Saturday, December 19, 2009

Startup Speed Dating

Last Wednesday I went to Startup Speed Dating, hosted by Capital Factory. It's like conventional speed dating, but it matched "sellers" (i.e entrepreneurs) with "builders" (developers and technical people). I assumed sellers came here to sell their ideas to the builders -- to "seduce" a builder to work on the seller's product. At least the structure of the "courtship" implied that. The builders were seated, and sellers went from builder to builder to talk, which is analogous to female and male roles in conventional speed dating. Since I was a builder, I enjoyed being courted. :-) But the actual distribution of roles turned out to be far more vague.

Only a few sellers had a startup they were working on. Many others were "between startups". They had built and sold companies before, with varying degrees of success. A few of them were interested in what kinds of products "builders" were working on. I figured they wanted to hitch themselves to an interesting product that had potential to become a moneymaking startup, to which they could offer their business and marketing expertise. So maybe the title "seller" was more literal, meaning a salesperson. Unexpectedly I found they were asking me (and other builders, I assume) to pitch my startup idea to them. I did that enthusiastically, even though it wasn't my original reason for coming here. I came to look for job opportunities in interesting startups, but of course I, like everyone in Austin, have my own startup ideas. Not all sellers understood what would be the purpose of the application I wanted to create; those that understood sounded somewhat skeptical about the feasibility of its implementation. (I'm already used to the fact that my ideas are hard to implement, both in fiction and in software.) But some understood, and one guy, before I even finished telling him my idea, exclaimed: "you need semantic web for that!", making it the best moment of the evening -- because that's exactly what I was thinking.

Another memorable moment, in a different sense, happened when a seller said: "CMS is a knockoff of Dreamweaver, right?" Umm, no. It's most definitely not. And this came from a person who was going to build her company's website herself! Ahem. :-)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

CYC-ology - Using AI to Organize Knowledge

Doug Lenat, an artificial intelligence researcher and CEO of Cycorp, a company that aims to build general artificial intelligence, gave a talk at the Center For Inquiry Austin. He examined why AI is so difficult to create, and how CYC is approaching this task.

Why haven't we been able to create a program that would pass the Turing test, i.e. be able to converse in such a way as to be indistinguishable from a human? For a large part it's because human thinking is faulty in ways that are very hard to approximate in software. Doug Lenat calls these idiosyncracies of human thinking translogical behaviors. Those are illogical but predictable decisions that most people make; incorrect but predictable answers to queries. Lenat listed some of those behaviors in his talk. He also addressed them in his article, "The Voice of the Turtle: Whatever Happened to AI?" (PDF). Here are some examples, compiled from both the article and the talk.

Flawed memory and arithmetic ability: while a human will correctly tell you what day of the week was yesterday, he or she will most likely be wrong if asked what day of the week was April 7, 1996. For the same reason, humans are likely to give wrong answers to math problems, but certain answers are more "human" than others. 93 - 25 = 78 is more understandable than 0 or 9998.

Conjunction Fallacy: Most people will say "A and B" more likely than A. For example, asked to decide which is more likely, "Fred S. just got lung cancer" or "Fred S. smokes and just got lung cancer," most people say the latter.

Incorrectly estimating probabilities of various events. People worry more about dying in a hijacked flight than the drive to the airport.

Failure to discount sunk cost; also, skewed perception of risk and reward. People estimate risks and rewards very differently if it means losing something they already had, as opposed to investing into something they don't yet have.

Reflection framing effect. Let's say, before adopting a certain public health program (e.g. medical screening), 500 people a year used to die from whatever this program is supposed to prevent. If you market it to the public as saving 200 lives a year, many more people will vote for it than if you say "300 people per year will die".

Another example. In two neighboring countries organ donor rates are 85% and 15%. Lenat asked us to guess the cause of this drastic difference, considering that the two countries are very similar in their socio-political and economic situation. It turns out, the only difference is that when you get a driver's license in the country A, you have to opt-in to be an organ donor by checking a box on a form; in country B, you have to opt OUT of it, also by checking a box. When opt-in is the default, 85% people opt-in; the reverse is also true. 85% of people just don't bother to check the checkbox either way. Who would have thought?

Failure to understand regression to the mean. That's a kind of translogical thinking I found the most poignant. Many parents punish their child after he or she gets an abnormally bad grade, and reward them after getting a good grade. However, after an unusually bad grade, the next one is statistically likely to be better without any punishment or reward. Similarly, after a good grade, the next one is likely to be worse. So parents who react to grades with punishments or rewards, get an idea that punishment works, but rewards don't. Historically it explains a lot of cruelty among humans, says Lennat. In reality, he believes, nothing really has any effect on human beings.

Doug Lenat with Center For Inquiry Austin folks

Scott, Steve Bratteng (center) and Doug Lenat (right) chat after Doug Lenat's lecture "CYC-ology - Using AI to Organize Knowledge" at the CFI Austin.

Despite these uniquely human weaknesses, people can easily make inferences about the world that computers can't. Even the best search engines today are falling short of putting together simplest facts about the world, and drawing conclusions from them. If you ask Google "Is the Space Needle taller than the Eiffel tower?", you'll get tons of pages that give the heights of theose objects, but no page that tells you which one is taller. You also won't get an answer to "who was U.S. president when Barack Obama was born?", because search engines still can't string together two facts: Obama's year of birth, and the identity of the president that year (John Kennedy). Today's search engines only handle syntactic search, while these queries represent examples of semantic search.

As we saw, human reasoning strengths and weaknesses are not the same as AI reasoning strengths and weaknesses. There is an opportunity for synergy here, says Lenat. What is the missing piece to bridge that chasm? CYC is ready to bridge it with their (a) ontology of terms, which includes over 1 million of general terms and proper names, (b) knowledge base of general knowledge, which is 10x size of the ontology, and includes such facts as unsupported objects fall; once you're dead, you stay dead; people sleep at night; wheeled vehicles slow down in mud, and (3) a fast inference engine. So for example, if you query CYC system for an image of "someone smiling", it will retrieve a picture with a caption "A man helping his daughter take her first step". The system achieves this by putting together the fact that when you are happy, you smile, with the fact that you become happy when someone you love accomplishes a milestone.

(As an aside, I think this level of sophistication is easy to foil. Human emotions are more complicated than this example describes, and someone watching their child take first steps could easily have tears in their eyes. So an AI would have to know that there is such a thing as "tears of joy". But how would it tell between those, and tears of sadness? An AI would have a long, long way to go before it could recognize similar emotional nuances.)

So are we making any progress towards AI? Doug Lenat believes that the current semantic web "craze, fad, or trend" (his words) is moving us in the right direction. Instead of syntactic searching like Google is doing now, in a small number of years we might be able to see semantic searching. What would be the signs that our software is becoming more intelligent? Look for speech understanding systems, like Dragon Naturally Speaking, to stop making dumb mistakes, says Lenat. When they no longer garble your words in ways that a human would never misunderstand, that would be the sign that speech recognition programs have some semantic awareness.

Are we on the road to Singularity, then? Nobody in the audience asked Lenat this question outright, but he admitted he believes it's only a matter of time until artificial intelligence crosses human intelligence.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ambivalent towards Google Wave

Apropos my previous post): I got a Google Wave invite, but after logging in I haven't done anything with it. I don't know anyone I could "wave" at, and am not very motivated to find such people -- or to wave at them. It's hard enough just to keep up with email, Facebook and Twitter. I communicate with most of my real-life friends over Facebook, so Wave would be duplication of that functionality. If, however, I started "waving" at a completely different set of people, that would double the time I spend on my virtual social life, and I can't afford that. So I haven't been doing anything with Google Wave.

But I saw this great article, What problems does Google Wave solve? by Daniel Tenner, where he argues Google Wave is not so much an enhancement of your social life, as a corporate collaboration tool. This ties back to what Tristan Slominski said in his Innotech presentation (see my previous post). I can see how a Wave-like IDE plugin might enable programmers to work on shared pieces of code. Then again, many if not most companies would not let their code past corporate walls and firewalls. To route confidential information, or even source code, through third-party servers is considered unthinkable in most companies.

But if Google Wave is so great for collaboration, I can think of some uses for it. Perhaps it could help me and my friends to work on our fanzine more efficiently. (I spoke about our fanzine in this post.) Preparing each issue of the fanzine involves bouncing documents back-and-forth multiple times between authors, translators, copyeditors, and illustrators. So if Google Wave really works as advertised in Daniel Tenner's article, it could be useful for that. The only problem is I would have to convince my friends to use it. For all I know, they might feel the same kind of resistance to it as I do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Innotech 2009

Still cursing Austin's prehistoric self-pay parking lots, I walked into the Innotech Beta Summit panel, a showcase of select Austin startups. To my surprise, parking meters were mentioned there. A representative of Infochimps, a company that specializes in "making large data sets sexy", said a collection of locations of parking spots in downtown Austin is an example of those sexy data sets. (Another example is TAKS scores.) Anyone can put a data set on Infochimps web site, and if some organization or person is interested in it, they can buy it. Well, I'm sure glad some company is interested in locations of parking meters in Austin downtown. Whatever they are up to might make parking easier one day, who knows?

Wouldn't it be nice to have an application that showed all parking spots within a certain radius? It could direct me to a nearest free spot as I wind my way through downtown, looking for parking. But maybe such an app for iPhone already exists? I don't have an iPhone (and now that I've been laid off I don't anticipate buying one soon), so I don't know.

I expected Beta Summit to be the most interesting Innotech panel, and it was. It featured 6 or 7 Austin startups. The first one, BuzzStream, did not impress me all that much, perhaps because I came to the talk late. The only impression I got from it was that it did some kind of fancy contact management, integrating your contacts with social management sites. Or perhaps it was yet another social media aggregator, the kind that gathers all the content your friends have posted on various other sites, into one news feed. We all have seen social media applications that claimed to be the aggregator to end all aggregators, and then a few months later no one remembers them. Plurk comes to mind.

The next presenter was Gendai Games. Their product lets you create an iPhone game in minutes, even if you are not a programmer. As a demo, Nestor Hernandez recreated the game Labyrinth in front of the audience. He did that he dragged widgets, such as Accelerate and Collide, on the screen. Those widgets made a ball accelerate when iPhone is tilted, or bounce off the "walls", i.e. the sides of the screen. Pretty neat.

Eric Moujaes from Gendai Games Tristan Slominski speaking on Operational Transformation: The Key to Understanding Google Wave
Eric Moujaes from Gendai Games Tristan Slominski speaking on Operational Transformation: The Key to Understanding Google Wave

One web application everybody could relate to was Gelato, a dating site that works differently than most dating sites. On an ordinary dating site members have static profiles that are often misleading or uninformative. People often post younger and thinner pictures of themselves. Steve Odom, the founder of Gelato, believes that people's social media data streams reveals much more about them than their self-proclaimed love of "long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners". Their Tweets, Flickr photos, YouTube videos or Netflix queues, or soundtracks on internet radio stations they listen to, reflect a much fuller, dynamic picture of their tastes and their preferred ways to spend time. So Gelato aggregates all that into a user's profile. Is that a bit too stalkerish? Users can opt out of whichever feeds they prefer others not to see.

As a demo, Steve Odom pulled up a woman's profile on Gelato. "Would I want to date her?" he asked the audience. Her Twitter word cloud (another neat feature of Gelato) showed that her most commonly used word was LOL. "Hmm, maybe not," Odom concluded.

Another web application of broad appeal was PetMD. It's analogous to medical information sites, only about pet health. It also helps you find a veterinarian, even an emergency vet if need be.

There may have been other startups, but I left early.

This conference was a mix of technical and soft presentations. It's always hard to know which ones to choose; an appealing tile can be misleading. So there was some kind of "work/life balance for entrepreneurs" panel, where a self-proclaimed work/life balance coach did nothing but slung cliches about success like "you are your own worst enemy"; I spent half an hour before concluding it was BS. But by then I missed the first half of "Operational Transformation: The Key to Understanding Google Wave" presentation by Tristan Slominski. When I came in, he and the audience were up to their eyeballs in the APIs. Operational Transformation is kind of like a platform on which Google Wave is written. Knowing its API, you can write your own clients that will be able to communicate with other Operational Transform clients. For example, Slominski says, those could be plug-ins for IDEs (i.e. development environments -- tools in which programmers write, compile, build and test their code.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Innotech, or a digression about parking spots in downtown Austin

Innotech is an annual one-day technology conference in Austin, TX. This year it took place on October 29. Before I can speak about it, I should talk about getting there, and the most complicated part of getting there is finding a parking spot in downtown Austin. The process of searching for one also provides the greatest thrill you are likely to have at Innotech, if by thrill we mean a nervous rush. I used to think of it as my personal deficiency that finding parking in downtown Austin (or most other cities, for that matter) stresses me out so much. But here's an article "Why Speakers Earn $30,000 an Hour - Confessions of a Public Speaker"> by Scott Berkun, where he says finding the right address and parking in unfamiliar places is stressful! Ah, I feel so validated.

The parking garage at the Austin Convention Center was full at last year's Innotech; this year I didn't even bother to check it. And street parking often has 3 hour limit, and costs $1 an hour. A bit steep for the whole day. I thought I'd park in a public parking garage, but they seem to be on every corner when you're NOT looking for one, and damn hard to find when you are. Every garage appears to be reserved for employees of that particular office building, or if they are open to the public, they charge thereabouts of $20 a day. Steep.

Downtown Austin also has a scattering of paid parking lots; it's been a bit of a mystery to me why those parking lots aren't used by offices or restaurants attached to it. Maybe I haven't been paying attention, and there is nothing attached to them, or whatever it was has closed or was torn down. Often those parking lots don't have attendants. What they have instead are kind of vertical boxes with slots you should stuff money into. They take coins and bills. There is also a piece of metal hanging from a string that you should use to stuff coins and bills into the slot, should they get stuck just inside the slot.

A slot for coins and bills in a self-pay parking lot A metal stuffer to stuff coins and bills into a slot

Fortunately, parking at one of those lots costs only $5 a day, so it's a good deal. This year I stuffed my $5 bill into my slot without difficulty, but last year was a different matter. I didn't have enough bills, but I had a purse full of quarters back from the days when I used a paid laundromat at an apartment complex. I don't have much use for those quarters, so I stuffed 20 of them, one after another, into the slot, and I had to wiggle that metallic stuffer really hard. A guy who parked in the same lot at the same time, asked if I was going to Innotech. He was going there too. However, he didn't have enough $1-$5 bills or coins. So I fed quarters into his slot too (as I said, I don't have much use for them). He was thankful and said it must be true what they say about people being friendly in Austin. (He had moved here from California.)

Just as last year, I wondered how ironic it was that I had to use such an outmoded, awkward way to pay for parking before I could get to a conference on all things high-tech. Besides established tech companies, this conference also features selected Austin startups. I wished any of those startups that gave 8-minute talks on the Beta Summit panel had poured its energies into technologies that would let you pay for parking with your cell phone. That has to be possible, right? I've heard it's already possible in some parts of the world. And you don't necessarily have to install fancy, expensive parking meters that would interface with your phone directly. You could simply pay by a text-messaging the company that owns the parking lot.

But now that I thought about it, I'm not sure companies who own parking lots would want such a thing. They don't have to care about convenience for customers, because they don't have to compete for customers. Parking is very hard to find downtown. Space is limited and it won't grow magically. People will put up with inconvenience just to get a parking spot, because what choice do they have? So probably nothing will happen, unless it could be somehow demonstrated that companies would save expenses by adopting a more efficient way of collecting payments for parking.

From here I can seque to Innotech. That will be my next blog post.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Conventions, cliquishness, barcamps

I haven't blogged for a while (have been writing mostly fiction lately), and it's been even longer since I've actually posted anything controversial. So maybe I should put aside my impartial observer blogger-voice, and indulge in some personal opinion.

I liked this review of Atheist Alliance International (AAI) convention by Santi Tafarella. It's snarky, but it has a truthful ring. Even though I haven't been to an AAI convention, this review mirrors what happens in so many science fiction cons. The cliquishness, hierarchical structure, the constant "schmoozing up" to the pro writers, editors and agents. I especially liked this quote:

By the average age, affluence, ethnic, and gender makeup of the conference (more men than women), you might well have imagined that you had stumbled upon a conference of Republican activists. I thought it was ironic that the nearly all white and affluent crowd mouthing off about the evils of religion were being catered to all weekend by a coterie of working class Hispanics who, on Sunday, would no doubt be at Catholic Mass or in attendance at one of the local Protestant megachurches.


And as you approached the screen, it was like entering the theater of Dionysus, with all the chief priests of atheism gathered at the front and center tables closest to the stage, and sitting together in a clubby way. The best tables were reserved for VIPs. Some people had VIP on their name cards. Perhaps they made big contributions to the event. The rest of us were losers. We were not very important people. This two-tier system was at work throughout the day (or you might think of it as a three tier system if you count the virtually all Hispanic conference staff). Whatever else atheism is, it's not a critique of hierarchy. Hierarchical religion may be bad, but hierarchical irreligion is, well, natural. Every train needs a caboose.


Atheism is great! Just like high school. At supper time, when all the nonwhite hotel workers were moving around vigorously, I noticed that Michael Shermer and PZ Myers were sitting together also, chuckling it up. Seeing all this front and center social bonding, I couldn't help but think of George Orwell's Animal Farm. (Oh, so this is what the victorious revolution will look like!)

It always made me wonder: we, atheists and/or science fiction writers, are presumably working towards a better world, or at least would like to think that we are -- so is *this* what our better world would look like? Indistinguishable from the old world?

By now I guess you'd be asking the obvious -- so why do I go to conventions at all? Well, as a writer, I need to know what speculative fiction readers think of the genre, so I go where the readers congregate. Lately, though, I have been inspired by the concept of BarCamp. A BarCamp is an "unconference" where everybody is, or can be, a presenter. People give 15-30 minute presentations on any subject they like (that's relevant to the conference topic), and they break out into discussion sessions as they see fit. I've written about Barcamps I attended in these blog posts.

BarCamps have been gaining popularity in the tech world, which I think speaks volumes for the credibility of this format. After all, technical world is highly meritocratic; they have little patience for people who talk the talk and can't walk the walk. If technical professionals think hierarchy-free structure is a good enough way to organize presentations, in the sense that people who don't have much to say will weed themselves out, then it may also be good format for a SF convention. Or maybe I'm naive, because the liberal arts mafia that runs conventions will reject meritocracy. :-) Still I've been thinking of organizing science fiction BarCamp. I casually mentioned this to one guy who used to organize science fiction and Linux conventions, and he thought it was a good idea. I probably won't get around to it in the next few years, as I don't want to distract myself from other pursuits, for which I already don't have enough time. Besides, I would probably get stuck in the analysis-paralysis stage.

I don't even know whether I would want to do it in the middle of a science fiction convention, or as a separate event altogether. It's quite likely that the organizers of a SF convention would not let me attach a BarCamp to it anyway. Why do I think they wouldn't let me? Because in the past I had submitted programming ideas to a convention program chair, and those ideas differed in style and formatting from the usual SF convention panel items. I got no response except some form of "your suggestions were noted". It is clear that at most conventions the programming committee wants to keep giving the attendees the same old with slight variations (e.g., one year there's a panel on vampires, next year it's on werevolves. Oh well, maybe that's not a good example: vampires have been de rigueur at any genre convention, any recent year. :-)) So I haven't felt much encouraged. In any case I won't try to do this any time soon. But if someone else wanted to run with my idea, I'd come to their camp.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fake friends, or being someone's spam cannon fodder

This rant was prompted by people's comments on my Facebook status update today. It said:

"Defriended a Facebook "friend". It was one of those people who friend you for no good reason. He doesn't know me, lives in a different country, posts in Spanish (which I can't read), never comments on my posts, and keeps inviting me to events in another continent. I asked him to stop, but he kept doing that. I guess when you have over 1500 "friends", you don't have time to show special consideration to any one of them."

I got a range of responses to that. Some said they refuse friend requests from strangers, others said the whole point of Facebook is to meet new interesting people. Generally I agree with the latter, though I mostly use Facebook to keep in touch with people I know in real life. Nonetheless I used to accept friend requests from strangers mostly because I'm "too nice" (read spineless) to say no.

That's not to say I dislike reading strangers' updates. Not at all. I like them, if the author's personality comes through in them. This includes people's personal opinions, and observations about their life. However, there is a type of people -- unfortunately this is fairly common among atheists on Facebook -- who friend pretty much everyone with vaguely similar interests or views. Those people have 1000 - 2000+ "friends". They can't possibly read everyone's posts. And if they don't, what's the point of being "friends"? What's worse, people with the greatest number of impersonal friends are also the noisiest posters. They post 10-15 items every day. If those were updates on their personal life, it wouldn't be so bad. It could even be interesting. But they usually post news headlines, and those are typically headlines I've already seen elsewhere. I read the internet as avidly as anyone else, so I don't need news to be pushed on me. It's like those people have decided that I don't pay enough attention to the news, so they've taken it upon themselves to educate me and thousands of others. I resent that attitude.

Some of those people have admitted they have hooked up their Google Reader to automatically dump all their feeds into Facebook. So they don't even hand-pick their news! They don't even need to login into Facebook to set up this kind of automatic broadcasting. They can fill up your stream with their newsfeed crap without ever logging in and reading other people's posts!

Is that a "friend" relationship? No. If those folks think everyone should use them as a news portal, they should set up a fan page for themselves on Facebook. A fan page is the right model for broadcasting *at* people, as opposed to having conversations *with* people.

Funny thing is, I might be alone in my distaste for this kind of fake friendship. Many people actually comment on those posts, and get involved in long debates. Myself, I usually hide those hyper-logorrheic posters from my friends' stream. And if they pester me with invites to irrelevant events, I might even unfriend them, as I did today.

That said, I like reading updates, strangers' or not, if I can tell their author has put thought into them. It's impersonal broadcasting that I dislike.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

ArmadilloCon: Stump the Panel

Panelists at this event are supposed to come up with mundane and science-fictional uses for objects supplied by the audience. They can also use objects they brought themselves. This year's team is C. J. Mills, Steve Wilson, and Chris Roberson.

Below, left-to-right, are:

1. A pez dispenser in the shape of a character from Ratatouille. Chris Roberson thinks it's an oracle. You ask it a question, and its head tilts back to reveal an answer comes from its neck. The answer will be yes, no, or pez. So you have to formulate the question really carefully.

2. Chris Roberson thinks this neti pot may play a role in fertility rituals. Steve Wilson thinks it extracts something from your brain through your nose.

3. A metallic squirrel that cracks nuts with its tail. Someone in the audience thinks this is a robotic squirrel designed to teach aliens not to molest the local wildlife.

This pez dispenser is an oracle. You ask it a question, and its head tilts back to reveal an answer coming from its neck. A neti pot that extracts something from your brain through your nose. Someone in the audience thinks this is metallic squirrel nutracker is designed to teach aliens not to molest the local wildlife.

4. Munchkin game pieces. C. J. Mills thinks they are lumberjacks that you rehydrate when you come to the forest. A woman from the audience says they are snacks for a gnome-eating alien.

5. This ethernet hub... You'll just have to click on the image to find out what Chris Roberson thought it was. Beware of a gross-out factor.

6. A cell phone with an cute / evil face on it. It is unanimously decided that this phone isn't really evil, it's just charmingly possessed. It loses your messages, and texts your boyfriend at inappropriate times. C. J. Mills thinks it's a psychic phone that lets you know exactly when opportunity is.

C. J. Mills thinks these Munchkin game pieces are lumberjacks that you rehydrate when you come to the forest. Chris Roberson holding an ethernet hub A not-quite-evil, charmingly possessed cell phone

7. C. J. Mills and Steve Wilson hold a cable reel, which, as someone suggested, might be a prayer box for an orthodox giant.

C. J. Mills and Steve Wilson hold a cable reel, which, as someone suggested, might be a prayer box for an orthodox giant.

Here is an article about a "Stump the Panel" from the ArmadilloCon 2008, with Rhonda Eudaly, S. Andrew Swann, and Lou Antonelli. And here is an article about a "Stump the Panel" from the ArmadilloCon 2006, with James P. Hogan on it.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie review: District 9

I doubt that anyone does not yet know what District 9 is about, but you can't discuss a movie without even briefly outlining its premise, so here it is. After an alien ship "parks" itself in the sky over Johannesburg, humans visit the ship and find myriads of very sick aliens, who look like two-legged, upright, larger-than-human shrimp. They are transported to Earth and placed in a ghetto, called District 9, where they live in slums. It's not clear what happened to their mothership, but apparently it can't go back to its home planet. The aliens are nicknamed "prawns", and are loathed and feared by most Johannesburg residents. 20 years later, by popular demand, the government has built a camp for the aliens in a new location, where they would be out of humans' sight; the task at hand is to relocate all 1.5 million of "prawns" to the new camp. Since the government is trying to preserve an appearance of legitimacy in dealing with the aliens, it sends an official to serve eviction notices to them. The official, Vikas, goes into the field wide-eyed and enthusiastic, but soon his life takes a very disturbing turn.

Spoilers Ahead!

Perhaps unintentionally, this movie blended the tropes of two movies I saw when I was of an impressionable age -- "The Fly" and "Enemy Mine". I had not seen many American science fiction movies in my teens, since at the time and place I grew up they were rare enough. So these two movies were my first acquaintance with certain SFnal tropes -- and I won't say which ones, because that would be too much of a spoiler. Aside from transporting me back to the days of yore, "District 9" has thoughtfulness and freshness that those two movies did not have. Instead of a Hollywood-style superhero, the protagonist is a buffoonish bureaucrat. Almost to the very end, even as he engages in some heroism, he remains selfish and smallminded, and clings to a belief that life can go back to the way it was. His faults were no less a contribution to the movie's realism than the up-close shots of the slums and of aliens rummaging through filth in search of food. A more conventional narrative would have such a character die in his final act of redemption (most Hollywood villains die when (if) they finally see the light); instead, the ending here is ambiguous. He ends up in a state that could be seen as hopeful, or as a fate worse than death. It is similarly not clear what will become of the aliens trapped on Earth; have they been abandoned, or is help -- or revenge -- on the way? However, this is not the case where open-ended plot suggests the author has not thought it through. Instead it leaves you with a sense of possibility. A possibility of a sequel, perhaps? :-)

Oh, and in case I'm not being clear -- I liked it. While I don't watch many movies, District 9 is one of the best SF movies in my recent memory.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

ArmadilloCon: Orbital Mechanics pantomime

In the "Orbital Mechanics" panel, Bob Mahoney and John Gibbons acted orbital mechanics out with a globe hanging from a microphone stand, hula hoops, and styrofoam noodles. They used lots of words too, of course. :-)

Bob Mahoney demonstrates orbits with a globe and hula hoops

In this image, Bob Mahoney holds up two hula hoops to illustrate a higher orbit and a lower orbit of a hypothetical spaceship. One of the first things he demonstrated on this panel were gravity-assisted fly-bys, that are, in his words, "an almost magical way" for your spaceship to speed up, slow down, or to change direction. He invited two volunteers from the audience to act it out.

First he reminded us that a spacecraft approaches a planet on an asymptote. This gave him an opportunity to use a phrase "grab my asymptote", as he handed Patrick (one of the volunteers) a long styrofoam noodle, the kind children use in the pool. (Well, I think that's what it was, but I may have been sitting too far from the stage to see clearly.)

An unidentified guy, Bob Mahoney, and Patrick demonstrate asymptotes of a hyperbolic trajectory on which a spacecraft approaches a planet.

Left to right: an unidentified guy, Bob Mahoney, and Patrick demonstrate asymptotes of a hyperbolic trajectory on which a spacecraft approaches a planet.

Then he directed Patrick to go to the middle of the stage and walk slowly on a curve, and the shorter guy (this visualization would have been more effective if the other guy would have been a child) approach him. Then Patrick, under Bob's direction, gave a hand to the other guy, and swung him past. (I don't have a picture of that, since I didn't capture the right moment.) This is how the spacecraft gains speed when it flies past a planet. Here is a Wikipedia article on that. If the craft approaches the planet in a direction opposite to the planet's orbital motion, the spacecraft would slow down. Flying past a planet can also help it change direction. It gets all this "for free", without burning fuel. Of course, the energy boost doesn't violate any conservation laws: the momentum transferred to the ship slows the planet down by an infinitesimal amount.

(This, of course, is not a technical explanation, but this panel wasn't technical. It was a visual explanation to convey the basic concepts.)

Space like a marble game board

There are more things you get "for free" in space, and they were part of the discussion on another panel, "Back to the Moon". That discussion involved such arguments as "it's cheaper fuel-wise to go from Earth-Moon Langrange point L1 to geosycnhronous orbit and back to L1, than from a lower orbit to the geosycnhronous orbit" (a quote from Ken Murphy). I didn't make much effort to follow it, because, to be fair, I never found near-space exploration to be very exciting. It's so difficult just to get off of this rock, and any objects worth going to are so incredibly far that we have very little hope of reaching them at velocities that are currently possible in space travel. So I always found this topic a bit depressing. But then Ken Murphy, a panelist on "Back to the Moon", said something really neat. This might have segued from the discussion of Lagrange points, which, as we know, are orbital points where a small object could remain stationary with respect to two larger objects (such as Earth and Sun, or Earth and Moon). According to Ken Murphy, gravitational wells of various planets create "grooves in spacetime" such that you could sent out a probe, and it would go down those spacetime paths and come back to you -- like a marble on a board in an old marble game from the eighties. Perhaps he meant something like these kinds of boards? What a neat image.

Joe McKinney, William Ledbetter, John Gibbons and Ken Murphy on 'Back To The Moon' panel. Joe McKinney, William Ledbetter, John Gibbons and Ken Murphy on "Back To The Moon" panel.

Ken Murphy also said -- and again, I forgot the context in which he argued this -- that NASA modules should be dockable and snapable, like USB or PCMCIA cards, so that any module would be able to dock with any other module. The analogy between very different scales -- computer components versus spacecraft -- immediately brought to my mind the iconic image of a coke can-sized spaceship from Charles Stross' "Accelerando". As we might recall, it contained hardware on which uploaded personalities of space travelers ran. Indeed, one can easily visualize a USB key as a spaceship containing millions of virtual astronauts running on its hardware. But that's a different panel. Such images repeatedly come up in "Stump The Panel", and there WILL be a post on the latter, too!

Tethering objects in orbit

The second part of the "Orbital Mechanics" presentation concerned fun things you could do in space with gravity-gradient stabilization and tethering. The main idea is simple. Bob Mahoney reminds us that objects in a higher orbit are flying at lower speeds, while in a lower orbit they are flying at higher speeds. Imagine that a spaceship's long axis is aligned with the radius of the spaceship's orbit. Bob Mahoney demonstrates it in this image, holding a ruler above the globe. A you see, he is not holding it precisely aligned with the radius of the globe, but the idea is clear. Then the far end of the spaceship will be in a higher orbit than the near end. Meanwhile, the spaceship is moving at a speed at which its center of mass is moving. Thus the far end is going faster than it should for its orbit, whereas the low end is going too slow for its orbit. The outer end of the spaceship is pulling it outward, while the lower end is pulling it down so, if you line it up right, the spaceship will stay in orbit without you having to burn fuel to maintain that orbit. This is called gravity-gradient stabilization.

Bob Mahoney uses a ruler as a stand-in for a spaceship in an orbit around a planet.

If the two ends are separated, centrifugal force will propel the upper end into a higher orbit, whereas the lower end will drop into a lower orbit. This has all sorts of applications, says Mahoney. If you unroll a rope with a ball attached to each end, the upper end will try to go off outward, and the lower end will try to fall inward, so the rope will stay taut without you having to do pretty much anything. This makes it possible for objects to stay in orbit just by being tethered to one another. I think Mahoney was talking about tethered satellites. They are described in this Wikipedia article. And if you tether a conductive wire to your space station and drag it along, you'll get electric current in it. Drawing current off of it will act as a brake, and the space station will drop into a lower orbit.

In practice there are complications with this concept. Vibrations in the tether might cause it to oscillate like a violin string, and that would lead to waves developing in all three dimensions. Then you might get, quote Mahoney, "the dreaded skip-rope effect". But there are ways to counteract it.

The purpose of this panel was to present to a layperson the basics of orbital mechanics, and ideas of various neat ways we can make physical forces work for us in the orbit. There are plenty of ideas here for a writer. I, for one, had never heard about spacecraft tethering, but that's what great about SF conventions -- you accidentally stumble onto things it had never occurred to you to look for.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

ArmadilloCon: What You Should Have Read This Year

This is a traditional ArmadilloCon panel, where panelists give their recommendations of best recently published science fiction and fantasy we might want to read. The "pundits" are usually people whose work or hobbies cause them to read lots of recent fiction. This year, it's Willie Siros (an Austin bookseller), Madeleine Dimond (an author), Eric Marin (editor of Lone Star Tales), and Thomas Martin Wagner (a SF/F reviewer). So without further ado, here are their lists of must-read fiction. (Note: some of the books in Willie's list are yet to come out later this year or early 2010; I guess Willie's opinion of them is formed from the ARC's he's read.)

Willie Siros' list

Science fiction

Nancy Kress: Steal Across The Sky

Iain Banks: Transition

Robert Sawyer: www:wake

Rudy Rucker: Hylozoic

Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

Jack McDevitt: Time Travelers Never Die

China Mieville: City and the City

Paul McAuley: Gardens of the Sun

Ken MacLeod: Restoration Game (actually, a search for author and title combination on did not return any matches, and a search for "Restoration Game" alone did not return any science fiction titles. I don't know if Willie was confused about the title or the author, or if he inadvertently revealed that he has a window into Ken MacLeod's mind, where a book by that title is perhaps being conceived right now. :-))

Walter Jon Williams: This Is Not A Game

Bruce Sterling: Caryatids


J. G. Ballard: Complete stories

Lewis Shiner: Collected Stories

Poe: New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow

Joe R. Lansdale: Son of Retro Pulp Tales

Greg Egan: Crystal Nights and Other Stories

Theodore Sturgeon: Slow Sculpture: Volume XII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon


Lois Bujold: Horizon

Robin Hobb: Dragon Keeper

Ken Scholes: Lamentation

Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold

Nina Kiriki Hoffman: Fall of Light

Charles De Lint: Mystery of Grace

Steven Erikson: Dust of Dreams

Daniel Abraham: Price of Spring

Robert Holdstock: Avilion

Steph Swainston: Above the Snowline

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

John Crowley: Four Freedoms

Dan Simons: Drood

Madeleine Dimond, Willie Siros, Thomas Martin Wagner, and Eric Marin on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel

Madeleine Dimond, Willie Siros, Thomas Martin Wagner, and Eric Marin on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel.

Eric Marin's list

of Nifty Short Fiction and Poetry Appearing in 2009 and Places to Find More

A few anthologies (and a collection) he's heard good things about:


We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter Beagle (recent fantasy fiction and poetry reprints)


Songs of the Dying Earth, eds. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (a Jack Vance tribute anthology)


Federations, ed. John Joseph Adams (original and reprinted science fiction)


The New Space Opera 2, ed. Gardner Dozois (original science fiction)


Clockwork Phoenix 2, ed. Mike Allen (original SF/F fiction)


Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow (original dark fantasy/horror fiction)


The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois (reprints of 2008 science fiction)


Year's Best SF 14, eds. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (reprints of 2008 science fiction)


The 2009 Rhysling Anthology, ed. Drew Morse (speculative poetry published in 2008 and nominated for the 2009 Rhysling Award)


Some Online, Nontraditionally Published Fiction:


Shadow Unit, Seasons 1 and 2, various authors such as Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull (an ongoing series in a shared world):


Bone Shop by Tim Pratt (a Marla Mason fantasy novella posted online):


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (a YA fantasy novel posted online in weekly installments):


Some print magazines you have heard of and many you likely haven't but should have:


Analog (hard/traditional science fiction):


Asimov's (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry)


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (SF/F fiction):


Realms of Fantasy (fantasy fiction):


Postscripts (SF/F fiction in a yearly anthology format)


Polyphony (SF/F fiction in a yearly anthology format -- publisher on hiatus for the year, but books still available):


Interzone (SF/F fiction):


Black Static (dark/strange speculative fiction):


Weird Tales (dark/strange speculative fiction):


Black Gate (Fantasy fiction):


Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (cross genre fiction and poetry):


Electric Velocipede (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry):


Zahir (literary SF/F fiction)


Shimmer (SF/F fiction):


GUD (cross genre fiction and poetry):


Mythic Delirium (speculative poetry):


Dreams and Nightmares (speculative poetry):


Star*Line (speculative poetry--official magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association)


Some online magazines you should explore, if you haven't already done so:


Strange Horizons (SF/F fiction, speculative poetry): (publishes new short SF/F on a regular basis)


ChiZine (dark fiction and poetry):


Clarkesworld Magazine (SF/F fiction):


Fantasy Magazine (SF/F fiction):


Subterranean Magazine (SF/F fiction):


Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show (SF/F fiction—requires subscription):


Beneath Ceaseless Skies (secondary world fantasy fiction):


Apex Magazine (dark science fiction):


Lone Star Stories (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry -- now closed but the site will remain up)


Ideomancer (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry):


Abyss & Apex (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry):


Goblin Fruit (fantasy poetry):

Odds And Ends, And Other Panelists' Recommendations

Madeleine Dimond recommends Naomi Novik's "Victory of the Eagles", and Small Beer Press reprints of lesser known, but very fine authors, such as Carol Emshwiller. She also mentions some non-science fiction books that may be of interest to many fans of the genre. One of them is "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist" by Thomas Levenson, which she heard described as science fiction that's neither science nor fiction. Another is "White Sands, Red Menace" by Ellen Klages, a sequel to "Green Glass Sea". It's historical fiction about children growin up in 1940s in Los Alamos. Because science figures prominently in this book, Madeleine recommends it to all SF fans.

Thomas Martin Wagner recommends "Ariel" by Steve Boyett, a post-apocalyptic novel about a boy and his unicorn, that's been reprinted this year. There's also a sequel coming out this fall, "Elegy Beach". Having been published 28 years after the first book, it's one of the longest-awaited sequels in history, says Martin. He also recommends China Mieville's "The City and the City" (that's two recommendations for this book, since it is also in Willie's list). According to Martin, it's shorter, more accessible, more to the point than Mieville's earlier works. He calls it "China's pulp novel".

Eric Marin recommends Haruki Murakami "Kafka on the Shore", and Jay Lake's "Green".

Willie Siros is glad some publishers are publishing standalone novellas. Some writers, he says, are excellent at novella-length works, but don't do novels well. He thinks Michael Bishop is the finest novella writer in the known universe, but after 30000 - 40000 words he loses focus. Of recently published novellas, Willie recommends "Shambling Towards Hiroshima" by James Morrow.

One of the panelists (I don't remember which one) recommends "Cardboard Universe", an exploration of life of a fictional SF novelist Phoebus K. Dank, loosely based on Philip K. Dick.

Here are lists of books recommended on other "What You Should Have Read" panels: at ArmadilloCon 2005, ArmadilloCon 2006, ArmadilloCon 2007, and ArmadilloCon 2008.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Friday, August 21, 2009

ArmadilloCon: what's more alien than aliens?

You've built your world (see previous post), and someone needs to inhabit it. It may as well be aliens. So there was a panel on creating believable aliens. This topic, like others, gets recycled every few years. There was a better panel on this topic in ArmadilloCon 2003, or maybe it only seemed better because I had not yet heard the usual advice on creation of believable aliens. The "usual" advice is discussed in detail in this article on my web site.

"Believable aliens" means they should not talk and act like Midwestern 20th century Americans, yet they shouldn't be too alien, because the reader won't understand them at all. It's better if their societal model is based on some human cultural situation, or animal behavior -- and Taylor Anderson, who has a Master's degree in history says that pretty much any societal model you can dream up, such as a matriarchal cannibalist society, has a precedent in human history. Extremely alien aliens might work in a very short story, since the reader may be able to read it without getting too confused or losing interest. "The Dance of the Changer And The Three" by Terry Karr was given as an example of such a story.

Speaking of human models for alien societies, Chris Roberson suggests we look no further than the Japanese society. He thinks there are more differences between Japanese culture and ours, than there are between any science-fictional aliens and us. To interact with Japanese, he had to be taught how to do do smallest things in certain ways, so as not to offend them inadvertently. For example, there is a right way and a wrong way to accept a business card from someone. It is mandatory that you pause and read the person's name in the card. To tuck it away without reading it would be rude. Japanese is endlessly fascinating, he says. It's like watching alternate history. Even though they've experienced the same recent major events as the Western society, such as World War II, they've spun it into something completely different.

Joan Vinge thinks that may have been the case in the past, but in the era of globalization Japanese aren't as opaque to us as they used to be. Still she thinks James Clavell "Shogun", a novel of 16th century Europeans' exploration of Japan, is an excellent first contact story.

Taylor Anderson, Ann Aguirre, Joan Vinge, and Chris Roberson in the Aliens panel

Taylor Anderson, Ann Aguirre, Joan Vinge, and Chris Roberson in the Aliens panel.

An aside. Not long ago, as I wrote about Lithuanian science fiction fandom, I mentioned being mildly annoyed that every cultural discussion was accompanied by a refrain "Orientals are soooo different from us! Don't try to understand them, lest you go crazy!" Yet I didn't find myself rolling my eyes at this discussion, probably because it approached those differences -- which are real, no doubt -- without employing that vague catch-all notion of spirituality. Once you start down the "orientals are sooo spiritual, and their spirituality is sooo different" track, that's when my eyes glaze over. Otherwise, yes, I agree, there are many cultural differences, and in some ways they are opaque to us.

Back to the panel. So, human societies and animal behavior as models for your aliens? Ann Aguirre chose the latter. She based her aliens on praying mantis. This has an advantage that when she gets fan mail asking how do her aliens have sex -- and she gets those letters at least once a week! -- she can tell them to Google it. Hint: sexual cannibalism. :-)

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ArmadilloCon: why a fantasy writer should develop an interest in solid waste management

What would a city built by pirates look like? The decorations would be haphazard, because it's all from loot. Your loot might not have enough angels' statues to decorate the entire building, so you'll have angels next to gargoyles. That's the opinion of Rob Rogers, who explored the concept of a pirate town in his novel "Devil's Cape". Stuff like that is discussed on perennial panels on world building -- a crucial part of every science fiction or fantasy novelist's job. Maybe because it wouldn't be right to just reuse panel titles from last year, this year's panel was focused on City Building ("Creating a city that both works for your story, and makes sense for the world it is in.") There was the usual advice on the importance of consistency in city building, like in all world building if you want to have 10000 monkeys in the story, start with that city that could support 10000 monkeys. Don't just put it in as an afterthought in the middle of an agrarian country, or you may discover that it will support at most 8000 monkeys! (Scott Lynch).

Scott Lynch, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rob Rogers, and Vincent Docherty in the City Building panel

Scott Lynch, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rob Rogers, and Vincent Docherty in the City Building panel.

Scott Lynch also suggests that if you want to get a handle on realistic city-building, try to develop an interest in solid waste management. Combing through other people's waste used to be a major part of people's pastime in medieval and even early industrial times. Masses of poor people would wade in the sewers, capturing lumps of waste, and picking out anything that was remotely valuable, discarded by upper classes. In Victorian England cities, that had long outgrown their medieval infrastructure, there were thousands of people involved in the business of transporting other people's "nightsoil". All this was a subject of Steven Johnson's book "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World", that Scott Lynch got his wife for Christmas. That's the kind of guy he is! :-) (In his defense, he said his wife is a biology major, and fascinated by pathogens.) Even if you are not into pathogens, stuff like this surely helps a fantasy writer to create a realistic medieval world.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Monday, August 17, 2009

ArmadilloCon: first draft in Icelandic, and other advice for writers

All the advice that could be given to beginning authors has already been mentioned in my posts from writing workshops of the past (you can find more of them by clicking the "writers' workshop" tag under this post). Overall, I'm afraid all that could be said about speculative fiction has already been said in my earlier posts from ArmadilloCon and other conventions. There's no point in repeating it, so what's left? Jokes. Thankfully, jokes at ArmadilloCon are fresh every year, which is amazing, because the people are the same.

The writers who taught the ArmadilloCon writing workshop were trying to one-up one another on how badly they sucked when they were just starting out. Sharon Shinn: I'm a poster child for perseverance. I wrote 10 books before I sold one. Chris Roberson: I wrote 11 books before one sold. Sharon: But I wrote three or four after I sold the first one, that never sold. Scott Lynch, this year's Guest of Honor, can top that: he wrote 12 unpublished novels, many of them in high school. He never finished any of them before he wrote a novel that actually sold (I assume he's talking about "The Lies of Locke Lamora"). Thus, the skeletons in his closet are malformed embryo skeletons.

On revising your work: Most pros recommend completing the first draft of the book before revising, rewriting, or editing it. The alternative -- revising after you finish each chapter or page -- is not so good. Jim Frenkel, a Tor editor, says George R. R. Martin is an exception in that respect, and the worst role model to a beginner writer. "He doesn't go to on to write an new page until the previous page is perfect. And you wonder why his next book is taking so long?"

Sharon Shinn recalls what someone else has said on this topic. "Revising while you write is like drinking decaf coffee in the morning. Great idea, wrong time. Your first draft should read like it was hastily translated from Icelandic by a non-native speaker."

Ah, so I must be doing something right!

In other encouraging news (see, I said it was going to be all jokes, but there is some useful advice in there): yes, you can find time for writing. Julie Kenner wrote her first 15 books while working full-time as a lawyer, and the last seven of those with babies and small children (she has two). Martha Wells wrote some of her first books while being constantly distracted. At that time she worked in tech support, where she wrote programs in KOBOL. She worked on her novels while the programs compiled and ran. Her desk was in a very small space, surrounded by mainframe computers whose hard drives constantly made clicking noises. And since she was in tech support, people would drop in and ask questions all the time. So now she needs distractions in order to write, such as a television in the background.

I wonder which of my bad habits will one day turn out to be an unexpected blessing.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery. There are only a few of them there, but I'm adding new pictures every day.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

When science fiction fans are interviewed for a lifestyle magazine

I don't talk about it here often, but I've been a co-editor of a science fiction fanzine for 15 years. It's called Dorado Raganos, which means Witches of Dorado in Lithuanian. Dorado is the name of a science fiction club in Vilnius, Lithuania, that has been the home base of our fanzine in its early days. And we'll get to the "witch" part in a moment.

I've been co-editing this fanzine with two of my friends -- we'll call them AVS and DL -- since 1994. Since then, both of my friends and I became expats, scattered thousands of miles apart across two contintents. Yet we keep it going, even though there were some years when the fanzine didn't come out.

This was the first time in 15 years when all three of us were able to meet in the same physical place. Funny, we didn't even plan it: it just happened that we were all visiting Lithuania at the same time. Our stay in Lithuania overlapped for exactly one day, July 13th. So of course we had to meet. We went to a restaurant and spent 5 hours catching up. Other 3 members of our team, who have contributed greatly to the fanzine over the years, also came to the meeting. One of them told about us to her friend, a journalist, who then decided to write an article about us. So she came to our meeting and interviewed us.

I was surprised that the journalist thought our little fanzine was of interest to anyone except those 50-70 people who read it. As much as our fanzine has a dubious honor of being the only speculative fiction magazine being published in Lithuania for the last decade (sad but true), it's not the kind of thing general public is interested in.

I was right: the interview wasn't primarily about the fanzine. The journalist was mostly curious about how we met our husbands. :-) That, and in our lives as expats. Of course, given that the publication she writes for is a lifestyle magazine for women, the focus of the interview wasn't too surprising. After all, we know from stereotypes that women don't care about "geeky stuff" like science fiction. ;-) So the journalist emphasized the "human interest" angle, such as the fact that two women in our trio met her husbands through science fiction. There were some soundbite-worthy details in their courtship stories. After meeting at a convention, AVS and her future husband, a Swede, communicated without a common language for a while (until she learned Swedish). At one point I translated his letters to her from English to Lithuanian, and helped her write a letter to him in English. DL and her husband met when he wrote her a letter praising her fantasy story, which he read... guess where? That's right -- in our fanzine! So, these heartwarming details made up the bulk of the interview. I guess journalists use stuff like that to show that geeks are human too, and even have something resembling love lives. So it wasn't a waste, even if the science fiction aspect of the interview was rather thin.

So why "witches"? Over the years I came to regret the "witch" part in the "Witches of Dorado". I had to explain multiple times that really, our fanzine has nothing to do with witchcraft, paganism, or paranormal, and it's not even biased towards fantasy. It's just a magazine for all kinds of speculative fiction. "Witches" made it into the name almost accidentally. It was a word AVS uttered in response to someone's teasing -- kind of "you better beware of witches like us!" And so the name stuck.

So of course, during the interview the reporter asked us with a completely straight face, if we practiced witchcraft. The question made my hair stand on end, as I was afraid that no matter how much we downplay the witchcraft angle, she'll find a way to put it in the story, and I'll go on record as a woo-woo loony. After all, New Age'y stories are extremely popular in lifestyle magazines in Lithuania (if the sample I've browsed is any indication). It didn't help that AVS, the chief editor, wanted to play it up a little bit. Instead of firmly stating we don't subscribe to mystical nonsense, she said, with her trademark mysterious semi-smile, that every woman has a bit of a sorceress in her. I, on the other hand, assured the reporter that the only thing we've done that could be remotely attributed to witchcraft, is the ability to keep the fanzine going across 15 years and two continents. Fortunately, my remark made it into the interview.

But maybe I'm taking this thing entirely too seriously.

Pictures from our meeting can be found in my photo gallery.

* To my Lithuanian friends who might want to know, it's a Sunday addition "Brigita" of a daily newspaper "Respublika". It came out 2 weeks ago.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A neo-pagan site

Did all the Lithuanian science fiction fandom camp events I wrote about sounded like so much woo-woo? Here are a couple more odds and ends to reinforce that impression. :-) In addition to the Flying Saucer-shaped museum, we also visited a pagan, or rather, neopagan temple. Definitely "neo" -- the temple wasn't there until a few years ago, and I don't think there's any indication that there used to be an ancient pagan worship site at that location. All attempts to restore old pagan faiths in Lithuania ride on lots of imagination and a few mentions of ancient deities in folk songs. There are very few written sources verifying the authenticity of those deities. But the imagination of neo-pagan worshippers more than makes up for that. Anyway, it's a separate topic, and I won't go into it now.

Well, there wasn't an actual a building at the temple site, only an open space at the top of the hill, surrounded by a low, irregular hedge of loosely piled rocks. Some rocks have pseudo-pagan symbols painted on them. I was told it's a Baltic equivalent of Zodiac. As with most things neopagan, I seriously doubt whether it's grounded in any authentic Baltic astronomical system, if there was any. But the symbols are pretty in a kind of a runic, ancient, primitive way. Here are 4 of them.

There is a mound of rocks in the middle with firewood on it. I was told it is a reconstruction-interpretation of what an ancient observatory could have looked like. Other wooden and stone idols represent ancient pagan Baltic gods, such as this statue of the sky and thunder god Perkūnas. The statue grows taller every year as people bring in rocks for it each spring at Jorė festival.

Then there is a statue of a Žemyna, goddess of the Earth. This goddess is probably held responsible for fertility or love -- it is undoubtedly a goddess for women. Well, "women" may be an overstatement, as the offerings piled around the statue made me think an average pilgrim is about 13 years old. Hair scrunchies, plastic bracelets, stuffed animals -- if I were a goddess, I might be a little offended that the supplicants assume I have such a cheesy taste.

All my pictures of the temple can be found here. Thanks to Barbora for supplying the facts about the temple that I managed to miss during my visit (to be fair, I didn't look very hard for signs, plaques or explanations).

On that note: coming up -- a post about witches. :-)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Science fiction fandom camp in Lithuania: applied demonology

Aurelijus Katkevičius, the editor of a magazine "Verslo Klasė", stopped by at the science fiction fandom camp for a couple of hours. He gave a talk (here's a picture) "On applied demonology, or how to overcome a writer's block". A surprising combination of subjects, you'd say? Those were supposed to be two different lectures, of which he asked us to choose one; since we couldn't choose, he combined them. So, how are demonology and writer's block related?

When you hit a wall in your writing, there are several ways to get yourself unstuck, and most of them are based on the notion that once you start writing anything and do it for long enough, the magical writerly juices will start flowing, and you'll know how to proceed with your work. You could write about what's in front of you, like a cup that's sitting on your desk, or be Zen about it: surrender to your block, and write about how stuck you are. Or you could examine your character in detail. This is where applied demonology comes into play. If your character is a demon, you can create an entire science around him or her. You can determine what class, genus, and species he/she/it is, where does he live, what are his feeding habits, etc. You can write all this down on paper. It probably won't make it into the final draft of the story, since infodumps are typically unnecessary. But regardless if your character is a demon or anything else, the detailed examination can give you an insight into what his past and his condition would motivate him to do at a particular point in the story, thus giving you ideas how to proceed with the plot.

This method has actually worked for me, and I've figured it out just recently. When I'm drawing a complete blank on how to proceed with the plot, I try to visualize a secondary scene that does not appear to be important to the plot at all. I write it out in detail. And inevitably some important aspects of the characters' behavior, or of the world my novel is set in, emerge and become "hooks" for the further chapters of the book.

At least I thought that was the connection between demonology and writer's block. Then there is another angle: writer's block may be caused by demons each of us harbors. It seems that any discussion on intellectual matters in Lithuania must at some point pay homage to cliches about the Orient. It is mandatory to say that it's a place where people Know Something We Don't, and we Should Not Even Try To Get It, lest we go crazy. I personally don't believe in any kind of special oriental wisdom, definitely not as a better alternative to a technological way of living; while I do know that people in those countries arrange their life's priorities somewhat differently than us (collectivism versus individualism), I don't see it as a manifestation of wisdom. But to voice dissenting opinions in a conversation where everybody seems to take this for granted would mean at least to start a debate no one is interested in having. And of course, that would be rude.

We also chatted about the state of book publishing in Lithuania. It's not great, though not disastrous either. Science fiction is still being published in Lithuania, mostly translations of English / U.S., and Russian SF. Several speculative fiction and horror novels by Lithuanian authors had been published over the last decade, as well as a few anthologies of short stories. However, genre magazines do not survive. There are currently no exclusively science fiction / fantasy / horror magazines in Lithuania.

I asked if any Lithuanian publishing houses were publishing stuff electronically for e-book devices such as Kindle; to everyone's knowledge, none do. Electronic publishing in Lithuania may be a non-starter for the simple reason that piracy is so prevalent in Lithuania. I can't completely understand, though, why isn't piracy enough of an hindrance to electronic publishing in the US, or UK, or other developed countries. Do people in those countries obey the laws more willingly, or are there not-so-obvious technological reasons for that?

New pictures from the camp (with English and Lithuanian captions) have been added to my photo gallery.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Science fiction fandom camp in Lithuania, part 2: Museum of Ethnocosmology

As I said in my previous post, the camp was near an observatory. Not long ago, the former head of the observatory built a so-called Museum of Ethnocosmology here, also referred to by the folks as Flying Saucer because of the resemblance. We toured this museum. Ethnocosmology may be a valid field of study of creation myths from around the world, and I imagine there's more than one Ph.D. dissertation to be made in it. However, this museum did not present a case for it. Overall there's not much in it (maybe because it's still new). The halls were almost empty, except for an exhibit containing pieces of meteorites, some folk art with no apparent connection to astronomy or cosmology, and some pretty, generic space photos on the walls.

The dearth of real exhibits may be why the tour guide filled up the time with New Age'y blather. He announced he was going to have a conversation with us about the meaning of life. Because you know, none of us thought about it before coming here. Then he rehashed a bunch of cliches about how the ancients perceived time as cyclical, while modern people see it as linear, and how technology made us forget the meaning of life (something I profoundly disagree with). He did not neglect to mention that oriental people perceive the world differently -- with their heart, not the logical mind. In other words, he slung some old, tired, and mostly untrue cliches.

The tour got a bit more lively when the guide pulled several kids into acting out a live model of the solar system. Well, it was limited to the Sun and the first 4 planets, which he positioned in proportional distances from the child who played the Sun. Given the scale of the Solar system, it's not surprising that the room was too small to accommodate the outer planets. After that he took us 12 floors up to an observation deck that revealed a view of the surrounding lakes (there are seven of them) and woods. Then we walked up another 2 floors to look at a telescope, which wasn't working yet. The guide proudly told us this was going to be the largest telescope in Europe for public use.

I'm not sure what kind of expo this museum will have when completed. But I certainly didn't like the vaguely anti-science attitude it promotes, all the more regrettable that it comes from an organization that has facilities and staff to carry on Carl Sagan's work in Lithuania, if they so chose. Maybe it's just me; some people did not feel the anti-science attitude as sharply as I did. But everybody agreed that the tour was, at best, bland.

The Ethnocosmology museum looks really remarkable from outside, though:

Ethnocosmology museum

Pictures from the camp (with English and Lithuanian captions) are in m photo gallery.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Science fiction fandom camp in Lithuania, part 1

While I was in Lithuania this year, I went to a science fiction fandom camp. The camp is put together by members of Dorado science fiction club of Vilnius, Lithuania, but is open to anyone interested in the genres of speculative fiction. There were around 20 people, and we all lived for 3 days in what could be described as a cabin in the woods, 2-3 people to a room, with an outdoors toilet and no showers. Then I found out there were empty rooms in another house nearby, which had a shower and bathrooms, and I moved there for the last night.

The camp has been taking place annually for a number of years in a scenic rural place between hills and lakes that's also a home to an observatory. So it's the right setting for speculative fiction lovers. The camp started out as a writers' retreat. Over the years, writing took a backseat to relaxation activities, such as swimming, hiking, volleyball, movies, games and chatting.

This year, my first year at the camp, there was only one creative writing task, prepared by Lina. She had us exercise our writerly muscles by writing what she called a "shadow prose". We each could choose one of five speculation fiction texts about 10-12 sentences long. We had to write our own prose between the sentences of the original text, while preserving its coherence. Two of the texts were well known -- "Alice in Wonderland" and Robert Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man" (a great story, which is why I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole). Another two were excerpts from Lithuanian SF authors stories. The fifth one was Microm%C3%A9gas by Voltaire. Wikipedia cites this story as a "significant development in the history of literature because it originates ideas which helped create the genre of science fiction". It's a satirical story about a giant (many miles tall) from a planet orbiting Sirius. The premise did not appeal to me, and after reading an excerpt it was clear that it was one of those stories that has survived purely because of its historical significance. It's a pain to read, too. Every sentence in it runs on for a paragraph. So of course, I took it on as a challenge. I tried to follow Voltaire's style, which wasn't difficult because I have a natural inclination to be verbose. The result may have preserved the spirit of the story, but it wasn't funny (not that the original was either). So my story got very few votes. Stories that got the most votes were the ones that were fun to read. One of the best, written by SielojRamiakas, employed a very simple method of "mirroring" the original onomatopoeically (if there is such a word). I realize I'm not making myself very clear. It's one of those "you had to be there" things. It had the audience in stitches.

So, it's fair to say that the purpose of the task was not so much to improve one's writing, as to provide a break from the tough business of relaxation, and to bring the campers together for half an hour of laughter.

I'll write more about the camp in my upcoming posts.

Pictures from the camp (with English and Lithuanian captions) are in m photo gallery.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ApolloCon 2009: Wil McCarthy on programmable matter

Wil McCarthy, a scientist and science fiction author, was the Guest of Honor at ApolloCon 2009. He gave a talk on the work he's been doing in programmable matter. He started off by showing the audience a piece of clear glass. Then he heated the glass with a hair dryer. An irregularly shaped reflective blob grew on the glass -- the heat turned the glass reflective. This was McCarthy's demonstration of materials he's working on in his startup.

Definitions and discussion of programmable matter can be found elsewhere on the web, and McCarthy did not dwell on the theory, but talked about his work in this area. His practical work in programmable matter developed from his nonfiction book "Hacking Matter", which it turn was born from his fiction. He talked about the events that lead to writing of "Hacking Matter", and how it attracted investors' interest, leading to creation of programmable matter startup. McCarthy talked about his company's journey to discovery of viable commercial applications for these materials, and why he avoids the word "nanotechnology" for marketing this technology to investors. He briefly discussed weapon potential and security issues of programmable matter with the audience. Finally, he talked about balancing his science and writing careers, or rather, impossibility thereof.

The whole article is available on my web site.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

ApolloCon 2009: literary rap, materials science and space panels

I stopped by at a filk session on Friday or Saturday night, since the parties weren't exactly hopping. One quiet guy who sat in the corner until then surprised us (well, at least me) with a Game of Thrones rap. "Rap" is not quite accurate. The song had a simple melody with Celtic motives, but the melody was peripheral to the lyrics, which he delivered rapid-fire, never stopping to catch his breath. As a recap of a series of 700-page books, the song lasted a solid 10 minutes (not that I was looking at the clock). It was impressive, to say the least. If I understood correctly, the guy said he wrote it himself.

Then a woman said this reminded her of "Hamlet in 5 minutes" song, and she sang -- or rapped it, as that song is more or less pure rap -- right there and then. That's the kind of talented people we have lurking at the fringes of filk circles.

Beg, Steal or Borrow: Precious Commodities in the Space Colony

Maybe it's just me, but I noticed a hint of a theme in this year's ApolloCon 2009 -- many panels were related to material sciences (no wonder, because Wil McCarthy was the Guest of Honor), or space (also not surprising, because, well, this is Houston, home of NASA). When you combine the two, you'll get panels like "Beg, Steal or Borrow: Precious Commodities in the Space Colony". I regret I missed most of it. I wanted to check out a tea tasting, conducted by Ziactrice first, and then I was too lazy to leave the tea tasting midway and head to the panel. (It was worth it, as I got to taste some awesome, smoky lapsang souchong.) When I finally got to "Beg, Steal or Borrow", the panelists must have decided that none of those methods will get them far, because they were talking of manufacturing precious commodities.

You can ship oxygen you make on the Moon to a space colony in a lower orbit, cheaper than you would ship it from Earth. If you are just shipping freight, you could have a robot shipping system. Most of it could be automated. You could use solar sails as far as the asteroid belt. You could mine materials in asteroids, process them, and move them wherever they are needed. In many cases, what you need is just a fraction of the mass of the asteroid, not the whole thing. On the other hand, you should be careful with the economics of asteroid mining. If you mine a 700-meter diameter cast iron lump, you may dump too much of a good thing into economy, creating inflation.

Material sciences, or habitat design was also the theme of another panel, "Architecture of the Future Living in a Materials World", but the panelists did hardly more than complain how hard it is to build, or maintain, houses in Houston, because Houston climate is so tough on buildings. Well, that wasn't all they said, but the discussion was mostly about the present, not the future.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 can be found in my photo gallery.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

ApolloCon 2009

Kim Kofmel, ApolloCon chair, doesn't do formal wear. At her husband's suggestion to dress up for the opening ceremony, she upgraded her trademark hat to a gold-embroidered one. Kim reminded us that the year 2009 is the 40th anniversary of Lunar landing. She is old enough to have watched it on a very small black and white television. As a small child, she was nevertheless aware that this is something that never happened before, but will happen more. Even now she still believes it will happen more.

This being Houston, every other fan at this convention appears to have a connection to NASA. The most prominent example was, of course, ApolloCon special guest, astronaut Stanley Love. The rest of the congoers have never escaped Earth's gravity, but some of them are friends with astronauts, and they have second-hand stories from space to tell. According to one such person, astronauts in space can't really see billions of stars (contrary to popular imagination). The reason is "too much light", she said. Why didn't they dim the cabin lights, somebody in the audience quipped. It's not the lights inside the space station that obscure the stars, the woman explained. It's the Earth light. Also, astronauts get used to lack of gravity surprisingly fast; when her friend the astronaut brushed her hair the first few times after coming back to Earth, she was surprised that the brush fell on the floor when she let go of it. The expectation that the brush will float developed after spending as little as two weeks in space.

Rocket Science or Rocket Fantasy

The "Rocket Science or Rocket Fantasy" panel blurb said: "Why yes, it IS rocket science... Maybe. Panelists discuss the accuracy of rocket science as represented in sf books, TV and movies." Inaccuracy in portrayal of space flight in movies and books often comes from wanting to glamorize it to fit a Hollywood plot formula. So for example, in a typical movie Columbia shuttle would not have broken up. After discovering that pieces of insulating foam had broken off the shuttle, a Hollywood version of NASA would not have concluded that there's not much anyone can do about it. In a movie, astronauts would have performed a spacewalk, patched up the shuttle and returned safely to Earth. The latter is rocket fantasy, the former is rocket science.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 can be found in my photo gallery.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Symptoms of getting older

The other day I heard an excerpt from a play on the radio that went something like this. An older person says to a young one: "I was 56 when you were born, and nothing you say can possibly be new to me; any debate you might start is something I've already had, probably verbatim, with someone else decades back". I could only nod and smile. This, more than anything else, is my main symptom of getting older. Not physical decrepitude -- I'm lucky to have no health problems (knock on wood), and I have more energy now than I had at 18 (I credit exercise and time management) -- but this endless deja vu. For that reason I stopped reading most discussion groups I used to subscribe to, especially those of political or philosophical nature, such as freethinker / atheist groups. Like the character of the above-mentioned play, I already know pretty much every argument people trot out. The most popular discussion questions on freethinker groups are liberalism vs. conservatism; what degree of regulation and state interference in economic and social matters is appropriate; abortion; animal rights -- all those "third rail" topics that get people riled up. Oddly enough, precise definitions of atheist and agnostic (and other, subtler shades of nonbelief) can also be a heated topic in freethought communities. I've been on a number of discussion groups, and the arguments are always the same. Not that I would expect them to be different: I realize there's only a limited number of arguments. But this also means I have long ago stopped participating in debates, especially after I concluded that no amount of debating ever convinced opposing sides to budge from their positions. :-)

I never thought that age works that way on people, but as I get older, I become more neophiliac. The more I hear or read, the less of what I read or hear seems new to me; the more I look for something that's truly different. I find myself puzzled by the prevailing notion that only teenagers and twentysomethings are drawn to radically different forms of art. To me, it's the opposite. So much of pop-culture and music teens and young adults are drawn to seems like regurgitation of artistic memes of decades ago. I realize it's new to them; for me, on the other hand, it takes long and hard looking to find something I haven't heard before.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

8 minutes: an implausible concept

I heard of a science fiction story contest, called "8 minutes" ( The premise is this:

"The Earth is 8 light minutes away from the Sun. Something has happened to the Sun. Maybe it's gone nova, been transformed, been replaced or stolen or...? But in 8 minutes everything will change for life on Earth."

I like to write theme-based stories. A theme suggests an idea and gets my creative juices flowing. As the story progresses, it often deviates from the theme, until there's very little of the original idea left in it. I don't mind that because I don't treat themes rigorously. To me they serve merely like grains of sand around which a pearl crystallizes. (Not that I would compare my stories to pearls. :-)) Of course, deviating from the theme wouldn't do if I wanted to submit a story to a theme-based anthology, but I don't do that either.

I was especially intrigued by the 8-minutes contest, because it's based on an idea that's not very meaningful at the surface. Since the light travels 8 minutes from Sun to Earth, anything that happens in or to the Sun, will only be discovered 8 minutes later on Earth. You can't really write a thriller here, unless it was made of one sentence. "They didn't know what hit them." You can't reuse any of the old formulae. In the face of global panic, there will be no square-jawed hero who steps up in the 11th hour -- make that the 7th minute -:-) and saves the Earth. For one, there will be no global panic. Nobody, including the hero, will know what will happen to the world. So the plot would have to be about people going about their daily lives not knowing that the disaster will strike. Not exactly a typical plot for a genre story. Though on the other hand, there is this small, but notable meme in science fiction, people living ordinary lives while all hell is breaking loose. It's not one of my favorites, though.

The only other possibility is that somehow humans were notified of the disaster ahead of time. In that case 8 minutes are not meaningful. They probably had many more than 8 minutes to prepare -- or to stick their heads in the sand, as the case may be. Either scenario is not compliant with the theme.

That said, I've come up with an idea for a story that bypasses the obstacle inherent in the concept, and meets the parameters of the contest. Time will tell if I'll succeed. Like I said, my stories often veer away from the original theme and thus become ineligible for the submission. What's worse, I'm thinking this could only work as a comical story -- and I'm the person who on several occasions has proudly admitted not having a sense of humor. That spells success right here. :-) In any case, I'll probably miss the deadline for the contest (I write at a glacial pace) and the point will be moot.

UPDATE1: I've been told Larry Niven has done this theme very well in "Inconstant Moon". I'll have to check it out.

UPDATE2: Checked it out. Some things in the Wikipedia synopsis of this story made me ponder:

"However the narrator surmises that the Sun has gone nova, the day side of the Earth is already destroyed [...]." Wait, he thinks it's possible that the day side of the Earth is destroyed, but nobody has heard it on television or radio? Well, maybe in the year 1971 it was typical for the news to travel with a huge delay, I don't know. It just seems weird.

More importantly, if the Moon is glowing bright, then the sunlight from the "accident" has already reached the Moon -- and the Moon is only a light-second or so away from Earth, is it not? So there is no 8-minute buffer built in here. That said, the idea of Larry Niven's story is definitely similar to that of "8 minutes", only more workable.

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