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VesselAn unidentified object appears next to the International Space Station. The astronauts and cosmonauts on board are first fascinated, soon confused, and soon after stark raving mad.

Mission control is trying to make sense of it.

The beginning of the book is gripping and the free sample got me to buy the rest. But unfortunately, as the story progresses, it feels like the author loses more and more interest in the story and the plot fizzles into gibberish.

While this sounds like a science fiction story, it actually plays in today’s world and environment, all the way to the fact that the only access for humans to the space station is via the Russian Soyuz ship. The problem is that the story just makes no sense after a while.

Warning: Spoilers after this marker.

A government conspiracy is centered around an American major general who takes control of the Russian space program (somehow) and nobody seems to object. This American general also seems to be acting on his own, he goes rogue, kills people, reassigns space missions at will, without any assistance from anyone.

There is so much goofy stuff happening in this story that it’s completely implausible and therefore unreal. The alien artifact is neither explained nor does it seem to have any function other than causing psychological trauma in all humans that get near it. In the end, it conveniently disappears. I read the whole book to find out what it was and why it was there. I could have stopped reading half way through and not missed anything.

It was an unsatisfying story all the way around.

The half-star is for a good idea.

Rating - Half a Star

Still AliceAlice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a renowned professor of cognitive science and linguistics. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a successful physician. They have three grown kids, stellar careers and an exciting future ahead of them. Suddenly Alice notices that she forgets words.

She has herself checked out and is diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Everything comes crashing down. Her struggle, her fight for the normalcy of her life, is frightening.

I have often worried about my memory. It used to be almost infallible, and I could memorize anything I wanted to: long lists of items in the military, poems, songs, foreign vocabulary and speeches in Toastmasters. After turning 50, I found that occasionally I can’t even remember names of famous actors, like – Alec Baldwin. The names would be ‘on the tip of my tongue’ but nonetheless completely inaccessible. This was a frightening discovery and it has often given me reason to pause.

Watching Still Alice reminded me of this sign of aging that we all eventually experience. Our bodies can’t do what they used to be able to, and the same happens to our minds. For most of us.

For Alice, however, the diagnosis is unforgiving. She knows she is sinking into the abyss of losing her memory, her cognition, and in the process – herself. This movie is about how she deals with it.

Frightening, that’s the word that comes to mind. Frightening.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

Looking at this picture of a baby Blue Heron illustrates for me that birds are closely related to and descendants of dinosaurs.

Baby Blue Heron

[picture credit: imgur]

 

PIA07786_modest

[Photocredit: NASA]

This picture shows the tiny Saturn moon Epimetheus (116 km) and giant Titan (5,150 km) together with the A and F rings of Saturn.

I remember when I was about ten years old, I had a book about the solar system, and one section was dedicated to the planet Saturn. At that time we only knew about eight or nine moons circling Saturn, and any photos of the planet were grainy and dull. Yet, they were all we had.

Today, the Cassini spacecraft is in orbit around Saturn, constantly sending back dramatic photos of various moons and sections of the rings in high-resolution. We have eyes right inside the Saturnian system and we can see its wonders from a close-up vantage point.

When the ten-year-old me thought about the moons of Saturn, he never expected to see them like this – ever.

What a fascinating age we live in!

 

True Friends

A few weeks ago I visited a close friend from my childhood (PG). True friends last forever and think alike.

True Friends

Ex Machina

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at a fictional Internet search engine firm that performs 94% of all searches on the Internet. Its supposedly brilliant founder and CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is a recluse who lives alone in a vast high-tech mountain estate somewhere in Alaska or Canada.

Caleb wins a competition to spend a week at the estate with Nathan. His task is to perform the famed Turing Test on Nathan’s latest creation in artificial intelligence.

The Turing Test was developed by Alan Turing to determine if a machine is truly intelligent. A human asks the machine questions and the machine answers. If the human cannot tell whether the entity answering the questions is a human or a machine, the machine has passed the test.

The machine, in this movie, is a female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb starts questioning Ava, the two quickly form a relationship well beyond the confines of the Turing Test. Caleb and Nathan soon discover that Ava truly seems to have a mind of its own.

As a computer scientist with keen interest in artificial intelligence dating back decades, I felt this movie was a must-see. I enjoyed the visuals of the concepts of future humanoid robots, even though they were purposely sexualized and in that regard somewhat one-dimensional. The movie’s rating system indicated graphic nudity. I think that label is somewhat over the top. So there are naked-girl robots. The fact that this alone seems to have driven the R-rating of the movie to prevent viewing by a younger audience is disappointing to me. The Internet itself is much more full of graphic nudity than this harmless movie.

For me, the story was way too contrived. I enjoyed the speculation about artificial intelligence and the future of robotic technology. I do not understand why the story had to take place in a high-tech concrete and glass castle in the mountains without any caretakers. Where are the cooks, maids, cleaners, and maintenance people? The whole location seems to have been built to give the Nathan character more mystique. Unfortunately, to me, that character was flawed. Nathan didn’t strike me as a tech genius in any way. He appeared to be a self-absorbed drunk. It didn’t seem realistic that he had created Ava and the other models all by himself in his high tech lab. He was never working. He was always too busy looking mysterious and aloof.

There are only four characters in the movie, discounting the helicopter pilot. With one of the characters, to my perception, being so unreal, the film seemed out of balance. Since it consists mostly of cerebral dialog, with little action, other than sexual titillation by the naked robots, the movie was actually quite boring to me. Most of the time, I struggled to keep from falling asleep. The last ten minutes are clever and captured my attention, and the premise and plot, in the end, made sense. If it hadn’t been for the last ten minutes, I would have given this zero stars. Zzzzzz.

My rating for this movie is quite low, in stark contrast with the general rating and reviews for this film. Cool idea, neat concept, striking sexy robots, but dull and flawed story with one-dimensional humans and no real action.

And a must-see for any computer scientist.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

Buying the F-35

The U.S. military is planning on buying 2,443 F-35 jets. Since the pricing of each jet is not clear, because they are sold in “batches” where the costs of development are sometimes wrapped into the planes, I find it difficult to figure out how much individual planes actually cost. I have come up with up to $200 million each, but on the low end around $100 million each (source).

If you paid using one dollar bills, and you paid out a bill every second, all day and night long, it would take more than three years to pay for one single plane.

And we’re buying 2,443 of them. Maybe we could live with 2,442 of them, and use the $100 million for something useful and good?

Santorum

Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

Rick Santorum said that the threat of the Islamic State should be countered with a more aggressive U.S. mission:

If ISIS wants to establish a seventh-century caliphate, let’s oblige them by bombing them back to the seventh century.

— Rick Santorum

This is the kind of person that bubbles to the top of our political spectrum. I have a number of questions for Santorum:

  1. How does one bomb a “state” that doesn’t exist on the map but rather only in the heads of its self-appointed criminal leaders?
  2. How does one bomb a state into the 7th century, if that were even possible, without killing thousands of innocent people, and then starving out the survivors, since we know that the 7th century wasn’t very good at feeding millions of people?
  3. How does a Christian like yourself rationalize that it’s ok to kill innocent civilians by the thousands in the name of ideology?
  4. When was the last time in our history when bombing a state in the Middle East actually solved a problem?
  5. And finally, Mr. Santorum, do you know anyone in the Middle East? In Iran, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan? Do you personally know and are friends with just one single person who lives there? Because if you did, I don’t understand how you could suggest to indiscriminately bomb the Middle East, knowing you would obliterate that person, their family, their loved ones and the entire future of their offspring.

Some Christian, you are.

exoplanetIn the near future, around 2056, Earth has identified an earth-like planet around another star about 15 light years away. Trying to find expansion room for humanity, scientists discover a way to travel faster than light. Eventually the FTL drive (faster than light) is good enough to send a probe to the other planet to explore.

Earth soon finds out that there is already an intelligent civilization occupying that planet. Due to a mistake or a misunderstanding, the humans and the aliens immediately descend into a shooting war. Rather than finding another Eden for mankind to flourish in, humanity has a new enemy, one far more powerful and menacing than anything encountered on Earth before.

The First Exoplanet is a long book with elaborate sub-plots and detailed side stories. The writer seems to like Stephen King and tries to weave the stories of the individual characters together into a larger epic plot. He does not pull it off, however. Stephen King’s side plots always have a reason to exist in the greater story. In this book, the writer seems to want to build them in to provide substance, but in the end, they seem to just be a waste of time.

For example, there is a rogue and power-hungry Russian intelligence agent named Sergei Bekov, who is responsible for planting a computer virus into the American probe before it is sent off to the other star. The author paints Bekov as completely evil and reckless, to the point where he entraps a French scientist by using a teenage hooker. The whole story goes on and on, and provides great detail of the teenage hooker, how he engages her, and the sex they are having, all to make a very minor point. In the end, the entire Bekov character fades from the plot when he is no longer needed.

There are many other examples of this technique gone awry. The book of 552 pages could have been half as long, and just as interesting, if all this baggage had been simply omitted. I would never have missed the teenage hooker abuse in my quest to find out what happened next with the aliens. It was just clumsy writing.

Other reviewers have blasted the author for not doing better editing. I am a stickler for editing, including proper use of grammar, spelling and vocabulary. I did notice a few errors, but I must admit that it didn’t overwhelm me like in a few other books I have recently read.

I kept with it, because I like alien first-encounter books, and I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know what would happen next. The big problem hit me at the end: the book didn’t end, the conflict didn’t get resolved. It simply said: continued in the sequel.

I hate it when I read a book and I don’t know a sequel is coming, until the book slaps me with it on the last pages. The writer isn’t good enough for me to want to read another 500 plus page tome. What’s worse, when I spent about five minutes reading into the Amazon teaser of the sequel The Vassal World, all my questions about what happened in the first book were pretty much answered. Why the author didn’t resolve the story and make the first book standalone is beyond me. Rather than writing two 500 page books with lots of deadwood and fluff, he should have written one tight story of 500 pages and made the experience satisfying.

The author even entices the reader after the book to buy the next one, quoting that it costs less than a cup of coffee ($2.99). That may be true, Mr. Sedgwick, but most of us readers would gladly have paid $7.99 for a well written, polished and edited single book in the first place. It’s not the dollars I spend on a book that matters most to me. It’s my time.

I enjoyed the concepts, the story and the speculation. But The First Exoplanet was too amateurish for me to want to spend my time to read another 500 page book, no matter how inexpensive it is.

As good old German proverb says: In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

Rating - One and a Half Stars

Toll GW Bridge

A few weeks ago when driving into New York City, I decided to take the George Washington Bridge for a change. This is the bridge that got Gov. Chris Christie into trouble for the infamous lane closure scandal last year.

This is the busiest bridge in the world, according to the news hype.

I was stunned when I had to pay $14 for a one way toll heading into the city.

I am glad I don’t have to commute from Ft. Lee every day.

A fried commented below that it’s just expensive to get out of New Jersey. Admission free, you pay to get out!

On Friday, two magazines arrived in my mailbox: Time and National Geographic. Here are the two covers:

NG Weed Time - Weed

So we’re now obsessed with weed and the science around it? Weed seems to have come of age. Money is being made – and once that happens, America gets in gear.

The travesty is that there are still thousands of people (can we even count them?) serving life sentences for owning marijuana.

Jeff Mizanskey is serving a life sentence without parole for marijuana. He has been in prison since right after I was born 21 years ago. Jeff is the only person in Missouri sentenced to die behind bars for marijuana, a victim of the state’s rather unique three strikes law.

source article in reason.com

I wonder how Jeff feels?

Ice-Shelf

NASA has published an online study in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters which suggests that the Larsen B Ice Shelf among other ice glaciers in the Antarctica is fast collapsing and losing its shape due to global warming and other environmental factors, and that the ice sheets could be gone by 2020.

The Standard Daily

I know that Ted Cruz is what we call a “climate denier.” That’s a person that believes that either the world is not warming at all, or, if it actually is warming, it is part of a natural cycle and we can’t do anything about it.

Notwithstanding that the vast majority of climate scientists do not agree with that opinion and assure us that climate change is proven to be anthropogenic, Ted Cruz wants to stop NASA from studying climate related subjects.

Anthropogenic or not, if the Larsen B Ice Shelf disintegrates by 2020 and allows further glaciers behind it to slip down into the ocean, we’ll see some serious real estate implications in the next 20 years in Miami, New York, Boston, San Diego, Seattle – to list only a few obvious U.S. cities affected.

So Ted Cruz wants to gag NASA, the one governmental body by far the most qualified to study this issue in the world, and most likely the best at it. I don’t understand the rationale? If you don’t study a phenomenon, you won’t understand it with certainty. Studying and learning never hurts. Even if the warming is natural, the implications are serious, and we need to prepare for them.

Yet, Ted Cruz wants us to stick our collective heads in the sand. Why? The only motivation I can come up with is giving more time to Koch Industries, Shell, BP, Chevron and Exxon Mobile to rape the world.

Some responsible leaders we have elected.

Time Solar

[Time Magazine: May 18, 2015, Page 16]

As more homes add solar panels to their roofs and make themselves more and more independent of the power grid, the conventional utility companies don’t like it. They argue that as less customers are relying on them, it becomes more and more expensive per customer to maintain the infrastructure, the grid, and they must charge their customers more.

The utility companies are simply facing the realities of a new world and new industry trends, like so many other companies before them. They will whine for a while, until somebody else comes in and builds a completely new business model and disrupts the entire stodgy utility industry. Welcome to the new reality.

Remember when local video stores where you could rent VHS videos for a day were in every strip mall? Then Blockbuster took over. And then Netflix wiped them all out.

The taxi industry is suffering from the likes of Uber and Lyft.

Remember when you still needed travel agents to book flights? Where have all the travel agents gone?

Remember DEC, the second largest computer company in the world in 1980? Bought by Compaq, which was bought by HP. DEC is only a distant memory.

Remember when Kodak was a giant? Then Kodak didn’t figure out that digital photography was disrupting their market until it was too late.

In the next few years, the power utility industry is going to experience some disruption. There is a fortune to be made for the right player.

Let me guess: the right player will not be one of the current utility companies. They are too busy whining and not busy enough thinking.

Ted Cruz is trying to stop NASA from researching climate change.

The fact that Ted Cruz is Chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee in Congress is a travesty. He puts up a bogus chart, showing percentage increases or decreases of the budget of NASA with respect to four different parts of the mission of NASA. He disregards completely that percentages are meaningless without actual dollar values associated with them.

If I gave you an allowance of one dollar last year, and I take that dollar away, I cut your budget by 100%. If I gave your brother an allowance of $5 and I gave him the dollar I took away from you, I increased his budget by 20%. Talking only about percentages in this context is deceptive. That’s what Ted Cruz did with this chart.

This is not science, this is not finance, this is trying to dumb down the American public.

I have met Charles Bolden, when he was a mere NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander. Bolden is a remarkable man, and a brilliant technologist. He is the right man for the job of NASA administrator. He belongs in his position.

And Ted Cruz is a doofus.

Mad Max

It’s been a long time that we had been out for a movie. Checking the Tomatometer, we found that Mad Max had a rating of 99. One of the highest we’d seen in a long time. Can’t go wrong with that!

Or can you?

In all the reviews I have done, I have never been that far apart from the Tomatometer. I am giving this zero stars. I am sorry we paid for that movie. If you paid me twenty dollars to spend two hours watching this again, knowing what I know now, I’d decline.

Apparently this is the fourth post-apocalyptic action adventure in this sorry franchise, and now I know why I never bothered to watch the first three. Charlize Theron stars as a one-armed tough broad on a mission to do – well, I am not sure what she is doing. There is no story that makes any sense. It drags on for 120 minutes, and it looks like they recorded one minute of trucks, hot rods and motorcycles chasing each other in the desert, and ran that recording 120 times. How long can a story be interesting when vehicles chase each other in the desert with the occupants shooting at each other and blowing each other up in spectacular fireballs, on and on and on.

The entire film is an excuse for grotesque makeup, hot rod racing, and senseless shooting, and lots of crazy stunts, all while driving in the desert – somewhere.

I just wonder how the critics all could give this positive ratings with a straight face? They just stole our twelve dollars per ticket.

Stole.

Zero Stars.

Rating - Zero Stars

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