Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Linucon 2005: quips and robots

A woman to Rob Landley: you've been preparing food every time I come here.

Rob says something like "it's my job".

The woman: and it disappears even faster than you make it.

Rob Landley: My objective here is not be able to keep up.


Austin Robot Group had a display of their robots at Linucon. Such as this one. (Click the image for a bigger version.)


The Babbling Robot Head was singing Scottish traditional songs in a voice that, according to the project description in the Austin Robot Group's website, is synthesized. The voice is kind of nasal and drone'y, but oddly pleasant. Well, maybe not all of its songs were Scottish, but the one I remember best, "Flower of Scotland", was. It is captured in this video (9 sec).
This robot has lightning flashing across its "face" and it moves its arms up and down and those pincers at the end of its arms rotate. A video can be found here (13 sec). I could not find its name or description in the Austin Robot Group's page.


This "grim reaper" robot (another one whose name or description I could not find) turns its head from side to side and waves its hands, as seen in this video (8 sec).
Here are more images of Linucon 2005 robots.

Linucon 2005: Chupaqueso

This is what chupaqueso is described as in the Linucon program book: "The experts prepare cheese in a fried cheese shell, with extra cheese. The audience gets to eat the results. A favorite of Schlock Mercenary fans."

The story of chupaqueso invention

Chupaqueso was invented by Howard Tayler, the author of the Schlock Mercenary web comic. I'm not sure if I correctly remember the convoluted story of Chupaqueso's birth, but... At first there was a word. Howard Tayler was looking for a made-up word to describe quintessential cheap, greasy, Mexican fast food, probably for his comic strip, and chupaqueso suggested itself. It's composed of Spanish words for "suck" and "cheese".

Then, while he was on a low carb diet, and cheese must have been a major staple in his kitchen, he was flipping through a cookbook and saw a cheese crisp. That was the prototype of the chupaqueso. If I remember correctly, Howard improved on it by adding cheese filling to it.

How to make it

You cook it by spreading shredded cheese in a circle on a griddle (a pan would do too, I suppose). It melts and forms a pancake which will become the chupaqueso shell. You flip it over. Then you put more shredded cheese -- the same or different kind -- in the middle of the shell. Then you fold the sides of the pancake over one another, and the result is a chupaqueso.

Howard and Jay Maynard (a.k.a The Tron Guy) gave a chupaqueso cooking demonstration in the Con Suite. I ate a piece, and, well, it tastes just as cheesy and greasy as one would expect. That's not to say it's bad!

Click on the picture for YouTube video of the cooking demonstration. More pictures of making chupaqueso can be found in my photo gallery.

Towards the end they even cooked a chupaqueso with a chocolate filling. I had to try that too, and even made a video of that, but must have accidentally deleted it. Or maybe my unconscious mind could not tolerate this level of disgust and made me hit the button. :-) It suffices to say chocolate didn't do much to improve the classic version.

Read more about The Tron Guy on my web site.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Linucon 2005: Guilty Pleasures

Synopsis from Linucon program book: "Science Fiction authors we like, even though we think we shouldn't."

The panelists were Cathy and Eric Raymond. The audience enthusiastically joined into sharing their own guilty pleasures. Although I have read only one author out of the ones mentioned on the panel, I found this panel to be fun. Just to hear the plot summaries, funny details and even the titles of other people's favorite trashy books was hilarious.

Examples of hilarious titles and plot snippets

Titles: "Snow White and the Seven Samurai", or "Who's Afraid of Beowulf" (both by Tom Holt).

Plot snippets:

Cathy Raymond, recounting the plot of I don't remember what book. There's this wizard that goes on this quest and he has only one advantage...

Eric Raymond. An elderly mentor whose entire vocabulary consists of the word "indeed".

Cathy. He has a curse or attribute that he can never truly be alone for more than a second at a time. Which means that death can't nab him, because death has to go after him when he's alone, and he never is.

And:

Rob Landley. I dug up some old books "The Girl With The Silver Eyes" and such, where very little actually happens, but it's a really good book. It's a book about a telekinetic finding three other telekinetics due to something their mothers have taken as a headache medicine. They find out they WEREN'T actually being tracked by the government. It's one of those books where if they had been adults, it would have taken them 45 minutes and a car to find out.

I checked the names and titles of most authors and books mentioned in this post, but if some are misspelled, it is solely my fault.

So, here are our panelists' and audience's guilty pleasures.

Panelists' and audience's guilty pleasures

Eric Raymond. Honor Harrington series.

Cathy Raymond. Conan the Barbarian.

Eric Raymond. For me, military SF in general is a guilty pleasure cause most of it is crap. There are some fine ones, like Lois Bujold and Robert Heinlein. But those are exceptions. The rest of military SF is crap. But I read them anyway. I cut my teeth on Doc Smith [with his gigantic space battlefields blowing up] and I enjoy them.

Eric Raymond further mentions having enjoyed the Star Kings novel by Edmond Hamilton, and its sequel. That's actually the only two novels of the ones mentioned in this discussion, that I (Elze) have read. And they were delicious!

Eric and Cathy Raymond at Linucon 2005 Eric and Cathy Raymond. More images from Linucon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery.
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Cathy Raymond. Laurel K. Hamilton. She writes some wonderful fantasy wedging fantasy creatures rather convincingly into real world settings. She writes really well but that's not why I read her. I read her because of sex.

A woman in the audience. Soft porn.

Cathy. I wouldn't say soft porn. Some of it is really graphic.

Another woman in the audience brings up Anne Rice.

Cathy. I should have thought of her for the other panel (Authors We Gave Up On), because I've given up on her. She was even more in the soft porn direction, although not as good at is as the other authors.

Rob Landley. I like reading children's books, science fiction books that are aimed at young adult market. They have them in a section with big bright colors with baloons. I just grab books and take them home. Well, I pay for them first.

(Everyone laughs, and someone shouts: Now that would be a REAL guilty pleasure!)

Jay Maynard. I've got one. A Star Trek novel "How much for just the planet"?

Eric Raymond. It had a virulent anticapitalist political ranting in it, and [despite that] Jay and I both liked it. That's how good it was!

Jay Maynard. It's been described as Hitchiker's Guide to the Federation. If you put the book down ater the first 20 pages, you have no sense of humor at all.

Rob Landley says when he was 10, his parents visited Andre Norton in Florida. His father was this huge fan of hers. So he met this fat lady with veins in her legs and couldn't stand up very well, and had cats. She had books all over the place. She gave Rob a book based on D&D. She described it as "over most major plot turns you can hear the dice roll".

Then again, one person's guilty pleasure can be another person's brilliant satire. This leads the panelists to a debate on...

How does one define a guilty pleasure?

A guy in the audience lists a book "First Contract" (aliens make a contact with us and it turns out they're capitalists). Eric thinks it's a satire, not a guity pleasure. So are, in his opinion, Stainless Steel Rat stories, which another audience member counts as his guilty pleasure. So what differentiates a GP from a book you're willing to admit you like? asks Cathy.

Eric Raymond. I can put my finger on one difference. Most guilty pleasure have in common that the author is barefacedly trying to manipulate the reader in ways that are rewarding but have nothing to do with actual story or idea, or anything that rises to the forebrain level. First Contract makes an interesting case. There's a level of wit and cleverness in that book. There's a level of author sharing with you a sardonic commentary on that book that actual guilty pleasures don't have.

That's what GP have in common with pornography.

Eric Raymond. Terry Pratchet for me, when he was just doing lightweight satirical comedy, there was a touch of guilty pleasure about him too, but then he got all wise and I don't feel guilty reading him anymore.

A guy in the audience takes a different tack on the topic. My guilty pleasure is anything by De Sade. I did a monologue from him in my acting class. More than anything else he convinced me to leave the church. His ideas on welfare were also very extreme. That's a guy who makes Ayn Rand look tame, and that's hard to do.

Cathy acknowledges that that's a different topic: ideas so radical that even in this society they are not acknowledged.

How do the panelists have time to read so much?

Noticing that Eric Raymond has read pretty much every book that anyone in the audience has mentioned, someone asks: "How do you have time to read all this stuff?"

Eric Raymond says he reads faster than anyone he knows. He and Jay Maynard compare their reading speeds.

Cathy Raymond says she read the latest Harry Potter book on a Saturday afternoon when she had nothing else to do and it took her about 5 hours.

Eric Raymond. I thought I read faster than anyone else I know. But occasionally I think she reads faster than me.

Cathy. No, I ignore more shit.

Cathy offers a partial explanation to how Eric managed to read so many books in his lifetime. He has been a hacker for more than 20 years, and back then when you compiled, you had oodles of downtime, so he would read.

He has read so much that he issues a challenge to the audience: "if you can remember anything enough about a guilty pleasure that you don't know the title of, I can probably identify it." And then it turns out that he can't actually name any of the three books that the audience members ask him to identify.

Linucon 2005: Authors We Gave Up On

Synopsis. To quote from Linucon program book: "What does it take for an author you used to really like to honk you off so badly that you won't read him or her any more? Our panelists discuss cases." The panelists were Eric and Cathy Raymond, Lawrence Person and Jay Maynard, the guy in the Tron costume. (Actually he wore a different costume on that panel.)

To be accurate, "authors" in this case meant "science fiction authors".

The worst offender: Orson Scott Card

The worst offender, or the one panelists feel most strongly about: Orson Scott Card. Lawrence is disappointed by the Alvin Maker series, while ESR is put off by Ender books. Maybe not "Ender's Game", but some of the subsequent books in the series. ESR thinks that Orson Scott Card is incapable of moral reasoning, or something like that. I will have to listen to the tape to find out for sure. IIRC, he thinks Orson Scott Card characters (most notably, Ender) reach wrong moral conclusions from their experiences.

Other offenders:

Frank Herbert. Frank Herbert also has turned a lot of people off. Jay Maynard says the "Dune" trilogy was at least 2-3 books too long. And he says that being aware that the "Dune" series went to 6 books. That's not counting the posthumous collaborations.

Posthumous "collaborations" of living writers with the dead authors, or rather their greedy offspring, are subject to much disdain by the panelists. Lawrence has an entire arsenal of barbs for this particular phenomenon: industrial necrophilia, a frat boy in the closet with Asimov's naked corpse, and such.

Harry Turtledove. Jay Maynard likes to badmouth Harry Turtledove. Eric Raymond, while he likes a lot of Harry Turtledove's stuff, agrees with Jay on this author's alternative history Civil War series. Turtledove, he says, doesn't bother to write a nice story, because he is paid by the word.

I can explain Turtledove, says Eric Raymond. He is supporting 4 daughters. Even in the best of times his prose is quite pedestrian, plows like a truckhorse [?]. The economic cistumstances under which he labors are not favorable to good taste.

Cathy Raymond had given up on George R. R. Martin, because she got tired of unredeeming horror he visited on protagonists she has come to like.

Eric Raymond also gave up on Catherine Asaro who started out writing excellent space operas with good hard science in the background, and ended up writing goopy romance novels under the pretense of science fiction.

A discussion Philip K. Dick's place in science fiction, and Eric Raymond's opinion of what REAL science fiction is

A discussion ensues about Philip K. Dick's place in science fiction. ESR thinks that Philip K. Dick is most popular among people who don't understand science fiction. Lawrence objects that if everything in SF had descended from Heinlein and there was nothing from Dick, the genre would be immensely smaller. It needs the darkness that it got from Philip K. Dick.

Left to right: Eric Raymond, Cathy Raymond, Lawrence Person, Jay Maynard. More images from Linucon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery.

As an example of dark work that makes everything brighter, ESR thinks Tim Powers is a much better example of that, instead of Philip K. Dick. Not only that, but in his opinion Powers is more of an example of a science fiction writer than Dick. Because the fundamental characteristic of SF is that it promulgates that universe is ordered and is ultimately knowable. That's Gregory's Benford's definition, to which ESR apparently subscribes. But Philip K. Dick was perpetually struggling against the idea that the universe had any order at all.

Lawrence says that Benford's definition would exclude a lot of work that's included in the science fiction canon.

A guy in the audience says Philip K. Dick is probably the only author who benefits from someone coming in, picking up a few pieces of his work and turning it into a nice, simple space opera, instead of paranoid madness.

How William Gibson's sense of humor is like the microwave background radiation of the universe

Another audience member says he gave up on William Gibson after "Pattern Recognition". Lawrence agrees. As he said in this article that discusses the recent works of the cyberpunk classics, Cyberpunk after 9/11, in "Pattern Recognition" Gibson wrote an exquisitively beautiful novel of excruciating tedium.

Lawrence's friend Dwight, who was sitting in the audience, suggested that "Pattern Recognition" is Gibson's attempt at slapstick. Lawrence doubts it, because, as he says, William Gibson's sense of humor is like the microwave background radiation of the universe: it takes a very finely calibrated instrument to read it. And to be able to tell it from pidgeon dung on your telescope, adds a guy named Andrew from the audience.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Linucon 2005: Customers Do The Craziest Things

The title suggests this panel should have been stories from tech support front lines. It was a bit more general than that. The panelists and the audience shared particularly memorable stories they've experienced while working in computer or technology industry that did not necessarily involve customers. And no, none of the old chestnuts about retractable cup-holders or little white food pedals.

The panelists were supposed to be Rusty Allen and Stu Green, but Stu didn't show up. Too bad, because as I remember from Austin Linux Group meetings 5 years ago, Stu is quite an entertaining speaker. So Rusty Allen alone held down the fort. And the audience stepped in with funny stories of their own.

Impossible to press two buttons simultaneously?

At that time Rusty Allen was working as a system administrator or perhaps providing tech support to the employees of the company where he worked. One day he got a call from an executive who had some computer trouble. Rusty first tried to tell him to press Alt+Clear in order to clear the screen so that he could then tell the guy what to type in order to fix the problem. (Actually, I don't think there is a "Clear" key on modern keyboards, but from what I understand this was before PCs.) The executive asked: "so I have to hold down the Alt button and press the Clear button simultaneously?" Rusty said yes. The guy asked: "is there any other way to do it?" Rusty was puzzled. He said, "if you have a problem that's keeping you from doing that, tell me and maybe I can help". The executive said: "I have one arm".

Rusty was taken aback, and didn't know what else to say except to suggest politely that the guy do it the way he finds best. He figured that someone who climbed up to a high position in the company probably had ways to get around his handicap.

A chipmunk operator

There was this company that never had enough backup tapes. They kept buying and buying tapes and still kept running out of them. Then one day they were doing something to the computer room, perhaps re-laying a cable that was in the way, IIRC. In the process, they, quoting Rusty, "popped open the floor"... and there were paper grocery bags full of tapes underneath. They popped open the floor in several other places, and everywhere they found bags and bags of unused tapes. They found 4 or 5 caches like that. Eventually one of the third shift operators confessed he put them there. He explained: "I had my own stash of tapes, but people kept taking them!" In reality, he was using some "recreational stuff" and kept forgetting where he put the tapes. They started calling him Chipmunk after that.

But he didn't lose his job, since it was hard enough to find third shift operators as it was.

An operator stripped to the waist

A programmer walked into a computer room (mainframes). There was about 120 degrees in the room. The operator was there, stripped to the waist, and something was burning. The programmer ran to the emergency shutdown and hit the big red button, so that nothing would continue to burn. It was a button meant for absolute emergencies, when you don't care whether your machines will come back up afterwards, you just want to shut them down NOW! Then he asked the operator what happened. "Well, we've lost some cooling!" the guy explained. "And I decided to only run one job at the time, so that it won't heat up as fast!"

Back then with those machines the heat generated by them didn't really depend on whether you ran 1 task at a time or 20 tasks at a time. But the operator thought it was like burning gasoline: the less you use, the less heat would come out.

Metal particles mysteriously sucked into a hole

At a gas company in Houston a computer room was next to a secretary's desk. An electrician came over and said he needed to install a new socket over there (in the secretary's office). He attacked the wall with a circular saw, and noticed that the metal particles were being sucked into the hole he made. He didn't know or ask what was on the other side, only thought it was neat that the particles went into the other side of the wall: it meant he would not have to clean up.

Turns out he was drilling into a system that provided air circulation for the company's mainframes. All the metal shavings were sprayed into circuit boards of the machines. I don't remember if there was any mention of the whole company screeching to a halt, but that wouldn't be impossible, because, like Rusty said, back then one careless action by an operator could knock thousands of computers off line.

Disaster planning, said Rusty, is not so much planning for a hurricane as for operator spilling coke on a machine. That's much more likely to happen.

A human setting off radiation detectors

Rusty's sister, a biologist with a Ph.D., was taking medication for a thyroid problem. She started noticing at work that there was a problem with data collection that would happen whenever she walked into the room. Finally they figured it out. The researchers were using radioactive tags to collect their data, and her medicine contained something (I guess iodine?) that emitted beta particles.

Better obey those laws of physics

Apropos recent events (hurricanes Katrina and Rita), an audience member named Paul had a typhoon emergency preparation story. This happened in Asia, where typhoons are common. Before one hit, employees were loading valuables into a bank vault. Then they watertight-sealed the bank vault door and ran off into typhoon shelter. Afterwards they came back, tried the lock combination to open the door, and even though it was correct, the door wouldn't open. Then they realized that the atmospheric pressure was a little bit low when they closed the vault, and the current higher atmospheric pressure outside the vault was keeping it shut very effectively.

So they drilled a very small hole in the door and it whistled for about a week until the pressure equalized, giving a new meaning to "whistle while you work".



Rusty Allen. More pictures from Linucon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Other observations about Linucon

On geek flirting

Yesterday I went to a FACT (Fandom Association of Central Texas) reading group book meeting. This group consists of some of the same people who put together ArmadilloCon, the annual Austin science fiction convention. They were at Linucon, too. We chatted about it a little after we finished discussing the book. Willie wondered if two major subsets of people that this convention attracted -- Linux geeks and anime babes (since Linucon had a heavy emphasis on anime) would have anything in common. But maybe they had, because he observed a Linux guy approaching an anime babe with this classic line: "Wanna go check out Fry's"? It cracked him up. However, Fry's actually has a sizeable anime section (so they say, I haven't checked it out myself), and it may just be the point where those two worlds intersect. And Fry's is a near-perfect place for a first date. There is as much food for conversation there as in a museum, and, unlike in a museum, you can talk loudly. I'm even surprised why Eric and Cathy Raymond didn't mention it in their last year's panel on geek dating.

A positive effect of anime programming on Linucon -- in my experience, at least

Before going to Linucon I prepared to be put off by its heavy anime track (which was caused by the fact that this year Linucon was run by people who run anime conventions), because I have no interest in it. My familiarity with this genre begins and ends at "Ghost in the Shell" of which my mind retained only two things. One, that it was essentially the same story as William Gibson's "Neuromancer". Not a plagiarism, just a rehash, in the same way that unimaginative fantasy novels are rehashes of "Lord of the Rings". Raymond Feist's "Magician" is a prime example of this phenomenon. So I felt I didn't gain anything new by watching "Ghost in the Shell". Plus, to quote Chuck from the reading group, books give you better visuals. The other thing I remember about this movie was its awesome music. The only thing worth seeing it for.

However, I found the anime track at Linucon completely unobtrusive. An unintended advantage of devoting a lot of programming to anime is that it reduced the number of panels I may have been interested in, and that was a good thing! Fewer scheduling conflicts, fewer regrets for not being able to see everything I wanted.

The other welcome side effect was I got to see and take pictures of some very cute costumes. Anne from Pink Chocolate Cosplay (shown below) is one example. Click on the image for more hall costumes (anime and not).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Linucon 2005: World building panel

(Linucon was a joint Linux and science fiction convention that took place September 30 - October 2, 2005 in Austin, TX.)

I was about 20 minutes late to this discussion panel. In my pre-baby days an early panel was at 10 or 11 am (mostly because room parties at conventions go on late into the night), but now that I had to feed the baby and get her ready in order to take her along, even 12 pm seemed early. So I missed the beginning of the conversation.

"Building" a world means coming up with a description of a hypothetical planet's geography and how it would have conditioned or determined the biology and sociology of the alien civilization that lives here. And, of course, the ultimate goal would be to describe the civilization itself. Well, actually, the ultimate goal of such exercise is to write a story or a book. Writing a book or to a lesser extent a short story, that takes place on an alien world, requires giving a lot of thought to what this world would be like, and how to make it interestingly alien while remaining consistent with the principles of science. Because of that world building exercises are perennially popular at science fiction conventions. At least the ones I go to.

The brainstorming in this case was lead by an Austin-based science fiction writer Rie Sheridan, and the audience actively participated.

From what I gathered after missing the first 20 minutes is that Rie Sheridan and her audience had decided to "build" an sea world. This planet will be mostly covered with oceans and will have little dry land.

The intelligent life forms live in the sea

The intelligent life forms live in the sea. Unfortunately, the discussion on what those intelligent life forms would be like must have taken place before I arrived, since there wasn't much talk about it afterwards. Even so, they probably didn't devote much time to it because at the end of the panel a woman in the audience asked: "I came in late. Did you talk about how they communicate underwater? Do they have speech?" Rie replied: "that's a good point". It turned out they haven't covered that part.

But later Rie Sheridan brought up an interesting example of how the geology, etc., the nature, the surroundings these creatures live in would affect their language and mentality. If they live in the sea, the idioms in their language should be water-based. So, for example, they should not say "I have the weight of the world on my shoulders and it feels lika a rock is pressing on my heart" since those are earth-based metaphors. It reminds me of Ursula LeGuin's story "The Word for World is Forest" of which, unfortunately, I remember only the title. The story didn't seem memorable except for the forest-based figures of speech that the alien civilization in it used.

I guess if Rie and the audience did not even get around to discussing how the inhabitants of this world communicate, I might not have missed much. Because to me that's more interesting than geography and geology.

What would colonists have to deal with if they come to this world?

They approached this world mostly from a colonists' perspective. What would they have to deal with when they come to this world? What natural resources would they use, and how would they use them, to make stuff they need? What, you mean they won't have nanoassemblers that would convert any available molecules of matter into anything the colonists need? The latter was my thought, actually, not voiced in the discussion. Well, having process natural resources the old-fashioned way can be hard, I suppose. There was a suggestion to make things out of kelp which is reported to be very waterproof (maybe only in this fantasy world?) Or make boats out of glass, because this planet has volcanoes and they are somehow supposed to provide colonists with glass, though I'm not sure by what exact process. The volcanoes would also provide them with geo-thermal energy. Or they could harness wave and tidal action to generate electricity.

Writer Rie Sheridan at Linucon 2005 Writer Rie Sheridan. More images from Linucon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery
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But their ability to do so would depend on their level of preparedness to deal with a hostile environment and that in itself is determined by the tools, materials and knowledge they have. Which can drastically vary depending on their circumstances. If they had set out to explore and put roots on a new planet, they would probably be well prepared. But what if it's just three guys from a freight ship that crash-landed on the planet? They don't have much supplies. How would they survive? And if there's no hope that a rescue mission would come and find them, would it even make sense to try to survive? Knowing that here on this planet you are the last representative of your kind and your race will die out with you might be too demotivating.

Somebody in the audience suggests that in the latter case the accidental colonists could try to assimilate themselves into the local population, even try to breed with them. The idea that two species so vastly different as terrestrial and aquatic could interbreed is so unlikely as to be largely unscientific. And as such, it doesn't appeal to me.

Even if it's a fantasy story, magic must have rules

Unless, of course, this is a fantasy story and this world has magic. That would change the rules of the game immensely. So one of the things Rie Sheridan advices the writers to decide on early in the exercise is whether this world is technology- or magic-based. Building a magic-based world was done at the last year's ArmadilloCon and is described in this article. It was very amusing! Rie Sheridan was there too, though she wasn't the driving force for that panel.

Magic, too, is not a ticket for you to do whatever you want with your world. If the inhabitants are able to do all the magic they want, it doesn't take any energy, it doesn't take any materials, and any situation you get into you can get out of with magic, that may be quite boring. So it's better if you have only a limited pool of energy to do magic. Maybe, as in Dungeons and Dragons, there are only so many spells you can cast in one day.

Common sense stuff, really. So... I don't know if it's even worth writing about.

Monday, October 03, 2005

My overall impression of Linucon 2005

Knowing the troubles the organizational committee has been through this year, I expected a very chaotic, disorganized convention. And looking at their schedule and seeing how the panelists were a small subset of last year's panelists (and not many new people) reiterating some of the same topics as last year, I expected it might get just a taaaad bit repetitive. And attending a convention with a baby in tow isn't easy even when it's well organized, but a disorganized convention may be a lot more stressful that way. So I went to Linucon with appropriately low expectations.

And they were exceeded beyond any expectation! It was even more fun than last year. Even though the speakers were the same people and talked on some of the same or related subjects, their personalities made it captivating. In particular, I'm talking about Eric and Cathy Raymond, Howard Tayler, and to some extent Jay Maynard "The Tron Guy", Steve Jackson (he of Steve Jackson games), Rie Sheridan and John Quarterman.

Chase Hoffman, the convention chair, was asked how the number of attendees this year compared to last year. He said, the universal gas law says that as the gas volume is compressed, its temperature increases. "So let me just say we are twice as hot this year."

Hotter despite (or because of) being smaller

And I agree -- it was hotter despite (or because) being smaller. For one thing, a small number of simultaneously occurring panels didn't put me in a conflict over which panel to choose, like it usually happens at ArmadillCon. ArmadilloCon organizers have a knack of scheduling two of the most interesting (to me) panels at the same time and that time is 10 am in the morning. Or 11 pm in the evening. :-) Maybe it means that the subjects I am interested in appeal only to a very small part of the general con-going population? Anyway, Linucon didn't have many scheduling conflicts. S and I were able to easily agree how to distribute baby-caring responsibility so that neither of us would have to miss too many interesting panels.

Of non-panel events there was Cosplay, which, I gather, is just a new-fangled name for Masquerade, a good old con tradition (which ArmadilloCon doesn't have -- too literary for that, huh?) and it had Chupaquesos. More on those two subjects later. I will post highlights from various events I went to in my upcoming posts.

More liquid nitrogen stories

At the closing ceremony Chase Hoffman retold his liquid nitrogen story that he first told at the opening ceremony, which I told in this post. Of course, this wasn't the only time he had to explain liquid nitrogen to puzzled onlookers. Another time, at the end of probably the same convention in Dallas, he had to decide what to do with the unused liquid nitrogen. He didn't want to drive it back to Austin in the front seat of his car (apparently no other arrangement was possible) just in case it splashes. He said he was already an ugly man (though I disagree), and he didn't want to make himself even uglier by having his skin slough off. And the parking lot at the convention hotel was conveniently empty. So he thought he would dump the remaining liquid nitrogen right there. He started to do that. This, however, is not an inconspicuous action, as it generates lots of impressive vapor. Suddenly the hotel guard (or something) comes out running, yelling, "what the hell is that?" "Really cold water." The guard didn't believe that at first, but as he saw the stuff evaporating on the scorching hot pavement, he mumbled, "hmm. Cold water." and went back inside.

In the picture (click for a bigger image): The rightmost guy in a black T-Shirt, Rob Landley -- the chair of last year's Linucon and one of the key organizers this year -- is making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Linucon 2005: This topic is intentionally left blank

I thought the name of this panel hinted at the lack of preparedness on the part of organizers, and given the trouble they've been through this year it would have been entirely understandable. But I was wrong: the title was deliberate. The purpose of this panel was to get Eric Raymond, Howard Tayler and Steve Jackson (THE Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson's Games) to just talk about anything. This turned out one of the most entertaining panels I've been to at any convention. That's a testimonial to the personalities of the above-mentioned three panelists. They have enough improvisational power to turn a topicless discussion into a blast.

It turns out Eric Raymond has come up with something like a language for generating games, where you plug the parameters in and it generates a game for you. It could possibly come up with 20 million games. (They have gotten on the game topic because Howard Taylor said to Steve Jackson that he came up with an idea of a game based on his web-based comic Schlock Mercenary, but he doesn't know how to pitch game ideas.)

They talk about science fiction's influence on the open source movement and geek culture in general, but they don't go anywhere with it beyond a few amusing tidbits / factoids.

Around 1991 -- 1992 Howard Tayler wrote a "prophetic" science fiction story where someone accesses a network through a device the size of a cordless phone (not wireless, he points out, cordless! Oh, those were the days...) that one can carry in their hand. The network can be accessed from public points "all over the place". So it seems this might have been the one and only documented case of science fiction actually predicting the future.

The unintended consequence of the proliferation of communications to the literary world is that one can no longer write plots where a character disappears and is cut off from all communication or is unable to call for help.

Another of the ideas Howard recently came up with is a card for the Illuminati game, which was inspired or counterinspired by the Microstuff card, which represents an evil company. Howard's card, named Open GNUnix, would represent open source, and it would have an opposite alignment than Microstuff. The first is conservative, straight, criminal. Open GNUNix is liberal, weird, fanatic. He took a Gnu head and put it on a penguin body, so that there's something in it card to offend everybody, starting from Stallman...

But one of the most interesting things ESR said was that in his opinion, in the future everyone's job will be performance art. That will be a natural consequence of rising levels of living, of rising wealth in the society. In what sense? Well, someone in the audience immediately mentions that his work -- tech support -- already is performance art. 80% of it is spent soothing the customer. Everybody laughs, but Eric actually meant something else. Basicaly, you will make money by being interesting, by being a personality. That's how Eric Raymond makes a living right now, and to some extent so does Howard Tayler, who lives off of ad revenue from his web comic. As an example to illustrate his statement, Eric Raymond points out that people click on the ads on Howard's page because they are implicitly "endorsed" by Howard. The cachet of his personality makes whatever is being advertised attractive to the viewers. Or so Eric thought.

Then they veer towards lighter subjects of Chupa Queso -- Howard's invention (more about it tomorrow) and capsaicin, one of Eric's favorite things. Eric remembers an experiment in which volunteer pepperheads were injected with a drug that blocks endorphins, and they didn't like their hot food anymore! It demonstrated that people's liking of hot food is due to the capsaicin release.

In the picture (click for a bigger image): Left to right: Eric Raymond, Howard Tayler, Steve Jackson. More pictures from Linucon can be found in my photo gallery.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Linucon: Adventures in Costuming

The last discussion panel on Friday I went to was "Adventures in Costuming", where the panelists were Cathy Raymond (Eric Raymond's wife) and Jay Maynard, a.k.a The Tron Guy. More of him and his costume can be seen in this photo gallery. I had to leave this panel halfway because it was late and Erika was getting tired. Anyway, it was mostly Jay Maynard talking about all the fame (or infamy) that the Tron costume brought him. After a press story about him was posted on Slashdot, he braced for negative comments to come rolling in. He expected comments such as "a fat guy shouldn't be wearing spandex" and... by golly, he got them. Several hundreds. But there were also a lot of people who said his costume was cool. He appeared some television talk shows. Even Howard Stern contemplated inviting him to his radio show, but decided that the story won't make enough impact without the visuals.

Here is a much more detailed article about a similar panel at Linucon 2004: Costuming 101. It featured The Tron Guy, Cathy Raymond, and Kim Kofmel. That discussion was enlivened with all kinds of titillating details from the costume history.

In the picture (click for a bigger image): The Tron Guy drinks mundane beverages like the rest of us.

Read more about The Tron Guy on my web site.

Linucon 2005 opening ceremony

It's that time of the year! Linucon 2 -- a joint Linux and science fiction convention -- is upon us! After spending a frustrated half an hour trying to find the Austin Ambassador hotel, I make it to the opening ceremony.

No Linucon opening ceremony would be complete without the liquid nitrogen ice cream stories. Chase Hoffman, the convention chair, says that when he ran some convention in Dallas not long ago, the convention shared the hotel with FEMA workers. When Chase brought a can of liquid nitrogen into the hotel, the hotel employees thought it was a giant keg, so they didn't mind. Then the FEMA saw them and yelled: "Why are you carrying dangerous chemicals around?" Chase replied: "To make ice cream." "To make WHAAAT?" Chase then infromed them about making of ice cream with liquid nitrogen. The FEMA guys said, but you realize that the nitrogen vapor will push all the oxygen out of the room and you'll die? I didn't catch Chase's reply, but anyway... I think he reassured them that they knew what they were doing.

In the picture (click for a bigger image): liquid nitrogen in the Con Suite.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

ArmadilloCon 2005: What's Happening in Outer Space

Panelists: David Lee Anderson, Ctein (moderator), John Gibbons, Wil McCarthy

What this panel was supposed to be about, according to the ArmadilloCon program book: "Our panel of space scientists and afficionados will talk about recent and upcoming developments outside the earth's atmosphere.:"

Moderator Ctein challenged each panelist to tell us about a really really cool thing that happened in the outer space in the last year. To sum up panelists answers, it was the Genesis mission, Cassini mission to Saturn, Huygens probe, also the fact that the Mars Rovers were (at the time of this discussion) a year and a half old and still ticking. Commercial space flight was also mentioned, though Wil McCarthy said he found it worthwhile to acknowledge not because it was technologically revolutionary, but because it was done cheaply. "Spaceship One broke an important emotionally barrier", said McCarthy. "People used to think space tourism was unattainable, financially and [otherwise], but now that thinking flipped. Now people think space tourism is worth investing."

In keeping with the spirit of the times (open source movement, mash-ups, etc.) the panelists expressed their amazement at how much astronomy work is done collaboratively, and moreover, how much of it is done by amateurs. Wil McCarthy mentioned virtual observatories, where amateurs can analyze data that's already been gathered by telescopes, space probes and such, and even make their own discoveries. Some discoveries have been made that way. Virtual observatories give amateurs access to very high resolution images of some spectra. Ctein remarked that astronomy is currently the most egalitarian of the sciences. It is possible to do serious astronomical work with little credentials.

Speaking about astronomers collaborating over the data obtained by the Huygens probe, Wil McCarthy said: "It was like fan fiction. People looked at pictures through different filters and painted them different colors."

"Planetary science folk art?" added Ctein.

So even this alpha-geeky, low-quirkiness-factor panel had some quotable moments. :-)



Left to right: David Lee Anderson, Wil McCarthy, Ctein, John Gibbons. More pictures from Armadillocon 2005 are available in my photo gallery.

--------

* Ctein is pronounced kuh-TINE. It's his official name now, even though he wasn't born with it. Yes, he uses a single name. I was surprised he hasn't run into any serious bureaucratic hassles because of that. I thought most government systems expect people to have a minimum of two names, and you can't very well argue with a computer that demands you enter both a first and a last name :-) I'm speaking from personal experience. Name-wise I am unusually poor, compared to a typical American. I don't have a middle name. When I changed my last name after marriage and tried to get a new driver's license, I was told by a woman at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles that their computer system required me to have a middle name. So she told me she was going to put my maiden name as the middle name. I would have preferred not to, but, as I said, you can't argue with a computer -- that's pretty much what she told me. :-) I guess I was fortunate that Texas BMV computers weren't that draconian 5 years earlier, when I first got a driver's license in Texas. I was single then and could not have legitimately come up with anything that could pass for a middle name.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The New Weird Movement in SF Literature: an ArmadilloCon 2005 panel

Panelists: Tom Becker, Damien Broderick, Lawrence Person, Faye Ringel, Charles Stross

Charles Stross says everyone in science fiction make a mistake of pining for a new movement. The panelists latch onto the word "movement" and run for a few minutes with scatological jokes. Lawrence Person: "When a genre's bowels get backed up you have to have a movement to clean them out." Once they got that out of their system (heh heh heh), they became a bit more serious, but they still were no closer to defining The New Weird. It's a somewhat narrower category or subgenre than slipstream and, according to Lawrence, even less useful.

Is it possible to define this uncategorizable category?



But the fact that the New Weird, as well as slipstream, catches the "uncategorizable" books, has an upside, according to Tom Becker. "The beauty of the New Weird is that bookstore owners don't know where to file it, so they put it on the table up front", says Becker and adds: "We'll see how it works with Charlie's posthumanist literature."

Lawrence, always one for snappy definitions, proposes that The New Weird is something that uses the genre tropes but doesn't worry which genre it's pulling its tropes from. SF, fantasy and horror are all prodigiously mixed together.

Which authors fall into the New Weird category?



Which authors fall into the New Weird category? Why, of course, China Mieville. Any others? Probably M. John Harrison. And maybe Mary Gentle. But I don't remember the panelists coming up with more examples of the New Weird authors, or at least any that had not been mentioned in the last year's panel on slipstream. Some of the panelists credited the start of the New Weird to Michael Moorcock, and it has to do something with the leftist leaning of the genre. Moorcock once wrote an essay where he criticized science fiction's fetishization with starships, troopers and their boots.

The worldview exemplified by the New Weird also runs counter to the traditional, "high" fantasy with its right wing themes of traditional values, going back to the past, deference to authority, etc. Charles Stross says fantasy is a literature of consolation. It works on restoration of balance in the world. Lost son of the king takes the kingdom back, that kind of thing. High fantasy's worldview is inimical to science, and that's why Stross doesn't like it. (He does write fantasy himself, though, but I'm pretty sure it's not "high" fantasy. And while I don't typically like this genre, a Stross fantasy must be quite an unusual animal, and I intend to read it.)

To that extent, what China Mieville is doing with fantasy very emphatically contradicts that consolation literature.



Left to right: Lawrence Person, Tom Becker, Charles Stross. More pictures from Armadillocon 2005 are available in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

ArmadilloCon 2005: Current Trends in British science fiction

What this panel was supposed to be about, according to the ArmadilloCon program book: "Several British writers are currently producing some of the most exciting and best-written SF yet seen. We'll sort out the best stuff, try to discern trends, and overall try to spread our joy and enthusiasm."

Panelists: Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Jim Mann, Lawrence Person, Willie Siros, Charles Stross

Even though Charles Stross was on the panel, it was disappointing. The panel focused mostly on history of British science fiction, and the panelists examined the history in the dullest possible way, by enumerating various magazines and editors and how they influenced British SF. What new authors they discovered, etc. Not the most fascinating stuff for me. I'm not sure I care how British SF got to be what it is today. According to Charles Stross, it has something to do with the fact that the 20th century saw the sunset of British empire. Degeneration of the former empire into a country financially bankrupted by the World War II left British science fiction writers in a long-lasting depression. But Stross does not explain how the SF eventually got out of that depression and emerged so cool and interesting.

And trends? One panelist stated that "a lot of British writers don't fit into trends, but they are doing excellent work". The only trend mentioned on this panel was The New Weird, and only to say that an argument over who was writing The New Weird lead to such a huge flame war on a certain mailing list that it crashed the server. According to Jim Mann, when they got to the point of trying to include Aistair Reynolds into the New Weird, it became meaningless. This did not stop some panelists from continuing to make attempts to classify The New Weird. Charles Stross would include Liz Williams in that category, and Lawrence Person would include Mary Gentle as well.

Charles Stross informs us that Mary Gentle disputes that what she writes is not fantasy, it is science fiction set in a world where alchemy works. (In my humble opinion, "pearls" like that have a potential to redeem even the dullest panel. :-))

Another category of British SF that sells well is humor, observes Charles Stross. Examples: Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde. The list of bestselling SF authors in the UK is like this: J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, then everyone else.

The only thing that made this panel worth going to was to hear Charles Stross' reading recommendations. Here are British authors he recommends: John Meaney (hard SF with interesting physics and some AI concepts, lots of adventure); Richard Morgan; Liz Williams -- according to Stross, she writes what used to be called "science fantasy" (why, is it not called that anymore? -- E. :-)); Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan. Willie Siros and Lawrence Person also recommend Neal Asher and Susanna Clarke.



Left to right: Lawrence Person, Charles Stross, Jim Mann

More pictures from Armadillocon 2005 are available in my photo gallery.

Where did all good hard science fiction go? An ArmadilloCon 2005 panel

Panelists: David Lee Anderson, Kurt Baty, Tom Becker, Alexis Latner, Wil McCarthy

At least one of the usual suspects' opinion on the topic of hard SF hasn't changed since last year. Actually, more like in decades. Kurt Baty still thinks the best hard SF books out there are Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" and Daniel Keys Moran's "The Long Run". And he tried hard to find other hard SF books worthy of those! Which for him, it appears, means books mostly on nanotechnology. He's just not finding any.

He's not impressed with, for example, Karl Schroeder, after reading "Ventus". "It's a novel about labeling. Every particle has a label! How exciting!" exclaims Kurt sarcastically. Tom Becker, though, urges him to give Schroeder's second book, "Permanence", a chance. He says Schroeder combines Digital Rights Management and micropayments with virtual reality and nanotechnology and gets interesting social effects.

Plot and characterization in a hard SF story offends some readers



The most amusing comments in the panel were made by Wil McCarthy. He says readers expectations are not as clear as they used to be. People who read SF read it for ideas and for plot, but not necessarily for characters or for language. Some other readers, in the contrary, people are actually offended by good, credible science. They just want magic! They are shocked by really innovative science fiction. For example, Greg Egan with his quantum mechanical themes offends them. The hard SF that they want should be about rayguns and spaceships!

Then there are readers who are turned off by the weak characterizations and the no-nonsense, journalistic language of classical hard SF. But other readers think that characterization, artful language or even a presense of plot ruins a hard SF story! To them, anything with a plot is trashy.

So, did the panelists find out where all the good hard SF went?



I'm afraid they did not. Instead, some of them, especially Wil McCarthy, made some sobering observations about the state of hard science fiction today. "The first thing that occurs to me is, just looking at the audience," he said, "is that the size of audience for this panel is the same as for a filk session. Even though this is a good size convention. Fans understand that hard SF is a good thing and hard to pull off, but it's not the same as enjoying hard SF. The novelty of hard SF is begining to wear off and people are looking for something else."

David Lee Anderson says one of the reasons of why hard SF was more popular a few decades ago than it is now was that back then the space program did a lot to inspire people's interest in science fiction. The space race gave people something to look forward to, he says, but the things have long ago slowed down. "The space station didn't get up there until about 20 years later," says David Lee Anderson. "This was disappointing ot me. I wanted things in my own lifetime that we could go visit in space."

Wil McCarthy thinks the (perceived?) loss of interest in hard science fiction is part of a larger trend of declining respect for science in America. "[A life of an academic scientist] in America is a crummy life," he says. "Scientists used to be respected. But that's no longer true. With a bachelor's degree you can make as much money as an engineer as with a PhD, and you can make it immediately.

And in academia it got really ugly. Back in the 80s they started saying "publish or perish"." As much aggravation as it caused to scientists, they are now nostalgic about that. "Nowadays it's "bring in grant money or perish". So our brilliant scientists are sitting writing grant proposals, while their science is being done by their graduate students. [Well, science was always done by the graduate students, but] we are squeezing our professors so hard, and a lot of smart people say, I don't want that life. I'll take a bachelor's degree and go work for a corporation."



Wil McCarthy does not feel optimistic about the state of hard science fiction today. More pictures from Armadillocon 2005 are available in my photo gallery.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Why we write fantasy? An ArmadilloCon 2005 panel

Panelists: Charles de Lint, Dennis L. McKiernan, John Moore, Nancy Jane Moore, Sharon Shinn, Martha Wells

This panel was at 10 am, so of course, I was late. By the time I arrived 20 minutes late, the panelists seemed to have finished discussing why they write fantasy and filled in the remaining time chatting about how they do research of medieval weapons, technologies, clothes, customs, etc. for their books. Too bad. I was curious why they write it: what inspires them to rehash the same cliched stories over and over again? :-) Just kidding, I did not go into the panel with a snarky attitude. But I didn't hear many original thoughts regarding why they write fantasy, probably because I caught only the trail end of that particular discussion thread.

Sharon Shinn writes it because it's fun. People in fantasy stories get to have adventure. That reminds me of an opinion expressed by, I think, John Cramer through one of the characters of his book "Einstein's Bridge": mainstream literature is about losers in the process of losing. Mainstream literature talks mostly about how awful life is. On the other hand, in science fiction and fantasy people get to solve problems and come out a winner. Actually, Sharon Shinn said something like that in her Guest of Honor interview at the last year's ArmadilloCon.

Nancy Jane Moore said something about how fantasy gives you more choices that "hard science" fiction. This reminds me of the saying that science fiction differs from fantasy in that in fantasy, dragons can fly, while in science fiction they can't. While I appreciate the irony, I don't subscribe to this opinion. But anyway, this panel wasn't about my opinions. :-)

Some of the more interesting comments in the panel were about literary style. Nancy Jane Moore says in a lot of high fantasy literature the language feels last week. So it is even more impressive to find an author -- and she gave an example of one, but I didn't hear the name -- whose language and style in general feels like the 18th century in which his novel is set; except it moves a lot faster than 18th century novels, which take forever to get the plot going.

Martha Wells says a writer needs to get into the mentality prevalent in the certain historical and geographical setting where the story is set. For example, her friend wrote a story where a medieval crime investigator works with forensics. They didn't do that in the Middle Ages. Rather, they would just go and arrest all the gypsies, or some group which was thought to be criminal.



Nancy Jane Moore (left) and Martha Wells. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

ArmadilloCon 2005: When and How Will the 21st Century Get More Interesting?

What this panel was supposed to be about, according to the ArmadilloCon program book: "The 20th Century saw great advancements in technology and many cultural changes, but the new one's been pretty dull. It may even be going backward. Seen any moonwalks lately? Is there interesting stuff we just haven't noticed, is good stuff about to happen, or is the highlight of the century going to be a multiple-button mouse from Apple?"

Panelists: Alexis Glynn Latner, Sean McMullen, John Moore, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Mark L. Williams

Chris Nakashima-Brown rejected the premise that 21st century so far hasn't been interesting. On one hand, he admitted that cyberpunk becoming the reality turned out to be pretty dull: nobody gets excited about online billpay. But the geopolitical scene, he says, is quite a bit more interesting. We live in a Lord of the Rings world, where there is Mordor and medieval stateless necromancers. (He tossed the phrase "stateless necromancers" around in the last year's ArmadilloCon, too, and I actually expected him to bring it into this discussion. I anticipated that Chris Nakashima-Brown will focus on the geopolitical aspects of the 21st century, and how can you do it without medieval necromancers? And I wasn't disappointed!)

Sean McMullen. We've been concentrating on minutia. But I don't want a jet car, I don't want stupid [people] flying over my real estate. They are damaging enough in 2 dimensions, I don't want them in 3 dimensions. Nutrition pills? Bad idea: I like eating, I like drinking. Just because something is possible doesn't mean people will pay for it. We could have been on Mars in 1980. Being viable and having a good reason to do it in the first place is not the same thing.

Peak oil or sex robots?



John Moore asks the audience which of the two likely realities of the 21st century they would like to talk about: peak oil or sex robots? The audience goes for the less disturbing topic, sex robots, and the positive aspect of it: the demand for them will drive robotics and a lot of other scientific disciplines. After all, sex has long been driving technological change: in the last century porn created enough demand for photographic chemicals so they started to be produced in factories. Before that, you had to mix them yourself. And blue movies provided a critical mass for VCRs. And, of course, porn drove the rise of the internet.

Sean McMullen is convinced robots and virtual reality will never replace live interaction with other human beings because they won't provide the same richness of experience. "Look at what's on a video game. It's nothing like reality. People who put those games together, they are totally out of sync with reality. Real environment, if you're over here, plug into the virtual reality thing; on the other hand, there is a party next door, and there are nice people; You're not guaranteed to score, but those nice people may change your life. So I would take the real life adventure every time."

Relationship of real and virtual words is not as cut-and-dried



People from the audience argue that the relationship of real and virtual words is not as cut-and-dried. One audience member says that the virtual community of his MMPG is having a real life barbeque tomorrow. The novel form of interaction is mixing the two worlds. He plays a female character, even though the players know he's a guy, and it has been a wonderful experience. He bonded over it with his daughter. It's been a liberating concept. He's now one of the girls. They invite him to those things and just have the girl chatter.

John Moore. When you're watching Motorcross on television versus real life, virtual reality improves upon reality. Things that are tedious and not interesting in real life can be made more interesting in virtual reality. Like motorcycle jumps when shown with a camera.

A discussion ensues whether we will see radical, drastic technological changes, or will technical advances be more of an incremental kind, like "progressing" from Word 2000 to Word 2003.

Some of the stranger ideas, tossed about by Alexis Glynn Latner, was that maybe 9/11 scenario was inspired by the violent special effects in movies and video games. "Could 9/11 have hapepend in a world where there were no special effects in the movies?" she asks. She thinks the terrorist used this particular scenario, crashing planes into buildings, because it provided very violent visuals, the kind they must have seen in the movies and video games.



Left to right: John Moore, Alexis Glynn Latner and Sean McMullen. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

ArmadilloCon 2005: opening ceremony and space opera panel

Opening ceremony is one of the most memorable parts of an ArmadilloCon. The toastmaster tries to embarrass the Guests of Honor by poking fun at them on stage. The toastmaster in 2005 was a Canadian urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. In his speech he made a big deal of the fact that the writer Guest of Honor, Charles Stross, is a "computer wrangler" and that he is from Scotland. I don't know if perhaps Scotland is viewed by Americans as being primarily agricultural, but Charles de Lint drew a lot of parallels between computers and farming (and, by extension, wrangling). "Scotland doesn't have server farms, their computers are free-range".

Then he talked at length about Jim and Laurie Mann trapeze wedding. I missed most of it. I was too busy messing with my new recording gear, which is an MP3 player with a voice recording function, and a microphone that plugs into my laptop and allows me to record sound directly into the computer. It doesn't work very well. I don't know if it's a bug or a feature, but it stops every couple of minutes and then I have to press the Record button again. By then, some time has passed before I notice that it has stopped. So I'm sure my recording is missing large chunks of that speech.

Developments in Space Opera



Then I went to a panel "Developments in Space Opera". Charles Stross was on it. There were some interesting points made there, but I still don't know if my recording is of a good enough quality to capture everything that was said.

There was much wondering why so much space opera is coming out of UK nowadays, as opposed to America. Chris Roberson "accused" British authors of distrusting heroes. (I'm not sure if or how that was supposed to explain why British authors lead in space opera. :-)) Charles Stross said he doesn't so much mistrust heroes as doesn't think it's a realistic notion that one character in the right place could change the world, as in common in space opera and in science fiction in general. "In space opera, one shiny bright character always does the right thing, everybody revolves around him," he said. "In real world, we call people like that world criminals.

As may be expected for a panel with Stross, the discussion veered towards Singularity, although he didn't bring it up. (I'm actually surprised there are no Singularity-related panels in this year's ArmadilloCon, even though Stross is a guru on the subject. Two years ago, when Vernor Vinge, the writer who popularized the idea of Singularity, was the guest at the ArmadilloCon, several panels revolved around Singularity.)

Chris Roberson said we should ask Charles Stross to enumerate all singularities that the humankind has already been through. It turns out Stross thinks there had been a few. Apparently he does not define it as a very steep technological advance beyond which life becomes unpredictable: by that account we haven't had a singularity yet. I guess he has a broader definition: it's any kind of technological or social change beyond which life can't be predicted. If that's really his view, then it's almost like he is taking an easy way out. Because all these developments listed below, except the first one, are not the kind that would create an unbridgeable gap between the humans on one side and the humans on the other. You could take a person who lived before let's say, agriculture was practiced, and explain the concept to him or her; he/she would probably understand what it means to cultivate the crops, even though he/she may find that idea strange or silly. Even though it's true that the long-ranging consequences of agriculture could not have been predicted in advance, it still does not create an intellectual gap so deep that the "before" would have no means, no tools, no capabilities of understanding the "after".

In contrast, Vinge (I think) associates Singularity with an emergence of superhuman intelligences. In that scenario we have no chance of understanding what those intelligences are like, or what they are "about", or how they will begin to change the world, than a dog has a chance of understanding what human beings are about. That's probably why Vinge, in his novels, does not try to portray a post-Singularity society, but limits himself to the "left behind" societies, or scenarios where Singularity happened, but a particular society was somehow bypassed, or escaped it.

On the other hand, one guy in the audience commended Stross for not avoiding the post-Singularity scenarios, but "bear-hugging" them.

Anyway, this is Stross' list. It is probably incomplete (I might have missed something).

1. Development of language. Obviously, there is an unbridgeable gap between the primates that don't have language and those who do.

2. Agriculture. Once humans started farming, a given area of land could support many more people than it could when they were hunter-gatherers. Once the population density increased, it would have been impossible to go back to hunting-gathering. Or so his argument goes.

3. Writing -- ability to transmit knowledge from generation to generation.

4. Invention of finance and investing. He says, read Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" trilogy to get an idea how it changed society.



In the picture: the Space Opera panelists. Left to right: Chris Robertson, Charles Stross, Jim Minz, Sean McMullen, Jayme Lynn Blaschke. More pictures from Armadillocon 2005 are available in my photo gallery.

Friday, August 19, 2005

ArmadilloCon pizza lunch with Charles Stross, or causal channel-enabled future space pirates

I finally got to meet Charles Stross in person at the pre-ArmadilloCon pizza lunch organized by Lawrence. The pizza place, Mangia, is crowded at lunchtime. Its acoustics are the kind that would be more appropriate for an opera theater. It was so noisy that people had to routinely lean forward and bent their ears in the direction of the speaker in order to hear a person sitting across the table from them. And, of course, Charles Stross speaks with a British accent, which I don't have much experience with. His accent isn't thick, but in general British accent is harder for me to process than any other kind. I have no problems with Indian or Chinese accent, but when I listen to British speak, I feel the cogs and gears in my brain grinding through the pattern-matching heuristics. Add this all up, and my attempt to relay the lunch conversation will be more like playing "a broken phone".

Bits and pieces of things Charles Stross talked about



A lot of the time Charlie (as he calls himself) and a small group of other people talked about the space program. Shuttle. Arianne. Soyuz. That's all I picked up.

Stross writes about a 1000-1500 words a day. On very productive days he's been known to write 5000.

He passed over the veggie pizza because it did not seem to have cheese. (Actually, it was a stuffed pizza with cheese inside.)

He does not like the news tickers, or crawlers (I don't remember which word he used. I think he was referring to the text that crawls along the bottom of the screen, not related to the story that's being narrated in the main part of the screen). "Eek!" he exclaimed.

Charlie's adventures in tech industry



Before he went to write full time, he worked in the tech industry. He has his own dot-com crash story. After being a senior programmer, he was offered a position to head a software development department in a startup. He accepted. But, he admitted, he might have burned the bridges to his old workplace a bit prematurely. This was March 2000, he said and paused for a second, smiling, so we could see where this was going. All would have been good if his new company had had an IPO a few weeks earlier. The stock sale would have given it a big enough supply of cash. As it was, though, the stock market crashed and all of a sudden the company had just a few weeks to live.

Pirates and accounting



He does plan to write a sequel to "Iron Sunrise". It will be a book about space pirates. Or, more accurately, about something that sounded like "charter accounting" or "enchanted accounting". Probably the former... though of course, some accounting practices that gained notoriety in recent years could be rightfully called "enchanted" :-) I said I will be curious to find out what is the connection between space pirates and accounting. He proceeded to explain what he had in mind. In the days of old, pirates had to work out a system how to divide the loot. For example, one pirate might have reached into the cleavage of a baroness and pulled out a super-expensive necklace, while another one might have grabbed something much cheaper. So, if I understood correctly, they needed some kind of well-defined accounting system to decide how to divide their bounty.

So the idea is, the way I understood it, that the space pirates will use causal channels to speculate in the futures of... well, whatever goods the ships will transport. What is a causal channel? Why, it is a channel of communication by quantum entanglement. Two entangled particles, when separated by a distance, no matter how big, if the quantum state of one of the particles is changed, the state of the other particle will change too. That means a faster than light communication. If ships fly slower than light, and somebody could communicate via a causal channel with the second party at the destination about the contents of the ship's cargo, then the second party would know what commodities, and what amounts of them, will be sold in the market years from now, and could profit from that information.

The problem is, as I found out later, that quantum entanglement does not allow faster-than-light communication. So I may have misunderstood what he said. Like I said, the environment was noisy.

But why would you call those speculators pirates?

As Charlie explained this concept, he paused a few times and smiled briefly as if to check if we were following. (By the way, Stross has one of the most beatific smiles I've ever seen.) I did my best to compose my best generic understanding facial expression, even as I was struggling to grasp what was being said amidst the noise and British accent. I wondered if a guy sitting next to me understood what this had to do with pirates. I'm not so sure. The guy made a not-entirely-relevant observation that pirates still exist even in our times, and that Texas has a particular brand of "inner tube pirates". When people go tubing down Texas rivers, they bring beer with them, and often they lose six-packs of beer, and there are actually "pirates" who jump into the river and grab that beer. At least that's what I think he said. If this sounds weird -- and it does, to me, but then I've never gone inner-tube floating -- I shall attribute it to my less than perfect listening skills.



Charles Stross. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2005 can be found in my photo gallery.