Friday, March 30, 2012


First, read the article:

I am really, really tired of stupid DRM. And very tired of hearing about video game DRM that forces people to have an active broadband connection to play a single player, standalone game. I suppose, nobody cares about the people who don't have good internet at home. Or about people who want to play these games on their high end laptop during a long-distance flight or on a long train journey (although in some countries wi-fi is available on trains, its inevitably a paid extra).

Which brings us, really, to the entire reason DRM is stupid. It makes the legally purchased version of something worth less than a pirated copy. It IS possible to compete with free...but not if the paid version is distinctly inferior.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: Children of the Sky

Anyone who knows me well knows that I consider Vernor Vinge to be one of the leading active writers of science fiction. The man is brilliant.

His best work in my opinion...and that of many the vibrant space opera 'A Fire Upon The Deep', which won a Hugo and a Nebula and stands out as Vinge's masterpiece and one of the best science fiction books ever. (Sure, it's all subjective, but...) In it, he created the fascinating Tines, the peculiar cosmology of the Zones of Thought and some marvelously detailed characters, both human and alien.

So, I was at once excited and wary to hear that he was finally producing a sequel. I finally got around to reading it.

First of all, this is a true sequel. If you have not read A Fire Upon The Deep you need to before reading this (actually, you just need to). If you have not read it for years, you need to read it again. Vinge does not waste time recapping and assumes everyone read the first book. Which is perfectly fine except...

Okay. Children of the Sky is a really, really good book. It might even be a great book. It is not as good as A Fire Upon The Deep. The problem is nothing more than even Vinge is having difficulty following himself on this one. Don't get me wrong, I loved it. It's just not quite its predecessor. It was great to see the Tines again.

(The Tines are pack people. No, they don't live in packs...each one is a pack...a gestalt mind. They are perhaps the most awesome aliens ever. They also, thank you cover artist, do not look a dang thing like wolves in jackets. Thank you again, cover artist. Yes, I do have a distinct peeve about cover artists who apparently did not read the book, or even the notes provided to them, or weren't provided with any notes, or...yeah. The Tines look like a cross between dogs and seals or, less charitably, 'giant rats with snake necks').

Also, be warned. The book's ending makes it clear that there will, or at least should, be a book three in the offing. Of course, three is the magic number. So...we'll see.

I still highly recommend this and give it four and a half stars.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We are starstuff

This article - - refers to simulations that strongly support the hypothesis that life on earth began out there.

Specifically, it appears that amino acids can survive the impact of the body carrying them with a planet. This probably means that if we find life on another planet in the solar system (a couple of the moons in the outer system remain promising) it will be based on the same amino acids as Earth life.

It could even mean that the amino acids are universal (which would mean that colonists on another planet might be able to eat the native life, assuming it's not poisonous, but would also mean that bacterial infections could be passed from ecosystem to ecosystem).

I've long believed in the comet seeding theory - nice to see it is at least feasible.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Harry Potter... electronic format. Finally. For those who like to not have to carry books around (and some of the HP books are amazingly huge for YA). They will only be available through the Pottermore website for now, though. (And I don't blame her for avoiding distributor cuts).

It says something about the way the industry is right now that this took as long as it did.

Monday, March 26, 2012

More technology

I'm a little short on ideas today, so I'm going to share this:

It's a slide show showing some interesting ideas in the prototype stage, some of which could be something else again. I particularly like the car-charging highway. (Although I would note it has a downside...some people might drive to exhaustion if they don't have to stop for gas).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Fast worlds

Consider this: The fastest macro-scale objects in the universe may be runaway planets, some of which have been clocked at 30 million miles per hour. That's about .1c...a pretty respectable pace.

These runaway planets are being slingshotted out of our galaxy.

How about a society or a culture that ends up, deliberately or otherwise, going along for the ride. Or, consider this...what about a society or a culture from another galaxy that ends up here by that means.

And how fast could a lighter object that slingshots around a black hole go...such as a ship?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Medical technologies

The US military wants diagnostic medical nanites so that sick soldiers can be spotted quickly. (The majority of military casualties are illness, not injuries).

NASA has smart implants that release anti-radiation drugs when exposure hits a certain level.

How close are we to the dream of a system that monitors your health, warns you if something is not quite right and even automatically treats common problems?

Then we have a device that allows paraplegics to maneuver in a standing position...that they can get in and out of without help:

Things are getting pretty amazing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Way too hot...

Reduced productivity plus sleep deprivation. Gah. I want air conditioning already. It really is hard to work when you're sweating like a pig.

I have this love/hate relationship with spring, between the fact that the landlords almost always switch to air at least one week, often two, AFTER I need it and my allergy to cherry blossoms (planted on every block).

Spring used to be my favorite season. These days, its most definitely Fall.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Patents and Trolls

This is a bit of a rant.

I am very, very tired of our current patent system. You can't copyright an idea as opposed to a story, so why can you patent an idea as opposed to a specific method? Of course, patents are quite different.

Patent trolls are the big issue right now. The latest one is taking aim at Facebook and Zynga and claiming to basically own the idea of using in-game currency or virtual currency to buy in-game items. It's a shell company.

So. Here are my suggestions for patent reform:

1. In order to file for infringement, a company must demonstrate that they have the direct intention to use the patent themselves. No more patent sitting. You don't have to be using it today, but you have to be able to point to what your R&D department is doing to support using it tomorrow.

2. Infringement suits can only be filed within a reasonable time of the start date of the infringement. No pulling out twelve year old patents and trying to use them to extort money out of people. Let's make it a year. You snooze, you lose.

3. Reforming the idea of obvious to catch up with today's technology. Touch screens are obvious. In-game transactions in video games are obvious. Things that are too basic to be patented have changed a lot since the law was written. If it is impossible to conduct a particular kind of business without it, then it can't be patented. We have, after all, anti-trust laws in this country. Let's stop people using patents to get around them.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Undeserved Failure

I tend to avoid opening weekends. I don't much like crowds and long lines. This time, I'm regretting it, because had I gone to see a certain movie opening weekend...

Let's just say...some movies flop that deserve it. Others succeed when really they deserve to fail (generally sequels).

Sometimes a movie fails that really deserved to fly.

I'm talking about John Carter. I would add the caveat that I have yet to read the books (something I really should fix). Why is this movie not selling tickets like they are going out of style? Why are so many critics hating it?

When I watch a movie, I pull it apart. It's in my nature. The slightest thing can throw me out of it. I often leave the theater with a list of six to eight things (if it's a good movie) that I would have changed...scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor, science errors, special effects stupidities, etc. I left John Carter with two.

Two 'mistakes' in the entire movie. The first was that they made Phobos and Deimos way too big. The second was that Lynn Collins' lenses were far too bright - they looked fake. I did notice a couple of other things, but those only came to mind after serious contemplating and active searching for errors.

Taylor Kitsch was a brilliant Carter. He's an action star and it shows, but he did a very good job. I'd also give a shout out to Daryl Sabara for a perfect young Rice Burroughs. Oh yes, and Lynn Collins was a bad-ass Princess Dejah Thoris (I have to wonder if she's as bad-ass in the books...Nobilis, I know you've read them).

The special effects were something else again. It's rare to see female aliens that are instantly and recognizably female...without the artists giving them mammary glands. Oh, and Woola is completely adorable. He could easily have become this movie's Jar Jar, but somehow they avoided it. The visuals of Mars itself were incredible. I saw the 2D print, but have been told the 3D one was even more out of this world (I didn't waste money on the 3D because it was a conversion, but they seem to be finally cracking conversions that look good).

Yet, it was enough of a flop that the planned sequel listed on IMDB will almost certainly never materialize. It did better overseas, but not well enough to recoup it's $250 million price tag.


Part of it is that it was panned by critics from the start. Yet, I read some of those bad reviews, and what struck me is this: People simply are not getting this movie.

We've all seen Mars at this point. Or so we think. What we've seen is pictures from tiny rovers that show us boulder littered plains with no grasp of the real landscape. We translate their viewpoint to ours. And we 'know' that Mars is lifeless, airless and almost certainly never had anything beyond maybe plants, if it was really lucky.

Have we become so sure about the scientific reality that we can't set it aside, suspend our disbelief and return to Barsoom? Before the first landings, nobody was quite sure that Barsoom did not exist. People could still dream of it and hope for it. Perhaps we've lost that ability now.

Or is it that we write different science fiction now, more rigorous, more bounded by the possible? I think that it's very important to realize that Burroughs did not write in that milieu. His Barsoom is pure fantasy, a dying, beautiful world that is somehow clearer than our own. It's not the Mars we's the Mars we wish had been. And it's a Mars carrying a message...about racism, about love, about courage.

To too many people, though, it is cheesy. Ludicrous. Unrealistic. Most people forget that science fiction is not about the future.

It's about the present. Or, in this case, the past.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A pet peeve

As an equestrian, I often get tired of and frustrated by people who simply don't understand a certain Medieval tradition.

The tradition is the woman holding her husband's stirrup as part of seeing him off to war. Most of the pictures and descriptions of this have the woman standing there in her finery, delicately turning the nearside stirrup so the knight can get his foot in it.

No, no, no!

When you hold somebody's stirrup, you stand on the offside of the horse and quite firmly pull down on the opposite stirrup. The point is to keep the saddle from slipping when the person gets on. If you're getting on from the ground or mounting a tall horse (or one with low withers) this is very important. It's not some little ceremonial's for the safety of the rider and the comfort of the horse.

So, if you're describing that particular scene please, please bear that in mind. (Medieval women were not delicate flowers, either...)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The first thing I'm going to say about this book is consider getting the Kindle edition. Not because its cheaper, but because like so much of Stephenson's recent work, this book is, well. Huge. It's over a thousand pages, making the hardcover not something you want to haul around unless you're a two hundred pound weight lifter.

Also,  Reamde is not science fiction. Let's get that out of the way first. You'll find it on the science fiction shelves solely because it's by Neal Stephenson. Possibly next to Cobweb, which is also not science fiction. If a mainstream thriller writer had written this book, it would be on the thriller shelves. It's a techno-thriller, plain and simple, and is much more about people chasing each other with guns than new technology.

Is there technology? Yes. There's a computer virus and some of the action takes place in a sophisticated MMORPG named T'rain. As far as I know nothing quite like it exists, but I saw some of the ideas in MUDs twenty years ago.

Reamde is not science fiction because there is no new technology. Everything in this book either exists or could be put together without any scientific innovation at all. It's not cyberpunk either. It's a long, complicated thriller with a twisting plot and some interesting characters.

If you accept it at that premise, it's good. Not great, but good. It's not Snow Crash, but it definitely has its moments and I personally preferred it to the conlang intense Anathem. As thrillers go, it is a little slow and I'm not sure it needs to be 1000 pages, but it is a lot of fun. Just don't take the hardcover version on vacation. You might end up paying excess baggage fees.

I'm giving this one three and a half stars.




Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Knowledge of Civilization

Profound title, right?

Well, the knowledge of civilization is really quite a simple thing. Books. It's books that let us build on what those before did, even if they died long before we were born. Books also entertain us, teach our children, enthrall us and give us hope for the world.

When I was a child, my parents bought me the Children's Encyclopedia Brittanica. Not the full 32-volume monstrosity, but a shorter version designed for pre-teens. I read it.

Cover to cover.

I loved that book. My parents teased me about how you weren't 'supposed' to read an Encyclopedia cover to cover. I did it anyway. Then I went back and used it as it was intended. Sometimes I'd just read an entry, though, and bury my face in the book.

Eventually, it was given to another child as I outgrew it. But I still have fond memories of that set of red-bound books and a true appreciation of their value.

Yesterday, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. announced that this venerable encyclopedia is...going out of print.

Yes. Out of print. The end of an era...the first volume was published in Scotland in 1768.

From now on, the encyclopedia will be printed only in digital form. This will save shipping. It will save trees.

But...there will be no more red bound books for voracious young readers to hide under the covers with a flashlight with. No more splendid red and brown volumes on the shelf to be taken down when needed.

Ah, but we have the internet. We have all of the knowledge of civilization at our literal fingertips. We don't need red bound books.


I love electronic books. I love electronic publishing. But I also adore physical books. And that is beside the point.

If the only form in which our knowledge exists is the internet, then our entire civilization has become ephemeral. We could so easily lose everything.

I challenge Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. to produce just two or three hard copies and archive them properly.

I challenge everyone to keep a few hard bound, hard cover books they atlases, old college text books, encyclopedias, dictionaries. Let's make sure that the knowledge of civilization is safe for the future, even if the worst happens and we lose our much-vaunted technology.

Do I think that will happen? No. But I do think about the possibility.

Books matter. We need hard copy archives and we need them to be safe and distributed so that they do not suffer the fate of Alexandria.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I'm blank. And I know why. It always takes me a week to recover from the time change (oddly, I don't have nearly this much difficulty with travel...I can travel to Europe and be okay in 24 hours, but daylight savings kills me every year...)

Can't we get rid of this? Please? It doesn't save energy and does, in fact, endanger people.

Okay. End of rant, for now.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A possible prediction?

One of the tropes of science fiction is that you can't accelerate or decelerate from FTL close to your target destination. The idea of forcing starships to cruise at sublight to the outer system is used for story purposes, particularly when FTL travel is considered instantaneous.

Now scientists studying one theoretical FTL travel idea, the Alcubierre drive, have realized that deceleration would destroy anything in the immediate area. This would, of course, mean that extended sublight cruise would indeed be necessary.

How extended? Not as much as people think. The truth is that a starship would probably not sail all the way past all the planets and out into the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Instead, you would take your ship 'up' or 'down', out of the plane of the elliptic. As almost all of the matter around a star settles into a flat belt you would not have to fly that far to get 'clear'.

Of course, writers generally avoid that dodge, but if we're talking about the real world...

However, it also reminded me of a story I read once in which an unmanned interstellar ramjet was used as a sunkiller. (Well, they tried). An Alcubierre probe could easily be used in that way. Perhaps its best to hope that this particular kind of drive remains eternally theoretical...

Friday, March 9, 2012

The ebook pricing multi-lemma

Multi, because there are so many factors involved.

Let's see. There's a government investigation into certain parties for deliberately over-pricing ebooks. At the same time, a vocal minority (I hope) of readers think that ebooks cost nothing to produce and should, therefore, be free. (Most of them, I assume, have as many bills to pay as writers).

Then, there is the 99 cent issue. Distributors generally will not allow an ebook to be priced lower than 99 cents. This appears arbitrary, but is to allow them to make some profit over transaction fees. E-shorts, therefore, have to be priced at 99 cents. Meanwhile, other writers try to maximize sales by pricing full novels at 99 cents. This makes it harder to sell e-shorts.

Some ebook costs are length dependent. Others are not. A professional cover costs the same whether you're producing a 4,000 word short or a 300,000 word epic. Editing, on the other hand, is generally priced per 1000 words or so.

One thing that could be considered true is that the cost of producing an electronic edition in addition to a print edition is not that much. Cover work and editing are done, so the only thing to worry about is layout...which can be done by an intern, pretty much. I know...I've done it. However, to a big publisher, the print and electronic editions are a unit. They expect the ebook to cover its share of all of the production costs...cover, editing and print runs (although print runs cost a lot less than editing, which is the big cost to the publisher). And, of course, the author still needs to be paid.

With the number of people giving ebooks away for free for marketing purposes (and the number of public domain ebooks Amazon and its ilk are giving away), its possible to enjoy as much reading as you want for free. Which bolsters the idea that entertainers should not charge for what they do, especially writers.

If you want to support authors, though, you need to buy their books (or, alternatively, go to kickstarter or the like and find a worthy project to donate to, which often comes with perks). Free is not sustainable. Neither are excessively high prices people are not willing to pay.

If pricing an ebook, consider everything. 99 cents might seem to be the sweet point, but do you really want to look like a rock bottom discount writer? (Some people will actually go for more expensive books because they assume the very cheap ones are bad).

I think, eventually, ebook pricing will settle down, but right now it's still kind of the wild west out here.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's the weather?

Stormy. It hasn't affected me here (and things like this seldom do because I'm in the city and everything's buried) but there was a big 'solar flare' (technically a CME or coronal mass ejection) early this morning.

If you can't get any bars on your cell phone for no apparent reason, that's why. It's possible some people may even lose power. These solar storms, though, happen fairly often. The current cycle (it's about 11 years) peaks some time in 2013.

It's a reminder, though, that our friendly sun is a dynamic being with its own moods...and can occasionally be dangerous.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Spider silk...

It sometimes seems everything humans can do spiders can do better.

For example, one researcher made violin strings from spider silk and claims they make a better sound than traditional strings (music being subjective and not having heard it myself...but hey, it's an option).

Spider silk also conducts both heat and electricity better than any other organic material, perhaps because it's designed to be sensitive to anything touching it. Only silver and diamond conduct heat better.

Spiders, really, are quite amazing creatures. (Although if I see a black widow or brown recluse...yeah. Not messing with those things.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


It seems that a growing number of colleges and employers are demanding people's social media passwords when they apply.

This includes demanding that applications write usernames and passwords down on applications. Not only is this a violation of privacy, but it actively endangers people. What if those applications fall into the wrong hands?

Or what is to stop somebody who doesn't like an applicant posting porn to their wall?

Additionally, it violates terms of use agreements:

Facebook: You will not share your password, (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.

Linkedin: (1) Keep your password secure and confidential; (2) not permit others to use your account; (3) refrain from using other Users’ accounts;

Twitter: You are responsible for safeguarding the password that you use to access the Services

Google Plus doesn't have it, but that's because some employers use Google accounts to provide free employee email.

So. Technically. If you comply with a potential employer's request for your Facebook password, you could be banned from Facebook. If you don't, they won't hire you.

I didn't look at any smaller sites or at Myspace and Pinterest, but I think this sums it up. Unfortunately, if you've been looking for work for months and its take this job or starve on the streets...what can you do?

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Book Police (mildly NSFW)

I've been waiting to weigh on this in the hope that I could get more clarification and understanding of who, exactly, is to blame.

A couple of weeks ago Paypal informed online book distributor Smashwords, which provides e-book distribution to thousands of self publishers, that if they did not remove books containing rape for titillation, bestiality or incest, including so-called pseudo-incest (sex with a step relative) from their catalog, they would stop processing all of their payments. This included books being offered for free. Smashwords would have to recode their entire site to use a different payment provider. Apparently the same ultimatum was also delivered to Bookstrand. Initially, Paypal gave Smashwords an untenable deadline of only a few days to comply.

When Smashwords fought, Paypal blamed...the credit card companies. They are claiming that the credit card companies want to censor what adults are allowed to buy and read.

Pornography is protected speech under the First Amendment. Obscenity is not, however, and the standards for what constitutes obscenity remain an uncertain grey area. It is not Paypal (or the credit card company's) job to police this area. Unfortunately, as they are not the government, their censorship efforts do not violate the constitution.

I rely on Paypal's processing to handle most of my income, and they provide a very valuable service. And I am not dismissing the possibility that this may indeed come from the credit card companies. Unfortunately, that is even more frightening. The credit card companies may be realizing that they can dictate what we buy. Today, it's fringe erotica. Tomorrow, it might be GLBT fiction. Or guns. It might be books that only deal with 'difficult' themes - Lolita, Robert A. Heinlein's To Sail Beyond The Sunset, The Lovely Bones...we all have our own list. Oh yes, what about Mark Twain? Lots of people want him censored for using the n word.

If Mastercard, Visa, Discover and American Express all decide nobody should buy something, then it will become all but impossible to buy that item. And the frightening thing is that there is very little any of us can do about it. In today's world, anyone who travels, anyone who runs a business, anyone who ever rents a car needs a credit card. There is no choice.

I don't know what's really behind all of this, but I do know that as much as I personally don't want to read the banned material, this is a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies a world in which all entertainment has to be suitable for your six year old.

Does anyone really want to live in that world?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Not Faster Than Light...Yet

The discovery that subatomic particles may have gone faster than light likely raised the hopes of the less skeptical in the science fiction and futurist communities.

Personally, I was were the experimenters...that this would turn out to be flawed. They only published in the hope somebody else would find the mistake. And indeed, a mistake was found - an instrument was connected wrong.

Once more, the light speed limit remains's the question, though. Why? Why is the universe put together that way.

My father, often a wise man, calls the distances between the stars 'God's Quarantine'. He believes that God put the stars far enough apart that only a wise and mature species would have any hope of crossing the gap, in the hope that by the time any species worked out how to do so they would have more sense than to attack their neighbors.

Whether or not you believe in God, isolation of solar systems is certainly a practical effect of the great distances and the apparent barrier. Personally, I think it is a barrier and cannot be broken. However, it might be circumvented by means such as cutting across the curvature of space, altering local space-time around your vessel, etc. Maybe.

Here is the thing, though. Relativity tells us information cannot go faster than light. Why? What, in truth, enforces that? Short of once more invoking God...or the concept of the universe itself as the speed police...I've never been able to work that out.

Ah, relativity. It only makes sense to genius physicists...leaving the rest of us struggling with the implications.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Very good...

...summary about research into consciousness and how and why it exists.

If working with alien races, then are they conscious in the same way we are? For example, do your aliens sleep? (One intriguing question that often comes to mind is what dolphins may experience when they sleep half their brain at a time...) Can consciousness be created non-biologically? (true artificial intelligence). Could a different evolution produce a completely different mechanism for self awareness?

All worth considering.