Category: SF Cons

Physical Balticon Cancelled — Virtual Balticon on

Due to the Covid-19, the physical 2020 Baltimore Science Fiction Convention — Balticon — has been cancelled.

The organizers, nothing if not game, are putting on a virtual Balticon. Looks pretty good. And free (tho they ask for a donation to a GoFundMe for new writers and to help Baltimore’s disadvantaged youth).

Unfortunately I had already made other commitments, after the physical Balticon was cancelled and before I knew it was being replaced by a virtual one, so will not be able to speak at the virtual event.

But I hope to catch a number of the events this coming Memorial Day weekend and hope you will be able to do so as well.

The Past, Present, and Futures of Artificial Intelligence

Tik-Tok — one of the early visions of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence is in the news, no question. The last few science fiction conventions I’ve been at, panels on AI have been getting filled rooms & lots of questions. It’s all over the news as well. And it’s a subject I find interesting: and — being a professional programmer — an area where I may be able to contribute, perhaps looking at the use of AI techniques to generate physics experiments.

What is meant by AI is one problem: is it anything that uses AI techniques, as Neural Nets or Genetic Algorithms? Or do you need to be pointing in the direction of some kind of sentience for it to be true AI? Will it replace us? Should it? The hype/content ratio sometimes hits near Trumpian levels.

So good subject for a talk. But what line of attack to take? Last week I caught a great talk at DataPhilly on the use of AI for sports betting (and other things). The formal title was:

Practical Scaling: How to Use Simple Tools to Create and Implement Complex Modeling SystemsJames Piette

For “complex modeling systems” think practical AI. My personal favorite of his slides cited three principles:

  • Moravec’s Paradox: AI and humans are good at opposite things. So use AI for what it is good at (crunching) and let the humans do what they are good at (intuiting).
  • Pareto’s Principle or the 80/20 rule. 20% of the work gets you 80% of the value, so focus on the high value parts of the problem.
  • The Scientific method: observe, hypothesize, test, repeat. This works for science — and it works for software debugging (another favorite topic of mine), startups, and AI.

And this strikes me as the kind of no-nonsense, practical, even scientific approach that a subject like AI needs. (Thanks James!) So for my 2020 SF Convention talk:

The Past, Present, and Futures of Artificial Intelligence. — From Oz’s Tik-Tok to the Mechanical Turk, from Neural Nets & Genetic Algorithms to Chess & StarCraft, from Medical Diagnosis to Robot Frogs, from Facial Recognition to Fakes, Deep Fakes, & Anti-Fakes, AI is everywhere today. How did it start? What do we mean by AI? What are the basic AI techniques? How is it being used? What are the benefits? risks? and how should we manage AI going forwards?

Be seeing you:

Philcon 2019 — Recap

Ultimately my “Time dispersion in quantum mechanics” is an attempt to answer Gisin’s question

Got some great questions during my talk at Philcon: lots of stuff I had not considered before. If quarks are high-energy beasts, and if high-energy means short time, and if short time means increased effects of time dispersion, shouldn’t you look at impacts on quark calculations. Should & will! And what of quantum computing: would dispersion in time provide additional bandwidth for quantum computing? Very probably! Not to mention additional insight into the bugaboo of the quantum computing, decoherence.

I also liked that the audience really picked up on why I centered the investigation on falsifiability: I wasn’t trying to prove that there is dispersion in time, I have presented a way to prove there is not. Falsifiability is what makes science science.

I have uploaded the Keynote, PowerPoint, and PDF versions of the talk.

My panels were, as usual, interesting.

Hildy Silverman did a great job moderating Dystopia Now! she kept the discussion focused & moving. Fellow panelist Hakirah D’Almah, a journalist with a focus on the Middle East, was particularly trenchant. Hard to find the bright side of Dystopia, but I think we did. 1984 is a deeply optimistic work: by writing it (Orwell’s last, he died shortly after completing it) Orwell helped us avoid it.

I will admit the Evolution of Mars panel, while interesting, drifted a bit (Wild Marses I Have Known would have been a more accurate description).

I was happy to be the moderator on Looking for Life in our Solar System: the great thing about being a moderator — especially when you are the least qualified person the panel — sit back & let your fellow panelists — Earl Bennett, Dr. H. Paul Shuch, John Skylar — do the heavy lifting. Which they did very well!

And I was also moderator on The Blurry Line between Cutting Edge and Pseudoscience. The panel was right after my talk, so made a nice seque. The best question came from an audience member: how do I tell, when I see stuff on the web, what level of credibility to give it? Just asking that question is the first step. The panelists suggested credentials of the author, links to it, and my personal favorite: does the author find the good in his/her opponent’s arguments, recognize the weak spots in his/her own?

Philcon 2019 — Precap

Lagrange's tightrope, balancing kinetic & potential energy
Working out the effects of quantum mechanics on time requires a delicate balancing between kinetic & potential energy; Lagrange showed the way

The Philcon 2019 schedule is up. I’m doing my Time Dispersion in Quantum Mechanics talk — the tightrope walker is one of the slides, gives you a sense of the style of the whole, balancing ideas against math, time against space, classical against quantum, … — and four panels, all interesting. The con runs from Friday 11/8/2019 through Sunday 11/10. Details:


Fri 8:00 pm. John Ashmead (mod), Earl Bennett, Dr. H. Paul Shuch, John Skylar. What’s the latest evidence that we’ve found? Where are the best places to look?


Sat. 4:00 PM. John Ashmead. We know from quantum mechanics that space is fuzzy- that particles don’t have a well-defined position in space — and we know from special relativity that time and space are interchangeable. So shouldn’t time be fuzzy as well? Thanks to recent technical advances in measurements at “short times” we can now put this to the test. Discuss!


Sat 5:00PM. John Ashmead (mod), Charlie Robertson, Rebecca Robare, Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Carl Fink, Lawrence Kramer. Niels Bohr famously said, “Your theory is crazy but it’s not crazy enough to be true”. How do we keep an open mind but not one so open that our brains fall out? A look at how to tell strange-yet-true science from weapons grade balonium.


Sat 7:00 PM Darrell Schweitzer (mod), John Ashmead, Tom Purdom, James L. Cambias, Earl Bennett. How have depictions of Mars changed in SF from the imaginings of Burroughs and Bradbury to the Mars we know now from studying its surface?


Sat 9:00 PM Hildy Silverman (mod), John Ashmead, Karen Heuler, B. Lana Guggenheim. No one should be surprised that climate change, technological over-reach, and political anxieties have translated themselves into a bumper crop of contemporary dystopian fiction. How coherent are their messages — and how good are the stories? Is there a way to make such a work more than a cautionary tale about the present era’s problems?

Capclave 2019 — Recap

Alice & her dog examine the mysteries of time and quantum mechanics, slide from my talk at Capclave 2019.

Had a great time at Capclave. It’s one of the smaller cons — slightly north of 300 people — and doesn’t have some of the usual con stuff like an art show or cosplay. But for precisely those reasons, you tend to have more of those repeated one-on-one conversations that, for me, are the real life of a con.

Had a good time at the five panels I was on. All were energetic & held the audience.

Technospeed — is technology moving too far too fast? — was the first (Friday evening), with the smallest audience. It was hard to know what to do with the subject, a tad too broad I suspect. Much of the discussion focused on AI, a better subject. (I may take AI that for my big talk next year.) Not a bad panel, with that said: we had a lot of fun with Kurzweil’s Singularity and related topics.

My next two panels (both Saturday), The Coming Civil War & Failed SF Predictions, both had Tom Doyle as moderator. He did a great job, particularly with the Coming Civil War, where he asked the assembled panelists how they would treat present various scenarios from a fictional point of view. How would you tell the story of cities war with the country side? and so on. Kept the conversation from degenerating into what they thought of the [insert-derogatory-noun]-in-chief.

I had a bit of fun with Failed SF Predictions, bringing in some books of pulp age cover art: jet packs, menacing octopi, orbiting cities, threatening robots, giant computers, and attacking space fleets, … The role of women in SF in the days of the pulps is nothing like what it is in the real world today; a lot of the Failed SF Predictions chosen were about gender issues. Not even the first wave of feminist SF writers — LeGuin, Joan Vinge, Joanna Russ, … — fully anticipated how much the field would evolve.

Sunday my first panel was on Secrets of the Dinosaurs. The other three panelists were the GOH Robert Sawyer (author of the Far-Seer trilogy of dinosaur novels), Michael Brett-Surman (Collections Manager of the National Dinosaur Collection at the Smithsonian and co-author/editor of several dinosaur books with Dr. Thomas R. Holtz) and Dr. Thomas R. Holtz (who is the T. Rex of T. Rex scholarship). Being on a dino panel with these three was like being a small mammal in the Jurassic. The primary objective is to not get underfoot and squashed. All three are immensely polite & courteous individuals, who would never think to squash a small mammal who wandered on to the planet panel. I took advantage — as the designated amateur — to ask about dino parental care, how did hadrosaurs defend themselves against a T. Rex (rather easily — those tails are not just ornamental!), and my final q: if dinosaurs lived in groups & relied on visual & auditory display, did they have barn-dances?

My final panel was Exoplanets. My fellow panelists (Inge Heyer & Edward Lerner) were both expert & I had done a fair amount of swotting, so we had a good time going over rogue planets between the stars, planets made of diamond, life within the hidden seas, and various methods of finding new exoplanets — the total of confirmed exoplanets is 4000 & counting!

And my Time Dispersion in Quantum Mechanics talk went well (Saturday afternoon). I had a couple of practice run-thrus with a “volunteer” audience, which left it leaner, shorter, and easier to follow. Same content, but no math (except E=mc-squared, which is so familiar it doesn’t count). Talk went well, good audience and great questions: some I answered there, some I dealt with in the hall discussions, and one or two I had to admit “that’s one for the experimentalists!”

And my thanks to Brent Warner of NASA, who corrected — with great politeness — a couple of soft spots in the presentation. I will incorporate into the next iteration, in two weeks as it happens at Philcon.

And the next morning I got what I think is the best compliment I have ever received: the father of a 10th grader said his daughter was so inspired by my talk she is thinking of going into physics & quantum mechanics. “Here’s my email; tell her to feel free to follow up!” Yes!

Capclave 2019 — Talks & Panels

I’m appearing at Capclave this year (October 18th thru 20th), doing my talk on Time Dispersion in Quantum Mechanics (3pm on Saturday the 19th) and five panels, all great topics: Technospeed, Coming Civil War, Failure of SF Prediction, Secrets of the Dinosaurs, & Exoplanets. Prep for these will be a lot of fun. And the other panelists include a number of old friends and I’m sure some new ones.

Capclave — always one of the best organized cons — did a great job on the schedules, sliced & diced by time, track, & trouble-maker. I can’t improve on theirs for me:

Friday 9:00 pm: Technospeed (Ends at: 9:55 pm) Truman
Panelists:John AshmeadMartin Berman-GorvineBud Sparhawk (M), Christopher Weuve
Is technology moving too far? Too fast? What is coming up in the future? What happens to those left behind? Can people who never learned how to set the time on their VCRs handle what brain-implants and whatever else is coming next? Is this increasing the generation gap?
Saturday 10:00 am: Coming Civil War (Ends at: 10:55 am) Washington Theater
Panelists:John AshmeadTom Doyle (M), Carolyn Ives GilmanSarena UlibarriChristopher Weuve
Is the U.S. dividing again? Or are current difficulties just an historical burp? Why didn’t the US divide in the 1960s? What can be done to keep the Union together? Or would splitting be a good thing? Will the South rise again or will it be cities versus countryside?
Saturday 2:00 pm: Failure of SF Prediction (Ends at: 2:55 pm) Truman
Panelists:John AshmeadTom Doyle (M), Natalie LuhrsSarah PinskerK.M. Szpara
SF is not really supposed to predict the future but presents possibilities. Still, comparisons are inevitable. What did past SF writers get right and wrong about today? How can writers do a better job (or shouldn’t they even bother trying?)
Saturday 3:00 pm: Time Dispersion in Quantum Mechanics (Ends at: 3:55 pm) Truman
Panelists:John Ashmead (M)
John Ashmead gives a science talk on time dispersion. Is time fuzzy? In quantum mechanics space is fuzzy. And in special relativity time and space are interchangeable. But if time and space are interchangeable, shouldnt time be fuzzy as well? Shouldnt quantum mechanics apply — to time? Thanks to recent technical advances we can put this to the test. We ask: How do you get a clock in a box? How do you interfere with time? When is one slit better than two? And what happens at the intersection of time and quantum mechanics?
Sunday 10:00 am: Secrets of the Dinosaurs (Ends at: 10:55 am) Monroe
Panelists:Robert J. SawyerJohn AshmeadMichael Brett-SurmanThomas Holtz (M)
Did dinosaurs really have feathers? Why did people get it wrong for so long? What else did people believe about dinosaurs 50 years ago that is no longer true? Why did people think that then? What of our present knowledge about dinosaurs is most likely to also be incorrect?
Sunday 12:00 pm: Exoplanets (Ends at: 12:55 pm) Truman
Panelists:John AshmeadInge HeyerEdward M. Lerner (M)
What do we know about planets outside our solar system? How do we discover them? What are the implications for aliens Exobiology?

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