Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 273, Vitellius

Paying less and less attention to all laws, human or divine, Vitellius next assumed the office of Chief Priest, and chose to do so on the anniversary of the Allia defeat (circa 390 B.C.; a day of evil omen). On the same occasion he announced the elections for ten years ahead, and appointed himself Consul for life. Then he dispelled any doubt as to which of the Caesars was to be his model by sacrificing to Nero's ghost and, at the subsequent banquet, while a popular flutist was performing, called for something from 'the Master's Book' as an encore. When the flutist obliged with one of these compositions, Vitellius jumped up delightedly and led the applause.

What a great idea!

Wouldn't it be convenient to know what the results of the elections would be for the next ten years? It would certainly leave the guesswork out of politics.

And having a leader appoint himself your leader for life definitely relieves you of any burden to think about who you might like to vote for anyway. I can't think of any problem with this arrangement. This guy Vitellius probably ruled for the next fifteen or twenty years or so until he died a natural death, beloved by his people.

Oh, wait ----

I give the mob eight of the best months of my life, and what do they give me in return? This!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What I've read in the past

Sabra did a nice post based NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. She highlighted the ones she's actually read, and then she shared her beefs with the contents of the list.

I'm not going to get into the merits of the contents of this list (all such lists are subjective, and we're always going to disagree with what someone else has put together), but I thought I'd go back through it to see just how much of it I have read myself. I'm a big science fiction fan, and, though I don't get too many chances to read for pleasure, I'd like to think I'm fairly well read on the genre, especially the classics.

So, let's take a look at the list Sabra posted, and let's see if I know my stuff. (Bolded items are books that I've read, some with comments.)

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I've read this many times. Hasn't gotten old yet.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Ender's Game was a very good read, but it felt like a self-contained book to me. I'd read that Orson Scott Card had turned the book into a series, but I had no interest in following up on it.

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
I love Dune. I don't care for the follow up books (I read through the next three), but I will read Dune again in a heartbeat.

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
I love this trilogy. I talk about reading these books here, here, and here.

9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
This is one of my favorite sci-fi books. And the movie version just happens to be one of my favorite sci-fi flicks, though for different reasons.

22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
This is a partial reading. I got through the first three of the Dark Tower books before I lost interest. But I absolutely love the Robert Browning poem that served as King's inspiration.

24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Another wonderful piece. This is actually a collection of short stories about Mars, and the work should never be taken as a serious piece of space travel adventure. It should always be viewed as a look at our world in the 20th Century through a Martian lens. In Bradbury's exquisite style, to boot.

28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
Very enjoyable. Weird and humorous, but also quite serious in spots, Ringworld and its sequels present a universe like nothing else.

45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore (I've read a few Drizzt novels, but nowhere near all of them.)
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven &Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
I read these books after learning of their existence from Alan, a fellow local blogger. Believe it or not, I hadn't heard about Lewis's science fiction works before that! In any case, I discuss these books here, here, and here.

So, I've read 26 out of 100 of the works on this list. I guess I'm not as well versed in the SF/fantasy genre as I thought I was, at least according to NPR listeners. But, as Sabra pointed out in her post, there are a number of authors on the list above whose works that I've read and enjoyed that don't happen to be on the list. Take Piers Anthony: I've read several of his books, just not anything from the Xanth Series as listed at 99. And I've read other things by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle that aren't on there either.

But it's an interesting list, nonetheless. And, if nothing else, it gives me some ideas for some future reads. When I have the time.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What we did today


I got out that old Winchester Model 77 .22 that I had shot previously with my wife (told you about it here), and this time I took my son out to the range. That's him shooting in the video. It's his first time firing a rifle, and he didn't do half bad. Once he got used to the other, larger caliber rifles popping off around him (his first time at the range, too) he settled in to the shooting at hand and found the whole experience much more satisfying than shooting pellet guns.

But, then again, don't we all?

I took Keith's advice from the comments in that post linked above and switched ammo. In the previous shoot I was using Remington rounds, and they were fouling the chamber something fierce. We had to stop shooting on that day in January well before we ran out of ammo because the gunk built up too much and the jams and misfeeds were getting too frequent. For today's shoot, I used CCIs, and we only had one jam the whole morning. Thanks for the advice, Keith.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tweaking, yet again.

Oh, no.
‘Star Wars’ Gets New Tweaks for Blu-ray Release
I can't stand it anymore. I wish I could go back to my original VHS tapes of the first three. "Star Wars" was fun back then. Now it's a chore to watch.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Terraforming, anyone?

This sounds like good news for future space exploration and possible colonizations. I hope it turns out to be the case.
The soil on Mars may be more capable of supporting life than previously thought, a new study suggests.

Researchers have long suspected that the Martian surface is packed full of oxidizing compounds, which could make it difficult for complex molecules like organic chemicals — the building blocks of life as we know it — to exist. But the new study, which analyzed data gathered by NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander, suggests that's not the case.

"Although there may be some small amounts of oxidants in the soil, the bulk material is actually quite benign," said lead study author Richard Quinn of NASA's Ames Research Center and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "It's very similar to moderate soils that we find on Earth."
(from Space.com)

On the first manned mission to Mars, make sure you take a plow. And some seeds.

And let's see what happens.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 145, Tiberius

Tiberius used to punish with life those who wished to die. He regarded death as a comparatively light affliction, and on hearing that a man named Carnulus had forestalled his execution by suicide, exclaimed: 'Carnulus has got away!'

Is it any wonder that Tiberius was a cruel man, so much so that, supposedly, the crowds roared their approval when it was reported that he had died? His disregard for any life fed his cruelty, and he was roundly hated by the masses.

This death? Ain't no thing but a chicken wing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thinking about the Death Star

The other day I watched Return of the Jedi again with my son. And as we watched I was reminded of something about that movie -- and the rest of the Star Wars "episodes" -- that used to bug me and still does a little bit. I know there's a whole cottage industry out there that delights in producing criticism of George Lucas and the mistakes he made with the Star Wars movies (and, believe me, I agree with at least a few of those criticisms), but I don't think I have ever run across a critique that draws attention to this one problem that I have, and it's a very basic problem of engineering.

It's this: The Death Star is built wrong.


Mind you, I'm not an engineer myself, and I'm nothing more than a very basic amateur astronomer, but I don't think a station of that size could actually be constructed. At least not the way that construction is portrayed in the Star Wars movies. And the problem is a simple one of gravity.

The force of gravity causes large clumps of matter to collapse in upon themselves. The larger the object is (i.e., with more mass), the greater the gravitational pull to itself is, but even the smallest of objects possess some modicum of gravitational attraction. And they always try to pull themselves together. Leave a whole bunch of loose objects floating around inside an abandoned space craft and they will eventually clump together because gravity is relentless.

This is how planets and moons and asteroids are formed. With small bodies, the gravitational attractions are weaker, and you end up with weird, misshapen piles of rock.

A pile of space rock.

But as the bodies get larger the gravitational forces compress the material even more, and you end up with more spherical shapes that are denser and more like a planet or a moon. This is a process called accretion.

Now, back to the Death Star. It's round, and the characters in the original movie, Star Wars, mistake it for a small moon because it is really big. At the official website of the Star Wars universe, this Death Star is described as being 160 km in diameter. The second Death Star that was under construction in Return of the Jedi is much larger at approximately 900 km in diameter. The problem with this is that, at these sizes, the gravitational forces of all the materials used to build the station would begin to accrete into a dense mass of unusable rubble.

Not dense, and not rubble. At least, not quite yet.

For comparison, here's a picture of an actual asteroid called 433 Eros:

Eros is about 34 km across, so the gravitational forces are not quite strong enough to make it round. It looks like an oddly shaped pile of rock. In fact, it is an oddly shaped pile of rock.

Now, here's another asteroid called 4 Vesta:

Vesta is about 530 km in diameter, which is between the size of the original Death Star and the second one under construction in Return of the Jedi. See its shape? It's almost a ball, which means that its gravitational forces are compressing it together like a couple of cosmic hands crumpling a piece of paper into a lumpy ball.

Now, here's the biggest of the asteroids in our solar system, and it's called Ceres:

It's very much spherical. And do you know how big it is? It's almost 1,000 km across, which is just a little bit bigger than the second Death Star. At that size, the Empire's contractors would need to really start thinking about how to keep the entire structure from collapsing in on itself before they even got into the business of installing life support systems, power plants, or space ship bays, much less fully functional planet-destroying weapons.

So, the Death Star is built wrong, wrong, wrong. Does it make much of a difference in the grander scheme? No, it doesn't. There have been much worse movies with even more egregious mistakes that the directors have tried to pass off as serious efforts. And, despite Lucas's tinkering with the "Special Edition" versions of the movies, the original three Star Wars flicks are still quality cinematic products that make for a great adventure, and I'm not done enjoying them. Not by a long shot. But the depictions of the Death Star still bug me today, just a little bit. And I truly wonder if I'm the first person to give voice to this basic flaw.

Flawed, like the characters within.

P.S.: The process of planet formation called accretion also explains why the planet Naboo is wrong.

A rocky planet with a liquid water core?

Even more wrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Skylight sidewalks

Shedding light on your underground office, if you have one.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 256, Galba

Galba heard about this message [from the troops dissatisfied with his ascension after Nero's death and calling for the royal guards to put someone else on the throne] and, thinking that he was being criticized for his childlessness rather than his senility, singled out from the crowd at one of his morning receptions a handsome and well-bred young man, Piso Frugi Licinianus, to whom he had already show great favour, and appointed him perpetual heir to his name and property.

Galba was one of the unfortunate emperors who ruled for less than a year, from June 68 A.D. to January 69 A.D., which was known as the Year of Four Emperors. He never really got a chance to establish a real reign, and most people besides historians have probably never heard of him. It didn't help his legacy that he was without children and had to rely on a hasty selection to pick a successor, a selection that angered one Marcus Salvius Otho, who wanted to be Galba's heir himself and who replaced him as emperor.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 207, Claudius

Claudius was so timid and suspicious that, though making a show of simplicity in the early days of his reign, ... he never attended a banquet unless with an escort of javelin-bearing Guards, and waited upon by soldiers performing the duties of servants. Before entering a sick-room he always had it carefully gone over: pillows and mattresses were prodded, and bedclothes shaken out. Later, he even required all visitors to be searched when they came to pay him a morning call, and excused no one the most thorough examination. Indeed, it was not until the end of his reign that he reluctantly gave up the practice of having women, boys, and girls pawed about during these examinations, and of removing the stylus-case from every caller's attendant or secretary.

What this passage tells us first and foremost is that Claudius was very paranoid, though I suppose that is not a bad quality to have if you are a Roman emperor and you've ascended to the throne following the assassination of the previous, corrupt ruler. And that your rise to power came about because the assassins wanted to put you there.

Please don't kill me!

But a bit more interesting than that is the apparent acknowledgment that there was something inherently dangerous about ancient Roman stylus cases.

I can understand an emperor wanting everyone searched for weapons before granting audiences (even if meant searching children), and I can understand the emperor's wariness of sharp, pointed sticks in his presence, but what could possibly be threatening about the case holding the stylus? I assume such devices were simply small boxes or sleeves that would contain the styluses the secretaries used to take notes, but was it the case itself that was suspect, or was it that, by confiscating the case, the guards were sure to get the pointy stylus as well?

Were all secretaries then unable to take notes in Claudius's presence, or were they offered some other alternative? The passage quoted above does not expand on this point, as it deals primarily with the measures Claudius would take to alleviate his paranoia, but that little bit catches my curiosity.

What was it about those cases?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 150, Tiberius

During the period of Tiberius' retirement from Rome he only twice attempted to return. ... On the second occasion he rode up the Appian Way as far as the seventh milestone, but then retreated because of a frightening potent. This was the death of a pet snake which he used to feed with his own hands. When about to do so as usual he found it half eaten by a swarm of ants; and a soothsayer warned him: 'Beware the power of the mob.'

And that sign scared Tiberius back into his self-imposed semi-exile on the island of Capri, a place where he had chosen to live just a few years into his twenty-three-year reign. He preferred living there because he could carry on with his depraved habits out of the watchful eye of his fellow Romans. Tiberius was generally known as being cruel and detached in his later years, and his death -- when it came -- was greeted with cheers by citizens of all classes in Rome. No wonder he was spooked by a sign that some seer said represented the masses destroying him. They wanted to, and he knew it.

Sure, hate me now. My successor is Caligula. See what you think after a few years with him.

Friday, August 05, 2011

What I've been listening to lately


No kidding, I really have. That's a great guitar tune. It's pretty catchy, and it's actually begun to worm its way into my brain lately, so much so that I catch myself at times thinking, Hey, I'm humming an anime theme song! And I kinda like it.

Thanks, Alan, for exposing this to me. I've never been a big fan of anime (unless you count the 1980s Thundercats), but I'm starting to get a little interested in the universe surrounding the planet Gunsmoke. Maybe I'll check out an episode or two.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Twelve Caesars - page 31, Julius Caesar

Caesar next turned his attention to domestic reforms. First he reorganized the Calendar which the College of Priests had allowed to fall into such disorder, by inserting days or months as it suited them, that the harvest and vintage festivals no longer corresponded with the appropriate seasons. He linked the year to the course of the sun by lengthening it to 365 days (the year had previously consisted of 355 days), abolishing the short extra month and adding an entire day every fourth year. But to make the next first of January fall at the right season, he drew out this particular year (46 B.C.) by two extra months, inserted between November and December, so that it consisted of fifteen, including the intercalary one inserted after February in the old style.

Julius Caesar's calendar reforms became the standard for much of the West for at least 1600 years in some places (mostly Catholic countries that adopted the Gregorian calendar, which was a modernized version of the Julian calendar) and well into the 20th Century in others. This calendar and its successor then spread into worldwide usage, and it has led to the way we track the passage of time even today. It's not an overstatement to say that this one act by a power-hungry, cunning, swiving, Roman general who named himself "dictator in perpetuity" has had a greater impact on civilization than any other effort.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Twevle Caesars - page 36, Julius Caesar

[Julius Caesar's] affairs with women are commonly described as numerous and extravagant: among those of noble birth whom he is said to have seduced were Servius Sulpicius' wife Postumia; Aulus Gabinius' wife Lollia; Marcus Crassus' wife Tertulla; and even Pompey's wife Mucia. Be this how it may, both Curio the Elder and Curio the Younger reproached Pompey for having married Caesar's daughter, when it was because of Caesar ... that he divorced Mucia, mother of his three children.


Pompey the Great: "Steal my wife, will ya? I'll show you!"

Monday, August 01, 2011


Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn breaks over Vesta, and it gives us glimpses into stellar beauty.