Tuesday, 26 June 2012

John Carter of Mars

Like many males of my age and era, I bought copies of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, often known just as ERB. I loved his Tarzan series and, I think, read every volume. The Mars (Barsoom) series were at least as good, I thought. I was less interested in the Hollow Earth (Pellucidar) series and the Venus series. The Caspak trilogy ("The Land that Time Forgot" and its sequels) had a biological premise that still fascinates me, and was partly re-used in James Blish's classic novel A Case of Conscience and Harry Harrison's West of Eden.

Burroughs' books were written about a hundred years ago, and have their creaky and outdated elements, to be sure. These are not entirely due to the time that they were written. Burroughs' Tarzan is open to criticism on racist, classist, speciesist, and sexist grounds in ways that Kipling's Mowgli, in The Jungle Book, isn't: Tarzan is an English lord who is as superior to the blacks around him as he is to the apes; Tarzan discovers that the women of the city Opar, in an odd sexual dimorphism, are physically, mentally, and morally superior to the men of Opar. That little Y chromosome seems to carry so much inferior baggage! In contrast, Mowgli is a little Indian village boy, selected almost at random for survival when his family is attacked by a tiger, and taught true wisdom by the beasts around him.

Nevertheless, Burroughs had opulent settings, exciting plots, and a true literary streak in his words. Here is the beginning (Chapter 1, not the Prologue) of A Princess of Mars, the first of the Mars series.
I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

And because of this conviction I have determined to write down the story of the interesting periods of my life and of my death. I cannot explain the phenomena; I can only set down here in the words of an ordinary soldier of fortune a chronicle of the strange events that befell me during the ten years that my dead body lay undiscovered in an Arizona cave.
Doesn't this set atmosphere and tone? Does it define a mystery? Does it make us want to read more? It should be clear that I expect that your answers to these questions should be "Yes." I'd be proud if I'd written that. I wouldn't be surprised if a Borges story started that way, although it would continue in a different direction.

This is to explain why I was excited by the upcoming release of the film John Carter of Mars and the anxieties I felt about it. Would it reproduce the opulent setting? Would each of the Martian races be true to itself? Would it do duty to the time and place it was set? Would it do duty to the story? Would Dejah Thoris be believably "incomparable," as John Carter often describes her? Would his eventual devotion to his adopted planet be believable?

It should be noted that these are different questions to those of many of the people who filed into a theatre to be entertained or to write a review. They wouldn't know who Dejah Thoris was, for example.

I knew that other films had dipped their fingers into the world of Barsoom. It seems obvious to me that George Lucas in this scene of Return of the Jedi had ERB as a ghost-writer. It has a desert overflown by open-decked "ships," harness as clothing, a mixture of swords and energy guns, exotic beasts, multiple intelligent species....all of which shout "Barsoom" to me. In addition, a low-budget, direct-to-dvd Princess of Mars came out in 2009. Still, these were meagre results considering that efforts to film Barsoom go back to the 1930s.

It should be clear that I was not a typical audience member for John Carter of Mars. My first and main criterion was that the film actually let me spend a little time in Barsoom as I remembered it.

The original book cover, from 1917.

The movie largely met my demands, simple as they were. Lynn Collins made a creditable job of being "incomparable."

Taylor Kitsch as John Carter looks like a Red Martian Warrior, but he needs to sound like a southerner. He's a Virginian who had fought fiercely on the losing side of the Civil War and is brought gradually to pledging his sword in another war. It is a major element in his character.


As for the setting, they pretty much nailed it. Have a look at the trailer.

So, obviously, I enjoyed the film. However, many stayed away, and Disney has lost a lot of money on it. Some blame the title, since most potential viewers had no clue who John Carter is or what Barsoom means; some blame the odd marketing of an action-adventure story in, for example, the trailer above. Still and all, the film does not stink.

It is certainly not above criticism, though. I was impressed by the critical essay that the Hulk wrote about it. The main point is that we do not care about the characters because the film presents the key information about them just at the moment it is needed. If we had it earlier then we could follow the development of the character from his initial state and appreciate the choices he makes on the way.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Microsoft's Good Taste, and Other Snarkasms

OK, today I am going to be petty (I'd say "a little petty," but that's redundant). (No, on second thought, let's revel in pettiness for a bit. It'll feel good).

Steve Jobs once gave his opinion about a deep-seated problem with his rival Microsoft:

He was speaking about the company's products, but I have observed through the years that the lack of thought extends even to the most superficial and customer-facing levels, including the company and product names. Let's take a look.

Of course, we start with the name "Microsoft" itself. In the masculine, testosterone-dripping worlds of programming and commerce, back in the 1970's, yet, a company communicates its toughness by combining the images of small and soft. Let's not dwell on that.

Windows CE was introduced in 1996. As "Windows" is often abbreviated as "Win," Windows CE inevitably became "WinCE." Really? "Wince"?
Wince (noun): A slight grimace or shrinking movement caused by pain or distress.
Wince (verb): To shrink or start involuntarily, as in pain or distress; flinch.
It is amazing that highly paid merchandizers who are presumably skilled in the art of creating positive impressions would let this pass.

In addition, what does the CE stand for? The letters came first; multiple meanings were tacked on later as folk etymologies. Wikipedia tells us,
Microsoft has stated that the "CE" is not an intentional initialism, but many people believe CE stands for "Consumer Electronics" or "Compact Edition". Microsoft says the letters instead imply a number of Windows CE design precepts, including "Compact, Connectable, Compatible, Companion, and Efficient."
So it stands for nothing.

We can surely forgive a single slip in quality of product names, however obvious. Well, we could, if it were a single slip. Consider that, back in 2000, Microsoft released Windows Millennium Edition, or Windows ME, or (by the same process as above), Win ME. "Win me"? Really? The impression that you wish to leave is that no-one would pay for it, so it must be a game prize of some sort?

August 24, 2001 saw the release of the longest-lived version of Windows: Windows XP. Could there possibly be anything wrong with that name? Well, consider that Apple had been developing Mac OS X Server since 1999 and released the consumer version of Mac OS X in March 2001. It advertised this, the tenth version of the Mac operating system, with the Roman Numeral for ten:

Then, six months later, Microsoft came out with its own OS X (differentiated by the letter P). Tacky, tacky. Such tricks lead to mockery, such as this in 2006:


("Redmond" means Microsoft, as that city is its headquarters).

Officially, XP stands for "Xperience." It also resembles something very well known and quite different in meaning: a Chi-Rho, which stands for "Christ" (in Greek letters). It looks like this:
Perhaps the implication is that Windows XP is a religious experience!

Now we are coming up to Windows 8, which presents a new user interface called Metro. Like no other Windows version (except Windows 1.0), the Metro interface has either non-overlapping tiles or a full screen interface. In other words, this is Windows with no windows. Here is a screen shot of the tiles.


I'm going to change the basis of criticism now from names to colours. The colours of these tiles seemed not only unattractive to me, but strangely familiar. I eventually remembered. The kitchen appliances of the sixties and seventies were dominated by the colours Avocado and Harvest Gold. A later option was Poppy Red. Here they are.


Harvest Gold:
Poppy Red:

The Turquoise and Orange shades seen in the Metro tiles were also available in kitchens for a time. Try here for a short history on appliance colours. And thank you, Microsoft, for a trip down memory lane!

Windows ads are sometimes astoundingly pointless. Try this bum wiggle from Bill Gates.

And to see what Microsoft employees themselves think about their company's abilities to communicate with class and restraint, try this:

I don't have anything to add.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Decopyrighted and uncopyrighted works, especially music

Monday night (18 June) at 11:00 pm, the new Copyright Bill (C-11) of Canada passed third reading in the House of Commons. It still needs to pass the Senate and receive Royal Assent before it becomes the new "Copyright Modernization Act" and will modify Canada's "Copyright Act." Let's take it as certain that those two remaining steps won't be problems.

The Bill has good and bad points. Many of the good points have been achieved through years of public pressure, as Michael Geist was kind enough to show in his 18 June 2012 posting "The Battle over C-11 Concludes: How Thousands of Canadians Changed The Copyright Debate" in an easy-to-read table. However, one of the points that I am happiest about is a non-change. Canada, unlike the United States, Britain, and Australia, did not change the duration of copyright.

The general term of copyright for "works" (according to Section 6 of the Copyright Act) is the remainder of the year in which the author dies and fifty years after that. For "sound recordings" and broadcasts (according to Section 23 of the Copyright Act), fifty years total. The fact we've kept to a fifty-year limit for sound recordings and "life plus fifty" for other works means that we will have a growing public domain for the foreseeable future, and we can keep putting new books into Project Gutenberg Canada each year.

(My contribution to PG Canada, by the way, is Fletcher Pratt's The Battles that Changed the World).

Such riches! It makes me feel like Henry Bemis did, before his glasses broke, in "Time Enough at Last" (an episode from the Twilight Zone tv series).

I primarily want to write about recorded music. Since this is 2012, all the music recordings from 1961 or earlier (i.e. over fifty years ago) are legally public domain. They have no owners; they have no cost. Illegal downloads of them are, in fact, legal. Sampling them for your own music is fine. Using them as soundtracks for your movies (as long as your movies are shown in Canada) is fine. Also, and fortunately, some of them are very good music.

We can find what was published in a certain year by going to a set of Wikipedia pages. Here is a list of the albums of popular music from 1961, including ones by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Joan Baez. Let's just say, there is a wide variety of styles represented. Another section of that same page lists the classical recordings of that year. The lists for 1962, 1963, and so on are also available.

The 1963 recordings include the beginning of what we think of as "sixties music." The Beach Boys released their second album, Surfin' USA, in 1963 and The Beatles released their first (Please Please Me) and second (With the Beatles) albums. Subsequent years will see albums by the Rolling Stones, The Cream, Led Zeppelin, and so on fall into the Public Domain.

This excites me because this is a world where the copyright status of "Happy Birthday to You" is unclear, and movies will not use it so as to avoid the fees that are charged for it. It is a world where a band is successfully sued for using a few notes from "Kookaburra Sits on an Old Gum Tree." It is a world where Girl Scouts are asked to pay royalties for campfire songs. The more recordings there are in the Public Domain, the richer we, as a culture, will be.

Larry Lessig argued in a TED Talk for the importance of culture that we can adapt and re-use.

In her own creative way, Nina Paley made the same point in a one-minute movie.

This is a good place to mention an odd fact about recordings of piano music. There are certainly analogue recordings of nineteenth-century performances on Edison Cylinders, but their quality is not up to modern standards. This 1889 performance by Johannes Brahms is an example. However, there are actual digital recordings of piano music--piano rolls, that control a player piano. Rather than trying to reproduce the sound of the original performance, it recreates the performance, but on a different piano. In this way we have performances by Gustav Mahler, Edvard Grieg, Claude Debussy, Scott Joplin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin and George Gershwin recorded on player piano rolls.

When I made the connection in my mind that piano rolls are digital recordings, I became quite excited. After all, although there are lovely performances of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," like this from Disney's Fantasia 2000, wouldn't Gershwin's own 1925 performance interest you?

(By the way, the principle of the player piano is still being used, though with vastly improved technology. A performance of J.S. Bach's Goldburg Variations by Kimiko Ishizaka, which was recently released to the Public Domain, was recorded on a specially equipped piano).

As long as I am on the subject of classical music released free of charge, I'd like to include links to a few pieces that I've found. MIDI transcriptions of piano rolls are at pianola.co.nz. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has ten live performances for download in return for your name and e-mail. MusOpen is a non-profit organization that sought $11,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to hire an orchestra (the Prague Symphony, as it turned out) and raised almost $70,000 for it. With this money, it recorded 27 symphonies for release to the Public Domain. The ProTools files of the performance are available for download, but the mixing and balancing for the MP3 and FLAC files are taking place now. A May 22 update says that this will be finished "soon," so patience will be rewarded.

I've modified this posting quite a bit since I first put it up. I may modify it again, since the purpose is to document my "continuing" education. If you know of any good Public Domain classical recordings or high-quality recordings of piano roll music that are available for legal download, please put them in the comments.

Monday, 18 June 2012

National Debt

In simpler times, Captain Nemo attempted to convey the extent of his wealth:
"One last question, Captain Nemo."
"Ask, professor."
"You're rich, then?"
"Infinitely rich, sir, and without any trouble, I could pay off the ten–billion–franc French national debt!"
(If you feel like checking, that's near the end of Chapter 13 in the F.P. Walter translation).

He must have been very rich indeed to build a submarine that looks like this

instead of this

Verne's novel was published in 1871. Nemo, if he were still alive, would have considerably more difficulty paying the French debt now, after it hit 1,717,256,000,000 Euros (1 trillion, 717 billion, 256 million Euros) in 2011 and continues to rise. I feel sure that not all the gold in the sunken treasure ships of the world would pay off the American national debt. As copied today (18 June 2012) from the U.S. National Debt Clock, it stands like this:
The Outstanding Public Debt as of 18 Jun 2012 at 03:42:47 PM GMT is:

$ 1 5 , 7 5 1 , 5 8 7 , 2 9 7 , 6 1 6 . 2 6
The estimated population of the United States is 312,974,798
so each citizen's share of this debt is $50,328.61.

The National Debt has continued to increase an average of
$3.91 billion per day since September 28, 2007!
Concerned? Then tell Congress and the White House!
The Canadian Debt Clock tells us this:
The Current Outstanding Public Debt of Canada is approximately:

$584,122,764,789.22 CDN

Last Updated: May 18th, 2012

Every man, woman and child in Canada currently owes $17,125.30 for their share of Canada's public debt
Clearly, the Canadian government, with debts that hover around 30% of its GDP, is in better financial condition than the United States' (whose debt is 106.6% of its GDP), Greece's (whose debt is 153% of its GDP) and the current debt champion of the world, Japan's (whose debt is 256.6% of its GDP).

However, as someone who has struggled with personal debts in the past and present, I'd say that even 30% is a burden. In 2007-2008, the Canadian Federal Government spent 2.2% of the GDP in paying the interest on the debt, which comes to $33.3 billion dollars. It follows that the $33 billion were not spent on running the government nor investing in the nation. It also follows that $33 billion were not spent by the Canadian people, so the the GDP itself is smaller.

I believe the situation is actually worse than these numbers indicate for Canada and the United States, though not so much for Japan and Greece, because the first two are federations. In a unitary government like Japan's or Greece's, the national government is in charge of the large expenditures on health, education, or welfare that, in Canada, are provincial responsibilities. So, to properly compare, say, Canada with Japan, we should add Canada's federal debt to all of the the provincial debts first.

Once we have added up our governmental debt, can we estimate how much it damages the economy? Some think we can.

U.S. economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carman Reinhart believe the danger point is a debt-to-GDP ratio in excess of 90 per cent.

"That level has historically been associated with notably lower growth," the two economists wrote in the Financial Times newspaper in January.

Once a country's debt measure pops above that level, the national GDP loses a percentage point of economic growth, they estimated.
That's economic growth, not GDP. The American growth in GDP was only 1.9% in the first quarter of 2012 and 3.0% in the second, so we can do the math.

Now, I started this particular episode in my continuing education because of a very interesting page on the BBC news web site called "Why the Young should Welcome Austerity" by Professor Niall Ferguson. He focuses on the aspect of debt which is that you can spend now but pay later. It is as true of government debt as it is of credit cards. He points out a crucial difference, though, which is that the generation that is spending now will be retired or dead before the bills come due.
The heart of the matter is the way public debt allows the current generation of voters to live at the expense of those as yet too young to vote or as yet unborn.
In addition, though, he criticizes the debt figures (as I did above) as incomplete.
But the official debts in the form of bonds do not include the often far larger unfunded liabilities of welfare schemes like - to give the biggest American schemes - Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The most recent estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues is $200 trillion, nearly thirteen times the debt as stated by the U.S. Treasury.

Notice that these figures, too, are incomplete, since they omit the unfunded liabilities of state and local governments, which are estimated to be around $38 trillion.
By "unfunded liabilities" I think he means that some laws commit governments to pay for certain services in the future, but where that money comes from is left as a problem for the future. In many cases, the next generation must pay.

So, how can the government debt be paid down?
  1. Put the debt into long-term loans at fixed rates and then let inflation devalue the currency. This has the effect of reducing the value of the debt at the expense of the entire economy.
  2. Cut government spending significantly and hope that you are not voted out of office for it.
  3. Increase government revenue by taxing whoever and whatever has been undertaxed.
  4. Attempt, through judicious government support of the economy through low interest rates and investment to increase the gdp so that the ratio of debt to gdp will go down.
No one of these possibilities is the whole answer. Some combination of all of them will probably be tried.

However serious the government debt may be, we have to acknowledge that, except for the case of Greece, government debts have not caused the world's current financial problems. Greece is a special case because successive governments conspired to falsify its financial reports. Government debt did not cause the crises in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, or Italy; greedy  banks and reckless borrowers have to take the blame.

The first of the disgraced New York banking houses to cause a recession was the Lehman Brothers (which will be remembered, thanks to the movie Despicable Me as the "First Bank of Evil")

Goldman Sachs is "recognized as one of the most prestigious Investment banking firms in the world," but "Goldman Sachs is reported to have systematically helped the Greek government mask the true facts concerning its national debt between the years 1998 and 2009." To my mind, this qualifies the company to be the Second Bank of Evil.

The Spanish financial crisis was not due to government debt. When compared to Germany, Italy, and France, "Spain's government also has the smallest debts relative to the size of its economy." So, "There was a big build-up of debts in Spain and Italy before 2008, but it had nothing to do with governments. Instead it was the private sector - companies and mortgage borrowers - who were taking out loans." (More here). And it was the banks who were enthusiastically offering the risky loans. We, therefore, have candidates for the Third and Fourth Banks of Evil.

So, how can the truly problematic debt, the debt that is not owed by government, be handled? That depends on reform of the banking system so that it cannot--will not be allowed to--offer risky loans. One such law was put in place in the United States in the Depression Era, the Glass-Steagall Act, but it was largely dismantled in 1999. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act  is an attempt to reinstate some of the safeguards from Glass-Steagall. In particular, part of the Dodd-Frank law, called the Volcker Rule, forbids banks to make investments for their own profit, instead of their clients'.

These are deep waters with complex currents. Huge profits depend on people not understanding where the fault lies. In that respect, the current crisis is the financial equivalent of the global warming crisis.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Afterlife

I thought the mainstream Christian view of the afterlife involves "Going to Heaven." However, it occurred to me that nothing like this existed in the older poetry I was reading. Instead of immediately entering Heaven (or the other destination, as the case might be), we must wait for resurrection and judgement on Earth. Here are two examples.

"Dies Irae" by Thomas of Celano (1200 – c. 1265)
Day of sadness, day of sighs,
When we from the coals will rise
And to judgement be consigned
therefore, God, please spare mankind
(My translation).

"Holy Sonnet 7" by John Donne (1572-1631)
At the round earth's imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
The image of bodies arising on Judgement Day is certainly there in the Old Testament.
12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord. ’” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
And in the New.
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Revelations  20:13)
It's in the Apostles' Creed
...the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
and the later Nicene Creed
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
and Ghostbusters.

So, the Christian consensus seems settled: When we die, we go into some sort of waiting period until the day that our bodies physically rise from our graves, from the sea, from wherever, and we come back to physical life. This takes place on earth, either the Earth we know or a recreated New Earth. Where is there room for "going to heaven" in this?

Well, there are two ambiguities here. One is, where do the souls wait? The other is, are they conscious when they are waiting? Ink and blood have been wasted on whether the souls (1) sleep or (2) die and will be resurrected, or (3) watch and wait. Donne is with the "soul sleep" camp in "Holy Sonnet 10":
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ;  Death, thou shalt die.
If you hold with the "watch and wait" opinion, however, then heaven could be our waiting room until the New Earth is created.

I recently wrote a short poem about my father's death that includes both views on the afterlife: heaven and soul sleep.
He’s with his maker, in a higher place,
and looking down to see his former loves;
and till we rise to join in Heaven’s grace,
we flutter on the Earth, like fledgling doves.
I’ve also heard my father’s soul’s asleep—
he waits for Christ to order his rebirth,
he waits for resurrection from the Deep,
he waits to walk forever on the Earth.
All that I know for certain is he’s gone,
an absence like an abscess in a tooth,
a certain solid fact of life withdrawn,
that leaves an empty echo as the truth.
It seems odd that most of our euphemisms for death are about going to heaven, movies about death seem to be about going to heaven, and so on, but I can't find the justification for Christians to think that they are going to heaven. It seems to be a mostly twentieth-century idea, but I have not chased down why or when as yet.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Iron Sky

I loved the trailer and concept of the movie Iron Sky. Nazis fled from Germany's defeat in 1945 to set up a colony on the far side of the moon. Now, they're coming back.

I did a check on the Rotten Tomatoes website to see how the critics like it. I don't take the critical consensus as gospel about a movie's quality. Some of my favourite films are deeply divisive, it seems. At any rate, Iron Sky has received about a 40% rating. It fails.

One interesting thing, though: American critics haven't weighed in yet. If we look at who likes it, I see reviews from the Daily Mirror, The Birmingham Post, Sky Movies, The Mercury, and At the Movies. The first three are English; the last two are Australian. It will be interesting to see what happens when it receives wider distribution. I suspect that it shows the President of the United States to be Sarah Palin would make some American critics cringe and others cry foul. This is enough to explain why...supporting a violation of Godwin's Law is not smart politics.

Taking a Longer View

A problem with most companies and many governments is that they usually need results from their investments within one or two fiscal years or before the next election. There are exceptions, such as the government-funded fusion research, which has gone on since 1955. Nevertheless, short- to medium-range thinking is the rule, and long-range thinking is the exception.

This is a problem that Robert A. Heinlein addressed in his "young adult" novel Time for the Stars. In it, a non-profit organization called "The Long Range Foundation" (LRF) generously funded projects that would take decades to produce results or, quite likely, would produce no results at all. As the book says,
Its coat of arms reads: "Bread Cast Upon the Waters," and its charter is headed: "Dedicated to the Welfare of Our Descendants." The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers' fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch. It wasn't enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders. To make the LRF directors light up with enthusiasm you had to suggest something that cost a billion or more and probably wouldn't show results for ten generations, if ever … something like how to control the weather (they're working on that) or where does your lap go when you stand up.
The LRF could afford to do this because a long-shot bet on the future pays off handsomely, if it pays off at all.

The LRF has inspired some long-range projects, such as the 100 Year Starship Project.

The LRF also shares a long perspective on the future with another organization, the Long Now Foundation, but I don't know that the first inspired the second. The Long Now Foundation is trying to promote "longer term thinking" by designing and building a unique clock:
There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.
The Long Now Foundation also has started a project to record 1,500 languages on a single nickel disk (The Rosetta Project), a server, a timeline program, and (simplest of all) it promotes writing a year with an extra zero in the front, to remind us of the thousands of years ahead of us. So, now, in the year 02012, I would think of 12,012 AD, 22,012 AD and so on.

However, as someone with a degree in archaeology, I have to wonder why we should focus on the depth of time in the future and ignore the depth of time in the past. For this reason, I prefer Cesare Emiliani's suggestion in Nature that we add ten thousand to our calendar year (if the year is A.D.) and subtract the date from 10,000 (if it is B.C). This suggestion is called the "Human Era Calendar" or the "Holocene Calendar," so the year number is followed by an H.E. instead of a B.C. or A.D. That would make this year 12,012 H.E.

These dates give a good perspective on the pace of human progress. For example, the current interglacial period (the Holocene Interglacial), the earliest agricultural crops, and the earliest human-made place of worship, the amazing site of Göbekli Tepe,  are within a few hundred years of the calendar's starting point, 10,000 B.C. Proto-writing, such as the Vinča symbols,  dates from a convenient half-way point: 5,000 H.E. The oldest true writings are from Mesopotamia, about 7,000 H.E. The traditional year of Jesus' birth is 10,000 H.E., and Faraday's electric engine is from not long after, in 11,821 H.E. (1821 A.D.).  I appreciate how this calendar shows how events relate to the whole sequence of human cultural development from the Neolithic to the present.

It occurs to me that we could have two calendar systems--B.C./A.D. and H.E.--in the same way that we have two temperature scales, Celsius and Kelvin. The length of a year is the same in both calendars; the degree measures the same difference in temperature in Celsius and Kelvin scales; what differs is the starting point. H.E. and Kelvin measure from a more logical and more distant point, so we need not specify if a measure is before or after a date, above or below a temperature. Also, as Kelvin is used and appreciated by scientists, while everyone else uses Celsius, I imagine that historians and other scholars might adopt the Holocene Calendar, at least for their own use, while everyone else continues to use the traditional dates.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Notes on the New Space Age

In 1969, I watched the first footstep on the moon on the family black-and-white TV. I was thrilled. Here was a milestone in the space age, I thought. I did not suspect that it was the climax of that age. Three years later, the Apollo program ended, and man has not returned to the moon for forty-three years and counting.

Well before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, science fiction author Robert Heinlein mapped out a future history  in which space flight was achieved in a period he called the "False Dawn" because it was then abandoned. As much as I admired him, I would not have credited that he was right. He also predicted that space travel would be achieved through private enterprise, not government spending. In this, he was clearly wrong.

Or was he? Private enterprise is working up a glow that may indicate the true dawn of space travel, the one that will last. Several companies are developing hardware to push into space: suborbital vehicles, man-rated rockets, heavy-lift rockets, and space capsules to go into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and higher. In this post, I'd like to introduce some of the people and companies working to make the New Space Age happen, and the hardware they are making. I will do it from the point of view of NASA.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration.” In terms of goals, this meant that NASA would return to the moon and move men to Mars.

Then, in 2005, Michael Griffin became the head of NASA. He ordered a study, the "Exploration Systems Architecture Study," which recommended putting the "Vision" into effect through the "Constellation Program." Constellation would complete work on two rockets, the Ares I (to launch crews into orbit) and Ares V (to launch heavy hardware into space), as well as creating the Orion space capsule to hold the crew and the Altair lunar lander to get them down to an interesting place.

 The Orion Space Capsule

In 2006, Congress granted Dr. Griffin less money for Constellation than he had wished from Congress, so he shifted money from other projects to keep Constellation on track. Some important projects were "deferred indefinitely" (cancelled), but he had his moment of triumph when the Ares I rocket successfully lifted off on October 28, 2009.

I assume there was some sense of urgency to the development of the Ares I, in particular, because the U.S. Space Shuttle program would end soon. Nevertheless, Constellation was controversial, even within NASA, for its cost. From 2006, an unofficial, volunteer, group called DIRECT, involving many NASA engineers, proposed the Jupiter Program, a set of other rockets which, like the Ares, re-used parts of the Space Shuttle to save cost. The biggest differences in the Jupiter Program are that it provides one flexible rocket instead of two specialized ones, it keeps safety systems in Orion that were stripped to save mass, and it uses a shuttle-derived upper stage instead of a clean-sheet upper stage. It was designed for faster development and less cost.

Dr. Griffin saw his plans shatter when the Augustine Report of October 2009 suggested to President Obama that NASA's money could be better spent. It reported that, even if NASA received the $3 billion increase to its budget that it sought, and even if it saved money by retiring the International Space Station early, in 2015, the Ares V would not be ready till the mid-2020s. As a result, Ares I and V were cancelled in 2010 due to cost and time problems.

Instead, the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010” that President Obama signed ordered NASA to develop a single rocket along the lines suggested by the DIRECT Team, which would lift either cargo or crew. NASA would continue its work on the Orion capsule and, most interestingly, fund private companies, through fixed-price contracts, to supply the ISS. In effect, NASA is passing some of the work of going to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to the private sector.

 The Space Launch System
(Brown areas are derived from the Space Shuttle launch system)

The Space Launch System (SLS) now being developed will initially take 70 tonnes to LEO. With one other stage added, it will take 130 tonnes. By comparison, today's biggest commercial launch vehicles, such as the Ariane 5 or the Delta IV Heavy, can put just over 20 tonnes in LEO.

The SLS is also intended to mount an Orion capsule to go to the moon, asteroids, or Mars. Orion will be completed first, so a Delta IV Heavy rocket will launch an unmanned Orion in July 2013. The SLS design will be completed in 2015. Current plans call for an SLS to send an Orion on an unmanned trip around the moon in 2017.

This posting focuses only on NASA's plans, but there is an amazing bubbling of new activity among people interested in space. Russia is building new rockets and plans a new space station; China has a new space station and is planning a trip to the moon; India and Japan have plans for the moon; space tourism will turn large-scale when Virgin Galactic begins its flights; and SpaceX is developing plans for trips to Mars. All this will go in later posts.

This is an exciting time.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

To Be or Not to Be, and the Klingon Language

Here is a demonstration of the various ways that an actor can deliver the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11380973)

Here is another version of the same speech, translated into the Klingon language:

For those who do not know, this language was developed by linguistics professor Marc Okrand for the Star Trek movies, so that the language spoken by aliens would sound like a language, as opposed to baby talk or babble. Interestingly, Dr. Okrand deliberately chose language features that are statistically rare to make the language sound more alien. At any rate, the entire text of Hamlet has been published in Klingon, thanks to the Klingon Language Institute.

Disney later approached Dr. Okrand for help in developing a language for the city of Atlantis, to be used in the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Learn it from this video:

I could say quite a bit more on invented languages, but later.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Expatriate Elections

Yesterday, I was fascinated by a BBC story about elections being held for a French député (Member of Parliament) to represent French citizens who live in Northern Europe but outside of France. All of the candidates live in London, as it has the largest French population outside France. The article calls London "the sixth largest French city."

Wow, this is an idea that had never occurred to me: People voting for a parliament so that it could make laws on taxes, hospitals, immigration, and other issues that do not affect those voters. They, instead, would live under the laws of another nation which, most likely, they could not influence by voting. Then there are those people who have dual citizenship, and would be able to vote for both a député in France and an MP in Britain. Their influence through their ballots would be twice as great as their neighbours'.

I thought about the contrast between the French accommodation of its citizens in London and the American disenfranchisement of its citizens in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is not part of the United States, but American federal laws apply to it. People born there are American citizens, but residents of Puerto Rico (wherever they were born) cannot vote in federal elections. Although Puerto Rico has no Congressman or Senator, it does have a "Resident Commissioner" in the House of Representatives. He cannot vote on the floor of the House but can vote on procedural matters and in House Committees. If that were not confusing enough, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote for the President but could become the President. The constitution requires, though, that a President must have lived in the United States for fourteen years, and time residing in Puerto Rico does not count towards that.

Putting this electoral puzzle to one side, I wondered what it would be like if Canada had a few electoral ridings outside Canada's boundaries. One would need to be in Los Angeles, and probably another in New York. (According to this Wikipedia article, "In the 1980s, Los Angeles had the fourth largest Canadian population of any city in the [sic] North America, with New York close behind."

Still, I cannot imagine a Member of Parliament for Los Angeles standing up to speak in the House of Commons. Even less can I imagine a Prime Minister who represents a seat outside Canada. If he was considered "a non-resident of Canada" for tax purposes, he would not even pay Canadian taxes until he took up his new job in Ottawa! Perhaps the French experiment causes too many border cases and too much confusion for other countries to copy.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Property Rights according to Locke and Marx

John Locke justified the existence of property this way: (God gave) the earth to all mankind, to have dominion over in common and equally. We therefore have a "state of nature" without private property.

However, if a man clears a forest and makes a farm, he combines his labour with nature to make something not entirely natural. The result is his property, by right of his work. Locke says that this right of property should be within limits...he should be able to control enough property to sustain himself, and just enough that he can work it personally. Locke believed this degree of private property is “fair” (i.e. it is justified by natural rights).

Karl Marx points out that Locke's "fair" definition of private property is simply not how property is defined and used in our society. The ownership of land (or any other “means of production”) does not imply that one works the land. In fact, most of the time people’s labour is alienated from them; they labour, and the benefits go to the owner, not themselves. Marx believes this is “unfair” (i.e. it is not justified by natural rights).

Locke says that human beings have the right to resist if an individual tries to take their natural rights away, and to revolt if a government tries to take them away.

Marx agrees.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Translations of Two Rilke Poems: Herbsttag and Panther

Rainer Maria Rilke was not taught in any English class I have taken, probably because he wrote in German. It is a pity, though, because the short quotations of his work that I occasionally read in translation seem wise and beautiful. He is well known for his book Letters to a Young Poet as well as for his poetry.

The movie Awakenings included a translation of the poem that seems to be the best-known of his works to the English-speaking world, "Der Panther." He wrote it after seeing a panther pacing his cage in Paris. It was published in 1902.  This page contains many alternative translations of this poem. The original looks like this:
Der Panther (Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris)
Rainer Maria Rilke
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannter Stille -
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein. 

It sounds like this:

I wrote several translations of it, using German dictionaries and other translators' comments as a guide. I wanted to retain the formality of its structure and the original rhyme scheme, as much as possible. Out of those translations, the best, I think, is this one:
The Panther
By Rainer Maia Rilke
Translated by Gareth Jones
His gaze is, from the passing of the bars,
exhausted; they are all it holds,
as if, surrounding him, a thousand bars,
and past the thousand bars, no world.

The strong and supple motion of each joint
move him in the smallest round,
like rippling forces dancing round a point
where, numb, a mighty will is bound.

At times, the curtains pull back in his eyes
without a sound--an image comes,
through the tension of still limbs it flies,
and touches on his heart, and dies.
Another of Rilke's short poems is "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day"). It is, apparently, a common favorite in Germany. The original is this:
Rainer Maria Rilke

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben
The original sounds like this:

There is a wonderful play of alliteration, rhyme, consonance, and assonance in this poem that makes it a challenge to translate. Similar sounds ripple through a line like "Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr." You can hear the wind whistling with the "ss" sound in the phrase "laß die Winde los." I did my best and came up with this.
Autumn Day
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Gareth Jones

Lord, it's time. The summer's greatness, done.
Lay your shadows on the sun clocks and
Let the winds across the grasslands run.

Tell last fruits to ripen on the vine.
Give them two more days of southern heat
Urge them to perfection and then speed
Their final sweetness to the heavy wine.

He who has no home will build no more.
He who is alone, for long will be,
Will lie awake, read, write endlessly
And throughout the broad streets here and there
Restless wander while the leaves blow free.

I am proud of this, but I would enjoy reading your comments on it.

Update: I wonder if "the mighty supple motion of each joint" is better than "the strong and supple." It does sound better, I think.


Update: I've had more problems with the second stanza of "Autumn Day" than any other. Specifically, the second and the last line of it. The original just says, "Give them two more southern days," but there is no word meaning "to hurry" that rhymes with "days." Thus, I ended up with "heat" (which is implied by the word "southern") and "speed."

It just occurred to me that I could also use

Tell last fruits to ripen on the vine,
Give them two more Southern days to blush,
Urge them to perfection and then rush
Their final sweetness to the heavy wine.

"Rush" is a better word than "speed." It sounds like liquid flowing. And though "blush" is no more in the original than "heat" is, its meaning connects to the next line ("urge them to perfection") and is the purpose of asking for the southern days.

I don't know if, overall, that's an improvement, though. Those two lines have been hard.