Archive for the ‘Science & Tech’ Category

Boskone 49!

February 23rd, 2012 No comments

I’m not sure how I’ve lived in Boston for seven years and had never been to Boskone before this year. Maybe the frequent laments from the fan community that this con ain’t what it used to be kept me away. I shouldn’t have listened. Boskone still attracts some people you really want to hear sharing their ideas, as evidenced by the day of panels I went to on Saturday, February 18.

The Highest Frontier (cover)

The Highest Frontier (J. Slonczewski), a Luna-as-Ark novel

First up was Occupy Luna with Vince Docherty, Allen M. Steele, Ian Randal Strock, and Alexander Jablokov. The panel topic was how to create a progressive, non-coercive society on Luna. I had high hopes for this one, and while it was a really interesting panel, it didn’t generate a lot of discussion of the central topic. It touched a little on anarchocapitalist/libertarian versus anarchosyndicalist/anarchocommunist ideas about what a Lunar society could look like (Lunar offshore banks vs. energy collectives, for example). But the discussion got bogged down in correcting misconceptions (mostly voiced by the audience) about the technical details of founding a Lunar colony.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time learning about this, I found the discussion of topics like why doming Lunar cities wouldn’t work to be kind of a snore. I’d like to see a discussion like this again — maybe with the moderator working more to keep it on political topics.

I did catch one interesting book mention: Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier (right), a post-climate change Luna-as-ark novel. (Slonczewski was on a panel about climate change later in the day; read on).

The next panel was The Year in Astronomy & Physics with Mark L. Olson, Jeff Hecht, and Guy Consolmagno. Topics ranged from FTL neutrinos (debunked two days later!) to the recent banquet of exoplanet data we’ve been getting from the Kepler and other sources.

The data on exoplanets we’re not getting disrupts current models of planet formation. The long-held model of how Earth’s solar system formed from a stellar accretion disc explains why we have small terrestrial planets and metals close to the sun, with gas/ice giants, silicates, and water ice farther out. Finding exoplanetary systems that look nothing like this has called that model into question. At the same time, it offers tantalizing possible explanations of  things like why Mars is so small and why Uranus and Neptune have unusual orbits. Astronomers are only in the first stages of puzzling out what it all means, though.

Brother Astronomer, by Guy Consolmagno (cover)

Brother Astronomer, by Guy Consolmagno

My favorite person on this panel was Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteors at the Vatican observatory, so later in the day, I went to his solo talk, Discarded Images: Astronomical Ideas That Were Almost Correct. Wow. If you ever get a chance to see this guy talk, jump at it. He’s a font of knowledge, from stories of bartering with shadowy European collectors for access to their privately held meteorites, to tracing the winding path to a heliocentric view of the solar system. He’s also a Jesuit, and by the end, I wanted to go up and wish him Good Apert to see if he got the joke.

Next up was How Not to Produce an E-Book with Stephen Segal, Neil Clarke, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. This panel was mostly a technical download, and while I could have learned a lot of this stuff if I got off my butt and googled it, it was good hearing opinions on the various technologies out there from people who’ve been doing it successfully.

I’ll post what I learned on this panel next week. Clarke in particular had a lot of good info to share.

Under the Moons of Mars (cover), edited by John Joseph Adams

Under the Moons of Mars, edited by John Joseph Adams

After lunch, I hit up John Joseph Adams’ reading from the new Under the Moons of Mars anthology. I’m a sucker for this one; I loved the John Carter stories and went back to them when I was working on Mars for Eclipse Phase. This antho will definitely be on my to-get list (it’s got a Peter Beagle story!), although unfortunately it wasn’t on sale at the con.

Adams chose to read the story Three Deaths by David Barr Kirtley. It’s a tale told from the perspective of a green Martian who loses a fight to John Carter, and it’s pitch-perfect.

After that was the panel Environmental Rearguarding: What to Do After It’s Too Late, with Alexander Jablokov moderating, Jorin T. Kare, Jeff Hecht, Tom Easton, and Joan Slonczewski. The topic was great: how do we adapt, and even profit, if climate change gets completely out of control? Unfortunately, both the panel and audience seemed more interested in talking about ways of stopping climate change. Hey, I love the progressivism of sci-fi, too — but I wanted to hear more about evil profiteering! Jablokov kept trying to steer the panel back that way, but it didn’t take. Oh well. I learned some interesting stuff from the engineer on the panel about proposals for seeding clouds with various albedo-raising substances (some of the proposals were crazy — pipeline to the clouds, anyone?).

The audience for this panel tripped one of my pet peeves. Please, don’t be that person who sits in the front row and tries to have a dialog with the panel. It’s just rude, both to the panelists, and to the rest of the audience. I don’t care how knowledgeable you are. And if you’re a panelist, don’t enable this behavior. You might think you’re being nice, but you’re not doing anyone any favors.

I finished off with Creating Worlds for Online Gaming, with Brianna Spacekat Wu moderating, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter H. Hunt, Timothy P. Szczesuil, and Margaret Ronald. I’d meant to avoid gaming panels (especially a month before PAX), but the panel I was originally going to had really loud filk right next door. (A pox upon filk — and also upon anime credit music singalongs, which seem to be the younger generation’s equivalent). Although I picked up a lot of interesting information about the gaming biz, my favorite part of this panel might have been Hunt, a voice actor, discussing how he had one recording session that was nothing but him grunting thirty different ways to simulate the character getting beaten on in combat.

Beyond panels, the con had a decent-sized huckster room, where I somehow managed to contain my book addiction long enough to make it to the door.

So I’m not sure why rumors of this con’s demise still circulate. It might be smaller than it once was, but I won’t be missing it next year.


Support Wikipedia

November 18th, 2010 No comments

Wikipedia doesn’t ask for donations very often, so when they do, I take notice. Consider supporting the Wikimedia Foundation. I use it every day, and I’m sure a lot of you do, too.

Support Wikipedia

Everything is Clickable: Guest post on

July 9th, 2010 No comments

Augspace: making life larger

Today, ran Everything Is Clickable, part two of two guest posts I wrote on augmented reality. Part two (running today) speculates on applications we could see over the next two decades and includes a short (and very optimistic, for me) speculative piece on what kind of AR apps we might see in the next two decades. Part one focuses on present day AR applications.

These posts are part of a series called Shareable Futures. The other guest posters and interviewees include Corey Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Paolo Bacigalupi. I highly recommend checking out their posts, too.

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Never Mind Flying Cars…

December 4th, 2009 No comments

Where’s my Permanent Undercaste of Developmentally Limited Slave Workers?
(And Other Failed Predictions from the Annals of Science Fiction)

Science fiction is littered with the failures of writers who should have known better to accurately predict the future… But it’s even more littered with the failure of reality to keep up with their warped ideas. Here I shall consider a few of my favorites.

Permanent Undercaste of Developmentally Limited Slave Workers
Brave New World

A knowledge work job for life, constant lusty adulation from lower caste members of the opposite sex, after work orgies, free drugs, and a workforce of fetal alcohol syndrome hobbit monkeys at one’s beck and call… Who wouldn’t want to live in Huxley’s world?

Moralizing neo-cons, that’s who!

As someone who’s devoted a lot of thought to transhumanism lately, I have to say that this book remains a challenging one. In some ways, Huxley’s argument in Brave New World looks like the sine qua non for people like Francis Fukuyama freaking out about the H+ movement. While we don’t have the technology to do some of the things described in this book yet, perhaps the intention is there? I do hope so, because it would be a vast improvement over the Epsilons-Shopping-at-Walmart stories people on the Eclipse Phase Facebook page came back with as soon as I took up this line of thought.

Pretty People Forced to Wear Hideous Masks to Make Them Average
Harrison Bergerand

Leaving the most recent Lady Gaga video aside, Vonnegut’s parable of an average American Übermensch forced to wear myopia-inducing goggles, a racoon coat made of metal racoons, and a grotesque mask hasn’t played out as advertised. As anyone in human resources will tell you, above average people are valuable. Your best approach is to put them in offices where all the C students don’t have to look at them, stack their workload so high that their brains don’t work much better than Harrison Bergerand’s Dad’s at the end of the day, and pay them enough to behave. After just a decade of this treatment, the combination of repetitive stress injuries, office chair-related back pain, and fat rolls sprouted from years of drinking and poor diet normally add up to the same handicaps forced upon Bergerand… no mask required!

Really, Kurt, you were over-thinking the problem.

Soviets on Jupiter (or Luna, or Mars, or Anyplace, Really)
2010: A Space Odyssey

Mr. Clarke, get real. The Soviets’ played-out, oppressive social regime and internal instability meant that they couldn’t get to the friggin’ Moon, let alone building a space ship capable of travel to the Jovian system.  Oh, wait… Americans can’t, either.

How embarrassing.

Reduction to the Status of Chattel for Women (May Substitute White People, Academics, Gun Lovers, Mormons, or Whatever Freaked the Author Out Most)
The Handmaid’s Tale

Although I actually think LDS paranoia about being oppressed for wanting to have lots of babies a la Ender’s Game is more entertaining, I’m including Margaret Atwood here because she’s such an ivory tower Henny Penny about being described as a science fiction author. Get over it, Margaret; no one’s going to force you to show up at Worldcon. It’s almost as silly as Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry freaking out about being called a goth band. Also, Ken MacLeod wrote a novel about talking squids in space, and it was fucking awesome, so you shut up.

I was going to write something about alarmist, overwrought narratives posing as plausibly framed social commentary, but look, I just ended up going off on Margaret Atwood for a whole paragraph instead. Whatever, moving on…

Food Pills
The Jetsons

I tried to make these when I was a kid by taking white bread and squishing it into the densest little dough bullets I could. When you added peanut butter and jelly, it didn’t work so well, but I’m sure modern food technology could do better than an eight year old with a rolling pin and time on his hands. Never mind that compressing a full meal into a pill would result in a pill that weighed about half a pound. The demand is out there. “But the Jetsons was a cartoon,” you protest. Pish tosh! Serious sci-fi writers kicked this idea around, too. Of course, if they had kicked an actual food pill they would have probably stubbed their toes badly and discarded this idea right quick.

Absurdist Totalitarianism

The failure to appear of a preposterously Kafkaesque state where interrogators wear weird baby masks and dissidents get hung in garment bags aboard mobile armored hall closets would mark Terry Gilliam as one of sci-fi’s dimmest lights in the art of prediction, if not for the abject lack of imagination it displays on the part of the oppressive regimes we already have. Really, if glue-huffing African child soldiers could work out that neon wigs and women’s clothing would freak the fuck out of their opponents, you’d think the meatheads at Abu-Gharaib could have come up with something better than scaring people with dogs and making them form naked human pyramids. They could have been using, I don’t know, creepy octopus masks or something. Were I an Iraqi detainee, I’d pretty much poo myself instantly if some crazy white man dressed like a cephalopod came at me with a list of questions.

Unreliable Experimental Medical Procedures That Make Mice and Retarded People Smarter
Flowers for Algernon

Sadly, this is not a widely explored trope, but that’s okay, because Keyes had it in the pocket.  The key implication of his idea, though, has not inspired the type of vigorous exploration that, say,  virtual reality did. Which is too bad, because if you could perform an operation to make mentally retarded people more functional, just think of how you could improve all of the people who are technically of average intelligence but do stupid, stupid things all of the damned time.

And think of all the incidental spin offs you’d glean from the massive amount of human experimentation along the critical path to reach this outcome! It’s clearly a winner.

So There You Have It
Quit snoozing, reality, and try to keep up.

Liveblogging Maker Faire Rhode Island

September 21st, 2009 No comments

Sean Bagge\'s Yellow SubmarineSaturday I went to Maker Faire Rhode Island and liveblogged the event from my jeejah. Here’s a hashtag search that brings up most of my tweets. For some reason, search cuts off some of my tweets (and I forgot to hashtag the first few), so here they are:

Makerbot 3D PrinterThis was a great start for a first Maker Faire, and with all the wonderfully innovative minds out here, it was high time the Northeast threw one. I haven’t been to Maker Faire Austin, but this was a very different affair from the San Francisco event. The most noticeable difference was the scale of the inventions on display. The San Francisco Faire is notable for the presence of a lot of big Burning Man art. Out here, far from Black Rock City, the gadgets on display were no less cool but tended to be smaller (and fewer seemed designed to amuse tripping burners — although the REM inducer on display by the soldering tables looked straight off the Playa).

Whoever figured out how to coordinate the Faire with one of Providence’s Waterfire weekends was a genius. Unlike the San Francisco event, which is ensconced off in the San Mateo fairgrounds, the Rhode Island Faire took over an entire square and the streets radiating out from it in downtown Providence, meaning that thousands of casual passers by got to wander into the event, learn, and participate. The weather cooperated nicely, too. Of course, the SF Faire is big enough that it needs its own space and doesn’t need as much publicity, but the point is that it would have been very unfortunate if the first northeast Faire had been tucked away in a building out of the public eye.

Big Nazo robotAll in all, this was a great time, and I even had a few minutes to stop for tacos at AS220 (an awesome & more permanent feature of Providence) before getting back on the train for Boston.

I did try to credit all of the Makers when photographing projects. If I shot your project and didn’t include your name, please let me know, and I’ll make sure to update this post to give credit.

Finally, I’ll pass on some information I picked up:

  • For info on building open source 3D printers, visit MakerBot.
  • To download and share digital designs for fabricating physical objects, check out the Thingiverse community (and get your reputation economy on).

Photos (top to bottom): Yellow Submarine by Sean Bagge, DIY 3D printer by Makerbot Industries, Huge Foam Skeletal Robot Costume by Big Nazo. (All taken by me).

Indie rocketry on the Black Rock playa

August 1st, 2009 No comments

Rocketry in the Black Rock Desert (photo by Steve Jurvetson of the Photo Synthesis blog)Burning Man? Yeah, sure, it’s nice… but these photos and videos by Steve Jurvetson of the Photo Synthesis blog (whose name is just three letters off from “Jetson”) made me wish my Playa experience involved more rocketry and fewer exploding oil derricks. The post linked to here is full of rocket porn and geeky stats. Jurvetson is associated with a group called Rocket Mavericks, who appear to be the exact opposite of burners — except for the drive to build crazy but impractical stuff and then play with it in the desert. Their photostream is plenty of fun, as well. At one point I was very skeptical about the idea of civilians marshaling the skill and resources to conduct space launches, but the rocket pictured here apparently has six times the thrust of most cruise missiles. These folks are hobbyists, but it shows that the game is changing.

“Happiness is Earth in your rear view mirror.”

Thanks to Aunt Emma for alerting me to this one.

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