Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for October, 2006

Liberation Time

Posted by hyperpat on October 31, 2006

Now that I’ve moved into my new house, I’ve spent the last several days moving my library from the cold, cold storage room where it has langushed for almost a year into the new place. This is not a small job. At latest count, my collection consists of:

1200 hardback books, age ranging anywhere from 1908 to hot off the presses, most in excellent shape, and includes a few signed first editions.

1000 paperbacks and trade editions. I think the earliest of these dates to 1959, and it’s not in good shape, but most of the rest are.

1400 science fiction magazines. These range from the December, 1926 (Volume 1, #9) edition of Amazing Stories to the latest Analog. It boasts a complete set of Worlds of Tomorrow, Worlds of If, an almost complete set of Galaxy, and a complete set of the large size Analogs published in the mid sixties in mint condition (with some absolutely gorgeous covers by Kelly Freas and John Schoenherr).

Taking these things out of the boxes and putting them back on the shelves feels like I’ve liberated an unjustly convicted prisoner. Of course, this does put a premium on shelf space in the house, but my wife can’t complain too much, as she is unpacking her book collection at the same time (about another 700 volumes). It’s also doing a pretty good number on my back (70 boxes @ 40+ pounds/box = well over a ton).

This collection will probably end up being willed to my kids. As they have little interest in such things, they’ll probably end up selling it, and it could easily provide them with a fair chunk of change, but it would still sadden me to see those things it’s taken me a lifetime to put together go on the auction block (of course, I won’t be around to see this happen! Unless by then I’ve gotten another life as an uploaded avatar residing in a computer somewhere). In the meantime, I’ll persuse the shelves on a sometime basis, and perhaps pick out one I haven’t read in a long while, and sit down for a re-read.

Books are forever companions.

Posted in Books, Daily Happenings | 4 Comments »

A Little Different Tournament

Posted by hyperpat on October 30, 2006

I competed in the first round of the $250,000 Bowling Shootout tournament this last weekend. The format for this is a little odd. Qualification  is accomplished by rolling over your average in the second game of your normal league games. Then they pick on the top 2/3 of those who have qualified within your bowing center to compete in the first round shootout. The shootout itself is a ‘skins’ game: each player rolls only one ball per frame (max of four players per qualifying lane), and the high pinfall total gets the points for that frame. The number of points is variable, anywhere from 5 points for the 1st frame to 60 points for the 10th frame. If there is a tie in pinfall for a frame, the points for that frame are not awarded but carried over into the next frame, until someone breaks the tie and grabs all the points. In three games, there is a maximum point total of 555.

I managed to snag 461 of those points, rolling 17 strikes and six additional frames with a winning pinfall of 9. Now my name goes into a national database, and at the end of the entry rounds they will pull the top 125 point totals within each division (there are four divisions based on average) to go to Las Vegas and compete in the final shootout, with big money on the line plus the chance to bowl with a couple of PBA stars. With the total I rang up, I think I might have a realistic chance of being in that group. If so, look for me on ESPN in February!

Posted in Bowling | 2 Comments »

Decision Time

Posted by hyperpat on October 30, 2006

Once again, the fate of the Hubble telescope is up in the air, awaiting a decision for whether to send a repair mission before critical components reach the end of their life span. Standing in its way is the dedication of the remaining balance of space shuttle missions to building the international space station, and some concerns about astronaut safety, as servicing the Hubble means there would be no ‘safety hutch’, a place where the astronauts could stay while a rescue mission is launced if something would happen to the shuttle that would prevent its safe return.

Hubble Telescope

This is one case where I think it’s clear that the benefit outways any risk factor (over and above the risk factor of any manned space mission). The Hubble has done more to popularize space travel than possibly any other item we’ve placed in space, and it has provided some solid scientific data unobtainable in any other way that has done much to enhance our understanding of the universe, from its age to just what is dark matter. Letting this fine instrument die in favor of a station that has yet to prove its value would be a very poor decision, I think.

The NASA administration has traditionaly shown a strong aversion to risk, in what is an inherently risky enterprise. While this has probably led to fewer accidents in its history, it has also led to little progress in making space flight an everyday reality. So write or call NASA. Let them know how you feel about it. After all, it’s your tax dollars that support NASA – you should have a say in what it’s priorities should be.

Posted in Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

The Hugo Awards Revisited

Posted by hyperpat on October 26, 2006

In an earlier post I indicated the nominees and winner of the Hugo Best Novel Award for 2006, and that my own choice was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. After having read a couple of the other nominees, not only is it still my choice, but one entry (Acclerando) makes me seriously wonder about the whole Hugo selection process, as it’s clear that some entries get there on the basis of radical new ideas only, rather than ideas + literary merit. Not that I have a problem with the actual winner, it’s quite good, just not quite as well done as Old Man’s War – but that’s just my opinion, and I’ve had that level of difference between nominees and winners in prior Hugo Awards. But every once in a while I run into something that was nominated and/or won the award, and find myself scratching my head about why it made the list – are my tastes really that much different from the average SF fan, or am I just too demanding for wanting good literature with my SF helping? The following are my reviews of the nominee crop:

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My Amazon Rating: 5 star My Scale: 8.0

Life Begins at Seventy Five 

After reading about ten pages of this, I had to go back and check the title page for the author, sure that it would read Robert Heinlein, not John Scalzi. Mr. Scalzi has obviously spent some time and effort analyzing Heinlein’s methods and style, and the result here is an excellent novel that reads just like a brand new Heinlein.

The opening paragraph grabs: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Simple, direct, and immediately intriguing. And from this idea of geriatric soldiers the entire story unfolds: how these advanced age people are given new, enhanced bodies, interfaced with a remarkably effective internal computer, and sent to fight the baddies of the universe. Why they must fight. What the reasons are for living. Where the human race is heading. The problems with making assumptions about other life forms – and the effect that has on diplomacy.

Plot wise, this is a series of incidents and battles in the life of a soldier, without any strong goal or endpoint in mind. But as the scenes unfold, the person that is John Perry comes into clearer and clearer focus, a quiet, unassuming man who nevertheless can think on his feet, is not dismayed by radically new things, a natural leader with seventy-five years of experience to back up his decisions and actions, a man capable of deep love. Most of the people around him are not so well realized, but they really don’t need to be.

Comparison is obviously invited with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers with its similar theme and environment. But where Starship Troopers is very much a coming-of-age story, this is an adult trip into the land of survival. And where Starship Troopers had a large amount of philosophy directly exposited, Scalzi’s opinions in these areas are much more muted, more shown rather than told. Replacement of Heinlein’s powered armor with Scalzi’s enhanced bodies doesn’t cut down on the action, but does highlight the importance of the mind inside the body, its spirit, its willingness to fight not just for himself but for all of his compatriots and the race as a whole. Where Starship Troopers might be considered a treatise on government, civic responsibility, and military organizations, this has a somewhat less lofty goal, of showing why life is worth fighting for.

For anyone who loves Heinlein, this is a must. For those who like military science fiction, this is a must. For those who like a good story, powerfully told, this is a must.

*************************************

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

My Amazon Rating: 4 star My Scale: 7.0

Time in a Bubble

‘Hard’ science fiction novels, all too often, get bogged down in their `gee-whiz’ science, to the detriment of their story and characters. Happily, such is not the case here, as the characters of Tyler Dupree and Jason and Diane Lawton are well depicted, and their story, of just how they react when all the stars suddenly disappear one night, remains front and center throughout this book.

The `gee-whiz’ science here is the `Spin’, a membrane folded around the earth that slows the time rate experienced by its denizens by a factor of 100 million versus the `normal’ universe. This has an implication: in just 40 Earth years, 4 billion years will have passed on the outside, our sun will be nearing the end of its life, and will have expanded to the point that an unprotected Earth would be immediately fried. Where did this membrane come from? Who put it there, and perhaps more importantly, why? What can be done about it? Wilson’s characters, in one way or another, attempt to answer these questions, an involvement that shapes much of their lives, and the lives of everyone on Earth, who are effectively facing a true end of the world scenario.

Wilson presents his science in fairly small, well explained chunks – you don’t need to be an actual rocket scientist to grasp what he is presenting, and this presentation doesn’t interrupt the story flow, unlike all too many books that belong to this sub-genre.

While all the above is quite good, I found I was disappointed in the final answers the book provides. I saw most of the answers long before they were directly shown – not good for a concept of this grand scope. Nor was I greatly impressed by the philosophical points raised. In these two areas, I expected more from a book that took the Hugo award over some other books that are just as inventive and possibly have a deeper level of meaning than this one. The Martian, introduced about the middle of the book, was not characterized very well, nor was his described culture very believable – probably because his function was that of deus-ex-machina device, a way for Wilson to get to his `solution’ space.

An entertaining read with some good concepts, but for my money the Hugo should have gone to John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

********************************************

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

My Amazon Rating: 3 Stars    My Scale: 6.5

A Sea of Words, Signifying Little
The most inventive, intriguing, literate, and engrossing adult fantasy to be written in thirty years, has, unfortunately, hit a rather large road bump with this, the fourth volume. As I don’t follow Martin’s web site I was not aware that this volume only presents half of the main characters of the first three, leaving out some of the most interesting and loved ones, their portion of this time period relegated to the fifth volume, whenever it will be published. This alone is not that much of a problem; Martin’s tapestry is so large that there is plenty of story to be told even within the remaining subset.

The real trouble is, he doesn’t tell that story for the first five hundred pages! Instead, we are treated to seemingly endless descriptions of heraldry; new viewpoint characters whose stories are definitely peripheral to the original story arc – and this is in a story that already has so many characters that it takes sixty pages of appendix just to list them, definitely posing problems for the poor reader trying to keep track of them all; and way too much scheming and talking rather than action. Very possibly a good half of this work could have been cut without losing any of the important story details, and the net result would have been a much stronger work, better paced, where anticipation of impending action could have been sustained until things actually start to happen, which is about the last one hundred pages of this.

That last hundred pages do a fair amount to redeem this volume, where things finally coalesce into definite story lines, and the complex interweave of characters, each with their own desires and schemes to get what they want, which was the overriding trait of the first three volumes, becomes evident again. Jamie at least starts to become an interesting person; Cersie, the person everyone loves to hate, looks like she may have boxed herself into a corner; Sansa, it appears, will be forced out of her safe cocoon and back into being a player in the game of thrones; Arya has, perhaps, the most interesting change in life style and circumstances.

If the fifth volume can maintain the pace and interesting events of the last one hundred pages of this work, the full story will be back on track as one of the best fantasies, ever. However, if it too gets bogged down in too much unnecessary detail and non-happenings, I think it will spell the end to this series, and volume six won’t be purchased by me at least.

**********************************************

Accelerando by Charles Stross

My Amazon Rating: 2 Star My Scale: 4.0

Computation Overload
This book managed to come in second in this year’s Hugo Award voting. Unfortunately, I don’t think it deserved that kind of recognition.

This is another entry in the ‘hard’ sf sub-genre, one that has as its major point of focus the Vingeian Singularity, which assumes that technological progress is on an exponential slope that will eventually lead to a complete breakdown of civilization as we know it, being replaced by artificial intelligences that will consume all the physical resources of the solar system.

The book is episodic (which follows naturally from its roots as separate short stories), covering three generations of one family as the world moves from pre-Singularity to post-Singularity times. It also leads to the major problem with this book: none of the characters are particularly well-defined or explored in depth. Many of their reactions to the events of this book do not ring true, do not ring human. Of course, Stross may have been trying for exactly that impression – humans of this future world are not the humans of today. While it is interesting in an intellectual way to see how a normal human will morph into something of much greater thinking capacity as he becomes more and more wired up to external computers, and eventually can become a disembodied intelligence, what is lacking here is any emotional basis for believing in these people. The scientific ideas run rampant over the story and characters, and some of those ideas will be difficult for someone not versed in computer-speak to assimilate and understand, leading to some confusion about just what is really happening at various points in the story.

The ‘solution’ Stross offers to the Fermi paradox (if there are lots of aliens out there, where are they? Why have we seen no evidence of them or had any communications from them?) is plausible, and a lot of the ideas he so casually tosses around are intriguing and stimulating. But without a solid story and strong characters to work within this idea space, the book comes across as more of a scientific treatise than a novel.
*******************

Only one more hope left: Learning the World by Ken MacLeod,  but I don’t have high expectations given what other reviewers have said about this one.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Science fiction and fantasy | 5 Comments »

The Real, Random World and AIs

Posted by hyperpat on October 17, 2006

One of the major unrealized goals of computer science is to develop a real, live artificial intelligence. While great strides have been made, from expert systems to neural networks that can ‘learn’, so far there is no system that can pass the Turing test. In its simplest form, the Turing test states that a human observer cannot tell the difference between conversing with a computer and a human on any reliable basis. Given the incredible pace of technological advance in computer hardware, and to a lesser extent computer software, why should this still be true?

Part of the reason is that there is no clear, deterministic definition of just what makes humans ‘intelligent’. If humans merely follow a set of ‘rules’ for how to deal with the external world, rules that are ‘programmed’ by both genetics and interaction with the environment (read ‘learning’), then it should be (comparatively) easy to program this same set of rules into a computer, and viola, we would have a new ‘person’. But there seems to be something else involved in human intelligence, something that can’t be predicted or heuristically programmed, namely the whole concept of creativity, where totally new concepts and ideas seem to spring out of nowhere. Where and how does creativity originate?

Clearly, at least some original concepts come from a churning of the vast number of variables a human is subject to, anything from the weather to what he ate for breakfast; the concept itself was there all along to be seen, but it took an unusual juxtaposition of multiple facts for it to become evident. Then there are those ideas and formulations that literally seem to come from nowhere, such as the creation of a sonnet or the invention of a brand new type of mathematics. Both of these seem to depend at least partially on the concept of ‘randomness’. But is there truly such a thing as randomness? ‘Random’ implies an event that is not predictable, and that multiple ‘trials’ of the same type of action will lead to multiple different results. Tossing a coin in the air and recording whether it falls as heads or tails seems to meet this criteria – you’re doing the same thing, over and over, but the results are different for each trial, and there is no discernable pattern that would allow for prediction of whether the next trial will fall heads or tails (or on its edge!). But in reality, isn’t each trial totally deterministic from the moment the coin is tossed? If we could just enumerate all the variables (amount of spin applied, loft velocity and direction, unevenness in the landing spot, friction coefficients, atmospheric humidity and air currents, etc.), could we not actually predict whether it will land on heads or tails? Of course, this is a major philosophical question – if everything is in reality deterministic, isn’t everything we do or think predetermined from the very beginning of time? In practicality, when the number of influencing factors becomes too large, they are no longer effectively denumerable, and the end result is a ‘chance’ happening (at least to our limited senses and computing power).

And perhaps this is the answer to achieving a real AI. Make the number of items that must be considered by the computer as part of its computation a very large number of different types of inputs, things that are not practically deterministic, and we might have a better chance of achieving something that any human would call ‘intelligent’. Of course this would require a major enhancement to the amount of memory, processing speed, and interconnecting pathways of the computer from what exists today, along with a willingness to wire into it inputs that seemingly have no relevance to its normal tasks (about like attaching a kitchen sink to a car engine). In fact, this was one of the basic ideas behind Robert Heinlein’s ‘live’ computer Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But until this happens, I predict there will be no true AIs developed.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction | 1 Comment »

RAH, RAH, RAH – and Spider

Posted by hyperpat on October 13, 2006

In the past, I’ve posted all my book reviews on Amazon and my web site. But I suppose a little more exposure won’t hurt. And this one has a fair amount of buzz associated with it, given the high profile of the first author listed. The link will take you to the Amazon review page, where you can see a few other opinions about this book besides mine.

Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson

My rating: Amazon 4 star, my scale 7.0

This book, like many posthumous `collaborations’ that are attempts to complete an unfinished work, has both good and bad things about it.

First, yes, Heinlein’s touch is definitely evident, mainly in the basic story setting and its main characters. Clearly the outline and notes that Spider worked from defined these elements unambiguously, and anyone familiar with Heinlein’s work will find much here that will evoke that feeling that so many of his YA books from the fifties had. The story is very definitely set in the `Future History’ line, with references to Red Planet, If This Goes On, Coventry, Time for the Stars, Starman Jones, Space Cadet, and multiple other stories. Its protagonist is, at least at the start of this book, a rather typical Heinlein older teen, a young man who starts with no clear idea of what he wants from life, and while quite intelligent has a tendency to leap without fully considering all the consequences.

But it is also true that this is Spider writing, and as such it’s told in Spider’s voice, with his own very distinctive style, which includes his penchant for punning, and to some extent, mysticism, neither of which Heinlein would normally touch. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I’ve enjoyed many of Spider’s other books, and his style normally complements his story material very well. But here I found some of this a little jarring, as it simply didn’t match my expectation of how Heinlein’s voice would have told this story. Not that Spider either should or could have really matched Heinlein’s voice – any attempt to do so would have probably been a disaster.

The objections some others have raised about Spider inserting some commentary about current events into the Future History time line (as `The Terror Wars’) I found was actually fairly well done, giving a more solid basis to the rise of Nehemiah Scudder than Heinlein ever did (though this was an area that Heinlein himself avoided, as too depressing to write about). Spider does manage to create characters that I could fully believe in, and they bear a strong resemblance to what these characters would have been like under Heinlein’s pen, and this does much to keep this story highly readable and enjoyable.

But I found that the direction of the plot for about the last third of this book rather upsetting, as it plays havoc with the Future History as we have come to know and love it – and this area is pure Spider, for as stated in the afterword, Heinlein’s notes were incomplete, and did not include an ending. The ending that is here has both a deus-ex-machina device (but one that Heinlein himself used in one of his other stories) and a clear path to a possible sequel, as clearly there is more story to tell, if Spider (and the Heinlein estate) would so desire.

I finished this book with very mixed feelings. Yes, it’s another entry into the Future History corpus; yes, it’s well written, engrossing, and enjoyable; but no, it’s not Heinlein, and it branches in a direction well outside the known Future History, at the very least requiring another major branch in the World-as-Myth world view. But if Spider ever does write a sequel to this, I’ll be there at the bookstore waiting to buy it when it comes in.

I find Amazon’s 5 star rating system to be a little confining (besides being somewhat inflated). My own system (which I’ve been using for 40 years) is a 10 point scale, with half-point increments. This breaks down as:

10 = perfect, the greatest book ever written, 9.0+ demands a reread, 7.5-8.5 excellent, has special qualities, 6.5-7.0 Above average, but usually only good for one read, 5.0-6.0 = average, nothing special, but readable, 4.0 – 4.5 = fair, 3.0 – 3.5 = poor, 2.0 – 2.5 = bad, 1.5- = should have been burned instead of published.

And if you don’t catch the allusion of this post’s title, shame on you for not knowing all your Heinleiniana.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, science fiction | Leave a Comment »

Genies and Wish Lists

Posted by hyperpat on October 11, 2006

So it looks like North Korea now has (gasp!) the Bomb. And all the other countries that have it are all up in arms about it, and are threatening dire things. Certainly sounds like the pot calling the kettle black. Look, if I lived in a small, relatively undeveloped country surrounded by neighbors who might not be all that friendly, I think I might want to have something that would make those neighbors think twice, too.

Does this mean that I endorse the idea of N. Korea having such a weapon? No, I don’t – it means that here is one more potential flash point in the world, one more place where people of unbalanced minds might be able to get their hands on an item with which they can do some real damage to whomever comes into their addled minds. In other words, the peace and security level of the world just went down a notch.

But all this posturing by the big powers is ridiculous. The first item to remember is that developing such capability is merely a matter of money and engineering. No scientific breakthroughs required, no unusual new tools that have to be developed, as all that has already been done. As long as you’re willing to spend a lot of money, obtaining the required tools and raw material is not a large hurdle. And once you have those items, deriving the required engineering data to build a useful bomb is an exercise in plodding along (or, with more money, certain parties just might be willing to sell you that supposedly ultra-secret data). Perhaps the most difficult part of this is getting the proper raw material with the proper ratio of fissionables – something that can be a byproduct of an appropriately designed nuclear power plant (which everyone endorses as nice things to have), which is why the Iranian situation is also being raked over the coals by this same set of super-powers. But this technological genie can’t be put back in the bottle, no matter how hard people try.

But for one country that has such weapons to tell another country it can’t develop them, or, you know, we just might have to do something to hurt you,  is moral hypocrisy of the first order. If we, or a small group of countries, are going to lay down such demands, then we need to acknowledge what we are – a world dictator, which is what most people in the world consider us to be anyway. Or get rid of all such weapons, completely. And this last won’t happen, because, you know, this genie is well out of the bottle, and no longer listens to our wish list.

Posted in Politics, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

Shame on Us

Posted by hyperpat on October 2, 2006

Congress and Bush are at it again with the passage of the terrorist-detainee trial bill. With its stripping of detainees rights to habeas corpus, allowing use of hearsay and coerced (read ‘torture’ ) evidence, Presidential ‘interpretation’ of what is allowing in terms of interrogation techniques by the Geneva Convention, its expanded definition of what constitutes a ‘enemy combatant’ to include those who provide weapons, money and other support to terrorist groups, and its new definition of conspiracy as a ‘war crime’, this entire bill is a disgrace to this nation. It tells the world that not only are we the 800 pound gorilla in the room, but we are going to do exactly what we feel like, and to hell with any standards of human decency or even living up to international treaties we’ve signed in years past. And this is after the supposed Democratic opposition to this bill ‘softened up’ some its provisions.

This bill could very easily snag common, normally law-abiding Americans in its grasp. Ever contributed any money to charitable organizations? Look out, as some of those are listed by the Federal government as providing support for ‘terrorist’ organizations, and your contribution to them would now put you in the same class.

I hope the Supreme Court strikes this thing down in toto. We’ve already lost too much of not only our freedoms but our sense of honor in this never-ending hysterical ‘war on terror’. We need to wake up and realize that the supposed ‘safety’ such bills attempt to provide in fact do no such thing, but instead leave us all the poorer, and if this trend continues pretty soon the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will cease to have any value at all.

‘Homeland Security’ my foot. Can you say ‘police state’?

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Celebrating

Posted by hyperpat on October 2, 2006

Finally, finally we are moved! Getting all the financials to finish took way longer than expected (our buyers were more than two weeks late in closing), and then when everything did finally close it was a mad scramble to get everything moved. Saturday was our first day where we got to stay in the new house overnight, and although it felt a little weird (having spent the prior fifteen years in the old house, I did get rather set in my ways), we got to sleep in a hurry, as we were both totally exhausted.

Now the only problem is unpacking the umpty-ump zillions of boxes and figuring out ‘did I pack that widget in this box or that one?’. This process is likely to take somewhat longer than the packing one. Maybe by 2007 we will have it all unpacked and arranged to our satisfaction. But we’re happy!

Posted in Daily Happenings | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.