Saturday, June 27, 2009

Progress (not!)

A surprisingly large chunk of writing happens away from desk and computer. Stories and characters evolve. Plot holes rear their ugly heads (yeah, a horribly mixed metaphor -- it amuses me). Exciting wrinkles suggest themselves. Those are all more likely to happen by free association than while pounding the keyboard. Long walks are an important part of the process.

So: weather permitting, I walk daily. The neighbors know that if I fail to notice them, I'm in a writing trance and not snubbing them.

And now about progress ... cell phones are wonderful technology. I truly believe that. I worked at Bell Labs when the early ideas for cell-phone networks were under development. Cell phones certainly make it easier to stay in touch. But is always being in touch good or bad? That depends on the context.

I won't go into the general argument about cell-phone use in cars. People spend hours a day in their cars. In that much time, maybe unanticipated or urgent matters DO come up to merit the increased risk of distraction.

Which finally brings me to that ... not! My neighborhood is a hundred or so houses, a few roads. Lots of cul-de-sacs and no through streets. And yet it's a rare walk where I don't see someone driving in the neighborhood talking on a cell.

Driving in my neighborhood -- and countless thousands of residential areas like it -- you are necessarily within a minute of your departure or your arrival. You do NOT need to be driving one-handed, clutching a cell phone. Curvy roads ... parked cars ... cars backing out of driveways ... joggers ... kids and pets at play ... pay attention to the ROAD, why don't you? Call before you set out, or call back when, seconds later, you arrive.

(Am I slamming my neighbors? No. We all drive more defensively when we know the kids running about. But visiting friends, trawling realtors, yard-sale hunters, delivery vans, yard service trucks ... there is the problem.)

Cell phones are great things -- but like all technology , they have their place. Sometimes, that's in pocket or purse.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Robots (first musings)

So when will we have robot servants (like Rosie the maid on the Jetsons)? Probably not this year, but clearly we are getting closer.

Already we can get autonomous robotic vacuums and robotic pets. The military, of course, uses teleoperated robots to spy from the sky and to find landmines. Robots -- albeit very specialized -- have long been at work in our factories.

Eons ago, when I started work on my computer science MS, to make a robot that could recognize and react properly to its environment was a huge problem -- PhD dissertation material. I shared an office with a guy whose PhD thesis involved a robot able to stack blocks. Not only was his robot physically huge, its questionable ability to model the real world necessitated that it move at a snail's pace for safety.

Now undergrads do robotics projects far more sophisticated than anything dreamed of by my office mate. See this article and its YouTube video, in which many of the robots are undergraduate projects. Watch the bots sense and react to their environments.

(I can't go without commenting on Robotuna. What a great name! "Sorry, Charlie. DARPA doesn't want tunas that taste good ...")

The maze-following robot in the video struck a chord with me. The artificial life in my novel Fools' Experiments was purposefully evolved by solving ever more elaborate mazes, involving progressively more dimensions and complex geometries.

Alas, my robot won't be here soon enough to spare me unloading the dishwasher.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Sifting through my "look at this someday" bookmark folder, some interesting stuff ...

Smart sponges: At last! A use for RFIDs with which I can be happy.

Smart imaging: In trouble, for lack of radioisotopes.

Exploration of the outer solar system: Perhaps also in trouble, for a similar reason. With all the trillions the U.S. government is sinking into debt, can DOE get thirty million for a worthy cause?

Now I hafta get back to writing ... I left Our Hero in a most precarious predicament.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ocean and water

The Year of Science returns, this month to celebrate The Ocean and Water.

I'm underwhelmed again this month. The Earth's surface is mostly water. Our cells are mostly water. Tell me something I didn't know in third grade (a long time ago).

How is trafficking in the trite supposed to get anyone excited about science?

Peeking ahead to July, though, we have astronomy. Yea!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The best of science fiction

Nope -- not shameless self-promotion.

I recently acquired a vintage anthology, copyright 1946, titled The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin with a foreword by John W. Campbell. And what a blast from the past it was!

Conklin was one of the early, premier SF anthologists. His anthos, more than any other single source, hooked me on SF as a boy. (These books were old already when I encountered them in my elementary-school library.) Campbell, of course, was the longtime editor of Astounding Stories magazine (renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact on his watch). Campbell not only nurtured the careers of such Golden Age greats as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, but was a great SF author in his own right.

Setting aside a few really vintage stories (like those by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Wells), the entries in this antho are from the 1930s and early 1940s. The science, of course, is quaint by today's standards. Attitudes toward some races, genders, and ethnicities make the modern reader wince. Aliens all too often are fixated, without explanation, on conquering Earth and destroying humankind. The prose style is, by today's conventions, often melodramatic and overblown (with too! many! exclamation points!!).

So why am I writing about this book? Because so many of the stories, when put into the context of when they were written, are brilliant. Classics.

Yes, the science is dated -- but sometimes it was cutting edge for the time.

Robert A. Heinlein -- sometimes writing as himself, sometimes as Anson MacDonald -- is a standout. The opening story in the book, "Solution Unsatisfactory" (copyright 1941) was an astonishing look at the implications of nuclear weaponry and its meaning to geopolitics. "Universe" (copyright 1941) is, to the best of my knowledge, the first story based on the concept of interstellar generation ships.

Campbell, writing as Don A. Stuart, had a great piece called "Atomic Power" (copyright 1934!) dealing with multiverse theory. Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline" (copyright 1944), when first published, brought the FBI to Analog's editorial office in search of a leak from the Manhattan Project. Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (copyright 1945) took the first steps away from the notion that any encounter with aliens is necessarily kill or be killed.

And many more ...

All in all, it was a most enjoyable step back in time. What more can any SF fan ask?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Juggler of Worlds redux

This is a commercial announcement ...

Juggler of Worlds, my most recent interstellar epic -- in collaboration with Larry Niven -- was re-released today in paperback. (JoW is now also available in various audio formats, for those who like listening to books.)

Naturally I posted about Juggler when it originally came out, and my website has a sampling of the rave reviews. But the proof of the book is in the reading, and so courtesy of the publisher here is an excerpt.