Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holidays have you stressed out?

Some science-and-technology-centric items to make you smile ...

New Age stress relief
Let's begin with the "2014 Holiday Gift Guide: IEEE Spectrum's annual roundup of gifts for techies." It's not intentionally funny, but a few of these items are, IMO, a bit over the top. Thermal smart-phone camera? Smart-phone-controlled personal drone? For the techie who has darn near everything and too much time on his/her hands.

Still stressed? Then check out "10 Science Jokes for Nerds." How many of them did you get?

Monday, December 8, 2014

InterstellarNet redux

Before the big news, some context and introspection ...

Return with me to 1999. Salaried, professional day job or self-employed author? That wasn't a decision to be made lightly! I had long enjoyed writing as a hobby, and had had some success with it, but how would I like writing full-time? Would what I wrote sell? Techie that I am, I needed data. And so, as an experiment, I went on sabbatical. In 2001 I returned to a day job -- at which point I knew I'd rather write. I've been writing full-time since mid-2004.

I spent much of my sabbatical dreaming up the InterstellarNet: its technologies, alien species, constraints, perils, and fun puzzles. (As you might imagine, InterstellarNet is a radio-based community of nearby solar systems.) During that time I finished four InterstellarNet novelettes, selling three to Analog and one to Artemis. One of the stories made it into a Year's Best anthology. I also started an InterstellarNet novella that, finished awhile later, sold to Jim Baen's Universe. The success -- and fun -- of these stories played a large part in my career decision.(*) Years later, it gave me great pleasure to novelize these five stories as InterstellarNet: Origins.

(*) To be complete, I had a second, unrelated impetus: a 2004 book contract. This was my second novel sale, for Moonstruck, and it demonstrated that selling Probe, my debut novel, hadn't been a fluke.
Once I gave up the day job for good, one of the first things to which I turned my attention was a yet more ambitious InterstellarNet project: a novel. It first appeared in Analog as the four-part serial A New Order of Things. Updated and expanded, that novel became the book InterstellarNet: New Order.

All of which is to say, I have a soft spot for the InterstellarNet. A few years ago, InterstellarNet again drew me in. The immediate consequence was "The Matthews Conundrum," an Analog novella that made it to both the Locus and the Tangent Online recommended reading lists for 2012 and was a finalist for best novella in the annual Analog readers poll.

And with all that personal history as prologue ...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Books to savor, 2014 edition

I read a lot. Sometimes it's research for my own writing. Sometimes it's as competitive analysis (re-plowing the same ground as other recent books -- except, apparently, where vampires are involved -- isn't the easiest way to sell one's own works). Many evenings, it's for relaxation. Sometimes it's for two or all three reasons. If I finish a book, it has -- at the least -- been useful.

This post is limited to the handful of books I read in 2014 (which isn't to say they were all written this year) that rose beyond "useful" and even "memorable" to "I remember this fondly and can well imagine rereading at a future date."


Last year at about this time (Books to knock your socks off ...), I praised Neal Stephenson's epic historical and cryptological novel Cryptonomicon. This year the top of my list is Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. This is eight books, originally published in three volumes, comprising one multi-decade, world-spanning, wildly ambitious saga, that is -- among many things -- the story of centuries-earlier ancestors of main characters in Cryptonomicon. At about 3K pages, The Baroque Cycle is not an undertaking for the faint of heart.

The Baroque Cycle is a rollicking tale of natural philosophers (whom nowadays we call scientists) and alchemists; vagabonds and kings; odalisques and countesses; soldiers, pirates, and galley slaves; and many more -- with more than a few characters taking more than one role from that list. It's a tale of revolutions and restorations, religious strife, philosophical conflicts, professional rivalries, the rise of capitalism, and wars and colonialism and slavery.

The story unfolds across Europe (in London more than anywhere), the Barbary Coast, Egypt, India, Japan, New England, and New Spain. It's variously a secret history (with events running from roughly 1660 to 1714), an alternate history, a bawdy tale, a stirring adventure, and, from end to end, erudite and witty. It's chockablock with names you know from history (Newton, Leibniz, Louis XIV, various kings and pretenders of England, the Duke of Marlborough, Peter the Great -- and countless others so well described you'll be endlessly checking Wikipedia to ascertain who's real and who's fictional. It ... well, words fail me (as they evidently never do Neal Stephenson). The best analogy I can draw, and it's high praise indeed, is to John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor.

If you find this description intriguing, check out The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

But wait! There's more! Even after The Baroque Cycle I (somehow) found time to do other reading.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Buy a Book Saturday (and Sunday, and ...)

(Updated November 29, 2014)

Woohoo! Thanksgiving is upon us! Turkey. Stuffing. Cranberry sauce. Pie. Repeat. 

And every bit as traditional, shopping. Me, I'd just as soon that commerce wait till after Thanksgiving Day. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are surely soon enough to start. Between those two now-iconic shopping days comes the recent innovation of Small Business Saturday, meant to encourage holiday purchases that support merchants in one's own neighborhood.

Beginning in 2010 (Buy a Book Saturday), I've allocated at least a part of a post each year at this time to supporting a particular sort of small business: authors laboring away in the privacy and solitude of a home office, den, or other cranny. No matter that they likely aren't a part of your geographic neighborhood, assuming you're a reader -- that's why you visit this blog, right? -- wherever books are prepared is part of your spiritual neighborhood. Why not support small business and nurture your soul?

As I put it in 2012:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Genre-ally speaking

So, what's new in SF?

First off, what's old is new again. By most rankings of such things, 2001: A Space Odyssey is among the greatest SF films ever. Its trailer? Not so much -- but that's being fixed. Over at Entertainment Weekly, check out "See the new trailer for '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 46 years after its release."

What rankings, you ask? Here's one. Forbes (of all unlikely venues), in response to the recent big-screen release of Interstellar, offers, "Top 10 Best Space Travel Films Of All Time."

I've yet to see Interstellar and -- especially after the scientific travesty that was Gravity (see my April post "A mission of (anti-)gravity" -- I'm conflicted about trying another Hollywood SF blockbuster. Certainly I'll wait till Interstellar is available through Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. And if I hadn't already had my doubts, this, from io9 would have decided the matter: "Stop Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction." As in, duh, love is not a force of nature like, well, gravity.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This wild universe

The universe is a strange and fascinating place, about which we continue -- in fits and starts, two steps forward and (hopefully only) one step back -- to learn. Consider a few recent items:

Remember Toon Town?
"Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions."

A newly begun experiment will, just maybe, ascertain that we're all toons. See (from the University of Chicago, one of my alma maters), "Do we live in a 2-D hologram? New Fermilab experiment will test the nature of the universe."

A knotty bit of string theory
String theory is a discipline within physics that set out (among its modest aspirations) to unify the nuclear strong force, the nuclear weak force, and the electromagnetic force with gravity. For decades, having failed to come up with any testable hypotheses, string theorists have struggled to show their subject is anything more than fun with numbers. They're trying yet again. See "M-Theory Repositions: Now You Can Thank Us For Quantum Mechanics Too."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Chocolate overdose?

The theme that came to mind for this week's post was clearing out miscellaneous and sundry. Sorta kinda like finishing up the Halloween leftovers. They (the  candy, not the eclectic post topics) can't lead me astray after they're all gone, right?

Let's begin with a seriously cool new computer design. As in, "HP’s New PC Can Project a Touchscreen Onto Your Desk." With this configuration, maybe Windows 8 does make a smidgeon (say, one M&M's worth) of sense for a desktop computer.

In addition to acting as a second screen projected onto the surface where your keyboard would normally be, Sprout’s camera/projector mount—dubbed the “HP Illuminator”—also acts as a scanner. The touch mat also has a special coating that renders it invisible to its cameras during scans. You can place documents or objects in front of the computer, scan them with the Sprout’s 14.6-megapixel and depth-sensing Intel RealSense cameras, and then use the multitouch mat to move those scanned objects around and resize them. That work is done in HP’s own Workspace software on the machine, but the company has released an SDK for app developers to tap into those scanning and input features.

You gotta magnify
As Douglas Adams expressed it (like everything else) so well, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." And if you doubt, consider that "This is what North America would look like on Jupiter."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Progress comes of looking in the dusty corners

Climate-change assertions notwithstanding, there is no such thing as "settled science."

No, this isn't a post about climate change, neither for or against, convinced or skeptical. But I'm not above -- before I move on to today's main topic -- a crack against those (not typically scientists) who believe anything in science is ever proven. What science can do is:

(a) propose theories (read: models, aka simplified representations) of reality useful for solving problems and making predictions in particular circumstances and

(b) refine -- or refute -- theories as their shortcomings and limitations become clear, or as conflicting data show up.

(A favorite Einstein quote, after which I promise to come to the point: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”)

A brief history of time and space
Thus Newton's simple and elegant seventeenth-century theory of gravity sufficed until astronomers and physicists began theorizing about extreme conditions (e.g., in the vicinity of black holes) and were able to make increasingly precise observations (e.g., to discern in nineteenth-century observations the deviations between Mercury's actual orbital motion and the predictions of same from Newtonian theory).

These and other difficulties were resolved a century ago with Einsteinian gravity theory -- aka General Relativity. A century later, after many tests have been performed to poke and prod GR theory for limits to its accuracy and applicability, theorists look for alternative models (see Alternatives to General Relativity) and experimentalists continue to test GR's predictions and implications (see "Tests of general relativity").

And with all that by way of stage setting, let's have a look at some recent peering into the dusty corners of our physical understanding of the universe ...