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opinion rather than quantifiable fact, consider the possibility that "Threat of computer hackers has reportedly superseded terrorism."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.