Monday, June 22, 2015

The multiverse and improbable outcomes

I've been occupying my mind the last couple of weeks by going deep on a few ideas of a philosophical nature, mostly inspired by my recent reading of Neil Stephenson's Anathem. If you like books that make you think thoughts and also take you on wild sci-fi adventures, read Anathem. I'm sending the paperback on a tour of as many friends as I can get to read it and buying myself a hardcover copy that I can read a few more times and annotate. It's that good.

So here's a thought that's been bothering me about the multiverse theory. To summarize it very succinctly, the multiverse theory holds that, every time a random quantum-mechanical probability is resolved (for example, an unstable atom decays or does not), new universes are spawned to reflect each possible outcome. So in one universe an atom splits and in another it doesn't. With the incomprehensible number of quantum events taking place throughout the universe at any given moment, the number of universes that this idea would give rise to is vast on a scale beyond my ability to even attempt to convey it.

So here's the idea that's been sending my brain in circles: What if there is some very common quantum-mechanical effect that, for example, has a 90% chance to cause the entire universe to explode in fire during any given second. So after every second, there are nine universes in which everything has been annihilated and one in which it has not. Then after another second, that survivor universe has spawned another ten outcomes, nine of which are on fire. And so on and so on for trillions of years. What if ten copies of humanity are being spawned every second, and the version writing this post, and the version reading this post, are the fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, the tiny surviving remnant of a vast apocalypse?

This is basically the anthropic principle raised to the highest possible degree - what if the universe we inhabit at any given moment is, in fact, one of only a very tiny fraction that's managed to survive as long as it has, and the only reason that we perceive the universe as being a stable and constant phenomenon is that all the versions of the universe that have demonstrated its inherent instability resulted in all observers being instantly destroyed?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Via Jon Rosenberg:
Enjoy your guns, gun owners. I hope they make you happy in a way that breathing, smiling six-year old children cannot.

Friday, June 8, 2012


Rose just sat with Josie and drew a few pictures.

Rose draws a sun, Josie says "Sonne!"
Rose draws a star, Josie says "Stern!"
Rose draws a crescent moon. Josie says "Banane!"

From the mouths of babes

This evening, I was reattaching a toilet paper holder that has come off of its mount, and Josie came in looking at me with wide eyes. "Papa, doing?"

I'm constantly amazed at the things that Josie can say. Bilingual children start speaking more slowly than children raised with a single mother language on average, but Josie's development in German seems to be just about typical, and her English is already getting pretty good, too.

Some of my favorite things that she says:

- In addition to "moo", "oink oink", and other animal sounds, she's learned to moan "braaaaaains" when I ask her what zombies say.
- She's obsessed with running fast, and she always announces "'Phine, nell!" ('Phine, fast!) before she takes off.
- Whenever I put her socks on, I get one crooked and she complains "nein, Papa, falsch. So 'rum." (no, Papa, wrong. This way around.)
- When I tell her I love her, she's started saying "vuv yuu" back to me. It melts my heart.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On big numbers

I have a real issue with the way numbers associated with macroeconomics are reported in the news. Ezra Klein writes that the American Federal Reserve is planning to perform quantitative easing to the tune of $600 billion.

The reason this sort of thing bugs me is that the number is essentially meaningless, because it is beyond comprehension. Your average person (or even your average above average person) is going to look at that number, and their brain is going to gloss it as "a metric Jesusload of money."

What I would much rather see is values like this in per-capita terms, and broken down over time: $600 billion is roughly $1,900 per American citizen. Spread out over seven months (the Fed plans to inject the money into the economy by purchasing treasuries between now and June), that's $271 a month per person in additional money entering the economy.

Isn't it a bit easier to comprehend the Fed's action and its possible impact when it's put like that?

By the way: I am hopefully going to be posting around here occasionally again. The birth of the Loaf massively reduced the time I could invest in the Umlaut, and my massive fondness for Starcraft 2 has basically eaten what free time I have left, but when the muse strikes I shall scurry over here to share my thoughts with whatever readers I may still have.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The year in books #22, #23 & #24

It's a three-fer special today at the American Umlaut! Woot! Despite the absence of my words here at the ol' Umlaut, I have not stopped reading books, but I've found myself with less and time to write about them here. The birth of the Loaf, the release of Starcraft 2, and a renewed passion for playing the piano have all left me... well, I wanted to say "with less free time," but of course, I have plenty of free time and am simply choosing to spend it with my daughter, my game and my instrument. I find, though, that it remains very important to me to get my thoughts about the books I read down somewhere. I especially like writing about books I've loved - telling a friend about a book that has fascinated or moved me feels a bit like introducing two friends and watching to see how they hit it off. I love letting you all know what I've enjoyed, and I really love all the times I've heard from my readers that they've looked at something I recommended here and enjoyed it.

So let's get to it. The first book to be discussed today is Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent, a Discworld novel describing the adventures of Rincewind and his fellow Unseen University wizards as they explore EcksEcksEcksEcks, the titular last continent, which bears a striking resemblance to Earth's Australia. I have shared my thoughts on the Discworld books generally in my previous post about The Hogfather, so this review can be short and sweet: This is the only Discworld novel I've ever found less than fabulous. The humor felt quite forced in places, and the fact that I'm not terribly familiar Australian culture or the stereotypes the English associate with Australians left me never sure if a particular characteristic of the continent in the novel was a Discworld-specific funny thing or was supposed to be, in some way, making fun of Australia. If you're a big Discworld fan, then I suppose you're going to read this one in any case, but if you're not, I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the world or to Terry Pratchett's writing, which has otherwise never failed to impress me.

Books two and three in today's Review Spectacular are Dan Simmons's Hyperion and it's sequel, The Fall of Hyperion. Hyperion came out in 1989 and won the 1990 Hugo award for best novel, and when The Fall of Hyperion came out the next year it got a Hugo nomination and won the Locus. The reason that I am writing about the two books together rather than as separate pieces is that they are essentially a single novel in two volumes. Based loosely on The Canterbury Tales, Hyperion follows five pilgrims (a private detective, the former governor of a colony planet, a priest of a religion worshiping life, a catholic priest, and a great warrior) as they make a pilgrimage to the site of the legendary and deadly Shrike creature, taking turns telling the tale that has led them to make the pilgrimage. As their stories are more or less completely independent of each other, the book is less a novel than a collection of novellas, which together serve to paint a coherent picture of the far-future universe in which they are set, tied together with interstitial bits detailing the pilgrimage itself. The Fall of Hyperion is much more traditionally novel-like in its structure, continuing the story from the point of the pilgrims' arrival at the Shrike temple.

If you like science fiction, you must read these books. Even if sci-fi isn't your cup of tea, I suspect there is a great deal to appeal to the mere appreciator of fine literature. They reach heights of artistry and depths of philosophical thought that you rarely find in literature of any kind, and they do it while telling a captivating, epic story. Revealing any more of the story would ruin the fun of letting the books reveal it themselves, so just take my word for it: these are good books!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The year in books #21: The Silent War

I hadn't planned to read this novel, but discovered it at my in-laws' place and thought it looked interesting. Ben Bova's name is legendary in the sci-fi world, and so far The Kinsman Saga is the only work of his I've read. At least, I thought so - as I got a few chapters into the book, I realized that I had, in fact, read it once before, but had almost entirely forgotten the story.

The Silent War tells a tale of corporate war over the question of who will rule the almost limitless resources of the asteroid belt. It contains all of the elements of an excellent sci-fi thriller: it's action-packed; persons are beaten, exploded, perforated and otherwise caused to become partly or entirely nonfunctional. It is thrilling; there are alliances, betrayals, secret schemes. It is wonderfully paced and an entertaining read. (Related question, am I the only one who finds the term "page turner" silly? All books are page-turners. That's how books work. Saying a book kept you turning pages until the end is like saying a movie kept your eyes open until it was over.) The only part of the book I found uninteresting was the short story that, split in two, serves as opening and closing act for the novel proper. I suspect I'm missing the backstory necessary to get what was going on there; this is the third book in a trilogy, and I haven't read the other two, though that didn't make the rest of the novel any harder to understand.

Throughout my reading of this book, the one thing that bothered me was the same thing that bugged me about The Kinsman Saga: Reading the book is fun, but there's nothing particularly memorable about it. It's absolutely clear that Bova has mastered the craft of writing entertaining novels, but I feel like a novel - especially a science fiction novel - should aspire to more than being simply entertaining. The power and beauty of sci-fi is the practically limitless ideas its conceits allow an author to explore, but there's nothing surprising or particularly thought provoking in The Silent War. The concept of a future in which corporate actors are more powerful and important than state actors - one of the main themes of the book - is about as speculative in a 21st century novel as the concept of a future in which people carry Internet-connected devices in their pockets.

My very strong suspicion is that I'm reading the wrong Ben Bova books. A lot of authors who produce dozens of books over decades of work seem to produce much less truly original thought in their later books, even as their craft improves (see Piers Anthony: Macroscope is packed with brilliant ideas and dissolves into almost unreadable psychobabble about two-thirds through. The Xanth books, in contrast, are totally readable but hadn't produced an original idea in ten volumes or so when I finally gave up on them). I suspect that Bova wouldn't be so well known if all his novels were the sort of popcorn space thriller represented by The Silent War and the Kinsman Saga books.

My final verdict is that this is an excellent book for a sci-fi fan's day at the beach or intercontinental flight. If you're looking for something with psychological or speculative depth, however, you'll find this one lacking. If any of you happen to be familiar with Ben Bova and have a book suggestion for me, please drop by the comments section!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The year in books #20: Windup Girl

Slowly, ever so slowly, I am catching up with my backlog of books to review here. I think that actually getting through fifty books this year is entirely impossible, as I've only read twenty-five so far, and most of them were prior to the arrival of the world's cutest poop factory in my life. Today, though, I awoke at five o'clock, so I'll take the chance to jot down my thoughts on the fourth Hugo-nominated novel I read this year.

The Windup Girl is, alone among this year's Hugo nominees (with the possible exception of Wake, which I've been assured I'll be receiving in celebration of my birthday today), actually a science fiction novel. The Hugos are officially awarded for science fiction and fantasy, and there are sub-genres such as the sort of social fiction represented by The City & The City that fall under the broader category of speculative fiction which I am happy to see embraced by the awards. But I grew up reading Heinlein and Niven and Asimov, and nothing warms my heart like excellent, well constructed sci-fi. With The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (possibly the least-pronounceable author in the genre) has produced exactly that.

It behooves my to provide my definition of sci-fi - even within its own fandom, the genre's boundaries are subject to intense debate. I consider science fiction, as I believe I mentioned in another recent post, to be fiction that concerns itself with the human meaning of technological change or scientific discovery, or uses the conceit of a future or alien culture to explore the human experience from a novel perspective. Ringworld, which explores not only the Ringworld itself, but the impact of technologies as diverse as instant teleportation and direct stimulation of the brain's pleasure centers, is an excellent example of the former. Star Trek's technology is essentially magical and arbitrary, but the series are among the best science fiction of the second category, using the unique setting of a future populated by hundreds of alien races to produce allegories of modernity.

The Windup Girl is excellent science fiction of both types. It portrays a world in which the oil has run out and the energy economy has become focused instead on the efficient production, storage and transmission of kinetic energy for industry and transportation (largely in the form of genetically-engineered mastodons used to crank up nanotechnological springs with capacities in the gigajoules, which I find absolutely brilliant). In parallel to the collapse of the oil-driven industrial world, diseases engineered by warring food cartels (whose products are, of course, immune) have wiped out much of the world's food supply and left even the companies themselves scrambling to find new genes to keep their harvests a step ahead of the next mutation.

Enter Anderson Lake, a "Calorie Man" working for AgriGen, sent to Thailand in search of both genetic diversity and inroads into a nation that has kept itself independent of the food mega-corporations. And enter Emiko, member of the first generation of New Japanese, genetically engineered "windup girls" created by childless Japan to replenish their aging labor force, left behind to be exploited or destroyed in Bangkok by an owner who planned to buy the newest model upon his return. The two meet as Thailand is plunging into rebellion, and their fates, and those of the many other brilliantly realized characters that populate this novel, hang in the balance.

As you can see, The Windup Girl packs a lot of novel ideas into a few hundred pages, and it explores them in a way that is compelling and interesting, and reduces the thundering pace of the story not a single iota. This is the first book I've read in months that I found myself completely lost in, in love with the world it takes place in and the characters that populate it, and excited by the ideas within it. As if it weren't enough to pack a novel with interesting characters, a driving plot and a fascinating premise, Bacigalupi also paints the entire thing onto the backdrop of Thai history and culture with a remarkable realism.

The Windup Girl has the goods. It has four or five novels worth of the goods. And yet it's being sold for the same price as books of normal conceptual density; a bargain of which you should avail yourself at your next opportunity.

I had forgotten, until I started writing this, just how much of an impact this book had on me. I retract my previous vote for The City & The City (which is nonetheless excellent) - The Windup Girl is the speculative fiction novel of the year.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The year in books #19: The City & The City

It is not at all unusual for a novel to be as much about its own setting as about the characters within it, and because of the genre's focus on exploring novel concepts, the science fiction genre is particularly rife with books in which the planet, nation or city in which they take place is not the background but the entire point. Some classic examples include Herbert's Dune, Niven's Ringworld and Varley's Titan, which are also some of my all-time favorite novels. It amused me to realize that, of the six novels nominated for this year's Hugo award, three of them are of this type, each of them taking place in a city that is itself one of the most important characters in the book. In Palimpsest, the city that lends the book its title is both the motivating force behind, and the setting of, the great majority of the action. Steampunk Seattle is the setting of Boneshaker, as well as the only thing in the novel with an interesting personality. And my nineteenth book of the year, China Miéville's The City & The City, takes place in the sister cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, brilliantly rendered and utterly believable invented cultures which provide a fascinating backdrop to a murder mystery that is, if not as brilliantly constructed as the setting it is solved in, certainly interesting enough to keep the pages eagerly turning.

Like Palimpsest, the discovery of Besžel's and Ul Qoma's nature is one of the great delights of the novel, and I'll not ruin it by delving too deeply into the book's premise. What I will say is that that premise seems, on the face of it, laughably ridiculous. What Miéville does with remarkable mastery is to present that premise in such a natural, fluid and consistent way that the reader is able to utterly suspend disbelief, and to craft a very entertaining story on the basis of that premise.

Most important to me, The City & The City goes a step beyond crafting a clever world and an entertaining story. Miéville has things to say, and he says them well. Things about the nature of the Other, of the malleability of human perception, about the nature of culture, about divisions between rich and poor, even about peace in the Middle East (I cannot be the first reader to see the novel's setting as an allegory of Palestine, can I?). The reason I am drawn to science fiction is its exploration of the human meaning of new ideas. The City & The City is not properly science fiction, but it does the same work using different tools. If science fiction is a study of the social impact of technology, then The City & The City might be best described as social fiction, exploring the social impact of societies themselves.

I can definitely recommend this one to you - barring a remarkable performance by Wake, the only Hugo-nominated novel I haven't read yet, The City & The City is my favorite to win the prize. It's only about a micron ahead of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, though, which I'll likely review next so that I can explain why I want the prize to go to Miéville.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The year in books #18: Boneshaker

The second Hugo nominee I read this year was Cherie Priest's Boneshaker. I was hugely excited to read this book, a steampunk alternate history of mid-19th century Seattle containing zombies and airships - a Hugo-nominated novel built entirely of awesome. How could you go wrong?

As it turns out, Boneshaker manages the remarkable feat of turning a premise that had me gripped by the story before I'd even opened the book into one of the least interesting stories I've read in years. The world itself is wonderfully constructed, with a backstory that riffs delightfully on Seattle's fascinating history and explains in a tolerably plausible way why the city is now a walled-in, zombie-infested hellhole ruled by a mad scientist. Unfortunately, by the time the book actually begins, all of the interesting things seem to have long since taken place.

The tale at the center of Boneshaker is of a mother attempting to rescue her teenage son from the above-mentioned hellhole, assisted by a series of bland characters whose behavior seems driven much more by the needs of the narrative than by their own motivations. The zombies spend the vast majority of the tale lurking threateningly in the background, then prove themselves utterly uninteresting when they do get the chance to chew on the occasional character or provide one of the better-armed side characters with a chance to get splashily violent.

The story itself is also horribly unreasonable. I am willing for the sake of a story to accept any premise, no matter how unrealistic or unreasonable, but the events that flow from that premise must do so naturally. In Boneshaker, the zombies are relatively limited in number (I think the number quoted somewhere was 6,000), can be killed by bullets, and are unable to climb. The humans are armed not only with guns but with an EMP-like device that knocks the zombies senseless for a brief time. And in all the years that Seattle has been infested by these horribly dangerous creatures, no one ever thought to either (a) sit a few guys on the rooftops with rifles to take potshots at them or (b) lure a few hundred zombies at a time into a swarm, stun them, then kill them in great numbers while they lay twitching? Also, as I mentioned above, none of the characters' behavior seems consistent with what we are told about their circumstances. The Seattlites' anger toward the mad scientist who 'rules' is rooted in the fact that... he does things for them so that they are always indebted to him? And they're so horribly angry about this that they're ready to stage an almost instantly successful rebellion, but for some reason restrain themselves until the rebellion becomes useful for the purposes of the novel that they find themselves in. And... and... and...

I was horribly disappointed by Boneshaker and am frankly confused as to how it made it to the Hugo short list. I feel like it was nominated on the strength of its premise rather than on the actual story it contains, which utterly fails to compel.