Just Another Day #goodbyeEureka – thank you, @SyFy

Eureka, the scifi show on Syfy about a crazy town full of geniuses, has ended. They gave us 5 great seasons and I am grateful to Syfy for allowing them to produce the “series finale” episode as a send-off to all the characters, something that Stargate: Universe never did get.

The best thing about Eureka wasn’t the science fiction or the high concept. It was teh characters – they had more heart and were more authentic than most scifi shows. Firefly was full of wisecrackin’ badasses, but the only person who really was genuine was Kaylee; Eureka had an entire cast full of Kaylees. Stargate Universe was character driven but was more about the high-concept of true exploration of the Unknown, and it did that brilliantly, but the appeal was different. You can’t compare Eureka to SGU in that way. In fact, if anything, the template for Eureka was The Cosby Show, which served to inform mainstream America that here was an upper-class African American family, with the same dreams and problems as everyone else. Eureka took that template and applied it to Science and scientists, normalizing them the same way. The only way you do that is with a cast of genuinely interesting people, with an authenticity to the chemistry and camraderie that clearly isn’t limited to the screen.

Regardless of why it was great, it’s over, and though of course I have my usual issues about the broken model of television and cable and the perverse incentives that seem to bury the shows I want to watch while rewarding the ones I don’t, I can accept it. Eureka and Farscape and SGU still exist, I did watch them, and I loved them. And I can recommend them to others here on my blog in the hope that others will be enriched by them as I was.

Guide to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Mark has posted what must surely be the definitive overview and guide to the Vorkosigan Saga. If you’ve any interest in reading these books, start with Mark’s post.

For myself, I snagged Warrior’s Apprentice and Mountains of Mourning from the Baen Library. I’ll probably get around to the rest eventually – I’m less interested in Cordelia’s story than Miles’ exploits though. At any rate, figuring out where to start and what to skip just got a LOT easier thanks to Mark’s due diligence.

forget Obamacare and SCOTUS: it’s Tau day! it’s Back to the Future Day!

So, apparently there was this big hoo-hah today about some political thing or the other. But the real significance of today is this:

Back to the Future.. but the Future is NOW!

That’s right – today is the day that Doc set as the Future in the first Back to the Future movie!

UPDATE: No, it wasn’t. Three years too early. Sigh.

What’s more, today is also June 28, or “6/28” – which means it is Tau Day! What is tau, you ask? It’s the true circle constant (6.28), unlike that upstart Pi. For more details on the primacy of Tau and the centuries-old conspiracy that is Pi, see the Tau Manifesto, though really I think this image says it all:

Tau is one turn

and here’s a snappy little music video too:

so, enjoy today, a most historic and important day! And don’t worry/gloat too much about that other thing. It’s really not as important as this.

Game of Clones: online streaming is killing quality TV

Online video services are broken. Consider the case of Eureka, a fantastic science fiction show about a silly town full of super scientists, which is being canceled like most quality SF because it could never find an audience on broadcast TV. If you want to watch Eureka online, you’re in semi-luck, it’s on Hulu (Plus). However, there’s a catch:

For Syfy scripted television, the first four episodes of every season will be made available online the day after they air. Every episode after the initial four will be available 30 days after air.

5 episodes will be available at a time.

This is an entirely arbitrary limitation that means that I won’t be watching Eureka even though it’s online for at least a month – a month in which newer shows might come along and eat into my limited availability for watching new and exciting television – like Game of Thrones. This, in a nutshell, is why online streaming is no saviour of quality television: because the content is still slaved to broadcast economics. And for the purposes of this discussion, anything on basic cable might as well be broadcast TV. Unless we get true a la carte pricing on cable (which will never happen), this will always remain true.

Erik at Forbes wrote a deservedly widely-linked piece lambasting HBO for refusing to make GoT available outside a premium subscription, pointing out that the restriction has only encouraged rampant piracy. Later, Erik called for HBO to at least allow folks to subscribe to HBO Go as a standalone service, only to later realize that this is untenable from HBO’s perspective due to their business model. In a nutshell, piracy isn’t a threat to HBO’s ability to create quality TV programming – online video services, however, are a mortal threat, especially “cord cutting” (as an excellent rebuttal by Trevor Gilbert at Pando Daily also made quite clear). It’s also worth reading HBO co-president Eric Kesseler’s thoughts on the matter.

The problem is that quality TV is expensive. Great shows like Awake, Terra Nova, and Eureka are all lost, while nonsense like Lost gets renewed for a milion years and people actually were fooled into thinking that’s good television. Once in a while you get something great like Battlestar Galactica that survives barely long enough to tell a story in depth and in full, but these are rare events built on the fertile ground of corpses of superior concepts like Farscape and Firefly.

The rush to the web means that most content companies are reactionary – they grudgingly put the shows online, but they do it half-assed (as in Syfy’s case with Eureka) with inane restrictions that hamper building a viral audience. Netflix doesn’t have any current television at all, the only game in town is Hulu or buying videos from Amazon or iTunes, which rapidly makes even the expense of cable television seem like a bargain. The end result is that the video go online (at significant engineering and overhead cost) but they fail to generate any viral interest – and cannibalize broadcast views, which hurts ratings.

Yes, Nielsen supposedly does count DVR views towards ratings now, but it’s doubtful that’s equally weighted as a faithful viewer sitting down at the annointed timeslot. But even using a DVR is like flying the space shuttle compared to ease-of-use of online, given that every device in your family room has an internet connection now: Wii, XBox, Playstation, smart TV, Roku, Apple TV. All of these support Hulu and/or Netflix or both and most support Amazon video. DVRs are dinosaurs in comparison.

But if DVRs are not counted as equal to a traditional view, then surely Hulu etc is even less. It’s trivial to ignore ads on Hulu by opening a new window and checking your email, or laying the iPad aside and goofing off with your phone for 30 sec. Hulu is very helpful in even giving you a countdown for how much commercial remains.

No matter how you argue yourself an an exception to the rule, it’s a no-brainer that online viewing of television means less ads, less engaged consumers, and lower ratings. And that hurts good TV across the board. It’s harder to persuade a studio to take a risk on a new concept because they know that even if it’s good, they can’t sell as many ads as they used to so the cost-benefit calculation is going to be worse than it was a few years ago, and will get worse further still ahead.

There’s only one alternative for quality television, outside the Clone ARmy of online streaming services, and that is premium television. If SyFy were a premium channel we would be watching Firefly season 5 by now. As long as we circle around the drain of online streaming we are going to see fewer and fewer shows outside that paywall worth watching, and the few that do make it will be short-lived. The cancellation of Awake really burns in this regard – a show that had an incredible idea but just didn’t have the time to mature. Look at the difference between Encounter at Farpoint and Yesterday’s Enterprise or The Offspring, for example. We don’t get to see that kind of maturation anymore because teh economics of ratings has driven it into the ground, and online streaming is the bloody shovel.

The techsphere is all agog over everything mobile, streaming, real-time, immediate gratification, and cheap. But that’s a formula for dren rather than quality. This is why we can’t have nice things.

whither science fiction as a genre?

There’s been a lot of intropspection about science fiction by science fiction authors recently. It started with Elizabeth Bear’s essay in Clarkesworld, titled “Dear Speculative Fiction: I’m Glad We Had This Talk“, where she personifies sci-fi as a genre into a goth teenager, accusing it of the attitude that “nothing fun can have value; that only grimdark portentousness and dystopia mean anything.” Abi Sutherland had a follow-up in the same vein, where he advises a now-sobbing adolescent Science Fiction (or, “Fic”) to stop “acting like an outsider hoping to join a high school clique” and to “stop mistaking darkness for value.”

To be honest, I don’t really agree with the critique. Admittedly, I am way behind on the Hugo nominated books, but what I do is religiously follow the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Dozois, and as far as I can tell the range of science fiction (at least in short story form) is as wide as ever. I am something of a short-story zealot however – to me it is the purest form of SF.

Meanwhile, Charlie Stross sounds the alarm over the vitality of the genre as a whole, pointing to ebooks as the culprit. I’ll excerpt the main part of his argument:

I am not sure it is possible to write introspective, complex SF as a screen medium. The natural length of a feature movie is around 120 minutes; the traditional movie script runs at one page per minute, with 250 words per page—that buys you, in literary terms, a novella. Add in the expectations of studio executives and the dumbing-down effects of editing by committee you end up with huge pressure to make the script commercial rather than complex. Some director/scriptwriters have the clout to get what they want: but then you end up, as often as now, with George Lucas. Nor is there much scope for a dialog in which directors build on someone else’s ideas. So a large chunk of cinematic SF is stuck, spinning its wheels, mistaking ever better special effects and ever bigger first weekend box-office draws for progress.

Written SF harbours a much more complex ecosystem in part because the works are potentially bigger (big enough to encompass big ideas) and in part because it’s still, to some extent, ghettoised.

Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with “Rule 34”: do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category?

Stross says this problem is unrelated to the issue being discussed by Bear and Sutherland, but it strikes me as quite related indeed – science fiction novelists seems to be chasing after literary validation, in part to escape that genre ghetto and in part to broaden it. Meanwhile, the sub-field of short story sci-fi seems to be weathering the transition to e-formats well – Asimov’s is ridiculously affordable, though there are complaints about formatting. And of course teh aforementioned compilations are great value for cream-of-the-crop – Dozois will release volume 29 this year which is an astounding milestone in and of itself – and the year retrospective he writes about the entire field is worth the price alone. I wonder how many other science fiction authors read it?

Debating Dyson spheres

a wonderfully geeky debate is unfolding about the practicality of Dyson Spheres. Or rather, a subset type called a Dyson Swarm. George Dvorsky begins by breaking the problem down into 5 steps:

  1. Get energy
  2. Mine Mercury
  3. Get materials into orbit
  4. Make solar collectors
  5. Extract energy

The idea is to build the entire swarm in iterative steps and not all at once. We would only need to build a small section of the Dyson sphere to provide the energy requirements for the rest of the project. Thus, construction efficiency will increase over time as the project progresses. “We could do it now,” says Armstrong. It’s just a question of materials and automation.

Alex Knapp takes issue with the idea that step 1 could provide enough energy to execute step 2, with an assist from an astronomer:

“Dismantling Mercury, just to start, will take 2 x 10^30 Joules, or an amount of energy 100 billion times the US annual energy consumption,” he said. “[Dvorsky] kinda glosses over that point. And how long until his solar collectors gather that much energy back, and we’re in the black?”

I did the math to figure that out. Dvorsky’s assumption is that the first stage of the Dyson Sphere will consist of one square kilometer, with the solar collectors operating at about 1/3 efficiency – meaning that 1/3 of the energy it collects from the Sun can be turned into useful work.

At one AU – which is the distance of the orbit of the Earth, the Sun emits 1.4 x 10^3 J/sec per square meter. That’s 1.4 x 10^9 J/sec per square kilometer. At one-third efficiency, that’s 4.67 x 10^8 J/sec for the entire Dyson sphere. That sounds like a lot, right? But here’s the thing – if you work it out, it will take 4.28 x 10^28 seconds for the solar collectors to obtain the energy needed to dismantle Mercury.

That’s about 120 trillion years.

I’m not sure that this is correct. From the way I understood Dvorsky’s argument, the five steps are iterative, not linear. In other words, the first solar panel wouldn’t need to collect *all* the energy to dismantle Mercury, but rather as more panels are built their increased surface area would help fund the energy of future mining and construction.

However, the numbers don’t quite add up. Here’s my code in SpeQ:


sun = 1.4e9 W/km2
sun = 1.4 GW/km²

AU = 149597870.700 km
AU = 149.5978707 Gm

' surface of dyson sphere
areaDyson = 4*Pi*(AU^2)
areaDyson = 281229.379159805 Gm²

areaDyson2 = 6.9e13 km2
areaDyson2 = 69 Gm²

' solar power efficiency
eff = 0.3
eff = 0.3

' energy absorbed W
energy = sun*areaDyson2*eff
energy = 28.98 ZW

'total energy to dismantle mercury (J)
totE = 2e30 J
totE = 2e6 YJ

' time to dismantle mercury (sec)
tt = totE / energy
tt = 69.013112491 Ms

AddUnit(Years, 3600*24*365 seconds)
Unit Years created

' years
Convert(tt, Years)
Ans = 2.188391441 Years

So, I am getting 2.9 x 10^22 W, not 4.67 x 10^8 as Knapp does. So instead of 120 trillion years, it only takes 2.2 years to get the power we need to dismantle Mercury.

Of course with the incremental approach of iteration you don’t have access to all of that energy at once. But it certainly seems feasible in principle – the engineering issues however are really the show stopper. I don’t see any of this happening until we are actually able to travel around teh solar system using something other than chemical reactions for thrust. Let’s focus on building a real VASIMIR drive first, rather than counting our dyson spheres before they hatch.

Incidentally, Dvorsky points to this lecture titled “von Neumann probes, Dyson spheres, exploratory engineering and the Fermi paradox” by Oxford physicist Stuart Armstrong for the initial idea. It’s worth watching:

UPDATE: Stuart Armstrong himself replies to Knapp’s comment thread:

My suggestion was never a practical idea for solving current energy problems – it was connected with the Fermi Paradox, showing how little effort would be required on a cosmic scale to start colonizing the entire universe.
[…]
Even though it’s not short term practical, the plan isn’t fanciful. Solar power is about 3.8×10^26 Watts. The gravitational binding energy of Mercury is about 1.80 ×10^30 Joules, so if we go at about 1/3 efficiency, it would take about 5 hours to take Mercury apart from scratch. And there is enough material in Mercury to dyson nearly the whole sun (using a Dyson swarm, rather than a rigid sphere), in Mercury orbit (moving it up to Earth orbit would be pointless).

So the questions are:

1) Can we get the whole process started in the first place? (not yet)

2) Can we automate the whole process? (not yet)

3) And can we automate the whole process well enough to get a proper feedback loop (where the solar captors we build send their energy to Mercury to continue the mining that builds more solar captors, etc…)? (maybe not possible)

If we get that feedback loop, then exponential growth will allow us to disassemble Mercury in pretty trivial amounts of time. If not, it will take considerably longer.

free books kindle my interest most

With my new Kindle, I’ve resolved to read a. more science fiction and b. spend as close to zero money on books as as possible (exceptions being books my wife or kids want to read). This does limit the options, of course, but since I have a lot of other things on my plate (including anime, which gets short shrift on this anime blog). In addition to Amazon’s awesome Lending Library program (for which authors are reimbursed), free ebook lending from local libraries (as long as you dont mind a long wait), and Project Gutenberg, I was also pointed to an amazing resource: the Baen Free Library, which offers numerous science fiction classics with no DRM. Of course as far as series are concerned they tend to offer the first few books only, and if you like it then you can and should go out and buy the rest. But it’s a great way to sample a lot of SF with no investment other than time.

And lo and behold, Lois McMaster Bujold is on the list – with the first two books of the Vorkosigan saga. I’ve already torn through Warrior’s Apprentice and will polish off Mountains of Mourning on my elliptical this afternoon. All credit for the tipoff goes to Mark who has been steadily consuming the entire Vor saga. I find the character of Miles to be very evocative of Ender Wiggins in a few ways, and I wonder if Bujold was a direct influence on Card.

It’s worth noting that Baen also sells books, and any ebook you buy from them is DRM-free (unlike Amazon). Tor Books is also following suit. In general, ebooks remain priced too high for casual buying but the trend away from DRM is very encouraging. I personally believe that reading a friend’s copy of a DRM-free ebook is the same as borrowing their physical copy.

If anyone has any other suggestions on worthwhile reading from the Baen list or other free sources, do let me know!

Reviewing Reamde

BoingBoing has an early review of Reamde up and it has seriously whet my appetite. Gold farming is the hook but apparently Stephenson is also a bit of a gun nut. Who knew? Exciting!

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson

I’ve pre-ordered my copy from Amazon in save-a-tree format. I actually don’t even own a Kindle but it’s still the best way to read a book, especially one by the Neal. This thing is a thousand pages long.

It’s out on September 20. So basically next Tuesday is a wash for me.

NPR’s list of top 100 Science Fiction of all time

Here’s the list – I’ve read 51 of these. And the #1 and #2 slots are exactly what I’d have picked.

I am glad to see Neil and Neal on the list (though NPR spelled Neal’s name wrongly in one entry). Especially love the fact that The Princess Bride made it on the list!

Inexplicably, A.C. Doyle is missing, which boggles my mind. Not as surprising is the absence of any of the Big B’s (Bear, Baxter, Benford, and Brin) of which the omission of Greg Bear is the most egregious.

I think a top 100 list is less than useful though, what would be better would be a top 20 author list. So, let’s make one! In (first-name) alphabetical order, because a ranking will take more thought:

  1. Arthur C. Clarke
  2. C.S. Lewis
  3. David Brin
  4. Douglas Adams
  5. Frederick Pohl
  6. Fritz Leiber
  7. Greg Bear
  8. Greg Egan
  9. H.G. Wells
  10. Isaac Asimov
  11. J.R.R. Tolkien
  12. Jules Verne
  13. Kurt Vonnegut
  14. Larry Niven
  15. Neal Stephenson
  16. Neil Gaiman
  17. Ray Bradbury
  18. Rene Daumal
  19. Robert Heinlein
  20. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Well, ok that’s only 19. Some of these are for an entire series, others for a single book, but all of them wrote something that really grabbed me, more so than usual.

I’m sure others’ lists would differ – and certainly would be helpful, so leave yours in comments!

And a special mention for writers who I think are odious people personally, though they certainly write well: Dan Simmons and Orson Scott Card.

And I really need to add The Stand to my reading to-do list.

It occurs to me a much harder list would be of short-story authors. A good start woudl be compiling everyone who has ever appeared in the Asimov’s Best Science Fiction series. That’s something for another day…

and so, the (Stargate) Universe ended

In the Beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. — The Hitchhiker’ Guide to the Galaxy

This is pretty depressing news – Stargate: Universe seems to have been canceled. They are midway through their second season run and the final ten episodes will air in the spring, they will also modify the plot to wrap up the storyline early (since it was originally scripted for a five year run).

That shows like ST:Voyager get dragged out for years but the great shows like Firefly and SGU get dropped before they’ve had a chance to build a wider following is massively frustrating to me. It’s amazing to me that Galactica was permitted to survive long enough to finish. Sadly, most science fiction (and SGU was no exception) have tried to imitate Galactica’s formula of oversexed characters to try and draw in the mainstream male demographics. I expect the lesson of SGU’s demise, as far as TV producers go, is that there was too much plot and not enough skin. SGU was one of the few shows out there that could credibly be called a successor to Galactica; even Caprica Galactica’s own designated heir already got the axe. The future of American science fiction is dim.

We still have the British franchises, namely Doctor Who, and if the stars align more of Sherlock. And Warehouse 13 seems to have survived the chopping block, though for how long?

Meanwhile, the SyFy rebranding is revealed to have indeed been appropriate. SyFy doesn’t have the patience that Sci-Fi channel did for good science fiction. They just want shows that look like science fiction. It’s just “siffy” now. I’m disgusted, and if I had the option to choose cable channels a-la-carte I’d drop Siffy entirely.

Incidentally, this is an example of why cable should indeed be a-la-carte. Niche channels will regress towards the mean of television norms instead of staying faithful to their niche as long as they are subsidized by general cable premiums. If these niche channels must justify their existence, however, to the niche audience, they will take more risks – and the niche audience will be more willing to pay. Right now I pay about $40 for hundreds of channels; I’d happily pay $50 for just a handful, and Siffy could get a much larger share of my money.

I hope at some point that we can skip able distribution entirely and see a future where TV shows are marketed directly to Netflix and Hulu plus.

At any rate, the long drought of American science fiction has begun.