Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category
A powerful book—and a surprisingly good movie. Here’s a brief obituary in the Washington Post.
I remember polywater vividly. It appeared, it caught everyone’s attention because of the fictional ice-9 in Cat’s Cradle, and then it disappeared as quickly. Here’s a little look back, thanks to TYD. As the author points out, science works: a new idea or process appears, a lot of people test it, and if it doesn’t survive, we continue, in a process quite similar to evolution.
An obituary. I strongly recommend memoir, The Way The Future Was., If you read science-fiction at all, and you’ve not read it, click now and buy a (secondhand, inexpensive) copy at the link. It’s simply totally wonderful, and Pohl was in the thick of it when the foundations were being laid. Do Not Miss.
The Younger Daughter pointed out Ted Gioia’s look at Stand on Zanzibar‘s predictions and find that they hold up well. I vividly remember reading this novel (by John Brunner) when it first came out. Terrific novel, and even better than I realized at the time. Inexpensive secondhand copies available here.
Stand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come. Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969!
Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book:
(1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society inStand on Zanzibar.
(2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.
(3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)
(4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.
(5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.
(6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.
(7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.
(8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).
(9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.
(10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.
(11) . . .
Just finished The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi. Quite good. Reminds me in style of another writer—not quite Robert Heinlein, but a guy who wrote a response to Starship Troopers (the original novel). It’ll come to me.
Gordon Dickson. Right?
Read this review in the NY Times. I don’t think I’ll be joining the Church of Scientology.
Really a must-read, just as James Fallows said in his blog. And read the other two Daniel Suarez novels, too: Daemon and Freedom™ are, in effect, a 2-volume novel, and you should read them in that order. Kill Decision is independent and can be read independently.
What’s interesting to me is that these belong to a genre known as “hard” science-fiction: science-fiction in which the emphasis is strongly on the science. Hal Clement was a well-known practitioner of the genre, and the science in his novels was physics and astronomy, primarily, with some engineering included.
But science has changed, and in Suarez’s “hard” science-fiction the sciences are computer science, social psychology, and animal behavior: a very different flavor.
Daniel Suarez writes fascinating novels. Daemon was the first, and Freedom™ was a follow-on novel. I’m now reading his third, Kill Decision, as highly recommended by James Fallows, and it’s extremely good. I’m just 100 pages in and I can’t put it down. Really is a book people should read. It doesn’t seem to be set in the same future as the others, but in a likely sort of future, I would say, elements of which are already visible. I got my copy from the library; check there for yours.
Clive Davidson wrote a terrific account of what happens when you let programs evolve: Creatures from the Primordial Silicon (PDF). It seems peculiar at how the particularities of the chip were baked into the program so that it, in effect, worked only with this particular chipset—i.e., these chips. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. (UPDATE: I just tracked the article to its original source in New Scientist in 1997. Here it is.)
And now they are finding that spending too many days in freefall makes you go blind. It turns out that our eyesight evolved with gravity baked into the program. (Short version: In freefall, blood pressure in the head increases (no gravity), and the additional pressure puts stress on the optic nerve, leading to massive breakdown and blindness. So much for colonizing other planets. Glad to put paid to that romantic and completely unrealistic notion. I love science-fiction myself, but most of the really good stuff is impossible fantasies—but fun.) Details here at New Scientist.
AI consciousness—required (I think) for a Singularity—seems most likely to arise in the sort of environment as the doubtless giga-massive interconnected computing resources of NSA which parse all the terabytes of data daily collected from telephone and electronic messaging and networks: looking for and ranking potential connections and patterns, Bayesian inferencing gone wild, but with increasingly powerful algorithms from self-programming neural nets. The idea is that using evolutionary algorithms exponentially increases the system’s powers of pattern recognition and connection, combining data, meaning, images (including surveillance cameras), and the like. In that sort of program, as the algorithms grow increasingly complex from its self-directed evolutionary development, one would not be surprised to see consciousness emerge.
So that’s the premise. Now I want to read the novel.
In his 1956 short story, Let’s Get Together, Isaac Asimov describes security measures proposed to counter a terrorist threat:
“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”
The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”
“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”
“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”
Makers, by Cory Doctorow, I didn’t like so much, though I’m sure many will. For me, it failed to deliver on its promise. Ready Player One, by Ernet Cline, I thoroughly enjoyed. Both are sf and both deal with the entertainment industry, though different facets of it.
Or, if you don’t want to vote, you can troll the list for titles you haven’t read.
One standby of science-fiction is the Replicator: a machine that makes any machine. You only need one, provided it has or can get the templates, blueprints, files, or instructions it needs for any specific item.
Here’s one in action:
I was thinking about the relative merits of the electronic flashcards for my Spanish class: those I made via Anki versus those supplied via the textbook “Supersite”. The latter are pre-made, let you go through with Spanish prompts or English prompts, and pronounce clearly each Spanish word, for you to mimic.
The automatic audio is quite good, no doubt, and I in fact continue to use those cards for first learning and occasional review. But against that the Anki approach has what to my mind is an insurmountable advantage: the management and scheduling of the cards I see.
Every morning I spend 20 minutes or so going through the Anki cards of the day. These are a mix of new vocabulary, difficult vocabulary, and vocabulary due for review. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to schedule it—I just have to go through the cards each day and click one of Again, Hard, Good, Easy after I see the answer. That’s it. Based on my response, the cards are automatically scheduled for their next appearance: this same session, tomorrow, or some later day—those that are easiest I now won’t see for 3 months or so.
And it automatically presents each card twice, once with the Spanish as the prompt, once with the English, and it schedules separately the two directions (so that an easy Spanish to English will not be seen so soon as a difficult English to Spanish).
This management and scheduling capability is infinitely superior to the Supersite—there I would have to schedule myself, and the groups of cards would mix difficult and easy vocabulary, etc.
Still: the Supersite offers audio—but, if I wanted to do the work, I could add audio to the Anki deck.
I mentioned earlier the 9-day summer course at UCSD (note that in the upper-right corner at the link, you can choose to view the page in English or in Esperanto).
I have decided that I definitely will attend, but not this summer: I am fearful about awakening my Esperanto while I am still trying to get my Spanish to jell. But by summer of 2012, I should (a) have completed my three semesters of Spanish (¡Adelante! Uno, Dos, y Tres), and (b) have enough time to brush up my Esperanto before the course begins—especially with all the on-line learning assistance now available.
Hope to see you there. :) (In fairness, I should mention that Esperanto is a lot of fun, as languages go, and quite interesting in many aspects—and, of course, learning Esperanto facilitates the learning of subsequent languages:
Four primary schools in Britain, with some 230 pupils, are currently following a course in “propaedeutic Esperanto”—that is, instruction in Esperanto to raise language awareness and accelerate subsequent learning of foreign languages—under the supervision of the University of Manchester. Studies have been conducted in New Zealand, United States, Germany, Italy and Australia. The results of these studies were favorable and demonstrated that studying Esperanto before another foreign language expedites the acquisition of the other, natural, language. This appears to be because learning subsequent foreign languages is easier than learning one’s first foreign language, while the use of a grammatically simple and culturally flexible auxiliary language like Esperanto lessens the first-language learning hurdle. In one study, a group of European secondary school students studied Esperanto for one year, then French for three years, and ended up with a significantly better command of French than a control group, who studied French for all four years. Similar results have been found for other combinations of native and second languages, as well as for arrangements in which the course of study was reduced to two years, of which six months is spent learning Esperanto.
This suggests that if you (or someone you know) is thinking about foreign-language study, they might well want to learn Esperanto now to lay a foundation for subsequent language acquisition.