Friday, September 19, 2014

Book: Michio Kaku's "Physics Of The Future"

When I was young(er) Carl Sagan was the scientist that you saw on the television.  He acted as a conduit between science and the ordinary person.  He died in 1996.  Since then the role of conduit has fallen to at least three people: Bill Nye (the science guy), Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku.

When I think of science I often find myself thinking about the future and the technology that will be born from cutting edge science.  I have always liked to read forecasts of technological progress.  Over the years I have seen many predictions come and go.  Personal Jet Packs?  Nope.  Flying cars?  Not yet.  Space colonies in the 70s and men walking on Mars by the 80s?  Not even remotely close.  I've been disillusioned many times but I can't help from seeking out the next prediction.  That's why I read Michio Kaku's "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100".

Professor Kaku attempts to forecast the development of technology between today and the year 2100 using interviews with scientists, engineers, and observing trends.  You can tell that he has learned the lessons taught by other, less successful, prognosticators.  His forecasts are more conservative and in the process of writing this book he has gone after several sacred cows of many futurists.

I'm not sure how to describe how this book made me feel.  On one hand the realism Professor Kaku injects into his projections is refreshing.  On the other hand the sacred cows ... things like the singularity, sentient artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and other really cool technology ... are things I have always been excited about. It was a bummer to read a well written argument for why the cool stuff you hoped to see some day will not happen in the next one hundred years.

There's another thing about this book that reduced it's enjoyability for me.  I spend a lot of my web browsing time looking at technology and reading how things may progress in the future.  Because of this, most of the things Professor Kaku writes about I already knew about.  I don't think there was anything really new for me.  For someone who hasn't kept of with science and technological trends this book would be a useful overview.  For me ... it felt like a retread.  This isn't the books fault.  I just picked the wrong book to read.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

A First World Problem

I've been watching American Horror Story on Netflix.  There is a new season starting in October.  This resulted in a dilemma:  Should I DVR the new season or should I wait for it to get to Netflix?

Both options have advantages and disadvantages.  If I DVR it I will get to watch the show sooner but I would be limited to one episode per week and I would have to fast forward through commercials.  If I wait for Netflix to catch up I could watch the entire season in one binge and I would not have to fast forward through commercials but I would have to wait six months to a year for the episodes to be available.

I've been thinking about this problem for awhile and   ... I realized that my problem was a first world problem.

First World Problem:
"Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at." - From The Urban Dictionary
In a world where the sovereignty of a free Ukraine is threatened by a rearward looking authoritarian, the one sided death and destruction of Gaza by a so-called ally, the inhuman acts of radical religious and religious intolerant organizations like ISIS (or ISIL, IS, or whatever they want to be called), and the number of deaths from Ebola rapidly approaches two thousand souls, wouldn't it be wonderful if all our problems were First World Problems.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Book: Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean At The End Of The Lane"

This was a short one.  At one hundred and eighty pages it was the shortest book I've read in years.  This was my first book I've read by Neil Gaiman, a noted graphic novelist and writer.  "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is a novel intended for adults.  Having said this, while reading this book, I had to double check that I hadn't checked out a young adult book.

The book follows the memories of a man who has returned to his childhood home where he remembers a harrowing time of magical creatures, magic, and life threatening danger.  The book reads like a cross between a fantasy novel and a fairy tale.  Gaiman weaves a magical tale hidden in a normal pastoral setting of the English countryside.

Gaiman captures the uncertainty of memory and the feelings of a young boy in his story telling.  There is a sense of wonder wrapped around the calm acceptance of all the strangeness the seven year old boy is witness to.  I enjoyed the way we wade into the strange world where a pond can be an ocean and shadows can devour you but I wanted for more.  The book is too short.  There is so much more that could be written but, in the end, it all remains a mystery.  I guess that's what makes a good book ... leaving the reader wanting for more.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book: Ramez Naam's "Crux"

"Crux" is the sequel to a book, "Nexux", that I read earlier this year.  I reviewed that book here.  "Crux" takes over right after the events in "Nexus".  The creator of the nano-drug Nexus 5 is being hunted down by just about everyone in the world.

Nexus 5 allows people to control their brains just like people control a computer and it allows people to share thoughts and feeling.  The drug is opposed by a branch of the Department of Homelands Security who have been charged with stopping all trans- and post-human technologies that could be potentially abused.  When it is discovered that the creator has added a backdoor to Nexus 5 allowing him to essentially take control of anyone using the drug, governments and organizations, both legal and illegal, try to get the passcodes.

The book ends with several parties converging on one location fighting over the drug's creator.  At this point you realized that this is not a sequel ... it is actually book two of a trilogy.  The book ends with enough ends fluttering in the breeze to fill a third book ... if not more.

I liked "Nexus"  and I liked "Crux" as well.  It had an interesting take on future technology and It held my attention like any good action/adventure story should.  That's what it is, an action/adventure story, not great literature.  The book is full of cliche and overused tropes.  The book is also fun to read.  Sometimes that's all I need.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Backcountry Camping Desert

Since my third camping experience I've been looking for a location for my fourth.  My selection criteria are that it has to be within three hours of Omaha and the campsites must be backcountry (also called backwoods, dispersed, or hike-in) campsites.  Turns out there are only three places in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa that meet these two criteria and I've camped in all three of them.  I live in a backcountry camping desert.

I prefer backcountry campsites for their closeness to nature and their distance from other people.  I guess I'm a bit antisocial when I'm camping.  There are plenty of places within three hours drive that offer camping but they are all campgrounds where you are relatively close to your neighbors and on the edge of nature, not in it.  Not exactly what I'm looking for.  I plan to do camping trips four, five, and six in the same parks I've already camped in just at another spot within each park.

As I was conducting my unsuccessful search for a new campsite I came to the realization that, to extend my camping to the two or three day camping trip - something I want to do next year - I would have to travel farther from home.  I want to be able to hike to a campsite, spend the night, hike to another the next day, spend the night, etc.  None of the parks in my area are big enough to do that.  Typical hiking time between backcountry campsites in local parks is about thirty minutes to an hour at most.  I would end up spending over twenty-four hours at a campsite.  I'm not sure I could fill those hours.  I would rather spend some of that time hiking and exploring in a larger park.

So, I'm expanding my search.  I already am thinking about a five day camp in Rocky Mountain National Park sometime next summer after RAGBRAI.  I am also looking at the Badlands and parts of the Black Hills in South Dakota, both offer places where backcountry camping is permitted and are within eight hours driving.  The only thing about these places is that these areas only permit backcountry camping off trails.  In other words I would be hiking off trail navigating by map, compass, and GPS.  While I would love to do this I'm not sure if I am ready for that.

I was hoping to work up to that five day camp in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I'm starting to wonder if I will have that luxury.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book: Paul Theroux's "The Last Train To Zona Verde"

My latest book returns to one of my favorite non-fiction genres, the travelogue.  Paul Theroux is a popular travelogue writer, as well as author of fiction and novellas, who has been traveling and writing about his travels since the late 1960s.  The latest of his travelogues, covering his travels in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola when he was 71 years old, was my latest read.  "The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari" is an interesting but somewhat sad telling of an older traveler.

Theroux is very familiar with travel, including traveling and working in Africa.  He starts this trip in Capetown, South Africa with the plan to travel up the west coast of Africa.  His ultimate destination, as we discover rather late in the book, is the almost legendary city of Timbuktu.  Unfortunately he does not make it.  His trip is cut short in Angola but along the way he discovers that the Africa of legend and lore, the one we have all fantasized at least once in our lives, no longer exists.

The Africa of our dreams, a place of small tribal villages full of people living like they've lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years has changed.  It has become a land of gorged cities surrounded by rings of poverty and squalor.  A land of have-everythings and have-less-than-nothings.  Lands where one form of slavery has been replaced my a more insidious economic servitude.  A place where our dreams are just theater.

He recounts entering a village full of people in their native dress doing things like their ancestors, and their ancestors before, had done.  He leaves on a bush walk just to return to the village to see everyone has changed out of their native costume into western shorts and t-shirts.  It was all a facade for the tourist. Theroux was heartbroken.  I know how he feels.  In Kenya and Tanzania we saw a lot of things that were probably just theater for our benefit.  A way to earn a few bucks from the rich foreigners.

The book felt like it was written by a tired old man which, I think, is what Theroux was on this trip.  He sounded tired.  He sounded disillusioned with what he saw.  I can't blame him.  If I were 71 traveling alone in some of the most desolate and poor areas of the world (Angola has oil, diamond, and gold money but it apparently goes straight into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt individuals) I would feel tired too.  Add in the fact that three of the people he meets along the way die before the book is done and I would become a bit depressed too.

Despite the rather depressing tone of the book I enjoyed it.  His feelings somewhat match mine.  The world is changing.  The places of our fantasies are rapidly being transformed by the shrinking of the world and the changes are not all to the better.  My empathy with Theroux made this a worthwhile read for me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Eighty-Seven Wearable Memories

I went through my closet this afternoon.  More specifically I went through my t-shirts.  Starting around 2006, and not ending until 2011, I would buy souvenir t-shirts from most of the places I would visit.  Since the Route 66 vacation in summer 2011 my collection has remained static except for a few t-shirts gifted to me.

So, how big is my collection?  Eighty-Seven t-shirts.  Every one has been worn at least once and most of them have been worn several times over.

Today I whittled it down a bit.  It wasn't easy as most of the shirts have some sentimental memory attached to them.  I can be very nostalgic at times.  I still managed to reduce the number somewhat.  Five were thrown away because I didn't like them and they had stains.  Another twelve I no longer like, or they no longer fit, and will be donated.  Ten more are shirts from various schools the Wife has taught at or are from her favorite school, Notre Dame (I am keeping the two of the best ones given to me by one of the Wife's nieces).

I still have some sixty t-shirts left (including five old stained ones for doing chores and mowing the lawn in).  There are still a lot of memories folded neatly in my closet.  Not sure if I will restart my collection or not.  I'm sure some cool shirt will catch my eye, some memory will require some proof of existence, and the collection will start growing once more.