Short Review of “Probability 1” by Amir Aczel

On Sunday I quickly read Probability 1 by Amir Aczel. While the book is a solid introduction to basic space-related information that anyone who has watched the Discovery Channel in the past fifteen years already knows, the ending chapters of the book are the crux of Dr. Aczel’s argument. In brief, he argues that because the existence of life on any given planet is independent of the probability of life on any other given planet, then the probability of intelligent life on another planet is

1 – Probability of Life Not on Any Given Planet ^ # of Planets

Because any fraction taken by itself enough approaches zero, this means the probability of intelligent life approaches one. Therefore, there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (and, for that matter, probably the galaxy)

However, Dr. Aczel’s argument is easily disposed of, because the trials are not independent. Indeed, there may not be intelligent life on many planets for the same reason. Analogously, imagine you determine the probability of a driver pulling over at any given minute, and from there attempt to determine the number of individuals who have driven from Nebraska to Pitcarin Island. Statistical slight of hand may along the line of Amir Aczel’s may arrive at any number of answers, with a 100% probability that at least one individual has driven that long. Of course, the trials are not independent in such an example: all drivers would be frustrated by the lack of a bridge across the Pacific.

Pass on this book. Read The Island of Lost Maps or Beijinger in New York instead.

Review of “Full Battle Rattle”

Full Battle Rattle would be better named The Battle of Medina Wasl. Medina Wasil is not a real town, but rather a simulation at Fort Irwin, “The World’s Premier Trainign Center for the World’s Finest Military.” Bush visited the National Training Center during the production of the film, but after the main filming, allowing clips of this event to be included:

The film concerns a two-week training simulation. The four ‘sides’ are townsfolk, a Blue Force, a Red Force, and controllers able to inject events. Some injected events (such as a Sunni-Shia wedding) go quietly, while another escalates to a massive Red Force assault. As the townsfolk repeat their roles, they develop close relationships, and this adds to the realism of the situation. Moments of levity, such as the Deputy Mayor and Deputy Chief of Police angling for a promotion are balanced with truly spooky scenes, such as a scene where Red Force “Anti-Iraqi Forces” (AIF) boredly play soccer in front of American troops. “It’s just fun to kill people and blow stuff up, you know,” an AIF terrorist says to the camera, simultaneously identifying the fun of playing the world’s most expensive game of laser skirmish and a motivation behind the true terrorists in Iraq.

The filmmaker’s clearly know their subject, and much is referenced through either brief camera shots or short comments. The resolution of a real drama — very real deportation hearings against the fake Deputy Chief of Police — is referenced by a single line. Likewise, a lingering shot shows a Blue Force officer reading Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. The scale of the operation allows the Fog of War to control events, as seen after the situation escalates because of the inability of the Deputy Mayor to contact the commander of Blue Force.

Full Battle Rattle effectively captures two layers of events, the outcome of the fake Battle of Medina Wasil. Both of these levels are real, in a way. Google searches also reveal that soldier art (such as condemned by Matt Armstrong) on the National Training Center.

Similarly, a closing scene of the film shows the actors watching a laptop film of a (fake) beheading in Medina Wasl, immediately after viewing photos of (real) visits by the President to the town.



Full Battle Rattle is the best film produced so far of the War in Iraq, and it’s set in the American West.

Strongly recommended.

Impressions of “Beijinger in New York” by Glen Cao

(If video does not load, Click Here for Episode 1 of the miniseries).

If you’ve read the book or newspaper serialization, or listened to the radio play or watched the TV miniseries, you know some variation of this paragraph

If you love him
Send him to New York
‘Cause that’s where Heaven is.
If you hate him
Send him to New York,
‘Cause that’s where Hell is.

Beijinger In New York (translated as A Native of Beijing in New York in the miniseries) is the story of Wang Qiming, a Beijinger who arrives in New York on a “family visit visa” in 1980 and begins working as a dishwasher the next day. There are two parts of this book, which are dramatically different in tone and purpose. The first, comprised of the first ten chapters, focuses on the establishment of Wang in New York and the founding by him of a small business. As author Guilin “Glen” Cao moved to the United States in 1980, and rapidly founded the C & J Knitwear Company, it is reasonable to assume this half of the book is a veiled autobiography. The second half of the book is a tragedy, best described as a cross between The Good Earth and There Will be Blood.

While the tragic story of Wang Qiming, this Daniel Plainview with a cello, affects the mood of the story, I read it because of its presentation of Chinese views of America during the early part of Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution. Not only had immigration from mainland China to the United States effectively ceased in 1949, the Cultural Revolution left a shadow that influences how events are interpreted. For example, Wang’s wife interprets a cause of business success as resulting from following Mao’s advice that cadre’s should be assimilated into the masses. Further, many activities are interpreted according to Chinese customs. Bankruptcy (being allowed to not pay one’s debts) is portrayed in the same libertine terms as a drug party, while a child no longer being a dependent on income taxes is viewed with the same horror as if a Neighborhood Committee had suddenly stricken a child from a family’s record.

As a final thought, it is interesting that with one exception (a black who steals the bags of the hero and his wife on their arrival in New York City), every villain is an American Chinese. Some of this is doubtless that the American Chinese population is of more interest to Chinese readers than the general American population, and likewise that Glen Cao doubtless interacted with American Chinese quite a bit during his time here. Still, the dismay at perceived greed and materialism that this novel seems to reflect is interesting.

The book was a quick read. I started it yesterday afternoon and finished it today. Further, it complemented the television series, which replaces much of the drama and tragedy of the books latter half with a more realistic unfolding of events. Beijinger in New York is published by China Books, and available for sale from Amazon.

Impressions of “The Island of Lost Maps” by Miles Harvey

Today I finished The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey. This book was loaned to me some time ago by a very close friend. In truth, I was hesitant to read it because of the ghastly nature of the crime. The description of taking an X-acto knife to library books to rip out maps made me physically ill.


However, the book was a great read. The meandering narrative gave it a hallucinogenic feel, as did the attempts by the author to understand the map thief, one Gilbert Bland. While Harvey can be quite opinionated on historical questions — his denunciation of cartographic “lies” could be tempered by reading Phantom Islands of the Atlantic or even Lands Beyond — I learned a lot about John C. Fremont, and many other characters besides. Harvey clearly enjoys the world of reading maps, and has a list of cool map links on his personal website.

I love maps, and this story of someone who destroyed them for profit was a fascinating read. Like anything with maps and the unknown, it leaves a sad feeling at the end, because after the last page there is no more of this book to read.