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11-20 January 2003

20 JanFly UI
19 JanThe Defending the Lion City Controversy
19 JanSci-fi Masterworks; Post-Apocalypse; Timescape
18 JanThe Square Root dispute
18 JanMore on Eldred v. Ashcroft
18 JanChemical Weapons
16 JanLegally Right, but with worrying implications
15 JanDisney 1, Eldred (& public) 0
15 JanThe Square Root of 9, part II
13 JanSquare One, & other Great Things About Childhood
12 JanTime's comment on the Franchise
11 JanThe Square Root of 9

Fly UI

20 January 2003 11:58 PM SGT (link)

Maddog has a blog entry here about a new UI (user interface) enhancement to the toilet to get men to aim better, as the campaign posters have it. It's a simple idea but it may just work.

The Defending the Lion City Controversy

19 January 2003 3:13 PM SGT (link)

...Referring to the part describing a scenario for war, Dr. Huxley said: 'I was thinking about what Singapore would like to do to maintain its sovereignty in the event of a war, not what it was planning to do - which is what the Malaysian media and politicians seem to be implying.'

...But the editor of the Malay Mail, Mr. Ahirudin Attan, said: 'When the book is being read by a Malaysian, it will naturally be taken from the point of view of a Malaysian.'

- ST 19 Jan 2003, Book on S'pore military might 'was misread'

As reported in the New Paper yesterday, apparently the controversy has been extended by the Malay Mail to Defending the Lion City, which I have been fascinated by because it was done as an assessment of the SAF's strengths and strategies from an outside academic's point of view. I was more interested in the chapters on defence policy and strategy, not so much on the administrative structures - like the possibility of "advancing into peninsular Malaysia" in a war (in the "Defence Policy, Threat Perceptions and Strategy" chapter) that so inflamed the Malay Mail. With all due respect to Mr. Attan, he's taking it too emotionally, especially since every country must have some idea of how to defend its territory & interests. Anyone remember the piece a Malaysian colonel wrote about how their military could poison the water supply going to Singapore as a means of fighting a possible war?

Sci-fi Masterworks; Post-Apocalypse; Timescape

19 January 2003 12:12 AM SGT (link)

There's something about books from U.K. publishers in the area of cover design that really appeals to me. Yeah, but if you ask me, the old adage is simply untrue: I don't buy or judge books solely for their covers - I at least look at the blurb too ;-)

Anyway Gollancz UK publishers have a series called the SF Masterworks (Science Fiction), where they cull the classics of this oft-belittled and underestimated genre - everything from H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine to Greg Bear's Blood Music and Eon. The cover artwork for most of them is fantastic too. Catalogues at Andromeda Bookshops and Orion Publishing Group. All links below are to Amazon UK; Amazon US doesn't seem to carry this series.

The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

[The Day of the Triffids] If memory serves me right, this book is what got me loving science fiction, specifically post-apocalyptic science fiction (or else, disaster SF, survivalist SF). Let me explain: science fiction would be stories that not only involve gizmos like robots, spaceships and time travel, but also uses science, scientists and technology as the backdrop for anything from a morality play to an intense vision of the future. In this sub-genre I'm talking about, civilisation as we know it collapses, either from nuclear, biological or ecological disaster, or perhaps even through extraterrestrial intervention. Never mind - the focus of the story is how the main character(s) survive. How do they prevail in a world where everything you knew, from electricity to standards of decency, have been discarded? Will you rebuild? Can you rebuild? And what do they discover about themselves, humanity, and civilisation before and after?

Bill Masen wakes up in his hospital bed one morning and finds his surroundings strangely quiet. His eyes were bandaged and when he has them taken off, he realises that a display of bright green lights the night before has blinded everyone who saw them. Sight is something we take for granted in our daily lives, and the sudden power of the one-eyed (or two-eyed) man in the land of the blind is realised as civilisation falls apart. & to make things worse, triffids, genetically-engineered carnivorous plants that can walk (they were made for their oils), have escaped the clutches of once-powerful mankind, and exploit his new vulnerability with a vengeance. The Day of the Triffids is many things: how Masen, with a female companion, tries to find safety amid looting mobs and triffids and tries to retrieve the essence of their world gone. It's sad, and can be upsetting if you dive into it sincerely but unprepared - the best of post-apocalyptic SF is like that, I reckon.

Wyndham wrote in the 1950s and, in my opinion, has almost been forgotten in sci-fi circles - because except for Triffids you don't really see his name around. However he has some other good books: The Midwich Cuckoos, which was made into the movie The Village of the Damned ("Cuckoos lay eggs in other birds' nests"); The Chrysalids (also a post-nuclear world where some children discover they possess powers that could get them eliminated); Chocky (an alien visitor taking over a child's mind) and The Kraken Wakes about an underwater monster of some sort that is sinking ships and threatening the world (I read this a very long time ago, so I don't really remember the details). They're more for the secondary-school level though; that was the time when I read them.

Other examples of classic post-apocalyptic fiction:

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

[Flowers for Algernon] Another optional read in Sec 2: some wise guy in the Chinese High English department is oblivious to the fact that he planted the seed of liking of science fiction in me. This isn't a post-apocalyptic novel, but it's engrossing, and alternately sad, scary and touching. This is the story of Charlie Gordon as he tells it from his journals, or "progris riports", that his doctor tells him to do. Charlie volunteers for a medical experiment to increase his intelligence; his IQ is 68 and he's even poorer at solving maze puzzles than the laboratory mouse Algernon, which has gone through with the treatment. Needless to say, it's not a simple happy ending; Charlie realises that the people he used to regard as his friends were actually laughing at him, and as his intelligence goes beyond the average human he feels more isolated than ever. Later Algernon's intelligence begins to deteriorate and it dies (hence the title) and Charlie is faced with the prospect of going back to what he was before.

I did not watch the highly acclaimed movie version, Charly (1968), in which Cliff Robertson plays Charlie Gordon and later wins an Oscar for his role. However I did watch a made-for-TV version starring Matthew Modine as Charlie and Kelli Williams (Lindsey in The Practice) as Alice Kinnian, the teacher who is one of Charlie's few friends throughout his ordeal). It was nothing really special, as I think the transformation in his literacy and thinking reflected in his journal, as he becomes more intelligent, is what makes Flowers for Algernon the book more dramatic than anything an actor could express.

Timescape, Gregory Benford

[Timescape] Timescape has a fascinating premise: what if physicists of the future found a way to send messages back in time? The world in 1998 (the book was first published in 1980) is beset with ecological disaster and physicists have to cope with cuts in funding, power and food rationing and a civilisation on the brink of collapse. Physicists working at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge (also where Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom) have found a way to send messages back in time using tachyons, or faster-than-light particles.

Switch to 1962, La Jolla, California (now UCSD): a solid-state physicist and his PhD student are having problems with their nuclear resonance experiment - interference that doesn't seem to be caused by their equipment. He rules out most possibilities1, like intereference from other experiments in the building, and subsequently realises that the "noise" forms text and diagrams in Morse code - instructions on how to duplicate the harmful effect of the chemicals that led to the ecological disaster. Will he realise what they mean & save the future of human civilisation?

Besides the tension as the horrifying calamities of 1998 are revealed even as the physicist in 1962 struggles against the establishment in believing in his readings, we also have insights on how the world of science works - the egoistic struggle for success and recognition among one's peers. I do believe this is the best account of this I've read so far, even compared to biographies of physicists like Genius (of Richard Feynman). There is also exciting speculation on how this limited form of "time travel" might work, and how traditional logical paradoxes, like the grandfather paradox (what if you kill your grandfather, directly or indirectly? Will you continue to exist?), might be avoided. Here is an extract where Markham, the physicist, explains to Peterson, more of the bureaucrat, how the experiment might circumvent such difficulties.

This is hard science fiction - not that it's difficult to read (but some might find it so) but because it is firmly entrenched in the methods and workings of science, and extrapolates from them into near-possiblities. Sadly, this kind of thing is rare nowadays, as the "hard" sciences like physics seem to have lost their popularity to the "sexier" world of biology.


  1. This reminded me of the experiment by Penzias and Wilson when they tried to detect radio waves from the galaxy and ended up discovering the cosmic background microwave radiation, one of the conclusive pieces of evidence for the Big Bang theory, but not after they had done the same & even wiped their receiver clean of pigeon droppings!

The Square Root dispute

18 January 2003 10:42 PM SGT (link)

Apologies for being late with the news again, but Dr. Stephenson replied to the ST Forum (on Thursday) about the square root issue that only I, I alone care about (say it like Tom Hanks says "I, I have made fire" in Cast Away) (how it all began, earlier responses by other people):


I write to clarify what I meant regarding the letters, 'What is sq root of 9?' (ST, Jan 15).

I acknowledge that both -3 and 3 are square roots of 9, so that if the question is phrased as 'What are the square roots of 9?', then the answer is '3 and -3'. This is common knowledge to students who have studied complex numbers, and I do teach this.

I never heard of complex numbers in secondary school but I knew about 2 square roots...

However, what I meant was that where you see a square-root sign in a mathematics text, applied to a positive real number such as 9, then it means the positive square root. Most students seem to have been taught otherwise in secondary school.

When you see the square-root sign applied to a positive real number x, it means x raised to the power 1/2. By definition, this means the positive square root.


- ST 16 Jan 2003, Why this... and why that?1

Is he being deliberately obfuscatory here, with all the talk of real numbers and exponents? What, pray tell, is the difference betwen asking for the square root & placing the square root sign precisely before the real number? Is the symbol not representative of the many-to-one function of the square root? (i.e. (-3)2 = (3)2 = 9) Exponents of 1/n by definition mean the nth root of the number, so power 1/2 means 2nd root, which means the square root, does it not? To me, he is going in circles.

If Dr. Stephenson got off his hobby-horse and admitted that he was being imprecise in declaring the Principal Square Root the only square root of a number (overlooking of course its non-applicability to complex numbers) then we can just close this case and go on to more interesting discussions. What responses, if any, will come?

Note: 1 Whoever's in charge of writing the headlines obviously got lazy here.

More on Eldred v. Ashcroft

18 January 2003 10:13 PM SGT (link)

The New York Times comments on the impact of the decision on public awareness of copyright issues (A Corporate Victory, but One That Raises Public Consciousness). Reason's Mickey Mouse Clubbed: Disney's cartoon rodent speaks out on the Eldred decision. Pretty funny and makes some good points as well.

Update on 18 January 2003 11:56 PM: Lawrence Lessig has updated his blog and has an op-ed at the New York Times with an idea about how to "move content that is no longer commercially exploited into the public domain, while protecting work that has continuing commercial value." Linked on Lessig's blog, Jack Balkin asks: Is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act Unconstitutional under Eldred v. Ashcroft?

Chemical Weapons

18 January 2003 9:17 AM SGT (link)

...Germany is home to the most major suppliers listed in Iraq's 1998 U.N. declaration. The Netherlands and Switzerland each are home to three companies on the list. France, Austria and the United States each are home to two. The declaration says Singapore was the largest exporter of chemical weapons precursors. Other countries home to alleged chemical exporters to Iraq include India, Egypt, Spain and Luxembourg, with one each.

- Gulf War veterans suing companies for chemical exports

(n). A biochemical substance, such as an intermediate compound in a chain of enzymatic reactions, from which a more stable or definitive product is formed: a precursor of insulin.

- Dictionary.com

I think this warrants further research, to see if it has any basis in fact.

Legally Right, but with worrying implications

16 January 2003 10:29 PM SGT (link)

Stuff to read: Majority opinion by Justice Ginsburg; dissent by Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer. The News.com report.

From what I can tell, it's a correct legal decision: the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries", and though the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (1998) in question extends that "limited Time" to 70 years for individuals (after their deaths) and a whopping 95 years for corporations, it still is a limited time, even though as Lessig (his blog) argued in front of the Supreme Court, such laws can only result in ever-lengthening copyright terms as corporations like Disney ferociously lobby Congress when their prized assets like Mickey Mouse were about to enter the public domain (which was about to happen soon after the act was passed).

Though, viewed in this sense, the constitutionality of the act seems to be quite debatable, I guess the court was not about to dismiss all previous laws extending copyright terms as unconstitutional. Congress has to get into play in a better way than it has with the Sonny Bono law, whether it is to clarify the intent of the copyright clause in the Constitution or current legislation.

Lawrence Lessig, professor of constitutional law at Stanford Law School, is quite upset, understandably. Here he talks about his disappointment at the choice of 5 justices to duck the hard constitutional questions of Eldred v. Ashcroft, and siding with Congress:

...Harvard Professor Roberto Unger ends one of his first books by describing us, the professors, as "priests who have lost their faith but kept their jobs." I remember loathing those "priests" as a student. They have the right to lose their faith, I thought; they have no right to keep their job.

Next week, Tuesday, I am to teach the first class of the semester in constitutional law. Who as I am not yet sure.

- Lawrence Lessig, The silent five

Disney 1, Eldred (& public) 0

15 January 2003 11:57 PM SGT (link)

Supreme Court Keeps Copyright Protections: The verdict to the Eldred v. Ashcroft case I talked about a few months ago. More later.

The Square Root of 9, part II

15 January 2003 10:20 PM SGT (link)

Among some letters to the forum today, all disagreeing with Dr. Stephenson:

DR PHIL Stephenson is wrong. Unlike squaring, taking the square root is not a function; it does not make sense to talk about 'the' square root of a number.

A number x is a square root of y if the square of x equals y. Both 3 and -3 are square roots of 9, because the squares of both 3 and -3 are 9.

With the real numbers, there is a reasonable choice for the 'primary' square root of a number, namely the positive one. But for other number systems, such as the complex numbers, there need be no such choice. Which does Dr Stephenson think is 'the' square root of 2+3i (the complex number with real part 2 and imaginary part 3)?

DR ALESSANDRA CAVARRA (University of Oxford)
HARLIE CRICHTON (University of Oxford)
DR JIM DAVIES (University of Oxford)
DR JEREMY GIBBONS (University of Oxford)
DR STEVE KING (University of York)
DR HELEN PURCHASE (University of Glasgow)
DR ANDREW SIMPSON (University of Oxford)
DR JON WHITELEY (University of Oxford)

- ST 15 Jan 2003, What is sq root of 9? 3 or -3

Yeah man, bring on the PhDs! :-)

P.S. Quite a complex (pun unintended) example to choose:

Let (a + bi)2 = 2 + 3i
a2 - b2 + 2abi = 2 + 3i
a2 - b2 = 2	(1)
2ab = 3		(2)
From (2), b = 3/2a
Sub into (1)
a2 - 9/4a2 = 2
4a4 - 9 = 8a2
4a4 - 8a2 - 9 = 0
a2 = {8 ± sqr[64 - 4 x 4 x (-9)]} / 8
=[8 ± sqr(208)]/8
=1 + sqr(13)/2 (-ve soln rejected)

a = sqr[1 + sqr(13)/2]
= 1.6741 or -1.6741
b = 3/2a
= 3/2(±1.6741)
= 0.89598 or -0.89598
2 + 3i = (1.6741+0.89598i)2 or (-1.6741-0.89598i)2

P.S. 2 (pun again unintended), Mr. Ee Teck Ee's name is familiar: he's the author of a pretty challenging lower secondary Maths assessment book, the "challenging problems" kind.

Square One, & other Great Things About Childhood

13 January 2003 12:19 AM SGT (link)

I think it's a sign that you're getting old when you start reminiscing about your childhood. Yesterdayland has a good "retro" site on Saturday Morning Shows in the 80s: before I found this, I never really thought of myself as a "child of the 80s"; it's just an arbitrary classification I think. The cartoons I loved (in no order of merit):

Other notable mentions, mostly those I remember watching sometimes but not the particulars:

Glacius.net - Cartoons of the 80's has video clips of the intros of Transformers and other cartoons.

Time's comment on the Franchise

12 January 2003 11:04 PM SGT (link)

It's Time's turn to comment on Star Trek Inc., or in other words, the "franchise" of television shows, movies, books and other collectibles of Star Trek. It's a bit unfortunate in brimming with optimism that "closeted Trekkies [will] come out for a day" to watch Star Trek: Nemesis which opened in the US in December, when box office figures have been dismal so far (it isn't even near to breaking even yet). Blame it on the Paramount executive Smart Aleck(s) who thought pitting it against The Two Towers, Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg) and Gangs of New York was a good idea. And no, a Trek movie is not a political event: there's no need to "get out the vote". If the movie's good then Trekkies will naturally spread the good word themselves. It shows the writer has hardly any regard for the intelligence of Trekkies that anything reasonably well-marketed will attract the crowds.

Besides Nemesis, Time also comments that Star Trek is poised for a makeover after the ratings "plummeted" for the New Age "spiritual" Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and "political" Voyager (1995-2002), with a reliable formula - "explosions and breasts" - and "Nemesis and Enterprise are the result, and the lads will love them." This statement is so riddled with untruths and exaggerations that I really don't know where to start, but let me try:

Coupled with Time's review of The Two Towers, who desperately wanted a pop-psychological explanation of the "surge" of interest in fantasy (I criticised it here), I think Time is really not the place to go for intelligent insights of movies and cultural movements.

The Square Root of 9

11 January 2003 12:30 AM SGT (link)

Today Dr. Phil Stephenson writes in the Straits Times Forum:

I LECTURE mathematics to degree students, and find that many of them leave junior college thinking that the square root of 9 can be either -3 or 3.

Confusion arises because the square of -3 is 9.

Mathematics teachers at junior colleges and secondary schools should be aware that the square root of 9 is 3 (only).


- ST 10 Jan 2003: Square root of 9: -3 or 3?

Forgive me, professor, but I always thought that the square root of x is r when r2 = x. & you yourself said that that's true for -3. So?...

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