Skin Game

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May, 2014 by melendwyr

Jim Butcher has written fifteen books in his Dresden Files series, not counting the short story anthology.  The latest, Skin Game, was released today.  I’ve picked up a copy.

Butcher’s skill at spinning yarns has increased steadily since his humble beginnings as a creative writing student crafting a genre crossover between noir and fantasy as a class project.  He was twenty-five then.  We’ve had one book a year since then.  And each has been better than the last, with a possible exception for the pivotal novel Changes – not because it is lacking, but because it marked a watershed moment in theme for the series, and so cannot be adequately be compared to its surrounding works.

The new novel?  Extraordinary.  New mysteries are hinted at, subtle premises established more than a decade ago are revealed in a new light, old beloved characters are brought back in thoughtful new roles.  Instead of sprinting from one supernatural disaster to another, desperately trying to keep Chicago in one piece, Harry Dresden has had a lot of time off… to the point of sanity erosion.  Being left alone almost of the time on his unmapped island in Lake Michigan hasn’t done a great deal for his mental stability.  He’s so lonely that he’s taken to chatting with the entities imprisoned beneath the island, something he had previously lampshaded as near to criminally irresponsible.  But his old nemesis and new boss Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, shows up with a task for him to  perform, and she’s not going to take ‘no’ lightly.

I can’t decide which delighted me more:  the plot turns and developments which I didn’t see coming, or the one I successfully called many years ago.  So very satisfying.

The Self-Destruction of John Campbell

Posted in Comics, Politics and Society, Reviews, Things You Should Read, Weirdness with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

You may recall my earlier post detailing my sadness upon learning that one of my favorite webcomics, Pictures for Sad Children, had been deleted by its artist and creator John Campbell.

Upon learning that he had a Kickstarter project involving the release of his comics in bound and printed form, I concluded that perhaps he didn’t want the free online version of his work competing with his professional work.  Sadly, I have recently learned that the reality is much, much stranger than that.

As the bottom of that Wikipedia article indicates, in fact.

Campbell had gained a degree of notority for apologizing for purportedly “pretending to be depressed for money”.  Which is quite peculiar, but not nearly as weird as it would become…

John Campbell recently announced that all of the Kickstarter rewards which were going to be sent out had been, and that nothing else would be forthcoming – regardless of what had been promised or what people had paid for.  In fact, he released a video showing him burning printed copies of the book, one for each email he had received from people asking where their books were.  Along with the video was… well, a rant.

This might lead you to think that Campbell is staging some kind of avant-garde  performance art, which wouldn’t be incompatible with the style of his comic.  Possibly the whole thing is being faked… except for the vast number of people who haven’t received the work that they paid for and are beginning to become angry.

The rant itself sounds very much as though Campbell were sliding into depression, or schizophrenia.  Not quite at the word salad stage, but approaching it.  Faked?  Perhaps… not.  It’s really quite disturbing.  Campbell claims to have realized that he’s a transwoman, says that he has about $750 total, and has a lot of reasonably incoherent things to say about capitalism, society, and ‘privilege’.

Some people now claim they are working to scan the copies of the book and put them online.

I don’t know what the full truth behind any of this is,  but one way or another, it seems to be the end of John Campbell’s career.  Possibly the beginning of a number of angry lawsuits, although if the statement about the checking is correct I doubt there will be much of anything to win.

 

Dresden Codak is up again!

Posted in Comics, Things You Should Read with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Dark Science #31:  Escalation

A truly excellent webcomic.  It’s a shame his long periods between postings limit the attention he can get.

Still, it could be worse, as my next post will discuss.

 

Product Placement

Posted in Science Fiction, Things You Should See with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Warning:  the following clip is emotionally intense, probably not suitable for people of a sensitive nature, and in context absolutely hilarious.

Don’t watch this around children, or at work, just to be safe.

Theodore Sturgeon

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read with tags , , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I am fortunate.  A quick browse through a local used bookstore yielded not only a hardback copy of Godbody but a collection of short stories by the same author, Theodore Sturgeon.

Although once widely known and generally acknowledged as a master of science fiction, Sturgeon is relatively obscure today; remarkably so, for a man who was once the most anthologized English author living.  Finding his works in libraries is slowly becoming difficult, except in the ones whose stocks are full of old editions.

My first exposure was when I came across his short work “The Golden Helix” in just such an anthology.  My eye was caught by the editor’s introductory blurb in which it was noted that the story was written before the structure of DNA had been discovered, and furthermore, suggested that the choice of the double helix was slightly spooky in that context.  Curious, I paid especial attention, and found that the story more than repaid the interest invested.

On doing a little research, I found that Sturgeon was not only responsible for, among other things, the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek, the “Live long and prosper” salutation, and the characteristic Vulcan hand symbol (although its form came from Leonard Nimoy).  I tried to find more of his writings but found them to be fairly scarce, even decades ago – the situation has worsened considerably, it seems.

Like Robert Heinlein, Sturgeon seems to have contributed considerably to what I can vaguely refer to as ‘hippie culture’.  Given the times in which he was writing, and the mores of public discourse involved, many of the concepts in his stories were remarkably ideoclastic and radical.  Many of them seem quite same now, although parts would still shock many if they took the time to think about them.

I think I may write reviews of some of his writings in the near future.

Gravitational Waves Found

Posted in Science! with tags on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I’d been wondering how long it would take to find evidence of gravitational waves (assuming that they existed at all).

Unfortunately, if I understand the news reports about today’s announcement correctly, there’s still no direct observations of such waves.  All the detectors made to find them have failed.

Which is in itself odd.

But now we have observational evidence strongly in favor of the inflationary model of the Big Bang, in which the anomalous uniformity of the universe is explained by assuming the universe’s rate of expansion was initially quite large and then slowed.  I am personally excited about this because of the peculiar implications this has about the possibility of faster-than-light travel.  Yes, it’s a very distant and implausible horizon.  But finding a way to send anything FTL requires first demonstrating conclusively that a phenomenon involves effects that aren’t restricted by the cosmic speed limit.  And the expansion of space-time seems to be just such a phenonemon.

Competing Trends

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Over at Gregory Cochran’s blog, I’ve been having a very minor argument with the host.  (Well, he posted a response or two, then I suspect ignored me, but that’s something of an argument.)

He argues that there is unlikely to have been a substantial drop in IQ since about the Victorian Era, and has offered multiple reasons why that’s so.  I generally find his reasoning compelling; however, the argument that I find less than convincing is that such a drop would have crippled the progress of higher mathematics and this has not taken place.

I see no reason to assert that a decline or drop of performance in the field of mathematics has occurred.  But neither can I find reason to assert that it has not.

When we can identify a continuing trend in the development of human knowledge – such as Moore’s Law – we usually can’t figure out why it’s stable and clear enough for us to pick up on.  Not knowing what causes such trends, we can’t predict when they’ll stop.  In the case of Moore’s, it has been noted that people predicted the trend would continue only for a decade – and have continued to predict that for the past thirty and more.

It is pretty clear that there’s a ‘low-hanging fruit’ effect in the sciences.  The basics of most sciences were within reach of amateur investigators, and the cutting edges frequently require technology that no individual could afford to own, and/or knowledge leading up to the edge that requires years of study to acquire.  Sometimes, in highly abstract and rich fields such as mathematics, a particularly gifted and inspired neophyte can find and strike out in a shocking new direction.  But each time that happens, the number of unexploited new directions is reduced.  So all else being equal, it should be harder and harder to make new discoveries the more that’s discovered.

It is also clear that our understanding of what’s easy and what’s hard changes with time.  At one point algebra was advanced mathematics studied by the luminaries in the field, and now bright elementary students are expected to be able to pick up the rudiments.  This would tend to shorten the time it takes to find new things and reduce the difficulty to do so.

Human populations have exploded -  from about one billion people in 1800 to seven billion today.  All else being equal (which is certainly not the case, but the details are both controversial and obscure) there should be seven times as many people of any skill level, talent, or genius as there were roughly two hundred years ago.  The degree to which having more people to work on problems affects the time associated with progress is complicated, but I think it’s clear that it should have a net hastening effect.

Flynn Effect, anyone?  We don’t know precisely what it means to actual accomplishment, or what’s responsible for it.

We can name more and more conflicting trends in intellectual innovation.  But our ability to model and understand those trends isn’t impressive.  For most, we can only make rough approximations as to their effects, and as for what happens when they begin to interact?  Forget it.

The exciting developments in the field of mathematics are beyond both my intelligence and my education.  But I’ve been told that mathematical proofs are becoming so complex that it can’t be ascertained whether they’re logically valid or not.  Instead, teams of mathematicians have to give their opinions.  Does this represent increased or decreased progress in the field?  I have no idea, and no one else seems to have a clear grasp either.

Cochran’s argument is an appeal to normality, asserting that the status quo is appropriate and correct.  But that has a great deal to do with our initial assumptions and very little to do with rational conviction.  Can we determine, from first principles, what the level of achievement in mathematics would be if there were unquestionably no decrease in mathematical talent in the population at large?  Can we even determine whether or not the nature of progress in the field has actually changed?  The answer in both cases is ‘no’.  Perhaps the level of talent is the same or even greater than it used to be, and we’ve pushed the field so far into the potential for human cognition that it’s truly becoming harder to grasp without tremendous genius and years of focused effort.  Or maybe the potential is being lost.  Or maybe it’s our educational system, or the way in which research is conducted or… any one of a million other things.  And that’s presuming that the nature of generated proofs has actually changed!

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