Thursday, January 28, 2010

Endlessly circling

The latest NASA news ... I don't object to maintaining the space station for a few years after we (finally!) finish building it. I do object to aborting the effort to return to the moon. And to writing off the $9B spent on the latest effort at a lunar program.

One has to wonder: did humanity peak with the Apollo program?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Live! From New York! It's ...

Well, truthfully, it's recorded and from Raleigh, NC -- but it is  video.  And (in my not exactly objective opinion) it's something very neat: my first televised interview.

Stacey Cochran, the host of the literary show The Artists Craft, and I discussed my recent novels Small Miracles (mostly) and Fools' Experiments, but we also touched on other aspects of my writing.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Year of Science redux

2009 was the Year of Science, through the cooperative vision of many leading national science organizations. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my thoughts about YoS's 12 monthly themes (and if you're curious, check out this tag). All in all, count me as a fan.

And so, I was delighted to see that the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science the umbrella group behind YoS, is extending their efforts into the new year.

One of the new efforts is The Inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival, to be held in my (generously defined) backyard, in Washington DC. It's scheduled to be a two-week  event -- I am eager to learn more. 

I like to think that the new event's overlap with Capclave, the DC area's annual science-fiction convention -- this year, October 22-24 -- isn't coincidental. Of course I also like to think country-fried steak is a health food. Even the hardest of hard SF authors needs a bit of fantasy :-)  

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The gang that couldn't program straight

Among my thoughts about the Christmas underwear-bomber incident was this: won't our government ever learn how properly to develop software?

It's inexcusable to hide behind a name misspelled in a database. It's the nature of international databases to have transliterated names -- nothing new. Phonetic comparison software is likewise nothing new. For one example, see Soundex.

It's similarly inexcusable to attribute the security lapse to the size of the database in which the adverse entry for  Abdulmutallab appeared (rather than in the smaller No Fly list). 550,000 entries? How many billion records does the IRS routinely handle? The SEC? Any large company? Data mining is hardly cutting edge anymore.

In my novel Fools' Experiments (2008) a main character obsesses on the need for a better way to develop software:  He says:

"... Modern society has deployed most of the easy applications of computers. We've done all the basic automation. What is left is mostly too complex for mere real-world mortals. We're starting to see the tragic results: one day, an industrial robot accidentally crushes a worker; the next day, computerized hospital equipment electrocutes a patient. We can't write new programs as fast as we need them. We can’t prove the correctness of the programs we do manage to produce.

"Let me pose the issue another way. We rely increasingly on the data plane of existence, as much as on the biological and physical planes. Our approach to exploiting the information ecology, the data plane, is classically human: We create a program to do our bidding. Homo sapiens is, after all, the premier tool-using animal -- and the only tool-using animal to move beyond sticks and stones.

"Too bad that building tools is a flawed approach. In evolutionary terms, it's been a simple experiment, and after a short trial, it is already failing us."
Last Christmas, bad programming really did fail a planeful of people when it allowed Abdulmutallab aboard that airplane. 

Is anyone at Homeland Security looking at software development beyond the old bad ways? For all our sakes, I  hope so.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Eyewitness to history

I wish I could claim that phrase for myself, but I can't. 

Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, Harvard Press, is an absolutely fascinating book -- and yet not one to read from cover to cover. It is better to browse, and sample, and savor.

Carey has assembled something unique: snippets of reporting from 430 BC (Thucydides on the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War) to 1986 (James Fenton on the fall from power of Ferdinand Marcos). The book holds more than 250 eyewitness accounts, from every imaginable time and (Earthly) place in between.