Joanna Russ is dead

Joanna Russ is dead, which is terrible and sad and depressing as hell.

Her 1972 short-story ‘When It Changed’ blew my mind when I first read it in 1979 and still makes me re-cast my eye over so many things I tend to take for granted when I re-read it today.

Her early essay, ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction’ saved me from a life wasted arguing at cross-purposes about the merits (or otherwise) of genre fiction.

And her later essay, ‘Power and Helplessness in the Women’s Movement’ saved me from a life wasted arguing at cross-purposes about the merits (or otherwise) of power.

Her novels, especially We Who Are About To… and The Female Man, made me re-think almost everything, turned me on to feminist SF, and (with regards The Female Man especially) made me laugh out-loud, a lot.

And her book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, is still the best (and funniest) guide to how people in power keep others powerless I’ve encountered.

None of which, unfortunately, makes it any better. Because Joanna Russ is still dead and it’s still terrible and sad and it’s still depressing as hell.


it was (almost) forty years ago today

On the 9th December 2008, it will be 40 years since Doug Engelbart’s Mother of all Demos (as it’s come to be known, thanks to Steven Levy using the phrase to describe the event in his 1994 book Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything).

More information on this seminal event, including clips and commentary, can be had at the MouseSite page covering the demo. And a complete streaming video of the demo is available via Google Video.

To quote the Wikipedia article:

The demo featured the first computer mouse the public had ever seen, as well as introducing interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email and hypertext.

Go, marvel as a future we are only now lurching towards is laid out for all to see on a stage in California, 40 years ago.

Be incredibly frustrated that it’s two generations later and we still haven’t made it as far as Engelbart could already see us getting only a year after the Summer of Love.

Despair further by slipping off and reading Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay, ‘As We May Think’. Bush was thinking mechanically, not computationally, but his Memex still presages the Internet and interactive computing with remarkable prescience.

For the final kick in the pants of your optimism, consider that this 1945 essay is a fairly minor re-working of an earlier piece, ‘Mechanization and the Record’ which Bush wrote in 1939.

For those with at least a little optimism left, there will be a big celebration of the Mother of All Demos at Stanford University, California, on the actual anniversary. Stanford is also hosting a Program for the Future conference on December 8 and 9.

If you’re in the area on the day, I’d recommend going.

If you aren’t, there’s always the pages covering the 30th anniversary celebration, engelbart’s unfinished revolution, also hosted by Stanford.

I’m confident they will distract you nicely. I take no responsibility for any further despair (or hope) they engender.


fun stuff to fill your day rather than proper work

First up, just knowing there is an Octopus News Magazine makes my day. It only gets better to learn they have a wonderfully Cthulhu-esque logo which I can get on a t-shirt.

As for the articles, I don’t know I’ll ever have a practical use for this, but it’s good to know the giant squid can accidentally eat parts of itself. And it’s a grand thing that there is a real beast swimming the world’s oceans called the Vampire Squid from Hell.

The fact this beastie isn’t anywhere near as fearsome as its name suggests is no disappointment, especially when you consider it’s likely a ‘living fossil’, having first appeared in much the form it is now way back in the Carboniferous.

On the ‘that’s really cool and good news to boot’ front, Go Sun Solutions reports on ‘a [new] manufacturing technique that could boost the efficiency of a… type of solar cell by up to 50%’.

Only problem here is, I want to know more.

The specifics of the technique have been published in the Journal of Applied Physics. The abstract is available for free but the full paper is only available for subscribers. And the University of New South Walesmedia release on the technique is heavy on how nifty the technique is and light on the specifics of said niftiness.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything dodgy in the claims; just that the basic outline of the technique:

[the] new approach involves depositing a thin film of silver (measuring about 10 nanometers thick) onto a solar cell surface and heating it to 200° Celsius. That breaks the film into flattened spheres, called islands, which are about 100 nanometers in diameter. When struck by light, these islands achieve the same feat as etching by a natural but complex process.
— Go Sun Solutions
‘No Silicon Needed’
Thursday, 26 April 2007

whets my appetite to know more.

Staying on the green front (for want of a better segue), Carol Lloyd’s article, ‘Small houses challenge our notions of need as well as minimum-size standards‘ on introduced me to Jay Shafer and his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

Which led to a quick Googling that lead to this small collection of photos of Shafer’s home (and Shafer) on Which, of course, led to a well-spent wasted hour digging into Telstar Logistics, learning what it was, where it had come from, and who was behind it all.

Next on my ‘things I’d rather think about than work’ tour, there’s Rachel Hillmer and Paul Kwiat’s Do-It-Yourself Quantum Eraser in the May 2007 issue of Scientific American. I think they overstate the ‘readily available’ nature of the equipment you need (polarising film isn’t as common as they hint) but it’s a simple experiment to conduct if you do have the equipment. And it’s impressively effective at making quantum effects real and tangible (at least it was for me when I conducted the experiment here at Casa de Forte).

Wandering from physics back to the biological sciences, Kerry Grens has a article in The Scientist on the possibility a single transcription factor (ie a protein that controls whether or not a gene is expressed) might be the key to understanding and perhaps even treating or preventing addiction to a range of drugs of dependence.

Proteins are also discussed in Melissa Lee Phillips’ report on the discovery that sea sponges ‘possess protein components of synapses, even though they don’t have nervous systems‘. The article doesn’t mention it (‘coz, let’s face it, why should it) but discoveries like this always give me a small thrill of schadenfreude at the whole ‘irreducible complexity’ nonsense still being schilled by Michael Behe, Michael Denton and co.

Staying with biology, but getting back to humans, Stephen Oppenheimer, in conjunction with the Bradshaw Foundation has produced a spectacular and fascinating interactive look at Humanity’s migrations, starting in East Africa and eventually covering almost the whole world.

I’m not normally a fan of Flash, but Oppenheimer’s journey would be difficult to take using plain-old CSS and HTML. It’s worth noting, however, the use of Flash makes their admonition to turn off your pop-up blocker more than a self-interested statement.

If this isn’t enough to get you into deadline-slippage territory, the folks at the Bradshaw Foundation have lots more high-quality time-suckage to help you understand the epic human journey while away several days learning fascinating stuff that won’t help in any practical way at all.