Friday, December 26, 2008

Patrice Sarath "Gordath Wood": FACT reading group discussion

13 people attended the discussion of "Gordath Wood". 5 people have read Patrice Sarath's short stories before. Everybody except 3 people started the book. 7 finished it. The rest were planning to finish it.

"Gordath Wood" starts with two young women, Lynn and Kate, venturing out (separately) into the woods in search of a runaway horse. Unbeknownst to themselves, they each cross into a parallel world resembling medieval Europe. Before they know it, the two heroines are dragged into a war between two feudal lords. As they try to find a way to come back to their world, or find their mission in the one they ended up in, it turns out that the portal between the worlds has become unstable, threatening destruction in both the parallel and their own world.

The two women are very involved with horses, and so big parts of the text revolve around horse riding and care. Several readers observed that the author taught them more about horses than they wanted to know; however, she did it in a non-boring way. The horse specifics are woven into the plot and don't overshadow the story.

Character-driven, not a concept-driven story

Everybody agreed this was a character-driven rather than concept-driven story. Several people liked its vivid, realistic characters. The villains weren't all bad, and good people weren't all good. Still, not everybody found the characters realistic, noting that the bad guys -- the general, the detective -- acted too stupid to be believable. "The villains were so illogical in their behavior that they seemed just devices to have tension in the book," said a reader. Examples: the general had Kate flogged after she brought him weapons and radios; the detective went after Joe, and later after Lynn, for no reason. Kate might have been the most likeable character of them all, but even she occasionally did reckless, impulsive things. Some group members explained it as Kate merely being a teenager: having raised teenagers themselves, they were familiar with those patterns of behavior.

Most people thought Kate was more interesting than the other female protagonist, Lynn. One reader commented that Lynn mainly existed for men to fall in love with her. Kate, on the other hand, was more active. "She had more interactions with people on widely diferent levels, from people who tended the horses, to women who did menial labor, to the doctor and the general. We saw a lot more of the culture through her," said a reader. Some readers could identify with Joe more than any other character; others said they could not identify with a drifter. A few readers could not identify with any character.

Despite a cover that suggested (at least to some people) Harlequin romance, this book notably lacked romance cliches. Even though some characters fall in love, those love stories do not end in a typical romance novel way. One person liked the author's "non-girly" approach to relationships, and declared this book suitable reading for men. Yet a reader, regardless of gender, who looks for something more than character development in a SF/F story may not find it here. A few people said they prefer a genre book to have at least some unusual conceptual element, but there were none in this book. So, enjoyable as it was, this type of story would never become their main reading fare.

For a first novel, it's...

Since "Gordath Wood" is Patrice Sarath's first novel, there were a lot of "for a first novel, it's..." judgments floating around. The style and characaterization in "Gordath Wood" was found to be better than that of many other debut novels this group has read over the recent years. Readers thought "Gordath Wood" balanced many points of view successfully, which is not easy for a beginner author. On the other hand, the multitude of viewpoints confused some people, especially since some characters changed sides in the war. It didn't help that the viewpoint often jumped back and forth between two characters within one chapter.

One reader thought the story suffered from serious logistical problems. He thought some characters' location, direction, and speed of movement did not compute. You'll have some people at point A, and after a certain time you'll find them at point B, where they could not have gotten so fast. It was also not clear whether the portal of travel between world was located between two rock formations, or if it spanned a larger area of the woods.

Beside some fuzzy travel-related math, the world portrayed in "Gordath Wood" was found inconsistent on a larger conceptual level. On one hand, nature looked the same on both sides of the portal, and people on both worlds spoke some dialect of English, which suggested the parallel world was an alternative Earth. But the stars in the sky were different, which would imply it's not the same planet. One reader said he would have been curious to see if Patrice Sarath had worked out the relationship of the two worlds in her head, or it if was just handwaving. Most people suspected the latter. To her credit, though, the author did not employ many arbitrary kinds of magic, avoiding the problems other writers introduce when they pull out magic objects out of the hat at a character's convenience. It was also good that the characters of "Gordath Wood" did not cross back and forth between worlds at will. They stayed on one side or the other for most of the story.

Personally what I liked the most was bringing the economics of our world into that of a medieval society. And I don't mean just the fact that the modern humans smuggled guns into the medieval world. I was most impressed with the twist that happens at the end and explains some characters' true motivations for the war. They were going to take advantage of the medieval country's untapped natural resourcwes. I know this has already been done by Charles Stross in "Merchant Princes" series, but Charles Stross' characters didn't capture me the way Patrice Sarath's did.

Inconsistencies notwithstanding, most people enjoyed the story and were looking forward to reading the sequel. One reader, though, was disappointed to find out there's a sequel: she thought all the plot ends were wrapped too perfectly in the first book.

After the meeting the group met with Patrice Sarath for dinner, where she answered some of our questions about this book and its characters, as well as her future plans. For example, she told us that Kate's character wasn't based on Patrice's teenage daughter. It was based on Patrice herself, or rather the kind of person she perceived herself to be in her adolescence.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

George Hrab concert in Austin

George Hrab was one of the line of atheist singers and songwriters (Roy Zimmerman, Paul Martin a.k.a Aspiring Atheist, Linda Chorney) that performed for the Center For Inquiry Austin in the recent months. He gave a concert at La Madeleine on November 22, 2008.

I was impressed by his songwriting more than that of others (except maybe Roy Zimmerman, who is quite witty too). Hrab's lyrics are fast -- both in the sense that his tongue goes a mile a minute, and also that they are so full of unexpected witticisms and intellectual references, you blink and you'll miss them. Speaking of Blink -- Malcom Gladwell's book by the same title -- the musician takes a jab at its premise in his song "Assumption". Here's a YouTube video of it.

He takes on all sorts of skepticism-related topics. One of his songs' topic was "grief rapists", psychics that will "communicate" -- for a fee, of course -- with your dead loved one, making money off people's grief and prolonging their suffering. As he says, if your dead loved one was really able to bend time and space and laws of nature to communicate with the living, do you really think the only thing he/she had to say would be along the lines of "you own a locket"?

Here is the video of his live performance of this song. It may or may not be called "Why would they only speak to you?" (That's a line in the chorus.)

Then there is a song "think for yourself" that admonishes the reader to use their mind and read the fine print. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Here is the video:

Many of his songs do not explicitly deal with nonbelief in god(s), but address some of the universal themes like relationships or grief. "Small comfort" is a song he wrote after his beloved dog died, during the time at which he had to really resist a comforting fantasy that his dog is living carefree somewhere in the doggy heaven. So he sang about comfort that can be found in an atheist's view of death: at least his dog would not have to miss him. If the dog passed away with a thought of waking up and going for a walk, that was it -- he did not get to find out otherwise.

A video of the grief song:

Then there was a memorable song "How do you do what you do", dedicated to all those people that are more successful than us at the things we strive to do. In the presence of people who are superior to you in the the area that really matters to you it's very hard not to fold and give up. This song, with its edgy, anxious melody, has stuck with me.

A video of "How do you do what you do"

Then again, he had some very outspokenly atheistic songs, like "God is not great" (a YouTube video) -- the same title as Christopher Hitchens' book. Hrab said he secretly hopes Hitchens will get to hear it and maybe like it. This would not be unprecedented, as Hrab's experience shows. He spent a lot of his between-song patter talking about his encounters with famous skeptics and atheists. At one convention he introduced himself to Mike Chapman, the great-great...-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Chapman had him floored by recognizing his work: "George Hrab? You're funny." Hrab recounts shaking hands with Chapman as "I touched Charles Darwin's DNA!" He had more such encounters with the who-is-who of the freethought pantheon (so to speak :-)). The crowning moment came when James Randi, sitting in the front row of Hrab's concert, was singing along -- he knew the words of Hrab's songs! Hrab fake-swooned when he recounted this. Then again, one must wonder if such idol-worship doesn't run counter to the spirit of freethought? :-)

His most memorable song was "brainsbodyboth", about his dream girl who would have a killer body and brains to match. It's full of funny and politically incorrect double entendres, and each line gives you something to chuckle at (or occasionally cringe). The line that really gave me a pause was where he compares his dream woman's brain and body to a... wait for it... "domain name that's case-specific". I'm not completely sure what that meant. Perhaps there's some kind of a visual analogy created by uppercase and lowercase letters strung together? Hmmm.... :-)

Another source of amusement in his concert was audience's questions. At the beginning of the show he asked people to write down questions for him (about anything in the world) on pieces of paper, and he was going to answer them during the show. He promised to reward the author of the best question with a "Think for yourself" t-shirt. The slip of paper with the question he deemed the best held these words:

" "? This is a homeopatic question.

So we had funny people in the audience on par with the performer -- our own CFI'ers no less!

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Twitter paradox

I have a question for Twitterati. I see a lot of people on Twitter begging for new followers. They want to get their follower count up to a magic, round number, such as 2000 or 4000. I wonder what do they do when new people follow them after they reach that number? Will it break the magic and the race will start all over again, from 2001 to 3000? But there are also a few practical questions:

1. Do those people follow every follower back? (Aside from spammers, of course.) Because it's not fair to beg people to follow you if you have no intent to reciprocate.

2. If so, when do they have time to read updates of 2000 people? I can barely keep up with the 100+ people I follow.

3. Maybe their secret is that they don't read the updates of everyone they follow? While the Twitter web interface doesn't let you group your followees into those you read and those you don't, there may be Twitter clients that let you create groups, filtering out the wheat from the chaff. I don't know because I don't use any clients. If that's what those people really do -- read only the VIP updates while ignoring the unwashed masses -- then it's doubly unfair. The ignored followers don't even know their updates aren't being read.

So I'm curious to know how this works. Not follow back, secretly ignore the bulk of followers, or make an honest effort to read everyone's updates and not get anything else done? I hope Teh Interwebs can enlighten me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Interesting startups at the Austin Tech Happy Hour: part 2

Another startup I chatted with at the Austin Tech Happy Hour was SocialWare. It integrates with social networks, but for different purposes than Social Agency. They are making tools like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn suitable for corporate communications. That includes communications between employees, and company's communications with its customers or vendors. The idea is that employees, customers and vendors will use those tools in the same way as they do socially -- e.g. by posting status updates -- to keep all interested parties updated on the issues they're working on. For that, the information that passes through those channels needs to be secure. So the SocialWare software intercepts those communications on the company's firewall and then does some kind of magic so that only the authorized parties would see the updates. The rest of Facebook or Twitter visitors, if they looked at a person's X feed, would only see "X sent a private message". Those updates are stored on the company's servers, not on the social networks' servers.

It sounds like a neat idea, although I'm unclear how exactly they enable the information to be seen by the authorized eyes only and prevent it from crossing company's boundaries. At one point Cameron Cooper, the guy who gave the demo, mentioned that a particular safety feature depends on people using a separate Facebook profile for work, so that it would be invisible to outside friends. But this kind of defeats the purpose of using the widespread social networking tools in the first place. The only reason I would use Facebook to communicate with my customers / vendors would be if I was already spending lots of times on Facebook as it is. That is to say, I would have to be already participatting in Facebook for "play". That way I would not need separate software for work communications. I could avoid installing another program on my computer and having another source of interruptions and another window to clutter my desktop. This of course implies that the employee is socializing on Facebook while at work. dMany companies don't allow that. (The smarter ones realize it's a harmless distraction that actually increases morale. :-))

But if I'm not using Facebook for play, I might as well install use separate, dedicated instant messaging software, fortified with extra security features that corporate communications require. So I don't see much logic here.

That's not to say that SocialWare's premise is flimsy: it is possible that some of their social network integration makes use of your "play" profile while keeping the communications secure. As I said, there were probably many details I missed in what Cameron said. (The room was NOISY!)

I was impressed by both companies, but especially Social Agency. It seems they've got a little closer to answering the big question of how to monetize social networks. Of course, their product is just a different twist on marketing / advertising. But companies might like it better to have their brand integrated into people's feeds -- woven into the threads of their daily lives, if you will -- than to sell ads that are displayed on the web page's margins and ignored by visitors.

More pictures from Austin Tech Happy hours are in my photo gallery

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Interesting startups at the Austin Tech Happy Hour: part 1

At the December Austin Tech Happy Hour I saw demos of two Austin startups. Both of their names start with Social. Both do integration with Facebook and other networks, in two very different ways.

Social Agency creates Facebook and MySpace applications for their customers. (Actually, I'm not completely sure if MySpace has applications the way Facebook does. But apparently it has something like that, since Lee Parker said they are doing a MySpace integration as well.) Their customers are companies who want their brands to be closer integrated into social networks. Social Agency used our local NPR radio station as an example for their demo. They have created a Texas Music Matters application for Facebook. So when a Facebook user adds this application to their profile and starts "doing things" with it (though I haven't investigated what kind of Facebook'y things you can do on Texas Music Matters), those things will show up in your Facebook feed. Maybe the TMM song of the day will be embedded in your feed every day, or something like that? I didn't ask the Social Agency guy for specific examples. The bar was LOUD. :-) In any case I thought it was a neat idea.

More pictures from Austin Tech Happy hours are in my photo gallery.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

China Mieville "The Scar": book review

China Mieville's "The Scar" is set in the same universe as "Perdido Street Station", but is not a sequel. It follows a very strange journey of a woman named Bellis, as she flees New Crobuzon by boat in the post-Perdido-Street-Station fallout. Her goal is to emigrate to a faraway corner of Bas Lag, but her trip takes a wrong -- or rather, strange -- turn when the ship is hijacked by, and incorporated into, a floating conglomerate of ships called Armada. Armada is, loosely speaking, a pirate society. It belongs to no country and obeys no laws except their own. It is governed by several mysterious figures. Soon it becomes apparent that Armada targeted this particular ship for deeper reasons than just to enslave its passengers and take their stuff. The leaders of Armada seem to have their own goals they don't share with the common citizens. Since their fate is at the mercy of the rulers, the captives have a strong interest in finding out what's in store for Armada. Plotting and scheming ensues, punctuated by encounters with improbable sea creatures, and carriers of ancient, secret knowledge.

Plot tension not sustained

The premise of the novel is interesting, yet this book suffers from the same affliction as "Perdido Street Station", only to a much larger extent. The plot does not progress seamlessly. It lurches along in fits and starts. Individual characters' mysteries, along with hints that something Big is about to happen to Armada, may be enough to sustain the reader's interest, but not very consistently. This book did not keep me glued to it. The plot tension rises and lets up, but not in any meaningful rhythm. Just when you hope the plot is thickening, it suddenly plateaus and diffuses, and we're back to following Bellis's mundane daily activities. Yes, life in a floating anarchist state apparently can get very mundane, even indistinguishable from a middle class urban dweller's existence. This could be partly because Armada put Bellis to work as a librarian. We get to follow her along as she goes to her boring job, sulks, pines for New Crobuzon, and makes painful attempts to connect with people who are positively bad for her. Well, she meets a few good folks too, but somehow her interactions with them aren't nearly as interesting as with the bad guys. :-). They bring tension to the plot, rekindling our interest just as we were about to forget why we were reading this book.

The ending does indeed justify the expectation that something Big is bound to happen, but it does not directly follow from the events in the plot. I got a feeling that the key plot threads were tied up retroactively, rather than being thought out from the beginning. The ending is not really predictable, but neither is it convincing. It feels a bit arbitrary.

Interesting characters compensate for plot deficiencies

That said, "Scar" has a lot to recommend it. I found the characters more interesting than in "Perdido Street Station", perhaps because I could identify with the brooding, misanthropic, individualistic, suspicious Bellis. She despises Armada's attempts to integrate her. Even when she relents, she continues to secretly weave her own plans. But as much as she resists it, her perspective of both New Crobuzon and of Armada starts to change when she meets people who were oppressed in New Crobuzon and found freedom, paradoxically, as citizens of Armada. The ambiguity of her situation and the promise of freedom in captivity is one aspect of the story that makes it interesting to see how it plays out. In the process she makes some critical mistakes and suffers harshly for doing what she thought was right.

I have to say I was surprised to learn the point China Mieville tried to make with Bellis's fate. In one interview he said Bellis's punishment for doing what she thought was right goes to show that a person's fantasy of singlehandedly saving the world is futile, and change can only be brought about by organized mass resistance. If this was the moral of Bellis story, I don't think it came through very well. Bellis did not act out of exaggerated sense of her own importance. She honestly thought she had the right information and simply could not stand by and allow a disaster to happen. There was no way for her to know the information she was acting on was wrong.

Still, the message that only the masses can effect change came through loud and clear in the end for different reasons. It just wasn't the reason for Bellis' failure.

Several secondary characters also make this book worth reading. As is often the case in fantasy, the mysterious bad guys are more interesting than the goody-goodies. :-) There are hints at a budding romance between characters who would make a rather unlikely couple, and I was very interested to see how it was going to turn out.

Consistent worldbuilding

A good thing about "The Scar" is also that it is not overloaded with monsters. Sure, there is a healthy dose of them, and some of encounters with them are more or less gratuitous (the episode with blood-sucking anophelii seemed like a detour from the main story) but they are less chaotic and more integrated into the plot than in "Perdido Street Station". Since most of the book takes place in the sea, all the creatures encountered along the way are part of the ocean ecology. So the worldbuilding in this novel seems more orderly and therefore more convincing than "Perdido Street Station".

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Fencon: Gregory Benford on problems facing the world

Finally, a last post from this year's Fencon.

Science fiction writer and physics professor Gregory Benford was the Guest of Honor at Fencon 2008. In his GOH speech he shared his thoughts on topics such as American dominance in the world and its role to play in the technological future. Having been in science fiction fandom for four decades, Benford is proud of American science fiction and fandom influence on the world, which he puts in such blunt terms as "We own the future". At the same time he acknowledges that the future is not all rosy, and that science fiction may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine, signaling of darker times to come. The fact that fantasy genre outsells science outsells science fiction by an order of magnitude is another sign of trouble, says Benford, because, in his opinion, all fantasy is dark.

Benford's keynote speech on Saturday was the problems facing the world and what can be done about them. Of those, global climate change was the most significant issue. He assured us that whatever is being done to counter it isn't working, because global warming is typically viewed as a moral problem (excessive consumption), when it needs to be seen as an engineering problem. To that end he proposed an unconventional -- or perhaps little known -- approach. At the end of his speech he spent some time on space travel and overpopulation.

The whole article can be found on my web site.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Joe Haldeman "Forever War": FACT reading group discussion

9 people attended a discussion of Joe Haldeman's "Forever War". Everybody in the group had read a book, most of them decades ago, and most of those people had not reread it recently.

Depressing, except for the love story

A few of them did not remember much about the book except that it was underwhelming. "For me there wasn't much "there" there, even though I had friends who died in the war," said a reader. Another reader, who generally doesn't enjoy war novels (with exception of "Ender's Game") didn't like this book because he happened to pick it up when he wanted to read something with the sense of wonder, but this was too depressing. He also saw no reason why the guy who survived the war should be the only one to do so, when he was nothing special.

Most people agreed that it was rather depressing. Some thought the only thing that saved this book was the main characters' happy ending. As a story of love that endured despite their being separated by space and time without much chance to get back together, it was uplifting. Even after decades of reading it, one reader still remembered a character's words: "I want to be your lover, but if I can't be your lover, I'll be your nurse", and thought there's no greater love than that.

An out-of-the-blue ending

The ending may have been satisfying in terms of certain individuals' fates, but in the global sense it was found to be logically unjustified, at least according to some readers. There is no satisfactory explanation of how the conflict was resolved: "oh, it was those clone things, you wouldn't understand it, the clones just worked it out." One reader also observed that the clever use of the bombs in the last battle would have been something any military group had gamed out. The protagonist wouldn't have to have that clever idea, because anybody would have figured it out long ago and ended the war.

Not just the ending was found problematic: some readers noticed several other plot twists that were poorly thought out. When the soldiers land on a Tauran planet, they run into telepathic natives that look like teddybears, who follow them around and fry their brains. The soldiers never found out what those creatures were or what part they played in the war. It's a proverbial gun on the mantelpiece that's supposed to fire but doesn't, and there are more of them in the book.

The book feels dated

Personally I found the whole book more than a bit dated, science and technology-wise, in the same way that many science fiction books are. They show a society that has unimaginably advanced technology, such as faster-than-light drive, yet the rest of its technology is stuck in the 1950s and worse. In the middle third of the book people plow the fields with manual plows. It is as if invention of FTL did not produce a whole slew of "byproduct" technologies that revolutionized huge swaths of industry. There's also some screwy thinking about economy. The war plunged the Earth into a global recession, yet people are reluctant to end the war because they think it's the only thing stimulating the economy?

Things "Forever War" got right

On the other hand, "Forever War" received praise for the things it did well. If the book was depressing, it was so for the right reasons, since it reflected accurately what goes on in the military. The protagonist gets drafted, trained, and sent to places without having a clue why he's being made to do all that. The absurdities of the military life are highlighted from the very beginning when the new soldiers, as soon as they get trained for low temperature work, are told that they're really going to a planet that's much hotter. Some people pointed out that's the standard operating procedure in the army. Similarly, the brief, meaningless appearance of telepathic bears in the story may not be an example of poor plotting, but something that makes perfect sense in a soldier's life. In the military you are transferred from place to place and meet a lot of people and see things you will never meet or see again, some readers explained. So it is with telepathic bears: the soldiers never got to find out what they were. From the brutal and extremely dangerous training the grunts are subjected to, to being forever torn from everyone they know and love, to the impossibility of integrating back into the society, the honest potrayal of the reality of war was acknowledged to be the strong suit of the book.

"Forever War" as an antithesis to Heinlein's worldview

So in general people thought the book was good enough, but some didn't think it was so good as to deserve both Hugo and Nebula awards. They were a bit puzzled why "Forever War" has a reputation as one of the most important science fiction novels ever (one reader said that people who don't read much SF list "Forever War" among one of the few science fiction books they've heard about, along with works by Asimov and Heinlein). In response to this, some group members reminded us about the political context in which "Forever War" first came out. At that time the society was polarized between those who supported the Vietnam war and those who opposed it. Science fiction writers and fandom were just as divided. "There were ads in Analog signed by people opposing the war, and ads signed by people in favor of the war. They were mostly not talking to each other. Fandom was as caught up in this as everything else. People saw this as a direct attack on Starship Troopers," said a reader. ""Forever War" was one of three novels that were direct responses to the worldview Heinlein had back then. For a lot of people this was fresh and counter to the prevailing tone of the SF, a whole new way to introduce downbeat fiction into SF. A lot of people were beginning to see the world more in that way, rather than the way they were socialized by Asimov and Heinlein, where service is good and the government will do all the good things for you."

One younger reader, though she could relate more to the current war in Iraq than to Vietnam, found this book relevant to today's situation. The part where the military command uses a code word on soldiers that turns off their brains, making them into killers, really resonated with her. She saw it as a parallel of what the army does to soldiers in our times: by not taking proper care of them psychologically, it allows them to commit atrocities against civilians.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Some specific uses of Evernote

I've been using Evernote for a while now, but mostly as an experiment to see if it really helps me remember things I would otherwise have hard time remembering, or organize loose, unstructured pieces of information I had hard time organizing and finding. In the last few months I've found two clear uses for it.

1. I take pictures of people's business cards and store them in Evernote. This lets me throw away the paper copy of the card. In the past I felt uncomfortable throwing away business cards, because "you never know when you'll need this person's info again". I tried storing those cards in business card holders, but those (a) fill up very quickly, (b) take up space, (c) it's not practical to carry them with you, which means if in the middle of your workday you suddenly thought you'd need someone's contact information, you'll have to wait until you get home to look it up, and then remember that you meant to do it. Most importantly, (d) paper cards are not really searchable the way computer information is. Since Evernote indexes the text in images, and your notes are accessible from anywhere via a web browser, storing them in Evernote is definitely a win.

At least in theory. In practice, I never needed to retrieve the info in 99% of business cards I collected over the years. So I can't really say Evernote made things easier for me in that respect. What it did is eliminated my pangs of guilt when throwing away the cards.

2. Looking up calorie content of restaurant dishes. When I eat out, calories are an important consideration in my choice of food. Most restaurants don't list the nutrition content of their dishes on their menu (one can only hope Austin will become like New York in that respect one day), but they often list it on their websites. I go to websites of eateries that appeal to me, and clip their nutritional information into Evernote. When I get to the restaurant, I can access it either through the web (if the restaurant has WiFi) or locally on my laptop in the Evernote for Windows application.

As always when I evaluate any kind of technology, I compare the ways I do things with it with the ways I would do them without it. Without Evernote, I would have to manually save those web pages to disk. That can get complicated if the information in a web page is contained in images (nutrition information is often presented as an image, like a label on packaged food). Also, without Evernote my notes would not get automatically synchronized, hence wouldn't be accessible from any computer I am at, including my smartphone.

Accessing the notes is not always convenient, though. If I want to look them up on my computer when I walk into a restaurant, I have to wait for the laptop to come out of hibernation. That takes a few minutes. Alternatively, I could access them from my mobile phone over a web browser. The mobile version of Evernote website is rather limited in its functionality. It doesn't show the notebook structure, it only shows the notes in the reverse chronological order. That's not very convenient, but the search function helps a lot, making it a decent, though imperfect, way to access the notes.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Large file uploads: frustrations and improvement ideas

I spent a futile day yesterday trying to upload videos to Facebook. Those videos were 200-300 MB in size, some as big as 500 MB. Uploading files this big over my home internet connection (we have cable from RoadRunner) takes 2-2.5 hours. It is rare for my internet connection to stay up this long without "burping" at least once. When that happens, the upload stalls. Facebook (or YouTube, for that matter) does not have functionality to let you resume a stalled download. You have to start over. And so it becomes a Sisyphean task, because the connection hardly ever stays up uninterrupted this long.

However, I had been able to upload those videos to my web site, because I used an FTP client that allows to resume interrupted uploads at the point of interruption. I really wish Facebook and YouTube had this capability.

If that's not possible, perhaps they could consider a functionality to let users pull videos from another website, instead of from their home computer. Since my videos are already stored on my website, I would like to be able to point Facebook to my website and "slurp" up the videos from there. That way the upload would not rely on my home internet connection.

I don't know if this presents any legal problems. Obviously it would be possible to upload copyrighted videos, but people already do that from their home computers, so this shouldn't be an objection.

Implementation ideas

Hmm, I gave some thought of what would be the best way to implement this idea. One way would be for me to write a script I would run in my account on my web host. It could login into Facebook or YouTube as me and post videos directly from my web host account, where I keep them. I have no idea if Facebook has an API for this (but it has some kind of API zillions third party applications use), so that's not beyond the realm of possibility. YouTube, of course, has not opened its API for applications (that I know of), so my program would have to be a screenscraper. That's not very reliable, since the HTML formatting any website site emits can change any time without notice. Besides, such an application could only push videos from my website, not from any other third-party websites. Anyone else who would want to use this application would have to install it in their own web hosting account (assuming they have one) and customize it for themselves. That's way too much hassle.

The there is the reverse approach: not to push videos from a third-party website to Facebook / Youtube, but to make those sites pull videos from other websites. As far as I can tell, Facebook's Post or Share function can only let me post a link to a video (or any other item), not to pull that video itself into Facebook. The problem with it is that my video is in a format (e.g. MOV) that's not necessarily accessible to all viewers if they don't have the right plug-ins, and it plays only in a special application, not in the browser itself. For that it would have to be converted into Flash, which is what Facebook, YouTube, and probably all video sharing websites do with the uploaded videos.

But Facebook API may be suitable for writing an application that would pull videos from third-party websites. I haven't looked into the Facebook API at all, but seeing how millions of people have used it for all imaginable applications, this may not be out of question. Of course, this does not begin to address the problem how to make YouTube (or any other video-sharing website) do the same.

I have to wonder if no one else has ever encountered a problem like mine.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Highlights from Maker Faire 2008 (October 18-19, Austin, Texas)

I won't blog much about Maker Faire this year, because the most interesting exhibits were the same as last year. This includes art cars and bicycles, and pedal-powered merry-go-rounds by Cyclecide. You can read about those wonders by accessing all posts with the label "Maker Faire".

I took two new pictures of the Cyclecide devices that weren't here last year (or at least I missed them): a merry-go-round of two hanging bicycles that may or may not be known by a more elegant name Bike Rodeo, and Axe Grinder that plays sounds resembling an electric guitar when a rider pedals it. I guess you can play some rudimentary music this way. For some reason there was a written sign forbidding Stairway to Heaven. ;-)

Last year I somehow also managed to miss the Life Size Mousetrap. It is a giant Rube Goldberg-style chain of devices inspired by the desktop Mousetrap game.

Here are some images of Life Size Mousetrap: 1: the mousetrap rests between demonstrations, 2: the curiously dressed people who run the mousetrap, 3: a one-woman band Esmeralda Strange, 4: the guy bring in the "cheese" for the mousetrap, 5: the World's Sexiest Mice come in, 6: the World's Sexiest Mice are bound with ropes, 7: volunteers hoist the 4000-pound black cube, 8: the 4000-pound black cube has been hoisted into the air, 9: a "mouse" collects donations after the show, 10: collection of donations, 11: a World's Sexiest Mouse and a Lizard Boy make a victory tour, 12: the desktop Mousetrap game that inspired the life-size one.

Here is my YouTube video of the Life Size Mousetrap in action.

A low-tech but cute gift for a science fiction fan in your life: journals with covers made of vintage science fiction paperbacks.

Technical and cute: Armadillo-shaped car.

Among the more offbeat: knit plarn bags. Plarn is "plastic yarn", made by cutting up plastic grocery bags into long strips.

There were robots and robot competitions too numerous to name. And microcontrolled devices were really popular at Maker Faire. In addition to homegrown makers making toys with microcontrollers, Microsoft had an entire pavillion devoted to promotion of their .NET Micro Framework. It gave people an opportunity to create their own applications right there at the Maker Faire. One could also enter a Microsoft contest that starts later this year. A Microsoft guy attending the booth told me that people like me, who have only developed web applications in .NET, are a prime audience for .NET Micro Framework. But... doesn't programming embedded devices requires knowledge of hardware? I asked, puzzled. No, said the guy, .NET Micro Framework abstracts it all away. According to him, all you need to do is to read the manufacturer's specifications that came with your microcontroller, so that you would know how its pins are numbered, and then you can write code directly to the pins. He encouraged me to enter the contest. Yet, as an application programmer, this is hardly my idea of fun. The conversation wasn't in vain, though: he gave me a Microsoft t-shirt. Now, would I dare to wear it, given how much I associate with free software people? What a conundrum.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A note on Evernote

This is just something I thought I'd share with Teh Wild Interwebs out there.

The short version: Evernote for Windows synchronization works only if Internet Explorer can access the web.

The long version

I use a pretty cool web service called Evernote. It has a desktop version too, for Windows and for Mac. To upload "notes" into it (such as images or text documents), I drag-and-drop them to the Evernote For Windows (the desktop application). At regular intervals Evernote synchronizes the local versions of those notes with the versions stored on Evernote Web. That way those notes are accessible to me anywhere over the web browser.

Sometime in the future I may blog about Evernote some more, once I figure out how to use it in ways that would totally enhance my life and scrub my kitchen sink. I've been doing that for the last few months a bit too sporadically, so I still haven't reached definite conclusions.

A couple of months ago for no good reason the Evernote desktop application stopped synchronizing with the web. Whenever I pressed the Synchronize button, I would get a message "Syncronization Failed". Not informative at all. support pages didn't reveal any clues, so I contacted their tech support. After a couple of back-and-forth emails they suggested I check whether I can access Evernote URL from Internet Explorer. Specifically from IE, not Firefox. So I did. And sure enough, IE said it was in Offline Mode. Once I unchecked the Offline Mode, Evernote synchronization started to work. So it turns out Evernote for Windows is dependent on IE. Who woulda thunk?

It should be mentioned that their tech support was fast and efficient in solving my problem. Very nice of them, considering that they are not making any money off of me (Evernote's basic service is free).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Paul Melko "Singularity Ring": book review

I really wanted to like Paul Melko's "Singularity Ring". I'm a sucker for everything that has Singularity in the title. But it failed to draw me in. By the way -- maybe it's just me, but by stating the protagonist was a starship-pilot-to-be, the cover blurb lead me to believe that this is a space adventure. I was mistaken: the book takes place almost entirely on Earth.

To quote synopsis of the book, "Various factions struggle for control of the Ring, a colossal space station built around Earth by engineers who turned most of humankind into a group mind called the Community, which promptly figured out how to access other realities and vanished from this one. The few remaining humans genetically engineer their children to form pods of individuals so closely bonded that they function as one person. After stumbling on secret research during a training exercise, the teenage pod called Apollo Papadopulos soon find themselves on the run from shadowy forces who want to seduce or kill them." That's a fair description of the plot. However, the devil is, as always, in the details.

The first few chapters: like watching a bored child

The beginning of the story, where the pod wonders around the countryside, undergoes training and occasionally gets into trouble, did not hold my interest. There's something about the idea of young, physically perfect, superhuman characters roaming around and feeling vaguely bored, that turns me off. To make it worse, some chapters are written in the present and others in the past tense, but that doesn't mean the past-tense chapters happened before the present-tense ones. The timeline of the first few chapters is unclear.

For a book about Singularity, the first few chapters are oddly low-tech. Even though there are offhand mentions of the Community (consisting of humans that disappeared in the recent Singularity), the Ring (a structure around the Earth where they lived just before they disappeared), the Exodus (disappearance of the said Community), and even something called the Rift (of which nothing more is said), those remarks are so scarce and non-specific they don't provide interesting clues as to what exactly this Ring and Community is / was and what happened to them. Basically, you don't immediately get a picture that there's something interesting going on; rather, reading about the teens' capers they filled me with ennui similar to that which comes from watching a bored child.

The bear storyline is disconnected from the rest of the plot

The pace picks up with the accident in the space station. (Yes, there is a chapter or two that take place in space station, and then it's back to Earth.) At that point I finally felt things were starting to move along, and the characters were taking charge of their own story. Alas, then they go back to Earth, and more aimless roaming ensues. Well, it's not entirely aimless. The pod has a goal of finding a family of genetically engineered bears they suspect of holding clues to certain secrets they've stumbled upon. Ultimately, though, the bear storyline turns out to be nothing more than a digression. Yes, the teens get a certain clue that explains some things, but that whole episode (and it makes a good third of the book) is so dissociated from the rest of the plot that it does not feel like a part of the same story.

Interesting concepts not integrated into the plot

Overall, there are some interesting concepts there, but they are only revealed at the end, instead of being integrated into the story. Reading this book you don't get that satisfaction a reader can get when separate clues add up to the big picture and a realization slowly dawns. Maybe this was the aim in this book, but it just didn't happen. The most interesting concepts of the book are not woven seamlessly into the plot. That's actually a common flaw in many science fiction books. It's hard to do it right. Well, this is Paul Melko's first novel, so maybe there's still hope.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I tried coworking

Today was a bike-to-coworking-or-wear-green free coworking day at Conjunctured. This means you got to cowork for free if you fullfilled one of those two conditions. There is no way I could bike all the way from Northwest Austin to Conjunctured without getting killed on a highway, so I dressed in green. Plenty of green from head to toe. Many other folks at Conjunctured embraced that approach as well, so the place looked a bit like St. Patrick's day.

Coworking has been a much written about trend lately. It means strangers working in the same building on their individual (or joint) projects. Conjunctured is an Austin company that rents space for coworking. But it's a lot more than that -- it's a community as well. It's used primarily by freelancers and owners of small businesses that do business mostly over the web (hence, can work from anywhere). Unlike conventional entrepreneurs, these people did not keep their business ideas secret, but chatted freely about their projects, exchanging advice.

The most frequently overheard word today was launch. As in, many of those people were going to launch their web applications some time soon. I was sitting in what appeared to be a less geeky corner, next to two women, Lavanna and Lisa, who were working on their web sites, and The latter is scheduled to launch tomorrow. Lavanna has an interesting take on coworking. She sits in coffeeshops and paints pictures of strangers without them knowing. Usually they never catch on. So coworking is not just for geeks -- it's for artists too.

Geeks were plentiful too, working on their startups, trading snippets of advice such as "why don't you use the AJAX'y thingy". It was from one of them that I got this unusual question: what would be women's equivalent of a little black book, like guys have (or used to have before the days of PDAs and smartphones)? Is women's version pink, or what? Unfortunately, I couldn't answer: I never had so many dates as to need a book to keep track of them. The question was posed by two guys brainstorming possible iPhone applications for women. Or so I figured from their conversation.

To sum it up, coworking at a dedicated place like Conjunctured is like working at the coffeeshop, only you don't have to take your laptop with you to the bathroom. And you don't have to play musical chairs with electric outlets -- they are plentiful. And coffee is free (OK, donation-supported). And strangers won't mind if you chat them up -- it's expected. A very nice mixture of solitude and community.

Neal Stephenson in Austin, September 25, 2008

On September 25 Neal Stephenson gave a reading from his latest novel Anathem, signed books and answered audience's questions. This is Stephenson's third reading and Q/A at Book People over the last 4 years. Some of the questions haven't changed much from year to year. Are his projects getting bigger and bigger? Is he ever going to write something short? Which is the favorite of the novels he has written? Why does he prefer to do his research in books, as opposed to search engines? Hint: serendipity. Are there new technologies he is excited about? Other questions are new. Does he have any ideas on posthumanism? Has he been making something cool in the workshop lately? Why is Anathem set on an imaginary world, not Earth?

Neal Stephenson at Book People in September 2008

Read the whole article on my website.

Read about Neal Stephenson's earlier appearances in Austin in 2003 and in 2004.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fencon: Science -- fact or crap?

"Science -- fact or crap?" was a game played by a team of pros against a team of fans... I think. The most prominent pro on the team was Gregory Benford, a physics professor, science fiction writer, and Fencon guest of honor. The purpose of the game was to score points by answering science-related questions. Each question had two parts: a fact-or-crap, i.e. yes-or-no part (but you could not answer "no", you had to say "crap"! :-)), and a follow up freeform" question. The questions drew from many different sciences: anatomy, anthropology, archeology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics.

Tim Morgan, dressed as a cartoonish scientist in a lab coat, a propeller hat, goggles and rubber gloves, conducted the game. Team members had to share some of the same humiliation by donning rubber gloves and goggles. In addition they were given very cool plastic hand-shaped rattlers, so as to announce their readiness to answer a question.

Examples of questions

Here are the examples of questions. Most of them were not very hard.

A cow's second stomach chamber is called the reticulum. Fact or crap? (Fact.)

A cow has how many stomachs? Four. Can you name them? Nobody could.

Currently there are only 2 functioning human made satellites in orbit around Mars. Fact or crap? Crap. There are 3 of them.

Name the 3 functioning spacecraft orbiting Mars. Mars Oddyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

A modern archeological project begins with 1 or more surveys. Fact or crap? (Fact.)

Name two types of archeological surveys. Aerial survey, geophysical survey, region survey.

Carbon dioxide will dissolve in water. Fact or crap? Fact. It's called soda.

The property of a substance to dissolve in water is called what? Solubility.

Climate is usually defined in terms of temperature and rainfall. Fact or crap? Fact.

Climate of a particular place is often summarized by an annual diagram called what? The climate graph.

Among the more difficult questions were "Calcium occurs most commonly in the sedimentary rocks. Name 1 of the 3 minerals that contain calcium." It was answered correctly by Gregory Benford: carbonate. Or: "A hydrate is a crystal that has water molecules trapped inside: fact or crap? (Fact.) Heating hydrates will drive the water out of crystals. It's called what?" Benford tried "water sublimation". Tim Morgan said he had "water crytallization", but deferred to Benford since he has a PhD. Actually, a quick look at Wikipedia does not give me a definite answer one way or the other.

Funny questions

Not all questions were dull and geeky. :-) Tim made sure to put some funny questions into the mix. Some of them were funny mostly because the people were so confident in their knowledge that they did not even wait for Tim to finish the question before jumping in with an answer. This lead to some moments of hilarity.

"The supercontinent that existed before the continents separated into their current configuration was called..." People started waving their rattlers hands without waiting to hear the end. "You're sure you want to answer before you heard the question?" Tim asked. "OK, go ahead." Fact! yelled one person. Crap! answered Tim. It's not Sangria. It's Pangaea.

"Fact or crap?" was the one and only science track event I attended at Fencon 2008. Yay to Fencon for having a science track. Maybe next year, if hotel fairies grant me some sleep, I'll be able to stay till the end and attend more of them.

Pictures from this game and from the rest of Fencon are available in my photo gallery.

Throughout Fencon Gregory Benford shared his thoughts on such topics as American dominance in the world and its role to play in the technological future, and how geoengineering can save the Earth's climate. Read more about it on my web site.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Fencon: costumers

The Unseelie Court at Fencon 2008
The Unseelie Court. More pictures of Fencon 2008 costumes can be found in my photo gallery.
The queen and king of the Unseelie Court at Fencon 2008
The queen and king of the Unseelie Court. More pictures of Fencon 2008 costumes can be found in my photo gallery.

While I did not stay for the Fencon masquerade, I got to see some of the spectacular costumes on the Catwalk. It was a pre-masquarade event where the costumers discussed their creations with those who wanted to know the what, why and how behind a costume.

The Unseelie court were truly stunning. The level of detail in those costumes was jawdropping. But these people are not amateurs. The queen and the king of the Unseelie court are professional performers who appear in Renaissance faires and other such events where elaborately costumed persons are desired. At the Catwalk they told us more about what it takes to produce such a spectacular costume. One by one, starting with the queen, the costumers climbed on a chair and showed off their creations. The queen asked the audience to take a guess at how much just the fabric of her costume costs. To spare you the guessing, it was a jaw-dropping 800 dollars. And if you wanted her to make you a dress of that level of complexity, it would add up to ~ $1500, the other half of the sum being labor. Sooo, she pointed out, those of you who are dreaming to quit your boring job, take heart: it is possible to make a living off costuming, if that happens to be your hobby.

The Unseelies are "not the good guys", as the queen said; accordingly, their court contains an assortment of assassins, including Rose, or this young girl, whose tender age causes people to underestimate her, making her job as an assassin easier. They also contain mischief-makers, such as this Spriggin (behind Rose in the picture. Click on the image to see a bigger version). One of her contacts is opaque, causing her to see out of one eye only. During long appearances at Ren Faires she has to occasionally switch the opaque contact to the other eye, or it becomes too uncomfortable.

Rose, an assassin from the Unseelie Court A teenage assassin from the Unseelie Court
Rose, an assassin from the Unseelie Court A teenage assassin from the Unseelie Court
Gargoyle at Fencon 2008

This gargoyle was also part of the court, though I would have sworn gargoyles are of French, not Celtic, origin. :-) As one may note, this gargoyle did not have wings. His costume, like those of others, was incomplete when he showed it off on Catwalk. Yes, it's hard to believe that any of these splendid costumes was lacking something. But they were: I guess the costumers were saving the best for the Masquerade. The queen, for example, was only 2/3rds dressed! I can't imagine what else she was going to put on, or just as importantly, how was she able to walk under all that weight. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the full costumes: one of the disadvantages of leaving early.

Dach the Barbarian Scottsman Dach puts his kilt on
Dach the Barbarian Scottsman Dach gives a demo on how to put on a kilt

A barbarian-Scottsman named Dach demonstrated the process of taking a kilt off and putting it on. Well, no, he did not remove his kilt completely. True to the tradition, he wore nothing underneath (or so he said. The audience was spared a demonstration ;-)) so he just showed us how to arrange the kilt fabric around the upper body. Like a sari, kilt is just another very long strip of fabric, hence takes some skill to turn it into a garment.

Skinwalker at Fencon 2008

Not all the characters were Celtic or even European: an exception was Skinwalker, a Native American mythological figure with powers of shapeshifting. She seemed to be friendly with the Unseelie court; I guess they could always put her murderous powers to good use. This confirms that Columbus certainly wasn't the first European to discover America. :-)

Klingon women at Fencon 2008

The last people on the Catwalk were these Klingon women, who I already met a year ago at ApolloCon 2007. Their tag line was "doncha wish your girlfriend was hot like us!" sung with a belligerent growl.

All these and more pictures of Fencon costumes are available in my photo gallery.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fencon chatter

Just heard a knock-knock joke about Harlan Ellison in the Fencon Consuite. The joke was rather straightforward, hence not very funny. Also heard a story about Harlan Ellison taking part in a dating game (a reality show). The highlight: Harlan's answer about his ideal first date involved taking a woman to a dump and shooting rats' eyes out. The tape never aired (big surprise :-))

Here's a funny term I heard at Jay Lake's "Slush pile live" panel. Rejectomancy: trying to figure out from a rejection slip what the rejection meant. For example, if you get a rejection from Realms of Fantasy, it is simple. If you get a blue slip, it means the first reader rejected it witout passing it up. If you get a yellow slip, it means it was passed up to the editor and she rejected it without giving it much thought. If you get a letter of rejection, it means the editor considered it before rejecting. With most other magazines, it's not that clear.

In "Slush pile live" Jay Lake talked about the nuts and bolts of how short story anthologies are created. Some of the considerations that go into putting together an anthology are amusing. For one thing, the stories must be ordered in such a way that they would vary in length, so that the reader could read some 2000-word-long story as a breather between 5000-world-long stories. Among the less obvious considerations, story titles should not accidentally make up a bizarre poem in the table of contents. Also, the editor must take care to not put together stories in such a way that the beginning of one story ties into the end of the previous story in an unintentionally humorous way. As an example, he used the stories from the writers' workshop he taught at this convention. One of them ends with "He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell." There is another one that starts with "The house was awake." Imagine how weird it would look to the reader if story B immediately followed story A. Especially if the end of A and the beginning of B were on facing pages.

It's little moments like that that make conventions fun.

Some pictures from the writers' workshop and from Fencon in general can be found in my photo gallery.

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Fencon opening ceremonies: somber and cheeky

There was a rather striking fact mentioned by the woman who represented FenCon's charity for this year. It is Reading & Radio Resource: an organization that records audiobooks for the blind and for kids with learning disabilities. Many kids drop out of high school because of learning disabilities that make them unable to follow written text, and not because they are dumb. They never learn how to read, and end up at a much higher risk than average population to be unemployed and to turn to crime. Here is what she said: future prison capacity is planned based on the number of third-graders who can't read.

That was the somber part of the opening ceremonies. The rest was, of course, humorous. The two toastmasters, who shall be referred to as BD and DLA, paid homage to (read: shamelessly riffed about) a certain well-known writer who could not come to Fencon, as he's still recovering from heart surgery. To avoid search engines' prying eyes, the missing writer shall be referred to as So-And-So. :-)

BD was talking about So-And-So's works. Then he asked DLA: what's your favorite So-And-So's story? DLA answered: my favorite So-And-So's story is how cheap he is. With that response he set the theme for the opening ceremonies. BD and DLA traded a few embarrassing stories about the So-And-So. When So-And-So had heart surgery, it was discovered that he had a silent "coronary event" in the past -- a heart attack with no symptoms. When So-And-So was telling BD this, he added: "it probably happened during vigorous sex." BD responded: "yes, and since you were alone, nobody noticed". BD added: this was one of maybe two times in my life I made So-And-So laugh. He laughed so hard he probably busted a stitch! DLA responded: "and that was before his surgery. That's how cheap he is!"

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Fencon writers' workshop

It is amazing how people who write stories I can't relate to at all, also are able to give useful critique on my story, as different as it is from theirs. It makes me feel that much worse when the only critique I can give them is a polite version of "this story sounds like a recount of Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Could you put an original idea or two into it?" It's even worse when it turns out the majority of the group loved the story, and I'm the only one there who found it "bla". I still don't know how to critique a story not based on my personal taste, but looking at it through the eyes of potential audience. I.e. if it is a run-of-the-mill fantasy, how do I put myself in the shoes of an audience who can't get enough of run-of-the-mill fantasy, instead of counting its strict adherence to the genre against it?

Then again, I am capable of finding merits of stories in the genre I don't like, and having an interesting, complex character would be one of them. Such a story could potentially interest me despite being not my genre. However, just like there are people who read science fiction not for characters, but for the inner workings of the science-fictional world, there are probably people who read fantasy not for characters, but for the mechanics of the fantasy world. Those people would probably satisfied with a garden-variety fantasy plot. I just can't put myself in their shoes.

Some pictures from the writers' workshop and from Fencon in general can be found in my photo gallery.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another gadget snafu

This morning was wasted by my hare-brained last minute initiative to get an audiobook to listen to during my trip to Fencon. Not long ago I bought an iVO Sound MP3 player. No, I haven't heard of this brand either. As it turned out, this proved to be the problem.

I bought an download of an audio recording of Robert Charles Wilson's "Axis" from When you buy a recording from them, it does not come in a clean, neat MP3 file. No, you have to install an Audible Manager software on your computer. Then you use the manager to transfer the recording, which is in a proprietary format, to your MP3 player. Before you begin that process, the Audible Manager asks what kind of MP3 player you have. Lo and behold -- in the list of 20-30 players, there was no iVO Sound! So I called their customer service. After putting me on hold, the guy determined this player was not compatible with Audible format, because it lacks some kind of universal plugin.

I asked him for a refund. (Those audiobooks are not that cheap.) The customer service guy tried to remind me that I have other ways to listen to audiobooks, such as on my computer. I told him I bought this recording specifically for listening on a trip, so playing it on a computer is not an option. After putting me on hold (probably to confer with a manager) he said they'll issue me a refund. It should show up in my account in 24 hours. We'll see if it does or not.

What a waste of time. It all could have been avoided if listed the MP3 players they support on their website! How hard can that be?

When I come back from Dallas, I may actually return the iVO Sound to the store and buy a more common brand of MP3 player. The iVO is decent, but not the easiest player to operate. Its user interface is kind of screwy.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

John Scalzi "Old Man's War": book review

People in the FACT reading group had said "Old Man's War" is like Heinlein with serial numbers filed off. I have read some Heinlein, but perhaps the wrong novels, because I found no similarity between Scalzi and Heinlein. If anything, I like Scalzi better because he writes characters that feel real, not walking puppets playing roles pre-assigned to them by the author. I guess the similarities must lie in the military theme? I haven't read "Starship Troopers", but I bet it's not as funny as "Old Man's War". And the latter does not have a political agenda, unlike anything I would expect from Heinlein. Scalzi's dry wit shines from the very opening scene in the military recruiter's office, and it immediately inspired me to get to know the protagonist better. John Perry is a 70-something man who enrolled in the military to fight a war in the Colonies. He knows very well that once he leaves Earth, he'll never be able to come back, nor to send a message to his loved ones. For all purposes, military recruits are considered dead by the Earth society. More than that, nobody on Earth has any idea what the Colony worlds are like. At best, they suspect there are alien races and unimaginably advanced technologies. The only reason huge numbers of 70-somethings venture into the complete unknown is because they are convinced the technology of the Colonies will give them new bodies and significantly extend their life span. They figure it has to be true because an ordinary 70-year-old is not too fit to be a warrior.

The beginning of the novel does a good job of drawing you in. I was hooked at the point where the John and his friends reasoned out, from hints and glimpses and inconsistencies, that the world in the Colonies must be stranger than they imagine. At that realization I was rearing to go along for a ride with the protagonist.

The world out there turns out be strange, but unfortunately not in very interesting or profound ways. Sure, the rejuvenating treatment the new recruits undergo is quite shocking, but perhaps it would have been less so if they had read more science fiction ;-) It's not entirely original. Other than that, the strangeness of the Colonies comes mostly from all sorts of bizarre alien species living out there. The middle third of the book describes John's romp through all those alien worlds and species. Obviously he goes there not as a tourist but a soldier, and his exposure to alien cultures consists mostly of blowing them up. By his nature he's not very happy to do that, or to see his friends getting killed. But this inner dissonance does not do very much to advance the story. It still feels like some kind of Gulliver's travels-kind of tour of the bizarre, only without the satire. At that point the story stagnated and I wasn't very sure if it will take off again.

Towards the end the story regains its momentum when John meets Jane Sagan and forms an unusual, tension-fraught relationship with her. An interesting aspect to Jane's character is that despite being physically an adult, she, like other Special Forces members, is technically only 6 years old (she was born in an adult body). Thus, some of her emotional responses are like a 6-year-old's. I have to say I found it a bit illogical that individuals with emotional maturity of children would be trained to have the lethal superpowers, such as Special Forces members. Still, it's an interesting point to ponder. Another thing about the warriors of the Ghost Brigades that rang fake to me was that they secrectly longed for birth families they never had and fantasized about what their childhoods might have been like. They felt inferior for not having grown up the ordinary way. I did not find that believable. To be curious about what it's like to grow up in a family -- sure; but to feel inadequate for having missed that -- hardly. It reminded me of many classic SF stories where robots, despite being smarter and more capable than humans, wanted nothing more than to actually be human. Because you know, being human is by default superior to any mode of existence. Jane's predicament seemed similarly disingenuous.

Regardless, "Old Man's War" is a fun read, if you don't expect much depth from it.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Joe Haldeman "Forever Peace": book review

I read this book because Joe Haldeman was a special guest at the ArmadilloCon 2008. I'm not sure I would have read it otherwise, because I wasn't too impressed with his much better known novel, "Forever War". Yet I was pleasantly surprised.

Not only "Forever Peace" is not a sequel to "Forever War": it's not even set in the same future. The only thing they have in common is that there is an endless war going on in both, but in "Peace" it's confined to Earth. Oh, and "Forever Peace" actually has a plot, which alone puts it head and shoulders above "Forever War". It's also not ridden with anachronisms. More than that, the political and cultural picture of the world portrayed in "Forever Peace" feels so much like our own it's hard to believe it was written before some key events that defined the current political climate. There is an amorphous war against ill-defined "rebels"; there are religious fanatics hoping to bring about the end of the world; there is even a high energy particle accelerator, which prompts fears that it will destroy the universe by accidentally creating an exotic form of matter that would swallow all conventional matter. It's as if Joe Haldeman was peering through a magic looking glass into our decade.

Well, not quite, since the particle collider is in Jupiter's orbit.

And there are other technological advances in "Forever Peace" that are way beyond our current state of technology (otherwise this wouldn't be science fiction). The most important of them, on which the premise of the book depends, is the concept of jacking, or brain-to-brain interfaces that allow people to exchange thoughts, emotions, memories, and all kinds of mental states. While this is nothing new in science fiction, this concept is explored more thoroughly in "Forever Peace" than I've seen in any other book (maybe I just don't read much? :-)). The book examines its impact on global scale (e.g. changing the way wars are conducted), and on the characters' personal lives. As the book goes on, the consequences of brain interfaces escalate beyond practical and into purely revolutionary. The main scientific innovation described in the book is also critical in resolution of the conflict on which the plot hinges. This is what I ideally expect from science fiction, and "Forever Peace" delivers.

The characters are interesting too. They cross typical gender, race, and occupation lines. There is a young black man who divides his time between teaching college physics AND fighting in the war against the "rebels". (He had the back luck to be drafted.) His girlfriend is a physics professor, a white woman 15 years his senior. Between the two of them and their friends, they are an interesting bunch. These are definitely some real, non-cookie-cutter people.

The only drawback of this book, in my opinion, that the plot arc takes too long to take off. It takes over a 100 pages for the main conflict to be set up. Not that those first 100 pages are boring -- they are full of interesting stuff that tells you a lot about the society the action takes place in. It's just at first you don't necessarily get a feeling that the book is going anywhere -- it's as if you are just watching characters living their lives.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Mamma Mia": movie impression

I saw "Mamma Mia". Don't know if I would side with the reviewers who said it was a stupid movie, or with those who found it great fun. ABBA's songs remain as catchy now as they were when I first heard them as a child. But the action between the songs is the problem. When I see people acting very stupid, I feel embarrassed for them. Well, unless they deliberately act stupid and I know I'm supposed to laugh at them, as in any Rowan Atkinson movie, then it's funny. But in "Mamma Mia" you were supposed not to laugh but to sympathize with them. And yet the antics of both the girl's and Meryl Streep characters made me cringe. And it doesn't matter that Steve said the only purpose of the characters' existence was to set up situations where they could break out into an appropriate ABBA song. I realize that. But when I see people on the screen, I can't help but judge them as if they are real and supposed to make sense. Unlike my 3-year-old, I can't tell myself "it's just fortend." :-)

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Friday, September 19, 2008

ArmadilloCon 2008: Stump the Panel

Here is my last, stray post from ArmadilloCon 2008. On "Stump the Panel" the panelists are supposed to come up with mundane and science-fictional uses for objects supplied by the audience. Indeed, in Rhonda Eudaly's, S. Andrew Swann's, and Lou Antonelli's imagination things like a pen, a nail file, a little red thing that evaded detection, and a box of Tictacs become something completely different. Especially the nail file. Rhonda had to restrain her imagination regarding this object, because there were children in the audience. :-)

And here is an article about a "Stump the Panel" from the ArmadilloCon 2006. That one was longer, funnier and more imaginative, mostly thanks to James P. Hogan. Ah well, maybe we'll have one of those again some day.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Software to extract meaning out of life's trivia

Here's a very interesting article in Washington Post, that ties in to some degree with Clive Thompson's article on ambient awareness (discussed in my previous blog post):

Bytes of Life: For Every Move, Mood and Bodily Function, There's a Web Site to Help You Keep Track

It reflects a lot of my own thoughts about what part data plays in our lives, and how it could let us get much more out of life.

"In San Diego, statistics student David Horn [...] is working with his engineer girlfriend, Lisa Brewster, to develop an all-encompassing life tracker, under the working title of "I Did Stuff."

I would like to have these guys' job. They want to track and record everything -- everything that happens in their lives, down to (or especially) the most mundane events.

It's been known for a long time, and a recent study confirmed, that keeping a diary recording every bite they ate helped people to lose weight. And therapists recommend people who have trouble sleeping to record what they ate, drank, and did before sleep, to see if a trend emerges that shows a correlation between certain foods / activities and insomnia. Also, keeping track of your time minute-by-minute -- writing down all activities, no matter how mundane -- may allow you to see where all your time goes, if you feel you have no time for anything in your life. So there is a well-established practical use for navel-gazing, that predates the internet. And the internet made it infinitely easier to record your daily events, both the kind you do consciously (Brightkite for tracking your location, for driving habits, to map food intake and calorie expenditure, for listening habits, and even BedPost for sex life), and the kind your body does autonomously (sites for tracking heart rate and blood glucose levels, or the self-explanatory :-))

But these two researchers want to take it much further.

Tracking not just what you did, but what you got out of it

[...] David Horn already belongs to BrightKite, and, which tracks his Internet usage. He's also experimented with to map food intake and calorie expenditure. It was satisfying for a while, but now he wants something bigger -- something simultaneously broader and more nitpicky -- to fill in the gaps that individual sites don't currently track.

Horn is working with his engineer girlfriend, Lisa Brewster, to develop an all-encompassing life tracker, under the working title of "I Did Stuff."

"I'd like to track the people I talk to," says Brewster, "and how inspired I am six hours later. And definitely location history -- where I am, what time -- "

"Correlated with weather history," interjects Horn. "And allergy data, pollen and mold in the air."

Plus, "Web sites I read and their effect," says Brewster. "If I spend a long time reading a blog, like TechCrunch, but I don't get noticeable output from it."

At first the author of this article is boggled by this level of self-indulgent navel-gazing, but then she seems to understand what it is about. The usefulness of tracking is of course not in the raw data (who would have the time to re-read their life at the same pace as they are living it? :-)) but in extracting trends that would help you correlate perceptions with facts.

Has it really been a month since you last had sex, or does it just feel like that? Did you really floss five times last week, or was it more like twice? Now that you realize that, are you a little less angry at your dentist for that painful last appointment?

Analysis of mundane events reveals profound trends in one's life

Self-tracking [...] is partly about the recording, but also as much about the analysis that goes on after the recording.

The apparent meaninglessness of data recorded over time is actually what makes it profound.

The problem with diaries and blogs, trackers say, is that people use them to record the events they think are meaningful. What they forget is that meaningful events are often a result of months of insignificance, a cause and effect not readily visible to the human eye but easily detected with the help of a computer program.

"Things that happen over time can lead up to bigger events," says Horn. "They may seem small by themselves, but looking at them as a whole I can see how they lead to a bigger theme or idea."

"I was always a terrible self-journaler," says Messina. "Every once in a while I'd write in a journal, but it was always a major, momentous event. 'Got to college.' 'Broke up with girlfriend.' You lose a lot of the nuance that caused that situation to come about."

Tracking can "zoom out over my entire life," he says. It could, for example, help him better understand the aforementioned breakup. "When you've self-documented the course of an entire relationship, trivia that doesn't seem like much could, over time," help him understand exactly what went wrong, and when.

Maybe, to extrapolate on Messina's idea, your weekly date night had been Friday. And maybe you were always in a tetchy mood on Fridays because you'd just come from chem lab, which you hated. Maybe the whole relationship could have been saved by switching date night to Sunday, after your endorphin-boosting yoga class. Maybe you just didn't realize the pattern, because you weren't tracking it. All the answers could be right there, in your life data.

We can extrapolate even further. Perhaps the tracking software, if it was sophisticated enough, could notice increasing frequency and viciousness of arguments between you and your significant other, increasing frequency and length of time spent apart, and things like that. The software could flag it to you as a warning sign that the relationship is in danger. Then you could take steps to get it back on track. You might say most people don't need software to tell them when their relationship is off track; however, I think people often ignore warning signs -- sometimes wilfully, sometimes out of inertia. Inertia certainly plays a huge part in everything we do. We would rather keep a mental image of things as they were at their most comfortable, or downplay the significance of worrisome events, than acknowledge the truth that something is going astray. Life-tracking software could point out discrepancies between our partner's words and actions. It could force us to pay attention to those signs before it is too late.

The software could also give us tools to defuse certain recurring arguments which, if unexamined, tend to pick up destructive strength like a hurricane crossing the Gulf of Mexico. :-) You could look at the software and say: "we've had this discussion before; here is what was said; here is the conclusion we have reached. Do you have any new information that would give us a reason to revisit this issue?"

Of course, there are a lot of people -- most people, perhaps -- who would hate the idea of having their every word or phrase recorded, and of those records being resurrected as evidence (even by people they trust). I'm sure some people might think it diminishes their relationship somehow. But how could truth diminish it? Anyway, that's a social engineering problem, though those are often harder than computer engineering. Among the latter, a major problem would be to find a way to structure the data so as to capture its essential qualities. For example, how would you compute the intensity of the four horsemen of Apocalypse (made famous by John Gottman): Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling? How do you quantify formless, deeply subjective data? How do you even decide what to measure? It would be a tough task, but one I would gladly spend years working on, if I didn't have to worry about making a living. :-)

In fact, if I had come of age at the time of Web 2.0., I would seriously consider going to grad school so that I could do this project as my thesis / dissertation. I would probably find a professor somewhere in some university who could get interested in this idea enough to serve as my advisor. (I've seen people in computer science departments doing stranger projects than that. Or if not in computer science, then surely in the interdisciplinary studies. :-))

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Ambient awareness, digital ESP

There is a great article by Clive Thompson in New York Times magazine:

Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

that explains the appeal of Twitter. Like many people, when I first heard of Twitter, and even long after I signed up for it, I thought it was pretty useless. At the very least it seemed useless for verbose bloggers like me, who don't like to post mere facts or sound-bite opinions without context or analysis (and you can't provide much analysis in 140 characters). But, as Clive Thompson says, the constant stream of friends' tweets provides an "ambient awareness" of daily rhythms of friends' lives. To quote the article, "It is very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does -- body language, sighs, stray comments -- out of the corner of your eye."

Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends' updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like "I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus"; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich -- and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends' lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they'd scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update -- each individual bit of social information -- is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like "a type of E.S.P.," as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

I'm beginning to feel that way about it too. And it's good for those fleeting observations that are not meaty enough to warrant a blog post. I might even change my mind about whether such observations do not reveal someone's personality better than well-thought-out blog posts. (If anyone wonders, my Twitter ID is elze.)