Saturday, 15 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Saturday

To start our Saturday at Eastercon, we visited the Art Show and the Dealers’ Room.  It is noticable how over the years there is a higher proportion of tables in the Dealers’ Room selling various artefacts—clothing, jewelry, models, etc—rather than books.  We also assured the Helsinki and Follycon tables that we were already members, and bought a pre-supporting membership for Dublin’s 2019 worldcon bid.

The first event was the BSFA lecture, an annual talk about “ideas of interest to SF fans, but not SF”.  These have been uniformly brilliant, but I was concerned about this one, as it was about Revolutions and Revelations in Hamilton, and I haven’t seen Hamilton the musical, and didn’t know much about it, not even that it was hip hop, or that it casts across race and, sometimes, gender.  (Yes, I do live under a rock, it seems.)  I needn’t have worried, prior knowledge was not a requirement, and Dr Sarah Whitfield gave a excellent presentation: informative, funny, and thought-provoking.  The talk included several YouTube clips, demonstrating how the work follows traditional musical theatre structures, such as the I Want song—illustrated with a clip from the Buffy musical episode unexpectedly accompanied by an audience sing-along—and also references many earlier hip hop songs.  In addition to lauding the staggering success of Hamilton, Whitfield was also careful to point out some of its shortcomings: its minimal coverage of Hamilton’s bisexual reputation; its “whitewashed” version of history, ignoring the contribution of people of colour at the time; the fact that it being lauded as “the most diverse musical ever” wipes out the extraordinary racism of Broadway and the history of PoC in early musical theatre.  This layered history, combining the historical events being depicted and the history of the medium in which they are depicted, provided a nice parallel with Will Tattersdill’s talk on dinosaurs the previous day.

Next off to Colin Harris’ Guest of Honour talk about his Life in Pictures: how he became an SF art collector, and his role in various SF conventions.

The panel Timeless Speculative Technology. Or Not discussed when tech in SF becomes outdated, and how to write about the near future without running into problems.  There are parodies that describe real life as if it were SF: how you walk up to a door, press a lever, push to open, and so on.  [I was tempted after this to write a parody of hotel breakfast buffet tech, such as how if one passes a slice of bread through the provided bread warmer multiple times, it eventually gains a gently singed surface.]  Tech should not be over-described – it should be real and almost invisibly embedded in the culture – but should also be somehow dreamlike, to evoke a different feel. It is easier to predict tech than its knock-on consequences: it is easier to predict the car than the traffic jam, and once you have predicted the ship, remember that there is now the possibility of shipwreck.  In Galaxy Quest the aliens had to reverse engineer the tech from what the actors were doing.  Computers are difficult for visual drama: hacking into a bank, doing taxes, and writing a love letter all look exactly the same.  MS-Word has the wrong metaphor, of a giant scroll: it encourages over-editing at the top of the scroll, rather than allowing more even attention across the document that you get with individual pages. The mobile phone, once magical tech, has now become so ubiquitous that there is a resurgence of period crime drama, to a time before so many plot tropes became unrealistic. That past was different: 25 years ago, think what would happen if you said “I have 500 people following me...”  The future is looking bleak, though.  However, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels show how to imagine a way out of climate change; they demonstrate a responsibility to synthesise something positive, not wallow in dystopia.

Next was the George Hay Lecture, a science-themed talk at Eastercons.  Prof Debbie Chachra, a materials scientist, talked on 3D Printing, Biology, and Futures for Materials.  3D printed materials can be carefully designed to have even loading and strength just where it’s needed, and then they can come out looking remarkably organic.  Biological materials are fascinating; they have structure on all levels from atomic to macroscopic, and each level’s structure contributes to the overall properties. For example, spider silk is not only stronger than steel, it absorbs impacts, otherwise flying prey would just trampoline off a web.  Biology provides a form of nanotechnology: not the precisce atom-by-atom placement of The Diamond Age, but a more stochastic yet reproducible model where biological machinery creates organisms from the bottom up with many levels of structure.  We can engineer biology on the nano-scale, too. CRISPR allows DNA editing.  DNA codon degeneracy (64 triplets code for 20 amino acids, plus punctuation)  allows us to design in new amino acids.  We can create new DNA bases beyond ACGT.  This is all highly complex machinery, and we are only just beginning to understand what is possible.  However, materials are the infrastructure of design.

Bill and the Doctor running through corridors
Then everyone trooped into the plenary room, to watch The Pilot episode of Doctor Who, which introduces new companion Bill Potts.  This is very much an introductory episode, educating new viewers on the Doctor, the Tardis, and Daleks.  The Doctor is in hiding, from what we don’t know, teaching at St Luke’s University, Bristol, where he has an academic office larger than that inhabited by many Vice Chancellors, and gives a lecture course that has probably not had its official learning outcomes approved by any sort of Teaching Committee.  Once it was over, we flooded back to the fan food room – which had stopped serving 10 minutes earlier, because there was no-one around.  So off for a short walk around Pendigo Lake to find dinner: a lamb, avocado, and chorizo burger at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen; yum.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Innominate Eastercon - Friday

This year’s 68th Easter Science Fiction convention saw us driving to the Birmingham Hilton Metropole, next to the NEC, the same hotel as used for Illustrious in 2011.  We left plenty of time for the drive, as the travel-pundits were predicting road chaos.  There was no road chaos. That left us plenty of time for lunch before starting to go to the sessions.

The first session I attended was a two-person panel on Biotechnology and the Law.  Dr Helen Pennington and Dr Colin Gavaghan talked on a variety of aspects of how the law is maybe failing to keep up with scientific advances.  CRISPR/Cas9, a technique to edit out genes from the genome, was mentioned a lot, including the fact that it can be used to produce GM organisms that are indistinguishable at the DNA level from organisms “naturally” bred to have the gene removed.  The consensus was that items should be labelled so consumers could exercise choice: some don’t want to eat GM food, some prefer GM food, as it doesn’t tend to have the trace amounts of natural fungal microtoxins that organic food does. Nevertheless, Scotland and New Zealand have banned the growing of all GM crops, not just food crops, in order to present a clean “green” image; this is ironic, given that Scotland does not exactly have a healthy food reputation!  The current “over the counter” availability, cheapness and ease-of-use of CRISPR led on to discussion of potential dangers; the panellists weren’t too worried, given the difficulty of keeping the GM organism alive: “any back-garden bio-terrorist is likely just to kill themselves, and a couple of neighbours”.  Given the potential untraceability of GM organisms, the suggestion was the most important legislation change is to require registering trials and publishing results, as is now beginning to happen for medical trials, to stop the covering up of “mistakes”.

Victorian times: Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, 1854
Next I went to a talk on Dinosaurs in fact and fiction by Dr Will Tattersdill. Dinosaurs are complicated: there are the “real” dinosaurs that existed in Deep Time, and there is our changing knowledge of dinosaurs since their discovery in Victorian times, to our better but still imperfect knowledge today.  They form a perfect link between the “two cultures” of arts and sciences: you can’t have a dinosaur without scientific activity and physical evidence, but you need imagination and art to “flesh out” a whole animal from a few bones or partial skeleton.  As science advances, our knowledge increases, but out dead images, our wrong images, stay with us, too, in books, in toys.  Arguing that these “old” dinosaurs are wrong is robbing us of our pasts, of our childhoods, in much the same way that arguing Pluto is not a planet does.  We have a nostalgia for outmoded science. In his essay “Dinomania” Stephen Jay Gould writes “When I was a child, ornithopods laid their eggs and then walked away forever.  Today these same creatures are the very models of maternal, caring, politically correct dinosaurs.”  Just look at the tenses and model of time in that quote!  Will speculates that dinosaurs are perfect for SF readers: we have the “cognitive agility” to hold multiple worlds, each with their own rules, and complex models of time, in our heads; this skill is needed to hold all the different “human pasts” of dinosaurs, too.  The talk covered more: history, cultural imperialism, phylogenetic trees, gender, SF stories, … you name it.  Brilliant stuff; I’m looking forward to his book due out end of 2019.

Next came David Allan’s quiz, loosely based on Pointless.  The team of 4 did well, hampered as they were on occasion by one of the options not appearing on their sheets, only on the screen visible to the audience.  Picture round: Name the alien.  Alternate letter round: Fictional planets: _A_I_O_R (Majipoor), _A_L_F_E_ (Gallifrey), A_R_K_S (Arrakis), M_D_E_I_ (Midkemia),  Title of First Novel in Trilogy on Being Given the Second, … When the surprisingly low scores for some of the more obvious options were revealed, the audience demanded to know who on earth the consulted panel were.

Then it was time for the opening ceremony.  As traditional, the Guests of Honour were invited up onto the stage, as were the con committee, for applause.  Afterwards, Dr Emma King from the Royal Institution gave an excellent presentation that involved lots of things going bang.

For the final item of my day, I went along to a panel on Making Money from Art and Craft in the SFF Community.  I am not myself an artist, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a friend who is, who sells a few fantasy-related items on eBay.  I went to find out if there is more they could do.  In summary, and unsurprisingly, if you want to make more than just your costs back, you are going to have to move from a hobby to a profession, which many crafters don’t want to do.  But I did discover the existence of something called silver clay.  I won’t do anything with this knowledge, other than enjoy the fact that I now know about this.

canine freestyle routine

I think this is one of the most life-affirming things I’ve seen.  Certainly serves as the perfect unicorn chaser to the news lately.

[via BoingBoing]

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

avoiding travel to hostile countries

The 11th IEEE International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems, to be held at the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA this September has the following statement, in bold, at the bottom of their home page:
Remote Attendance
This year’s conference is scheduled to take place in the United States. We recognize that due to the current or potential future actions of the United States government, some people may be unable or fearful to attend. We have considered moving the conference to another country, but recognize that that will not resolve the situation, as some people may likewise be unable to safely leave the United States. Therefore, for any person who wishes to participate but is unable to do so due to the travel restrictions imposed by the United States government, we will be offering a “remote attendance” registration at a discounted rate, to be announced at a later point in time. Authors with accepted papers will be able to present their work remotely, complying with IEEE presentation requirements, and we are investigating videoconferencing solutions for streaming to remote attendees.

I was wondering long it would take for something like this would happen.  A sign of the times, indeed.

[h/t to Russ Abbot]

Saturday, 8 April 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXIX

I probably shouldn’t wait until the pile is this big...

Guide to Unconventional Computing for Music is a complimentary copy, as I wrote the introductory chapter.

Friday, 7 April 2017

ship tunnels for the 21st century

A BBC news video says that Norway is ...
... digging what they say is the world's first tunnel for ships

First?  I suppose it depends on how they define “ship”.  (And I bet they won’t be digging it by hand.)

I don't know how it's being funded, but this project is the sort of infrastructure you could fund if you haven’t squandered all your oil income.

Monday, 3 April 2017

views from a hotel window

I’ve just arrived in Trondheim, to be the “first opponent” in a PhD defence tomorrow.  (I feel I should have a sword!)

I’m in a hotel in the old town, with a view of a wooden building across a narrow cobbled street:

This highly angled view (taken through glass) is rather more picturesque than the view that greeted me initially:

The local “artists” could take some tips from their Granadan counterparts

And why do I feel my wifi code is in Welsh?