Thursday, January 31, 2008

Status Report

Finished (last month) one of the most ambitious and brilliant SF books - A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge.

Although reams of well educated, intellectual criticism have been written about the book (it won the Hugo Award), let me write my two utterly insignificant lines too.

The book is utterly, overly, devastatingly ambitious. A near six hundred page epic opera, it takes the most stereotypical and beaten to death SF formulas - space operas, wicked aliens in the far, far future and adds a dash of brilliance by introducing the awesome concept of Zones of Thought - the premise being that Earth is in such a region of Universe which is the Slow Zone - faster than light travel is impossible by the laws of physics. There are other zones namely the Middle Zone and the Beyond where nearly infinite speeds are possible and ultra ultra advanced technologies and near sentient AI can exist.

The wicked aliens are undeveloped dog-like creatures who stay in packs of four or five. Loss of one member is like mutilation of a limb. Their mind is a collective sum of the individual brains and groupthink is the only mode of thinking.

An awesome odyssey unfolds in which courtly intrigue, betrayal, imaginary identities vs real identities, weird inconceivable alien beings (cf Skroderiders) play out the vision of the author in a grand backdrop of an ominously spreading Universal perversion.

The scope of inquiry and the variety of issues dealt with in this ultra speculative setting is staggering and although the book gets slightly boring in the middle, if you stick it out till the end, the reward will be supremely satisfying.

The other book which has been on the back of my mind for quite some time is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin.

Again, this is a very celebrated book and it won the Hugo Award the year in which it was published ('60s I think) but I have always found some aspects of the book to be underrated and unappreciated.

More than an SF classic which it obviously is, I found it to be one of the most touching love stories I have read. I dislike love stories and they are generally a test of my patience -whether movies or novels. (The only exceptions I can remind myself of are the movies As Good as it Gets, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Before Sunset). However, the love story in this book beats all previous giants.

The story is about a planet of people who are androgynous and sexually neutral for most of the year but for the short mating period (kemmer) during which, depending upon the hormonal secretions and situation encountered, the aliens (a cousin of the human race, we are told) can revert into either of the sexes.

The protagonist is an ambassador of the Galactic Federation whose task is to convince the different countries of this ultra cold, Antarctica-like planet to join the Federation. And thus is laid the foundation of a fantastic novel about the nature of wars and their connection to the sexual nature of society (the novelist seems to be of the view that since the population is sexless, the aggression latent within such a society is less than that of a 'normal' one).

The love story doesn't emerge until the later parts of the book and even then it is nowhere pronounced, as if the author did not particularly want it highlighted. But it is remarkably beautiful, subtle and heartwarming.

Ra, this post is for you. You wanted me to recommend some real badass, topnotch SF. Go ahead and get these. (Buy, beg, borrow or steal)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Books read during Winters (Dec-Jan)

1)Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)
2)A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge)
3)From Hell - Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Fiasco, an Aftermath and Inconvenient Truths

It all happened not so long ago.

As a Final Year Chemical Engineering student, I had to clear this mandatory two credit seminar course that was taken by the evil lord which in his earthly form went by the name of Professor Sriniketan (that more evil lords existed and Srini was, but the cliched hard hearted angel compared to the others was discovered much later).

That I lived in H Wing didn't help my cause much. That I was assigned the topic "Dairy Pollution and Methods to Combat it" (or something on those lines) didn't help my cause much either.

Not one draft of the seminar floated on the LAN. Why??? Because none of the seniors were assigned such an arbit topic for their seminar. That implied I would have to prepare the seminar ON MY OWN!

Which sent shivers down my spine. So like the good, hard working student I am, I began work on the preparation full 12 hours before the presentation. By sheer hard work, ingenious Googling abilities and concern for my immaculate record as an outstanding student of the Department, I had the material ready full two hours earlier than the presentation was due.

My power point was supposed to finish in exactly ten minutes - five minutes less than the stipulated time. And one of the major causes of dairy pollution I had discovered was Cattle Farts. Yeah, you heard it right. My ingenious combination of search keywords took me to such a website where the research done by UC Davis scientists on the aforementioned topic was detailed. Being a duty conscious, well meaning engineering student, I decided to report on this major discovery and so it was, but natural that one of my slides mentioned this important result.

I heard suppressed snickers from the back benchers. I saw the Prof eye me in a nasty, amused sort of way. He interrupted me.

Prof (with considerable menace in his voice) : "How do you propose to contain such a form of pollution?"

By this time, I was shitting bricks. And so, I came up with the following engineering solution:

Me : "We could preprocess the food that the cattle are fed. We could also employ some liquefaction towers that could absorb such gases and produce harmless by products." (This is a standard chemical engineering answer. No matter what sort of a question, profs always fall for this answer or a suitable variant.)

The snickering had spread to a full throated laughter by now. I smiled nervously at my friends trying to gauge how deep a shit I was in. Meanwhile, Srini's eyebrows furrowed and in that god-awful threating voice he roared.

"Do you think this is a joke?"

Oh my fucking god...the hell that broke loose then!

The fame of the presentation grew wildly. So much so that an account of it was included in the next NewsWagon issue (despite the fact that I was the Con and in principle at least, I could've stopped Biswas from writing about it). Juniors who hadn't seen me in ages began coming by to say 'hello' and 'see how I was doing'. Boy, did that suck!

Now why did I bring this issue up at all? The reason is the following:

Concerning your dairy pollution fiasco, let me first tell you that I had been to the college at the end of September, concerning my transcripts. It was then that I met one of our juniors at the department – I forget who – who told me that Dr. Srinikethan had warned them against making a mess of their presentations, with cow-dung and straw, such as one of their seniors, though I think he did not name you, had. Further, copies of it continue to circulate on the LAN, not for reference, but for some comedy.

This is taken from a recent Shandy email. And it kind of pissed me off. The reason is the following:

Every year, cows and other four-legged livestock emit 80 million tons of methane into the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 -- serving your family a steak dinner is like taking a 40-mile drive in a Hummer.

British scientists have a solution: garlic. In a study published in July, they used it to kill methane-producing stomach bacteria and have designed high-sugar feedstock to improve digestive efficiency. But consumers might not like garlic-flavored beef, and controlled feeding isn't always possible, so Australian researchers are putting stomach bacteria from kangaroos -- a zero-methane animal -- into cattle.


So I was right after all!. Even the solution I postulated was partially correct - fiddle with the feed of the damned cattle! And to have been the butt of infinite jokes on account of standing up for TRUTH!

Kalyug, ghor Kalyug

The only solace I can find from this otherwise forgettable episode is that juniors assigned the same topic in the future, can find ready drafts for the same on the LAN.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Heard it through the Grapevine

The following are an arbit collection of pithy adages I find are funny/interesting/illuminating etc etc

1) He who is not a socialist before the age of 30 has no heart. He who is a socialist after the age of 30 has no head.

(Overheard on the internet)

2) The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed

- attributed to William Gibson

3) Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice. Either...would suffice.

- attributed to Robert Frost

4) I cannot conceive of a God that could make things like toothache and incontinence

- attributed to Kurt Vonnegut

5) Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

- attributed to Richard Feynman

The following doesn't exactly fit the pattern since it was an anecdote from my NCERT textbook for Physics in Class XI/XII. But it is hilarious and brilliant. Also, since it is an anecdote, I am merely recollecting what I have in mind and it should not be considered to be a verbatim rendering of what I had read back then.

6) Consider the plight of physicists during the Quantum Revolution. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, experiments led them to believe that electrons were particles. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, they believed that electrons were waves.

On Sundays, they prayed.

Another one that doesn't quite fit the pattern:

A century and a half ago, a debate was raging about the question whether God spoke Hebrew. Jacob Grimm, one of the brothers to whom we owe the collection of fairy tales, pointed out gently that if God spoke language, any language, we must assume that he had teeth, but since teeth were not created for speech but for eating, we must assume that he also ate, and this leads to so many other undesirable assumptions that we better abandon the idea altogether

- Overheard on the Internet.