Unclassified Horrors

And speaking of Balticon, several Balticons back, I mentioned to my old friend Darrell Schweitzer (looks a bit like the Emperor Palpatine but is significantly less evil), that I had been thinking of a story about the Miskatonic University Library to be called Unclassified Horrors.

I have always been fascinated by Libraries in general & by the Miskatonic University Library in particular.  This is the place where the hero/victim of a Lovecraftian story will go to check out/steal/examine furtively an obscure but dangerous tome.  This is a particularly poor idea if you can’t break yourself of the habit of reading aloud.

See for instance the unfortunate consequences experienced by Evelyn Carnahan (“I … am a Librarian!”) in the 1999 film The Mummy.  She reads from the Book of the Dead.  Aloud.  And awakens the High Priest Imhotep, whom being buried alive for the last three thousand two hundred and thirteen years has not put in a good mood.  Difficulties ensue.  And the world is saved only by the pluck & luck of a few bold adventurers.

But I digress, something that happens to me a lot in libraries.  That is actually a design goal of libraries, think of them as an early form of the Intertubes, where when you go in you are planning to swot up on topic A and find yourself well among the Z’s or even On Beyond Zebra  before you know.  They deliberately arrange the cataloging systems so that interesting volumes will tend to be right next to target volumes.

What you think of as chance is in fact as so often a sinister plot:  the very scheme intended to create the illusion of order is meant to pull you in & leave you helpless & browsing on the floor when the final gong is rung & the library scraping machine comes by to scoop up the day’s victims.  As you slowly sort yourself out of the pile of your fellow victims at the back of the library, you may wonder how this happened — yet again!

It’s the fault of the Dewey Decimal System.

One of the innovations of the Dewey Decimal system was that of positioning books on the shelves in relation to other books on similar topics.

That’s the problem right there:  we are naturally associative thinkers; this well-intentioned positioning of topics near similar topics has the effect on the inquisitive mind of those elvish lights in Mirkwood that lure Bilbo & the dwarves into the spider’s lair (name World Wide Web a coincidence, I think not).

And if that were not suspect enough, consider the ninety one entries missing from the top nine-hundred and ninety-nine.  As Rex Libris, the Kick-Ass Librarian, put it:

Have you wondered why Section 217 is missing from the Dewey Decimal Classification System? …

Section 216, good and evil, is left just hanging there, with the obvious follow-up section completely, mysteriously AWOL.

Where did it go? Why is it missing? This question has plagued people for years.

Did Nietzsche have something to do with this? Are his attempts to go beyond good & evil, to explore Section 217, what led to his almost Lovecraftian madness?

And when I brought these & similar too-dangerous-to-commit-to-print questions up to Darrell he said — like all editor/writer/booksellers he can resist anything but a chance to make money —  ah, the perfect idea for an anthology.  And thus Tales from the Miskatonic University Library was born.  Surely if we present this as fiction, we will be safe from the attentions of the things that haunt the stacks.  But of this more in a subsequent post.

Just how many universes are there, anyway?

As usual with Balticon, I came up with the title before figuring out the talk.  This year it is:

Just how many universes are there, anyway?

Why do many physicists think there may be an infinite number of universes?  What would they be like?  What might life be like in parallel universes? How might we detect them?  Could we travel between them?  And what does quantum mechanics have to do with the multiverse?
This will be at my favorite time slot, 2pm Saturday (the 23rd of May this year).  Now all I have to do is whip up some content.  Would I were in one of the infinite parallel universes in which I have already done so!

Invisibility, Anti-gravity, Ethics of Time Travel, & Balonium

I’ve just received my schedule for Philcon, being held in a bit over a week, November 8th thru 10th.  Curious collection of subjects, but looks like a lot of fun.  If you are in the Philly area, it would be great if you can come by!

Sat 1:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)


[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod)]

How do we hide a jet fighter, a tank, even a city from sight? For
millennia people have dreamt of invisibility rings, caps, & cloaks:
how close are we to Harry Potter territory? Progress in the last ten
years has been extraordinary, and, with some help from general
relativity, 3d printers, advanced photonics, and more than a pinch
of ingenuity, we can now bend, fold, & spindle light in ways
unimagined ten years ago
Sat 3:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Ed Bishop, Walter F. Cuirle, Jay

Both creating and negating gravity are very common tropes in science
fiction. It’s taken for granted in most Science Fiction that
spacecraft have normal gravity, although they do not spin. How this
is achieved is rarely discussed. Anti-gravity is nearly as common,
(and convenient for the plot).. Are either of these concepts
scientifically plausible? Could such a technology ever actually be


Sat 6:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Evelyn Leeper, Andrew C. Ely]

Everyone talks about killing Hitler in his crib, or stopping Booth
from shooting Lincoln. But if you could change the past, would you
Sat 7:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Darrell Schweitzer, John Monahan,
Sharon Lee]

From cavorite to kryptonite, science fiction fiction writers love to
add new elements to the periodic table. How do you create
convincing imaginary substances and what do you do with them

Time and Quantum Mechanics

I’ve submitted an extended abstract for my paper “Time and Quantum Mechanics” to the Center for Philosophy of Science’s workshop on Quantum Time. I’m not sure what the odds are of my getting in, but at a minimum prepping the abstract for the center has been a big help getting the paper organized, working out what is essential to the argument, and what can be let go.

Note the abstract is more extended than abstract, about two pages:


Invisibility: Theory & Practice

I’ve posted my talk on the Theory & Practice of Invisibility  to ShareShare.  I’ve given the talk at Balticon, FOSSCON, & Capclave, & will be giving it at Philcon in a few weeks.

At Capclave, NASA asked if I would give it at their Goddard Space Center, once the sequester is lifted.  Nice to be asked!

Balticon records the talks in the science track, so at some point a video record should be online.  The last page on SlideShare has the references; I’d start there.

I’m not really sure why I decided to do invisibility for Balticon; Miriam Kelly, who organizes the science track at Balticon, asked me what I was going to talk about this year, & the next morning I woke up knowing the title.  Then there was the awkward few weeks while I tried to attach a talk to the title.

It’s a great subject; the main problem was really to throw enough out that the rest would fit into a 50 minute hour.  Seemed to go OK, lots of questions during the talk & afterwards in the halls.  That’s the real test.

One thing I like about the subject is that it leads in so many directions, among which:

  1. It’s about the math.  One of the limiting factors is just getting enough control over the mathematics of bending light to create the appropriate cloaking effect.  Any subject that borrows math from general relativity in the interests of simplifying itself is complex!
  2. It’s about the money.  The more money, the more transparency! In general, you can make things invisible from specific angles, over specific frequency ranges, to a certain level of quality.
  3. It’s not about the media:  the general approaches for making something invisible are the same for visible light, for radar, for sound waves.  One application under discussion is to make cities invisible from earthquakes:  arrange for the seismic shocks to pass around the city for instance.
  4. The hype to results ratio is still pretty high.  This is normal when an area is just starting; longer term, the most important uses are likely to be ones we haven’t even dreamt of.
  5. Making  things invisible & making them visible are two sides of the same coin, like attack & defense in war, to master either we must master both.
  6. And, finally, while the future of invisibility may not be clear, our motives in studying it are transparent: it’s interesting, potentially profitable, and fun.



Quantum Mechanics, Reality, & You at Philcon

Did my Quantum Mechanics, Reality, & You talk at Philcon this last weekend.  Had a very energetic & engaged audience. My thanks to Ed Bishop, Tom Purdom, Ron Bushyager, Ferne Welch, Walt Mankowski, & lots of others for great questions! Did five panels as well.  Full schedule:

Fri 8:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Darrell Schweitzer, Marvin Kaye,
A.C. Wise, Neal Levin]

Is anyone writing good cosmic horror today? What new directions has
cosmic horror been taken in
Fri 9:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)

[Panelists: Paul Halpern (mod), John Ashmead, Dr. H. Paul Shuch,
Robert Kauffmann]

The Standard Cosmological Model is the history of the universe as
arrived at over decades of observation and experiment and accepted
by the majority of scientists. It includes the Big Bang, Cosmic
Expansion, Inflation, Dark Matter, Dark Energy, etc. However, there
are real problems with the SM, and real (non-crank) scientists who
disagree with parts of it. What are the issues with Standard
Cosmology, and what alternative ideas are currently being discussed
Sat 12:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod)]

Behold the weird! Wigner and his panel of babies! The case of the
highly charged cat! The collapse of the collapse of the wave
function! And quantum chess! What’s new with quantum mechanics &
what does it all mean
Sat 1:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Andrew C. Murphy, Gail Z. Martin,
Michael F. Flynn, Glenn Hauman]

If everyone could do it, how would this affect daily life? What are
the most frivolous uses of time travel we can think of? What would
be a time traveler’s practical joke
Sat 7:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Gregory Frost, April Grey, Neal
Levin, Alexis Gilliland]

Metafiction is when the story and the text becomes interchangeable,
each a part of the other. What are the roots and nature of this kind
of fiction
Sun 1:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Three (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Eric Kotani, Inge Heyer, Walter F.

We now know that planets are as common as stars. Over 500 are known,
nearly 20,000 are suspected.
What impact has this enormous expansion of the known universe had on
science fiction?



Quantum Mechanics, Reality, & You

I’ll be doing my talk “Quantum Mechanics, Reality, & You” tomorrow at Capclave, the DC SF Convention.  I have the latest slides up on slideshare.

Enjoyed putting the talk together.  I go thru the interpretations of quantum mechanics — some spectacularly silly — and then argue that quantum mechanics is real, you & I — not so much.  🙂

Also doing panels at Capclave on Hot Steamed Punk, Practical Uses of Faster-Than-Light Travel, Choose Your Own Apocalypse, & Great Cthulhu:  Threat or Menace?


Talks now on Slideshare

I’ve uploaded a number of my more recent talks to Slideshare.  Physics, with occasionally a wee bit of speculation admixed:

  1. Thought experiments – talk done 1st April 2012 for the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.  Role of thought experiments in history, use by Galileo & by noted violinist, how they can turn into real experiments.
  2. Not Your Grandfather’s Gravity – done last year (2011) on the latest developments in the suddenly hot area of gravity.  The stuff on faster-than-light neutrinos is, alas, already out of date:  boring won:  looks as if the FTL neutrinos were due to experimental error.   But Verlinde’s entropic gravity is still one of the most promising lines of attack.
  3. Temporal Paradoxes – physics talk given at NASA’s Goddard Space Center 2011.  A slightly NASA-fied version of a talk I’d given at several SF conventions in 2010.
  4. Quantum time – physics talk given at Feynman Festival in Olomouc in 2009.  I did popular versions of that talk as well.
  5. How to build a (real) time machine – talk given at several SF conventions in 2009.
  6. Life, the Universe, & the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Or, the Infinite Probability drive.  About the role of entropy in the universe, complete with Babelfish.  2008.
  7. Faster Than Light – talk on faster than light travel:  theory, practice, applications. Given at several SF conventions in 2007.
  8. Confused at a Higher Level – arguably one of the funniest talks ever given about problems in quantum mechanics. OK, competition not that fierce.  Given at several SF conventions in 2004.
  9. The Physics of Time Travel.  Review of time, with respect to the bending, stretching, folding, & tormenting thereof.  Given at Philcon & Balticon (in various versions) in 2003.
  10. The Future of Time Travel – mostly about the science fiction thereof.  Probably 2002.

These are not all of my talks — I’ve probably done 20 or 30 SF talks over the last 20 years, at least one per year — these are just the ones done using Keynote or Powerpoint.  The 2005 & 2006 talks have gone walkabout.  If they reappear, I will upload.  I generally talk at Balticon, Philcon, & more recently Capclave.  I’ve spoken twice at Farpoint, but that is really more of a media convention, not as good a fit.

Talks before 2002 were done with Word & overheads. Overheads are easier to make than slides, but have a tendency to get bent, flipped, out of order, or in one especially memorable talk:  burnt.  That talk I was doing at the Franklin Inn Club: the projector failed at the last minute & I had to rent another from a nearby camera shop.  The rented projector ran hot. If I stayed on a specific slide for more than 60 seconds, the slide began to smoke.  Literally.  Colored smoke of course, wafting in strange tendrils towards the ceiling. Taught me a lot about pacing, mostly to make it faster.
By the way the word you are looking for, in re me & time travel, is not obsessed, it is focused.  Let’s just be clear about that.

Other talk(s), marginally less speculative:

  1. Overview of Backbone – talk on the jQuery library Backbone, given at PhillyCoders. April 2012.
  2. How to Destroy a Database – talk on database security.  October 2007.  Wile E. Coyote & other experts on correctness & security are enlisted to help make key points.
  3. Getting started with MySQL – talk given at PACS and my Macintosh programming group in 2006. Manages to work in the Sumerians, the Three Stooges, a rocket-powered daschhund, some unicorns, and – of course – dolphins (the totem animal of MySQL).

New Hope for Space War


I’m on the Space War panel at Balticon, how & why.  Fun topic though in all candor, a bit implausible.

The main problem is that travel in space is likely to be slow, expensive, & a bit dangerous.  Given this, it is likely that space travel itself will be reserved for moving stuff that is light weight & of very high value:  information, pharmaceuticals, experts, embryos, the “unobtainium” that features in Avatar, and so on.  Bullets satisfy neither test & even nukes have a hard time.

And if it takes a century to get over to the enemy’s star, why bother having the war?  And what are you fighting about anyway?  To have a war you have to be close enough to do some damage in a reasonable time frame & similar enough to have common — if opposed — objectives.

I owe the initial observation about the high costs of space travel to Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist.  In the spirit of not pointing out problems without also pointing out a solution, he has found an economically viable use for space war:  as a way to generating a badly-needed stimulus, a kind of weaponized Keynesianism.

Given that there is now new hope for space war, and to get me in the right frame of mind for the panel, I list ten of my favorite space war novels:

  1. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.  The number one space war novel.  The evil octopi are defeated by our germs. Great idea; two problems:  1) germs have to co-evolve to be effective against a host; ours probably would have no effect on the Martians and 2) real octopi are fun:  they play pranks on their experimenters & are great communicators as well.  With their ability to change skin color at will, octopi are practically eight-tentacled color television sets.
  2. The Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith.  Six deathless volumes, each with at least two space-shaking interstellar battles. Chlorine breathers beware!  The oxygen breathers of the galaxy have found your secret base & are going to reduce it to a glowing pile of molten rock.
  3. Which is pretty much what happens to the lunar military base in Arthur Clarke‘s Earthlight.  Three Federation cruisers duel it out to a jointly fatal draw with a lunar fortress.  The war is about mineral rights & induced by attacks of mutually assured dementia, making the physics (this is Arthur C. Clarke!), the war, & the politics pretty realistic.
  4. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.  Heinlein wrote about space suits in his pre-WWII SF, then used ideas from his stories when helping to design pressure suits for our fighter pilots in WWII, then used ideas from those pressure suits for his Have Spacesuit, Will Travel juvenile and for Starship Troopers: a beautiful example of the inter-relationship of reality & SF.  The space combats are a bit less stupid than most; Heinlein understands something of the difficulty of taking a space war to an underground enemy.
  5. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  This is partly a reaction to the Vietnam War & partly a reaction against Starship Troopers.  The forever war starts by accident, proceeds by error, and lasts for over a thousand years:  both humans & aliens are restricted to sub-light travel, so the war plays out in slow motion.  One of the few successful space war stories that works with existing physics.
  6. Keith Laumer’s Bolo Series.  Laumer wrote a long series of stories about Bolos, giant sentient tanks that are every adolescent male’s dream weapon.  In practice, they would likely be an economic & military disaster:  witness some of the late stage Nazi vehicles:  mechanically problematic, too heavy for bridges, & absorbing a disproportionate share of the military budget.  See Arthur Clarke’s delightful story Superiority.
  7. Dan Simmon‘s Hyperion series, especially the 2nd volume, The Fall of Hyperion, which concludes with a beautifully realized space battle between two fleets for control of a planetary system.  The inevitable confusion & long delays of such a battle are foregrounded.
  8. Catherine Asaro‘s Skolian Empire series.  Asaro has a physics background, gets existing physics right, & invents as much as she needs to keep the action fast-moving & interstellar.  The space combats are realistic:  long periods of nothing, brief high velocity exchanges of fire & then more long pauses while the surviving opponents regroup & turn around.  They remind me of the lance combats in White’s The Once & Future King.
  9. David Weber’s Honorverse series, starting with Manticore Station.  Weber is another author who tries to “get it right”.  The politics are modeled on the dueling ship combats of the Napoleonic wars, with wormholes to get realtime star to star travel without invoking faster-than-light mechanics (which would imply time-travel & a lot of confusion:  it is very rough on a space navy to first have triumphantly triumphed & then never to have been in the first place!).  He sets up the physics & weapons so that the ships even have broadsides, includes relativistic time dilation, and so on.  Weber’s Honor Harrington owes her “H’s” and general command style to C. S. Forester‘s Horatio Hornblower.  In a video game version of the Honorverse, it turned out that realistic implementing the physics/combat implied a near-planet maneuver (wish I could remember what it was) that invalided much of the combat in the novels.  With the infinite authority of the auteur, Weber passed a treaty that banned the disastrous trick.
  10. And I’ll finish with John G. Henry‘s Lost Fleet series.  The first six volumes reset Xenophon’s Anabasis in a medium-future space-faring context, again with wormholes connecting selected star systems.  A nearly destroyed fleet has to work its way back home in the face of enemy attack, mutiny, and sheer running out of resources.  Henry’s focuses on the many conflicting pressures on his commander, Jack Geary, as Geary balances military requirements, the demands of honor, & the imperatives of law, democracy, and a forbidden love.  The space combat — Henry used to be a ship driver in the US Navy – takes place in four dimensions and with admirable clarity about the command difficulties created by the finite speed of light:  if the enemy is on the far side of a solar system, he will see your maneuver only hours after you make it — and you will see his response hours after that.  You have to factor his response — and the responses of your detached units — into every move you make.  It is like blindfolded chess where you don’t find out the enemy’s move until after you have made three more moves of your own.  And your pieces are moving on their own.

And a couple of titles to avoid:

  • Anything by C. J. Cherryh, as least as far as space combat goes.  I remember reading one of her novels where the defenders had an advantage because they were at rest. In space, both sides are at rest with respect to themselves; the comment & resulting tactics were just nonsense.  Nonsense on stilts.
  • Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai series.  Omni-competent genetically enhanced uber soldiers trash lots of stooges.  The “ho” meets the “hum”.

So, my minimal requirement for space war in science fiction(not counting the golden classics of one’s youth of course) is that the humans, the physics, & the space war should make at least a bit of sense.

10 Big Idea Books

In a recent conversation Brad Denenberg of seedphilly.com was lamenting that the pressures of being in a startup had kept him from reading anything non-work related for months.  We got to talking about what a list of big idea books might be.  Herewith a list of ten of my favorites, chosen because they are

  1. Readable
  2. Are about a big idea (or several)
  3. Changed the way I think about something
  4. Keep coming up in conversation

The 10,000 Year ExplosionGregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Human evolution hasn’t been frozen by culture: in fact it seems to happening at great speed, with some significant changes in the last 10,000 years. Cases in point:

  1. Malaria resistance
  2. Lactose tolerance
  3. Higher intelligence in the Ashkenazi

The Selfish GeneRichard Dawkins — How genes use us to propagate themselves. Dawkins invented the term “meme”, one of those pesky terms that refer to themselves.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from MatterTerence Deacon. Online talk. Extra capacity, coalesced into language, then became fixed. Analogies to entrepreneurship.

Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We ReadStanislas Dehaene — Dehaene hooked people up to NMI machines while they were reading & watched how the brain processes text. For instance, there seems to be more need for context to understand Chinese than English, so brain activation patterns are different when reading Chinese than English.

Consciousness ExplainedDaniel C. Dennett — what do we mean by consciousness, by free will? Most striking, Dennett discusses this without reference to the underlying physics:  he defines free will in operational terms, in terms of our ability to make choices.

The Beginning of InfinityDavid Deutsch.  Argues with great force for the superiority of open-ended, evolving societies over static.

Guns, Germs, & Steel: the Fates of Human SocietiesJared Diamond — how geographic factors led to the success of the west. Diamond argues geography explains why European diseases decimated American Indian populations (rather than vice versa) & why European technology out performed Indian, Chinese, & American Indian technology.

The Checklist ManifestoAtul Gawande. Simple checklists can produce significant improvement in medical results.  For instance, a five step checklist for inserting a catheter reduced mortality rates enormously.  In a hospital environment, one of constant interruption, it was just very easy to lose track of what had been done/was till to be done, with often fatal results.

Thinking Fast & SlowDaniel Kahneman — how our instinctive responses to problems can lead to error & failure. We can’t function without relying on our instincts; at the same time they often lead us astray — and in fairly predicable ways.

Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of EverythingSteven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner — economics in everyday life; why drug dealers live with their moms.

Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time – Huw Price.  Price argues that our normal view of time as asymmetric & one way has a stronger foundation in psychology than physics.  The only thing that gives time a direction is that the Big Bang was a point of low entropy.  It has all been downhill since then.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableNassim Nicholas Taleb — how real world success is dominated by rare “black swan” events; the failure of Long Term Capital Management a case in point.

WordPress Themes