(12) Mon Nov 02 2009 17:31 Skipping Grades:
I went to DC to see Sumana's sister and parents, and at one point during the weekend we were talking about a similar experience Sumana and I had when we were kids: we both really wanted to skip ahead one or more grades so we could get out of school earlier, and our respective parents did not want this to happen.
I believe Sumana did end up skipping a grade, and I may have mentioned somewhere in this weblog's archives that I stuffed four years of classes into three years to get out of high school a year early. So we both got what we wanted, kind of. But I also remembered something I hadn't thought of for a long time.
I had second grade in LA with a teacher (Mrs. Rosenstiel) who was simultaneously teaching a second and a third grade class. I don't know how she did this, whether this was because of budget cuts or small class sizes or what, but I remember that the second graders sat on one side and the third graders on the other side. I sat with the third graders and did the third grade work. Although I didn't think of it in these terms, I effectively skipped the second grade. Then we moved to Arvin and I was put in a third-graders-only classroom, where I effectively repeated the third grade.
It's fortunate for my parents that I didn't detect this sleight-of-hand until a couple days ago, because realizing it at the time would have really made me mad. To younger-Leonard's way of thinking, the purpose of this whole schooling thing was to make sure you knew things. Period. If you learned things faster, you shouldn't have to do as much time in school.
This underlay my (and, presumably, Sumana's) constant nagging of our parents to let us skip a grade or two. What underlay our parents' constant refusals was the belief that schooling had two other purposes: keeping the kids out of your hair until they're old enough to leave home, and socialization.
My parents always told me that skipping grades would stunt my social development and leave me miserable. But here's the thing: I was stunted and miserable anyway. If school is supposed to be a big social club where you just have fun with your peer group, then sure, wake me up when I turn eighteen. But we all know it ain't that. I hated school the whole way through, and I was fairly popular and well-liked (though I wouldn't have thought so at the time). Sumana had it a lot worse.
For a long time I thought my parents were simply wrong about this. But I'm writing this where people can read it and comment on it because I'm starting to think they were not entirely wrong. What happens to a smart kid who's allowed to go through the public school system as fast as his/her talents can take him/her? Do you know any such kids? Are you one? Did such kids exist in the past and end up broken wrecks, cautionary tales to future generations of parents?
I'm not talking about the wunderkind who gets a Harvard scholarship at age 12; that kid is now Harvard's problem. I'm talking about a random lower- or middle-class kid from the 99th percentile. What are this person's parents supposed to do when he/she graduates at 14 or 15? Send him/her to college? College is full of kids from the 99th percentile who also have a 2-3 year age advantage. Put him/her to work for a couple years? Doing what? Set up some kind of independent study? With what time/money?
I'm imagining my parents thinking along those lines. Am I wrong? What is the deal? It seems unfair to withhold this seemingly universal parental secret from me, a grown man. I can see not wanting your kid to leave home at fourteen protected only by their ability to dissect fetal pigs and write essays about Jack London, but an additional two years of school won't provide much additional protection.
Tue Nov 03 2009 11:24 "We're probably not going to win any prizes...":
I endorse this project to try to make "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" win all the 2009 science fiction awards.
Thu Nov 05 2009 08:43 The Plot, Such As It Is, Thickens:
Last year I mentioned, on the evidence of a Myspace page, that someone had started a Georgia rap group called "robot finds kitten". A few days ago I searched again and saw that the band had a playlist of four songs. I listened to them and the songs were really good! However, they were not raps. (The band robot finds kitten is now listed as "Hip Hop/Folk/Alternative".)
I was really proud that someone had started a non-bad band named after a game I wrote, and was trying to figure out how to contact this band without creating a Myspace account, and then I did a search on the song lyrics and discovered that all four songs are really by Neil Cicierega of the Massachusets band Lemon Demon, and were put up as "robot finds kitten" songs under different names. Cicierega is also known for creating Flash cartoons like "The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny" -- so well-known, in fact, that he's also notable.
So, it sucks that the "robot finds kitten" band is either a hoax or a plagiarism, but on the plus side it introduced me to some really great music. Those who like my music (I realize that this is a... select group) will also like Lemon Demon. And according to a message a few months ago to the rfk-dev mailing list, someone is starting a real band called "robotfindskitten".
(1) Sat Nov 07 2009 18:38 First Line Of A Novel:
Free for all to use.
"This is the phone company! We have you surrounded!"
There's a novel I want to write that could have that as the first line, but it's #3 on the list of novels I want to write, and will probably be novel #3 for the rest of my life and never get written. So just dump that into your NaNoWriMo novel whenever you next get stuck.
Sat Nov 07 2009 20:33 Public Service Announcement:
Susanna didn't know this, so maybe you don't either. You can treat canker sores with grapes or raisins. Cut the grape/raisin in half and put its internal organs against the sore. Hold it in place with your tongue for a couple minutes. The grape/raisin chemically cauterizes or coats the canker sore (I don't really know how it works, and Susanna doesn't want to experiment) so that it doesn't hurt. Then, you can eat the grape/raisin. It's nature's candy!
(1) Sun Nov 08 2009 20:37:
Hey, remember the new economy? That was hilarious.
Mon Nov 09 2009 14:57 Doesn't Quite Work:
We terraformed this planet on rock and roll.
(6) Tue Nov 10 2009 22:13 Taking The NYC Out Of NYCB:
Yes, it's true. We are moving to England in a couple weeks and staying for about a year. If you want to see us before we leave, now would be an excellent time to leave a comment or email me! Unless you live in England, in which case you should just wait a bit.
(1) Wed Nov 11 2009 07:10:
I dreamed a kitchen gadget called the "pretzel opener". Order now!
Wed Nov 11 2009 21:31 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1985/12:
Some good stuff in this issue, such as an awesome color ad for the Infocom Hitchhiker's Guide game (not pictured because Sumana has the camera) and a two-page spread for Telarium's game adaptations of SF classics.
I got sidetracked talking about the ads, but there are a couple good stories here as well. The best one is "The White Box" by Rom Chilson and Lynette Meserole, which, like Qubit Slip, posits a society dependent on a fictional technology, and then breaks the technology to see what happens. My favorite kind of Analog-compatible story, and highly recommended if you like that kind of puzzle solving.
Spider Robinson's "The Blacksmith's Tale" runs the gamut of overwrought emotions, veering from erotica to shaggy dog story to Silver Surfer fanfic. It was well written but it didn't make me want to run out and grab a bunch of Callahan's story compilations.
Thomas R. Dulksi's "The Case of the Gring's Mill Goblin" would be unremarkable except it's a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Like "House", it takes place in the modern day but the protagonists are obviously Holmes and Watson. I can't deny that that's fun, but it's the only fun part of the story. The story left me with the impression that there's more to what happened than what Holmes and Watson believe happened, but I don't like the story enough to go back and check. Bonus fun: most Holmes pastiches forget about Mycroft Holmes, but not this one.
OK, back to ads. There's a hilarious one for Martin Caidin's Killer Station (Amazon reviewer: "One of the worst science fiction books ever written.") which has the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time tagline "KILLER STATION. IT'S GOING TO GET TO YOU..." I think Caidin may have written the copy for his own ad. Then again, I also suspected him of editing his own Wikipedia article and writing astoturf Amazon reviews of his own books, but that's impossible--he died in 1997.
(Bonus: Caidin earlier wrote The Six Million Dollar Man and the novel Marooned, which became "Marooned", the only film to have won an Oscar and then shown up on MST3K.)
There's also an ad for Heinlein's Job in paperback, which shows off faint-praise blurbs from Isaac Asimov ("Funny, exciting, and thought-provoking.") and Stephen King ("The greatest writer of such fiction in the world.") If someone blurbed one of my books by saying I was "the greatest writer of such fiction" I'd take a step back and say "Wait a minute, have I gone crazy and no one will tell me, like happened to Heinlein?" Such as, for example, if I decided to retell the story of Heinlein's Job as G.O.B.
From the book review column:
A few columns ago, I ingenuously asked whether Tom Robbins might not be the S. Morgenstern who wrote The Silent Gondoliers. Well, now I know the truth... the real man behind Gondoliers is William Goldman.
That's a weird truth not to know because William Goldman wrote a much better-known book ten years earlier--The Princess Bride--which is supposedly an abridgement of a work by S. Morgenstern. The movie wouldn't come out for another couple years, but it seems like something a science fiction magazine's book reviewer should have heard of.
Book review column also includes a sentence I thought I'd never read: "But seriously, with The Secret of Life, [Rudy] Rucker makes a bid to be the J.D. Salinger of the 1980s."
Another interesting tidbit. An earlier issue of Analog ran a G. Harry Stine article called "Astronomical Ghost Towns". I haven't read it but Stine proposed that light pollution and the then-forthcoming Hubble Space Telescope would drive ground-based telescopes out of business. Well, obviously Carl A. Posey, public information officer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, can't have any of that, and writes a sternly-worded letter:
It should be made clear to your readers, for example, that astronomers welcome (and none we know of "fear") the advent of the Space Telescope, which we expect to extend human vision significantly further into time and space. However, there will still be things--high-resolution spectroscopy, for example--that can be done better from large groundbased telescopes.
Stine responds, basically, "bite me". Groundbased telescopes are still around, but I'm gonna call this one for Stine, mainly because Posey spends most of his letter plugging the National New Technology Telescope, which near as I can tell never got funded. (They did eventually build other telescopes on the same site in Hawaii, and it's possible one of those telescopes has a paper trail that originated with the NNTT, but who knows.)
But I can definitely say, from my vantage point in the future, that the reason the astronomical ghost towns didn't happen is that one space telescope, or even ten, isn't gonna satisfy all the world's astronomers. They want as many telescopes as possible. The idea that astronomers are telescope technicians who "fear" that one space telescope will leave them unemployed is ridiculous. (Again, I haven't read the original article, so I don't know what exactly Stine said.)
Generic Analog blurb mania! #1: "Sometimes the line between 'improvising with available resources' and 'asking for help' isn't as clear-cut as you might think!" #2: "The size and shape of a problem depend on the background against which you view it." You could switch those two and no one would notice, even though one is from a Harry Turtledove story about dinosaurs (not as awesome as you'd think) and the other is the Spider Robinson.
Non-generic blurb: "The Box was exactly what medicine has been striving toward from the beginning--or was it? There's one human malady that, by definition, no cure-all can cure...."
In conflict-of-interest news, the classifieds have an ad for "Triveax", a game that's reviewed in the game review column. There's also a classified section called "BARGAINS" that should surely be called "SCAMS", since this is the only item:
FLY FREE WORLDWIDE on Major Airlines. Drive Luxurious cars. Complete details only $5.00 (WORTH THOUSANDS). Joseph McWade, 3D Serpentine Plaza, Clinton, New Jersey 08009
Also this bit of mystery in "MISCELLANEOUS":
If the number 247.032 is of special significance to you, please write to: R. Schuman, RR 2, Winthrop, Iowa 50682.
Probably just wants someone to talk to.
Thu Nov 12 2009 11:22:
Speaking of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, a while back Sumana and I watched The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the least impressive of the Billy Wilder movies we've watched. After an excellent opening vignette and the promising appearance of Mycroft Holmes, there's a big boring movie about Scotland and then the credits roll. Kind of similar to the big boring movie about Scotland found in the beginning of the original Casino Royale. I dunno what it is about movies from that time period, but they always seem like lavish Bollywood productions of a fever dream.
Fri Nov 13 2009 09:33 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 10-11/2002:
Another big anniversary issue. I tend not to like these anniversary issues, but this one was very good. First, "A Democracy of Trolls", in which RoOSFM favorite Charles Coleman Finlay dares to tell the true story of Reddit. Ursula K. Le Guin's "Social Dreaming of the Frin" is also excellent. Tanith Lee's "In the City of Dead Night" starts out really slowly and infodumply but picks itself up and becomes a fun Dying Earth-esque piece of fantasy/SF.
In the tier of stories that are not great but still worth your time: Lucius Shepard's "The Drive-in Puerto Rico" and Robert Reed's "The Sleeping Woman", which will stand as a testament that stories sometimes get published with that kind of stylized "POV character is obsessed with something" plot, even though it never works when I do it. Also Damon Knight's last story, "Watching Matthew", which has almost no fantastic element to it but has really admirable dialog.
So three great stories, three good stories, no interesting ads, you could do a lot worse. Trivia: In nonfiction, Gregory Benford gives explaining string theory his best shot. The book review column covers the beginning of the now-big Fables comic series. The end-matter column, "Curiosities", mentions the apocalyptic 1901 book The Purple Cloud, which wouldn't normally be worth mentioning except I'm pretty sure there's a story earlier in the magazine that mentions the same novel.
Fri Nov 13 2009 10:06 Slackers:
I'm reading all these decade-in-review roundups and thinking "we really could have done all that in six years."
(5) Sat Nov 14 2009 19:52 Connectionism:
I haven't mentioned this explicitly on NYCB, but I'm writing a novel. I still wouldn't mention this explicitly, because I don't believe in announcing projects that aren't complete, but this entry needs that fact for context.
(If you're curious: the novel is about halfway done, I hope to finish in the next 6 months or so, and once I've got a complete draft I hope to start serializing it on a website that you've probably heard of if you read this weblog. The only thing I will say about the subject matter is that if you liked "Mallory" you will like this thing. But know that I'm breaking my own rule in even mentioning this project, and it could still end up incomplete like a lot of my projects you've never heard of, so don't hold your breath.)
The reason I'm blowing my cover is to tell you about a theory I came up with earlier this week while talking to Adam Parrish that explains some things I've discovered during my short writing career. Adam is also writing a novel: he's retelling a Lovecraft story in novel form for NaNoWriMo. But under my questioning I learned that Adam is only doing this to get a better sense of the rules of narrative, so that he can destroy those rules, Duchamp-style.
Adam's real idea of a NaNoWriMo project is to generate a list of 50,000 random words from the dictionary and carve a story out of those words, the way a sculptor carves a statue from a block of randomly generated marble. So here's the first draft of Adam's ideal NaNoWriMo novel, which I wrote in about a minute.
Anyway, like a modernist fool I told Adam one of my rules of narrative. I discovered that the easiest way to write a novel is to throw a bunch of characters into a situation. If you get stuck, throw in more characters. If you can come up with enough characters, you'll eventually come up with some that have interesting interactions with each other and with the situation, and you can focus on those to do your worldbuilding and advance the plot.
Adam was skeptical of this idea. He thought I was speaking mystical writer talk about the characters taking on lives of their own. No, I said, it's just math. If you have N characters there will be N2-N possible relationships between them, and at any point in the plot you have (N2-N)/2 possible two-character scenes you might write. Most of those relationships and scenes will be stupid or impossible, but if you just get enough damn people in your book it will become obvious what to write about next. This explains a strange phenomenon I discovered: if you put someone or something in your novel early on, you will invariably find a use for them/it later.
When I read a novel, I'm happy with a character if I get to see two sides of them. If you can tell a story about a character's attitude toward the main plot arc, their attitude towards the main character, and their attitude towards another minor character, you can use two of those to illustrate their personality and the other to illustrate another side of them. If you can't do that, it's probably a sign your character isn't interesting enough.
This theory also illustrates something I've often found in short stories: too many characters. I can't count the number of times I've heard (or said) in writing group, "this character isn't necessary." It often happens to family members of the main character. It hurts to hear it because I always have a vivid picture of that character, but it's usually accurate. It might be a pain to rewrite the story without that character, but it's technically possible and the resulting story will take up less space in the reader's head. It also cuts word count, which means a cheaper story, which an editor is, on the margin, more likely to buy.
These characters get created in the early phase of story writing where the story isn't fully formed and you're not sure what's gonna happen. Because a short story is short you don't get a chance to show them in all their glory. Then because a short story has to be lean you end up cutting them. Sometimes there's no pain. Look at the deleted scene from "Awesome Dinosaurs". When I cut that 550-word scene I cut three speaking parts. I didn't have to change more than 100 words in the rest of the story to get rid of that scene. Sometimes it's tough. I've got a story that hasn't gone out for a while because I have to cut the main character's sister which means I need to redo all the worldbuilding.
But this problem with short stories is the flip side of what made me finally able to write (half of) a novel, already the longest piece of fiction I've ever written. You can toss characters into the pot and combinatorics will do some of the work for you. I get the feeling that this works better for serial novels, and so it would also work well for comic books and TV shows. (I find it helpful to think of my current project not as a novel, but as a soap opera in prose form.)
(1) Sun Nov 15 2009 17:15 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 12/1986:
Fun cover, huh? That's for John Morressy's enjoyable fantasy-versus-science-fiction story "Spirits from the Vasty Deep".
I'm reading more of these magazines because all the books are packed up for the move. This was a really good issue. The best story here was "A Stage of Memory" by David Brin and his brother Daniel. Kenneth W. Ledbetter's "Outpost on Europa" has no big literary merit but is a great adventure with talking dolphins. Ron Goulart's "Glory" was a Hollywood vampire story that was fun but didn't really feel fresh (it's fairly similar to "A Deskful of Girls", a F&SF story from 1959 I reviewed last month). I didn't really enjoy Pamela Sargent's "The Soul's Shadow" but I did admire how it read like a D.J. Hall painting come to life.
In the book review column, Algis Burdys disses Walter Jon Williams's first novel, which I found a little distressing because I've got a later novel by him packed in my boxes of still-unread books.
Harlan Ellison's film column provides me with even more endless amusement than usual. His schtick is that in this column he's going to get right to the point, which leads to even more grandiose digressions and outrageously-stated opinions than an average Harlan Ellison F&SF film review column.
Ellison apparently hates James Cameron and must grudgingly admit that Aliens is "a rather good action-adventure". He loves Big Trouble in Little China as a "cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives." (He goes on for a full column of print in this vein.) He loves the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, which had recently been restored and was making a tour.
He really loves The Great Mouse Detective, "the first new Disney animated to recapture the incomparable wonders of Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and The Three Caballeros." I'm neither a huge Disney animation fan--the only one I really like is Pinocchio--nor an expert, but The Three Caballeros? The geography lesson? The movie whose plot summary is "It is Donald Duck's birthday. He recieves three presents."? Harlan Ellison, these random-ass opinions are why I love your twenty-year-old film review columns.
Anyway, I vaguely remember seeing The Great Mouse Detective when I was a kid, and it was definitely fun. But Three Caballeros fun? I dunno.
Ellison is really pissed off at the Geraldo Rivera TV special The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults, referring to it as "that 2-hour con job" and calling Geraldo "increasingly lacertilian". Finally he gets to what is supposedly the point of the column,
heaping praise on Labyrinth and regretful complaints on a Ridley Scott film called Legend which I'd never heard of. It's a movie that pits Tom Cruise against Tim Curry (look at their names! They're almost the same!), with Robert Picardo in a supporting role. And according to IMDB comments, a much better director's cut was released in 2002, so it's definitely worth a look.
And with that I close the book, or magazine, on this issue of F&SF. Enjoy the photo gallery, which also includes pix from the recently reviewed Analog. Don't miss the Hitchhiker's Guide ad, featuring a non-digital watch that's nonetheless a pretty neat idea.
Mon Nov 16 2009 08:15 Pop Culture Invades History:
Yesterday I read Barbara Tuchman's amazing book on the Zimmerman telegram, The Zimmerman Telegram. It was a little distracting that Woodrow Wilson had an advisor named Edward House, because I kept reading paragraphs like this:
Superficially it would seem that Wilson, who dealt in principles and disliked details, was perfectly seconded by such a man as House, who loved the minutiae of deals and personalities. But this was not so. If Wilson had too much contempt for men, House had too little respect for principles. He became so immersed in his wire-pulling, in playing one personality against another, in keeping everyone conciliated and all wheels turning that this became and end in itself. The goal of negotiation became lost in the procedure.
As a bonus, there's a minor character named Princess Daisy.
Tue Nov 17 2009 20:48:
You probably didn't notice this because you read NYCB in a feed reader, but a while back I took down the Project Wonderful ads from the site. I did this not because Project Wonderful were jerks, the way Google AdSense are jerks, but because I wasn't really taking in any money from the ads. It wasn't literally $0.00, but it was significantly less than I bring in from the Beautiful Soup tipjar, which is just on one page.
I don't publish a popular web comic (or indeed a popular anything, except for Beautiful Soup), and it just wasn't worth it. So I've reclaimed those few pixels of vertical space. But if you have some crowd-pleaser that can push your ad bids above that elusive two-cent mark, I definitely recommend Project Wonderful over AdSense.
(2) Wed Nov 18 2009 19:28:
In the scant months I've subscribed to it, the arXiv blog has served up many interesting and possibly insane bits of scientific speculation. The longest paper it's caused me to read is Michael Dittmar's four-part "The Future of Nuclear Energy", the most recent part of which was published recently.
On the surface the paper is an overview of the state of nuclear power, but an interesting argument quickly forms that the world doesn't have much exploitable uranium left. Here's my summary of the main argument, with extraneous and historical information removed:
- Every estimate of how much uranium is available uses data from the IAEA "Red Book".
- The Red Book is not a scientific document. The data is self-reported by uranium-mining countries, and is given to an unrealistic degree of precision with no margin of error. There's no way to check it.
- Trends in the Red Book year-over-year indicate that certain countries are fudging their data, for instance by pumping up the huge "uranium reserves that probably exist" number. This number being the main underpinning of the claims that there's enough uranium to supply our cravings for nuclear-derived electricity for however many years.
- Even if the Red Book is accurate, "however many years" is not as long as it sounds, since nuclear power plants are built to amortize their cost over 40-60 years. And right now nuclear power only generates 15% of the world's electricity. If you want to double that, "however many years" gets cut in half, and you still haven't replaced fossil fuels.
- What about high tech like breeder reactors? According to Dittmar, there are only a couple commercial breeder reactors in operation and they don't really produce a net increase in radioactive material. It's more like regenerative braking in an electric car, where you get some of the energy back.
The technical problems with breeder reactors can theoretically be overcome with more research. (Dittmar has no hope for commercial fusion.) But, given the long development lead times and the fact that the necessary research isn't being funded right now, by the time they're commercially viable there won't be any tritium to run them on, because of the uranium problem. (Tritium can be generated in a conventional uranium-burning nuclear reactor, but very slowly--and it has a half-life of 12 years.)
I was intrigued by this analysis, because I always think a claim that some data set is wrong or has been misinterpreted is interesting. But because it's such a seductive narrative I also wanted to look at a high-quality response to Dittmar's claims. Any problems with the logic aside, there are a couple problems with Dittmar's presentation that give bad smells:
- Dittmar has an obvious bias against nuclear weapons, a bias that seems quite sensible to a civilian but which you should probably not write into your papers if you're trying to convince other nuclear scientists of something. Seriously, don't tell your readers to watch Dr. Strangelove. Anyone interested enough to read your paper has already seen it.
- Dittmar also believes that certain recovery techniques like reprocessing fuel rods for plutonium will inevitably drive proliferation of nuclear weapons. I've heard this argument before but I don't understand the physics of it, so I can't judge. Anyway, this really has nothing to do with his main argument, except insofar as he's attacking a pie-in-the-sky idea where the whole world uses nuclear energy for exclusively peaceful purposes.
- I don't think English is Dittmar's first language, because his grammar is not great. This is nothing that couldn't be fixed by an editor, but it makes his writing look crackpot-ish.
So I was on the market, and happy this morning when I saw that Paul Raven posted about Dittmar's paper on Futurismic today, and linked to this 2008 post on the Wall Street Journal environmental weblog. That weblog post dismisses contemporaneous "peak uranium" concerns by... citing the IAEA Red Book data. But the main point of Dittmar's paper is that the Red Book data is unreliable!
In desperation, I turned to the comment section on the original arXiv blog posting, hoping that there would at least be people arguing over the paper instead of just quoting the Red Book. Well, there was a lot of irrelevant arguing (fair enough, since there's a lot of irrelevant points in Dittmar's paper), but below is a rough classification of the relevant rebuttals:
- "Dittmar is an obnoxious jerk." This appears to be true, and it might also be relevant. "The data set you've been implicitly trusting for years doesn't look right" is the kind of argument that could give you a reputation as an obnoxious jerk, but it's also the kind of thing an obnoxious jerk would say just to make trouble.
- "Critiquing the Red Book data doesn't prove anything." Given that everyone who argues against peak uranium references a document that has its ultimate source in the Red Book data, it seems legitimate to critique that data. BUT, a critique only establishes that we don't know something. You can't build a positive argument on this.
- "There's lots of uranium we just haven't looked for yet." But any attempt at quantifying this means relying on Red Book data, which Dittmars claims makes things look too good. Also, getting the uranium into a reactor is a complicated process with a long lead time, which starts with looking for the damn uranium.
- "We won't run out of uranium, it'll just get more expensive." Sure, but any attempt at quantifying this means bringing in Red Book data. Part III of Dittmar's paper claims that the Red Book gives an incoherent estimate of the total cost of the world's uranium reserves. BUT, that just means the Red Book is wrong about the price classification. It doesn't make the incoherently-priced uranium nonexistent or infinitely expensive.
- "We don't have to get fissile material from the ground." Indeed, there are a lot of interesting things we could do to get more fissile material: decommissioning nuclear weapons, reprocessing uranium or fuel rods. But these things are accounted for in the Red Book and covered in Dittmar's paper. We're already doing all of those things to some extent, and the only one that gives significant material is decommissioned nukes (currently providing 25% of world uranium). We can ramp up these processes, but there's a long lead time.
OK, so after colliding thesis and antithesis in my Hegelian particle accelerator, I've come to the following tenative conclusions:
- The Red Book data is unreliable. It's based on self-reported data by interested parties. There's fudging and uranium reserves are priced in an incoherent way. For political reasons, the Red Book itself can't mention this fact. The same problem probably exists with, eg. reported estimates of coal reserves, but it's worse with uranium because 1) there's more geopolitical incentive to fudge, 2) the numbers are smaller because uranium is much scarcer than coal.
- This doesn't change the basic rules of natural resources. If uranium gets scarcer the price will go up and people will try to extract marginally recoverable uranium. This would be true even if the Red Book with its incoherent pricing didn't exist. We just don't have an accurate estimate of the prices.
- If the Red Book data is bad, you can't use it. As Daniel Davies says, "If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can't use their forecasts at all. Not even as a 'starting point'." By showing that the Red Book data is bad, you can drive demand for a better set of numbers. If you can prove that the numbers are systematically manipulated, you might be able to cancel the systematic error out, though you'll never know for sure. But you can't demonstrate that the numbers don't look right and then make recommendations based on what you think they really are.
- Breeder reactors are not as cool as I'd thought, and progress on them slower than I thought. This is where the "obnoxious jerk" factor comes in. It sounds like Dittmar has had the following conversation with other physicists:
"Even if you solve problem K, how are you going to solve X, Y, and Z to make your reactor capable of 90% uptime in a commercial setting?"
"Why do I have to solve X, Y, and Z? It's hard enough getting funding for K. Let someone else do it. You jerk."
The problem according to Dittmar is that these problems will get solved serially over the course of 30 years and then we'll spend 15 years building a power plant and by that time the tritium will have decayed. The timing here depends on the question of how much uranium there really is, but the general argument is that with more funding and more physicists we could solve X, Y, and Z in parallel with K.
- The big problem with any fissile-material-related "we'll be fine because of X" argument is lead time. It takes longer to get from uranium-in-the-ground to uranium-in-a-reactor than it takes to get from coal-in-the-ground to coal-in-a-furnace. It takes a long time to ramp up uranium reprocessing or any other exotic solution. It takes a long time to build a nuclear power plant or to get an experimental result to commercial viability.
So there's something here, but it doesn't seem like a bombshell. Basically, the Red Book numbers are inaccurate and vague in many different ways, but used in policy arguments as though they were very accurate, because they're the only game in town. It's possible the numbers are so far off the mark that there will be a uranium price shock in 2013, but it seems pretty unlikely.
I'm interested in hearing the opinions of those who know more about these topics.
Sun Nov 22 2009 11:06 Hey Kids, It's Wolvy!:
In case you didn't see on Sumana's weblog, our move is on hold for a couple months. But not before I packed half our stuff into boxes Hal got me from the comic book store. (The non-essential half, fortunately.)
One of the boxes used to contain Wolverine action figures, and there was a handwritten sticker on it saying "WOLVY ORIGINAL ACTION". The box has been sitting in the living room for days and I kept looking at that sticker. Wolvy original action! It was distracting, so I took the sticker off. A search shows that "Wolvy" is not a common way to refer to Wolverine; maybe it's comic book store slang.
Mon Nov 23 2009 19:53:
Sumana has been published in GNOME Journal. Check out her overview of the Telepathy project, cunningly titled "Telepathy Overview".
Tue Nov 24 2009 15:43 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1986/06:
A really interesting issue, despite the useless-in-isolation second part of Vernor Vinge's "Marooned in Realtime". First, there's Timothy "I'd Rather Be Writing Star Wars Tie-In Novels" Zahn, with an enjoyable space opera piece, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen". Geoffrey A. Landis has the funny "Stroboscope", in which a guy cryogenically freezes himself as a cheap way of time travel, but people keep waking him up and making him sign forms.
Those are the two stories from this issue that I thought were really good. But there's also "Bugs" by Christopher Anvil, an incredibly weird story about the mid-80s personal computer industry.
"Bugs" is like Anvil took one of those "if computers were cars" email forwards and turned it into a science fantasy story. In 1986. The ending is a disappointment and everything is a huge cliche, but I couldn't stop reading it. It's like the Hamlet of email forwards. Also, for whatever reason all the computer companies are named after animals: Sharke, Gnat, Barricuda, Cougar.
Misc.: Book review column praises Speaker for the Dead and Always Coming Home. G. Harry Stine's "Alternate View" column covers the history of the Kalashnikov, revealing an odd kind of faith in central planning:
One can hope the new Soviet avtomat Kalashnikova obr 1974 is a big hit and replaces the AKM. The AK74 is a scaled-down AKM firing a Soviet 5.45mm. round. The need to keep the smaller weapon well maintained may deter terrorists from using it...
(Sumana wants me to add that the 19th was the Kalashnikov's anniversary (?) and that The Colbert Report did a bit about it.)
Interesting ads are up in a gallery. Ad not pictured says that Arthur C. Clarke has "one of the world's most exciting and honored imaginations."
PS: Has anyone read "Twist Ending" by Barry Longyear? This issue has an ad that promises "a realm where the dinosaurs, after 70 million years, decide it is finally time to return to Earth."
 You can get away with a fair amount of magic when writing "hard" SF about computers. Much more than you could get away with when writing about spaceships or mining equipment.
(2) Thu Nov 26 2009 09:34:
Happy Thanksgiving! We already did Thanksgiving early this month, with Susanna in Salt Lake, 'cause we were going to be moving right now. But we're not moving, and all the vacation time I saved up for the move will be spent working on the novel and possibly on some Beautiful Soup updates. I'm on vacation more or less for the rest of the year. The downside is that there's no one in town to have a day-of Thanksgiving with but Sumana, who doesn't like having a fridge full of Thanksgiving food twice in the same month.
In that spirit, let me help you waste some time. Recently, through Jaime Weinman's weblog, Sumana and I discovered the YouTube channel of bobtwcatlanta, who's put up hours and hours of video: old commercials, which I thought would be kind of interesting, but which have paled in comparison to the amazingly engrossing intros to old TV shows. Sumana and I have spent a couple hours watching these intros and marveling at the crap that used to be on TV, and also at the surprising non-crap where we were expecting terribleness of a cosmic-microwave-background-like uniformity.
Occasionally we were so astounded (positively or negatively) by an intro that we wrote down the name of the show for later research. Now, I share this list with you. Although this list reads like Leonard's wacky list of fake TV shows, this is 100% stuff that was shown on real televisions. (Except, possibly, the last one.)
- "Gung Ho" (1986): Scott Bakula's first TV series, a nine-episode sitcom about lean manufacturing. Also starring Patti Yasutake for the ultimate Trek crossover. Of all the shows on this list, the one I have the most genuine interest in watching.
- "Charlie Hoover" (1991): "Wow, they're really going for a Sam Kinison feel on that imp from hell character, that's a little tasteless." "And Sam Kinison as the imp from hell!" "Okay..." It seems Sam Kinison didn't die until 1992. The non-Sam-Kinison actor, Tim Matheson, went on to play the vice-president on The West Wing, and I gotta say the show would have been a lot more interesting if the Sam Kinison imp from hell had been following him around.
- "The Home Front" (1991): An interesting-looking drama with a huge cast about the WWII home front. About as obscure as a 1991 major-network TV show from 1991 can be in 2009.
- "The People Next Door" (1989): Wes Craven is billed as creator of this Young Ones-lite surreal sitcom.
- "The Famous Teddy Z" (1989) looks like an OK dramedy about Hollywood, but Sumana and I were captivated because the star, Jon Cryer, looked exactly like our friend Stuart Sierra. We're talking an amazing resemblance. Jon Cryer now stars opposite Charlie Sheen on "Two and a Half Men" and only looks a little bit like Stuart Sierra.
- "Civil Wars" (1991): One of the most depressing TV shows ever, a lawyer drama about divorce court. The intro sets the scene by playing depressing dialogue ("He's a monster!" "If he's a monster, it's because you made him into one.") over grainy wedding footage. Stay tuned through the commercial break, folks! Amazingly, this lasted two full seasons.
- "Here's Boomer" (1980): This one you really gotta see. It's the second intro in that video; just sit through Pink Lady and Jeff. This is a saccharine show about a dog who solves people's problems. The only good thing about this show is that it's funny to imagine the sappy theme song playing over the scene in Battlestar Galactica where Boomer shoots Adama.
- "Lifestories" (1991): Some kind of medical drama that... I really don't know. If you only watch the visuals it looks totally generic, but Robert Prosky is credited as "the Storyteller", and here's what the Storyteller has to say in the intro:
There are dramas we can see, and others that mature, full of conflict and battles and tension, where we cannot: inside our bodies. Finally the two will intersect. That intersection is what this program is about. We are a mystery to ourselves, and nowhere more so than in our bodies.
There you go, now you know as much as I do. Except that I also know the show had Dwight Schultz in it.
- "Good Grief": This one made it into the list simply because watching the intro gave no information about the show. My best guess was that it was about a pro golfer who befriends the angel of death. I was kind of close: it's about the wacky employees of a funeral home. Not recommended.
- "Q.E.D." (1982): I'm just gonna quote the IMDB user summary: "The tales of Quentin E. Deverill, an eccentric expatriate American professor who uses his unique skills to solve mysteries in Edwardian London." Starring Sam Waterston. AWESOME.
- "No Soap, Radio" (1982): Another intro that gives no information about the show premise (they just put the camera on a roller coaster and showed that footage). However, it does give you enough information to stay away: "Starring Steve Guttenberg." IMDB says this five-episode wonder is about "The third-generation owner of a seedy hotel in Atlantic City." It took guts to name the show after a joke that's funny because it's not funny.
- "Bring 'Em Back Alive" (1982): Bruce Boxleitner is 1930s Steve Irwin! Not as awesome as it sounds.
- "Square Pegs" (1982): Sarah Jessica Parker's first TV show, a kind of proto-"Freaks and Geeks". The introduction is extremely well done.
- "The Devlin Connection" (1982): Someday I'll find it, the Devlin Connection. I did not expect to see a crime show starring Rock Hudson, but IMDB says this wasn't even the first crime show starring Rock Hudson. Not that interesting; we put it down because an extended Apple II sequence in the intro made us think Rock Hudson's character might have a sideline in computer programming, but no such luck.
- The New People (1969): All the excitement of "Lost", in the 1960s.
- We saw promos for the fall of 1969, and they were already using the moon footprint video as shorthand for "important news".
- Also in 1969, sketch comedy group The Committee had a TV show that doesn't show up on IMDB; maybe it never really aired.
Sun Nov 29 2009 20:17 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 1991/08:
Three "eh"s for the stories in this issue. Almost all of them were decent, but nothing stood out. The best stories were the last two, "A Long Time Dying" by Geoffrey A. Landis and "The Woman, the Pilot, the Raven" by Dean Whitlock. Proving how subjective this stuff is, there's an editorial at the beginning (not seen all that often in F&SF) where Kristine Kathryn Rusch talks about what a tough room she is.
The big unspoken theme this issue is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Specifically, not seeing it coming. The cover date is August 1991, the month of the hardline anti-Gorbechev coup that IMO was the point at which the USSR started seriously falling apart. But the magazine was surely in stores the previous month and had been put to bed months earlier. With that in mind, here's the intro to a Bruce Sterling story:
National news commentators looked tired by the middle of 1990. The Cold War had eased, the Soviet Block had released restrictions on its satellites and the world seemed a little warmer. Sometimes it seemed as if we had stepped into an alternate universe . . . at least until Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bruce Sterling's story, "The Unthinkable," returns to that place where the Cold War appears to have lost a bit of its edge -- in a true alternate universe, filled with its own demons and nightmares.
"The Unthinkable" is kind of a Lovecraft take on the nuclear arms race. No, not quite like "A Colder War." Although it's a pretty accurate prediction of 1992, modulo the magic, the story's introduction apologizes that it's not more topical!
Similarly, August 1991 was not a good time for Norman Spinrad to publish a novel called Russian Spring that projects the space race into the future. From Amazon reviews it seems his biggest predictive blunder was saying "Soviet Union" instead of "Russian Federation", but it's a little sad to read Orson Scott Card saying that Russian Spring is "almost certain to be the book of the year" given that the book looked obsolete before the year was out. Here's the F&SF review from Orson Scott Card's website site if you want to read it. I'll just quote the most poignant part of the review:
Current events will catch up with him, but not as quickly as you might expect: For instance, there's no mention of the Gulf War in Russian Spring, and indeed, the novel might have been written entirely before that war took place -- and yet the Gulf War is exactly the kind of thing that Spinrad's future America could do, and if we let our euphoria at victory lead us to become global bullies, his vision of a morally and economically bankrupt America may be far more accurate than any of us would wish.
There are a couple more minor things I could mention but I'll close by highlighting an ad from the classifieds:
ALIENS PROGRAM IBM PC Games. Nifty demo disk [5.25 or 3.5] $2.00. Tommy's Toys, Box 11261, Denver, CO 80211.
I vaguely remember this from BBS days; this guy had a shareware company and his schtick was that he was so prolific because he was a space alien. In actuality, as he now admits on his website, he was just using QuickBasic to make cheap games. Now he's a novelist, with such titles under his belt as "Baby Boomer Morticians", "Space Reachers 2999", and "Salvation Day: The Immortality Device." Not an Unwinder's Tall Comics character, folks, a real person.
Mon Nov 30 2009 23:08 Beautiful Soup 3.0.8:
I bet you didn't expect a Beautiful Soup release (unless you saw the foreshadowing a couple days earlier). But Aaron DeVore made a bunch of improvements, and 3.0.x is still the branch you'd use if you had a choice, and I decided to spend a few hours applying patches and writing unit tests, and there you go.
I've come up with a Linux kernel-like system where 3.1.x is retconned into the 'development' branch. Hopefully sometime on this vacation I'll decide to finish the 'development' work and release a Beautiful Soup version 4 that everyone can use.
Here's the direct download.
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