Feb 202011

Years ago, back in 2002 to be precise, I had an idea. Having just re-read Tolkien’s immortal The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I suddenly realized that there may be two sides to this story. That the book, which I enjoyed so much and read so many times, may just be an overly simplistic version of the history of Middle Earth, as told by the victors. So what if I tried to write down the history of the One Ring and the all-encompassing War of the Ring between Gondor and Morder from the perspective of a Mordorian orc?

I actually sat down and began writing the story, but I never got past the first page. No author, I.

Little did I know that the story I wanted to write was already written, published by a Russian author, Kirill Yeskov, in 1999. In it, just like in the version I envisioned but never wrote, Gandalf is a great manipulator; Aragorn is little more than a highway robber turned usurper; and the “evil empire” of Mordor is, in fact, a land of industry, science, and technology, despised by the magic-wielding but oft illiterate feudal lords of Middle Earth’s West.

In short, Yeskov wrote the story I wanted to write, only he did it much better than I could or would have. And Yeskov’s book is finally available in a (very) decent English translation, as a free download. I downloaded it yesterday, printed it, even bound it in the form of a little book, and now I am enjoying every page of it. Yes, surprisingly, it is actually a page-turner! And also an eye-opener.

I have no idea yet how the story will end. The ending will probably be a lot less neat and tidy than the ending of Tolkien’s version. But, it may also be a lot closer to “reality”.

I think it’s a fitting irony that Yeskov’s book was never officially published in English, as publishing houses feared the wrath of the Tolkien estate. When we say that history is written by the victors, what we really mean is that the victors are usually successful at preventing any version of history other than the official one from reaching bookshelves. It seems that the situation is no different in the case of Tolkien’s fantasy world.

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Jan 012010

This is the year when the Soviet spaceship Alexei Leonov was supposed to fly to Jupiter, investigating the failure of the spaceship Discovery and the death of her crew nine years earlier. At least in one respect, Clarke’s vision will come true: after the Space Shuttle’s planned retirement later this year, the United States will be left without a manned launch capability, and American astronauts will be ferried to the International Space Station (alas, a mere few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, not a billion kilometers from here like Jupiter) on board Russian spacecraft. Not exactly an inspiring thought, except perhaps to some Russians.

 Posted by at 6:21 am
Dec 292009

There is a fascinating book published by the RAND Corporation, available at Amazon for a mere 81 US dollars. I am tempted to buy it. It must be a fascinating read. Readers’ comments at Amazon are certainly encouraging; while the book has some minor flaws, despite the lack of serious proofreading it is guaranteed not to contain any errors, and it helped at least one reader get to meet the woman who eventually became his wife.

 Posted by at 3:42 pm
Mar 022009

I’ve been reading Wikipedia about the so-called Sylvia Plath effect. It takes a bit of explaining.

I just finished reading Escape from Hell, the sequel to Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, itself a superb book, a modern rewrite of Dante’s hell. In this sequel, the principal companion of the protagonist is a woman named Sylvia Plath.

I must say I never heard of Sylvia Plath until this book. I knew nothing about her tragically short life nor about her death by suicide, a month before I was born in 1963. But that’s not why I was learning about her from Wikipedia this evening.

I finished Escape from Hell last night, less than 24 hours ago. Tonight, my wife and I watched the latest episode of The Simpsons. At the end of this (otherwise better than average) episode, there is a brief shot of Lisa holding a book in her hand. It’s the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.

One recurring theme in Inferno and Escape from Hell is that the protagonist meets just too many people he encountered in his earthly life for it to be a coincidence. I call such coincidences my Victrola moments… Many years ago, I played a Monty Python computer game which featured a Victrola, a word I never heard previously, but within 24 hours, I heard it in a completely different context. There were a few more instances like this in my life. Now, I can add Sylvia Plath to the list.

 Posted by at 2:18 am
Jan 272009

I’ve read a lot about the coming “digital dark age”, when much of the written record produced by our digital society will no longer be readable due to changing data formats, obsolete hardware, or deteriorating media.

But perhaps, just perhaps, the opposite is happening. Material that is worth preserving may in fact be more likely to survive, simply because it’ll exist in so many copies.

For instance, I was recently citing two books in a paper: one by d’Alembert, written in 1743, and another by Mach, from 1883. Is it pretentious to cite books that you cannot find at any library within a 500-mile radius?

Not anymore, thanks, in this case, to Google Books:

Jean Le Rond d’ Alembert: Traité de dynamique
Ernst Mach: Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwickelung

And now, extra copies of these books exist on my server, as I downloaded and I am preserving the PDFs. Others may do the same, and the books may survive so long as computers exist, as copies are being made and reproduced all the time.

Sometimes, it’s really nice to live in the digital world.

 Posted by at 3:51 am
Jan 182009

“John Moffat is not crazy.” These are the opening words of Dan Falk’s new review of John’s book, Reinventing Gravity, which (the review, that is) appeared in the Globe and Mail today. It is an excellent review, and it was a pleasure to see that the sales rank of John’s book immediately went up on amazon.ca. As to the opening sentence… does that mean that I am not crazy either, having worked with John on his gravity theory?

 Posted by at 3:58 am
Jan 062009
The Piano Tuner

The Piano Tuner

Years ago I went to a bookstore at Zurich’s international airport and picked up a book to read on the flight, Daniel Mason‘s The Piano Tuner. I began reading then, but I kind of drifted away, never finishing it, putting it aside after I got back home, I never even got halfway. The book was sitting, forgotten, on top of an ever growing pile next to my bed.

Until last week, that is, when I picked it up again. I had to start from the beginning, as I didn’t remember much, just the uniqueness of the story and its atmosphere. This time around, it didn’t take long to get to the last page… despite the 19th century feel and pace, it turned out to be a page-turner after all.

And an unlikely story it is, set in Victorian England, telling the tale of a shy, self-absorbed London piano tuner who gets the most unusual commission of his lifetime: a request by Her Majesty’s War Office to travel to the remotest parts of Burma in order to tune and repair an Erard grand piano.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who was mesmerized by Mason’s story. Now I hear that a movie is in the works. Not bad for the first novel of a medical student!

 Posted by at 1:36 pm
Nov 162008

In the year 1086, William the Conqueror ordered a survey of England. The result of this became known as the Domesday Book, a detailed account of the material wealth of England on that day of accounting, or reckoning, or doom (dom in Old English), i.e., on domesday.

900 years later, the BBC engaged in a cultural heritage project. The BBC Domesday Project was a multimedia survey of the United Kingdom, published using the latest technology: laser disc. Remember laser discs? Not compact discs, laser discs. 12 inches wide, big, shiny, designed originally to store near broadcast quality analog video.

The two Domesday discs contained professional video segments, numerous photographs encoded as single-frame analog video, along with a large amount of data (including geographic data and data from the 1981 census), as the discs could store about to 300 MB of digital data, a huge data capacity at the time.

All you needed to view the BBC Domesday disc was a specially manufactured laser disc player, along with an Acorn computer with specialized interface hardware.

Of course today it is a tad hard to find a laser disc player of any kind, never mind a specially manufactured model. As to the Acorn with the custom interface and coprocessor, good luck finding one on eBay!

The original creators of the BBC Domesday project knew about possible obsolescence; yet despite their efforts (they sent copies of everything to the UK National Data Archive, where apparently everything promptly disappeared) the data were almost lost.

Although it appears that the BBC Domesday project has been largely rescued, it highlights a bigger problem: what happens to our society’s written record if the medium on which it was written becomes obsolete? Some people speak of the digital dark ages, a period in history (i.e., the present) that will become inaccessible to future researchers, as our collective memory is written in a form that will not be compatible with the hardware of the future. Indeed, to some extent it has already happened… how many people have computers today that can read 5.25″ floppy disks, for instance? Or, what happens to Web sites when the people who maintain them are no longer around? Never mind 900 years, will any of our “domesday books” still be readable just 90 years from now?

 Posted by at 2:21 pm