What has William Shatner got to do with Christmas cards? Not a lot really, I suppose, since he's Jewish. Although if he is like a lot of my Jewish friends he knows a lot of people from all sorts of backgrounds most of whom don't think about religious issues much and he probably receives a few each year and may well reply to some of them where appropriate. But that is beside the point because I was thinking of another more indirect connection earlier.
I couldn't sleep. It is that betwixt and between sort of weather at the moment where it can't make up its mind whether it is winter or summer so if the choice of blanket density is wrong when going to sleep I can wake up from either being too hot or too cold. I experience the same thing at the beginning of winter. I hate this time of year - I would prefer it if the weather would just make its mind up to be consistently hot or cold and make it easier to sleep. Today I woke up too hot.
I had only been asleep for a couple of hours but when I wake up like that the mind starts working and it is hard to get back to sleep. So I got my iPhone from under my pillow (yes, I have to admit to sleeping with my iPhone) and did a few emails, went onto Facebook, said hello to a couple of people, did a quick crossword puzzle and was still not sleepy so I did a quick jig saw puzzle (yes I have a jig saw puzzle app on the iPhone. It is called Allis Jigsaw. It is great - I can recommend it.
Still not sleepy. So I thought I would do some reading. I have just finished the Steve Jobs biography and intended to read George Takei's biography but then I noticed I had an interview with William Shatner in the iPod (for those who are unfamiliar with the iPhone it has a great iPod as part of the phone). I figured it was perfect. The interview is a little less than an hour and a half and would be perfect getting his perspective before starting Takei's book as they both starred on Star Trek together. I only need a few minutes before sleeping.
So, almost an hour and a half later I had finished the interview. Oops, didn't mean to do that but the interview was dangerous in that once started it was impossible to put down. William Shatner is a real gentleman, he has a wonderful attitude to life. At an age when most people start slowing down he is a whirlwind of activity. Best of all - when he speaks he speaks from the heart, a quality which has probably given him a few personal problems over the years but which also endears him to his audiences as a general rule.
iCon: The Greatest Second Act In The History Of Business
Earlier this year Steve Jobs had a liver transplant and the world is faced with the prospect that his life will eventually come to an end. When a man is as young as Jobs is questions of death are rarely raised but the seriousness of his illness and his unique role in the digital revolution that we are all experiencing brings attention to the details of his life into sharp focus.
I find Steve Jobs a fascinating character and because I love computers I regard him as an incredibly important man. He is a very flawed human being by all accounts and yet is role in computing is so essential that it could be argued that computers would not be the ubiquitous devices in everyones homes that they are today if not for Jobs. He is the person who changed their development from being the toy of engineers and turned it into the first real personal computer as we know it today.
It might have been Steve Wozniak who was the engineering genius who designed the circuitry and programming for the first Apple computer but if that was all that happened it would be nothing special. There were many brilliant minds in Silicon Valley who had the desire and ability to make circuit boards for computers that anyone (not just universities and government departments) could buy. But none of then, Wozniak included, saw much beyond the circuits and geek talk.
Alan Turing had done the math for the first computer algorithm back in 1936 making him the father of all electronic computers but they remained huge and inefficient machines until the transistor and the integrated circuit enabled miniaturization in the 1960's. The first personal computer was the Micral in 1972 and several others followed over the next few years. Problem was that all these computers required expert knowledge. The computer was just a collection of components and the user had to use a soldering iron and screwdrivers to assemble the machine. Then the software had to be installed into the machine every time it was turned on. No wonder people had to be very enthusiastic to use one. It probably helped to be a genius like Wozniak.
But then Steve Jobs came along. He didn't know much about circuits or software. He was a college dropout who had studied Zen and calligraphy. He had a vision which was that a computer had to be something different to what it had been up until then. It had to be able to be operated by ordinary people without a degree in computer programming. It needed to be fully assembled when bought - you should be able to just plug it in. It needed and operating system that stayed in the computer memory. It needed a television screen so graphics could be seen (previous microcomputers relied on flashing lights) and it needed a mouse to make it easier to control. Wozniak apparently didn't agree but Jobs was insistent and so he drove Wozniac to make computers the way Jobs wanted them to be made. The Micral may well be the first personal computer but it was the Apple was the first one that you and I would recognize as being one. The modern personal computer market was born. And it was Steve Jobs who envisioned it in a realistic way and made it happen.
When asked "What are you reading now" people seem to get disappointed by "The news" as an answer, yet the unexciting truth is that the majority of my reading is the news. I always start with Google News, although I have to admit to configuring it so that science and tech news is the main part of it, then there is arts news, world news, and after that I have had enough.
I also find myself in encyclopedias and dictionaries every day, far more than I am reading books, I like to "look things up". I put it down to rampant curiosity. Other people, being polite say "inquisitive" when they and I both know they mean "a bit mad". It is okay, artists carry the cloak of madness with honor. Where the hint of insanity is problematic for most other professions, artists enjoy the notoriety.
Next come podcasts. Podcasts are my magazines, how I get the light forms of reading that are more about pleasure than anything else. My favorites are the scientific American podcast and This Week In Tech, usually called TWIT.
Last comes books, although I use the term loosely as all my "reading these days is done either in my computer, or in audible form on my iPod. My current book is on the iPod, it is called Cultural Amnesia by Clive James.
Norman Mailer (1923 - 2007) is possibly one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Possibly not. However, according to some of his critics he was little short of the devil incarnate. That such a range of statements is found in the same paragraph is a mark of the contradictory and provocative nature of a man who new no fear when it came to the role of the writer as artist.
Some people sample life, others observe it. In Mailer's case his philosophy was "be physical" - get in there and live life with passion, and an appreciation for those moments that separate leaders from followers; those times when fear, duty, experience, and courage come to the fore, as when a pugilist steps into the ring against someone who may well cause great pain and loss, yet does it anyway because winning is not possible until that bridge is crossed.
Of course as every war shows, the heat of the moment sometimes brings out the worst in people and Mailer was very publicly exposed when he was alleged to have stabbed Adele, one of his 6 wives.
Transcript of a message to Nasa when the Cassini spacecraft flew close by Iapetus. Iapetus was the original setting for the monolith in Clarke's book.
Hello! This is Arthur Clarke, joining you from my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
I'm delighted to be part of this event to mark Cassini's flyby of Iapetus.
I send my greetings to all my friends - known and unknown - who are gathered for this important occasion.
I only wish I could be with you, but I'm now completely wheelchaired by Polio and have no plans to leave Sri Lanka again.
Thanks to the World Wide Web, I have been following the progress of
Cassini-Huygens mission from the time it was launched several years
ago. As you know, I have more than a passing interest in Saturn.
And I was really spooked in early 2005, when the Huygens probe returned
sound recordings from the surface of Titan. This is exactly what I had
described in my 1975 novel Imperial Earth, where my character is
listening to the winds blowing over the desert plains.
Perhaps that was a foretaste of things to come! On September 10, if
everything goes according to plan, Cassini would give us our closest
look at Iapetus - one of Saturn's most interesting moons.
Half of Iapetus appears as dark as asphalt, and the other half is as
bright as snow. When Giovanni Cassini discovered Iapetus in 1671, he
could only see the bright side. We had a better glimpse when Voyager 2
flew past in August 1981 - but that was from almost a million
In contrast, Cassini is going to come within a little over one thousand kilometers of Iapetus.
This is a particularly exciting moment for fans of 2001: A Space
Odyssey - because that's where the lone astronaut Dave Bowman discovers
the Saturn monolith, which turns out to be a gateway to the stars.
Chapter 35 in the novel is titled 'The Eye of Iapetus', and it contains this passage:
"Iapetus was approaching so slowly that it scarcely seemed to move, and
it was impossible to tell the exact moment when it made the subtle
change from an astronomical body to a landscape, only fifty miles
below. The faithful verniers gave their last spurts of thrust, then
closed down forever. The ship was in its final orbit, completing a
revolution every three hours at a mere eight hundred miles an hour -
all the speed that was necessary in this feeble gravitation field."
More than 40 years later, I cannot remember why I placed the Saturn
monolith on Iapetus. At that time, in the early days of the Space Age,
earth-based telescopes couldn't show any details of this celestial
body. But I have always had a strange fascination for Saturn and its
family of Moons. By the way, that 'family' has been growing at a very
impressive rate. When Cassini was launched, we knew of only 18 moons. I
understand it is now 60 - and counting.I can't resist the temptation to
My God, it's full of moons!
But in the movie, Stanley Kubrick decided to place all the actions at
Jupiter, not Saturn. Why this change? Well, for one thing it made a
more straightforward storyline. And more important, the special effects
department couldn't produce a Saturn that Stanley found convincing.
That was just as well because if they had done so, the movie would have
been badly dated by the Voyager missions, which showed Saturn's rings
to be far more implausible than anyone had ever imagined.
I have seen enough instances where Nature imitates art, so I'm going to
keep my fingers crossed on what Cassini discovers at Iapetus.
I want to thank everyone associated with this mission and the overall
project. It may lack the glamour of manned spaceflight, but science
projects are tremendously important for our understanding of the Solar
System. And who knows, one day our survival on Earth might depend on
what we discover out there.
This is Arthur Clarke, wishing you a successful flyby.
How is it that we can become afraid of reading certain writers, especially Russian ones? It is only words after all, isn't it? Well I finally dipped my toe into Dostoyevski after all these years of promising myself that I would, and I am loving it.
Before I break open a bottle of champagne I do have a confession to make. I have chosen the 'Dostoyevski For Dummies' approach. Yes, I cheated, I found an audio recording of the LA Theater Works doing a dramatization at Audible.com. People like Ed Asner doing the performing. I had been looking for the book itself, but when I saw this I knew it would be a great way to become familiar with the characters before starting the book itself. It might be a sort of Dostoyevski Light, but I am loving the characterization, and am looking forward to the main meal.
When I bought my iPod I had no idea that it would open up the world of literature like this for me, but I love listening to books and podcast's as I walk down the street. If anyone with an iPod has not discovered the books for sale for iTunes and iPod yet, go to audible.com If you like books at all you will be pleasantly surprised.
I finished re-reading Slaughterhouse Five last week and I have been remembering, savoring bits that I liked and chewing the bits that need a bit of chewing. It is a brilliant book that gets better each time I read it. I love the way Kurt Vonnegut crafts words, I love the way he interfaces reality with his poetic idea of what reality is or might be. I love his ability to weave humor into such a humorless subject, and put little touches of humanity here and there in unexpected ways.
I especially love the part of the book where Billy is watching a movie. Billy is either mad because it is his way of dealing with trauma, or he really can move through time in a random manner. He watches a movie one night, but he watches it in reverse because time is going backwards. It is a war movie. It starts with a city on fire but there is a mysterious force that sucks the fires and explosions out of the city and puts it into cylinders which are magnetically lifted into the belly's of passing bombers where they are stacked in neat rows in the bomb bays. The aircraft fly backwards towards Britain. They are damaged but as they fly over France German fighters fly up and suck bullets out of the bombers so that they are suddenly perfect again and no one is injured anymore. Crashed bombers fly up from the ground to re-join their friends. The dead pilots come to life again.
The planes land back in England, and the cylinders are shipped to the United States where workers, mostly women, disassemble them and separate the dangerous contents into safe minerals which are then placed back in the ground where they remain safe forever. All the characters grow younger, including Hitler, until they are all babies and unable to harm anyone. It is a beautiful movie.
This section of the book was read by Vonnegut in 2003 and set to music. It is called Tock Tick. It is reproduced at the end of the book, at least it does in the Audible.com version. I love listening to a story teller reading books which I listen to on my iPod. The audio book format has many advantages and in this case especially so because the book was followed by Vonnegut talking about aspects of the book, then there was a discussion between Vonnegut and a war buddy of his about the war, the book, and life. Then they played Tock Tick.
Listening to Vonnegut talk was interesting not just for what he said, but because it created yet another interface with the fire bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Vonnegut put the hero of the book, Billy Pilgrim there in Dresden during the firebombing. Vonnegut, however, was writing from direct experience. He really was there as the incendiary devices fell and the city was destroyed. He was a prisoner of war. He couldn't do anything to stop the bombs but he did survive miraculously. Possibly because he was locked in a deep dungeon. Perhaps just because he was lucky. While Vonnegut vastly exaggerates the extent of the deaths on that terrible day he accurately conveys the sense of menace and futility of war in all its brutality. In many ways the most callous acts within the story are not the indiscriminate killings of the distant bombers but the accumulated small atrocities committed on a daily basis by individuals, enemies and supposed comrades alike.
At the end of the book, after all the tens of thousands have died in the bombing, and the war is coming to a close, a soldier is caught stealing a teapot and is shot by firing squad as a looter. As Vonnegut says - so it goes.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Available as audio book for iPod/iTunes at Audible.com (which is cheaper than buying it directly from the iTunes Store)
Available as hard copy book from Amazon.com, or at your local bookstore.
Is it possible to see terror in something beautiful and retain that first excitement of love and appreciation? Take this sunset tonight as glimpsed between city buildings. Gorgeous! was my first reaction and it filled me with thoughts of beautiful things, those special moments that make life feel alive. That was a sunset that could put youth into the old, make the poor wealthy, and bring poetry from stones.
Look at it. Mauves and oranges. It is like the cloud caught fire and is smoldering in the sky. The mauvey greys are like smoke, the cloud made of coals as big as the horizon. It is such an exquisite sight and doubly wonderful for being a snippet of a view.
I stood there in the middle of the street, the cars all around me, and took a photo. They always think I am mad when I take a photo from that little domain I claim on the white line. The cars that is. The pedestrians don't notice. I was transfixed by the beauty of the sky and the office workers streaming past in a river of hurry to get home never noticed that the sun had painted another picture just for them. This was an exhibition for the few, right in the middle of the many. So it goes
That's what Vonnegut says. So it goes. I am reading Slaughterhouse Five yet again. Well, listening to it on my iPod. It is my private homage to his life, since he died just a few weeks ago. In the book he tells the story of Billy Pilgrim. It is meant to be about the fire bombing of Dresden in World War Two. He was there, Vonnegut that is, a prisoner of war, in a slaughterhouse called Dresden. But he says that he cannot think what else to say about the firebombing. I think he thinks that the incendiary bombs said all that needs to be said all on their own. So he talks about Billy who also fought in the war and then goes home and becomes wealthy and it is not until 1967 that anyone realizes that all the way back then, the trauma had made him go quietly mad.
That is until 1967 when he decided to tell a radio station that he has become unstuck from time and that one night in a microsecond before his daughters wedding he spent several years with aliens in a zoo and being mated with a porno movie star called Montana Wildhack. So it goes.
His daughter Barbara was aghast. Aghast not that her father had gone mad, or that he had had to endure the horrors of war, but that he was embarrassing her. So it goes.
I read quite a bit of the book as I went about my business purchasing supplies for tomorrows workshop. I discovered a lot of things. I have read Slaughterhouse Five before. Everybody has, it is one of those books that is respected and so everyone claims to have read it, but Slaughterhouse Five is also a powerful and interesting book, so not only do people say they have read it, they usually have. Me, I read it about three times.
I was much younger then. It seems I was probably quite a bit stupider too. Because (as is often the case when I reread things at this age) I am discovering depths and subtleties that I never noticed the other times. Maybe I did notice, but didn't think it was important so I forgot them straight away.
That's the problem with extreme youth, the extremely youthful are in such a hurry they don't pause to notice so many little things. Like sunsets down a street. Or nuances in the way a character says something, or is introduced. Or why they are there in the first place.
Now I am still a youth, but a little less extremely youthful than before, and discovering that a book that I should know very well is able to surprise me yet again. Or maybe, it's just that it is a good book, and that is why I can rediscover afresh within its pages another aspect that I hadn't considered before. And so it goes.
Tonight I could relate to Billy Pilgrim. I think at times like sunsets or other things of great beauty I too can feel a little unstuck from time. Of course unlike Billy I don't think I have been carried off to Tralfamidor by beings who hold their eyes in their hands. At least I don't think I have been.
But there is something that Billy does that I do do. Cry every so often, usually with dry tears. I get it in artworks, especially books or movies or television. I got it tonight. On an episode of Startrek: Enterprise one of the officers is trying to compose a letter to the parents of a crew member who has just died. The portrayal was very powerful and went through stages of denial and anger and rejection and acceptance, and when he came to terms with it, and started to really write as from his heart what he felt about this person I felt the tears welling up and the sensation was of the tears flooding my eyes, but really there was not that much water there, just the sensation. Big boys don't cry after all.
I wondered how I would deal with a real life situation of being in a place like Dresden in the war, and maybe having to tell someone about their somebody and share their last moments because it needed to be done.
I think I might become really unstuck in time too, and maybe even go to Tralfamidor and be in a zoo.
Everything would be different from then on, even sunsets. Later when I was downloading the photographs I was struck by how the colors in the cloud looked like they could be reflecting the fires of a burning Dresden. Even the mauvey greys looked like smoke rising from the city. Yes the cloud was still gorgeous, but somehow Vonnegut had managed to paint a few extra layers in there that I didn't notice the first time. So it goes.
Today is the 8th here in Sydney, but in Kansas City it is the 7th of July 2007, exactly 100 years after the birth of writer Robert Anson Heinlein. When he died of emphysema in 1988 I had one of those terrible moments. Besides feeling that horrible sympathy with his personal loss of life, I felt a loss in mine, and a feeling of neglect. For many years I had intended to write to him with a thank you for all he had (unknowingly) done for me. Then all of a sudden there was no possible way to thank him except in my heart.
Robert Heinlein was a very controversial author for many people but for me he was simply formative at an important time in my life. I must have been only 8 or 9 years old when I first read "Time For The Stars". Forever more I dreamed of being out there in space, a mixture of scientist and artist.
More importantly for me than dreams of being in a space ship, it was in Heinlein that I discovered my ideal of the strong and independent woman. She invariably had deep understandings of life and the unverse, a sensibility that men struggled to keep up with. For a boy on a country farm this was revolutionary thinking. "Space Family Stone" represented my boyhood ideals well, but his adult books like "Stranger In A Strange Land", and "Friday" were important as I worked out my personal journey in youth. I adored Friday and despised the publishing houses. "Friday" had a hero called Friday. Friday was like a science fiction James Bond. Heinlein describes this exciting figure with fast moving action. He allows us to like Friday and allows our prejudices to imagine the character. It is only when substantially into the book that you discover that Friday is a woman. Then much further into the book we discover that she is black. Heinlein could challenge prejudices and assumptions and he had several black female heroes in his books. His publishers, however studiously ignored the fact, and Friday, in cover art, was always white. Thats why I despised them.
I always loved the way Robert Heinlein thought outside the square. He never followed convention in anything. It is amazing how much convention is followed by most of those who consider themselves unconventional. If you are going to be left wing then there are certain things that you will always ascribe to. Same for those who are right wing. Heinlein, however invented his own path that was confusing for observors. "Stranger In A Strange Land" appeared to be anti war. "Starship Troopers" is claimed by others to be sympathetic to militarism. His philosophy, however, was always impossible to pigeon hole in neat categories like that. What he meant to me was a questioning of all conventional social ideas, a huge respect and love for women, a dislike of prejudices, and a love of individualism. Heinlein did things his own way so much that he constantly invented new words, several of them have entered the Oxford English Dictionary, like the verb grok (an internal understanding especially used in the computer world) and waldo (the name for mechanical arms that manipulate hazardous materials remotely).
My favorites of his story's are probably "By His Bootstraps", "Methuselah's Children", "The Man Who Sold The Moon", and "Friday". "Stranger In A Strange Land", however, while not my favorite, was one of those books that (along side books such as "The Catcher In The Rye" and "On The Road") was transformative for me as a young man. Thats why, I really should have written a thank you letter to Heinlein when I still had a chance.