner. This time I went back to one of the all-time classic authors: Robert Heinlein and his tale Orphans of the Sky.

The story takes place on a starship that has been en route so long, for so many generations, that Earth is a distant legend, the crew has forgotten why they are there and the entire universe they know about is the inside of the ship. Legends have developed around their mission, and religions have formed based on the old legends.

The ship is very old, and many sections have long been abandoned. Radiation damage has caused many births with deformities. The crew has realized that they can’t allow the mutants to live. However, over the centuries, mutants have escaped and reproduced on their own. They are called the “muties” and they live in the upper reaches of the ship, while the crew lives in the lower decks, and the two don’t really mix. If they do, it usually ends up in death for one or the other side.

One of the young crew members, Hugh, is adventurous and makes friends with the muties. Eventually he finds out more and more about the truth of the ship, its mission, and the reality of what the universe really is – not just a ship. He meets severe resistance from the ship’s political establishment and leadership. But eventually he sets in motion events that impact the entire ship.

Heinlein, true to his style, builds the story and the characters, and immerses the reader in the little universe that is the ship. Unfortunately, it all falls apart in the last 10% of the book. The ending, the solution, is completely inconsistent with the beginning and main body of the story and seems more of a deus ex machina solution to the plot than a real possibility. Orphans of the Sky is only 209 pages long, but could easily have been twice as long. The author could have built out the ending to a point where it made sense. The last 10 pages are completely unsatisfactory and unrealistic – and unfortunately they leave the lasting impression for the whole book – a good, fascinating concept, done haphazardly. It’s like Heinlein lost interest in the end and tried to wrap it up as quickly as he could.

If you like generation ship stories, this is still a must-read.

Rating - Two Stars

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