- A guy is working on 3D printing with molten steel, via TIG welding.
- I’m really good with words. Maybe that’s why a college friend said 40-odd years ago: “The trouble with you, Jeff, is that you’re too damned happy!” Everything is connected, I guess, and now there’s science indicating that human language is biased toward happiness.
- More research on ice ages: They may be made possible by the isolation of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by the Ithsmus of Panama. (Full paper here.) I’ve heard this before, but there’s more data behind it now.
- Some recently discovered fossilized poop in Spain suggests that I’m not really a Neanderthal after all. Bummer.
- I’ve always been of two minds about Mensa, for reasons I really can’t talk about here. Now there’s a Mensa dating site. I think I’m of three minds about that. Maybe five.
- There’s an exploitable software flaw in the Curiosity rover, stemming from arcane math in the Lempel-Ziv-Oberhumer compression algorithm. I hope the rover isn’t running XP, or (judging by the hype) it would have been totally pnwed since April 10. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- This guy says he could tornado-proof the Midwest with a couple of 1,000-foot-high walls. Me, I say, implement STORMY. Then stand back.
- Meditation may not always be the unalloyed good that its proponents insist it is. I’m researching this further and will do a full entry on it at some point, as it’s a matter of serious interest to me. I have a theory that meditation is only one half of a single effective psychiatric process, and without its other half it can aggravate psychosis and even cause a drift toward schizophrenia.
- Here’s a terrific collection of photos of steampunk gear from Dark Roasted Blend. Follow the links to the mechanical calculators page if you haven’t seen it before. (It’s old, and I linked it from here some years back.)
- DRB publishes periodic “feel good” collections of visual odd lots that are mostly 50s and 60s nostalgia. Here’s the latest. Too many actresses, not enough classic cars. But if you like classic actresses, well, wow.
- I’ve been gone for two weeks, and the pile is still pretty high. So let’s get to work:
- There are now three million Raspberry Pi boards in the world, and counting.
- This chap has designed one into a tablet. Not too surprising, as the original SoC device was created for smartphones.
- Here’s Todd Johnson’s solar triple thermoacoustic engine. I immediately asked, “What’s the physics here?” and Todd, being the consummate physicist, provided the link. Spooky cool.
- From Craig’s Lost Chicago: Photos of many extinct Chicago restaurants, some famous, some very obscure. I’m a little surprised that I had been to so few.
- Which led directly to Craig’s Lost Toys. Doesn’t list Mr. Machine, but does have a photo of the Puffer Kite in its original packaging.
- Another look at Chicago’s past: How Chicago Rocked the 60s.
- If you have any interest in the pulps at all, definitely take a look at the Pulp Magazines Project, which has legal scans of a great many pulp mags, including lots in the SFF category.
- Here’s another, similar archive for comics, with the difference that, although free, you have to create an account to access the books. May still be worthwhile if you’re big on comics. (Thanks to Stuart Anderson for the link.)
- Sounds like Facebook echo chambers to me: Groups promote anonymity, diminish personal responsibility, and encourage reframing harmful actions as ‘necessary for the greater good.’ (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
- The forms are in place. The new roadbase fill has been leveled and compacted, and the rebar laid. Concrete should be here in less than an hour. Damn, we’re ready.
- Here’s a concise (and hilarious) summary of everything wrong with science journalism, which is (alas) pretty much everything.
- If the human mind can’t be modeled, it can’t be emulated. Which makes me wonder what sort of non-human intelligence we may be able to create computationlly, and whether we’d recognize it as intelligence if we did.
- One of my very favorite scientists, the Vatican Observatory’s Dr. Guy Consolmagno, said four years ago that if aliens come to Earth and ask to be baptised, the Church would be happy to do it–but only if they asked. There are theological questions here: Would all aliens be subject to original sin? Would each world have its own Incarnation? James Blish explored this a little (if in a rather 50s way) in A Case of Conscience . Now Pope Francis has apparently reiterated it on the Vatican news site.
- Students remember lectures better when they take notes in longhand. I’ve noticed this effect myself, and it’s real. The article suggests that writing notes longhand requires you to process information before writing it down, but that’s true of keyboarding as well. I admit I don’t take a lot of longhand notes anymore, but it’s also true that keyboarding and presenting aloud seem to use entirely separate parts of my mind. (I tried to write a story once by dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking…and it just didn’t work.)
- In crafting parody, I’ve run afoul of Poe’s Law more than once. Far too many people are so dumb they can’t detect hit-you-with-a-shovel sarcasm when they see it. (Thanks to Jim Mischel for the link.)
- I just ordered this. Will review when I’ve had a chance to devour and digest it. Fat has certainly been good for me, judging by my weight and blood numbers since I stopped fearing it.
- Coffee is good for eye health. Isn’t it?
- Wine is a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and a whole lot less romantic. Nay, it’s industrial, almost…urban.
- And still more reasons to view so-called studies with extreme caution. If you want to pass off an agenda or some sort of ideological/political/hate campaign, the best way to do it these days is hang a sign on it that says, “Trust me! I’m Science!” (Thanks to Damon Smithwick for the link.)
- And if you’ve ever used a graph to try to prove something, this may give you pause. (Thanks to Roberta Crownover for the link.)
Just about everybody in the free world was disgusted by this news story, which describes a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy with learning disabilities who was arrested and threatened with a felony for recording a video of several bullies who were taunting him. Go back and read that again. The school did nothing to discipline the bullies, but wanted to make a felon of the victim. The Wrath of Net then fell upon the worthless school, and without admitting what they’d done, they were kind enough to let the vicious, special-needs student slide. For filming the bullies who were tormenting him.
What the hell is going on here?
My first thought was that the bullies were school sports heroes. We inexplicably idolize jocks, and cut them a great deal of slack even when they’re being insufferable jerks. Ending team sports in schools would go a long way toward eliminating this problem, as I’ve suggested before. Well, I thought about it a little more and changed my mind. No, there’s more at stake here. Much more. And this is one time where I could have predicted it 22 years ago, but didn’t. My bad.
Back when I was editing PC Techniques/Visual Developer I wrote a number of editorials describing my vision of the computing future. I scored a few hits and a fair number of misses. I pretty much predicted Wikipedia in 1994. In 1992 I also predicted wearable computing, in the form of the Jiminy, a lapel-pin computer with 256 cores and 64 TB of storage. The Jiminy has imagers, and enough storage to record literally weeks of video. And all I could think to do with it is create a P2P network for passing queries around.
Silly boy. Readers tut-tutted my failure of imagination, and in the next issue of PC Techniques I went far beyond the Jiminy, and in an essay called “Computers, Like Dirt” I postulated free-range imaging nanocomputers the size of dirt particles. I don’t have that editorial OCRed and laid out yet, but here’s the last 200 words:
“Naked” nanocomputers will certainly have their uses. Imagine a device the size of a particle of dirt with one face an image sensor. The rest of the device is a bucket-brigade image storage system that stores millions of images, clocking in a new one every second, or minute, or hour, in effect taking “movies” lasting hours, days, or years. Now imagine untold trillions of these little camcorders released into the environment and carried by the winds to every corner of the earth.
No matter where you go, the very dirt on the street is taking your picture. Even in your own home, the dust that Mr. Byte tracks in watches your arguments, your deceits, literally your every move, at 5000 X 5000 resolution.
Want to solve a crime? Go back to the murder site and dig a thimbleful of dust from several points, and you’ve got millions of movies of the murder as it happened. Rob a bank and the dirt on the floor convicts you. Cleanliness is statistical; no matter how clean an environment, the dust is there somewhere.
Nanocomputers could make it impossible to commit crimes of any sort undetected…or to keep secrets of any kind at all. Virtue imposed by the dust on the wind: How’s that for an endpoint to the evolution of computing?
Scared yet? I wasn’t back in 1992…probably because I assumed I’d be dead long before anything like this came about. But now we’ve got Google Glass, dashcams, copcams, and lots of other mechanisms that basically do nothing but sit around taking pictures all…the…time.
This is what the schools are afraid of. And as much a critic as I am of knuckleheaded public school administrators, I can almost feel their pain here. Nearly everybody has some bitch about our schools and colleges, all of them different, but every one a complaint. The schools are afraid we’ll sue them for doing something, or doing nothing, where “nothing” and “something” embrace everything. Nor are lawsuits necessary. If thousands of students each with hundreds of friends begin to engage in Internet vigilantism, the schools cannot help but lose, and lose big. If every student has a Jiminy on their lapels and a legal right to take pictures of everything that goes on around them, there will be no dodging administrator or teacher misfeasance or malfeasance. Even if the schools get such things outlawed (which they will desperately try to do, and in some places like Pennsylvania they already have) illicit videos of bullies and misbehaving admins or teachers will reach the Net and thus become eternal. Education as a whole would change radically.
As would a lot of other things, few of which I (or anyone else) can predict. I may leave it to your imagination. I will go out on a limb and postulate a quieter, more deliberate, and much more polite sort of world, because no behavior could ever be reliably hidden. I doubt it’ll happen while I’m still around, but by Jiminy, we’re moving slowly but inexorably in that direction. Better behave, guys–because everybody will be watching.
- Have you ever wondered what the analemma looks like on other planets? There’s an app for that.
- If you want to cover screwheads or other elements of a laptop that would be disturbed by tampering, use glitter nail polish, the less common the better. The tampering may still happen, but glitter nail polish isn’t easy to fake, and at least you’ll know that it occurred.
- More evidence that the better part of our modern diet consists of…lies. (Thanks to neil Rest for the link.)
- The Atlantic reminds us of the 40-year war waged on coffee by Mr. C. W. Post of Post cereals, who was trying to build the market for his caffeine-free dirt-flavored cereal beverage Postum.
- Speaking of the devil, Lileks did his signature treatment on Mr. Coffee Nerves some time back. People drank a lot of coffee in the 50s to counteract all the booze that was going down the hatch to keep them from killing one another wholesale. That decade was not Arcadia. It was psychotic.
- Why did good always trounce evil in Middle Earth? It may have been the bad guys’ vitamin D deficiency.
- The government of El Salvador has released a boggling video of Salvadorian volcano Chaparrastique, just before and after its recent explosion.
- Michaelangelo’s grocery list…with illustrations, natch. (And does this remind anybody else of the handscript style used in the Voynich Manuscript?)
- A collection of science fiction postage stamps. (Thanks to Ernie Marek for the link.)
- These semi-fossilized English words escaped total fossilization by hiding inside popular idioms. The list lacks “ilk,” which sounds like it should an obscure human organ, or even a breed of horse. (Thanks to Gwen Henson for the link.)
- Both MIT and ETH Zurich have made some cool cubical robots that move and balance using flywheels. Ha! I did this in the first chapter of The Cunning Blood: I had gas-turbine powered mechanical dinosaurs that moved (twitchily) by pinching several internal flywheels under the control of a fluidic computer.
- Ceramic squirrels don’t injure people. Crazy people holding ceramic squirrels injure people. No one evidently cared what happened to the ceramic squirrel. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- $10,000. Software written in Pascal. Windowing interface remarkably like the Xerox Star’s, on which I’d been trained the year before. I spent a wistful hour putting it through its paces at a nearby computer store in Rochester, NY. I’d just spent $4000 on a CP/M system three years earlier, and didn’t have another $10K lying around. Nice retrospective on poor Lisa, who never got the respect she deserved. Market niches matter, and it’s not always possible to create your own from the quantum vacuum.
- Solar Cycle 24 is definitely double-humped, and its second peak could well be peakier than the first. This doesn’t make it a strong cycle, by any means, but we thought the whole deal was over after the first peak in 2011. Not so.
- An amateur telescope maker in Utah bought a 70″ spy satellite mirror at a scratch-and-dent auction and built the world’s largest amateur telescope.
- I haven’t written aliens into my SF much, at least since I first thought deeply about the subject in college. This is part of the reason. I had planned out a story in which Earth contacts an alien race with so old and rich a culture that their language consists of context-sensitive metaphors within similes within puns within knock-knock jokes. I never wrote the story because I could never figure out how to crack the problem.
- Your graphics card is getting faster, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll even notice. I think this is what the term “diminishing returns” was coined to describe.
- From the Major WTF File: One of my readers sent me this link, and I’m still trying to figure out what these creeps are up to. I’ll post a separate entry on it when I have a little more time to research it. But look yourself up: I’d like to hear about it if you’re on there too.
- Little by little, people are starting to figure it out: Fat will make you lose weight and keep you healthy. Sugar will f*(&ing kill you.
- I was told by a cardiologist 20-odd years ago that gum disease was related to heart disease. It seemed like a stretch at the time, but since then I’ve seen a number of studies indicating that it’s true. Floss, don’t infarct!
- Slate has a short piece explaining what makes a continental breakfast continental. What made me laugh was an embedded Key & Peele bit in which Peele delights in discovering Fruit Loops at his hotel breakfast counter, as though they were rare treats. Bartholomew Stypek does the same thing in Ten Gentle Opportunities: “Carolyn had gifted him with sacks of delicacies that any nobleman in the realm of Ttryngg would kill for: Doritos, Cheetos, Pringles, Ruffles, and sweets baked by elves.”
- The Marines are about to begin hunting Somali pirates. If I were a Somali pirate, I would be thinking about early retirement.
- Cities, like ogres and onions, have layers. The deepest and oldest of those layers can be forgotten by all but a few. Here’s a marvelous quick tour of the some of New York’s less visible layers. No ogres. We hope. (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
- Blasting away on a book project that I’ll tell you about when the publisher announces it. One thing fersure, it’s certainly reminding me what I’d forgotten.
- Your brain takes out the toxic trash while you sleep. Short your brain on sleep, and the trash piles up. Let it pile up enough (particularly beta amyloids) and you could put yourself on the fast track for Alzheimer’s. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
- I described a coffee-station sized version of this, controlled by a hipster AI, in Ten Gentle Opportunities.
- Oh…and a blood-powered computer. Reminds me of another book I wrote once. Ok. It’s not blood. It’s “blood.” But still… (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.)
- Apple’s iCloud system has been cracked. It’s true that anything can be cracked. But I’m still convinced that it’s harder to crack stuff located down here than it is for stuff up there.
- Intel now has a competitor to the Raspberry Pi, the Galileo. It’s compatible with most Arduino shields and the Arduino software development environment. The board is based on the Quark microarchitecture, which is somewhere south of Atom and aimed squarely at the mobile device market. The board will be generally available to hobbyists by the end of November, for about $60. More on Ars. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for poking me about this; I knew but have been too busy to mention it here.)
- Very nice site on Earth’s cryosphere, which shows sea ice extent and much else. Antarctic ice is in good shape and growing. Arctic ice is a tougher call. It’s down from the 70s but looks to be coming back.
- There is a hoarder house so full of vinyl records that the collector ended up sleeping in his car. Hey, is there an undiscovered hoarder house full of variable capacitors somewhere?
- There are a number of reasons I don’t read Time Magazine. This may be most of them.
- Maybe it’s a triple-humped solar max. Or maybe Old Sol is just having some fun with us.
- Here’s why the Russians didn’t beat us to the Moon.
- If you f&$!*!ing love science, you should f&$!*!ing hate how we do it in this country.
One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.
Or is it?
Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.
Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.
In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.
It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.
To do that, you need ideas.
For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)
When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.
This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.
I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.
I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?
As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.
That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.
- Yes, I’ve been away from Contra for longer than I’d like, and the Odd Lots have been piling up. Some of that away was necessary for my sanity, and was spent by the pool at a resort in Phoenix, where Carol and I discussed things like the wonder of a single-celled organism that is 10 cm long. The secret appears to be evolving superior organelles. Bandersnatchi, anyone?
- While I was gone, someone released a new OS for the Raspberry Pi: The Pidora Remix. It’s basically Fedora for the Pi. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll flip another SD card out of the drawer soonest and burn an image. Man, you have to run like hell just to stay in one place in this business.
- The Raspberry Pi’s main competition, the BeagleBone, now has a 1 GHz ARM Cortex A8 version that ships with a Linux 3.8 kernel. BeagleBone Black supports the Linux Device Tree, which does a lot to decouple hardware details from the kernel. Looks terrific–now all it needs is an installed base.
- I noticed a system resource draw-down when I had iTunes installed on my old and now electrocuted quadcore. The software took a lot of cycles and memory, even when it didn’t appear to be doing anything. The discussion has come up on Slashdot. (The poster also mentioned Rainmeter, which I tried once and found…ok.) I try to run a lean system here, and I frown on things that want services, tray icons, and 15% of my cycles all the damned time. (The Dell Dock does precisely that. For showing a row of icons. Sheesh.)
- Amazon is setting up a new markeplace for short fiction, with a twist: It offers to share revenues on fan fiction with the authors of the original items. It’s unclear how many authors will accept that, but I would, like a shot. (I guess all I’d need are some fans.) In truth, Jim Strickland and I talked in detail some years back about opening up the Drumlins World to all authors who’d care to tell a story there, without even asking for money.
- Clinical depression may be linked to sleep cycles, which appear to have a genetic basis. How to fix this is unclear, but I’ll testify that depression in the wake of losing Coriolis laid waste to my sleep habits for a couple of years. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
- The Man Who Ploughed the Sea may soon be mining it…for uranium. I’d cut to the chase and just mine it for gold, so I can buy more ytterbium for my Hilbert Drive. Alas, there’s less gold in the oceans than we thought (1 part per trillion) and not much more ytterbium (1.5 parts per trillion) so maybe I should just extract the uranium (3 parts per billion) and make yellow pigments to sell on Etsy.
- I’m not sure I buy this, but it’s an interesting speculation: That the Younger Dryas cold snap was triggered by a smallish asteroid that crashed…in Lake Michigan. Click through for the maps if nothing else. My favorite Great Lake is deeper and more complex than I thought.
- Save the apostrophe’s! (From a fate worse than dearth…)
- And save us, furthermore, from new Microsoft technology that counts people in the room watching your TV. Because having more than one person watching a TV show or movie rental is…is…stealing!
- 3-D printing is still in the stone age (and the Old Stone Age at that) but if we don’t allow berserk patent law to strangle the kid in its crib, wonderful things will happen once 3-D printers are no longer CNC glue guns. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- I’m starting to think that 3-D printers like that will soon make one-off repro of small plastic parts like the ones at the center of kites practical. I guess the challenge is somehow getting the precise shape of the part into a file. If I weren’t trying so hard to be a novelist I would probably have a 3-D printer already. For the moment I’m glad I didn’t jump as soon as I otherwise might have.
- Speaking of CNC…and guns: Plastic guns are dumb, dangerous, ineffective, and basically a stunt that seems designed (probably in Autocad) to make politicians say stupid things and make enemies. The real issue is cheap, portable CNC machines capable of cutting metal. That horse is out of the barn and beyond the horizon.
- I don’t think I’ve announced it broadly yet, but I am now agented, for both fiction and nonfiction. Either is a first for me, and it may make any number of things better on the writing side.
- This isn’t glaciation, obviously, but having been researching the coming Ice Age for a year or so now in the service of a Neanderthals novel, I was riveted: A calf-deep wave of ice fragments advances across the land like a cross between Jack Frost and The Blob.
- One way to solve the Raspberry Pi stuttering keyboard problem is to use a wireless keyboard/mouse set. The one I have (the Logitech MK520) works beautifully. Stutter gone. (The high road, of course, is to power everything, including the RPi itself, from a wireless hub.)
- Microsoft has offered B&N $1B for the entire Nook business, including the readers and all facets of the B&N store. This says a lot less about Microsoft than it says about B&N–none of it good.
- Here’s an inside look at a dedicated bitcoin mining machine. Now, could the same box mount a brute force attack against password hashes?
- A bunch of do-it-yourself Muppets present ten reasons why time travel is no good.
- I’ve discovered a spectacular new cheese: Uniekaas Black Label 3-year-old gouda. (Scroll down.) Bears about as much resemblance to the gouda I knew as a Porsche does to a Trabant. Pair it with any dry red; I’ve had it with Middle Sister Rebel Red and Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel. Actually, it pairs well with Real Sangria. Or, for that matter, whole milk. Sheesh, even dead air. We get it at Whole Foods. Try it.
- Still another voice calling for an end to team sports in schools. Team sports are how we teach high schoolers that alpha males can do whatever they want to the people below them on their ill-begotten ladders.
- Want another reason? The most highly paid state employees in nearly all states are…college sports coaches. And we all know how “college” college sports are.
- Watch out, Colorado. Here come the pot machines.