Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A potpourri

Given the widespread reporting on Google's self-driving cars and Tesla's recent foray into autonomous driving (and with a dollop of wishful disregard for recent incidents of wireless automotive hacking), you may have fond thoughts of upgrading sometime soon to such vehicular luxury.

Look, Ma, no hands!
Maybe think twice. Navigation and lane following may require only (comparatively) simple "narrow AI" tasks, the associated algorithms reasonably robust and perhaps nearing maturity. Not so, the ethical dimension of driving.

For example, suppose that a deer just darted in front of my car. Do I purposefully endanger myself by ramming the deer? Or do I veer, and in the process endanger pedestrians or other drivers? For a machine to make such judgment calls -- on a case-by case basis, in the split-second during which such decisions must be made -- would seem to require mastering general (aka, human equivalent) AI. See: "Why self-driving cars remain more science fiction than future."

Sorry if that was a downer. Here, let me make it up to you with some out-of-this-world (literally) news.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Spread the meme: Buy-a-Book Saturday!

Regularly since 2010, at about this time of year, I've posted about Buy-a-Book Saturday. That's my personal variation on Small Business Saturday: a day (specifically, the second day after Thanksgiving, and one day after retail's infamous Black Friday) on which holiday shoppers are especially encouraged to consider patronizing small businesses. The big-box stores and Internet giants will do fine this holiday season. But will your neighborhood stores?

Why the buy-a-book variant? Because what business is smaller than the author toiling away by him- or herself? Because, as I (and many others) post from time to time, the publishing business is becoming tougher and tougher -- especially for the authors. Because more than likely you're a reader, or else you wouldn't be frequenting this blog.

So: I'm suggesting you give serious consideration to books -- whether print, electronic, or audio -- for some of your holiday gifting. Friends, relatives, coworkers, your kids' teachers, the local library you support ... surely there's a book that's right for each of them. And for yourself, of course :-)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Robots and Descartes and Shakespeare, oh my! What's not to like?

Call it a poem. Call it flash fiction. Either way, the illustrated version of it is awesome. And trust me: that (hopefully evocative) subject line fits it perfectly.

And what, you ask, is it? "I Clink, Therefore I Am." Surely a copy of this poster belongs on the wall of every English lit student -- and teacher/professor -- you know. Ditto every student and teacher/professor of robotics. They just don't (yet) know they need it.

Just a hint ...

(Hmm. I might also, with the slightest of tweaks, have added a detail to the setting and subtitled this "The Merchant of Venus." But I digress.)

As you will by now have inferred, I have dipped a toe -- by proxy, through the auspices of Sci Phi Journal -- into merchandising. The words are mine, and the meter Shakespeare's. The art is by the massively talented Cat Leonard.

It can't hurt to look. Right? Check out the poster (or T-shirt, or travel mug, or iPad case, or ...) at Red Bubble.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

2015 best reads

I read a lot. Often 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 zombies are concerned -- isn't the easiest way to sell one's own works). Many evenings, it's for relaxation. On many an occasion, it's for two or all three reasons. If I finish a book, it has -- at the least -- been useful.

This post looks at the handful(ish) of books I read in 2015 (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." In a couple of cases, they're books that I reread this year.

Presuming that you visit SF and Nonsense because you appreciate my take on science or technology or fiction, you might find, in the post that follows, books you (and like-minded friends, relatives, etc.) will also enjoy. (And FYI, every cover is an Amazon links.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Look! Up in the sky!

It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's astronomy, man.

Lots of exciting stuff is being spotted (or is looked for and not spotted, or is wondered about) in the vasty deeps over our heads. Read on ...

MOL (artist conception)
From time to time over the years, I've encountered short, vague references to a USAF space-station project, the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL). This recent article is, by far, the most information I've ever seen: "The Real Story of The Secret Space Station." Like the contemporaneous Apollo program, the motivation was international politics. It turns out that MOL was unaffordable and potentially destabilizing. As to the former point:

By the time President Richard Nixon finally cancelled the MOL in 1969, it had gobbled up more than $1.5 billion—$10 billion in today’s dollars—and was on track to consume 17 percent of the Air Force’s annual research budget for years.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Whoa! Tachyons!

As in ... I did not see this coming.

A bit over a month ago, I was delighted to discover (see A(n inter)stellar start to the day) that my latest novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, was a finalist for the inaugural Canopus Award for interstellar-themed fiction. The award aims to recognize "works that contribute to the excitement, knowledge, and understanding of interstellar space exploration and travel."

The awards were, well, awarded Friday evening October 30. I wasn't able to attend, but I prepared a few remarks just in case. And -- mirabile dictu -- I woke up this morning to read that InterstellarNet: Enigma had won!

Here's what I sent to the emcee to read if lightning struck:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Today (only?): more science; less nonsense

I'm seldom an advocate for more regulation, but there are exceptions. The proliferation of drones, and the lack of enforcement for the few drone-centric regulations that do exist, brings me to exception territory. Drones free to interfere with civil aviation -- intentionally or not -- is a Certified Bad Idea. And so, I was pleased to see that "Federal regulators to require registration of recreational drones."

No rules. How scary is that?
Consider merely these few excerpts:
Pilots of passenger planes and other aircraft are reporting more than 100 sightings of or close calls with rogue drones a month, according to the FAA.
Nobody knows exactly how many of the robotic aircraft are already flying around, but most estimates top 1 million.
U.S. hobbyists are projected to buy about 700,000 drones this year, a 63 percent increase from 2014.
Here's hoping the FAA succeeds in getting registration in place before holiday gifting. The first step toward enforcing rules is knowing to whom the rules apply -- and those folks knowing it, too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Strange but true

I spent way too long last week configuring a new PC (aka learning -- doing battle with -- Windows 10). That makes today a good day to recover a bit of time by posting from my stockpile of accumulated SF and Nonsense-relevant esoterica.

Too often, how we all feel
Is the problem that I haven't been getting enough sleep? In simpler times, before much in the way of artificial lighting, did people evolve to need a lot of sleep? Say, to need the oft-recommended eight hours per night? Well, maybe no one ever got that much sleep. See (from Reuters, via Yahoo News), "What a nightmare: sleep no more plentiful in primitive cultures."