Megatons and milligrams

A reader writes:

In one of Alastair Reynolds' books, someone sets off a "pinhead-sized" antimatter bomb, and it explodes with a yield of about two kilotons of TNT. Is that accurate? Would you really only need that much?


I think you're talking about Revelation Space, the first book in that series, written slightly before Futurama debuted and so forgivable for its inclusion of a captain named Brannigan.

First, note that in a matter-antimatter explosion, you're not just converting the mass of the antimatter into energy. You're also converting an equal mass of matter, because if that matter was not around there'd be no annihilation and no explosion.

The energy yield of matter annihilation is a simple case of mass-energy equivalence, and thus subject to the famous e equals mc squared. Which is to say, energy in joules equals the mass being annihilated in kilograms times the square of the speed of light in metres per second.

The dominant number there is obviously c-squared; the speed of light in vacuum is 299,792,458m/s, and squaring that gives you 89,875,517,873,681,800. Or, in less-cumbersome scientific notation about 8.99E+16 - 8.99 times ten to the power of 16.

"TNT equivalent" bomb-yield numbers are tightly defined, too; one ton of TNT is defined as 4.184 gigajoules.

Now, what's a pinhead weigh?

I just grabbed some ordinary one-inch dressmakers' pins and found there were about fifteen whole pins to the gram. I'm not about to snip off enough pinheads to get them to add up to the minimum resolution of my triple-beam balance, but I'd guess the mass of these pins' heads to be ten milligrams, at most.

Fortunately, the mass of the Revelation Space bomb is mentioned in the book; it's described as containing "only a twentieth of a gramme of antilithium". That's fifty milligrams, but that doesn't sound like a crazy weight for the head of a stouter pin than the ones I weighed.

Plugging fifty milligrams, 0.00005 kilograms, into e=mc^2 gives

e = 0.00005 * c^2

= 4.49378E+12 joules

= 4494 gigajoules

...which at 4.184 gigajoules per ton of TNT, adds up to 1.074 kilotons. Double that to take into account the matter that's annihilating with the antimatter, and you get 2.148 kilotons. Which is indeed close enough to two kilotons for horseshoes, hand grenades and tactical nuclear weapons.

The biggest thermonuclear explosion ever created by humans, the immense and impractical Soviet "Tsar Bomba", had a possible yield of about 100 megatons, but was dialled down to 50. 50 megatons at 4.184 gigajoules per ton is 2.092E+17 joules. Turning e=mc^2 around to solve for mass, m = e/c^2, gives:

m = 2.092E+17 / c^2

= 2.33 kilograms of matter converted into energy, for the biggest bomb we've ever made, and possibly the biggest bomb we ever will make.

Around the weight of a healthy adult chihuahua.

(See also solid blocks of electrons, which knock antimatter energy density into a cocked hat and which may be a technology within the reach of some entities in the Revelation Space universe. Oh, and see also, also, the fun you could have whacking lumps of plutonium together by hand.)

Psycho Science is a regular feature here. Ask me your science questions, and I'll answer them. Probably.

And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.

Interesting Deaths, and the Avoidance Thereof

A while ago, I reviewed a book with a lot of fictional death in it. I didn't like that book much.

Today, a book with a lot of factual death in it. I like this book a lot.

Over The Edge: Death In Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, is accurately titled. It chronicles the numerous ways in which people can end, and have ended, their lives in Arizona's Grand Canyon and its environs.

There are a lot of deaths in this book. A lot of deaths. The means of death that sprang first to my mind when I discovered the book existed was people larking around pretending to step off the edge, and then not pretending quite so much. And yes, those people are in there. But so are underprepared hikers, plane crashes, an awful lot of people in boats, and gruelling tales of historical exploration.

Every now and then a tale in Over The Edge ends with someone surviving. But that's really not the way to bet.

Death In Grand Canyon

Absolutely the worst thing about this book is the cover. It clearly depicts a rainbow-farting unicorn plunging to certain doom, so that's good, but it's got that weird "undesigned" look typical of self-published crank-screeds. (And, yes, it's also got Papyrus, again.)

And, while I'm whinging, the editing and proofing isn't everything it might have been. There are occasional typoes, like two different renditions of someone's name, not to mention uninventive prose like "a deadly game of Russian roulette" - as opposed, presumably, to Russian roulette played with a Nerf revolver.

And, if I'm honest, the middle of the book's not as fascinating as the beginning. The middle's where you'll find numerous deaths in modern river-runs, usually because of lousy steering by boatmen, and other stuff that could pretty much happen anywhere - air accidents, freak accidents, (a surprisingly small number of) suicides, and murders.

(I did find an unfortunate interaction between a low-flying helicopter and an environmental sediment-transport study to be blackly hilarious.)

But perhaps I'm being too demanding. People wind up dead at a regular pace throughout the book, which really should be good enough for me. And there's quite a bit of variety; it's not all "If you choose to play a practical joke on your young daughter by pretending, with great theatricality, to fall off the edge of a canyon and hundreds of feet to your death, it is a good idea to make sure that the ledge just below the edge on which you intend to land is not covered with loose pebbles forming a slope at their critical angle of repose."

To extract maximum entertainment from this volume, you may by this point have figured out that you need a somewhat morbid sense of humour. Watching Dad leap off the edge may be a horror beyond imagining for the onlooking mum and kids, but if, like me, your first thought on seeing that the man in question actually did have kids was "darn, not eligible for a Darwin Award, then", you're all set to enjoy the rest of the volume.

All this is not to say that this is one of those schlocky publications aimed at People Who Like Football, and Porno, and Books About War. Over The Edge isn't relentlessly po-faced, but neither is it buckets-of-blood-narrated-by-Jeremy-Clarkson. It does help if, like me, you decided to download the coroner's report linked from here specifically because of the warning about the photos it contains (and then, like me, decided that the term "extensively morselized" made the document a must-read all by itself...), but Over The Edge is really a collection of true stories of people in horrible situations, and the noble, venal, foolish and/or altruistic things they then do.

It also, definitely, has educational value. I now, for instance, know some more of the wonderful panoply of ways in which whitewater can murder you, whether the flow rate is high or low.

High rates give deeper, and possibly also faster, water, which in the case of the Colorado River may be startlingly cold (Over The Edge's co-author thinks this may be because of the Glen Canyon Dam, which releases water from its ice-cold depths, not its warmer surface). Low flow rates are still often plenty to whip your feet out unexpectedly from under you (people keep forgetting that a cubic metre of water weighs a tonne, and even a mere cubic foot of water weighs more than 28 kilograms {62 pounds}...), and they also make rapids much rockier, and thus more likely to break your boat and then your body.

Many of the deaths in Over The Edge are quite improbable. Horsing around on the rim of a canyon, or going for a hike in the heat equipped with a Snickers bar and a 591-millilitre bottle of Dasani (and not even telling anyone you're going...), are both dangerous activities. But people do these sorts of dumb things all the time, and the overwhelming majority of them survive. Often without even having to involve rescue staff (also known as the TNS, or Thwarting Natural Selection, Squad).

Over The Edge can be quite educational, though, in showing you how to avoid taking less obvious risks, even if you're never going to visit the Grand Canyon. Much of the advice is highly applicable to any backcountry adventuring, especially in gully country.

For instance: Yes, lost people really do have a strong tendency to walk in circles, even when they should be able to get their bearings from their surroundings.

Oh, and if you're going out on the water, or just wading into the water, or possibly even just fishing in the water from the shore, WEAR A LIFE JACKET.

And, advice almost as important, if more specialised: If you have a history of sleepwalking, don't camp right next to a river.

(The poor kid starring in that particular story was meant to be camped miles away from the river, but the adult leading the trip got the group stranded next to the river for the night, when they got there too late and the one flashlight the adult brought didn't work.)

You also, it turns out, can't count on arid country having the traditional desert climate where it's hot during the day and freezing cold at night. The Canyon manages to stay hot right through the night! Enjoy!

And young, fit people - especially children - can become severely dehydrated while they're still running around and looking chirpy enough. Then they suddenly crash, and five minutes later their heart is still beating, but there's windblown sand accumulating on their unblinking eyes.

And, remember, kids: Just Say No to jimsonweed. Seriously.

And then there are the historic stories, featuring numerous explorers who figured that God would not have made a place so dismal and lethal as this without putting at least one damn good vein of silver in there somewhere.

(This reminds me of the fact that for a lot of people in the olden days, forests, canyons and mountains were not "beautiful". Ships, bridges, castles, cathedrals and geometrically landscaped gardens were beautiful. It was only when we started to have the luxury of not having to look at nature all the time that we started finding it appealing.)

The central theme of this book is that wilderness does still exist, and does not automatically come with handrails and warning signs.

I'm quite close to some wilderness myself. I live in Katoomba, New South Wales, and my house is a lazy ten-minute walk from Echo Point. At Echo Point itself and most of the cliff walks around it, you do get a pretty good supply of handrails and warning signs, and people almost never die, except occasionally on purpose.

Tromp on down the Giant Stairway into the rainforest-y valley, though, and things change. The valley barely qualifies as a pothole compared with the Grand Canyon, and most tourists just toddle along the wood-paved walkways and catch a cable car back up. But if you strike out south you're instantly in a heavily-forested National Park. People can and do get life-threateningly lost down there, even after so little wandering that if the land were magically flattened they could walk to a place that serves a really good latte in about an hour.

I thought Over The Edge would just be morbid, shading to morbidly-hilarious, which would be good enough for me. But it isn't. Yes, it's basically just a long list of people who died, almost died and/or really should have died (serious Survival Bonus Points, for example, go to the immobilised-by-injury woman who managed to catch the attention of people hundreds of feet away by shouting, even though she had two collapsed lungs...). But it's frequently fascinating.

And, of course, if you're actually going to the Grand Canyon, to do anything more than stand 30 yards from the edge under a parasol, there is no better book to read beforehand. And to be seen reading while you're there.


(Buy it at Amazon, and I'll get a cut!)

Mythos-ed it by a mile

The Spiraling Worm, a collection of connected Cthulhu-mythos short stories by David Conyers and John Sunseri, has a rating of 4.5 stars on

For the life of me, I don't know why. I bought it, and I did actually read the whole thing, but I'm now kind of wishing I'd just given up, for two reasons.

The book made a good first impression.

The Spiraling Worm

That cover looks like a role-playing game box from 1982. Brilliant. To me, it said "don't expect Great Literature, but this'll be a lot of fun".

But then I started reading, and started seeing the mistakes. Oh, God, the mistakes.

The whole of The Spiraling Worm reads as if the authors took their first speedy drafts, ran spellcheck over them taking the first recommendation every time, and sent the result off to be printed.

In dashed-off e-mails or, I must say preemptively, a blog post, one may be forgiven for dropping a few clangers. Doing it all the bleeding time in something printed and bound is less forgivable.

I can't say I wasn't warned, in the first few pages. It's not a good sign when, in the introduction to a book, someone who's supposed to be a professional writer misuses the word "literally" (apparently Lovecraft "literally blew the doors off..." a genre). Perhaps I'm being excessively peevish about the inexorably shifting meaning of "literally", but the book also contains more than one use of the words "discreet" and "discreetly", and every damn time they spell it "discrete". These guys also do not miss a chance to say something "teamed with life" when they mean "teemed".

I've spent too long proofreading my own and other peoples' writing to be able to ignore these sorts of silly errors, but I can entirely forgive them when the story is good. Take the excellent comic series Powers, for instance. It has marvellously real-sounding dialogue that manages to avoid covering the whole page with speech balloons, so it's no big deal that that dialogue has spelling and punctuation errors well beyond those you can charitably ascribe to deliberate realism, as when someone refers to a "mulantov cocktail".

On page 16 of the first Powers annual, a District Attorney in court says "Objection, heresy!", which would be fine if it were that kind of court, but it isn't. On page 19 a witness in the trial refers to thwarting a "convenient store" robbery. On page 38, "counsel" is spelled "council". (Perhaps that court just needs to hire a better stenographer.)

Returning to books with no pictures, Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim is a fantastic yarn, but the hardcover edition I've got has a lot more errors than I'm used to seeing in a professionally-produced book. It's usually single-character mistakes - there's an "old school king fu fight" on page 100, for instance. But more unsettlingly, on page 191 a major character leaves to go and get lunch, then 40 seconds of dialogue later rematerialises to deliver one line. This is the sort of thing that could actually happen in the Sandman Slim universe, but it wasn't meant to.

Getting back to The Spiraling Worm, the whole damn book's full of grammatical messes which, like dangling modifiers, bring your reading to a halt while you attempt to determine what the authors were trying to say.

The authors at one point mean to say "under the metal roof" or "under the tin roof" or maybe even "inside the tin shed". They get a bit confused and it comes out "under the metal tin".

And how about "...the assassin slipped back into the spaces between the old walls from where he came, pulled back the painting which covered his exit hole he had cut to gain entry, and disappeared"?

I've got a better one. "If anyone can find a loophole that's even more than extremely obvious to why we shouldn't keep this thing alive, it's going to be you."

In a story in which two human bodies have turned to liquid at a touch, which is the sort of thing you can jolly well expect to happen if you start hanging around Lovecraftian beasties, we encounter "the crumbled body of a sentry". Except that body's only meant to be "crumpled". It don't half knock you out of the plot while you figure that out.

Oh, and someone else in that story is neither crumpled nor crumbled, but does suffer a dislocated nose. I'm pretty sure that's not a real thing.

And the authors apparently think the C-130 Hercules is a helicopter, which given that there's another helicopter in the same story is very confusing. They successfully describe the aircraft as a "C-130 Hercules transport" early on, but then it mutates into a "bomber helicopter".

My main complaint about the actual stories in The Spiraling Worm is that they're far too upbeat. Humans, without superpowers or the protection of a deity, keep somehow having a chance against unnamable Lovecraftian abominations. The series of stories has more than one protagonist who survives more or less undamaged from beginning to end.

This is, to some extent, a refreshing change from the classic Lovecraftian protagonist who, at the end of the story, goes out still scribbling down his impressions of the sound being made by the Thing coming up the stairs to do something much, much worse than eat him alive. But I still can't get behind the notion of the military organisations in The Spiraling Worm ever achieving any noteworthy success against Mythos entities, let alone any individual personnel surviving multiple encounters without, at the very least, ending up straitjacketed in a sanatorium.

The Spiraling Worm stories are set in the present day, but if you reckon the King in Yellow is in any way impressed by nukes, chainguns and aircraft carriers, I would venture that you are mistaken. Alien races able to travel through time and/or between stars casually, on a whim, without even using a spaceship, couldn't defeat Elder Gods. But apparently a race that's only had aeroplanes for 100 years, and does not have a BPRD, has a real fighting chance.

Oh, and don't read the blurb on the back of the The Spiraling Worm, because it gives away the climax of the main story.

Right then, Negative Nelly. Book bad, do not buy. Got it. Buy what book instead?

Well, at the end of The Spiraling Worm those strangely durable humans are all "yaaay, we're making an anti-Cthulhu Squad!" But Charles Stross already did modern-human-government-employees-versus-Cthulhu, much better, in his Laundry stories. The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum are the books; you can also read the stories Down on the Farm and Overtime for free online.

Stross can do Cthulhu Mythos better than The Spiraling Worm when he's joking - see A Boy and his God. See also Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald, PDF here; Stross and Gaiman do a similar sort of gleeful dance through Lovecraft mash-ups that knock The Spiraling Worm into a cocked hat.

(To be fair, that Web version of A Boy and his God contains three uses of the word "orifices", and spells it "orofices" every time. I think you'll forgive it. And while I'm parenthesising, Peter Watts' The Things is very well worth reading, too, provided you've seen John Carpenter's The Thing.)

The Spiraling Worm would have been so much better if all the stories had just been uploaded in their printed form to something like the SCP wiki, where Ideas Men can sketch in v1.0 Alpha of a story and others can tidy up the execution. (It'd be great, actually, if random-access text collections like the SCP wiki started to eat into the market for "normal" books. There's a lot of very entertaining reading to be had there.)

Without an intrepid editor to bleach, slice and burn the bad bits out of The Spiraling Worm, though, it gets two stars out of five from me.

One and a half, if you don't count the picture on the cover.

Real books glow

A reader writes:

Seeing as you're both someone who knows his gadgets, and someone who enjoys a good read once in a while, I was wondering if you've ever considered those new-fangled e-book contraptions.

I've been considering getting one, as shelf space is always expensive, so I want to reserve that for books I'd want to re-read often, or just proudly display. Besides, the ability to carry a lot of books at less space/weight than the average paperback is quite interesting.

I live in the Netherlands, so I'd need something internationally available (which will probably go for you in Australia as well). However, since I read mostly English, something bound to a primarily English store like Amazon (Kindle) or B&N (Nook) isn't too much of a problem.

From what I've heard, the Kindle, even though it goes against my open-source instincts, is actually one of the best models for actual reading (as opposed to showing off your latest gadget).

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


PS: If you recommend the iPad, I'm going to be very disappointed, as I always though you were immune to the Jobs-cult propaganda.

I don't actually have a really good answer for this one - though I will of course manage to sound off interminably anyway - but I bet some commenters will have ideas.

I'm pretty sure that one day, paper books will be rather quaint. But I'm not crazy about any of the current e-readers. Definitely not the iPad; if you need/want the various other things an iPad can do (including just delight you with its interface) then the e-reader function is just a bonus. But it's only got a normal LCD display with 1024 by 768 resolution, so if reading books is a primary interest for you, the iPad is nothing special.

A standard-geometry 1024 by 768 LCD with subpixel rendering is actually perfectly adequate for reading - maybe even a whole page at a time, depending on the text size. It's just not worth spending a lot of money on. You can of course do the same thing with any number of random laptops, including various ancient tablets and other oddball devices that let you fold the screen around. You could even use a netbook.

The downside of doing your reading on a relatively normal computer is that you can't use the online e-book stores that deliver DRM-encrusted books that can, generally, only be read on specially-blessed hardware like the dedicated readers.

Current dedicated readers
can all display at least a few kinds of non-DRMed content, and you can generally bludgeon one non-DRMed format into another so you can view it on Some Damn Reader that can display PDFs but not plain text, but it's all still quite a fractured and hideous format war; don't hold your breath for one reader that works with everybody's online store and can read everything else too, including DjVu and CBR.

If you're perfectly happy with the Amazon/B&N/whoever-else online stores (which, yes, may only be accessible in North America - what e-book stores are there, besides the Amazon one, that work outside the US and Canada?), plus whatever other formats your chosen reader deigns to support, then that's fine, of course. (Provided you don't end up with the bold new version of customer-service hell that prevents you from buying books.) While the online stores are still charging new-paper-book prices for e-books that you don't really even get to own, though, they don't interest me at all.

A buck a book, I and much of the rest of the world would be happy to pay. But Amazon clearly don't find this very exciting while they're still selling Kindles as fast as they can make them.

That said, the reason why I've chosen to ramble on about e-books despite not owning any kind of dedicated reader is that I have been doing a lot of reading on a screen instead of a page, lately. To the point that I have managed to do what I presume many others have - opened a paper book while lying in bed, turned off the light, and been surprised by the discovery that I can no longer read.

I do my reading on the World's Greatest Conversation-Starting Laptop, the ridiculously cute OLPC XO-1. Which is not actually a very useful general-purpose computing device (as the original owner of the one I've got discovered...), but which makes a pretty decent e-book reader, provided you don't want to read any DRMed books.

There are a lot of free-to-download books out there. Very few current authors let you download their stuff for free, but if you like ancient sci-fi, or any of the usually-considerably-more-ancient stuff at Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive's rather-more-peculiar-on-average text archive, then you'll have a full reading list for rather a while.

If you can get an OLPC laptop for the same price I did (I did pay for the postage!), then it's a good option for free-book reading. The standard Reader (PDFs, etc) and Write (actually a word processor, but fine for reading plain text) interfaces are a bit of a pain, but my main complaint about Reader is that there's no way to quickly set the zoom so that the text fills the width of the screen without wasting screen on blank margins, which isn't a big deal unless you're reading numerous short pieces and have to keep resetting it. The OLPC's screen (now being separately commercialised) is one of the best things about it - it's a TV-type hexagonal-subpixel-layout colour screen normally (effective resolution as little as 588 by 441, or as much as 984 by 738, depending on how you measure it), but if you turn the backlight down to zero it changes into a 200-dot-per-inch mono display that you can read in sunlight.

This isn't quite as awesome as it sounds, because the mono-mode colour scheme is the good old LCD almost-black-on-dark-green, not nice white e-paper. But it's still handy. I think e-paper readers have the reverse problem; they're great in good light, but nobody's yet found a way to make them light up properly.

Enough of this digression; about as many of you are likely to read books on an XO-1 as are likely to read them on an eMate. The important question is: What have I missed?

Who's got an e-reader they really love?

Is there software you can run on a normal laptop or netbook that lets you buy and read Kindle/Nook/Sony-Reader books?

Is there some shameless DRM-cracking $100 option from Hong Kong? (There already are a hatful of dodgy little reader doodads at the usual crapvendors, but I'm pretty sure they can't read any kind of DRMed file, and their screens look pretty terrible.)

Anybody buy books on paper and then download illicit PDFs?

Has someone started a kind-of-legal $10-a-month all-you-can-download e-book emporium yet?

Posted in Books. 32 Comments »

Psychoceramic literature

There was me thinking that vanity-published books-by-loonies didn't come any better than the inimitable Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, Learns to Say "No" to Drugs. (The same author, with her husband, has also written Spicy True Stories, Investigators Lies, Slanders And Stocks. This latter volume is a chronicle of paranoid-delusion which I contend is indeed made more "spicy" by the author's decision to spell the word "stalk" as "stock", throughout the work.)

All that is in the past, though, for I have just this moment - which is to say, a couple of months after a million other people - discovered the landmark work Birth Control Is- I'm sorry, BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL IN THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGES and also ROBBING GOD OF PRIESTHOOD CHILDREN!!, by Ms Eliyza- oh, darn it, I made that same mistake again, I meant to say by MS ELIYZABETH YANNE STRONG-ANDERSON.

MS ELIYZABETH would just be another unhinged religious ranter were it not for two decisions on her part.

The first is that she appears to have decided upon a list price for her book of one hundred and fifty US dollars. (Currently on special for only $135!)

The other, a true stroke of genius, is that BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL ET CETERA appears to be ENTIRELY IN UPPER CASE. Amazon have a "Look Inside" for the work, which only gives you the usual few pages, but reveals a distinct lack of lower-case anywhere other than the "and also" on the cover, and the text of the copyright page.

Amazon reviewers have rewarded MS ELIYZABETH with the adulation she deserves.

Get kicked out of church, AND the casino

The Expert at the Card Table

This slim volume strongly resembles a pocket Bible.

Translucent crinkly gilt-edged paper, ribbon bookmark, cheapest-possible leather-ish binding, text in 6.5-point Myopia. It even numbers every second line of text, to make it easy to quote chapter and verse, as it were.

It's rather slim, though, with only 206 pages.

And it is, if you ask me, likely to be rather more useful than a Bible.

The Expert at the Card Table open

It is The Expert at the Card Table, by the mysterious "S. W. Erdnase". This 2007 edition is published by the Conjuring Arts Research Center, but you can get others, because the author didn't renew his copyright after he wrote the book in 1901.

As is the case for many other mildly odd books that look as if you'd have to dig through dusty used-book shops to find them (that Tintin book with the big-lipped savage natives in it, say), you can buy a brand new copy of The Expert from Amazon for fifteen US dollars.

Amazon also have a nine-dollar paperback version, which might be more practical for actual study, especially if your eyesight isn't the best. And because the book's not copyrighted - though many of the engravings still have "Copyright, by S. W. Erdnase, 1902" under them - you can also legally download various e-book versions of it. Here's one in PDF format, for instance; here's another.

I don't have very high hopes of ever actually mastering many of the techniques in The Expert, but I shall do my best to study it with the devotion it deserves. I think the world would be a better place if more people did.

The other day, for instance, I met a very nice lady who believes one J.Z. Knight is on the level when she claims to be able to channel "Ramtha", a 35,000-year-old spirit from Lemuria who was responsible for most of the quantum flapdoodle in "What the Bleep Do We Know!?". The nice lady explained to me one of the reasons why she chooses to keep up her membership of what some people might describe as the slightly kooky Ramtha's School of Enlightenment. That reason is that some other members of the Ramtha organisation are "able to see through the back of playing cards", even if those cards come from a brand new and untouched deck!

She thought it was very closed-minded of me to observe that this sounds not unlike a card trick.

It actually, now that I think of it, doesn't sound like much of a trick at all - it's more like the exercise you do to learn how to read your marked cards, or interpret what your plant in the audience is signalling to you, or practice your off-by-one reading in which the card that's shown to the audience is actually one you've just been looking at face up, while pretending to concentrate on a different one. Or, you know, whatever. A good card magician could probably do this trick every day for a month without repeating a technique.

Perhaps this amazing gift from Ramtha has more to do with page 182 of The Expert, "The Prearranged Deck". I don't think there's actually anything about marked cards in The Expert, though. Stuff like that is very much below an actual card mechanic. (Not to mention plain useless, because card sharps often prefer to avoid inserting prepared cards into play, since this can lead to the classic aces-falling-out-of-your-sleeves situation.)

When a card mechanic rips you off, you at least know you lost the game, though you may think it happened fairly. Religious hustlers make their audience think they're buying something of value.

Three little books

The Expert at the Card Table is a fine addition to my Tiny Book Library.

My dusty old 9th Edition Pocket PC Ref is of very limited utility these days, but Pocket Ref will go on forever. I just flicked it open to three random places, and got a trigonometry table, RF Coil Winding Data, and the specific gravity and angle of repose of granulated sugar.

(I'm not sure what that portends. I should probably ask that nice Ramtha lady.)

A writer of unique talents. I hope.

The Metafilter thread about Michael Crichton's unexpected death is less respectful than most death-threads there.

Which is, of course, no big deal. Someone always says "show a little respect, you wouldn't act like this at the guy's funeral" when obituary-thread commenters not only omit the traditional moment-of-silence dot, but even say bad things about the deceased.

But Crichton's grieving family are probably not frantically refreshing Metafilter right now. And MeFi users are, overall, pretty enthusiastic about the advancement of human knowledge. And Michael Crichton did human knowledge a few significant injuries, especially with his later books.

A lot of commenters said they loved Crichton's books when they were kids. I bet I would have, too, but I think I just didn't read any. Maybe The Andromeda Strain, but I'm not sure.

I'm glad only the earlier, less anti-science ones would have been available then, though.

That's because I read State of Fear as an adult, and the only part of it that seemed obviously stupid at the time - never mind the implausible environmentalist Giant Conspiracy, stuff like that's normal in thrillers - was the magic gadget that caused enemies of the enviroterrorist baddies to be struck by lightning, in cheerful defiance of basic electrophysics.

(Enviroterrorists with the ability to suck lightning out of clouds wouldn't need to be enviroterrorists any more. They could just start building lightning power stations.)

The real scientific problem with State of Fear whistled right over my head, though. The book contains several Author Filibusters about climate change - or, more specifically, the allegedly poor quality of our knowledge about climate change - and all of those sounded plausible enough to me at the time.

Only because I looked into it later do I know that Crichton was talking absolute cock, and had to be either fully aware of this fact, or senile, or wilfully ignorant.

(See also: Poor old Antony Flew.)

Crichton didn't seem to be very good at dealing with criticism. He famously named a throwaway character in a later book after someone who'd given State of Fear a very bad review. The throwaway character was a baby-rapist. Classy.

Anyway, I like to think that if I'd read State of Fear when I was twelve, I'd also have looked up the facts afterwards. But I bet I wouldn't have.

The world is, self-evidently, well-stocked with people who don't do any more due diligence on what they read than I would have when I was a kid. People believe bestselling thrillers that make statements about the nature of the world, especially when those statements are the core of the whole story, as they are in all of Crichton's works. If you're writing about things that happen on Planet Zarnax or in the Cthulhu mythos or whatever then that's one thing, but if a book's whole anvil-subtle thesis is that the scientific consensus about climate change is wrong, you need to take your share of the responsibility for everyday voters believing that you're right.

Heck, even utter garbage like Left Behind has an enthusiastic audience of people who don't even bother checking its statements against the Bible. Much less check to see whether, to name just one of a very long list of outrageous wall-bangers, the United Nations really does have the power to take over the whole world on a whim.

Given the power of popular books, it's simply irresponsible to put misinformation about matters vitally important to the whole world in books which you - and your bank account - know are read by orders of magnitude more voters than read the scientific papers that prove you wrong.

If you're the only loud voice that's talking rubbish, then it's not such a big deal. But when there's a genuine culture war going on about climate change, or evolution, or dear-god-now-they're-coming-after-neuroscience, the side you pick matters. State of Fear seems to have become a sort of easy-reading textbook for climate-change deniers. Look, for instance, at the whole-hearted support Crichton got from fellow bullshit artist James Inhofe.

People should be allowed to write, publish and read whatever the heck they like, no matter how contrary to fact it is.

But if you're in the business of lying to people about matters of grave global importance, I for one am not going to shed a tear when you die.

(On the subject of books that contain wise and wordy characters who entirely agree with the author, see also Robert Heinlein, whose books I loved as a kid. In my memory, Time Enough For Love is completely awesome. So I'm not going to make the mistake of trying to read it again now. Fortunately, kids' sci-fi that actually gets the science more or less right also exists.)

Intelligent design STILL bunk - film at 11

Steve Fuller, unpersuasive testifier for the defense in the Kitzmiller Intelligent Design trial (you know, the one that led a conservative Christian judge to conclude that Intelligent Design was obviously just creationism with a fake moustache), has written a book explaining his views.

That book has been reviewed by Norman Levitt, who has himself written a book which addresses similar subject matter from a somewhat different point of view.

Levitt's review is not complimentary.

It is, I think, on par with Roger Ebert's review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.

It seems to me that Levitt tired of the serious-thinker-versus-stoned-dimwit-with-a-high-opinion-of-himself beat-down fairly early, so he started throwing in hundred-dollar words to keep himself interested.