Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mac Word of the Day

I want to see if using Electric Sheep as my screen saver is the cause of recent OSX workstation lock-ups. So I scanned the available screen savers and settled on Word of the Day screen saver.

The first thing it published was:

polynomial: Mathematics of, relating to, or denoting a polynomial or polynomials. 

Yeah, that was useful. Thanks. I'll stick with dog photos.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tales of Pirx The Pilot

I learned about Stanislaw Lem in 1992 when a friend made a gift of The Cyberiad to me. He has become my favorite author ever since. I own all of his books translated to English, and one in Polish.

That isn't to say I've read all those books, save the untranslated one. No, there are several which remained unread or partially read over the last 20 years. Two of these are the series Tales of Pirx the Pilot, and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Though years back I read the first story in the series, The Test, a fantastic story that demonstrates a skill Lem excels at but rarely uses, that of slowly-building dramatic tension followed by a shocking and logical twist. Even  while re-reading The Test this past week for the second time in fifteen years, even knowing how the story ended, I couldn't help but forget everything but what was going on at that moment in the story, and still felt a genuine sense of shock by the revelation of the story's unspoken conceit. The only other time I experienced this sense of being drawn in, hooked on every single word, despite knowing how the story ends, is the story-within-a-story in Fiasco.

But now I've moved on to the second story in Tales, titled The Conditioned Reflex and it's delicious in the more standard way for him to write, which is his ability to describe fake science. Here Pirx is borrowing a space suit from the Russia's lunar station.
The Russian suit was unconventional in a number of ways. For one thing it had three, instead of two, visors: one for high Sun, one for low, and one - shaded dark orange - for dust. The air-valve arrangement was different, and it was rigged with inflatable boots that cushioned the impact of rocks and gripped even the slipperiest surface; they called it the "high-mountain model." Even the coloring was different: half in black and half in silver. When you stood with the black side facing the Sun, you broke out in a sweat; with the silver you were braced by a delicious coolness.

Pirx found the idea had one basic flaw in it: a man couldn't always be pointed in the direction of the Sun. So what was he supposed to do? Walk backward?

The others chuckled and called his attention to a color alternator located on his chest. If he adjusted the knob, the colors could be reversed: black in front, silver in back, and vice versa. The mechanics of it were interesting. The suit's outer ply was made of a clear, tear-resistant nylon fabric; between it and his body was a thin air barrier filled with two different kinds of dye, or rather semiliquid substances - one aluminized, the other carbonized...
Lem's view of space travel speaks to me more than the Roddenbery/Star Trek/space fantasy view. Space travel is inconvenient, difficult, a product of good and bad engineering, and can often fail because of small problems compounding on each other. From a favorite story of mine, The Seventh Voyage from The Star Diaries:
It was on a Monday, April second - I was cruising in the vicinity of Betelgeuse - when a meteor no larger than a lima bean pierced the hull, shattered the drive regulator and part of the rudder, as a result of which the rocket lost all maneuverability. I put on my spacesuit, went outside and tried to fix the mechanism, but found I couldn't possibly attach the spare rudder - which I'd had the foresight to bring along - without the help of another man. The constructors had foolishly designed the rocket in such a way, that it took one person to hold the head of the bolt in place with a wrench, and another to tighten the nut.
In the end, Lem's stories human failings and not technical ones, and typically that comes down to hubris - failure of the overconfident, the smart and foolish. A good dose of humility is your best asset in Lem's world, even when you're alone, in a damaged rocket, tearing out of control toward the Moon.