Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mars or bust!

It's not like a human landing on Mars is imminent -- certainly not by way of NASA's planning --  but people are thinking about it.

To begin, consider (from Dvice) that:

Mars
2018 is not going to be the year that humans land on Mars. But, if millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito has his way, it could be the first year that humans visit Mars. Tito has formed a group called the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which is going to try to swing two people around Mars without stopping and then bring them back to Earth on a mission lasting 501 days. 

More at "Millionaire wants to send humans to Mars (and back) in 2018."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Looking both ways before we cross into 2014

'Tis the season of lists, look-aheads, and look-backs, from which I'll single out a few science-and-tech specific instances.

A small part of the LHC
Let's begin with Physics World. After the (by now) pro forma acknowledgement that the big science news this year was discovery of the Higgs boson, their focus is "The world of physics in 2014." And it's quite the year they foresee, everything from the restart of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at incredible new energy levels to the billion-star-search of ESA's newly launched Gaia observatory to enhanced sensitivity in the hunt for dark matter at the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) detector. And that's only a small part of their preview. Neat stuff.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Museum of Science Fiction


Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Greg Viggiano, executive director of the hopefully soon-to-be Museum of Science Fiction. Greg's vision is to set MSF in Washington, DC, nestled among (though not as a part of) the many museums of the Smithsonian.

EMP Museum, Seattle
(Until a few weeks ago, I'd labored under the misconception that there was an SF Museum in Seattle. It turns out that science fiction is but an exhibit area within Seattle's much larger EMP Museum (formerly the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame or EMP | SFM. )

MSF's mission:
The Museum of Science Fiction will be the world’s first comprehensive science fiction museum, covering the history of the genre across the arts and providing a narrative on its relationship to the real world.
Given the popularity of SF -- as in: Star Wars, Star Trek, Aliens, Battlestar Galactica, The X Files, Terminator, Firefly, Avatar ... -- the prospective audience, IMO, is huge.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Books to knock your socks off ...


I've been known to blog in this space about my own writing, but this isn't that sort of post. This is, rather, about what I read this year -- more specifically, some standout books, both fiction and non -- that I heartily recommend.

Disclaimers:
  • In a couple cases I know the author, but those are the exceptions. (And those friendships are immaterial to a book being mentioned here.)
  • When some acclaimed title, especially of a recent release, isn't on this list, please don't take the absence as a vote of no confidence. My to-read stack is piled many electrons deep -- as you might reasonably infer from a few of the books that I did read. 
Herewith, in no particular order ...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Publishing trends

However devoted one may be to ebooks, there are times when only a physical book will do. Such as when the book:
  • isn't available in digital format,
  • is a gift for a reader yet to make the switch,
  • is in a series of which you already have a collection, and you want all the copies to match,
  • has large graphics or detailed tables or copious footnotes, any of which makes the ebook edition awkward to use, or
  • in some ineffable way just calls out to be held.
These are all reasons why even ebook aficionados sometimes want to visit a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Online recommendation engines have their place, some are even fairly good, but IMO browsing shelves retains its virtues -- like the serendipitous find. But browsing becomes tricky when there are no bookstores to be browsed ...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A reason to give thanks


It's a wonderful world
House guests and holiday prep ... I'll be back next week.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Beyond genre ... and big-box stores

One consequence of writing SF for a living is immersion in the genre: writing it; reading it (both for fun and, well, consider it competitive research), viewing it, attending SF conventions, and comparing notes with fellow authors. When I'm not involved with SF, most likely I'm deep into science -- and that's often research for fiction I'm writing or planning to write.

It's good for me to remember, from time to time, the 90-plus percent of the population whose days aren't spent immersed in science or the SF genre.

Beautiful outside ...
Last week I took part in Authors Forum, an annual event at the Handley Library (Winchester, Virginia), the lead facility of the local regional library system.

(This is, by the way, a drop-dead gorgeous building, designed in the Beaux Art style -- see photos at left. The library -- built with an endowment from Judge John Handley, an out-of-state patron/fan of the town -- this year celebrated its 100th anniversary. If you happen to know the Robert Preston / Shirley Jones (1962) version of The Music Man, the "Marion the Librarian" song-and-dance scene might have been (but wasn't) filmed in the Handley Library.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It's *not* rocket science

The healthcare.gov start-up debacle -- about which I'll spare you my political thoughts -- has been of late (hah!) a major topic in the mass media.

Said fiasco has also provided fodder for late-night comedians and, not surprisingly, the Onion: "New, Improved Obamacare Program Released On 35 Floppy Disks." And fodder, too, for tech speculation, as in this from IEEE Spectrum: "The Obamacare Rollout: What Really Happened?"

Rather than become the zillionth-plus-first commenter on the botched roll-out, I decided instead to vent re the problems more generally encountered in software. My opinion is, I shall maintain, an informed one. I have an MS in computer engineering. I once programmed for a living. For many years after I stopped coding (other than, on occasion, recreationally) I managed software- and systems-development organizations, both in the private sector and under contract to several federal agencies (most notably, NASA). Several of those systems were Internet-based, very large, distributed -- or all three.

So what about the state of modern software bemuses (but not amuses) me?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cold and dark

Space is like that. Even in space, though, this is exceptional. See "Pac-Man GHOST nebula is literally the coolest thing in the universe – boffins: Warming up in the Big Bang's background radiation."

Should be called the Clyde Nebula
 And if you're wondering about that extreme cold, here's the explanation:

The rapid expansion ... is of gas from the dying star at the core of the nebula, and is the explanation for the Boomerang's frigidity. As the gas expands, it cools in a manner "similar in principle to the way refrigerators use expanding gas to produce cold temperatures," explains the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ring(s) around the genre

Not every item to follow is SF news, but all are recent and (IMO) interesting looks at matters of interest to genre fans. For today's purposes, I'm going with the broadest meaning of SF, speculative fiction rather than my usual focus on science fiction.

Let's begin with a BBC essay, "Can science fiction ever get the science right?" It wraps up by quoting science-fiction author Neal Asher:

"In the end," Asher concludes, "science fiction is not there to make accurate predictions about the future, it is there to entertain and stimulate the imagination. There is absolutely no doubt that many of the imaginations it stimulates belong to scientists. To some extent it drives and directs science."

Not disagreeing with Asher, I'd add that (some) SF also sets out to illuminate implications of  possible futures. That's a good and worthwhile function, too.

Want to broaden your reading? io9 offers us a list of "11 Most Prolific Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of All Time.

Next up, a Star Wars tidbit ... on DC's National Cathedral, high up, among the grotesques, you can find... Darth Vader.

Alas, if you should visit, Darth is very difficult to spot with the naked eye. Bring binocs.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

And in the larger scheme of things ...

Given what passes these days for American government -- kicking the budgetary can down the road (again) for just a few months -- maybe you'll enjoy the distraction of news items in which actual change can be discerned.

Hysteria, anyone?
Time after time, GMO (genetically modified organisms) have passed safety trials. Europeans, nonetheless, have strenuously opposed foods derived from GMO, to the point where they've forced many African nations -- in dire need of higher-yield crops -- to abstain lest they never again sell agricultural goods in European markets. American consumers are just slightly less hysterical about GMO products. So, it's refreshing to read (from EurActiv.com) that "Chief EU scientist backs damning report urging GMO ‘rethink.’"

The report from EASAC, published in June, warns of the “grave scientific, economic and social consequences of current European Union policy towards GM crops”, saying European countries should “rethink” their widespread rejection of the technology.

(EASAC is the European Academies Science Advisory Council.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scattered furloughs, with a chance of default / look away

The news across the nation is about the (psycho)drama playing out in Washington -- but here in the DC area, that's about all we hear. (Not quite true. We also hear about whether to change the name of the local NFL franchise, the Redskins.)

While Congress has us all on a suicide watch (or vice versa), here are some SF- and science-related items that may have been pushed off your screen or front page ...

Free-floating planets aren't new to SF, but now one's been spotted. See (from the Sydney Morning Herald), "Lonely planet in star turn all of its own, say astronomers."

The gaseous exoplanet, dubbed PSO J318.5-22, is 80 light years from Earth and has a mass only six times that of Jupiter. Having formed 12 million years ago, the planet is considered newborn.

To which I say, welcome to the neighborhood.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Columbus discovered a new world (here's your chance to top him)

By discovering new worlds of the imagination, of course. You won't even need the support of a deep-pocketed Spanish queen.

(If you hadn't guessed, this is a commercial announcement. But you'll want to read on ....)

Replica of the Nina
In recognition of the upcoming Columbus Day holiday (or my pending appearance October 12th at DC area con Capclave, or just because), FoxAcre Press is running a special through October 17. During the promotion, each of my FoxAcre SF novels and my FoxAcre collection -- in ebook formats only --  is reduced to $2.99.

What titles? Both InterstellarNet-series novels, InterstellarNet: Origins and InterstellarNet: New Order. First-contact novel Moonstruck. Technothriller Probe. Mixed fact and fiction collection Frontiers of Space, Time, and Thought.

As for my freestanding time-travel novella, A Time Foreclosed, it's only $0.99.

Which ebook formats? Kindle, Nook, and iTunes. Check their respective storefronts. (And if a price reduction hasn't yet rippled through for a particular title or format ... check back. The change should be in the works.)

Care to learn more about any of these books (or any other Lerner title)? Over in the right-hand column, click the book-cover thumbnail. Or jump straight to the list of all Edward M. Lerner titles at Amazon.

If you've ever wondered about my writing, now is the time to indulge your curiosity.

As for Capclave, it's among my favorite cons. This year's GOH is George R. R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame.)

Capclave: where reading isn't extinct



Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Getting physical

Fans of science and hard SF -- and such are a fair chunk of folks visiting here at SF and Nonsense -- care about progress in the hard sciences. Hard, in both cases, if in separate ways, meaning rigorous. Not squishy subjectivity or recourse to wishful thinking about how the universe ought to work. Not science (or, worse, "science") merely as colorful backdrop to the story.

For such visitors especially, on we go to some intriguing news from two of the hardest among hard sciences: physics and astronomy ...

Ever wonder if we're alone? Whether (as yet hypothetical) life out there might be anything like terrestrial life? Then the prevalence of worlds amenable to Life As We Know It will be a factor of interest to you. You'll want to read (from Space.com) precisely how, " 'Habitable Zone' for Alien Planets, and Possibly Life, Redefined."

The new definition isn't radically different from the old one. For example, in our own solar system, the boundaries of the habitable zone have shifted from between 0.95 astronomical units (AU, or the distance between Earth and the sun) and 1.67 AU, to the new range of 0.99 AU to 1.7 AU.

So did we just make it, we Earthlings? Maybe. More likely, the models still need work, not least because:

The scientists cautioned that the habitable zone definition still does not take into account feedback effects from clouds, which will also affect a planet's habitability.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An eclectic survey of SF

Scientists, engineers, and astronauts have often commented about science fiction attracting them to their careers (on a personal note, SF attracted me into physics Way Back When).

In that vein, it's interesting to read (from The Atlantic), "Why Today's Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction." Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner, the two interviewees, are both affiliated with that premier idea factory, the MIT Media Lab. Far from SF's influence being a throwaway line, Novy and Breukner have developed a college course dedicated to the proposition. Check out the syllabus for MIT offering Science Fiction to Science Fabrication -or- Pulp to Prototype.

Meanwhile, io9 offers an insightful essay, "How to measure the power of a science fiction story." Hint: it's not success at predicting the future. A prime example is George Orwell's 1984. It's a great novel, the mark of its influence encapsulated in the ubiquity and widespread understanding of the simple phrase "Big Brother." Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The end of an era

You've likely read of the recent passing of SF author Frederik Pohl (1919-2013). As one example tribute, from USA Today, see, "Science fiction writer Frederik Pohl dies." He died during (but not in attendance of) this year's Worldcon.

Pohl was, without doubt, one of the giants of the genre. He wrote dozens of novels. His 1977 novel, Gateway -- winner of Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards -- was a masterpiece, absolutely brilliant. And beyond being an author, Pohl was an influential genre editor, agent, and fan. He will be sorely missed.

Damien Walters of the (UK) Guardian notes that Pohl was the last of the Golden Age masters. See Walters's thoughtful piece, "Science-fiction's Golden Age writers left a fantastic legacy."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Craziness

They say fact is stranger than fiction. (They also say don't go on Wolverton Mountain if you're looking for a wife. But I digress.)

So what's new, strange, and relates (somehow) to science, technology, or SF? I'm glad you asked.

Making an ash of oneself
Let's begin, from ABC News, with "Doctors Investigate Indian Baby for Spontaneous Combustion." That's spontaneous human combustion -- shades of Bleak House. Or if you prefer, what the dickens?

I've been fascinated with the potential for human-computer interfaces back to my 2002 novella "Presence of Mind," which grew into the 2008 novel Fools' Experiments (a technothriller that takes place about now). How's this, from USA Today, for a bit of amazing neuroscience tech? "Researcher remotely controls colleague's body with brain."

As in: "Brain researchers say that for the first time one person has remotely triggered another person's movement, a flicking finger, through a signal sent to him by thought ... In effect, Rao's thought was transferred across the campus, via the Internet, to trigger the motion in Stocco, who described it as feeling like an involuntary twitch, according to the announcement."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

CONsensus ...

That a good time was had by all.

I'm rested up (just a bit) from last weekend's Worldcon, aka LoneStarCon 3 in sunny(!) San Antonio. (Up to 103 degrees. Yikes. But no matter the heat, the shaded, miles-long river walk was ever delightful.)

What did I do at the con? You name it! Attended a plethora of sessions. Hung out with fans and author colleagues, with editors and my agent. Cruised the dealers room and admired the art exhibit.

The programming committee gave me a nice variety of activities:

  • Colossus, Skynet, or the Culture? A panel on our coming AI overlords.
  • The Rapture of the Geeks. If, when, and how we'll upload our minds to the cloud.
  • Care and Feeding of Your Aliens and Magical Beings. Who does convincing critters and how to roll your own.
  • John W. Campbell Created it All. The contributions of, and myths about, one of the great editors.
But wait! There was more!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Con lag

As for my customary Tuesday posting ...

Yippee ki-yay.
I lost an hour coming home from the Worldcon just concluded, but it would be grossly unfair to blame my posting lapse on jet lag. Still, I am most definitely in no condition to post. Con lag, let's call it.

Some day Real Soon Now ...

(And indeed, it happened. See CONsensus ... posted 9/4/2013.)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

S(tuf)F

Among SFnal topics, I sometimes opine about genre movies. What I seldom mention are short movies -- and today I'll take a step toward remedying that omission. With a hat tip to Scott for sharing this link, see (from Cracked.com) "5 Epic Sci-Fi Movies You Can Watch In Under 10 Minutes."

Spoiler alert: don't read a description till after you've watched the corresponding movie.

(Isn't the word "movie" well past its use-by date? Are we still supposed to be impressed that the images move? We got past "talkies," so why not retire "movies?" "Film" is likewise dated in the digital era. You and I -- and more and more theaters -- don't roll film. We stream bits! But I digress.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Forward-looking physics

Physics is our friend. 

We all know that a magnet -- whether a compass needle or the Earth -- has two poles. Cut a magnet in half (an experiment better performed with the compass needle ;-)  ) and you end up with two magnets, each with its own north and south pole.

Electric charge (of course) doesn't work like that. We're accustomed to the notion of isolated positive and negative particles (e.g., electrons and protons).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Of moons, clouds, and the state of the art(s)

Flexing moons, by Jove!
New cameras keep coming to market with more pixels than I can imagine any earthly use for -- but here comes astronomy to the rescue. See (from Space.com) "Alien Moons May Be Easier to Photograph Than Planets." The basic concept: tidal flexing of a moon by its primary generates heat, and that heat is in addition to all solar heating. And heat shows up in infrared imaging ...

That's one more way to search for Jm'ho, the Gw'oth world ;-)

How will you get to distant worlds? Odds are, not by beaming there à là Star Trek. For a mathematical look at the (im)probability of human teleportation, see (from Slate) "Bad News, These Physicists Say That Teleportation is Unworkable." Assuming you want to arrive wherever knowing what you knew when you set out, the trillions of tiny synapses in your head are a big challenge. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Miscellaneous and SFundry

Yet again: the dog days of summer. A time to kick back, avoid the heat ... and clear my backlog of SF and Nonsense-appropriate miscellany. (But be of good cheer: unlike in Roman times, no dogs need be sacrificed to propitiate Sirius, the Dog Star.)

Sand(worm): a summer theme :-)
Let's begin with something from an unlikely (in this blog) source: The New Yorker. For a mainstream retrospective and appreciation of a classic -- the masterwork of a giant of the genre -- see "Why Frank Herbert's 'Dune' Still Matters."

Vast scope. Brilliantly realized universe. Intricate plot. Dune has it all.

Speaking of giants ...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Barking up the wrong tree

Does the NSA have any business routinely collecting and searching call records (not the calls themselves) across America? On balance, I find that the national-security case is strong and the legal justifications convincing. That said, this seems to be one of those topics about which -- apropos the recent narrow bipartisan vote in the House not to stop the program -- reasonable people can differ.

If only the public and our pols paid half as much attention, showed half as much outrage, and took half as much action re (a) massive security vulnerabilities and (b) other privacy violations that are clearly illegal. 

Are you familiar with the SIM (subscriber identity module) card in your mobile phone? Well, CNet reports that "SIM card flaw said to allow hijacking of millions of phones: Vulnerability in the security key that protects the card could allow eavesdropping on phone conversations, fraudulent purchases, or impersonation of the handset's owner, a security researcher warns." This vulnerability may endanger up to 750 million mobile phones -- and their users.

Do you use credit cards? Then (courtesy of Yahoo! News), note that "Russian hackers got 160 million bank card numbers, but that wasn't worst part." Some key paraemeters:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Impossible Futures

(Last updated September 6, 2013)

Remember when 2001 was the wondrous future? Remember all the super-neat technology you once expected we'd have by now? Personal jet packs, robot servants, and the like? Not just the stuff in Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, but the ideas that made the old science fiction so much fun.

cover by Duncan Eagleson
And with your help, it still can. See the Kickstarter campaign for the anthology Impossible Futures -- the excellent cover for which is nearby.

(Update: this project was funded. Read on for more ...)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Whither publishing?

I surely don't know. I doubt that anyone does -- however diligently they try. The publishing industry's future is, shall we say, murky. (I reviewed some of the complexities back in March as "Publishing (black and) blues.")

As a working author, I need to care. You may not. But if you happen to share my interest in the topic, herewith some virtual tea leaves to read ...

Amid the few nano-percent of effort the media didn't recently expend on the Martin/Zimmerman trial was this story (this particular article from Reuters): "Apple colluded on e-book prices, judge finds." After Apple's publishing partners settled out of court, Apple itself has been found guilty of collusion to reduce Amazon's (at the time) 90% share of the ebook market. Apple has promised to appeal. Stay tuned.

Thousands of folk like me, meanwhile, took a legal beating as, at the appellate court level, "Authors lose class status in Google digital books case." (That article was likewise from Reuters, via Yahoo! News.) Bye-bye to the lower-court ruling that "it would be unfair to force authors to sue individually given the 'sweeping and undiscriminating nature of Google's unauthorized copying.' " The legal battle now moves, attorneys for the Authors Guild say,  to whether Google's indiscriminate scanning (so far, of 20 million books!) falls within "fair use" doctrine. Again, stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A wild and crazy planet

One of the joys of SF is the opportunity to Think Big. Earth, as large as it is, pales in comparison with, say, a Dyson Sphere or a Nivenesque Ringworld. But within the limits of today's technology, we humans (some of us, anyway), continue to Think Big ...

As illustrated by this CNN article: Sky trains, super bridges: 8 of the world's most spectacular infrastructure projects. Whether or not you're impressed by every one of these projects, I defy you not to be taken with the 1000-ton tunnel-boring machine being used to extend the Tube system in London.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Fate of Worlds: the MM PB

Today marks the mass-market paperback re-release of Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld. It's the explosive conclusion to the Ringworld series and the Fleet of Worlds series of epic SF adventures. With this edition finally available, all five books in the series are available in mass-market format. 

(And if you're an ebook aficionado? There's still news. In anticipation of the paperback re-release, the Kindle price just dropped. The ebook in other formats will surely follow suit.)

Check it out on Amazon
What, specifically, is Fate about? I'm glad you asked! It's interstellar conflict among five intelligent species (if you're an aficionado of Known Space: humans, Kzinti, Trinocs, Puppeteers, and Gw'oth) and an AI. It's the answer to countless questions across the Ringworld series. It settles, quite literally, the fate of worlds.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Time Foreclosed

(Last updated August 31, 2016)

As a working author, I've followed -- with more than a little interest! -- various publishing experiments and emerging sales channels. One of those experiments is the freestanding novella. What had been an impractical story length has become, in the era of ebooks and print-on-demand, eminently doable.

And so: on to my experiment and breaking news ...

A Time Foreclosed, newly released, republishes -- under a new and improved title -- my recent time-travel novella "Time Out." (It originally appeared in Analog, January/February 2013 issue.)

Or as the publisher puts it:

Monday, June 17, 2013

¿Que passa? (Maybe all of us)

What's happening? Lots! (It'll even, if you bear with me, explain that atrocious bilingual/pidgin-lingual pun.)

With the NSA's insatiable data hoovering at the top of the news, herewith a skeptical look at the perils of Big Data. From Technology Review, see "The Dictatorship of Data: Robert McNamara epitomizes the hyper-rational executive led astray by numbers." A key passage:
The use, abuse, and misuse of data by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War is a troubling lesson about the limitations of information as the world hurls toward the big-data era. The underlying data can be of poor quality. It can be biased. It can be misanalyzed or used misleadingly. And even more damning, data can fail to capture what it purports to quantify.

We are more susceptible than we may think to the “dictatorship of data”—that is, to letting the data govern us in ways that may do as much harm as good. The threat is that we will let ourselves be mindlessly bound by the output of our analyses even when we have reasonable grounds for suspecting that something is amiss. Education seems on the skids? Push standardized tests to measure performance and penalize teachers or schools. Want to prevent terrorism? Create layers of watch lists and no-fly lists in order to police the skies. Want to lose weight? Buy an app to count every calorie but eschew actual exercise.
That's not to say I'm unalterably opposed to Big Data or to dot-connecting searches for national-security threats. I'm not. I worry, however, about algorithm not sufficiently balanced with judgment. I worry about data used (and misused) for purposes other than why they were first collected.

And in a bit of good news (reported by BBC News, among many others), "FBI and Microsoft take down $500m-theft botnet Citadel." Why good? Because:
The Citadel network had remotely installed a keylogging program on about five million machines to steal data ...
The cybercriminals behind Citadel cashed in by using login and password details for online bank accounts stolen from compromised computers.

This method was used to steal cash from a huge number of banks including American Express, Bank of America, PayPal, HSBC, Royal Bank of Canada and Wells Fargo.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

An open letter to (a few) ebook shoppers

It happens all too often ... an online shopper looks at an ebook at Amazon or bn.com or ... and disagrees with the vendor's price. That's fair.

And proceeds to give that book a one-star review, "justified" with a rant about greed and/or the evils of ebook pricing. That's often quite unfair, and that bit of venting claims the author as collateral damage.

First, the background: opinions differ on ebook pricing. Some shoppers feel that ebooks should be far cheaper than any physical book because an ebook can be replicated for free. Authors, editors, cover artists, distributors, and publishers expect to earn something for their contributions to a book -- and that requires a nonzero price on books, even ebooks. (Especially ebooks, as that format claims more and more of the book market.) Ebook reader vendors, meanwhile, sometimes use ebook content as a loss leader. The device vendor's short-term motivation is to lure/lock customers into a particular content ecosystem.

Publishers and etailers have long tussled over these issues. Even as I type, a major antitrust suit about ebook pricing is at trial between Apple and the Department of Justice -- the big publishing houses having settled out of court.

Do I know the "right" price for an ebook? No (other than nonzero, in the belief readers want authors to continue writing). Do I know how the tussle among publishers, etailers, and the DoJ will come out? Again, no. 

Here's what I do know ...

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Catching up

My virtual clippings folder is again bulging, and if I add one more article, it might just explode. (Cue Monty Python.)

So: a few items of likely interest to SF and Nonsense readers ...

Extension cord extra
From the Department of Digitally Enabled Snoops: here's yet another company's good graces upon which you (*) are asked to rely. From Fortune, see "Tesla's Elon Musk Reminds Media His Cars Can Spy On Them."

(*) If you own -- or would aspire to own -- a Tesla electric sports car.

You're diligent about malware defenses and regular updates on your computers and router, even your tablet and phone -- and you're still at risk. From PC World, see "Researchers find new point-of-sale malware called BlackPOS."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The good, the bad, and the carbon-intensive

In my recent trip to California, one of my stops -- all but mandatory for a person with my background -- was the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Short version: The museum is very well done.

Now that's a disk drive!
Longer version: This museum has one heck of a collection. Hardware from throughout my education and (first) career is well represented. Keypunch machines and an IBM 360 mainframe. Chunks from the ILLIAC IV, an early massively parallel supercomputer (and due to its Defense funding at the height of the Vietnam War, a cause for massive demonstrations during my freshman year at the University of Illinois). One kilobit(!) memory chips. DEC minis. (I go back, IIRC, only to PDP-8s, but the museum also has a PDP-1.) Atari's Pong. A Cray-1. Lots more. Seriously cool.

Steampunker's delight
Not to be topped in terms of showmanship -- and certain to delight steampunk fans as well as computer aficionados -- is the modern implementation of the wholly mechanical Babbage Difference Engine. It calculates polynomials. It's programmable. It prints -- with word wrap. Now consider that Charles Babbage died in 1871 ...

(And on that last link, check out the video! The real machine is more than man-tall, weighs five tons, and clatters most impressively as it operates.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Faster than a speeding photon

I'm just home from a trip to California -- at no point traveling at anywhere near the pace suggested by the subject line. I went for SFWA's annual Nebula Awards. (This year's Nebula winners here, courtesy of SFScope.)

I wasn't in the running this cycle for a Nebula, but I am delighted to have come home with a different award.

Regular visitors here at SF and Nonsense will remember that I write frequently for Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Mostly those Analog appearances are fiction, but (as befits a physicist and computer engineer with thirty years experience in IT and aerospace) I also sometimes contribute science and technology articles.

In the Analog Readers Poll for 2011, I came in second place -- tied with myself! -- for best fact article. Those runner-up pieces were for "Lost in Space? Follow the Money" (about the retirement of the space-shuttle fleet and the dawning era of commercialized spaceflight) and “Say What? Ruminations About Language, Communications, and Science Fiction” (a title that explains itself).

"Making Appearances Frequently In Analog"

For 2012, I'm pleased to say that in the fact-article category, my “Faster Than a Speeding Photon: The Why, Where, and (Perhaps the) How of Faster-Than-Light Technology" took first place in the readers poll. I suspect the scope of that article is pretty self-evident, too.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Something for everyone

Is Glass half empty or half full?
Think you're ready for Google Glass? Maybe think again. See "Google Glass: A Treat for Hackers":

The report said that hackers will also be able to monitor Google Glass' users' activities on their smartphones ... 
How about another cutting-edge personal product: a smart watch? Maybe what's old is new again. Check out "8 myths about the smartwatch revolution."

Let's move on to more revolutionary tech. I've long been fascinated with nanotechnology (an interest best illustrated by my 2009 novel of medical nanotech: Small Miracles). One of my primary research sources was K. Eric Drexler, commonly credited with bringing nanotech to public attention through his 1987 (and still quite popular) book "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The road to hell ...

You can complete that adage, right?

On occasion, that road might be literal. See "Pluto's Gate Uncovered in Turkey." In the Latin, Plutonium. Considering the element plutonium -- highly radioactive, maker of big booms, and chemically toxic -- that's a very apt name even today.

Is the Internet your world? Here are some key finding of the Spamhaus attack that for a short while brought down much of said world. See, "Massive cyberattack: Here's what happened (Q & A)." (How big a deal was this? "At the peak of the attack, it was generating 300 gigabits per second of traffic."

Maybe your idea of the apocalypse involves rogue robots. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Of the unforeseen, unintended, and unfunny

I've posted on several occasions (most recently, No time to go googly-eyed) about Google Glass. Will it be cool? Yes. Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Probably not. But between ...

You likely won't look this cool
Texting is fairly well estabished as a dangerous distraction to driving. So how about having the Internet in your face as you drive? NOT good. And so: Don't Glass and drive -- lawmakers seek to ban Google Glass on the road. And because Glass is a video recording device, be advised From strip clubs to theaters, Google Glass won't be welcome everywhere.

Still want a pair? Already wear glasses? Then (a note for the deep-pocketed), Prescription Version of Google Glass Expected This Year.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From many perspectives

For me, one of the striking things about the Boston Marathon bombings, the pursuit of the perps, and how the world followed these fast-breaking events has been the role of modern tech. Last week's tragedy, compared to other terrorist bombings (and would-be bombings) of recent years, seems immersed in the latest technology. And reminiscient of much near-future fiction ...

With non-jarring apps
The investigators had -- and made brilliant use of -- many thousand cameras. Ten years ago, would people in the crowd have had cameras? Sure. But would people in the crowd have taken nearly as many shots and videos as they did with all their smartphones? Probably not.

Ten years ago, would authorities have as quickly blanketed the Boston area with information? As quickly knocked down the rumors and disinformation? With TV and radio, likely yes -- but only to people near a TV or radio. How many people did the authorities first reach via cells and tablets?

(And on that point, hot off the [virtual] presses, from Michael Chertoff [a former Secretary of Homeland Security] and Dallas Lawrence [a former spokesman for the military coalition in Iraq], see "Investigating Terror in the Age of Twitter.")

Ten years ago, how much harder would it have been to reach family and friends in the Boston area, to check whether they were safe and to offer moral support? The phone systems were overloaded and (reports vary) cell-phone systems were sometimes shut down. (If cell systems were locally unavailable, I'm not criticizing. To stymie remote detonations is a Good Thing.) But email, texting (when and where cell systems were available), Facebook, Twitter ... offered access when all else failed.

So what lies ahead?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Poisoning, throttling, and otherwise killing the goose

You know the goose I mean -- the one that lays the golden eggs

DVDs (in which category I'll include Blu-Ray discs) are a big market. In 2011, the last year for which I've found data, movies on disc represented an $18 billion business. Lots of after-theater money for movie producers.

A vanishing breed?
But it's a business that's shrinking -- and all too often, the purveyors of DVDs are bringing it upon themselves.

I enjoyed DVDs. I used to buy lots of DVDs. The picture quality is fantastic. I can watch a DVD movie even when my Internet service is interrupted. But in recent months, almost exclusively, I stream video content.

As a consumer, videophile, and technologist, what's gone wrong with DVDs and (especially) Blu-Ray discs? Let me count the ways.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Maybe another time

Routine be damned ... after yesterday's horrific events in Boston, posting is the last thing on my mind.

Another day ...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The poster child for, well, posts

Welcome to the third annual review of popular posts and topics here on SF and Nonsense. The first such round up, Postscript (or is that post post?), continues to run a strong second place in all-time popularity among my posts.

The winner is ...
The most popular all-time post? That continues to be, in a cake walk, the October 12, 2010 post Betrayer of Worlds. It's hardly intuitive that the announcement of book four (of five) in the Fleet of Worlds series (with Larry Niven) should be so popular. My theory is that a page name that is a straight book title -- rather than my wont, a play on words incorporating the book title -- ranks higher in Google's secret search algorithm.

Number three, down a single peg from second place in previous years, is Trope-ing the light fantastic (life-sign detectors) (from February 25, 2009, about a particular SFnal trope). Does this post draw Star Trek fans? Biologists? I don't know. Other entries in my Trope-ing the light fantastic post series aren't as popular.

Ranked fourth (up from sixth a year ago), from February 11, 2011, we have Creative Destruction. That's another Lerner book title, drawing upon the concise description of capitalism by economist Joseph Schumpeter.

To those of you Googling the phrase "Creative Destruction" out of dismal-science curiosity, two comments. First, my Creative Destruction -- a themed collection of eight stories, ranging from flash fiction to a short novel -- deals with computer science. IMO, computer science is a primo example of Schumpeter's virtuous cycle of the better supplanting the no longer competitive. Second, beyond my techiness, I have an MBA.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Quoth the Gw'oth ...

I won't say nevermore—if only because never encompasses a very long time—but there are no plans for further novels in the Fleet of Worlds series. And so ...

Debut of the Gw'oth
I invented the Gw’oth for Fleet of Worlds (coauthored with Larry Niven); the little guys returned in three (of the four) sequels. As often happens with species- and world-building, much background is merely hinted at in the eventual story or is omitted entirely. That’s okay. I needed to understand the Gw’oth before putting them through their many-tentacled paces. Hence: four novels after their debut, some details about the Gw’oth remain untold.

I recently wrote "Alien Aliens: Beyond Rubber Suits" for the science side of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (see the April 2013 issue). The Gw'oth served in the article as an extended example of how an author might go about creating alien worlds and alien aliens.

If you read the zine (and if you enjoy hard SF, you really should), check out the article. And if you don't? Read on for an extract (slightly adapted) from the article for a peek at the science and thinking behind the Gw'oth.

But be advised: bits of what follows are spoilers for Fleet of Worlds (though not the remaining books of the series) ...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Of hacks and Higgs

The more things change, the more they remain the same ...

What hasn't changed? Chinese hacking of American infrastructure. What has changed is substantiation of something long suspected: that the Chinese government is behind the hacks.

From the Washington Times, see "Meet China’s super-secret military hacking unit:Chinese hacking team responsible for more than 141 cybersecurity breaches."
The findings come by way of a new report from the Virginia-based Mandiant Corp., which claims its "research and observations indicate that the Communist Party of China is tasking the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to commit systematic cyber espionage and data theft against organizations around the world."
 Another choice quote from the article:
Fox News says the "secret group" has hacked U.S. information at energy, aerospace and IT and telecommunication firms. Hackers obtained access to the likes of blueprints and contact lists, Fox News reports.
Before you discount these assertions as somehow tied to a conservative viewpoint, see, "Feinstein Statement on Chinese Military Hacking of American Targets." That's Senator Dianne Feinstein, (D-California), and an official statement from her senatorial office.
Beyond untold millions of dollars in economic losses, the latest attacks the report attributes to ‘Unit 61398’ does not focus on obtaining information "but obtaining the ability to manipulate American critical infrastructure: the power grids and other utilities."
Perhaps the US State Department will send China a concerned note.

Now here is something completely different that remains the same ...