Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Authorial updates

For those of you who follow my non-blog writing, a few news items:

Thinking for a bit ;-)
Fools' Experiments, my 2008 technothriller of artificial life and artificial intelligence, has been picked up by Arc Manor for re-release in print and ebook editions. Availability date TBD (I'll update this post once a date is announced).

Sometimes less is more
Small Miracles, my 2009 technothriller of medical nanotech, has likewise been picked up by Arc Manor for re-release in print and ebook editions. Availability date TBD (ditto).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Well, the Dog Days are not quite upon us (at least as the Romans reckoned these things) ... but I'm there. Being ahead of schedule to procrastinate? Oh, the irony. Oh, the humanity!

You're there, too?

Then (and Safe For Work) I bring you ... diversion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Spacing out (again)

Because for space-travel-related posts, "Spacing out" is just too apt of a subject line to retire after a single use. (So would be: "Lost in Space.")

A Falcon 9 test launch
ANYway ... as NASA set its sights on a more caffeinated endeavor (we'll come to that), SpaceX continues to innovate. Their Falcon 9 launcher is impressive enough in its own right. Ditto their Dragon cargo capsule, used three times (so far) for deliveries to the ISS and being upgraded for crew rating. ISS cargo delivery flight CR3, involving that launcher and cargo capsule, also introduced a new element: a soft-landing test of the booster.

That test was successful. The demonstration represents a big step closer to reusable boosters, technology that will make a significant contribution toward reducing the too-high cost of putting anything (or anyone) into space. Not bad for a twelve-year-old company ...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Thinking small -- in a very big way

I'm fascinated by recent reports from both the grand laboratories and the ivory towers of modern physics. My guess is that regular visitors here will also find these items noteworthy.

One atom, "seen" via STM
Let's begin with the news that "Bose-Einstein Condensate Made at Room Temperature for First Time." At its most basic, a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) is the fifth state of matter, alongside solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

While the familiar four phases of matter (in the foregoing order) represent more and more energetic conditions -- until, in plasma, electrons come unbound from nuclei -- the BEC phase is a low energy phase. The particles in a BEC are so super-cooled that they collapse into a single, common quantum-mechanical state. That makes BECs (as I made use of them in InterstellarNet: New Order) a convenient phase in which to store and manipulate antimatter.

How can a BEC exist at room temperature? It takes being clever -- and even with cleverness, so far a BEC can only be sustained at room temperature for trillionths of a second. That may be long enough to make possible a new class of analog simulations.

Next up ... "Exotic hadron particles detected at CERN: Bizarre matter defies known physics."

"We've confirmed the unambiguous observation of a very exotic state — something that looks like a particle composed of two quarks and two antiquarks," study co-leader Tomasz Skwarnicki, a high-energy physicist at Syracuse University in New York said in a statement. The discovery "may give us a new way of looking at strong-[force] interaction physics," he added.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Less than meets the AI

A mere two weeks ago, the big, breaking news -- apart from the ongoing cascade of geopolitical woes -- was that (in this particular iteration, citing the Washington Post) "A computer just passed the Turing Test in landmark trial."

An under-appreciated genius
Alan Turing is perhaps best known for his role in cracking the German military's Enigma crypto system. Turing thereby -- at the very least -- shortened the war against the Nazis and saved many lives. He also established some of the foundational theorems of computer science. As for the subject/headlines at hand, he speculated, way back in 1950, about artificial intelligence.

Given that the experts struggled -- and still do -- to define intelligence, Turing's insight was (characteristically) brilliant. To wit: don't try to define artificial intelligence; describe its behavior. From which arose the famous Turing Test: if an artificial entity interacting with judges by text messages successfully masquerades as a human at the keyboard, then the entity, too, is intelligent.

Pay no attention to the computer behind the curtain

Such imitation served as the basis of many recent headlines. From that Washington Post article:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The neural interface you always wanted is (at least, could be) coming

I spent most of last week on Hilton Head Island -- I know: real hardship duty :-) -- but I was working. And having a great time.

I'm a member of SIGMA (which, despite all those caps, is not an acronym). SIGMAns are authors of hard SF -- but first (and in many cases, still) we were scientists, physicians, or engineers. We consult on matters of futurism, often -- where the public interest is involved -- pro bono. As the logo would have it, SIGMA is The Science Fiction Think Tank.

Bringing me to the just concluded Hilton Head Workshop 2014: A Solid-State Sensors, Actuators and Microsystems Workshop. The event's scope extends to -- though, curiously, the term is omitted from the name -- nanotechnology. Nor was this just any such workshop, but the 30th anniversary edition.
In addition to many a lookback, such as befits a major milestone anniversary, the conference organizers decided to bring in a few SIGMAns to look thirty years ahead. More than a few of our merrie band tossed their hats into the metaphorical ring. The four of us who went: 
  • SIGMA founder and onetime White House science fellow Dr. Arlan Andrews. 
  • Interstellar Woman of Mystery and twenty-year veteran at NASA, Stephanie Osborn.
  • Polymath and onetime manager at Aerospace Corporation, Boeing, and other interesting places (and longtime Byte columnist), Jerry Pournelle.
  • Your Humble Blogger.
Beyond my own high-tech career, I have to my credit nanotech-intensive novels and a novelette featuring both gnat bots and nanotech.

Eventually the big night came for the SIGMAns (and remember my subject line? This is where we get to neural interfaces) ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fate of Worlds redux

What we have here is bookends. (Also: a commercial announcement.)

Worlds without a star, hurtling through space ...

In a beginning ...
Fleet of Worlds, my first collaboration with Larry Niven, got rave reviews, was a Prometheus Award finalist, was a Science Fiction Book Club featured title, and -- though we wrote the novel to stand alone -- morphed quickly into a series. Most major-publisher titles these days come out in hardback, mass-market paperback, and ebook formats; I was delighted when, four years after Fleet first appeared, Tor Books reissued the novel in trade paperback format.

More aliens than you can shake a laser blaster at, nursing as many grudges ...

Amazon link, TPB edition
So: I'm yet more delighted that today -- not even two years after the original publication -- Tor Books is re-releasing Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld, the final book of the series, as a trade paperback.

Bookends, I say again :-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Brain food

It is in the nature of news outlets, whether online or traditional, to emphasize what has gone wrong, is in the process of failing, or could yet run off the rails. "You're okay, and chances are you'll stay okay," neither captures eyeballs nor sells newspapers to their shrinking audience.

I'm not in the news biz, but on this blog I, too, have sometimes paid more attention to black clouds than to silver linings. But there is good news. I sincerely believe that.

Home, sweet home
For one Big Picture look at why things aren't so bad, see (from The Wall Street Journal), "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out: Ecologists worry that the world's resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again.") A key quote:

... here's a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this "niche construction"—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature's bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.

Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter's tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can't seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.

All in all, it's a compelling look at two very different mindsets: economists vs. ecologists. Does either discipline have a monopoly on understanding the carrying capacity of the planet? I think not. But (IMO), the economist's view -- and millennia of progress in the human condition -- too often gets short shrift in old and new media.