The Last Word

I’ve been rereading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and was struck again by his prescience. It took nearly a half-century, but everything in this passage has come true (except the moon shuttle, of course).

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-size Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the everchanging flow of information from the news satellites. It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg. There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials—these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.

The Epic Hunt for a Lost World War II Aircraft Carrier ⇒

After more than 76 years, USS Wasp has finally been found:

On Jan. 2 of this year, a research vessel called the Petrel set out from Honiara, on Guadalcanal, to find the Wasp. To locate a shipwreck — even a 741-foot aircraft carrier — it’s essential to have an accurate idea of where to start looking. The ocean is vast. You need to find the haystack before you can find the needle. In the Second World War, before the advent of satellites, a ship’s position was plotted using traditional open-sea techniques. There was celestial navigation — using a sextant to navigate by the sun and the stars — and dead reckoning, the estimation of current position based on time, speed and bearing. In dead reckoning, a tiny miscalculation of one variable over a great distance can lead to a large error in final position. A navigator’s skill was particularly tested when his ship was under fire, or sinking. As a result, separate reports from naval battles of the era can show the same vessel in positions more than 20 nautical miles apart.

The ocean is also frighteningly deep. Much of the bottom of the Coral Sea, where the Wasp went down, lies between 4,000 and 6,000 meters, in what is known as the abyssal zone: a lightless realm characterized by frigid water temperatures, scant animal life and crushing atmospheric pressure. (Below 6,000 meters, in the oceanic trenches, the deepest part of the ocean, is known as the hadal zone; it is truly the underworld.)

Paul Allen’s shipwreck hunting team has discovered the Musashi, USS Lexington, USS Juneau, and USS Indianapolis.

I can’t wait to see what they find next.

If Stalin had a Smartphone ⇒

David Brooks at the New York Times:

Back in Stalin’s day, social discipline was so drastic. You had to stage a show trial (so expensive!), send somebody to the gulag or organize a purge. Now your tyranny can be small, subtle and omnipresent. It’s like the broken windows theory of despotism. By punishing the small deviations, you prevent the big ones from ever happening.

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.6

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto ⇒

At Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon discusses the landmark 1955 manifesto authored by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein shortly before his death.

There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.

Potatowire Pen Care Kit

In exchange for getting him hooked on fountain pens, Potatowire made me this awesome pen care kit.

I think I got the better end of the deal.

Uptime Winner

At 11 years and counting (minus the occasional update which I’ll ignore for the sake of a good story) my original iPhone is our family’s uptime champion.

It sits on my kid’s dresser (as it has for over seven years now) running Thundergod’s Aegir for white noise.

The ‘Moral Clarity’ of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ at 50 ⇒

Kevin Powers wrote a powerful essay on the continued relevance of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five at the New York Times:

I am now 38. I live in a rented house in Pittsboro, N.C., with my wife, my two daughters and my dog. I try to be kind. I try not to hurt people. And though I have just told you all the things I know with certainty about that day in September in Tal Afar, Iraq, when I was 24, I’m still not sure what it means. I don’t know if my being there in that place and at that time makes me a bad person, but on most days I think it means I do not get to claim to be a good one.


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