Monday, December 29, 2014

Brave new world(s)

I'll be ending the year on an introspective note. We'll start with the state of cyber-vandalism (or -terrorism, or -warfare -- people's descriptor of choice seems to vary), which, better late than never, has finally reached mainstream awareness. But there's upbeat material, too: some truly awesome physics/space/astronomy highlights. I'll conclude 2014's posts with a personal item.

The recent Sony hack, attributed by the FBI to the North Koreans, and the associated (temporary) coerced pulling by Sony Pictures of The Interview, are getting all the headlines, but the cyberwarfare peril has been evident for a while. We found out last month that the Stuxnet worm was not one of a kind: "Meet Regin, Super Spyware That's Been Attacking Computers for Years."

Regin has been out in the digital wild since at least 2008, operates much like a back-door Trojan, and has been used against governments, internet providers, telecom companies, researchers, businesses, and private individuals, says Symantec. Regin affects Windows-based computers and operates in five stages, giving the attacker a "powerful framework for mass surveillance" and offers flexibility so attackers can customize the packages embedded within the malware.

While the following is a matter of (informed) opinion rather than quantifiable fact, consider the possibility that "Threat of computer hackers has reportedly superseded terrorism."

U.S. intelligence bluntly said this now trumps terrorism as the biggest threat to the United States.

“We are all very, very vulnerable,” said Phyllis Schneck, department under secretary for cybersecurity.

Schnecks runs the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber-Fighting Center.

Now for that promised upbeat material ...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy holidays!

Next week is soon enough for opining :-)

Happy holidays, all.

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 ...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Two worthy SFnal causes

I continue to be enthused that the Museum of Science Fiction is (with a bit of luck) coming to DC, to take its place alongside -- though not as a part of -- one of my favorite institutions, the museums of the Smithsonian. I've blogged before about MOSF, but it's been awhile. To remedy that lapse, here are a few recent highlights:

... the Museum has signed a partnership agreement with DC Public Schools and was approved by Reagan National Airport (DCA) to install the "Future of Travel" exhibit in mid 2015.

One of the coolest things happening w.r.t. MOSF is architectural, as in (reported by the Washington Post, "Contest seeks entries in science fiction museum design."

Seriously cool.
My architectural skills are exceeded even by my drawing skills, which are at the stick-figure level. (I paint pictures with words for a living, but somehow I can't see that technique extending to architectural renderings.) Hence I didn't enter MOSF's contest -- and it was just as well. I could hardly have competed with (at left) this winning vision.

Would you like to see MOSF open in Our Nation's Capital? Of course you would! Then consider the museum's ongoing fund-raising effort.

In any event, for more recent/complete museum news, check out MOSF's 3Q2014 progress report.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nanotech and starships and fusion, oh my!

Over a recent twelve-day period I:
  • gave a talk at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of many of their projects involved with nanotech.
  • took part in a 100 Year Starship Symposium and, in the process, was a panelist for Science Fiction Stories Night.
  • attended a lecture on the state of fusion energy research, cosponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the National Electronics Museum.
Six days out of twelve immersed in cutting-edge science. Some days, I just love my job :-)

So what was all that about?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Slightly larger Small Miracles

I'm pleased to report that my medical nanotech thriller, Small Miracles, briefly out of print (and also electrons), was just re-released in a classy, trade paperback edition. And that new edition comes graced with an eye-catching new cover.

Back in print
What's Small Miracles about? Well, I blogged about that in 2009 when the original HB came out ("Small Miracles") and again in 2010 when the mass market paperback hit the streets ("Real nanotech. Real medicine. And zombies."). But in a buckyball (a nano nutshell, if you prefer) Small Miracles is a near-future, post-human thriller based upon the amazing potential of nanotechnology.

Or, as SFRevu put it:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


That is to say, my energy-crisis, the-Russians-are-up-to-no-good, all-too-timely novel Energized was re-released today in its mass-market paperback edition.

In HB, PB, ebook, audio formats
A miscalculation has tainted the world's major oil fields with radioactivity and plunged the Middle East into chaos. The few countries still able to export oil and natural gas—Russia chief among them—have a stranglehold on the global economy.

Then, from the darkness of space, comes Phoebe. Rather than divert the massive asteroid, America captures it into Earth orbit to mine it for materials with which to build enormous solar-power satellites. Cheaply produced in orbit and able to beam vast amounts of power to the ground, these powersats offer America its last, best hope of avoiding servitude and economic ruin.

But special interests, from technophobes to eco-extremists to radio astronomers, want to stop the project. And the remaining petro powers will do anything to protect their dominance of world affairs. 

NASA engineer Marcus Judson is determined to make the powersat demonstration project a success—even though nothing in his job description mentions combating an international cabal…or going into space to do it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bit by bit

Today, a cornucopia of computing consequences ...

A calculating mind ...?
Last June I posted ("Less than meets the AI") about the program that "passed" the Turing test, and that this milestone seemed more a demonstration of natural gullibility than of artificial intelligence. Hence, I was pleased to read about an improved -- and more meaningful -- proposed test of a program's intelligence. See (from IEEE Spectrum), "Can Winograd Schemas Replace Turing Test for Defining Human-Level AI?"

Conceptually, the Turing Test is still valid, but we need a better practical process for testing artificial intelligence. A new AI contest, sponsored by Nuance Communications and, is offering a US $25,000 prize to an AI that can successfully answer what are called Winograd schemas, named after Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford University.

Here's an example of one:

The trophy doesn't fit in the brown suitcase because it is too big. What is too big?

The trophy, obviously. But it's not obvious. It's obvious to us, because we know all about trophies and suitcases. We don't even have to "think" about it; it's almost intuitive. But for a computer program, it's unclear what the "it" refers to. To be successful at answering a question like this, an artificial intelligence must have some background knowledge and the ability to reason.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The romance of physics

I recently streamed from Netflix (Amazon Video offers it, too) the 2013 science documentary Particle Fever. It's foremost about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), decades in the making, arguably the largest and most complex machine ever constructed by mankind. The movie is also about the long hunt for the elusive Higgs boson and the wondrous things that this elementary particle's discovery (and its specific properties, once fully characterized) might portend.

Literally awe inspiring
It's about the Standard Model of Particle Physics, one of the most successful theories in the history of science, and the even deeper insight(s) that might yet surpass it. It's also about conditions the briefest instant after the Big Bang, and -- at quite the opposite extreme -- about what the observed properties of the Higgs boson might imply about the end of the universe. And it's about whether even to speak of the universe is a misunderstanding, that (perhaps) we live, unknowingly, within a multiverse.

But beyond all these -- surely significant enough -- topics, Particle Fever is about the very human reasons why some of the brightest minds on the planet do physics. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lock In

The past week has been crazy busy for me -- and the next week(s) looks to be no different. I won't bore you with the details (or relive them myself). Instead, I'll share a little about the terrific novel with which I've unwound the past few evenings.

You'll get sucked in
John Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In, is a little bit of many things. But before the characterization, the set-up. In the near future a plague strikes, but rather than another zombie apocalypse, in a minority of cases -- still numbered in the millions -- the patients become entirely paralyzed. Not only can't they move, they can't speak. These victims are, in the vernacular, "locked in." Through technology -- surgically implanted, neural-net, brain/computer interfaces (here's my take on neural implants, from a few weeks ago) -- the locked-in connect with both virtual worlds and remotely operated humanoid robots.

And from that premise? A few thoughts, sans spoilers ...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The WWW (wild wacky world) of publishing

I don't care what subject material is involved, publishing is an interesting business. Even if an author is wholly committed to self publishing (I haven't yet gone down that road), it's a business to which he must pay attention.,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg
Hugh Howey is an author who is, at least in large part, committed to self-publishing -- and he's been very successful at it. (If his name isn't familiar, check out his dystopian novel Wool. It's excellent.) A few months back Howey posted an interesting essay contrasting the economics of self-publishing with that of traditional publishing. His essay opens:

It’s no great secret that the world of publishing is changing. What is a secret is how much. Is it changing a lot? Has most of the change already happened? What does the future look like?

The problem with these questions is that we don’t have the data that might give us reliable answers. Distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures. At most, they comment on the extreme outliers, which is about as useful as sharing yesterday’s lottery numbers [link]. A few individual authors have made their sales data public, but not enough to paint an accurate picture. We’re left with a game of connect-the-dots where only the prime numbers are revealed. What data we do have often comes in the form of surveys, many of which rely on extremely limited sampling methodologies and also questionable analyses [link].

Of course, if books don't survive, it won't matter if the medium was print or electronic. The Washington Post had an interesting essay on that very topic, at "Books are losing the war for our attention. Here’s how they could fight back." Among other things, it speaks of new technology to make ebooks easier to read:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

If it seems too good to be true ...

At the end of July news sites offered many breathless articles about a new space drive. And three weeks later? Not so much.

This, from Wired on July 31, was typical: "Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive." Or this, from ExtremeTech on August 1, "NASA tests ‘impossible’ no-fuel quantum space engine – and it actually works."

The (supposed) space drive at issue bounces microwaves around a specially shaped chamber, and in the process is said (somehow) to produce a net thrust in one direction. The nature of the impossibility? That the drive -- if it works as advertised -- violates conservation of momentum.

Physics has gone a long time with every bit of evidence showing momentum is conserved. Always.

Space drive: old school
Consider a traditional, chemical rocket. It relies upon Newton's third law of motion: that every action produces an equal but opposite reaction. The action: exhaust gasses streaming out behind the rocket. The reaction: the rocket itself moves forward.

Newer, ion thrusters forgo chemistry but exploit the same action/reaction mechanism. That is, they use electromagnetic fields to propel Xenon ions. In both cases, matter ("reaction mass") is expelled from the spacecraft. Momentum is conserved.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Biological bits and bites

Biology never ceases to amaze -- or, at least, to amaze me. How so? Life is hardier and more innovative than it's often given credit for. We humans included.

Time-traveling moss
To take one recent example, "Frozen 1,500-Year-Old Antarctic Moss Revived." Moss, as lowly as it might seem, is still multi-cellular. Its ability to withstand long-term freezing is a Big Deal.

Who knows? That wacky moss may offer clues how to freeze and revive people (outside of Futurama, that is). Some form of cold sleep is one way humanity might someday colonize the stars.

This moss can  claim credit for persistence -- but persistence is a quite different concept than eco-friendly. As an instance of persistent, eco-unfriendly life, consider that a "Methane-spewing microbe blamed in Earth's worst mass extinction." It is at least plausible that:

A microbe that spewed humongous amounts of methane into Earth's atmosphere triggered a global catastrophe 252 million years ago that wiped out upwards of 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

SF news, views, and reviews

"A writer shouldn't be punished for his political beliefs."

Is that controversial? Maybe so.

Before I explain further, a disclaimer: I haven't read the novel at issue. I can't say whether I'd love, hate, or be indifferent to it. I don't know whether I'd cheer its message or be horrified by it -- or whether, in fact, it has a message. I don't know (or know anything about) the book's author. I do, however, agree with the sentiment that "A writer shouldn't be punished for his political beliefs."
August 14-18, 2014
Why mention it here, in an SF post? Because the subject of the controversy is a nomination for the upcoming Hugo awards at this week's Worldcon. See "Politics don't belong in science fiction." The controversy is especially ironic given that fen often credit the genre -- and themselves -- with being open-minded.

Is it human nature to favor the work product of people with whom we agree? Sure. To shun the work product of those with whom we differ? Ditto. Can those instincts sometimes deprive of us literature, movies, TV ... that we might otherwise enjoy -- and that might even cause us to rethink our preconceptions? Also true. That's one reason I try to stay unaware of the political leanings of writers, actors, and directors.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's not as if this stuff matters

Oh wait. It does.

The Microsoft QA process
From last June, in the Department of Quality Software, "Patch Tuesday disaster breaks Office 2013 for thousands." Way to go, Microsoft!

Of course Microsoft doesn't hold the monopoly (heh!) on buggy, hacker-attracting software. From back in March comes this interesting statistic: "Report: Half of all exploits target Java." It could be just me, but buggy, exploitable products don't seem like the ideal way for Oracle to emulate Mr. Softy.

You practice good computer hygiene, don't you? You have a current security suite on your PC and keep its antivirus definitions up to date? Of course you do. Alas, from just last week, we read that, "Antivirus products riddled with security flaws."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fat chance

Have you been careful to: avoid eating too many eggs, cut back on butter, leave the cheese of your (shudder) turkey burger, substitute (for example) mustard for mayo ... in general, minimize your fat intake? Quite likely so, because, for years, the medical profession has encouraged us to eat lean. All the while, we find ourselves in an obesity epidimic.

Obesity incidence, 2010
Just maybe, the two trends aren't coincidental. See (from The Wall Street Journal), "The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease: Are butter, cheese and steak really bad for you? The dubious science behind the anti-fat crusade."

How dubious?

Critics have pointed out that Dr. Keys [leader of the influential early study; tireless advocate for the anti-fat crusade] violated several basic scientific norms in his study. For one, he didn't choose countries randomly but instead selected only those likely to prove his beliefs, including Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. Excluded were France, land of the famously healthy omelet eater, as well as other countries where people consumed a lot of fat yet didn't suffer from high rates of heart disease, such as Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. The study's star subjects—upon whom much of our current understanding of the Mediterranean diet is based—were peasants from Crete, islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.

As it turns out, Dr. Keys visited Crete during an unrepresentative period of extreme hardship after World War II. Furthermore, he made the mistake of measuring the islanders' diet partly during Lent, when they were forgoing meat and cheese. Dr. Keys therefore undercounted their consumption of saturated fat. Also, due to problems with the surveys, he ended up relying on data from just a few dozen men—far from the representative sample of 655 that he had initially selected. These flaws weren't revealed until much later, in a 2002 paper by scientists investigating the work on Crete—but by then, the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.

Does it matter? Yes, because the calories you don't get from fat must come from something else. In recent years, that's tended to be carbs.   

The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease. 

Sound familiar? 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Authorial updates

(11/11/14 update to this update)

For those of you who follow my non-blog writing, a few news items:

Thinking for a bit ;-)
Fools' Experiments, my 2008 technothriller of artificial life and artificial intelligence, has been picked up by Arc Manor for re-release in print and ebook editions. The likely availability date is sometime in January 2015.

Sometimes less is more
Small Miracles, my 2009 technothriller of medical nanotech, has likewise been picked up by Arc Manor for re-release in print and ebook editions. It was released October 7, 2014.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Well, the Dog Days are not quite upon us (at least as the Romans reckoned these things) ... but I'm there. Being ahead of schedule to procrastinate? Oh, the irony. Oh, the humanity!

You're there, too?

Then (and Safe For Work) I bring you ... diversion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Spacing out (again)

Because for space-travel-related posts, "Spacing out" is just too apt of a subject line to retire after a single use. (So would be: "Lost in Space.")

A Falcon 9 test launch
ANYway ... as NASA set its sights on a more caffeinated endeavor (we'll come to that), SpaceX continues to innovate. Their Falcon 9 launcher is impressive enough in its own right. Ditto their Dragon cargo capsule, used three times (so far) for deliveries to the ISS and being upgraded for crew rating. ISS cargo delivery flight CR3, involving that launcher and cargo capsule, also introduced a new element: a soft-landing test of the booster.

That test was successful. The demonstration represents a big step closer to reusable boosters, technology that will make a significant contribution toward reducing the too-high cost of putting anything (or anyone) into space. Not bad for a twelve-year-old company ...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Thinking small -- in a very big way

I'm fascinated by recent reports from both the grand laboratories and the ivory towers of modern physics. My guess is that regular visitors here will also find these items noteworthy.

One atom, "seen" via STM
Let's begin with the news that "Bose-Einstein Condensate Made at Room Temperature for First Time." At its most basic, a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) is the fifth state of matter, alongside solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

While the familiar four phases of matter (in the foregoing order) represent more and more energetic conditions -- until, in plasma, electrons come unbound from nuclei -- the BEC phase is a low energy phase. The particles in a BEC are so super-cooled that they collapse into a single, common quantum-mechanical state. That makes BECs (as I made use of them in InterstellarNet: New Order) a convenient phase in which to store and manipulate antimatter.

How can a BEC exist at room temperature? It takes being clever -- and even with cleverness, so far a BEC can only be sustained at room temperature for trillionths of a second. That may be long enough to make possible a new class of analog simulations.

Next up ... "Exotic hadron particles detected at CERN: Bizarre matter defies known physics."

"We've confirmed the unambiguous observation of a very exotic state — something that looks like a particle composed of two quarks and two antiquarks," study co-leader Tomasz Skwarnicki, a high-energy physicist at Syracuse University in New York said in a statement. The discovery "may give us a new way of looking at strong-[force] interaction physics," he added.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Less than meets the AI

A mere two weeks ago, the big, breaking news -- apart from the ongoing cascade of geopolitical woes -- was that (in this particular iteration, citing the Washington Post) "A computer just passed the Turing Test in landmark trial."

An under-appreciated genius
Alan Turing is perhaps best known for his role in cracking the German military's Enigma crypto system. Turing thereby -- at the very least -- shortened the war against the Nazis and saved many lives. He also established some of the foundational theorems of computer science. As for the subject/headlines at hand, he speculated, way back in 1950, about artificial intelligence.

Given that the experts struggled -- and still do -- to define intelligence, Turing's insight was (characteristically) brilliant. To wit: don't try to define artificial intelligence; describe its behavior. From which arose the famous Turing Test: if an artificial entity interacting with judges by text messages successfully masquerades as a human at the keyboard, then the entity, too, is intelligent.

Pay no attention to the computer behind the curtain

Such imitation served as the basis of many recent headlines. From that Washington Post article:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The neural interface you always wanted is (at least, could be) coming

I spent most of last week on Hilton Head Island -- I know: real hardship duty :-) -- but I was working. And having a great time.

I'm a member of SIGMA (which, despite all those caps, is not an acronym). SIGMAns are authors of hard SF -- but first (and in many cases, still) we were scientists, physicians, or engineers. We consult on matters of futurism, often -- where the public interest is involved -- pro bono. As the logo would have it, SIGMA is The Science Fiction Think Tank.

Bringing me to the just concluded Hilton Head Workshop 2014: A Solid-State Sensors, Actuators and Microsystems Workshop. The event's scope extends to -- though, curiously, the term is omitted from the name -- nanotechnology. Nor was this just any such workshop, but the 30th anniversary edition.
In addition to many a lookback, such as befits a major milestone anniversary, the conference organizers decided to bring in a few SIGMAns to look thirty years ahead. More than a few of our merrie band tossed their hats into the metaphorical ring. The four of us who went: 
  • SIGMA founder and onetime White House science fellow Dr. Arlan Andrews. 
  • Interstellar Woman of Mystery and twenty-year veteran at NASA, Stephanie Osborn.
  • Polymath and onetime manager at Aerospace Corporation, Boeing, and other interesting places (and longtime Byte columnist), Jerry Pournelle.
  • Your Humble Blogger.
Beyond my own high-tech career, I have to my credit nanotech-intensive novels and a novelette featuring both gnat bots and nanotech.

Eventually the big night came for the SIGMAns (and remember my subject line? This is where we get to neural interfaces) ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fate of Worlds redux

What we have here is bookends. (Also: a commercial announcement.)

Worlds without a star, hurtling through space ...

In a beginning ...
Fleet of Worlds, my first collaboration with Larry Niven, got rave reviews, was a Prometheus Award finalist, was a Science Fiction Book Club featured title, and -- though we wrote the novel to stand alone -- morphed quickly into a series. Most major-publisher titles these days come out in hardback, mass-market paperback, and ebook formats; I was delighted when, four years after Fleet first appeared, Tor Books reissued the novel in trade paperback format.

More aliens than you can shake a laser blaster at, nursing as many grudges ...

Amazon link, TPB edition
So: I'm yet more delighted that today -- not even two years after the original publication -- Tor Books is re-releasing Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld, the final book of the series, as a trade paperback.

Bookends, I say again :-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Brain food

It is in the nature of news outlets, whether online or traditional, to emphasize what has gone wrong, is in the process of failing, or could yet run off the rails. "You're okay, and chances are you'll stay okay," neither captures eyeballs nor sells newspapers to their shrinking audience.

I'm not in the news biz, but on this blog I, too, have sometimes paid more attention to black clouds than to silver linings. But there is good news. I sincerely believe that.

Home, sweet home
For one Big Picture look at why things aren't so bad, see (from The Wall Street Journal), "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out: Ecologists worry that the world's resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again.") A key quote:

... here's a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this "niche construction"—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature's bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.

Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter's tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can't seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.

All in all, it's a compelling look at two very different mindsets: economists vs. ecologists. Does either discipline have a monopoly on understanding the carrying capacity of the planet? I think not. But (IMO), the economist's view -- and millennia of progress in the human condition -- too often gets short shrift in old and new media.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hoist on my own prolificness :-)

At about this time last year, I was pleased to post (Faster than a speeding photon) about the recently awarded Analog Readers Poll awards, aka the Analytical Laboratory awards, aka the Anlabs.

Down the rabbit (er, worm) hole
Why pleased? Because my 2012 article ("Faster than a speeding photon: The Why, Where, and (Perhaps the) How of Faster-Than-Light Technology" had won in the science-fact category. After decades as a regular Analog reader and years as a regular contributor, the honor meant a lot to me. The year previous (i.e., two years ago), I'd tied with myself for second place in that same Anlabs category.

And this year's Anlabs?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Arcana and SFundry

Remember the Atari game console? How about the ET game that is widely credited with killing off said console? Well ...

Documentary filmmakers digging in a New Mexico landfill on Saturday unearthed hundreds of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" cartridges, considered by some the worst video game ever made and blamed for contributing to the downfall of the video game industry in the 1980s. ...

Atari is believed to have been saddled with most of the 5 million E.T. game cartridges produced. According to New York Times reports at the time, the game manufacturer buried the games in the New Mexico desert in the middle of the night.

Note hazmat gear :-)
See -- if you dare -- "Atari cartridges found in New Mexico landfill." Or, for the Onion's always amusing take, see, " ‘E.T.’ Video Game Cartridges Unearthed In New Mexico Landfill."

But wait! There's more!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Follow up ... the sequel

Last week (Follow (and foul) up), I took a second (or third, or maybe fourth) look at some hot issues of the day: Internet governance. American dependence on an increasingly aggressive Russia for civilian spaceflight -- and even launchers for military missions. The XPocalypse.

Today's post, although continuing a follow-up theme, is less connected with the mainstream news -- if no less consequential.

They're everywhere ...
In February, as part of "That does not compute," I wrote about the Internet of Things (IoT). Often, I write about hacking and computer-security issues. Just so you know: it's not only me concerned about the confluence of IoT and (in)security. A couple of choice quotes from Information Week's recent article, "Internet of Thingbots: The New Security Worry."
The IoT consisted of 20 billion devices in 2013 and will have 32 billion by 2020, according to the research firm IDC. The boom in IoT-enabled gadgets and sensors is a boon for hackers, whose device-focused attacks are starting to make headlines.
The race to push connected devices out the door isn't helping, either. "The big problem we're seeing these days is, in so many cases, people are rushing to get products out, and they're not putting the time and effort into really securing these devices up front," Morrison said. "It's not like we don't know how to do it; it's just that we're not doing it."
And many will be mobile
"Thingbots?" you ask. They may be closer than you think -- and not only Roombas scooting about to vacuum your floors (and terrorize your pets). Here's a video (courtesy of IEEE Spectrum) to make the case: "Watch SRI's Nimble Microrobots Cooperate to Build Structures." As in: 
 ... swarms of magnetically actuated microrobots that can work together to build macro-scale structures.
Not the kind of creatures you would want hacked.

(Not yet sold that the IoT is nigh? Internet-equipment giant Cisco is convinced -- and they're putting up real money to prove it. See "Cisco Drops $150M In Investment Funding For Internet Of Things Startups.")

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Follow (and foul) up

Today I'm going to revisit a few newsworthy events that have drawn my attention (and, on occasion, my ire). Because all is not well ...

The modern world
A mere four weeks ago, on April 8, the post "Wild and crazy (not always in a good way) stuff," included my latest distress about plans to relinquish American governance of the Internet. (For earlier facets of the Internet governance issue, from December 2012, see "The UN? Seriously?" and "Big Brother redux.")

Perhaps that unilateral abdication to repressive, censoring regimes won't happen, at least not yet. See, "Reversal: Obama may not surrender control of the Internet after all." Nonetheless, authoritarian encroachment into the onetime uncensored and global 'net grows apace. It's not only the Great Firewall of China. See, for example, from a week ago, "Google Warning on Russia Prescient as Putin Squeezes Web."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Where do you get your (crazy) ideas?

(A post especially for aspiring spec-fic writers.)

"Where do you get your (crazy) ideas?" It's the question that authors -- especially SF authors -- all dread. There is simply no short but useful answer. Our first course of action is to (try to) deflect the questioner with humor.

In 2011, I took a look at the topic in Inspiration. But after a serendipitous sighting (image nearby), the time seemed ripe for a revisit ...

This isn't my photo -- I spotted this road sign (on Virginia Route 28, just north of Dulles airport) while zipping past at about shh!/no-comment mph. But I felt confident that the web would provide. And sure enough ...

(An SF story practically writes itself.)

I probably don't want to know how SPNW85 did take this photo. Regardless, I'm glad s/he did. What SF author wouldn't?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cyber grief

!@%$##! Heartbleed bug! If -- somehow -- that term doesn't ring a bell, see "How to Protect Yourself From the Heartbleed Bug." Right now. Really, I'm not kidding. But do come back. 

(For a more technical look at the problem, see The Heartbleed Bug.)

Sigh ...
The Heartbleed-centric hit to productivity -- certainly to mine -- is staggering. On how many websites does each of us have an account that suddenly needs a new password? While you tally those up, don't forget every long dormant etail account in which you ever paid with a credit card, or with which you may have used a password you're still using elsewhere. Sigh.

It's the kind of thing that makes one wonder about using a virtual currency -- if the recent travails of bitcoin haven't already convinced you.

Unfamiliar with virtual currencies like bitcoin? Very briefly, a virtual currency is a digital asset class (a) created, maintained, exchanged, and stored by private parties outside the normal banking system (b) independent of government monetary authorities. 

A unit of virtual currency can be exchanged for conventional currency. Virtual currency can also be used directly (at only a few businesses, so far) to acquire goods and services. The most popular virtual currency is bitcoin, units of which are created by solving math problems. Virtual currencies exist only on computers, and so are subject to a variety of security risks -- as in, "Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies compromised by Pony botnet."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Going postal. Or: The stats, stat.

About three years ago I first compiled a list/overview of what were then the most visited posts here at SF and Nonsense. To my surprise, Postscript (or is that post post?) was itself instantly popular. It remains third on the all-time list.

And so, an annual tradition was born. 

Serious posts :-)
From a stats snapshot I captured a few days ago (thanks, Blogger!), here's the complete all-time top-ten list.

Of moons, clouds, and the state of the art(s), a general science-and-tech news post from August 2013, shot straight to the top of the list. I found these items interesting -- but no more so than news I've highlighted in many other posts. I offer no theories why this specific post is so popular.

(If any readers care to offer an opinion, that'd be keen.)

Number two, slipped from the lead position last year, is Betrayer of Worlds, the October 2010 announcement of a novel's original release. This novel being fourth in a five-part series, the persistent popularity of its post is also something of a puzzler.

Number three, as already noted, is Postscript (or is that post post?), the original posting stats.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wild and crazy (not always in a good way) stuff

It will surprise no one who often stops by this blog that I follow science news -- but that doesn't mean I get excited about every supposed finding. Perhaps that's because some reported results are made up. See, from Scientific American, "Publishers Withdraw More than 120 Gibberish Science and Engineering Papers." Because said papers were shown to be computer-generated nonsense!

Bigger than worlds
It should likewise be no surprise that I follow reports about hacking -- but this headline (from the IEEE) blew me away: "Hacking the Van Allen Belts: Could we save satellites and astronauts by wiping out the Van Allen belts?" I'd be loath to tinker with a system as little understood as interactions between Earth and its nearby space, but the possibility is fascinating. And I can see the case for restoring the Belts to their natural state before above-ground nuclear testing.

Because there are a lot of satellites. Don't take my word for it when you can see "Every single satellite orbiting Earth, in a single image."

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A mission of (anti-)gravity

More than sixty years after its first publication, Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (the pen name of Henry Clement Stubbs) remains one of SF's premier examples of world-building. Clement, a chemist, gave much thought to the physics, chemistry, climates, and biology of the fictional world Mesklin.

And a wondrous place Mesklin is, too. For valid -- if unusual -- reasons, its surface gravity varies from about three times Earth normal at the equator to hundreds of times Earth normal at the poles.
A classic
Mission of Gravity is also a great adventure yarn.

Last year's movie Gravity was very popular, widely praised, received ten Oscar nominations and just recently was awarded seven Oscar wins. It is, without doubt, an exciting tale. The cinematics are stunning. The crafting was meticulous.
The science, alas, is atrocious. You needn't take my word for it, since Entertainment Weekly has it covered. See, " 'Gravity': Panel of astro-experts on the science behind the film." I weep for the science adviser (whom, I suspect, is relieved to have gone unmentioned on the screen credits).
The ISS: it's BIG