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Oh Hugo Awards, where have you gone?

I follow the Hugo awards closely, and 20 years ago published the 1993 Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was probably the largest anthology of currently released fiction ever published at the time.

The Hugo awards are voted by around 1,000 fans who attend the World SF Convention, so they have their biases, but over time almost all the greats have been recognized. In addition, until the year 2000, in the best novel Hugo, considered the most important, the winner was always science fiction, not fantasy even though both and more were eligible. That shifted, and from 2001 to 2012, there have been 6 Fantasy winners, one Alternate History, and 5+1 SF. (2010 featured a tie between bad-science SF in the Windup Girl and genre-bending political science fiction in The City & The City.)

That’s not the only change to concern me. A few times my own pick for the best has not even been nominated. While that obviously shows a shift between my taste and the rest of the fans, I think I can point to reasons why it’s not just that.

The 2013 nominees I find not particularly inspiring. And to me, that’s not a good sign. I believe that the Hugo award winning novel should say to history, “This is an example of the best that our era could produce.” If it’s not such an example, I think “No Award” should win. (No Award is a candidate on each ballot, but it never comes remotely close to winning, and hasn’t ever for novels. In the 70s, it deservedly won a few times for movies. SF movies in the mid and early 70s were largely dreck.)

What is great SF? I’ve written on it before, but here’s an improvement of my definition. Great SF should change how you see the future/science/technology. Indeed, perhaps all great literature should change how you view the thing that is the subject matter of the literature, be it love, suffering, politics or anything else. That’s one reason why I have the preference for SF over Fantasy in this award. Fantasy has a much harder time attaining that goal.

I should note that I consider these books below as worth reading. My criticism is around whether they meet the standard for greatness that a Hugo candidate should have.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is the best of the bunch, and it does an interesting exploration into the relationship of human and AI, and as in all of Stan’s fiction, the environment. His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder. The setup is great but the pace is as glacial as the slowly rolling city and the result is good, but not at the level of greatness I require here.  read more »

Oliver Kuttner on Very-Light-Car

Last year, I met Oliver Kuttner, who led the team to win the Progressive X-Prize to build the most efficient and practical car over 100mpg. Oliver’s Edison2 team won with the VLC (Very Light Car) and surprised everybody by doing it with a liquid fuel engine. There was a huge expectation that an electric car would win the prize, and in fact the rules had been laid out to almost assure it, granting electric cars an advantage over gasoline that I thought was not appropriate.

The Edison2 team made their focus on weight, though they far from ignored drag. Everybody made an aerodynamic car, but what they realized was that making the car light was key. And batteries are heavy, heavier than efficient liquid fuel engines. Hybrid systems, with both batteries and two motors are even heavier than what they built. They also developed a new type of suspension which was much lighter and allowed a simpler car.

Since the X prize, they have built electric cars as well — their techniques still work there, even if that’s not where they found the greatest X-prize results — and recently showed of their latest 1,400lb model which seats 4. (Though I can’t say I think it’s comfortable with 4.) Equally impressive, Oliver reports they have done succesful forward offset collision tests, and done well at them, contradicting a popular impression that small, light cars must be death traps on the road.

This bodes well for robocars. As I wrote 2 weeks ago, I think the small, light car is the future of transportation if we want it to be efficient, and the robocar can, by delivering such vehicles for people making shorter solo or 2 person trips — ie. the vast majority of all trips — make this happen.

Earlier, I brought Oliver in to give a talk at Google in the Greeen@Google series. Here is a video where I host him describing the car and their thinking around it. His thinking on cars is fresh and while it’s very challenging to start a new car company, here’s somebody who might just do it.

We’ve often said that in the most distant future, when car accidents are very rare, we will be able to make our cars lighter because over 30% of the weight of a modern vehicle goes into safety features. I think we can get those light vehicles even sooner.

A Bitcoin Analogy

Bitcoin is having its first “15 minutes” with the recent bubble and crash, but Bitcoin is pretty hard to understand, so I’ve produced this analogy to give people a deeper understanding of what’s going on.

It begins with a group of folks who take a different view on several attributes of conventional “fiat” money. It’s not backed by any physical commodity, just faith in the government and central bank which issues it. In fact, it’s really backed by the fact that other people believe it’s valuable, and you can trade reliably with them using it. You can’t go to the US treasury with your dollars and get very much directly, though you must pay your US tax bill with them. If a “fiat” currency faces trouble, you are depending on the strength of the backing government to do “stuff” to prevent that collapse. Central banks in turn get a lot of control over the currency, and in particular they can print more of it any time they think the market will stomach such printing — and sometimes even when it can’t — and they can regulate commerce and invade privacy on large transactions. Their ability to set interest rates and print more money is both a bug (that has sometimes caused horrible inflation) and a feature, as that inflation can be brought under control and deflation can be prevented.

The creators of Bitcoin wanted to build a system without many of these flaws of fiat money, without central control, without anybody who could control the currency or print it as they wish. They wanted an anonymous, privacy protecting currency. In addition, they knew an open digital currency would be very efficient, with transactions costing effectively nothing — which is a pretty big deal when you see Visa and Mastercard able to sustain taking 2% of transactions, and banks taking a smaller but still real cut.

With those goals in mind, they considered the fact that even the fiat currencies largely have value because everybody agrees they have value, and the value of the government backing is at the very least, debatable. They suggested that one might make a currency whose only value came from that group consensus and its useful technical features. That’s still a very debatable topic, but for now there are enough people willing to support it that the experiment is underway. Most are aware there is considerable risk.

Update: I’ve grown less fond of this analogy and am working up a superior one, closer to the reality but still easy to understand.

Wordcoin

Bitcoins — the digital money that has value only because enough people agree it does — are themselves just very large special numbers. To explain this I am going to lay out an imperfect analogy using words and describe “wordcoin” as it might exist in the pre-computer era. The goal is to help the less technical understand some of the mechanisms of a digital crypto-based currency, and thus be better able to join the debate about them.  read more »

We Robot Robot Law Conference and Robot Block Party

It’s National Robotics Week, and various events are going on — probably some in your area.

Today and Tomorrow I am at the We Robot conference at Stanford, where people are presenting papers puzzling over how robots and the law will interact. Not enough technology folks at this iteration of the conference — we have a natural aversion to this sometimes — but because we’re building big moving things that could run into people, the law has to be understood.

On Wednesday is the Robot Block Party, also at Stanford, and always fun, with stuff for kids.

Thursday has the xconomy robot conference which looks good though I probably won’t be there.

After the Phoenix APM event on the 21st I will be at Asilomar attending two conferences simultaneously. One is MLove, where I will join a session on connected cars. In a strange coincidence, MLove is located at the same conference center as another invite-only conference I attend annually for old-time (and new-time) microprocessor hackers. The odd thing was that normally when I get an invite that conflicts with a conference I am at, I have to say no — but if they are nice enough to do it at the same conference center on the same days, things can change. Both conferences are lots of fun, and it’s actually annoying to have them overlap since I would like to go to most of both of them.

A few Singularity U events are coming up, but most are sold out are invite-only in the coming month.

The Personal Cloud and Data Deposit Box

Last night I gave a short talk at the 3rd “Personal Clouds” meeting in San Francisco, The term “personal clouds” is a bit vague at present, but in part it describes what I had proposed in 2008 as the “data deposit box” — a means to acheive the various benefits of corporate-hosted cloud applications in computing space owned and controlled by the user. Other people are interpreting the phrase “personal clouds” to mean mechanisms for the user to host, control or monetize their own data, to control their relationships with vendors and others who will use that data, or in the simplest form, some people are using it to refer to personal resources hosted in the cloud, such as cloud disk drive services like Dropbox.

I continue to focus on the vision of providing the advantages of cloud applications closer to the user, bringing the code to the data (as was the case in the PC era) rather than bringing the data to the code (as is now the norm in cloud applications.)

Consider the many advantages of cloud applications for the developer:

  • You write and maintain your code on machines you build, configure and maintain.
    • That means none of the immense support headaches of trying to write software to run on mulitple OSs, with many versions and thousands of variations. (Instead you do have to deal with all the browsers but that’s easier.)
    • It also means you control the uptime and speed
    • Users are never running old versions of your code and facing upgrade problems
    • You can debug, monitor, log and fix all problems with access to the real data
  • You can sell the product as a service, either getting continuing revenue or advertising revenue
  • You can remove features, shut down products
  • You can control how people use the product and even what steps they may take to modify it or add plug-ins or 3rd party mods
  • You can combine data from many users to make compelling applications, particuarly in the social space
  • You can track many aspects of single and multiple user behaviour to customize services and optimize advertising, learning as you go

Some of those are disadvantages for the user of course, who has given up control. And there is one big disadvantage for the provider, namely they have to pay for all the computing resources, and that doesn’t scale — 10x users can mean paying 10x as much for computing, especially if the cloud apps run on top of a lower level cloud cluster which is sold by the minute.

But users see advantages too:  read more »

Speaking on Personal Clouds in SF, and Robocars in Phoenix

Two upcoming talks:

Tomorrow (April 4) I will give a very short talk at the meeting of the personal clouds interest group. As far as I know, I was among the first to propose the concept of the personal cloud in my essages on the Data Deposit Box back in 2007, and while my essays are not the reason for it, the idea is gaining some traction now as more and more people think about the consequences of moving everything into the corporate clouds.

My lighting talk will cover what I see as the challenges to get the public to accept a system where the computing resources are responsible to them rather than to various web sites.

On April 22, I will be at the 14th International Conference on Automated People Movers and Automated Transit speaking in the opening plenary. The APM industry is a large, multi-billion dollar one, and it’s in for a shakeup thanks to robocars, which will allow automated people moving on plain concrete, with no need for dedicated right-of-way or guideways. APMs have traditionally been very high-end projects, costing hundreds of millions of dollars per mile.

The best place to find me otherwise is at Singularity University Events. While schedules are being worked on, with luck you see me this year in Denmark, Hungary and a few other places overseas, in addition to here in Silicon Valley of course.