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).