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The blue haze of distance

Dec. 6th, 2006 | 7:45

There is a common belief among superstitious people (and nearly all modern people are superstitious, for they persist in believing in newspapers and advertisements) that we are continuously watched by spy satellites that can make out the numbers on the licence plate of our cars. No point of this claim is quite false, but it adds up to a gigantic untruth. In the first place, the number of spy satellites is relatively small, and they have only tiny parts of the globe under detailed surveillance at any one time. It takes months or years to compile a set of satellite photographs as comprehensive as those used by Google Earth. And while they can indeed make out objects as small as a few centimetres at perigee, they are also travelling in the neighbourhood of 30,000 kilometres per hour at perigee, and consequently remain there for only a short time. Surveillance satellites travel in highly eccentric orbits; they are not artificial moonlets so much as artificial comets. Then, too, the plates on a car are typically mounted on vertical surfaces, to wit, the front and rear bumpers; and the camera of a satellite is generally pointed straight down. No doubt they could read our licence numbers if we were good enough to mount the plates on top of the car for their benefit.

But these are frivolous objections compared to the fundamental problem of information loss. The earth’s atmosphere is not quite transparent. The same optical distortions that make the stars appear to twinkle, and make distant objects shimmer in the heat of a summer’s day, work just as well when you are looking down through the atmosphere. As any amateur astronomer can tell you, perfect viewing conditions are extremely rare in this nitrogen-oxygen soup. Most of the time, even if a spy satellite could train its camera on your licence plate, it would be an unreadable blur in the blue haze of the atmosphere. Larger objects are of course easier to photograph. A car, or a tree, or a house, is a pretty distinctive object even in the older and more primitive kinds of satellite photography.

In much the same way, the details of ancient languages are lost in the blue haze of time. Ancient Hebrew, despite abundant records going back continuously for nearly three thousand years, contains many words now uncertain or obscure in meaning — an endless vexation to the translators of the Old Testament, as also to Judaic scholars. Proto-Indo-European can only be reconstructed rather vaguely and approximately, and the arguments over details of its grammar and syntax are endlessly entertaining (to the participants). Nostratic, being at least twice as far back as PIE, is correspondingly vaguer — which makes my job much harder.

I am, as I said in an earlier post, trying to assign all the Nostratic roots in Bomhard’s book to words in the Fair Tongue, as far as possible without using the same word twice. This is infuriatingly difficult. According to Bomhard’s timid guesses, the Nostratic root bar- (or perhaps ber-) means ‘to swell, to puff up, to expand, projection, bristle, point, to bear (children), to carry, to bring forth, to twist, to turn, to shine, to be bright, to be kind, charitable, beneficent, to do good, seed, grain, to scrape, to cut, to carve, to whittle, to trim, to make a sound, to utter a noise’. This is its narrow and exact meaning; if you start tacking on all the legitimate suffixes and infixes, then, as Mark Twain said of the German Schlag and Zug, there is probably nothing whatever that it does not mean. I almost find myself transported into Pierre Berton’s Secret World of Og.

There are in fact no less than nine different Nostratic roots that Bomhard spells bar-. Of course this cannot be a perfect reconstruction; but the finer differences between them, if any, are now lost. I suspect that the r is an interloper in some cases. For instance, bar- ‘to shine’ has a counterpart bah-, also meaning ‘to shine’. Likely the two roots were one, and I can assign it to the consonant pair BH instead of BR. But I defy anyone not on cheap hallucinogens to come up with a good reason why one word should have all the twenty-six wildly divergent meanings assigned to it by the good Herr Doktor Bomhard. A word may mean twenty-six different things; it may mean them easily; it may mean them before breakfast; but a word that means both ‘to whittle’ and ‘to bear children’ is not doing its job. A word should not be a Jack of all trades, but a master of one; and then it may be allowed hobbies in its spare time by the judicious.

I am quite sure that most of these nine bar-s were differentiated in the good old days of Proto-Nostratic, some 15,000 years ago. But we shall never discover all the details now. Like the licence number of your car as seen from orbit, they have been lost in the blue haze of distance.

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The price of The Price of Vision

Dec. 6th, 2006 | 11:29

Now that NASA has announced its plans to build an international moon base no later than 2024, the usual hecklers have come out of the woodwork, howling about the cost and uselessness of it all. Robert A. Heinlein made a masterful reply to their objections (to a Congressional committee, no less) in ‘Spinoff’, which was repeated in Expanded Universe: which I exhort you all to go and read if you have not done so. Of course, he was writing in 1979, and the situation has changed somewhat since then.

A brief summary, to bring us all up to date:

The integrated circuit, and its immediate offspring the microprocessor, were invented specifically to meet the requirements of the space program. Nobody actually needed smaller circuits than you could build with discrete transistors, not in 1965; not badly enough to pay the enormous costs of research and development to build the first ones. Between them, NASA and the U.S. armed forces footed the bill. In those days, every kilogram of payload shot into space represented a million-dollar investment or thereabouts, so of course it was worth spending huge amounts of money to make the onboard electronics as small and light as possible. This kick-started the entire modern IT industry. If you have your own computer (which seems highly probable to me for some reason), Internet access, a cellular phone, an iPod, or any other electronic gadget using silicon chips, you are benefiting from the space program every day of your life.

Communications satellites, of course, are the direct result of the space program and would not have been possible without it. Weather satellites, which have saved thousands of lives over the years by warning people of coming storms (to say nothing of their other benefits), ditto. Digital photography and digital signal transmission were invented to solve the difficulty of beaming back photographs from the outer planets without spending a fortune on high-powered transmitters. So was the whole technology of error-correcting communications codes, image enhancers, digital signal processors, and data compression techniques. (If you think the static on your car radio is bad, try broadcasting from Jupiter.) If you have HDTV, cable TV, satellite TV or radio, or make long-distance telephone calls for less than a dollar a minute (which requires the use of digital signals), or if you listen to CDs, watch DVDs, or use Photoshop, you can thank the space program.

The medical benefits have been endless. The CAT scanner (and its successor the MRI), ultrasound imaging, the miniature cameras that can be threaded through your veins via catheter to examine your insides in detail, the wireless diagnostic instruments that can take your vital signs without tying you up in a skein of electrical cable, were all first developed so that medical staff in Houston could remotely monitor the health of astronauts on the Moon. And of course all these devices use fabulous amounts of computer power, which brings us back to the integrated circuit. Literally millions of people are now living because spinoffs from NASA made it possible to treat diseases and injuries that would certainly have killed them fifty years ago.

The space program, with its demands for exotic new materials that would perform under the enormous physical and thermal stresses of takeoff and landing, produced as big a revolution in chemical engineering and metallurgy as anything since the dawn of the Iron Age. The graphite composites, thermal glass, high-impact ceramics, and advanced alloys from which so many of our household and industrial tools are made, would never have been discovered had not NASA spurred and funded research in those fields. These new materials are being used in everything from airliners to hockey sticks.

Even your car is a product of the Space Age. Unless you are driving a very old model, you have electronic fuel injectors instead of an old-fashioned carburetor. Your EFI system, and the other electronics that go with it, roughly double your fuel mileage. They would be impossible without the onboard computers that run them, and those would be impossible without microprocessors. If you had to build the control circuitry for an EFI system out of individual transistors, it would take up so much space under the hood of your car that you would have to leave out the engine. This invention alone has saved the world billions of barrels of oil over the last two decades, and prevented a recurrence of the oil crisis of the 1970s. (Even at their recent high, oil prices were lower in real terms than in 1979. Energy costs accounted for 14 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in that year; the figure during the recent crunch was about 7 percent.) If you drive a car, thank NASA that you’re not waiting for the bus.

I could multiply examples endlessly. The worldwide economic benefit of the space program and its spinoffs comes to trillions of dollars per year. The cost, as Heinlein calculated it: five cents per U.S. citizen per day through the 1960s. That adds up to a good many billion dollars, but even after inflation the benefits today are enough to repay those costs in a matter of days. And the value of the lives saved is incalculable. It is true that most of these developments were made after the space program ceased to have any meaningful effect on those industries. But the research of 2006 was paid for with the profits of 2005, and the research of 1970 was paid for with the contractors’ profits on the Apollo 11 mission of 1969. It was the space program that provided much of the seed capital that made these industries self-sustaining.

If you ever hear anyone complain about the cost of space exploration, tell them to turn in their car, their computer, their iPod if they have one, their cell phone, their digital camera, and their subscription to HBO. And tell them I said so.

All this happened, in essence, because John F. Kennedy, in a moment of wild and romantic enthusiasm, promised the world that Americans would go to the moon before 1970. That promise was kept, though no one could have foreseen the benefits at the time. People vaguely imagined that the benefits of space travel would be found in space: in colonizing other planets, or mining the moon, or what have you. No one ever foresaw the enormous cumulative impact of all these new technologies right here on earth.

It is often so with new inventions, in the arts as well as in science and industry. To take an example directly relevant to my own work and near to my heart: The publishing category of fantasy, as a commercial entity, would not have existed if J.R.R. Tolkien, in his own wild and romantic enthusiasm, had not first poured every spare moment for the forty best years of his working life into The Lord of the Rings and the myths and texts underlying it. At a conservative guess, if he had been paid wages for all that work, it would have cost at least £20,000 — a fortune at the time, with a purchasing power at least equal to a million dollars today. Between 1915 and 1930, according to Tom Shippey, James Joyce received £23,000 in financial backing so that he could live in comfortable obscurity and work full-time on Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist, and Finnegans Wake.
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Naming the tentacles

Dec. 6th, 2006 | 12:52

To clarify for those who may have wondered:

No, ‘the Magnificent Octopus’ is not a title, nor even a working title, but a sort of tongue-in-cheek pet name. I derived it, as some of you will recognize, from Blackadder the Third, specifically from the episode ‘Ink and Incapability’:

Baldrick: Something wrong, Mr. B?

Edmund: Oh, something’s always wrong, Balders. (Dumps all bottles and glasses from the drinks tray he is carrying into a barrel, where they all break) The fact that I’m not a millionaire aristocrat with the sexual capacity of a rutting rhino is a constant niggle. But, today, something’s even wronger. That globulous fraud, Dr. Johnson, is coming to tea.

Baldrick: I thought he was the cleverest man in England.

Edmund: Baldrick, I’d bump into cleverer people at a lodge meeting of the Guild of Village Idiots.

Baldrick: That’s not what you said when you sent him your navel.

Edmund: Novel, Baldrick, not navel. I sent him my novel.

Baldrick: Well, novel or navel, it sounds a bit like a bag of grapefruits to me.

Edmund: The phrase, Baldrick, is ‘a case of sour grapes’, and yes, it bloody well is. I mean, he might at least have written back, but no, nothing, not even a ‘Dear Gertrude Perkins: Thank you for your book. Get stuffed. —Samuel Johnson.’

Baldrick: Gertrude Perkins?

Edmund: Yes, I gave myself a female pseudonym. Everybody’s doing it these days: Mrs. Ratcliffe, Jane Austen—

Baldrick: What, Jane Austen’s a man?

Edmund: Of course — a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush.

Baldrick: Oh, quite a small one, then?

Edmund: Well, compared to Dorothy Wordsworth’s, certainly. James Boswell is the only real woman writing at the moment, and that’s just because she wants to get inside Johnson’s breeches.

Baldrick: Perhaps your book really isn’t any good.

Edmund: Oh, codwsallop! It’s taken me seven years, and it’s perfect. Edmund: A Butler’s Tale. A giant roller-coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters. A searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in. My magnum opus, Baldrick. Everybody has one novel in them, and this is mine.

Baldrick: And this is mine. (Takes a small piece of paper from the front of his trousers) My magnificent octopus.

Edmund: (takes it) This is your novel, Baldrick? (Unfolds it)

Baldrick: Yeah, I can't stand long books.

Edmund: (reads) ‘Once upon a time, there was a lovely little sausage called Baldrick, and it lived happily ever after.’

Baldrick: It’s semi-autobiographical.

Edmund: And it’s completely utterly awful. Dr. Johnson will probably love it.

The current working title of my Magnificent Octopus is The Eye of the Maker. If I can get the Powers that Be to print it in no more than three volumes, as God and the Muses intended, they may be called The Circle of Thieves, The Trail of the Sun, and The Price of Vision: which last makes some sense out of the apparently nonsensical title of my last post. So now you know.

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