A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dancing with the Internet

1. Another "earth-like" planet bites the dust.

A trinary star system. Alpha Centauri AB, a double star, on left; Beta Centauri on right; Proxima Centauri, circled in red is at 5:00 relative to Alph.

Too bad, because it's real close by, circling Proxima Centauri (the "proxima" is a dead give-away), the closest star to ours. The planet is only 30% more massive than earth (1.3 earths) and circles Prox within its "habitable" zone. Alas, there is more to "earth-like" than size and distance from its sun. It has to be the right kind of sun. Prox is a red dwarf. (No, not that Red Dwarf.) Which means the planet must orbit real close to the star (0.05 AU), and hence whirl real fast (1 year = 11.2 earth-days). This probably puts it into tidal lock, with one side always facing the star and the other in perpetual night. Red dwarves are stable, but given to periodic petulant outbursts: X-ray flares that could strip water vapor from the atmosphere and sterilize the sunside of the planet.

Yeah, earth-like.

2. Was the Early Universe Cream of Wheat or Oatmeal?

Robert Scherrer, a cosmologist at Vanderbilt, wonders how lumpy the early universe was.

3. The Madness Continues

I bet you didn't know that data and statistics were racist. Neither did TOF! And yet, according to a "discipline" called "QuantCrit" and "Critical Race Theory", which sound awfully serious and academicalistic, they apparently are.
Quantitative research enjoys heightened esteem among policy-makers, media, and the general public. Whereas qualitative research is frequently dismissed as subjective and impressionistic, statistics are often assumed to be objective and factual. We argue that these distinctions are wholly false; quantitative data is no less socially constructed than any other form of research material. The first part of the paper presents a conceptual critique of the field with empirical examples that expose and challenge hidden assumptions that frequently encode racist perspectives beneath the façade of supposed quantitative objectivity. The second part of the paper draws on the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) to set out some principles to guide the future use and analysis of quantitative data. These ‘QuantCrit’ ideas concern (1) the centrality of racism as a complex and deeply rooted aspect of society that is not readily amenable to quantification; (2) numbers are not neutral and should be interrogated for their role in promoting deficit analyses that serve White racial interests; (3) categories are neither ‘natural’ nor given and so the units and forms of analysis must be critically evaluated; (4) voice and insight are vital: data cannot ‘speak for itself’ and critical analyses should be informed by the experiential knowledge of marginalized groups; (5) statistical analyses have no inherent value but can play a role in struggles for social justice.
-- David Gillborn, Paul Warmington & Sean Demack. "QuantCrit: education, policy, ‘Big Data’ and principles for a critical race theory of statistics." (Race Ethnicity and Education, Vol. 21, 2018 - Issue 2: QuantCrit:Rectifying Quantitative Methods Through Critical Race Theory.)
Reading between the lines, TOF suspects the authors are writing about quantitative analysis in something called social "sciences," and in this TOF actually agrees with them. As Daniel Dennett observed regarding efforts to study "religion" in the social "sciences,"
There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. 
which is essentially the same complaint as made by Gillborn et al. Of course, to them, it is all in service to white (is there any other kind?) racism. When your only tool is a hammer, everything becomes a nail, and one can never expect a paper appearing in a journal entitle Race Ethnicity and Education to discover a case of no racism!

However, TOF disagrees with them that reified numbers are themselves racist, let alone that we may "interrogate" them. One may as well call genes "selfish." LOL. It is entirely possible that data are used by racists -- we note that all three co-authors are white and therefore, ipso facto, racists (though TOF notices a deficit among those who find society "deeply rooted" in racism to include themselves among those entangled in those roots); but it is more likely that their confreres have been using statistics ineptly in an effort to imitate real scientists. Their efforts to measure the immeasurable are cute, but calling a questionnaire an "instrument" does not make it the equivalent of a micrometer or a telescope.

It is not likely that confirmation bias has allowed the authors to see that this applies equally well to "studies" of religious believers, "free will," Republicans, conservatives, or any other targets of their colleagues' gimlet eyes.

4. A Lament for Canada

By David Warren may sound familiar to more southern [USAn] ears. The whole is worth reading.
We confront today a State which has taken upon itself an interventionist rôle in every aspect of daily life; which claims an authority far beyond that of the Church in the most remote theocratic corner of the Dark Ages. And through modern technology, neutral in itself, the State has acquired absolute power to enforce its authority and its whims.

We have what I now call the State as Twisted Nanny, imposing her insatiable will on the motherless children of our post-modern orphanage, now that the traditional family is largely destroyed. Twisted Nanny treats her “clients” as wayward children, of no individual significance, and with “rights” only insofar as they are organized in groups for whining, and need to be bought off. 
-- David Warren, "News to a foreign country" (Essays in Idleness)
Commenting on the "media," he goes on to say:
"I would call very few of my former [journalist] colleagues Leftists or fanatics of any kind, or even uncritical supporters of the mainstream progressive agenda. In private, many will utter things that would explode the heads of the politically correct — if they were listening. But first they look around to see who is listening. That caution, about being overheard, is a sign of our times.
Never expect the agents of publicity to be on your side; think one step ahead of them, instead. They won’t be on your side today or tomorrow, or until the day that you win everything, and even then, they won’t be on your side. For they will be on the side of power and comfort, as they always were. If the whole country turned Mediaeval Catholic, tomorrow morning, they would kneel and take up their Rosaries; and have as much faith as they had the day before."

 5. Le Steampunk Ancien

Mark Koyama, an economist at George Mason University specializing in economic history, law and economics and institutional economics, enthralled by an alt-hist novel, Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale, asks, "Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution?"

The short answer is, "Of course not." The rather longer answer, by Mr. Koyama, is "Sure could have!" He writes:
"Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own. The novel throws new light on our own attitudes to terrorism, globalization, torture, and the clash of cultures. It is highly recommended."
Well, whatever. When the only mental tool you have is a hammer, all of history is full of nails. Another possibility is that Jesus was of no particular secular consequence at the time, and it was Rome that was into torture and globalization, and wrt to the Jews [and the Gauls] was on a roll clash-of-cultures-wise. Not to mention the Persians. with whom they were more-or-less in a permanent state of clash.

Mention is made of Heron of Alexandria's invention of the "steam engine" in Early Imperial times and suggests that this did not catch on because the vast number of slaves meant human labor never lost its economic comparative advantage, almost as if Progress™ were a given unless something "impedes" it. This analysis loses its charm when we realize that Heron's aeolipile was not in fact an engine of any sort. That is, it could not do work, for the excellent reason that the arts of metallurgy were not sufficiently advanced to produce steam boilers sufficient to retain the necessary pressures to drive jack. Prior art matters. 

Dale, a lawyer, speculates that an early industrial revolution might have been realized had Archimedes not been killed during Marcellus' sack of Syracus. But this supposes that Archimedes was an inventor of some practical kind based on yarns about his inventions during the siege, some of which are downright fantastical. Now, these gadgets had been built well before to illustrate theorems in geometry and just happened to be sitting there when the Romans showed up. Others had done so in ages past, only to be denounced by Plato for involving base matter in what should have been the pure spiritual pursuit of geometry. In Plutarch's Life of Marcellus (written ca. AD 75 about events that took place in 212 BC) we find the source for these stories and learn that:
Yet Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, of the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration. 
 IOW, it is unlikely whether, had he lived, Archimedes would have been the Spark of an Industrial Revolution. The mental attitudes were not there. He certainly had not been so up to then. As Brian Stock wrote in "Science, Technology, and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages," [the Roman’s] "daily experience led him to believe that nature’s forces could be imitated, even placated; he was less sure they could be understood." In the same essay he adds, "The failure of Greece and Rome to increase productivity through innovation is as notorious as the inability of historians from Gibbon to the present to account for it."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The 32 Lost Years of Antibiotics

We live in a culture of “research” and “planning.” I’m not against honest research (which is rare), but mortally opposed to “planning.” The best it can ever achieve is defeat, when its ham-fist efforts fail to prevent some beauty, truth, or good from emerging. Countless billions, yanked from the taxpayers’ pockets, and collected through highly professional, tear-jerking campaigns, are spent “trying to find a cure” for this or that. When and if it comes, it is invariably the product of some nerd somewhere, with a messy lab.
-- David Warren, "That's funny."

The 32 Lost Years of Antibiotics

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Are We Teaching Math All Wrong?

William Whewell once contended that math education should build upon geometry, which focuses on logic and concrete objects, rather than upon analysis (algebra, calculus), which focuses on abstractions and symbol manipulation. Oddly enough, another blogger -- James Chastek at Just Thomism -- seems to have encountered the same post today and had this to say:
We’ve clearly fallen into exactly the fault that Whewell wanted to avoid, and have dumped the geometrical approach almost entirely while dedicating years to teaching analytic methods. The fundamental pedagogical mistake is in this approach is that it teaches abstractions before teaching what they are abstracted from.
Not content with this error, we went in the 1970s to teaching New Math; viz., abstract set theory in grade school! A lot of geometry taught today is actually analytical geometry: The focus is on formulas for calculating lengths, areas, volumes of sundry geometric figures. Few indeed are those fortunate enough to prove geometrical properties with straightedge and compass and reasoning from the postulates, as TOF was, Lo!, these many years ago in geometry class from Sr. Amelia. 

That was sophomore year. Freshman year was given over to Algebra. In my section -- Freshman 7 -- we covered both Algebra I and Algebra II, the latter being normally reserved to Junior year. If I read Whewell, Siris, and Chastek aright, we should do Geometry first and postpone Algebra until later.

Progress in Gerontology

"The history of science suggests the reflection that it is very difficult for the same person at the same time to do justice to two conflicting theories. Take for example the Cartesian hypothesis of vortices and the Newtonian doctrine of universal gravitation. The adherents of the earlier opinion resisted the evidence of the Newtonian theory with a degree of obstinacy and captiousness which now appears to us quite marvellous: while on the other hand, since the complete triumph of the Newtonians, they have been unwilling to allow any merit at all to the doctrine of the vortices. It cannot but seem strange, to a calm observer of such changes, that in a matter which depends upon mathematical proofs, the whole body of the mathematical world should pass over, as in this and similar cases they seem to have done, from an opinion confidently held, to its opposite. No doubt this must be, in part, ascribed to the lasting effects of eduction and early prejudice. The old opinion passes away with the old generation: the new theory grows to its full vigour when its congenital disciples grow to be masters. John Bernoulli continues a Cartesian to the last; Daniel, his son, is a Newtonian from the first."

-- William Whewell, "Of the Transformation of Hypotheses in the History of Science," presented before the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 19 May 1851.
[h/t: Siris]

Friday, February 23, 2018

News vs. Laws

James Chastek has some hard words for news reporting.

-Hard cases make good news.
-News thrives on novelty and therefore on exceptions. To treat news as calling for a law is to fundamentally misunderstand that news-stuff is contrary to law-stuff.
-We'd be closer to justice if we forbade any law to be passed in response to a news story.
-News trains us to only treat the dramatic as serious or worthy of reverence. Our "thoughts and prayers" must be directed at the screaming mother, lone survivor, deluged city, or chaos seen from a helicopter. Systemic problems must be either ignored or find a way to riot on film.
-Is there a grosser hypocrisy than the earnest somberness of the anchorman? I warn you: some of the images you're about to see are disturbing... our thoughts are with the families. Ohc'mon. You live for this! Your thoughts and prayers are for another one just like it next week!
TOF is reminded that in response to earlier cries, we put armed police in the schools. Today we learn that armed police are not an answer.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

That Tabs Be Cleared!

1. You Need a Leap of Faith

The Manhattan Contrarian casts a gimlet eye on the New York Times and their reporting on renewable energy using non-renewable wallets. The Times huzzahs the lower costs of renewables generation equipment, but the MC reminds us that installing additional capacity more cheaply actually means more expensive electricity. [see graph, below] Because the wind does not always blow and half the day is night, the best renewables capacity is only 40% available. This instability in renewables generation requires a traditional power back-up capacity at least as great. Speaking of the German Energiewende, he writes:
The total [capacity] for all "renewables" [in Germany] is 83.8 GW -- a figure higher than the peak demand of 83.3 GW.  [This sounds good, b]ut, then there's also the fossil fuel and "conventional" capacity of 108.4 GW.  That's essentially the same amount you would have if you had no wind or solar capacity at all.¹  To put it another way, despite having built what would seem to be enough wind and solar capacity to supply all the electricity needs of the country, they have not been able to get rid of any of their fossil fuel generation capacity.  They need all of it as back-up for when the wind and solar go dead. 

Electricity costs vs. Installed renewables capacity (by country)

1. capacity needed. If peak demand is P, then installed capacity should be ≈1.2P to allow for maintenance downtime, emergencies, and the like. That would be somewhere around 100 GW, and Germany has 108.4 GW of conventional generating power.

2. Not an Instruction Manual

Thomas Aquinas "On Evil"

3. Slip-Sliding Away
"The Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is losing mass at an increasing rate due to surface melt and flow acceleration in outlet glaciers," say the scientists. As the glaciers recede, they reveal early medieval settlements and the stumps of substantial forests; so in one sense, the climate is returning to normal. However, if you have ever tried to brew your tea [or coffee] by blowing on the water with a hair drier, you might wonder if increased air temperature can really account for this. Perhaps the glaciers are being heated from below? Now we learn that, Lo!, just as Iceland has underground volcanic hot springs, so too does Greenland, and these happen to underlie the recessional glaciers. This nicely explains why the melting glaciers are concentrated in specific regions. 

4. Scotty, Lock on with the Tractor Beam!

And you thought is was sci-fi? Apparently not. When Bridget ban serves he guest, Ravn Olafsdottr, from a "gravity cart" that floats above the floor, she is no so far ahead of the curve as we might think.

5. For Some Values of "Identical"

Another odd datum on the notion of "race." A pair of identical twins -- that is, genetically identical, from the same egg -- were born in the UK to a mixed-race couple. One twin had white skin while the other twin had black skin.

They are not the first case of twins born with different skins, though the first that are genetically identical. Makes one wonder though how genetically meaningful racial identification is in an objective sense.
Twins, but not monozygotic.

6. Iracatanam Antapakirantamthe

TOF's Faithful Reader may recollect passages from On the Razor's Edge describing how the Capital of All the Worlds was reassembling and repairing itself.
Inner Child was constantly alert to alterations in his environment and the Brute was keen to all his senses, and between the two of them they brought the scarred man to a halt by the block upon which they had earlier sat.

The Brute remembered that the crack had made the block uncomfortable to sit on.  Donovan went to his knees and the Sleuth studied the stone closely.  He ran their fingers across it.
I can feel where it was.  Like a scar.  
“It’s been spackled,” said the Fudir.

He turned suddenly and looked down the empty avenue behind him.  The freshening evening wind stirred the grasses.
“Who?” scoffed Donovan.  “A stealthy stonemason who creeps through the ruins patching up the cracks?”
The wind drove pebbles and grit before it, stinging Donovan’s cheek.  They rolled across the surface of the foundation block like a miniature barchan.  A grain found the slight groove where the crack had been and nestled within it.
There’s your answer.  Windblown grit has simply filled in the crack.  He reached out to dislodge the grain – to free it, as he thought – and found that it was fused with the stone.  When he put pressure on it, he experienced a sudden wave of foreboding, as if the entire city would tumble itself upon him and bury him.
He pulled his hand away, stood, withdrew a pace from the wall.
Certain materials of the Commonwealth, called metamaterials, were said to be self-repairing.  Like the self-sealing hulls and pressure suits we have.
“But,” said Donovan, “self-repairing stone?”
It is not true stone, said the Pedant, but some sort of Commonwealth material.  
Donovan looked out over the ruins.  The Capital of All the Worlds has been rebuilding itself all these centuries, the Sleuth decided.  Listen to that sound, that unending rustle.
The young man in the chlamys thought it sounded like the rustle of leaves on the ground of autumn, and thought how lonely the stones must have been over the ages.  
And now we have concrete infused with fungi! A new self-healing fungi concrete, co-developed by researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York, could help repair cracks in aging concrete permanently, and help save America's crumbling infrastructure.

7. Two Brothers

Using 'next generation' DNA sequencing scientists have found that the famous 'Two Brothers' mummies of the Manchester Museum have different fathers so are, in fact, half-brothers. The Two Brothers are the Museum's oldest mummies and amongst the best-known human remains in its Egyptology collection. They are the mummies of two elite men -- Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh -- dating to around 1800 BC.

8. Colorful Dinosaurs

The feathers of this particular dinosaur were so well-preserved that scientists could determine their color from their molecular structure!

9. The Cambrian Explosion was a Tumor?

The sudden appearance and rapid proliferation of animal life known as the Cambrian Explosion, which has been conventionally ascribed to the increase in atmospheric oxygen caused by plants eating the CO2 with which the early atmosphere was composed (similar to present-day Mars and Venus). But the timing is off: high oxygen content is actually detrimental to stem cells and hence cell replacement.

But by studying the ability of tumor cells to imitate the properties of stem cells, a team at Lund Univ. in Sweden, has observed how tumor cells can high-jack specific mechanisms that evade the negative effects that high oxygen has on stem cells. As a consequence, the tumor cells are able to maintain stem cell properties, despite being surrounded by the high oxygen concentrations that are present in the body.

The result was a cancer-like explosive growth in multi-celled animals.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Thought for the day

We often hear that the rate of progress is accelerating. Change is coming faster and faster. Things that were once pooh-poohed as "slippery slope fallacies" only a few years ago are now spoken of as inevitable and well-established. We are building something new, we are told.

Yet a building being constructed does not move faster and faster. A building collapsing does, as it accelerated under the force of gravity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Nexus again

TOF has been informed that "Nexus" is the novella most-nominated among reviewers for the 2017 Hugo awards. Is there a possibility, TOF and Analog might win? Doubtful, but who knows?

"Nexus" is listed as the most recommended novella of 2017! Time for a reread anyone...?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Through Madness Gap

Analog Science Fiction & Fact
Check out Michael Flynn's latest Journeyman installment on the Analog site now—Teo & Sammi are up to their latest adventure, and we can't wait to see where they go next....
Above is the interior art for "The Journeyman." An excerpt appears for the time being at the ANALOG site:

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Ban-Sibhe Wept This Morning

Joseph Francis Flynn
March 1925 -- January 2018

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Stories in the Limbo

Other 999s

There are a number of stories that have been in limbo waiting for a Muse to smack TOF across the choppers with the Salmon of Awakening. These 999s with a few paragraphs are:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Progress Check or Lack Thereof

The following stories are in various stages of in-completion:

The opus number is a loose indicator of age (when the first scene was written), exc. 900s are still tentative. 

Opus # /Title   /Word Count (+Recent additions) comments
079. Mayerling: 4200 (+0) alt hist short
087. The Shipwrecks of Time: 96,173 (+0) novel
098. The Journeyman: Below the Heights of Iabran: 10,191 (+482) series novelette Spiral Arm
101. The Chieftain: 16,421 (+0) fantasy novel
107. Hunter's Moon 1173 (+110) short, sequel to Panic Town, Firestar milieu
108. Adventures in Mythistory: 6951 (+1204) article on mythicized history
109. The Three Faces of Science: 859 (+0) article on three phases of science
111. The Singing City: 2307 (+107) vignette, Firestar milieu
112. Moonrise at the Tatamy Book Barn: 4275 (+466) short, crossover
998. Little-Known Speed Bumps on the Highway of Progress: 380 (+380) filler material maybe
999. Thirty-five Answers to the Fermi Paradox 2760 (+1901) article

Nexus Scores Again

TOF is pleased as punch to reveal that his story "Nexus" has been selected for inclusion in Gardner Dozois' The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection, due out in July of 2018.

Whoa, What's This?

adam amateur theology aphorisms Aquinas argument from motion Aristotelianism art atheism autumn of the modern ages books brains breaking news captive dreams cartoon charts chieftain clannafhloinn comix commentary counterattack crusades culcha dogheads easton stuff economics eifelheim evolution factoids on parade fake news fallen angels Feeders fir trees in lungs firestar flicks floods flynncestry flynnstuff forecasts forest of time fun facts gandersauce gimlet eye global warming glvwg headlines henchmen high frontier history home front how to lie with statistics humor hush-hush hypatia in the house of submission irish Iron Shirts irrationalism january dancer jihad journeyman kabuki kool letter lion's mouth lunacon maps mayerling medieval metrology miscellany modern mythology moose zombies music new years nexus odds odds and ends paleofuture passing of the modern age philosophy philosophy math poetry politics psyched out! public service quality quiet sun quote of the day razor's edge redefinition of marriage religio reviews river of stars scandal science science marches on scientism scrivening shipwrecks of time shroud skiffy skiffy in the news skools slipping masks some people will believe anything stats stories stranger things the auld curmudgeon the madness continues the new fascism the spiral arm the writing life thomism thread o' years tofspot topology untergang des abendlandes untergang des morgenlandes up jim river video clips vignettes war on science we get letters we're all gonna die whimsy words at play xmas you can't make this stuff up