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My Xmas bike ride

December 25, 2011 2 comments

When I went for a quick walk in the park this morning, I noticed that the street was very empty, the neighborhood very quiet, since most everyone was indoors or away for Christmas.  Plus it was relatively warm, in the upper 40s — no white Christmas this year.  So I figured it would be a perfect opportunity to take my bicycle out for my first ride since the seat was repaired (I forgot to bring my helmet to the bike shop, since I didn’t realize they could do the repairs in a few minutes, so I had to walk the bike home).  Not only would the traffic be light, so I could ride in the streets without worrying much about dodging  cars, but the university campus would be empty, so I could ride around there without worrying about dodging students.

So this afternoon — once it had even topped 50 degrees F — I went out for my ride.  And no sooner did I get into the street that I had to deal with three approaching cars in quick succession.  Oh, great.  But after that, the road stayed mostly empty.  I even got the unprecedented experience of riding on an almost totally empty Calhoun Street — something I’d never have the courage to do under normal circumstances, since it’s generally a pretty busy street (although the sidewalk on the university side is usually quite crowded too).  I’ve never had such an easy time riding from home to campus.  And the campus was indeed empty enough that I could ride around the various plazas and pavilions, doing multiple loops around the various crisscrossing sidewalks.  It would’ve been roomier to go down to the Campus Green at the northeast corner, or even across to Burnet Woods, but coming back from either of those places would require a lot of uphill riding and I wasn’t sure I was up to that.  I wanted a fun ride that gave me a reasonable amount of exercise, not something where I really had to strain myself.  And actually, now that I take a look at the satellite view in Google Maps and compare the two, the areas where I did my riding add up to almost the same area as the Green.  Since they’re closer than the Green, the total distance I rode was less, but my total round-trip distance was probably something like two and a half miles — enough to leave me tired in a way that feels good and relaxed, like I accomplished something, rather than sore and exhausted.  All in all, a nice present for myself.

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My “Best Trek Gift” story is on StarTrek.com

StarTrek.com is doing a holiday feature entitled “The Best Trek Gift You Ever Gave or Got,” for which they interviewed a bunch of people associated with the Trek franchise, from actors and production staff to tie-in authors including me (and it’s flattering to be included on an equal level with the stars of the shows).  So I passed along the story of my most valued and most missed Star Trek present from my childhood, my Mego bridge playset, along with the photo of it under the tree which is my only surviving relic of it.  I’d expected them to cut down my rambling reminiscence and just use what they needed, but they actually published the whole thing (though they cropped the photo), and you can read it and the other Trek-gift stories here:

The Best Trek Gift You Ever Gave or Got – Part 1

There’s also a second part with further gift reminiscences, including more bridge-playset reminiscences (truly it was the Holy Grail of classic Trek toys).

The Best Trek Gift You Ever Gave or Got – Part 2

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Sometimes they come back

December 23, 2011 1 comment

Yesterday I went down to the apartment building’s laundry room to do my laundry — and sitting there on top of one of the dryers was a sock I’d lost the last time.  Maybe the sock-stealing dryer demons learned the true meaning of Christmas.  Or something.

Otherwise it’s another quiet holiday season for me.  I think I just get so overwhelmed by family Thanksgiving that I prefer quiet and solitude for a while thereafter.  I wouldn’t mind finding a comfortable middle ground, though.

But I’ve got stuff to keep my occupied, like proofreading the galleys for DTI: Forgotten History.  And after that, I hope to get back to work on that spec novel.

The WEST SIDE STORY curse is broken

I finally got my requested copy of the West Side Story Special Edition DVD set from the library, so I’ve finally seen the film (or rather, I’ve seen it for the first time since I was a kid and for the first time in color and widescreen as it was meant to be seen).  Whenever I’ve tried to watch it before, something’s happened to interrupt me before the Prologue ended, so I kept waiting for the phone to ring with bad news or the building’s power to go out or the ground to open up and swallow my TV, but this time the universe cut me a break and let me watch the whole thing.  (I actually did get some bad news on the phone on the same day I brought home the DVD, but it wasn’t while I was watching it.  And that’s a topic for another time.)

I was a little alarmed at first when I got the DVD, since it said on the case that it was in the “original 16×9” aspect ratio, whereas the original ratio was actually 2.20:1, and 16:9 is nowhere near that.  But I did some checking online and most sites said it was 2.20:1 and “enhanced for 16×9 TVs,” although I had a hard time finding out what that meant and I’m still not entirely sure.  Anyway, it looked to me like what I was getting on my regular TV was maybe a little less than 2.20:1, but at least 95% of that.  While there were some group shots where the occasional person on the periphery was cut off a bit, the compositions did seem to fit the frame and vice-versa, so I was definitely getting as close to the complete experience as I can reasonably expect to.

And it was definitely worth holding out for the widescreen edition.  The design and composition and choreography are so tailored for the 70mm widescreen format that the very idea of watching in in 4:3 “fullscreen” (like on the copy Netflix sent me) and missing out on 40% of every shot is a sick joke.  This is a gorgeous movie that demands to be seen at its full width.  Director Robert Wise, production designer Boris Leven, and cinematographer Daniel Fapp did a fantastic job creating a visually stunning film, an intriguing hybrid of vivid theatricality and urban realism.  And though I’m far from a connoisseur of dance, I could tell that Jerome Robbins’s choreography was equally impressive and it would be a crime to cut nearly half of it off the screen.  (I was interested by the dance-fighting in the Prologue, which drove home how similar the disciplines of stunt-fighting and dancing really are.)

It’s also a very beautiful film to listen to.  The songs are excellent, although it’s surprising to me to find that I’m less fond of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics than I am of Leonard Bernstein’s music.  Maybe that’s just because it was early in Sondheim’s career.  There’s still plenty of clever Sondheimian stuff in there, though, creative and surprising rhymes and clever bits of characterization.  (Though in “America” he did overreach himself trying to find a rhyme for “Manhattan.”  Though I think the awkwardness of it was part of the joke.)  Interestingly, I often felt the melody in the songs seemed more Sondheim-like than the lyrics.  Maybe that shows how influential this collaboration was on Sondheim’s later work.  Anyway, Bernstein’s music is great, and I really like the instrumental parts.  I gather Bernstein preferred the smaller 30-piece orchestra of the original play and found the movie’s arrangements for an orchestra three times bigger to be too bombastic and unsubtle, but I just love that big orchestral sound.  (I think a lot of this music resonates with me because we spent a lot of time learning these songs in junior-high music class.  So this is one of those things that I know better than I knew that I know it.  Or… yeah.  Or something.)

Storywise, it’s a little more basic.  It’s a variation on Romeo and Juliet, but slimmed down and somewhat simplified, and with a change at the end that I wasn’t expecting.  There’s some interesting stuff with the exploration of ethnic prejudice and politics in lower-class New York City of the day, but I think it was a little too cleaned up.  Probably street gangs and juvenile delinquents of the 1950s-60s were somewhat less violent than their modern counterparts, but I suspect the film (and play?) toned that down even further to make the characters more sympathetic, going out of its way to stress that the gangs were hesitant to employ weapons rather than fists and that when deadly violence occurred it was unintended.  It felt a little self-conscious, at least from a modern viewpoint.  And then there’s the central romance between Maria and Tony.  It’s kind of hard to take it seriously, since they barely know anything about each other and there’s no real sense of why they love each other except that they’re predestined soulmates or some such thing.  However, it’s entirely plausible as the sort of overly dramatic infatuation that teenagers are prone to (which, really, is kind of the point of Romeo and Juliet).  When I was that age, I was certainly prone to falling hard for a girl and thinking my whole universe revolved around her even though I knew nothing about her beyond her looks — although in my case it wasn’t reciprocated, for better or worse.  So it’s believable that they’d react the way they do, but it’s hard to buy into their viewpoint as being valid or their relationship as being as deep and permanent as they imagine.  And there’s not very much to their characters beyond being madly in love, so they’re not the most interesting parts of the story.

The casting wasn’t my favorite part either.  Richard Beymer is just kind of bland as Tony, and while Natalie Wood is (or was) certainly lovely, I found her a little insubstantial.  But then, I guess she was supposed to be kind of insubstantial and carefree in the first act, and then go to a darker place in the second.  Maybe I made up my mind about her too quickly.  (I also thought Wood uncannily resembled Juliet Landau of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so much so that I wondered if they were related, until I remembered that Landau is the daughter of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.  As it happens, I also think Wood’s sister Lana Wood looks a lot like Summer Glau.) Anyway, as for the rest of the cast, Rita Moreno is certainly the standout, and George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn and the rest of the ensemble are pretty good, but their strength is more as a troupe than as individuals.  And most of them seem too old to be convincing as teenagers, which is ironic, because most of the roles were recast for the film because the Broadway cast was seen as too old-looking.  Simon Oakland does an effective turn as Lt. Schrank, the main adult character and one of the few non-dancing roles in the film (hey, it just struck me that none of the adult or authority-figure characters dance, just the ones who are supposed to be teenagers).  Schrank is a complicated character, sincerely wanting to keep the peace and clean up the streets, but embittered and unthinkingly racist, failing to realize that he’s part of the very problem he wants so much to resolve.  (I’d expected Officer Krupke to be a more major character, given that he has a song named after him, but he was little more than a spear-carrier.)  I was also quite pleased to see the minor, uncredited appearance by John Astin as the social worker “Glad Hand” at the dance; he was his usual charmingly quirky self and elevated a fairly minimal role.

Some of the ’60s conventions here were a bit hard for me to accept, notably the reluctance to cast Hispanic actors in leading Hispanic roles (Natalie Wood was Russian-American, George Chakiris Greek-American), and the practice of dubbing over the actors’ own singing with other performers, most notably (and recognizably) Marni Nixon as Maria.  The DVD set has a documentary that let me hear some of Wood’s own singing, and I liked it better than Nixon’s.  Okay, maybe it was less polished and perfect, but that’s what I liked about it.  It had more texture and personality and felt less studio-packaged than Nixon’s.  Maria should’ve sung like an inexperienced but enthusiastic teenager, not like a professional opera singer.  I know I was getting passionate up above about seeing this film the way it was originally presented, but in this case I’d be willing to make an exception.  I wouldn’t mind getting to see a version that restored the original actors’ singing (where feasible — Rita Moreno was dubbed on “A Boy Like That” because she wasn’t capable of singing in a low enough register).

Of course, a large part of my interest in this film was because it was directed by Robert Wise, who directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a longtime favorite of mine.   And it does seem to me there are some points of commonality between the two.  WSS and ST:TMP are both films that rely heavily on long set pieces driven by visuals and music rather than dialogue (even a lot of WSS’s musical numbers are largely or mostly instrumental).  A lot of people consider that a bug of TMP, but I see it as a feature, a quality that makes it a very grand and cinematic experience.  It makes me wonder if Wise’s experience directing musicals, with their big set pieces, was influencing his choices about the pacing and focus of TMP.  Both films also rely on spectacular production design and sets, and I’m wondering if that striking red overpass in the set where the rumble took place in RSS was the same kind of forced-perspective construction as the horizontal intermix chamber in TMP’s engine room — i.e. building a set component that tapers and shrinks toward the rear to create the illusion of parallel lines receding much farther than the set can contain.

Of course, one clear difference is that WSS is a much more vividly colorful movie while TMP is done more in pastels and grays.  But that was kind of a ’70s thing, and it seemed to reflect Wise’s view of the technological future, the same cool, sterile professionalism you see in his The Andromeda Strain.  That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be drawing on his experience with other films as well.

Quantum teleportation: maybe not?

December 18, 2011 3 comments

After my earlier post on quantum teleportation, I’ve been wondering about whether I wanted to include it in my science fiction in some way, but first I wanted to get some handle on whether it was feasible in practice to teleport a macroscopic object rather than just individual particles or a Bose-Einstein condensate in a single coherent quantum state.  Finding detailed discussions online is a bit tricky just using Google, but I found a discussion thread that goes into a fair amount of depth:

“Quantum teleportation of macroscopic objects” at Physics Forums

Granted, BBS threads, even on science forums, aren’t the best way to get information about the subject, but I’m in no mood to try to wade through a bunch of technical papers, and I’m only looking at it from the perspective of a fiction writer, so for now I’m content to let other people do the interpreting for me, though I still have to try to filter out the informed posts from the less informed ones.

It sounds like there may be some fundamental limitations that would prohibit teleporting humans or the like.  Apparently what gets teleported are discrete properties like spin or charge.  Teleporting a continuous variable, like the relative positions of multiple atoms or their momentum, would require infinite amounts of data, so one of the posters says.  Another poster countered that some measurement of continuous states was possible, citing a paper on Arxiv.org, but the first replied that it was a limited, classical-resolution measurement and not precise enough to allow replicating a macroscopic object accurately.  (Kind of like how Star Trek replicators have only “molecular resolution” and not “quantum resolution” so they can recreate nonliving matter but not living beings, because the error rate would be fatally high.)

Then there’s this thread at the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum (which seems to have been started by the same poster under a different username), in which it’s pointed out that a macroscopic object can never be truly isolated from its environment, which again would suggest that the amount of information you’d need to define its state exactly would be effectively unbounded.

And this thread from the same forum (which is definitely by the same poster since it has the same original post as the Physics Forums thread above) clarifies that thermal effects in the body would interfere with getting a precise scan; ideally you’d need to freeze the subject to extremely near absolute zero, which isn’t exactly conducive to survivable teleportation.

Another factor raised in this article from Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science is a simple matter of bandwidth: even if you didn’t need infinite information to transmit continuous states, you’d still need to transmit so much data to replicate a human body that it would take a great deal of time and energy to send — billions of years at our highest current transmission rate.  And if you could get a much higher transmission rate, according to the link in the previous paragraph, you’d need to send such intense energy that it would become unfeasible — you’d basically be firing a very powerful beam of gamma radiation at the receiving station, and that’s more a death ray than a transporter beam.  At the very least, in most instances it would take less time and energy just to travel physically than to send a teleport signal.

So the question this raises for me is: how “exact” do you actually need to get?  It could be feasible using advanced nanofabrication technology to “print out” a human body that’s a good molecular-level match for the original person.  As long as you recreated the DNA and RNA in the cells accurately, you could probably settle for just knowing how many of which type of cell the body had, and where they were located, so you could reduce the amount of data that needed to be sent by using these “generic” substitutions.  You could even improve on the body, say, write out excess fat or burgeoning tumors, or rewrite defunct hair follicles as functioning ones, or add extra muscle, or even make more radical changes.  (See Wil McCarthy’s The Queendom of Sol tetralogy for an illustration of this.)

Aside from matching (or refining) the genetic and epigenetic data, then, the key information you’d need to transmit a person with their identity intact would be an accurate brain scan.  Otherwise you’ve just created an identical twin rather than duplicated the original person.  So the question is, just how accurate would it have to be?  As far as science is able to determine, thought and memory are classical-scale processes.  According to this page which I used as a reference for quantum theory in DTI: Watching the Clock:

 In quantum terms each neuron is an essentially classical object. Consequently quantum noise in the brain is at such a low level that it probably doesn’t often alter, except very rarely, the critical mechanistic behaviour of sufficient neurons to cause a decision to be different than we might otherwise expect. The consensus view amongst experts is that free-will is the consequence of the mechanistic operation of our brains, the firing of neurons, discharging across synapses etc. and fully compatible with the determinism of classical physics.

Sure, there are some theorists who argue that consciousness is based on quantum processes, and you hear a lot of talk about “microtubules” in the neurons operating on a quantum level, but there’s no experimental support yet, and the general consensus is that quantum effects in the brain would decohere well before they reached the scale at which the neurons’ activity occurs.  So it might be possible to faithfully duplicate the entire mental state of a human brain using classical-level accuracy, so that mechanism in the research paper mentioned above might be applicable.

So the key issue that remains is the one that was the focus of my previous post: Is there continuity of consciousness between the original and the duplicate?  What I reasoned there is that what creates our perception of ourselves as continuous beings is the ongoing interaction, and thus the quantum entanglement/correlation, among the particles of our brains.  The specific particles may be expended and replaced, but the correlations within the entire overall structure give us our sense of continuity.  So if the original subject and the teleported replica are quantum-entangled, that would make them the same continuous entity on a fundamental level even if separated in space and time.  The question is, would that same principle apply even if the entanglement were between the original and a body that was not an exact quantum duplicate?  I.e. if you used classical-level fabrication to synthesize a duplicate of a person and only quantum-teleported partial information about the state of the brain?  You’d synthesize a brain and body that were almost exact replicas, and then transmit enough quantum data about the brain to essentially cancel out the discrepancies and make it effectively the same brain, with the entanglement providing the continuity.  Thus you have a replica of the body but preserve a single continuous consciousness.

So the original body would not need to be scanned to destruction but the brain would.  Remember, teleporting quantum state information requires changing the original state.  You’d essentially be teleporting just the brain/mind into a new, possibly modified body, and leaving the old body behind as a corpse with a destroyed brain.  Ickier than the ideal situation.  But it still precludes the possibility of creating a viable “transporter duplicate.”

But the question is, how much “cheating” can you get away with?  How small a percentage of the information defining you needs to be quantum-teleported rather than classically copied in order to ensure that your consciousness survives intact?  How could science measure the difference between a synthesized replica that thinks it’s you and one that actually contains your original consciousness?  How much entanglement, how much equivalence, is enough for continuity?  Even if we assume the teleportation of the brain states alone is enough to make it the same brain, we run into the mind/body problem: the two are more linked than we have traditionally tended to think, and it may be premature to define consciousness as something that resides solely in the brain.  The entire nervous and hormonal systems may play a role in it too.  Still, if you were to have your legs amputated and replaced with prosthetics, that wouldn’t destroy your consciousness.  So maybe teleporting just the brain states is enough.

But then there’s a simple mathematical question: does that really reduce the amount of data by a significant amount? The mass of the brain is about 2 percent of the total mass of the body, so that’s only reducing the amount of data by roughly two orders of magnitude.  So it would take 2 billion years to transmit instead of 100 billion, say.  To make it feasible, you’d have to “compress” the data still further — and we’d need a much deeper understanding of how the brain works before we could estimate how little of its structure we could get away with teleporting at a quantum level versus substituting with “generic” cellular/structural equivalents.  (Of course it’s a total myth that “We use only 10% of our brains; fMRI scans show conclusively that we make use of just about all the brain’s volume over the course of a day.  But on a cellular level, a lot of that may be underlying substructure that could be “generically” replicated.  Or maybe not.  I don’t know enough about neurology to be sure.)  Even so, I doubt the threshold percentage would be low enough to reduce the amount of data by even one order of magnitude, let alone many.

And there’s still the thermal problem.  There’s a lot of molecular motion in the brain, not just from its temperature but from the constant chemical exchange among neurons.  You might not be able to get a detailed quantum scan of a living, active brain as opposed to a deep-frozen corpse, and I don’t have enough confidence in cryonics to believe a person could be frozen to near absolute zero and then revived.

Still… depending on what fictional universe I’m in and how much I’m willing to bend the rules, I might be willing to fudge things enough to include quantum teleportation if I have a good enough story reason for it, using the ideas discussed above to make it relatively more plausible.  Maybe there are ways to transmit data at far higher rates than we can now conceive, and with less energy expenditure.  And come to think of it, having a requirement that a subject has to be frozen solid before teleportation adds an interesting twist.  Though it would rule it out as a routine commute as it is in Star Trek or Niven’s Known Space.

Hints of Higgs? Maybe…

The big science news today is the announcement of the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider”s search for the elusive Higgs boson, and while the results are far from conclusive so far, they’re actually mildly encouraging.  Two independent detectors got pretty much consistent results suggesting the possibility of a particle with a mass somewhere around 125 GeV.  (That’s giga electron volts — since E=mc^2, physicists measure particle mass in units of energy.)

Here’s the New York Times piece on the news, including links to the raw data published on a site called TWiki (whose motto is probably not “bidi-bidi-bidi”).  Here’s a more detailed article from New Scientist.  However, the most useful link I’ve come across is this Higgs FAQ from the blog of particle physicist Matt Strassler.  I’ve never quite understood what all this Higgs field/particle business was all about until recently, but I’m starting to get a handle on it now.  The FAQ does a good job of explaining the Higgs field and its role, and why not finding the Higgs particle would be just as intriguing and useful a result as finding it.  (Because the particle isn’t the key, it’s just the simplest and only known way of detecting the Higgs field, which is the thing that’s actually important.  And if there were no particle, it would just mean the field is different than the simplest model suggests, or that it works in a different way, not that it didn’t exist.)

So nothing conclusive today, but interesting hints that will be pursued further.  Apparently they’ll be able to confirm or deny this evidence by next summer, and if it doesn’t pan out, they’ll try something else when the LHC reaches full power in 2015.

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The rest of the (WEST SIDE) STORY

Well, I’d been considering going ahead and watching the West Side Story DVD that Netflix sent despite it not being in the right aspect ratio, so I decided to do some research about the film and its video releases and see if I could find out just how much of the picture I’d be missing.  Maybe the moderately widescreen ratio I saw when I started watching the disc would be close enough.  But I found to my surprise that the correct aspect ratio for the film is the 2.20:1 ratio of the 70mm SuperPanavision format it was shot in (the even wider 2.35:1 was for 35mm prints in certain theaters) — and the Netflix entry for the DVD showed that it was supposedly in 2.20:1.  So could I have misunderstood?  Could I have gotten the right version after all?

So I put the DVD back in and measured the aspect ratio when the overture screen came on.  (For those who don’t know, this was back when many films had actual overtures, long musical passages over still or empty screens, to give the audience time to file in — instead of the commercials and trailers we have these days.)  As near as I could measure it, it was pretty close to a 16:9 ratio, or 1.78:1, only about 80% what it should be.   Nope, not quite there.

But wait, I thought: the Netflix page says it’s 2.20:1.  So what if it’s only the overture that has the 16:9 ratio?  Just to be sure, I fast-forwarded through to the beginning of the film proper, where the abstract vertical lines on the overture screen fade into the Manhattan skyline and then an extended flyover of New York City, heading toward the West Side.  And after watching the images fast-forward for a moment, I realized…

It was fullscreen!!!  AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

 So Netflix apparently sent me the wrong disc, or else they straight-up have the wrong technical info on their page for it.  Maybe, given how scarce copies of this film have apparently been at Netflix (since it’s been on “Very Long Wait” for ages), they ran out of widescreen copies and sent me this as sloppy seconds, or something.  Which isn’t acceptable to me.  While I might’ve settled for a version giving me 80% of the picture, there’s no way I’m settling for a 4:3 fullscreen format, which would give me only 60%.

But wait, there’s still hope.  It occurred to me just now, while I was writing this post, that it’s been a few years since I tried to find WSS at the library and could only find a fullscreen edition.  So between the previous paragraph and this one, I checked the library catalog, and they reportedly do have the special edition DVD in 2.20:1 format available, and I’ve put in a hold request for a copy.  Hopefully the library will come through for me where Netflix failed.

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