28 October 2008

Career Novelist

I have just downloaded Career Novelist by the literary agent Donald Maass from his agency’s website. My first impression is that it is probably essential reading for would-be novelists. Thanks to Gary Gibson for pointing me in the right direction.

The Canadian SF author Robert Sawyer reckons this book is one of four must-read books for fiction writers. I would certainly agree about the two Orson Scott Card books he mentions and I would add a fifth: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande is an inspirational book, which never fails to enthuse me about writing whenever I re-read it.

22 October 2008

New Scientist; old news

The New Scientist has a special report this week on how our economy is destroying the earth. In their own words:
Consumption of resources is rising rapidly, biodiversity is plummeting and just about every measure shows humans affecting Earth on a vast scale. Most of us accept the need for a more sustainable way to live, by reducing carbon emissions, developing renewable technology and increasing energy efficiency.
But are these efforts to save the planet doomed? A growing band of experts are looking at figures like these and arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth.

So what’s new? More than three decades ago, the Club of Rome report Limits to Growth pointed out very clearly that an economic system based on the assumption of growth is ultimately unsustainable in a finite world.

20 October 2008

Half a civilization

The International Journal of Astrobiology has just accepted an interesting paper entitled ‘A Numerical Testbed for Hypotheses of Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence’ by Duncan Forgan of the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh. In the paper, Forgan applies modern estimates to the parameters in the Drake Equation and uses a Monte Carlo method to simulate many times over the number of civilizations that may have appeared in the galaxy. Using the resulting statistics, he has calculated an average value and a standard deviation for the number of advanced civilisations in our galaxy. What is more, he has been able to compare results for three different models of civilisation creation:
  1. Panspermia: Life evolves on one planet, but is able to spread to others in a system. Forgan’s method predicts 37964.97 advanced civilisations in our galaxy with a standard deviation of 20 for this hypothesis.

  2. The rare-life hypothesis: Earth-like planets are rare, but intelligent life is quite likely to emerge on them: 361.2 advanced civilisations with a standard deviation of 2.

  3. The tortoise and hare hypothesis: Earth-like planets are common, but the emergence of intelligent life is unlikely: 31573.52 with a standard deviation of 20.
Interesting results, but as Forgan points out in the conclusion to his paper, this method still suffers from the ‘garbage in—garbage out’ problem.

16 October 2008

Non-violence is the new terrorism

As far as the State of Maryland is concerned, this is the new face of terrorism.

According to The Washington Times:

BALTIMORE | For decades, Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Ardeth Platte have practiced their Roman Catholic faith with an unwavering focus on world peace. Their antiwar activities even landed them in federal prison earlier this decade for trespassing onto a military base and pouring blood onto a nuclear missile silo.

Now they face fresh infamy as two nuns secretly branded by Maryland State Police as terrorists and placed on a national watch list.

"This term terrorist is a really serious accusation," Sister Ardeth, a nun for 54 years, told The Washington Times on Thursday in the first interview that the women have given since being informed they were among 53 people added to a terrorist watch list in conjunction with an extensive Maryland surveillance effort of antiwar activists.

"There is no way that we ever want to be identified as terrorists. We are nonviolent. We are faith-based," she said. . . .

What kind of society regards non-violent protest as terrorism?

07 October 2008

Testing for many worlds

Some interesting news from the physics arXiv blog: Frank Tipler has suggested a simple experiment to distinguish between the many-worlds and the Copenhagen interpretations of quantum mechanics. He argues that the interference pattern created when photons are fired one by one at a simple double slit should form more quickly if the many-worlds interpretation is correct. If his reasoning is correct, one of the most intractable problems of twentieth-century physics could soon have a clear answer.

02 October 2008


Eamonn’s comment on my last entry got me thinking about speed. Far from allowing us to take the time to do things properly, much of modern life (even the academic life) is conducted at breakneck speed dictated by others. You know you’re not in control when someone hands you a tight deadline; or that hospital appointment you’ve been waiting for turns up and forces you to rearrange your week; or you are forced to queue for hours to go through passport control or speak to a bureaucrat; or someone cancels your train/plane.

In our society, the ones with the power are the ones who can force you to slow down or speed up. More generally, power belongs to those who control the speed at which things happen.

By a happy coincidence, an article I was editing this morning contained the following quotation from Paul Virilio:

‘Every society is founded on a relation of speed. Every society is dromocratic. If you take Athenian society, you’ll notice that at the top there’s the hierarch, in other words the one who can charter a trireme. Then there’s the horseman—the one who can charter a horse, to use naval language. After that, there’s the hoplite, who can get ready for war, “arm himself”—in the odd sense that the word armament has both a naval and a martial connotation—with his spears and his shield as a vector of combat. And finally, there’s the free man and the slave who only have the possibilities of hiring themselves out or being enlisted as energy in the war-machine—the rowers. In this system (which also existed in Rome with the cavalry), he who has the speed has the power. And he has the power because he is able to acquire the means, the money. The Roman horsemen were the bankers of Roman society. The one who goes the fastest possesses the ability to collect taxes, the ability to conquer, and through that to inherit the right of exploiting society.’ (Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War. Translated by M. Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e). 1997, pp. 49-50)