Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Worldcon 75 : Wednesday

We had scoped out where the number 9 tram stop was yesterday evening, so we confidently went along to it in the morning.  The tram arrived promptly, and promptly terminated, disgorging all its passengers.  Fortunately there was another right behind, so we boarded that. There were lots of other fannish people on board, so we decided it would be easy to know where to get off.  And it was, not just by following the hordes, but because the venue was visible from the tram stop.

fen converging on the prominently-named venue
Although programming didn’t start until noon, we went along early, to make sure we could find the way, and because we were anticipating a long wait in the registration queue.  The way was easy to find, and registration was remarkably efficient, taking only a few minutes, so we then had a couple of hours to get a coffee, and explore the venue, finding the locations of the various programme rooms.

12 noon, and off to my first item.  But.  Huge queue, tiny room, filled before I got there.  So, off to my backup item.  Huge queue, tiny room, filled before I got there.  Hmm.  Even at the packed Loncon, I had managed to get into a backup item.  I went and explored the fan area instead.

1pm; I had joined the queue early, and just got into the panel on Invented Mythologies.  The panel comprised writers and people with degrees in history and in mythology and folklore. First of all, a definition, to distinguish mythology from hero tales, legends, folklore, and fairy tales. A myth is a sacred narrative held to be true and metaphorically true by the population, about how the world came to be as it is.  Myths involve gods, whereas legends involve demi-gods or mortals.  Over time, mortal protagonists can be “promoted” in status, moving from legend to myth.  How can we remix existing mythologies while avoiding cultural appropriation?  The advice was to restrict use to cultural systems not currently being observed by existing people, and to beware of using traditions of people over whom the writer’s cultural group currently has a power relationship.  How much backstory should we invent?  Answers diverged here, from the “just enough for the story” to “fully worked out”, but there was a definite consensus on “no infodumping”—just throw the reader into the story and let them puzzle out the background—and “no homogenous nations/planets”—have some complexity, diversity, blending, and inconsistency, as in the the way real world mythologies evolve over time.

2pm, and I again failed to get into either my first choice or my backup item, so I went for lunch instead.  At the far end of the venue was a nice “all you can eat” hot buffet (plus a good selection of salad laid on for the various alien species who eat that sort of food) for 15 Euros.

3pm, and early joining of the queue got me into a panel on Obsolete Science Ideas.  Which old ideas from science, that are now obsolete, nevertheless manage to live on in SF today, or at least lived on in SF for a while after their disproof?  Since one of the panellists had to drop out, this was a panel of two.  They covered Hollow Earth ideas (proposed by Edmond Halley, to explain anomalies in compass readings), dinosaurs still living today, Venus with oceans, Mars with canals, anti-gravity fields in small shuttles, faster-than-light travel (and what you see out of the window), interstellar empires with feudal politics, habitable planets with a single climate zone and only predators, RNA as a memory carrier, counter-earth, and so on. Such ideas persist because they are poetic, because they make good stories, which messy contingent complex reality often doesn’t.

4pm, and it’s the familiar story: long queues, no room.  At least the art show was open.

5pm, and off to learn about Destroying The Universe With Vacuum Bubbles.  This was a scientific presentation on why some people had been worried that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) search for the Higg’s boson might destroy the universe, and, even though that didn't happen, how the universe definitely will end because of vacuum instability, if the current Standard Model in physics is right.  The Standard Model (plus the currently known values of particle masses) imply that the vacuum is unstable, and quantum mechanics allows “tunnelling” to the more stable negative-energy ground state.  That would create a vacuum bubble that would expand at the speed of light, inside which spacetime itself has collapsed to nothing.  It doesn’t just destroy everything in the universe, it destroys the universe itself!  We don’t need to worry, though, because the half-life for this tunnelling is 10600 years.  People were worried about the LHC, because they thought that the energies involved might allow the system to jump over, rather than wait to tunnel through, the energy barrier.  But it turns out that elementary particle collisions can’t produce enough energy density over a large enough volume for this to happen (phew!)  But anyway, some cosmic rays are orders of magnitude more energetic than the LHC, and they haven’t initiated a vacuum collapse yet.  A more interesting question is why primordial black hole catalysed vacuum decay hasn’t occurred: is this demonstrating there is something missing from black hole theory, or from the Standard Model, or that the particle masses are different enough from current measurements that the ground state does not have negative energy and so does not expand? That is, does the universe’s continued existence provide evidence that our physics is wrong?  All in all, this was an excellent talk, full of great science, with a light-touch delivery.

6pm, and again, no chance to get in anywhere as there was not enough time to join one of the queues directly after the previous item.  So we went and grabbed a bit to eat.  We met a member of the programme staff I knew from work, and discussed the queuing situation.  I said how I had recently joked that, given the number of parallel sessions, I would miss almost as much or the Worldcon as someone not attending.  But it seemed I was missing more than that!  Apparently many more people (like, every SF fan in Finland...) had registered than they were expecting, and had then come along on the first day when there wasn't as much programming as there might be.  Hopefully it will be better tomorrow, with more items to spread out between.

We started queuing early for the evening concert, which had, sensibly, been moved to a larger room than originally scheduled.  The blurb for the event said: “Another Castle is the geekiest women’s choir in Helsinki. Riverside Castle is the geekiest women’s choir in Turku”, sort of implying there are other geeky women's choirs in these two cities.  The joint choir started off in a way sure to please this crowd: doo de-do, doo de-do, doo de-do, dee di-di, woo-wooooo! The Doctor Who theme sung a cappella by about 40 voices was amazing.  They continued with a variety of science fictional themes from film, TV and games.  Their finale was greeted with a standing ovation.  This must have taken them slightly by surprise, because the choir leader apologised to us that they had no encore prepared.  “Do the Doctor Who again!” yelled a voice from the audience.  “That will work”, she said.  So they did.  And it was excellent again.

9pm-ish, and still quite light.  So we walked back to the hotel.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

ready for the WorldCon

We arrived in Helsinki today, ready for the Science Fiction WorldCon starting tomorrow.

The flight from Heathrow was unenventful, and getting the train from the airport to the main station was very smooth.  Given we had luggage, we decided not to wrestle with trams, but got a taxi to the hotel.

Then we scoped out the location of the tram stop for tomorrow's trip to the convention centre, and had an evening meal.  Reindeer was on the menu, but I opted for pork this time.  And no tar ice cream.

Back to the hotel for a good night's sleep (hopefully) that recalibrates our internal clocks to the two hour time difference, ready to hit the fray tomorrow.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Tupper's self-referential formula

This video introduces Tupper’s self-referential formula.  The formula is both more, and less, amazing that it initially seems.

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

a summer evening in Lyon

I was in Lyon on Thursday (as a member of a PhD defence panel) and Friday (continuing my collaboration with Wolfgang Banzhaf and Guillaume Beslon on Open-Ended Evolution, emergence, and metamodels).

On Thursday evening the panel had dinner with the successful PhD candidate.  We walked from the hotel to the restaurant via the old town.

Cathedral Saint-Jean-Baptiste

rue de la Fronde
crossing the SaƓne on the Saint-Vincent footbridge; the view north west at 8pm...
...and then the view south east

Fresque des Lyonnais: this whole-building mural depicts famous people from Lyon

Then on to a lovely leisurely meal at Le Bouchon des Filles.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Worldcon schedule

Anyone know how I can get 20 clones of myself in the next fortnight?
(Oh, and they have to be delivered to Helsinki free of charge.)

Otherwise I’m going to miss almost all of the Worldcon!

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXXIV

The latest batch includes several birthday presents.

I asked for the Simondon after hearing a talk by Ezequiel Di Paolo about his work at ALife last year.  And I asked for the Picturing Quantum Processes after hearing a talk by Bob Coecke mentioning it at UCNC last year.  Into the Unknown is the book accompanying the SF exhibition of the same name at the Barbican this summer; I wrote one of the pieces in it.

Monday, 24 July 2017


yummy Tesco Mediterranean loaf
loaf prepared for the freezer
why do I always flash back to these at this point?