|log (2003/09/12 to 2003/09/18)|
Thursday, September 18, 2003
So the weather didn't interfere, and I had lunch with Vernor Vinge. The guy himself! In person and everything! And I'm going to describe it all in excruciating detail!
See we're having this "Innovation Days" thing at the Lab, and one of the events was that Vernor Vinge was going to come and give a talk. That sounded cool, and I thought I'd go. There was lots of other stuff going on too, but we have deadlines around here and all, and so I wasn't paying great attention to it.
I'd noticed that there was a contest where you could send in a SF story you'd written, or part of one, and it had to be under a thousand words. I took one of the stories in my "become rich and famous with these someday" pile and tried to cut it to a thousand words, or pick a thousand word subset that would make some sense, but I couldn't (it's already an awfully tight story).
So I thought no more about it, but it came up at lunch one day, and Bill (I think it was Bill) said (tongue I think in cheek) that I should submit one of the microstories from the weblog here. So (since that was real easy) I went to the intranet web page after lunch that day and submitted the story at the top of this entry (I actually like this one even better, but it's so short that I feared the judges wouldn't take it seriously). And then I thought no more about it.
Then the other day I get an email saying that I'm one of the winners (I figure that they probably got few enough entries that everybody was one of the winners), and I get to have lunch with Vernor Vinge after his talk. This is cool! I take a closer look at the intranet site, and see that there's also going to be an SF reading after lunch, and people are invited to bring in a passage from their favorite (published) SF book or story to read aloud. It's supposed to be somehow related to Innovation.
That night I rustle around in the library. Nothing really pithy and innovationy springs out from "The Skylark of Space" or various Heinlein short stories. I decide that this here passage from near the end of Greg Bear's "Blood Music" might do.
So this morning I go up to the auditorium and sit up near the front ('cause I'm a geek), and listen to Vernor Vinge talk. It's a good talk, nothing radically new or amazingly different; if you've read his Singularity stuff, this was mild in comparison. He talked about the near future, about smart dust and ubiquitous computation, about how connected humans are the richest resource we have, about how that resource may come to be much better utilized in the coming years, and how that may change things significantly.
He's been a professor for a long time, and he's good at talking to people and to auditoriums full of people and all, and that was nice. (Some of the geniuses that we have come and talk at the lab can barely complete an intelligible sentence from behind a podium.)
(Some links from the slides he showed: his home page; three references on "Smart Dust and MEMS":   ; one on localizers; Decentralized Channel Management in Scalable Multihop Spread-Spectrum Packet Radio Networks; cool Google stuff; Yenta; a paper on decision markets, and EarthWeb, a fictional example by Marc Stiegler; John Gilmore's "What's Wrong With Copy Protection")
He talked about what it's important to know in a world where any specific technical knowledge is likely to obsolete next year (it's important to know how to learn, to know about heuristics, to know about knowledge). He talked about the "butterfly" and "woodborer" styles (knowing a little about a lot vs. knowing deeply into some particular field and hoping that it remains important), and added a third: the "movie producer" style that is "good at nothing but schmoozing" (it strikes me that that's just a certain kind of woodborer, in an area that's unlikely to become obsolete, although you never know).
The person who introduced him mentioned that his novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (not Ridgemont High, mind you) had recently won a Hugo. I didn't remember that story, and while he was getting miked and stuff I looked around the Web for it and found that it's possible to buy a copy instantly online, so I did that, and was reading at it between sentences for some of his talk (I haven't finished it yet).
In the question period my hand was the first one up. I asked him if he's really written a book called Modern Spain: A Documentary History (Amazon lists him as the author today; by the time you click on that link maybe they'll have fixed it). He said he'd never heard of it, but that he knew of at least one other book that Amazon had accused him of writing that he'd never heard of. I also asked a serious question. *8)
After the question period (no, I don't remember anyone else's questions: I'm entirely self-centered, as you should know by now) I went up to be in the bunch of people talking to him and following him to lunch, and on the way to lunch I told him about having bought the story in realtime during the talk, and he thought that that was cool.
The dozen or so of us had a very nice served lunch. It was him, and me (I wangled a seat next to him at the table; sheesh, what a sycophant), and Cliff Pickover, and David Singer, and Murray Campbell and like nine other people whose URLs I don't know and whose identities I've (therefore?) pretty much entirely forgotten.
The folks who'd judged us dozen to be Winners had also judged three of us to be Extra Special Winners who got personally signed copies of Vinge's Collected Stories, and I was one of them. W00t!
(One of the judges was there at the lunch, and she told me that she'd particularly liked my story, and I showed her the other one, and she thought it was great also. I also by an amazing coincidence happened to have a printed copy of the winning one with me, and I gave it to Vinge since as I suspected might happen he hadn't seen the winners' stories himself. The copy just happened to have the URL printed at the bottom, heh heh heh. So now Vernor Vinge has a story and a URL of mine in his possession. Of course he's probably recycled it by now. But the whole thing was great for my ego.)
So at lunch we all talked about general things. We talked about spam, and about how electronic publishing may help or hurt the industry and the authors. (Recently, he says, the clauses in authors' contracts that allow certain rights to revert to the authors when a title goes out of print have been more or less nullified in some cases, because the potential electronic publishing means that a title is never quite officially out of print. He hopes that things will change so that titles are really never out of print, so that readers can always get them, and authors can always get paid for them.)
Cliff enthused about Wikipedia, and I chimed in to say how it had been coming up near the top of various recent Google searches of mine lately, and we all wondered how stable such a system can be. (One thing Vinge mentioned in his talk is that he expects the fraud-to-fact ratio on the Net to go up wildly with time, and telling what's true from what isn't to become a very vital skill, even moreso than it is now.)
We did talk a little about the Singularity. I said that I thought the main thing that would keep it from happening real soon is that the Software Problem is really very very very hard, and isn't going to be solved enough to get us rolling up the asymptote anytime this year. He agreed that that was possible, and speculated that it might be interesting, if it turned out that computers kept getting smaller and faster and denser and everything for a very long time, but it took us (say) some number of centuries until we figured out how to make one smart. (Something like that, anyway.) Maybe I've given him a story idea! *8)
Someone asked the obvious "what other SF is good nowadays?" question. Vinge recommended Singularity Sky, which I don't think I've heard of. He also recommended Terry Pratchett (saying that he'd first read Pratchett years ago and not liked it, but picked him up again recently and then read all of him he could find), and Karl Schroeder (of Ventus and so on), and Brin (and in particular Kiln People which Amazon keeps recommending to me; maybe I'll finally buy it). During his talk he also recommended Psychohistorical Crisis, of which a little more later.
Anyone in the room, he said, could become a science fiction writer (or perhaps he said "science fiction author", or maybe "write a science fiction novel"). The problem, he said, is that "you all have lives" (or, he added when some of us denied it, "you've already given your life to something else"). It's very hard, he said, to write a novel and get it published if you're just sort of doing it to check off that box on your list of Life Goals; but if you're willing to start out by getting some short stories published in the magazines, get your name known, make some contacts, and then do the novel, it's not that hard. A little harder than in the past, maybe (he's been writing for like forty years!), but only a little.
(Maybe I'll send off a couple stories to the magazines again; it's been years since I tried that. Who has envelopes?)
So we finished up our desserts and went back to the auditorium for the readings. Vinge read his very short story "Win a Nobel Prize!" (which appeared in Nature, and which I can sometimes find the full text of in Google, and sometimes I get a Nature "please pay us for access" page; very odd). Various other people read other things. I read the excerpt from Greg Bear's "Blood Music" where one of the last humans on Earth is talking to the noosphere, and the uploaded versions of her friends and relatives are urging her to come join them, but she can't bring herself (innovation, see?). People seemed to enjoy it. Someone read from "Player Piano", and someone read from Amis's "Time's Arrow", and someone read from a Harry Potter book. Someone read from Sawyer's "Humans" (the sequel to "Hominids", which I think I once started but trailed off on).
While people were reading things, I was surfing around, reading reviews of the books they were reading from, adding one or two of them to my Amazon wish list, ordering a used copy of Psychohistorical Crisis, and so on. Vinge was sitting right behind me, and after the reading when we were getting up walking toward the door he said that he'd seen what I was doing with the laptop, and been impressed (I wish I could remember his exact words, so I could have them like engraved on my forehead or something). "I want to do that with this," he said, holding out a little handheld phone or PDA or somat.
And that's really about it. I have this signed Vinge book, and Vinge has (or had) a copy of one of my flash stories with my URL on it, and I've met him in person, and even talked significantly to him. (He's a smart guy, not at all overwhelming in person, articulate and personable, not visibly bursting with ideas and energy, but clearly pretty good at thinking about stuff.)
He hopes to have his next book to the publisher by next spring, which means that we can hope to have it by spring of 2005. It sounds like a near-future story, in the "Fairmont High" sort of world, things starting to get strange, but no High Beyond. I didn't bug him about whether he's going to start the "capstone" book that he mentioned to me in email back in 2000. I hope he does, though! I really want to read that one.
In the meantime maybe I'll read A Fire Upon the Deep again. After I finish these short stories.
It's Wotan's Day! Have you hugged your Wotan lately?
Even more startlingly, Friday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day! This is important! Arrr!
4) If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10)
Homonyms! The Secret of Flight! Alabaster! Very important!
I beat .hack//infection, and now I'm playing .hack//mutation (after, at the little daughter's insistence, finishing all the side quests in the first game). So far it's more or less exactly similar to .hack//infection, but looking over the little daughter's shoulder it looks like if I work at it I'll at least get to some worlds with cool new graphical themes.
This world could use some cool new graphical themes, for that matter. Stone walls with dragons carved into them, for instance. Giant blimps drifting through the night sky, their lights shining on the spiky orange clouds.
"Lose Yourself," Eminem. I know, I'm so embarrassed. Nice to have you back.
"Angry White Boy Polka" is of course on Weird Al Yankovic's very wonderful "Poodle Hat", which I recently bought from the iTunes music store after a valued reader sent me an mp3 of the amazing "Bob" track. "Poodle Hat" also contains "Couch Potato", which is probably (I haven't heard the original) a very wonderful spoof of the very song "Lose Yourself" that embarrasses our (other?) reader so.
Tiny little world! And no enormous blimps in sight! Very important!
Something interesting might happen tomorrow, if the storm doesn't cancel it (a particular interesting thing that I'm thinking of, that is; something interesting always happens, for sufficiently thisway values of that). If it (the particular thing) does (happen), I'll write about it in tomorrow's entry. Unless I forget, or write about it in some other entry instead. Or something.
So I was in the Big Tub of Water on Sunday, and it was incredibly wonderful. After getting entirely too warm in the high summer, the water was back down to around 65°F, which is just about perfect, and it was clear as glass, and the sky was crystal blue and the sun was hot, and I was all by myself, just soaking in physical bliss there and doing wizard tricks with my shadow just like back then.
And the irony (and I think 'irony' is actually the right word for a change) is that the reason I was in the Tub at all was that it needed a good thorough vacuuming and cleaning out before we closed it for the winter, which we did a few hours later.
Still, it was lovely.
"Within six months of passing the Patriot Act, the Justice Department was conducting seminars on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend them beyond terror cases," said Dan Dodson, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "They say they want the Patriot Act to fight terrorism, then, within six months, they are teaching their people how to use it on ordinary citizens."
I finally read the rest of the stories in the Harry Mathews collection that I bought used online back in February. (I read "Dialect of the Tribe", the story that I bought it for, as soon as it arrived, but saved the rest for later.)
This is a great collection. The first three stories are the best. "Country Cooking" struck me, not so much as extremely funny (as my valued reader described it back there), but as just wonderful in general; I didn't laugh (much?), but I was filled with a joyous awe. "The Dialect of the Tribe" was wonderfully meta, all about language and translation and narrative and all, and "The Novel as History" was brash and gimmicky and perfect. The rest of the stories were also good (okay, I didn't understand "The Network", but I'm pretty sure that this is my fault and not the author's).
In the back of this book, it says "There are 1,500 copies, of which 100 are clothbound and signed." I don't have one of the 100, but I'm pleased as punch to have one of the 1,400.
As well as:
I used to get lots of email. Now all I get is spam. But Spamnet keeps deleting it. I'm lonely.
Poetry in motion; what would I do without you?
(Oh, and the iTunes Music Store doesn't seem to carry The Magnetic Fields. I told them they ought to.)
This morning on the TV at the Club I saw (and heard) Simon and Garfunkel doing "Old Friends" and "Homeward Bound". Live!
That was strange.
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
The other night the little daughter was complaining that her teacher had said (speaking sloppily, I hope) that 22/7 was pi, and I said that it wasn't even the best or most useful rational approximation; so we typed "rational approximations to pi" into Google, and got a page which (interesting in itself) led me to the Graham Number embedded on another page about the Singularity and how the world is to be unrecognizably transformed any day now by superintelligent entities that we will (if indirectly) create, and that page leads to the Singularity Institute which is more of the same.
Lots of interesting reading there, by mostly clued people talking about way-radical things. I tend to think that it's not all going to happen next Wednesday, because the Software Problem is actually very very hard and kind of slow. But it's tough to think of a good reason that it won't happen pretty soon.
(Where "it" is either a nanotech Gray Goo end of the world, or a transcendant Singularity involving, or not involving, uploaded humans including me.)
Also on those pages is a quote from Vernor Vinge:
"Of course, I never wrote the 'important' story, the sequel about the first amplified human. Once I tried something similar. John Campbell's letter of rejection began: 'Sorry - you can't write this story. Neither can anyone else.'"
Tell you what, Mr. Vinge, if you happen to be reading this: I don't care what Campbell said, I would pay money to read that story.
Speaking of Apocalypsis, here's today's Whacko Quote, from Tony Scalia:
"Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal."
No big deal, eh? Just the guy I want defending my rights.
(And while we're having qualms about religion, here's The Skeptic's Annotated Bible, for future reference.)
Today's Notable Entry From The Referer Log (yes, we are down there a ways, in interesting company).
News Flash! It appears that Catherine Jamieson is back. (Assuming that this is the Catherine of old, and it looks like it is.) Good news! I hope she prospers.
Spammer subject line o' the day:
Duplicate modem speed now!
Now you too can experience the Internet as though you were using a 2400 bps modem!
All things are beautiful from the proper perspective.
Those things, too; definitely.
("If there's anything better in this world, who cares?" I wonder if that album's in the iTunes music store.)