August 31, 2005

Safe and sound

I just finished driving from Los Alamos, NM, to Ottawa, ONT. That's 3600km (2250 miles). Some observations:

  1. You can see Roadrunners on NM route 104 between Las Vegas (NM) and Tucumcari.
  2. There are places in Texas and Oklahoma where you can still get gas for $1.55/gallon, but in the rest of North America it costs more than $50.00 to fill a 20 gallon tank. Flying is now cheaper than driving.
  3. At least on the 401, Canadians drive further above the speed limit than Americans. Americans driving on an interstate highway with a speed limit of 70mph will rarely exceed 75mph, and trucks and RVs often have a separate, lower speed limit. Canadians on the 401 (speed limit 100km/h) drive 120km/h and some go 140km/h. This is the equivalent of regularly driving 75mph on a 65mph road, and sometimes 85mph.
  4. There are more Tim Horton's along the 401 then there are McDonalds along interstates 40, 44, 70, and 69 put together.
  5. If you don't drink coffee, tea, or anything else with caffein in it, then Mountain Dew is enough to keep you alert during 4 consecutive days of driving. The withdrawal pangs afterwards are mild.

August 24, 2005

Pipe programming

This page finally pushed me from using one command at a time to being comfortable constructing long strings of commands. E.g. cvs diff | grep Index: | grep -vi '*.inc' | sed 's/Index: //g' | xargs cvs commit -m "comment about change" > temp.txt, which lists the changes I've made, extracts the paths of the changed files, removes .inc files from that list, removes some extra chaff from the original printout, commits the changed files, and records the output in temp.txt.

Key commands to learn, IMHO, are find, grep, sed, and xargs. Plus man and apropos, of course.

Perl regexes were based in part on grep and sed, but I learned the Perl version first and now find myself applying that knowledge to grep and sed. Weird, huh?

August 16, 2005

Reading List: Freehold

by Michael Williamson, 2004. Available online as part of the Baen Free Library.

I was planning to review the books I've read recently in order, but I just finished this and now I have to vent about it. Michael Williamson is one of the military sci-fi authors that have accumulated in Baen's stable over the past decade. They tend to write sci-fi that is less about interesting ideas and more about, well, the military.

In Freehold, Williamson creates a future society based upon libertarianism. (Go read that. Don't worry, I'll wait.) The first half of the book is about the culture shock experienced by a new imigrant from Earth. Williamson obviously knows that a libertarian society won't automatically be a utopia, and makes a creditable effort to put in place all the infrastructure a high-tech society needs. I just don't think he succeeds.

First, there are companies for everything. Some of them are so specialized that you'd expect only one or two to exist for every 100 million people. Unfortunately, Freehold is a frontier planet with only 3 major cities, which is cited as one of the reasons that Freehold is so civilized and such a pleasant place to live. I can see lots of specialized companies or a low population, but not both.

Second, a lot of these companies are insurance companies. Well-behaved insurance companies. In one example, our heroine gives medical assistance to the victim of a car accident, and recieves a cheque and thank-you note from the victim's insurance company the next day. Market forces are all well and good, in that they motivate companies to behave, or lose customers and thus profits. But those same market forces motivate insurance companies to pay out as little as possible to people who aren't their customers (and many aren't shy about screwing their customers too). If ever there was an "industry" that needed government regulation, the insurance industry is it.

Third, the people of Freehold are, in general, very civic minded. They are polite ("An armed society is a polite society"), help out when needed, and the crime rate is the lowest in the galaxy. Not that there aren't jerks, malcontents, and psychos, but they're in the minority and the "do the right thing" culture is dominant. This is actually the thing I have the least trouble accepting as possible. I just think libertarian philosophy, with its emphasis on individuality, personal rights, and a well armed populace, is likely to lead to so many people who put their own self-interest above anything else and have the weaponry to get away with it that society would break down sooner rather than later.

The second half of the book is more of a wet dream about what an efficient military could do. We're talking about a well-organized military that trains its soldiers to think for themselves rather than technological efficiency. In fact, there isn't even a space battle in the book, it's all focused on the ground war.

Anyway, enough about that. From the point-of-view of standard sci-fi, Freehold is sorely lacking, in that the only technological inovations are interstellar travel, air-cars (not even anti-gravity, they're just ducted-fan aircraft), and a few other evolutionary changes. But Williamson has built an interesting society and an inovative military, and the story is reasonably captivating.

August 06, 2005

Reading List: Guns, Germs, & Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond, 1997

GG&S tries to answer the question "Why did Europeans colonize the rest of the world and not the other way around?". The factors listed in the title are proximate causes, advantages that allowed Europeans to dominate whatever native populations they encountered. The question therefore becomes "Why did Europeans get all these advantages before anyone else?".

The simple answer is "population density". If one group has a million people while another has 100 million, then the second is a hundred times more likely to include a Da Vinci, Newton, or Einstein (or a Colt, Smith, Wesson, or Gatling). Also, closely packed people provide an environment in which nasty fast-acting diseases can persist instead of killing everyone in a small area and burning out.

So now the question is "Why did Europeans have such a high population density compared to everybody else?". The answer: food production. Most of the book is about the various (mostly geographic) factors affecting the availability of useful crops and livestock in different parts of the world. This is where Diamond shines: he was originally a biologist (specifically, an ornithologist), and he provides many fascinating details and statistics which make this book worth reading. Even better, he abstracts out some general rules and principles which can be used to predict the success of food production in a given place.

The book gets a bit repetitive near the end, when he starts repeating himself, but I nevertheless recommend you read this book. You may or may not agree that geographic factors are the only factors needed to predict the general shape of human history, but you will definitely come away knowing that geographic factors played a very important part.

On the other hand, you could just get the short version.

August 02, 2005

Reading List: Pandora's Star

by Peter Hamilton, 2004.

A fun read. The juxtaposition of sci-fi technology with current or obsolete tech is interesting. (E.g. humanity has wormhole gateways linking planet to planet, through which runs a rail network.) There are lots of other sci-fi themes present, including aliens, sufficiently advanced technology, and the side-effects of immortality.

But that bastard Hamilton ended the book on a cliffhanger! One of the main characters was literally going over a cliff (waterfall off the edge of a worldlet, actually), plus there's an imminent alien invasion. All this after nearly 800 pages, which should have sufficed to wrap up the story. Now I'm going to have to read the sequel. :-)