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: