Monday, July 29, 2013

Flora and fauna of the firmament—Part 2

An ongoing look at the life-forms that we might find on recently discovered exoplanets.

The Mysterious Activity on Super-Earth HD 97658 b

Purple night falls on the lone world circling the star HD 97658 some 70 light-years away. Under the blazing magenta daylight cast by this K-type main-sequence star, and during the frigid, 87-month-long indigo-dark nights, a system of pipelines grows, extending through the thick atmosphere and into the rocky soil. The mysterious conduits apparently connect somewhere, but Earthbound observers have not been able to determine what they carry, and why. Perhaps they funnel fuel—or maybe air or water.

A more speculative theory suggests it is an attempt by the builders, globular life-forms (pictured here), to develop a system of tubes—a version of the Internet. Although these beings appear highly intelligent, having developed an advanced technological civilzation, they have apparently and amazingly accomplished it without the ability to social network.

During twilight, the creatures emit a greenish glow
that seems to signify cocktail-hour-like festivities.
Supporting a complex society that, it is believed, has works far beyond human achievements, super-Earth HD 97658 b’s dominant life-form has created a truly alien culture. As on Earth, microscopic life here evolved into intelligence, had an industrial revolution but then took a divergent path into an existence deprived of Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine—even a blogosphere. Scientists remain baffled as to how they could have created a civilization that does not rely on continuous access to e-mail, texts podcasts and streaming video, thereby lacking the ability to tweet, Instagram, Pin-It, and blog. It has been suggested that because of this deprivation, their unchecked attention spans and ability to see in the long run have resulted in the completion of projects such as establishing unlimited renewable energy and an economic system that provides ample sustenance and health for all complete with a four-day work week and five-weeks paid vacation—and birthdays off, too.

HD 97658 b’s denizens also have an ongoing space program and have colonized neighboring star systems. Intercepted broadcasts also suggest they have a time-wasting tendency toward deep intellectual conversations and learning by reading detailed literary works that fill the void in a bleak world that does not know the joy of life-hacking, Google/Wikipedia searches, Angry Birds, Top 10 anything lists, blog rants, viral YouTube cat videos and 15-minute hashtag-based news cycles. The mystery of why this species has survived under such harsh conditions will remain, scientists say, until their approaching fleet of starships reaches Earth sometime around 2036. It is hoped that on arrival we will be able to offer our ability to gain instant gratification in exchange for whatever techno trinkets they may have to offer us, although it is hard to envision how giving away the secret of our Internet in exchange for something like star drive, teleportation or even the chance to barter for our freedom from annexation into their stark, sensory-deprived empire could get us the better end of the deal in such an exchange.

The diagram above depicts an interpretation of high-intensity laser signals picked up from the vicinity of the advancing fleet. Experts think it is an attempt to communicate via visual symbology. Linguistic and symbol analysis suggest they are attempting to diagram some kind of social network, a primitive analogue of "Liking" our civilization and humanity’s amazing accomplishment.

Flora and Fauna of the Firmament is a satirical collaboration featuring illustrations by Ken Silber and descriptions by Michael Battaglia. Cross-posted at Quicksilber and Beige Matter. Part 1 is here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Gold investing even if it's not pure-strain

This blog has long had a tendency to attract seekers of the highly esoteric asset class known as pure-strain gold. The nonexistence of same is probably a good reason to avoid including it in your portfolio, but lest it be said that I am uniformly negative on all matters related to precious metals, I offer (a) Greg Mankiw's thoughtful and moderately receptive assessment of gold investing and (b) a panel discussion on commodity (including gold) ETFs that I moderated as part of my Research magazine job (which is unrelated to this blog); the Web event will be available until Oct. 23 and registration is free.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Film note: The Secret of Kells

This is a wonderful and fascinating animated film: The Secret of Kells. It's from 2009 but I hadn't heard of it before happening across a DVD at a store recently. Trailer here:

It takes place in 8th century Ireland and is a fictional tale about the creation of the Book of Kells; as such, it also appealed to my interest in Celtic Christianity. The animation gives a sense of bringing an illuminated manuscript to life, and also explores other exotic visual territory; for instance, some of the scenes reminded me of cellular organelles in motion. I highly recommend this film, with the caveat that it has nightmarish imagery that could disturb small children. (I watched it alone.) suggests ages 7+, though that's a year or two higher than I'd have said.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bruce Lee retro

What I published 10 years ago, minus a day: "Remember the Dragon," at National Review. Excerpt:

It has been three decades since the untimely death on July 20, 1973 of Bruce Lee, the martial-arts expert and movie star. The “dragon” (as he is known for his starring role in the film Enter the Dragon) has long been a cult hero to fans of martial-arts movies. But Lee deserves broader recognition for his contributions to American culture and society.
Lee served, in fact, as an important counterpoint to some of the negative cultural and social trends that were ascendant in the years when he attained fame. At a time when crime was soaring, Lee developed and popularized techniques that ultimately would help millions improve their self-defense abilities. In the face of a counterculture that derided self-discipline, Lee stood as a veritable embodiment of that virtue. In contrast to the pious (and often hypocritical) pacifism that arose against the Vietnam War, Lee’s films were a reminder that force can be legitimate depending on how and why it is used.

I've always had a pretty wide range of interests, for better and occasionally worse. My interest in martial arts goes back almost to when Lee was alive.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Rocket science politics in New Jersey

I have doubts about the effectiveness of this ad.


The problems are (1) unlike in the 1950s, the atomic power/electrons orbiting nucleus imagery doesn't necessarily convey to many people something positive and cutting-edge; (2) while it would be good to have more scientifically knowledgeable policymakers, the suggestion that someone has smart ideas about Social Security and other non-science issues by virtue of being a scientist, makes for an odd combo of intellectual braggadocio and non-sequitur.

Anyway, Congressman Rush Holt, a physicist (he was one of the top people at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, which researches nuclear fusion) is running against Newark Mayor Cory Booker in the special primary election Aug. 13. Some others are running, but Booker is the overwhelming favorite, unless apathy amid summer doldrums precipitates an upset; which I doubt. Glenn Greenwald, taking a break from some mildly controversial things he's been doing lately, has endorsed Holt.

On the Republican side, the primary pits heavily favored two-time gubernatorial primary loser Steve Lonegan against little-known physician Alieta Eck. Neither has displayed any talent for reaching out beyond the Republican base, and so a GOP victory in the October special election is highly unlikely.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book note: The Founders at Home

Review copy requested: The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817, by Myron Magnet. Myron was my editor back when (nearly two decades ago) I wrote for City Journal about the New York waterfront, the New York State Legislature and other subjects. He's a demanding editor but one who often got good results from writers, and I expect his own writing will show similar exactingness. Before I knew him in the City Journal capacity, I wrote about him and his book The Dream and the Nightmare for Insight magazine: "A Magnet to Lift the Poor."

UPDATE 11/17/13: More here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Space travel window

From an article about, and interview with, Elon Musk:
He was influenced, he says, by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, a science fiction saga in which a galactic empire falls and ushers in a dark age. "It's sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let's say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?"

It takes me a moment to realise it's not a rhetorical question. Um, poison the barbarians' water supply, I joke. Musk smiles and shakes his head. The answer is in technology. "The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time."
Me: As I've mentioned, I'm writing a book about DeWitt Clinton and the Erie Canal. And it seems to me there's an analogy between 19th century canal building and 21st century space travel: There's a window to do something, and that window will close at an unknown time. National borders and cultural diffusions that seem inevitable in retrospect were anything but; if the window had closed, something very different would have resulted.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Capsule review: Europa Report

What an extended exercise in tedium this movie was.

Europa Report was about 90 minutes long but gave the impression of some kind of relativistic time extension, even with the expedient of pressing the fast-forward on the remote in the Delaware hotel room where this sci-fi "thriller" cost $19.99 [!] on pay-per-view. I appreciate the film's earnestness in seeking some scientific verisimilitude and making a premise out of the idea that lakes on Europa, discovered in 2011, could be an environment for life. But with slow pacing, a disjointed story line, a distinct lack of character development (painfully evident once the characters start to die off and you try to remember what they did while alive) and a ponderous use of the "found footage" gimmick, this bit of hard sci-fi will be an ordeal for sentient organisms on Earth.

Friday, July 12, 2013

At Hamilton's tomb

Today I attended a remembrance service for Alexander Hamilton. Here was the scene at his tombstone at Trinity Church 209 years (minus about 45 minutes) after his death.

The graveside event was followed by a speech inside the church by author/historian Thomas Fleming, which was filmed by C-SPAN and focused on Hamilton's career achievements (rather than the duel). Fleming had many interesting points to make, including a suggestion that if New York had remained the U.S. capital, as Hamilton wanted, there would have been no Civil War. Fleming also had a couple of negative mentions of George Clinton, so there was a direct tie-in to my Clinton family research.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sex, lighting and other hot-button issues

I watched with interest the fracas at Ann Althouse's blog over men's rights, women's rights, abortion, child support, etc., wherein Althouse was at odds with Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds. This contentiousness was largely, albeit implicitly, over Reynolds' wife Helen Smith's book Men on Strike, which I reviewed here. Althouse's decision to suspend comments on her blog, after some incivilities, is understandable. On the other hand, it has the disadvantage that there's now no instantaneous mechanism for readers to alert Althouse that her euphoria about the House blocking lamp efficiency standards will be short-lived, as the legislation is sure to die in the Senate, as Kevin Drum notes here.

The lamp issue (having married into the lighting design world, I'll use the pro terminology, which avoids "bulbs" especially for things not bulb-shaped) has some similarity to the men/women debate, in that there's an incredible amount of "heat" relative to the amount of "light" or accurate information, and one can find deviations from reality and good sense on both sides of many flareups. One good thing about having a relatively obscure blog is that when you do get comments, you have more time to figure out if they're coming from crazy people.

Readers will note that my blog has been relatively inactive lately. That's partly because I've been particularly busy with other projects, and partly because--maybe it's the summer heat--my appetite for political debate, by which I mean rancorous political acrimony, is a bit diminished lately. That will probably change, but the good news in the meantime is that more speculative illustrations of alien life are coming soon.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Flora and fauna of the firmament—Part 1

When we get a better look at exoplanets, here are some of the life-forms we may find:

The Spiroplatnapi of Gliese 667 c
This artist's conception depicts the kind of intelligent life-form that may inhabit one of three "super-Earth" planets circling the red M dwarf star Gliese 667 c. Here we see a spirosplatnapus, a giant fishlike creature evolved to ply a planetary sea consisting of a soupy, aromatic hydrocarbon stew that to a human taste bud would suggest a hint of nectarine yogurt overlaying a base of heavy crankcase oil. It and the organism resembling a tar ball attached to what seems to be its head represent two of the species's 137 genders.

In order to procreate, all 137 spiroplatnapus sexes must copulate simultaneously in one coordinated 20-hour insemination frenzy in correct sequence via each gender's numerous and specifically evolved orifices, phalli and glands. Although all genders are fertile and, once impregnated, can produce offspring, the complex arrangements necessary to meet, date, match and mate have precluded successful procreation among the members of this busy, pragmatic species. The one time when all genders managed to coordinate a somewhat unruly ménage à 137 and reach the foreplay stage, the 17-clawed, 100-meter-long Gender 67 spiroplatnapus released its thorny sucker pincers, reared back and, with its 27,000 compound eyes tearing up, revealed it was unable to live a lie, confessing that it was only responsive to love that could be returned by other Gender 67s.

In its entire history, reproduction has been accomplished exactly zero times, and the only thing preventing extinction so far is the organism's multi-Earth-century life span. Scientists think only with the technological development of some kind of online speed-dating system that the species could shorten the arduous dating/courting/mating process to less than an Earth decade. But prospects remain dim—as most of the Gliesian spirosplatnapus genders agree, it's just so hard to meet anyone from Gender 122 that isn't a total creep.

Flora and Fauna of the Firmament is a satirical collaboration featuring illustrations by Ken Silber and descriptions by Michael Battaglia. Cross-posted at Quicksilber and Beige Matter.