First Steps in Japan and Antarctica

Posted June 13, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized

I happen to be in Japan on business, and the office I’m visiting is on the pleasant Sumida River where it empties into Tokyo Bay

Looking west towards the Rainbow Bridge

Looking west towards the Rainbow Bridge

It’s right next to the Takeshiba Passenger Terminal, which takes people on sea trips to the Tokyo Islands, about 100 km out in the Pacific.   But what’s this in the middle of the plaza outside the terminal?


Mast monument in Takashiba Passenger Terminal

A sailing ship mast?   With a white dude halfway up it?

sailor on recreated mast of the whaling ship Manhattan

Could this have something to do with Admiral Perry, and his Black Ships that forced Japan to open to the world?

No, it turns out to be a much nicer story.  In 1845, the American whaling ship Manhattan rescued 22 Japanese sailors from those same Tokyo Islands.  Some had been stranded on an island, while others were picked up from a sinking junk.  The commander, Captain Mercator Cooper, then took five weeks out of his voyage to return them to Japan.   He sailed over to this very stretch of Tokyo Bay, and lowered a boat with four of the sailors and a note describing the situation.

At that time Japan was strictly closed to the outside world by order of the Shogun, a policy known as sakoku, “chained country”.  This was instituted in the 1630s, largely as a response to unrest caused by Jesuit missionary work.   Catholicism had hit Japan like a bomb.  Their native religions hadn’t been competing ferociously the way creeds had been in the West.   It was an invasive species to which the native-born memes had little resistance.   They must have seemed like pretty thin gruel compared to what the Jesuits offered.   Forgiveness of sins!  Life everlasting!   A saint for every occasion!  An immense theology backed up by a wildly diverse sacred text, with a story in it for everyone.  The shogun’s response was to take a flamethrower to these invasive weeds, and he ordered the execution of all Christians, usually in as gruesome a manner as possible.  He then closed the country to limit future contact.  That had the other salutary effect of cutting off trade and therefore wealth for provincial barons who might turn out to be competitors.

thousand-autumnsThe only source of contact with the outside world was a small Dutch trading post on the island of Dejima near Nagasaki.  Interestingly enough, the main impact of the Dutch on the Japanese was through medical textbooks, which were furtively passed from hand to hand like samizdat.  This was indeed secret and powerful knowledge. For a brilliant fictional version of life in Dejima in the early 1800s, see the David Mitchell novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet”.   It’s got romance, intrigue, sea battles, ninjas, and one honest man trying to make his way through a corrupt world.    When Napoleon conquered Holland in 1806, Dejima was the last outpost in the world of the Free Dutch Republic.  Its residents came home to a hero’s welcome when their country was finally freed in 1813.

Anyway, when the governor of Edo received Captain Cooper’s note, he allowed him to land.  His party were the first Americans to ever visit the mainland.   The lost sailors were received with much rejoicing.   Cooper stayed for four days, visited the governor himself, and was much impressed.   His ship was re-provisioned, and when Cooper offered to pay, the governor waved him off.  However, the shogun’s Imperial officers were less hospitable.   They thanked him for rescuing their people, and told him never to return.

His story made its way back to Washington.  The US had long wanted Japan to open, mainly as a coaling station for trade with China, which was flourishing.  Officers in the US Navy argued that the people of Japan were much more open to trade than the Imperial government was, and would welcome an opening.   That led to the Perry expedition of 1853, which had almost as dramatic an effect on the country as the Jesuits.

Captain Cooper himself seemed to have a taste for exploration.   How could you not with a name like Mercator?   In January 1853 he was commanding a whaling and sealing voyage in the Ross Sea near Antarctica.  They spotted an ice shelf backed by a high mountain.  He ordered a boat lowered, which landed on the shelf.  This was the first reliably documented landing on the continent of Antarctica.  He stayed in the area for several days, but found only penguins, rather than something valuable to hunt.

His trip seems to be remembered fondly in Japan.   They built the huge plaza above with a recreation of his ship mast.  The Tokyo Rotary Club also put up a monument to the occasion:

English side of Manhattan monument

English side of Manhattan monument

A century later, in 1945, US-Japan interactions were less pleasant.   Still, how nice to see this in the middle of this huge, bustling city!


The One Useful X-Power Is the Main One We Have: Telepathy

Posted May 28, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized


So I saw the new movie “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this last weekend, and was struck by how odd and useless most of their superpowers are. They look great, but what would you do with them? The ability to shoot ice blasts from one’s palms? Cool! But you’d use it for, ah, re-surfacing skating rinks? The ability to phase through walls? Handy for escaping from prison, but that’s something I’ve never actually needed to do.   Have 10″ claws come out of your knuckles? Then how could you bend your wrists when they were inside your hands? Heal quickly from bullet wounds? Can’t say I’ve been shot recently. If the fast cellular growth needed for quick healing also meant a constant risk of cancer, then I’ll pass.

Patrick Stewart

You can tell how highly evolved he is by his lack of hair

But even within the fantastical world of comic-dom, the writers of the X-Men knew who had the greatest power – the telepath Professor X. Being able to read minds is more important than being able to lift heavy metal objects. If you want to lift something heavy, rent a crane. If you want to do serious work, read people’s minds to figure out what they want and then get them to direct their efforts towards your goals.

After all, if you were ten times stronger than an ordinary person, and could kill with a single blow, you’d have the superpowers of a tiger.  Yet people have been hunting down tigers for hundreds of thousands of years. Five people with spears can take down a tiger, if they work together. A person who can understand four others enough to convince them to go on a hunt is effectively stronger than a tiger.

That must have been the scary thing about hominids when they first appeared. They were so weak and slow, but they moved with eerie coordination. They had these secret communication powers. They could act in concert even when widely separated. They could specialize on tasks. Wolves could cooperate too, but you wouldn’t have one wolf making extra sharp teeth while another lay in wait for prey, and a third drove the prey towards the ambush.

Soon they were able to project their thoughts into their children’s brains, and pass them on even after their own deaths. They got slowly better at that until about 50,000 years ago, when a Great Leap Forward happened. They were suddenly able to project their thoughts onto inanimate objects, creating art. Now they could cooperate in groups of hundreds. Agriculture needs groups of thousands, and industrialization needs millions. Keeping that many people from dissolving into vicious factions needs vast networks of persuasion and coordination.

In fact, intuiting what millions of people will pay money to watch is exactly what movie people do.   They use the Cerebros of market research and focus audience testing to carefully tune every word and image to match people’s desires.  Thousands of people work on a movie like X-Men, and tens of millions will see it.   Strange mental powers must be at work!    If Professor Xavier ever got tired of teaching wild and dangerous children, he would make a hell of a producer.

The Glass Empire Strikes Back

Posted April 12, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized

Sergey Brin is recording you all the time

Sergey Brin has been watching you constantly online, but now he’s recording you in the real world too.

Google Glass has gotten enormous grief in the last few months.  Places are banning it, and people have gotten into fights over it.  Even the tech journalist David Pogue finds it creepy:

You no longer know if you’re being filmed by your conversation partner. An unspoken social rule is being violated. I didn’t like it. I wanted her to take the damn thing off.

So their first counter to that was a video about avoiding being a Glasshole.   Now the next phase kicks in – showing that cool people use it to do important things.   The first release of the campaign was a recent front-page story in the Boston Globe – Google Glass now standard in Beth Israel Deaconess emergency room. This is an interview with Dr Stephen Horng, who has been finding uses for it in the ER.  He can access a patient’s records and immediately find out about history and allergies.   I doubt that the Glasses really are standard equipment at Beth Israel, since they don’t mention anyone else but Horng.  Since he also has degrees in CS and bio-informatics, he’s likely to be a first adopter.

His system was developed by Wearable Intelligence, a startup in San Francisco that’s backed by Google.   They’ve also just out come with a staged video showing a doctor using it to deal with a stroke admission.   It shows an elderly man slurring his words and unable to keep his hands lifted, while his frantic wife is with him.   An older doc in a white coat and tie (i.e. not a hipster dude) uses his Glasses to capture a video, order a CAT scan, and contact a specialist.   The grateful couple look on, saved by this miraculous tech.

Well, it so happens that my sister is a physician’s assistant.   She says that one of the docs in her ER tried one in San Francisco and thought it was great.   However, they do already have rolling computers that give them immediate access to patient info, and it would be hard to convince providers to adopt yet another tech.   She also worries that patients would be made uneasy if they thought they were being recorded.

I suppose that lots of people in ERs really don’t want to be on video.   It smacks of police and interrogation.  Hospitals might insist that all the video is private, but  thanks to the NSA we now know that those promises are meaningless.  If the FBI or DEA wants it, they can get it. If fears like that deter people from coming into the ER, that would wipe out any medical gain that the Glasses might bring.

The long-term vision (so to speak) of things like Glass is to be an aid to our fallible memories.  So little of our lives actually sticks.  We lose so much.   We would all love to hold onto the good parts, ones that would comfort us in dark times.  Yet the unblinking eye of the camera also captures the bad parts, and captures things that can be used against us.   That’s what has people worried about Glass, and what may ultimately sink the product.

“The Wind Rises”, As Did Japan

Posted March 30, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,
Jiro and his A5M

Jiro and his A5M

So why would Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s greatest directors, chose to make his final movie about an obscure aircraft designer?  He has said that “The Wind Rises” will be his last, and he’s already 73.   None of his other movies have been based on real people, so why make one about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane of WW 2?   There are very few movies of any kind about engineers, and this animated one is unique.

It might be just because Miyazaki loves flying. It features in a lot of his movies, especially “Laputa, Castle in the Sky”, which has air pirates and an entire flying island. Flying is an inherently beautiful thing, and his style of cel animation is wonderful at portraying it on film.

But I think something else is going on here.   The Zero was the first Japanese industrial product that was clearly competitive with the West.   In the air battles of 1941 and 1942, it shot down everything that the US and British could put against it.   Compared to the standard US Navy fighter of 1941, the Brewster Buffalo, it was faster (330 mph vs 320), more maneuverable (a rate of climb of 3100 ft/min vs 2440) and had longer range (1900 miles vs 965).

Japan had been trying to catch up ever since the Meiji Restoration.   Once they were forced by Admiral Perry to look beyond their shores, they could see how far behind they had gotten.  Even by the time of this movie, the 1930s, the country still looked pre-industrial.  The movie is filled with pretty scenes of fields and small villages.   At the Mitsubishi aircraft factory where Horikoshi is working, they still haul the planes out to grassy runways with teams of oxen.

But things are changing.   The men are now wearing suits and ties.   Rackety cars are moving down the streets.  The air itself is in trouble – Horikoshi’s wife Naoko suffers from TB, and cannot stand the polluted air of the cities.  Flying itself gives a freedom to the Japanese that they had never known before.  Horikoshi exemplifies what it took to catch up – he’s a person of Zen-like concentration and utter determination.

It all ends badly, of course.   Naoko risks her health to be near him when he’s doing the flight trials of his first masterpiece, the A5M, but realizes that she is keeping him from work critical to the nation.   She flees back to a sanitarium in the mountains.  Just as the plane has its first spectacular flight, he feels a puff of wind and knows she is gone.  The movie ends at the end of WW 2, with Horikoshi looking out over vast fields of wrecked aircraft and saying “Not one of them came back.”  And it’s true – of the 11,000 Zeros built, only 1 flyable one remains.  His boyhood dreams of freedom and flight ended in ruin for him and his nation.

So this isn’t just a story of an artist who worked in metal and engines instead of animation cels.  It’s not just a tragic love story.  I think it’s also a story of the country itself.   No wonder it was the highest grossing movie in Japan in 2013!


“The Martian”: Really Mundane SF

Posted March 13, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized

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A few years ago Geoff Ryman, the renowned author of “Was” and “The Unconquered Country”, got sick of the tropes of science fiction.   Faster-than-light interstellar travel, aliens, and alternate realities were cheap devices that encouraged boring and lazy writing.   While we may someday send devices to other stars, we certainly won’t go in our present bodies, nor will aliens visit us in anything even vaguely like human form or technological level.   FTL violates causality anyway.  Those ideas are exhausted!   Get over them!   Don’t think that you can burn up this planet and then find another!   He argued for Mundane SF, one that has some vague relation to reality, unlike the wish-fulfillment of pulp concepts from the 1930s.

He came in for much grief and mockery, of course, partly from people who really believe in Star-Trek-ish futures, and partly from those who thought he was being too restrictive.   They’re just stories after all.  His manifesto has had some effect, though.  Big names of today like Charlie Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Karl Schroeder have actually given up on FTL, and find ways to tell interstellar stories with mildly plausible slower-than-light travel.    Stross has been particularly dismissive of the old ideas.   He notes that it probably takes at least 100 million people to maintain even the current state of technology, so thinking that a tiny space colony is going to ride out the destruction of the Earth is ludicrous.  Note that North Korea can’t support modern tech with even 20 million people, and that the whole Soviet Union really couldn’t either.

Cover of hardback edition of "The Martian"

Click for author site

Now a new author, Andy Weir, has come out with an SF novel so Mundane that it practically needs its own category – “The Martian”.   It’s about the third manned expedition to Mars, the one that goes horribly wrong.    A huge dust storm blows up, and forces the crew to blast off early.   Just as they are making their way to the ascender rocket, the storm knocks over their communication dishes, and an antenna spears one of them.   The life support readings in his spacesuit go to zero.  The storm is about to tip over the ascender too, so they abandon his body and take off.  The antenna just destroyed his electronics, though, and he survives.  Now he has to make it to the next expedition in four years time with just the stuff abandoned at the base, and completely cut off from the earth.

Weir has great fun working out how this could be done.   Not enough food?  Create soil out of Martian sand and compost, including his own waste, and spread it over every inch of floor space in his habitats.   Seed it with potato eyes from supplies meant for a Thanksgiving dinner, and use the hab solar panels to power grow lights.  Get water from left-over hydrazine fuel in the descent vehicle and react it with oxygen broken out from the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere.    He actually puts numbers to all this, something you never see in novels.  Things continue to go wrong, of course, but the protagonist is an astronaut after all, and so is determined, smart, and unflappable.   Maybe implausible as well, since the things that happen to him would leave any actual person gibbering in panic, but  he keeps a cocky sense of humor as well.

Weir says that he has long been a space fan, and an amateur writer.   He grew up in California and now works in Palo Alto as a programmer.   He got to working out the details of a manned Mars trip and then wondered what would happen in various disaster scenarios.  When that gelled into a story, he started posting chapters of it for free on his website .   There’s also a lot of fanfic there, and a nice piece of philo-fic, “The Egg”.   The story started getting a lot of attention, so he assembled it into a Kindle eBook.  Then Crown came along with a publishing contract (six figures for a first novel!)  and it came out this month in hardback, which is how I read it.  At the moment it’s 15th on Amazon’s SF & Fantasy best sellers list.  Someone has even bought the movie rights!  Rising from the sea of freefic to a published novel is a rare story of survival in itself.

So the book is fun and engaging, especially to technicals.   What it doesn’t have is any sense of transcendance, a key aspect of SF.   Mars is portrayed as dead, and as deadly.   It’s like a particularly boring stretch of Antarctica, but even more ready to kill you.    There are no aliens or mysterious artifacts, and not even any Martian bacteria.

It’s as realistic a portrayal of an expedition to Mars as can be devised, and it leaves this fan unsatisfied.   I contrast it with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars novels.   Those too gave a Mundane picture of Martian exploration, with no fantastic elements allowed.  Yet Robinson loved the wild planet itself and luxuriated in descriptions of it.    He’s a mountain climber and so is attracted to barren, open places.   He was also attracted to the idea of rebuilding society in a better way, the old Pilgrim dream.   All three books formed the best SF novel ofthe 90s.


Redford in a non-Martian wilderness in “All Is Lost”, click for Amazon page

But maybe these are just times for stories of desperate survival.   This novel is a close parallel to the recent Robert Redford movie “All is Lost”.  That too is an account of one man surviving when everything fails, this time on a yacht in the Indian Ocean.  He too is cut off from the rest of humanity when a storm shorts out his radio, and must improvise his way past one challenge after another.  That too kept me engaged throughout.   Yet it had a sense of the beauty of the world that I didn’t get in “The Martian”, and is also in RGB Mars.  It also had a rather spiritual ending, which can be interpreted however you like.  That too isn’t in Weir’s book.  Still, I look forward to his next!





A Wasted Genius: Nigel Richards

Posted February 25, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized

Word Wars TitleI recently saw a nice documentary, “Word Wars”, on an odd subject,  professional Scrabble players.   It followed four of them as they made their way around the circuit, aiming for the national tournament in 2002.  The first prize there was $25,000, which may not sound like much in the context of other sports, but was something these guys could really use.    The four were engaging characters, and it was hard to pick who to root for.  The sane family man?  The manic former screenwriter?  The black guy up from the projects?   The ultra-nerd with constant stomach problems who turns out to have a sweet and clear singing voice?

Yet there was another, much more mysterious figure who appeared briefly in the movie,  the New Zealander Nigel Richards.  This was his first appearance in a US tournament, which meant he had to abide by the official US Scrabble word list.   This differs significantly from the British list used everywhere else in the world.    While flicking through the thousands of possibilities for each play, he had to remember which were valid and invalid words.



He came in second that time, behind Joel Sherman, but he has since won the US title 5 times and the world title 3 times.  He has utterly dominated the game for the last ten years.  When you look at his tournament games you can see why.  He plays ZIBELINE (the fur of the sable) across two triple-word squares for 230 points on one play.   With a rack of CDHLNR<blank> he played CHLORODyNE  (a 19th century patent medicine) across three disconnected letters: the two Os and the E, and using the blank for y.  Notice that this has 10 letters, which means it’s not in any Scrabble word list.  They only go up to 9, for the 7 letters on a rack plus two on the board.

I submit that this is superhuman.   He has in fact memorized the Chambers dictionary, and can bring it to mind in the roughly three minutes one gets per turn.  He says he can visualize the page for each word.  Mere eidetic memory, though, doesn’t allow one to manipulate letters this way.

He’s not an idiot savant.  Nor is he an effortless super-genius like the ludicrous Matt Damon character in “Good Will Hunting”.  He has studied systematically and hard to absorb the 140,000 or so words of Scrabble.  By all accounts he’s a calm, articulate guy who holds a day job (as a CCTV installer in Kuala Lumpur) and loves to bicycle.   He never gets flustered (he does occasionally lose), and never gets excited – he just sits motionless in front of the board for 50 minutes in total concentration.   He didn’t even come to Scrabble until his later 20s.  He wasn’t exceptional at school in Christchurch, and won a scholarship to college but never went.   He just found something that clicked with his extraordinary mental abilities.

While people in the small world of Scrabble are completely in awe of him, his powers seem to me to be wasted.   Surely there is something better that he could do with this.   If he can match the 7 letters in front of him to the 140,000 valid words, he could visualize the protein folding that will block cancer receptors.    Or find the orbital path that takes one from Earth to Jupiter in a dozen slingshot manuevers.   Or distinguish the fakes from the masters in oil paintings.   Or trace the tenuous chain of evidence of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or Whitey Bulger.

Maybe he was never exposed to real problems.  He seems to have grown up in a lower class household.  He didn’t have a G. H. Hardy to pull him from obscurity like Hardy did with the Indian math prodigy Ramanujan.    His mother noticed his abilities, but no else probably spared two minutes for this quiet boy.

Or maybe he was overwhelmed by his abilities, as Funes the Memorius was in Borges’ famous story.  Every single thing that Funes ever saw was as vivid to him as what was in front of his eyes at the moment.   He could not generalize anything; all was individually distinct.  There’s no need for abstraction when all can be recalled.   Even time changes meaning when you can cycle through a day of memory in a day of real time.

Richards can’t be that extreme, of course, but I wonder if his odd occupation and demeanour is a sign of how different his mental world really is from yours or mine.    All the top Scrabble players have powers of memory and concentration far beyond those of ordinary people, but he seems to be in another class altogether.   How sad that a guy with such superpowers uses them to make $25,000 a year playing an obscure game.


Corrupting Science – Hayes, Syngenta and Atrazine

Posted February 8, 2014 by jlredford
Categories: Uncategorized


deformed_frog_1In the last Gilded Age, the railroad baron Jay Gould is supposed to have said about union sympathizers “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half”.   In the current age, the same can be said of scientists.  That’s the conclusion one draws from a depressing article in this week’s New Yorker by Rachel Aviv: A Valuable Reputation.  It describes the travails of Tyrone Hayes, a biology professor at UC Berkeley, who has been trying to raise the alarm about an herbicide in extremely wide use, atrazine.  His specialty is amphibians, and he has found that exposure to very low levels of this chemical can cause genital defects.   The chemical’s maker, Syngenta, has been hounding him for the last 15 years with a smear campaign.   If you hit this Google link, Tyrone Hayes, the first thing you’ll see today is a sponsored ad, “Tyrone Hayes Not Credible”.

This may seem familiar from the last 20 years of climate change denial, but the difference here is that there are actual documents describing their plan of attack against him.  They came out in the discovery process of a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta.  The company agreed to settle in July 2013 for $105M, most of which is to go to water treatment plants in communities affected.  They are still selling the chemical, and will bear no further liability.  Syngenta has annual sales of $14.5B, so this is a less than 1% hit to them.

The documents detail how the company hired several different PR firms to attack Hayes, and commissioned many other studies that showed no health effects.  They had people follow him from conference to conference, and ask heckling questions at the end of his talks.  They bought an economist to say that banning atrazine would be a catastrophe for corn growers.

This all began in 1997 when they commissioned Hayes to look at atrazine’s effects on frogs.   He was a rising star in the field at the time.   Frog populations all across North America have been in decline, so this was an important question.  Hayes found quite strong effects, and quit accepting their money.  They then looked for more friendly researchers, and found many.

They were also able to derail EPA efforts to examine the chemical by means of a Bush-era (2003) law that said that all regulations must pass a cost-benefit analysis.   An unsurprising thing about such analyses is that the company reaps the benefits while the public bears the cost.     Control the process and you control the conclusion.

Now, from a straight scientific point of view, there may actually be some doubt about the danger of atrazine.    From a public policy point of view, though, there is none.   Syngenta’s actions have guilt all over them.  The EU has already banned this poison.   The US should too, not only to protect public health, but to protect the very processes of science.   They can’t get away this behavior.