Archive for August, 2014

Science Fiction Round 35: Fuzzy Nation

2014/08/30 Leave a comment

They are, in fact, fuzzy.

Fuzzy Nation is another book by John Scalzi (who also wrote Redshirts), and it revolves around the corporate exploitation of planetary resources.

Of course, there are complications.

The cover isn't bad, although that's not how the Fuzzies looked in my head.

The cover isn’t bad, although that’s not how the Fuzzies looked in my head.

Read more…


Superheroes Round 14: Spider-reboot 2

2014/08/23 1 comment

They just keep on making these things.  And, well, you know, I was on an airplane.

I might not have watched this otherwise, given that Spiderman 2 is a sequel of a reboot…

… Wait, so is Star Trek (sort of).

Eh, whatever. Which is roughly my opinion of the movie.

Yes, this character does show up in the movie.  But can't we come up with better titles than "Movie Title 2"?

Yes, this character does show up in the movie. But can’t we come up with better titles than “Movie Title 2”?

Read more…

Science Sidebar 3: Relearning A Little Geology

2014/08/18 Leave a comment

Once again, stuff that missed the cut for the paper.

I discuss some geology stuffs.  That links to the article that I originally read, but I’ll be discussing a little of the general background, too.  Those of you on the west coast may find this particularly interesting… or boring, since you’re also likely to have heard it a thousand times before.

This is Mount St. Helens in 1982, after the big eruption.  (Shamelessly borrowed from Wikipedia.) Also, in a bout of tremendous false advertising, it is only tangentially relevant to the post at hand.

This is Mount St. Helens in 1982, after the big eruption. (Shamelessly borrowed from Wikipedia.)
Also, in a bout of tremendous false advertising, it is only tangentially relevant to the post at hand.


Surprise!  The west coast of the US is prone to earthquakes.

We can blame plate tectonics for that.  The surface of the Earth is like a big jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t quite fit.  Floating on top of the more-liquid mantle, they slowly slip past, under or over or into each other.  Except, sometimes, they get stuck, and then move in sudden spurts when the pressure gets to be too high.

That’s the rough explanation for how earthquakes happen.

On the US West Coast, there are three tectonic plates that are relevant.  The first is the North American plate, which includes very nearly all of North America, including Mexico, Greenland, and parts of Russia and Japan.  The second is the aptly named Pacific plate, which covers — shockingly — much of the Pacific Ocean.  Those two border each other along a large fraction of the famed Ring of Fire, but there is one much smaller plate, the Juan de Fuca plate, which is nestled between them along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California a little bit further south than Eureka.  (And a bit of southern Canada, we can’t forget them.)

The North American and Pacific plates are sliding past each other (mostly) on the West Coast, but the Juan de Fuca plate is actually moving apart from the Pacific one, and sliding underneath the North American one.  The result is…


And wow, volcanism.

Off the coast, Juan de Fuca sinks beneath the North American plate.  Deep underground, beneath the Cascade Mountains, the place eventually sinks away, ground up and melted into the Earth’s mantle.  While that happens, some of the material melts, and, being a lower density, rises up.  This forms mountains and powers a certain amount of volcanism — hence, Mount St. Helens.

For bonus points, the fault is large enough that when it slips it can cause very large earthquakes, although there have not been any truly massive quakes recently.  There was a large (~9) earthquake in 1700.  There was a big tsunami in Japan as a result.  The most recent earthquake I remember that was significant was around a 6.0 near Seattle.  (Now, remember that this is in the newer moment magnitude scale, instead of the old Richter magnitude scale, but yes, it’s logarithmic.)

But Is The Big One Going To Knock My House Down?

Don’t ask me.

The main point of the article I linked above is that the expert geologists and seismologists and geophysicists and paleoseismologists (and all appropriate variants thereof) are still working out the details.

The ongoing discussion is about how often earthquakes occurred in the past, over the last 10,000 years or so ago.  Scientists can estimate this by looking for sediment or rock layers deep in the ocean which show signs of having been disturbed by earthquakes.  This lets them estimate the frequency of large earthquakes in the area, and use that information to forecast how likely earthquakes are to occur in a given period in the future.

However, there are complications that depend on when the samples of the sea floor — called cores — were taken from the ocean, where they were taken, how well those positions are known, and how well understood the particular kinds of turbidite are.  In short, the jury is still out, and the science is ongoing.

So, depending on who you ask, the odds of another 9.0 quake happening along the Juan de Fuca subduction zone in the next fifty years is somewhere between 10 and 40 percent.

For bonus points, there’s some evidence that a large earthquake, particularly one that affects the southern part of the Juan de Fuca plate, could trigger a major earthquake along the northern part of the San Andreas fault a couple of decades later.  (Maybe.)

In short: earthquake preparedness, people.

Science Fiction Round 33: A Book Too Horrible To Finish

2014/08/11 1 comment

Yes, we’ve officially found a novel that was too frustrating to keep reading.

And thus, I gave up, some time before page 100.

The book is Cybernetic Samurai, by Victor Milán, published in 1985.

And that has committed some terrible sins.  It may be submitted for ritual recycling after I’m done writing this review.

Did You Actually Research Japan?

I am bothered by a lot of the references to Japanese culture that show up in this book.  Much of it seems to treat Japanese people like inhuman space aliens rather than just people with a different cultural background.  How often is a real Japanese person constantly thinking that Americans are blunt and un-subtle?  Or heard supporting the idea that the Japanese should be considered a separate species from the rest of Homo sapiens?

Even more distressingly, bushido is treated as the ultimate morality and the best way to do things.  Even when its precepts have many issues — such as the ritual suicide part.  And the classism aspects.

Radiation Poisoning Does Not Work That Way

The story is set following a World War III scenario, which sees major US cities getting nuked.

One major character has, as a part of her backstory, visited a city shortly after said nuking, to look for her partner.  (Said partner is very dead.)

As part of the description of the attach, it’s stated that this was a ground bombing, which causes less damage on the ground.  And that, and I quote, “Air bursts produced no fallout to speak of.”

Which is mostly true.  It depends on other details, like wind patterns, and just how high up you are, and so forth, but it’s basically because the nastier radiation in the fireball doesn’t get blasted around in dust from the ground.

On the other hand… it’s stated that the character “somehow” survived the radiation exposure from her visit, even though she was expected to die due to having been massively exposed (note: not always fatal, but at the high doses, it is; and either way, you need meds) and then not given any treatment due to being expected to die.  And is, later on, suffering bizarre symptoms that don’t match up with anything I’m familiar with, handwaved by the character having some different genetic quirk or… something.

Um, no.  Just no.

Machine Learning Does Not Work That Way Either

I was really hopeful about the clever little AI’s story.

And yet… it falls apart so completely, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The initial idea sounds a lot like machine learning.  Set up a program, have a computer change it regularly in a particular, perhaps random, way until the program does something like what you want it to do.  Seeing that as a setup for making an intelligent thing?  Okay, sure, I can buy that.

But there are several problems.  First, there are already very high level artificial intelligences in this setting.  They are intelligent and adaptable.

The only quality that they are stated to lack which separates them from human beings is initiative.  Which is defined as the ability to do something without being prompted by an external stimulus.

Think about that for a moment.  How many things that you do don’t have an external stimulus starting them at some point?  I like baking cookies, but I took in a lot of pro-cookie culture as a child, and also like to eat them when prompted by hunger or delicious smells.  I like daydreaming about stories, but I’ve been previously exposed to the idea that daydreaming is a thing and have read or heard lots and lots of stories.

Tokugawa (the AI) is determined to be sentient when it acts of its own volition to stop an annoying input data stream.

That isn’t a response to an external stimulus?

Now, I may be misunderstanding things, and perhaps the author was actually trying to go for something more akin to free will.  Okay; so, what happens if you take your lesser AI, and make some small modifications so that they can do things for which they have not been given orders?  How is Tokugawa that different from the prior generation?

Third, they start with, essentially, a child of an AI which needs to learn things.  This is fine, and makes a certain kind of sense.  Any good AI should be able to learn and adapt.

Except they’re teaching it by having it experience simulations of life in feudal Japan.  What?

Look, it’s an AI.  You don’t have to try to turn it into Data (yes, I know there was no Data when the story was written).  Why not have it interact with real people, in real time?  You know, like how most humans learn about people?

And, last but not least: AI.  It’s an artificial intelligence.  Cybernetics is something else, usually taken in the context of scifi to be the melding of man and machine… which may involve AI, but is not AI alone.

Maybe that changes by the end of the story, but I’m not going to look to find out.