Monday, November 20, 2017

Buy-a-Book Saturday redux

Regularly since 2010, at about this time of year, I've posted about Buy-a-Book Saturday. That's my personal variation on Small Business Saturday: a day (specifically, the second day after Thanksgiving, and one day after retail's infamous Black Friday) on which holiday shoppers are especially encouraged to patronize small businesses. The big-box stores and Internet giants will do fine this holiday season. But will your neighborhood, non-chain shops and boutiques?

Rara avis! Is that a book store? Check it out.

Why the buy-a-book variant? Because what business is smaller than the author toiling away by him- or herself? Because, as I (and many others) post from time to time, the publishing business is becoming tougher and tougher -- especially for authors. Because more than likely you're a reader, else you wouldn't have stopped by this blog.

So: I'm here to suggest you give serious consideration to books -- whether print or electronic  or audio -- for some of your holiday gifting. Friends, relatives, coworkers, your kids' teachers, the local library you support ... surely there's a book that's right for each of them. And at least one for yourself, of course ;-)

Monday, November 13, 2017

2017 best reads

I read a lot: as research, to stay knowledgeable about the genre in which I write, and simply for enjoyment -- overlapping categories, to be sure. Once again continuing an annual tradition, I'm posting before the holiday shopping onslaught about the most notable books from my reading so far this year. When I mention a book, I really enjoyed it and/or found it very useful. Life's too short to carp about what I didn't find notable (much less the several books I elected not to finish).
Presuming that you visit SF and Nonsense because you appreciate my take on science or technology or fiction, you might find, in the post that follows, books you (and like-minded friends, relatives, etc.) will also enjoy. Unless otherwise indicated, the dates shown are for original publication. Each cover shown is an Amazon link, often to newer editions than the original publication (and to Kindle editions, where available).

What's made the cut so far in 2017? Read on ...

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Telling (copy)right from wrong ...

Two troubling tidbits from the wild wild world of the creative arts ...

What part of the creative content of a CGI character resides in a movie's script? How much is attributable to the software that shaped the CGI character? If a copyright-able element of a character can reside in a programming tool, does that mean Microsoft has a copyright interest in stories and novels composed using Word? That Adobe has a stake in anything ever Photoshopped?

It turns out those issues are being litigated. See "Hollywood Confronts a Copyright Argument With Potential for Mass Disruption." At stake: who has what rights to use CGI characters in sequels. (And without sequels, it sometimes seems half of Hollywood would be idle.) With super-heroic (and ironic?) restraint and understatement, I can only say ... interesting.

Con artists can also be creative -- and some prey upon aspiring authors. In a scam that was new to me (and abusive of a venerable, well-respected publication), I recently read "Fraudsters Targeting Freelancers With Fake Job Offers." Quoting a key snippet from the Writer Beware post:

Fraudsters are reportedly conducting a phishing scheme aimed at freelance writers.

Individuals using the names of editors and senior management for The Atlantic magazine have sent out numerous fake job and interview offers, using multiple email addresses and made-up domain names. The goal is to obtain personal information, including Social Security numbers, addresses, and other sensitive data. More than 50 writers have reported being targeted by the scheme.

And with that -- all the while imagining my own creative endeavors will somehow avoid entanglement in uncertainty and criminal intent -- I'm off to apply my skills to the novel in progress ...

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

When the Moon hits your eye ...

It may or may not be amore, but I do quite enjoy astronomy. (Dean Martin? Not so much.) So, in today's post, we'll consider a few recent and exciting bits of astronomical analysis and discovery.

A dominant feature of modern geological thought is plate tectonics. Tectonics is (in part) a mechanism for recycling Earth's carbon, which would otherwise have long ago become tied up in, for example, limestone and carbonaceous ocean sediments. A strong case can be made that without tectonics none of us, or even much more basic carbon-based life, would exist on this planet. But there's scant evidence that other worlds have tectonics, or any sense of what brought about the formation of Earth's crustal plates. 

Plate tectonics
Which makes this astronomical tie-in -- still only a speculation, to be sure -- fascinating: "Did meteorites create the Earth’s tectonic plates? Modelling suggests that plate tectonics and the Earth’s magnetic field were the result of massive collisions during the 'geologic dark age.'"

Monday, October 23, 2017

Stranger than fiction?

Some situations are so implausible that it takes a Charles Dickens to dare put them into a novel.(*) Certainly, I try not to pull rabbits (or rodents of any sort) out of my authorial hat.
Free Kindle edition
Free Kindle edition

(*) That's not only my opinion: "Dickens particularly resented the fact that his early novels were criticised for relying too heavily on coincidence. This criticism was certainly merited: In his first novel, Oliver Twist, the young Oliver is saved from the streets by pure chance and taken in as a charity case by a wealthy family who just happen to be his actual relatives who have spent ten fruitless years searching the country for their lost boy!"

Still, there is no denying that oddities and coincidences do occur. Today, I'm happy to relate two unlikely instances of the Right Thing happening. And involving the publishing industry, no less ...

First, a district court in New York issued a ruling sure to warm the cockles of any writer's heart. (And, incidentally, that brings us to a semantic oddity. Cockles can be bivalve molluscs. Also, hard candies. I wonder: in which sense does a heart have cockles? And why in that locale do they relate to deep feelings?) The key point (for the full story, see "Court Rules Copyright is Not a 'Use It or Lose It' Right"):
In the case of Penguin Random House v. Colting, the Court ruled that the failure of a copyright owner to enter a segment of the market for an expressive work, here, the children’s market, did not entitle an unlicensed interloper to enter that market under the doctrine of fair use.

(The significance of the ruling doesn't require any direct SFnal tie-in, but there is one. To wit: among the infringed titles was 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fleet of Worlds: The Tintinnabulation

On October 16, 2007, Fleet of Worlds was first published. That is: ten years ago to the day.

Larry and Ed at 2015 Nebula weekend
This epic space opera, a collaboration with Larry Niven set in his Known Space future history(*), remains my most popular title. Fleet of Worlds has been translated into eight languages. It was selected (by what was not yet called the SyFy channel) as a Sci Fi Essential title, had a slot as a Science Fiction Book Club featured book, and was a finalist for a Prometheus Award.

(*) Which isn't to say that Fleet assumes the reader is familiar with any other story or book. But if you are a Known Space aficionado? If the name Beowulf Shaeffer rings a bell, or the title Ringworld elicits fond memories, I'm happy to say Fleet offers you the occasional Easter egg ...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Wave like a nice black hole ...

I have posted enthusiastically several times about gravitational-wave detections by LIGO (that's the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) beginning with Leggo my LIGO, in February 2016. Gravitational waves being very weak, only cataclysmic events -- such as the collision of two black holes -- are (so far, anyway) detectable by the gravitational waves they emit. Of course black holes colliding are very cool events to be able to detect.

In breaking news, the Nobel Committee also thought this was pretty keen: "Three Americans win Nobel Prize in physics for gravitational wave discovery."

Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The three Americans are members of the LIGO-Virgo detector collaboration that discovered gravitational waves. The prize was awarded “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” the committee said in a news release.

That's one LIGO instrument
LIGO consists of two detectors, placed half a continent apart. To have just one won't do, because it's necessary to distinguish between the tiny jiggle of passing gravitational waves and, say, the rumble of nearby thunderclaps or passing trucks. As a bonus, when both instruments detect a signal, the slight difference in arrival times (the waves traveling at light speed) gives a rough sense for the direction from which the signal originated.

Emphasis on rough.

And another current event, from Sky and Telescope: "Fourth Gravitational Wave Event Detected." What makes this latest detection different from the original three is that, together with LIGO, the Advanced Virgo detector of the European Gravitational Observatory also recorded the event. It's the first for Virgo. And also, a Big Deal. From the S&T article:

With just the two LIGO detections, the uncertainty area measured some 1,160 square degrees on the sky," says Shoemaker. "By adding the Virgo data, this could be brought down to just 60 square degrees."

Mind you, 60 square degrees still covers a lot of sky -- the full Moon covers about a quarter of one square degree. But a reduction from 1160 down to 60 remains a huge improvement. Optical telescopes have not yet seen anything unusual in the target area, but  ... maybe next time.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The coming software apocalypse

I have railed on occasion in this blog about crappy software. The software I most often use, whether on my phone, my PC, or even in the cloud, is not life critical. The sometimes buggy, sometimes horribly designed, apps may frustrate me -- but they don't endanger me.

Down the rabbit hole
But what if mission- and life-critical apps are as buggy and as poorly designed as the stuff we use every day? The truth of the matter is: most apps are. We're talking about apps with millions of lines of code, too complex for any individual to fully understand. Apps that now (or soon) drive cars. Control power plants. Diagnose cancers. Fly planes. (What? You think that even today pilots fly planes? Often not. Pilots interact with computerized controls to specify intentions. Networked computers do the actual flying.)

Leading me to an excellent and thought-provoking -- and, be forewarned, lengthy -- recent essay in The Atlantic: "The Coming Software Apocalypse: A small group of programmers wants to change how we code -- before catastrophe strikes."

(Before offering a select few observations from this article, allow me to reminisce that I didn't always write SF for a living. I spent 30 years in information technology, at such marquee companies as Bell Labs, Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman. I designed and built software [and also sometimes hardware], led projects, and managed development teams of up to 300 engineers and scientists. Many of the systems I worked on were mission-critical. Most had to operate in real time, be fault-tolerant, accommodate many concurrent users, withstand hacking, or be widely distributed geographically -- or even do all those things at once. In short: I like to believe I know something about development of complex software. And yes -- the conventional practice of software development needs improvement.)

Now on to a few choice quotes from the essay: