Sunday, November 25, 2018

Parrothead Book Review- The Songs of Distant Earth

Way back in the 1980's and earlier, scientists researching the tiniest bits of matter in existence were freaking out over the fact that our sun didn't seem to be producing enough of ghost-like particles called neutrinos as it fused hydrogen into helium. The details are messy and uber-complicated, so trust me it was a huge deal for the guys and gals who study physics. Two important items you have to understand is that neutrinos could literally pass through trillions of miles of lead and very rarely interact with the atoms that make up such an implausible structure. The second, is that we now know that there are more than just one type of neutrinos, so the problem has long since been solved.

For science fiction writers back then the missing neutrinos were something they couldn't let slip through their collective fingers. A minor sub-genre of stories came about explaining why our sun seemed to be abnormal. The best of these works is a novel called The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.

In the novel somewhere around our current year, particle and stellar scientists realize that because of the Sun's missing neutrinos it will go nova in a couple of thousand years. To put it simple terms most Americans can understand, in the novel the scientists discover the sun will explode destroying the Earth. At first this news is mostly ignored, people have bills to pay and it's extremely hard to get anyone to think ahead six months in the future, much less two millennia. Still though, with the Earth under an unavoidable death sentence the only question was what would be Humanity's eventual response.

Before we go any further you have to understand how Arthur C. Clarke liked to write his novels. While most sci-fi writers would have just turned to outlandish technology like faster-than-light propulsion or massive multi-generational starships for humans to escape the doomed solar system, Clarke liked to base his works on real science. For him that meant nothing that violated the known laws of physics nor concepts that were implausible because of their massive engineering. Despite countless speculative theories there is very little in the way of real science that suggests our species will ever exceed the speed of light. And while sub-light manned starships are theoretically possible, the extra mass such constructions would require to support humans traveling the distance between stars makes them highly implausible. It boils down to having enough fuel to accelerate to a decent percentage of light speed and then enough to slow down and stop at the destination.

In The Songs of Distant Earth, Clarke get around these problems by having humans send out unmanned robotic starships loaded with frozen embryos who are thawed out and developed in artificial wombs after they reach their target worlds. After being “born” these kids are then raised by robots who go on to create their own civilization. Yeah, for those who don't read a lot of science fiction the idea of robots raising human children might seem unethical or maybe even immoral. But honestly, in reality I've seen some people who were so terrible they never should have been allowed to have children in the first place. With the rate both artificial intelligence and robotics are developing in real life, those technologies could very well mature to such a point that they would do a much better job with kids than their human parents.

So the centuries go by with hundreds, if not thousands, of seed ships being sent out with people back on Earth more or less content to know the human race with carry on even after the planet becomes a deep fried rock. One of those seed ships settles on an ocean world with only scattered islands the human inhabitants come to call Thalassa, and that is where most of the story takes place.

The people of Thalassa go on to develop a Jimmy Buffett dream of an easy going society that doesn't really rush to do much of anything. So when the island where they built the radio telescope to keep in contact with Earth and the other colony worlds is destroyed by a volcano, there's no hurry to rebuild. After a few decades of silence, the other human worlds begin to believe the colony on Thalassa was wiped out as well.

Now back on Earth as the seed ships are leaving, rigid population control has not only massively reduced the number of people living on the planet but they are enjoying an unbelievable lavish lifestyle because there is more of everything to go around. This abundance of resources at least partly translates into massive scientific research, and this is where Clarke comes close to violating his own ban on impossible technologies.

If any one theory of the twentieth century threw reality for a loop it was Quantum Mechanics. QM deals with subatomic particles, such a those missing neutrinos, but that isn't even scratching the surface. Subatomic particles do a lot of wild and crazy stuff that seem to violate macroscopic physics and basic commonsense. Once again, it's messy and uber-complicated so instead of me confusing everyone with my bad explanations about QM, it might be best if you all just look up some educational videos on You Tube.

One of those crazy QM theories that Clarke used in the book involves the idea that the vacuum of space is not peaceful and empty but is a seething cauldron of particles popping in an out of existence. In fact the famous physicist, Richard Feynman, once said that one cubic meter of space at the quantum level has enough energy to boil all the waters of all the oceans on Earth. Once the scientists and engineers on the doomed Earth figured out a practical way to use this information, they could now get around the fuel issue with manned interstellar travel and get to building actual starships-- though still slower than light. The trouble with this discovery though was that it took place a little over a hundred before the sun would go boom.

But the people of Earth did have time to build a few true manned starships. Funny thing, while discovering a way to build ships that could approach the speed of light, the engineers soon realized that another issue would keep them from coming close to that speed. See, interstellar macroscopic space is “filled” with with debris that ranges in size from lone atoms of hydrogen to various rogue planets that were flung out from the star system where they were formed. While these starships could detect the big stuff and slide out of the way, the atoms and other smaller rocks and stuff could literally destroy these fancy vessels. Confused? Look up Newton and his equation on how force equal mass times acceleration.

But the engineers decide to build an ice shield at the nose of the starships, which partially solves the problem. But they still have to limit the speed of these ships to around ten-percent of the speed of light. And as you might be able to figure out, these ice shields wear down after so many years of traveling through deep space.

Enter the starship Magellan and its hundred-thousand or so hibernating humans, who after two-hundred years of travel need to stop and rebuild its now thin ice shield. It just so happens that he ocean world Thalassa is the midpoint on their journey to their eventual destination. Needless to say both the humans from the now dead and roasted Earth and the native Thalassans are quite surprised to see each other.

The actual meat of Clarke's novel comes with how the two groups interact with each other. An important note Clarke hints at several time for the reader is that human history is filled with how stronger cultures overwhelm and destroy weaker ones. So both groups initially tiptoe around each other in an effort to play nice.

Before long several reawakened but weary members of the Magellan's crew become entangled with native Thalassans, for whom emotional and sexual relationships are free of the possessiveness which are normal to us. More importantly, as the crew of the Magellan builds the ice plant on the surface of Thalassa to replace their ship's worn down shield, they discover that a scorpion-like species living underwater that is well on its way to being a sentient species. This scorpion-like species is actually native to the planet opening up uncomfortable questions about how the human Thalassans will learn to live with them. These scorpions have massive underwater villages and farms and like to obtain metal to build things from human constructions that stick out into the ocean. One more thing, the scorpions are only semi-aquatic and can spend a great deal of time on the surface.

What attracted me to this book was the deep time aspect of human development. While only set in the 3800's AD, The Songs of a Distant Earth reminded me that our personal existence, culture, and civilization are temporary creations which will be replaced at some point. That maybe a better objective for Humanity might be working to build something that improves what we have now for the benefit of our descendants.

I give nothing away by writing The Songs of Distant Earth ends on the duel notes of both hope and tragedy. While I obviously loved all the hard science in the book, the strength of the novel is, of course, how the characters deal with each other. After centuries of separation, the Earthers and human Thalassans have much to overcome in the way cultural differentiation. While Arthur C. Clarke didn't get as deep as I would have liked in human tension, it is still a remarkable work.

Monday, November 19, 2018

I'm Back, Hopefully

Realizing uncertainty is one of the few universal constants, I'm taking this moment to write that I should be returning to regular posts by this weekend. Yes, my cardiac adventures have continued with two trips to the emergency room and another ablation procedure, which occurred last Thursday. This last one had the benefit of not seeming like total Hell. The whole story of my last two emergency room visits and the latest cardiac ablation are far to long and complicated to write about in the time I have right now.

Unfortunately, what I can relate is that while the good doctors and nurses did nail down several more trouble spots on my heart, there was one they couldn't zap and destroy. In fact, I was told it would take open heart surgery at another hospital in Chicago. Everyone involved, which naturally includes me most of all, hopes that my medicine can keep that bad boy under control. Yes, there are other options like implantable pacemakers and defibrillators but I really do not want to go there.

If brevity is the soul of wit I'll stop now because it actually looks like I summed up the situation pretty tightly without all the awkward social oversharing. Here's hoping that I am no longer living in medical interesting times to paraphrase what I think is an ancient Chinese curse.         

Sunday, October 28, 2018

This Week Sucked

Just not feeling it this week. My personal health condition is unchanged, at least for right now. Taking my medicines and hope to have my next cardiac ablation scheduled later this week.  Which is a two-edged sword since I have to go off the meds for five days to clean out my system so they can find the problem heart cells and zap the little bastards with electricity. Of course, going off the meds means I might have another incident before I have the procedure.

On an entirely different note, the nation had to live through a conservative republican terrorist sending pipe bombs through the mail this week. Nothing signifies the utter corruption of American politics when all manner of Trump-supporting MAGAts openly believing those crimes were some Democratic-inspired hoax. And just to add another insult to an already injured country, another conservative wacko decided to shoot up a synagogue in Pennsylvania.

What comes close to leaving me in despair is that the Orange Bastard is still out there trying his best to burn the country down. 



Sunday, October 21, 2018

More Cardiac Adventures- An Unexpected Hospital Stay

Just a quick update. Had a cardiac ablation on October 11th to solve issues with things like heart flutter and ventricular tachycardia. Cardiac ablation is a relatively simple outpatient procedure but I took a four day weekend to recover because my groin area was quite sore. You really don't want me to explain that detail, just take my word that it's unpleasant.

After a relaxing weekend, on the afternoon of October 15th had a setback. I was suddenly hit with another bout of ventricular tachycardia which sent me to the emergency room and a hospital stay that lasted until this passed Thursday.

Didn't post anything about this hospital stay because I was both depressed and more than slightly pissed. Depressed because the assurances I was given about the problem being "solved" weren't worth the toilet paper stuck to Trump's shoes as he boarded Air Force One the other day. And pissed because I didn't do my own research into VT and the cardiac ablation procedure. Found out people can have up to four procedures and still end up taking the medicine that controls crazy heart rhythms.

Feeling "better" as compared to the events on October 11th. But I'm still getting use to the new blood pressure meds and the fact I don't really have much of an appetite lately. The appetite thing could be a blessing since I need to lose weight anyway.

Once again, huge shout out to my wife, son and daughter who did their best to take care of me. And a massive thank you to my coworkers who visits made me feel much better. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Subtle Decadency

Let me go ahead and write that this post will be even more askew from my usual rants and trite observations. Nothing really surprising although my eventual point will probably be a little too abstract for most people.

Over a week ago, I had to make a Lowes run to once again pick up supplies for yard work. As per my usual habit, I stopped by the place quite early in the morning while on my way home from work. That way I didn't have to deal with both the large crowds that frequent the warehouse-style retail stores and and the locals who I simply do not like. Yes, that latter part is from my longstanding inability to fit in with the stifling atmosphere that engulfs anything to do with modern American suburbia. A physiological deficiency of mine that still drives my wife crazy.

As most already know, the vast majority of American retail stores of all types start laying out Halloween merchandise at the end of August. This is mainly so all manufacturers of Halloween stuff can make as much money as possible off the docile masses. I could mention the Pavlovian nature of bringing out all the cheap and crappy trinkets of the various holidays a little earlier each year, but what would be the point? American consumers are a nicely tamed and trained bunch who eagerly drool the second the proper stimulus appears. Whatever the case, as far as my 50-something mind is concerned, I problem with bringing out all the horror-related junk while everyone is walking around in sweaty t-shirts and shorts. I still associate Halloween with far chiller, autumn-like weather that required people wear long pants and light jackets. Not that my childhood memories matter since these days in the American South, hot and humid summer-like weather stays well into October.

Walking into Lowes that morning I thought I had seen all the possible excesses that could exist when it comes to what I will call meaningless holiday bling. The definition of that term being any item whose cost is inverse to the time it can be displayed. Because just a few steps inside the store was a sixteen-foot inflatable Grim Reaper. Strangely fascinated by this Halloween decoration, I had to know how much that thing cost. The price tag on that item was two-hundred bucks, technically not a huge amount when you consider the surrounding area was overwhelmingly comprised of upper middle class white folks who eat that kind of materialistic crap like Cheerios. Personally, I was hit with a feeling of disgust so strong I could almost taste bile in my mouth.

From my own point of view, I can see the use of new smart phones, new computers or kitchen appliances, and hundreds of other item that could easily be considered “trendy.” Newer items generally use less power and have increased functions that, for me, translates into a justifiable reason to blow away money. But that inflatable Grim Reaper violated some fundamental principle in me that superseded the idea that everyone has a basic right to do what they want with their money.

My nonconforming, anti-community attitude party comes from the fact that I was raised by my grandparents. They were people whose childhood spanned the worst of the Great Depression and the austerity demanded by the Second World War. It's also worth mentioning that for them being born in the American South during those years also meant a general level of poverty, that while was much worse for some, was still around third-world levels for everyone. So they would never for a second entertained the idea of purchasing something even remotely akin to that inflatable Grim Reaper. They were type of people who truly had a credit card for emergencies. Which I know from first hand experience because while a busted water heater was enough of an emergency to pull out the credit card, a broken television was most definitely something that could wait until after payday.

For those reasons I am what could be called strongly anti-bling. I abhor anything flashy or what I would consider blatantly wasteful, which the inflatable Grim Reaper fits perfectly in that category. I've got far better things to do with two-hundred dollars than blow it on a piece of seasonal holiday crap that probably won't last three years before it rips or the blower fails. Truth be told, one of the ongoing issues I have with my wife is her three separate boxes of decorations for the Christmas Tree. Each box contains a different style of decorations ranging from Disney stuff, my favorite, with the other two made up of Victorian era-style stuff and “Three Kings” items, which I frankly don't understand. Growing up, we had one box of standard Christmas decorations that lasted decades.

On a more subtle level, the inflatable Grim Reaper reeks of a societal decadency that bothers me more than it should. I live in an area that when a county referendum was approved calling for a penny increase in sales tax to fund road improvements, those that pushed for the measure literally received various forms of physical threats. Yeah, the county roads where I live are quite bad and while some did eventually get much needed maintenance, the funding came from the state government. Do I even need to mention the county tax referendum was massively defeated? Getting back to my main point, Lowes just didn't throw out boxes of the inflatable Grim Reaper to its stores nationwide for shits and giggles. Such corporations know what products sell and what the local customers ignore.

This all leads back to my hate of suburbia and the people who inhabit it. These are people who piously attend church and spout the approved orthodoxy but have no real idea of the teachings of Christ, at least the parts about social justice. To them, Christ is a Republican who loves capitalism and is highly suspicious of anyone outside their ethnic group. While there are exceptions, these suburbanites reside in narrow universe and react quite harshly to anything outside it that even threatens to disturb their blissful domain. That mindset makes it hard for any possible reforms that would correct injustices or prepare for the future. They have their stuff and to Hell with everyone else.

They more or less live at the top of the social ladder. Yes, I fully understand it's the billionaires and multi-millionaires who truly rule over the nation and world. But from my observations, to suburbanites the ultra rich are even more of an abstract concept than to the working poor who watch the reality television that show off their lavish antics. Working poor people placate their dead end existence by thinking their just one good idea away from having lunch with the Kardashians.

To the average suburbanite, the future is nothing but a continuation of their current lifestyle. They live in comfortable and spacious homes, have unbelievably huge televisions in their living rooms, and have enough “money” to buy inflatable Grim Reapers so they can essentially show off to the neighbors that they play the same bullshit game as everyone else.

The thing that I find darkly humorous in all this is that if some event or circumstance upsets the suburbanite apple cart and shits get really bad, I understand enough about human nature to know that the outwardly pleasant persona of these people display will evaporate in a second. If the Walmart or Kroger shelves go empty and the convenience stores run out of gas they will be eating each other by the end of the week. Then that would be a perfect time for someone set out their sixteen-foot inflatable Grim Reaper.

Sunday, October 7, 2018