A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, February 18, 2013

Boskone 50

Back from Boskone.  Boston was snowed up, but not impenetrably so.  I am told that a week earlier was a different story, but that is ever a risk for a con in mid-February in Boston.  On the waterfront.  The Westin was its usual self, with the additional twist that its main restaurant no longer served dinner.  Well, it was pricey-plus.  But the "pub" is not large enough to handle the dinner crowd.  Fortunately, I didn't care, since I was staying in a different hotel entirely. 

The first thing, which the Incomparable Marge encountered because she checked us is, was that the woman at the check-in desk was from Phillipsburg NJ, across the river from Rath O Flynn.  Well, sez I when apprised later of the happen of this stance, I have on several occasions on the road encountered the diaspora of the Lehigh Valley. 

Which means that the last thing, which we encountered in the elevator on the way out, was two other people in the elevator who came from Easton PA.  And which the woman used to work out at the Y with the Marge.  And which the husband went to school with my brother and worked with my father.  Statisticians love sh*t like that.  (One time, I co-taught a lead auditor course in Detroit, and one of the students turned out to be a second cousin on my mother's side.)

Boston maintains a highway system second to none, which means it comes in second place to no system at all.  The basic idea is that everyone coming in from the west, which is pretty much everyone not already in New England, is funneled into a single highway.  On a toll road.  A five hour drive from Pennsylvania spent a disproportionate amount of those hours on the last stretch of road from the end of the Mass Pike to the destination. 

I had an 8PM panel and was just barely in time for it.  The Marge dropped me off at the hotel and zipped off to check into our hotel across the highway, where she had the aforementioned experience.  It would have been within walking distance had it not been for the cold.  The thermospatial effect ensures that distances increase in inverse proportion to the temperature. 
+ + +

1. The Singularity: There Can Be Only One.

No, I don't know why the title, but Vernor Vinge (who was GoH) and others discussed whether or not the Singularity would happen.  Vernor believed in the Rapture of the Nerds, but three of the panelists, incl. yr. obt. svt., were skeptical in one measure or another.  The Skepticism of the TOF was founded on three things: history, mathematics, and philosophy.  (A fourth objection: that the nature of the singularity is plastic -- is it the speed of technological change?  the transformation of human nature?  what? -- but that is really a second philosophical point. 

The historical objection is that the technological singularity has already happened, ca. 1870-1920.  By 1920, all the elements of the modern world were in place.  We had cars, radios, airplanes, etc.  Our ancestor from 1870 would have been astonished to be dropped into the world of 1920; but a man of 1920 would have taken the world of 1970 in stride.  Planes had lost their propellers.  Radio had gained picture tubes.  Cars were faster.  But technologically at least, it was all recognizable.  Lasers had been described in a paper in 1910.  Punched cards had been used to compile and summarize the 1880 census.  Panelists and audience members waved their iphones about in refutation; but really, there was wireless telephony by 1920 and the idea of knowing what was shaking in far-off places was an old hat by then.  Remember, the contention is not that there was no change after 1920, but that it was not as revolutionary.  In 1870, the average person had no idea what was going on elsewhere.  Google is faster, sleeker, more ubiquitous, but the idea of easy access to remote knowledge was no longer a pipe dream for those with radios. 

The mathematical objection is the non-physical realization of a singularity.  Limx→0(1/x) is a mathematical abstraction.  It is a calculation of a final cause and does not actually exist in the universe of discourse.  More finitely, the value 0 does not exist in the open interval (0,1) although one may approach it infinitesimally.

As for the philosophical objection, see the novella "Places Where the Roads Don't Go" in the collection Captive Dreams for a discussion of mind uploading and artificial intelligence and "Hopeful Monsters" for a case study in genetic enhancement. 

2. After the End of the World

This ran from 9-10PM and was sparsely enough attended to suggest that the apocalypse had actually happened and the few survivors had come to the panel to get pointers.  Asked to name our favorite failed apocalypse, after the Mayan Calendar thingie, the Y2K millennial panic came up as well as the usual religious ends of the world.  We absolved the Mayans of any such foolishness -- I didn't bother to remind anyone that the end of the Long Count really was supposed to be marked by catastrophe: the Water Age, the Fire Age, the Jaguar Age, and so on.  But when it was mentioned that despite the failure of Miller's multiple apocalypse forecasts, the 7th Day Adventists were still around, I noted that the same peculiarity affected Paul Ehrlich.  We noodled around different apocalypses: zombies, nuclear war, plague, aliens, economic collapse, all the usual funandgames. 

3. Reading, Autographing, Yacking

The next day, I gave a reading and some people actually showed up.  One segment from "Places Where the Roads Don't Go" and one segment from "Shipwrecks of Time."  There was modest business at the autographing table, but I'm beginning to think that anyone who wanted my autograph has gotten it by now.  I had a good crowd at the Kaffeeklatsch table and we discussed many things in response to sundry questions.  How did I hook up with Niven/Pournelle?  What got me started in writing?  What's next from the puissant pen of Pennsylvania?  That kind of stuff. 

4. How to Tease Your Data and Not Have it Bite You

I changed the title to "Spanking Bad Data Won't Make Them Behave."  We got through half the slides, about what I expected: When Measurements Go Bad, When Samples Go Bad, and part of When Models Go Bad.  The usual complications regarding operational definitions, data coding, sampling, and the applicability of specific models.  It comes as a shock to many to realize that there is no such thing as the speed of light: only the results of applying a particular method of measurement.  Heinlein's dictum that a fact is self-demonstrating is self-demonstrably false.  A fact has no meaning in the absence of a theory.  It has not probability of occurrence absent a model.  (I can get whatever probability I want through a judicious choice of models.  And as the Unabomber pointed  out to his students at Berkeley before he entered on his more explosive career, with seven Xs you can fit any finite set of data on Y, as long as you can play with the coefficients.) 

5. Scientists Look at Science Fiction

This was a panel in which half the members were not scientists, which mooted the topic somewhat.  The discussion converged on the depiction of scientists and the scientific endeavor, where SF prefers the lone genius and the breakthrough discovery while the Real World™ prefers incremental and parallel discovery by an intercommunicating scientific community.  I cited the near simultaneous discovery of the phases of Venus by no less than four astronomers (Lembo, Harriott, Marius, and Galileo, all in the same month.) or that an observed fact had to yet be interpreted: the Airy disks seen around stars were initially supposed to be actual apparent diameters (which put a limit on how far away the stars could be) rather than light scattering in the atmosphere (which meant the stars could be really far away).  Also coming in for hits was the notion that a scientist was ipso facto an expert on any field of human endeavor, when in fact he is often at a loss even in other branches of his own science, let alone in other sciences, or even in history, philosophy, art, etc.  Fiction may be excused somewhat for simplifying this complexity, but that is precisely the criticism of science fiction: that it is not true-to-life.


  1. I would have enjoyed your "debunking" of the coming singularity. I think you're right about the singularity having already happened, and for the same techno reasons you cited.

  2. I've never heard the proposal that 1920 was the point of singularity, but it definitely makes sense the way you put it. And as for our next apocalypse date, I believe it's supposed to be sometime in 2020, as predicted by Jean Dixon. The next one I may give credence to is written in the Talmud to be 6000 years after the creation of Adam, putting it at 2240 (?).

    P.S. Isn't Boston great? The only place I've been in America where you can hail a rickshaw. But alas, they're not captained by 10 year olds around here.

  3. Great stuff.

    It's not just Science Fiction that promotes the lone hero genius model of science, it seems pretty ubiquitous among almost everybody who doesn't actually do science. Might have something to do with the news needing to stick a mic into somebody's face, when, in truth, it would be a 100 somebodies. Thus, a Sagan or a Dawkins can become famous simply for saying stuff reporters can report - and at the same time reinforce (with varying degrees of intent) the lone genius scientist idea.

    As for Boston, even GPS doesn't seem to work there - my last visit, we circled around downtown as the little blue 'you are here' arrow wandered through buildings and across parks. I found this illuminating and in conformity with my experiences (WARNING! F-bomb dropped!): Not that New York is flawless by any means, but you can get places.

  4. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "there is no such thing as the speed of light". Do you just mean that we can't perfectly measure it, or are you making a deeper statement? (Apologies if you've addressed this before, I just started reading recently.)

    1. How do you "perfectly" measure anything when any value is defined by the method of measurement used to obtain it, and different methods will in general give different results? When we measured the coefficient of friction of an aluminum can, much depended on the method used: the inclined plane methods or the flat plane method. Both were ASTM-approved, but they might give different results. I have seen two dial indicators, both calibrated to NIST standards and both giving identical values on gauge blocks, produce values differing by several thousandths of an inch on actual product. (And become the source of complaint between the manufacturer of the part and the customer.) In another case, the producer and customer of the aluminum measured the 'earring' of aluminum in cup-making by measuring the maximum and minimum cup heights around the circumference. One reported (M-m)/M and the other reported (M-m)/m. Which was more 'perfect'?

      Hence, there is no such thing as X independent of the method used to measure and report X. Just as there is no probability of X>k independent of the model assumed for the distribution of X.

    2. Well, but friction is different. The coefficient of friction is basically an attempt to represent non-scalar information in a scalar quantity, and so can't possibly fully represent the data. The speed of light genuinely is a scalar quantity and so could, in principle, be represented fully as a single number (with units, obviously). There'll always be some experimental error preventing us from fully discovering it, but that's different from a case like friction where there genuinely is no correct answer.

    3. Of course, it can be represented as a single number; but the physical process by which that number is produced must be specified. Even so simple a thing as a thickness or a length is dependent upon the instrument, the technician, and the circumstances of its use. Measurements do not exist in some pure Platonic world of forms, but in the messy empirical world of Aristotle. The must be abstracted from the empirical.

    4. But, philosophically, are we saying that light in a vacuum has no fixed speed, or merely that that fixed speed is unknowable via science? Philosophically, it might be possible (but I think not) to conclude that light in a vacuum *must* have a fixed speed. How does philosophy answer the assertion that the speed of light in a vacuum is a fundamental constant? No, it's not, because we can never measure it absolutely, or, yes it is because the math requires it?

      Using *science* as understood today, we of course can't even say light in a vacuum has a fixed speed, except within a range of accuracy and - the point you're making - a specified method of measurement. But that's different than saying light has no fixed speed, which seems to me to be a philosophical position.

    5. Right, but the speed of light isn't itself a measurement. It can be measured, and those measurements are defined by the method, but the speed of light itself isn't. There is an objectively correct answer, even if we can never discover it.

    6. One small nit to pick.

      The speed of light can be measured by some methods. (The earliest method used the moons of Jupiter, with Earth's orbit as a baseline. Later methods used light of known wavelength with a fixed path, I think.)

      And it can be predicted from the results of Maxwell's equations. (Using electrical/magnetic constants measured in a labratory as inputs...) Maxwell's equations predict the existence of self-sustaining waves of electro-magnetic energy. They travel at a speed predicted by the permittivity of free space to electric fields, and the permeability of free space to magnetic fields.

      As TOF says, both methods depend heavily on the accuracy of a measured value. Either for the distance/time ratio of a wavelength of light, or the two constants describing the behavior of electric/magnetic fields in free space.

    7. Right, but that's still just saying that we can't precisely figure out the correct value, not that there isn't a correct value.

  5. I wish I'd known you were in Boston, I'd've bought you a drink. I agree with your point on the singularity, I've made similar arguments myself, though with the more nebulous "WWI era" as the terminal point (given revolution in military technology that came about during the Great War). My father (a child of the depression) has no trouble dealing with smart phones. I think his grandfather would think of them as magic.

  6. Also, as regards the GPS comment about Boston, it's hilariously true. A few months ago my brother & I headed down to Tufts to pick up a slightly used laptop for our mother (Christmas present). And the way in seemed to take us a long way off the direct route (going by the map), so we elected to get back to the highway by going directly towards it, which is where everything went horribly awry. It tried to send us the wrong way down a one way street, and when that didn't work attempted to do the same thing repeatedly as we hit one one way after another. All running the same way. When we finally hit a left we could take it terminated in an intersection, with three one way streets dumping into it. I became half convinced at that point that half of Medford's residents were people that just gave up trying to escape.


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