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When a skeptic's Sense Of Wonder meets the realities of science

P1120014 The dark ages: waiting for galaxies and stars - a slide from Center For Inquiry Austin cosmology lecture

What armchair "scientists" get out of reading popular science magazines or websites? Mostly they get excited about "out there" speculation that gets batted on wired.com or io9.com. Holographic universe. Preferred direction in the universe.

What a real astrophysicist's answer to "what do you think about this?" is: nothing.

Drupal Camp Austin 2010

IMG_1463 Jeff Robbins from Lullabot

There were presentations on everything Drupal-related, from module development to theming, to security, usability, or building large, yet scalable enterprise websites with Drupal. Each of the two days opened with a keynote speech that drew an audience over 300 people into the room. Organizer Todd Nienkirk greeted us with the news that the number of attendees made Drupal Camp Austin the second largest Drupal Camp ever; an hour later, a few last-minute registrations pushed us up to #1.

Center For Inquiry Austin discussion on technological Singularity, 11/09/2011

P1110959 Mike Ignatowski (right) was the moderator of the discussion on technological Singularity at the CFI Austin monthly disc

10 people were at the discussion. Some have heard more about the concept of the Singularity, others less. Moderator Mike Ignatowski described two common Singularity scenarios. They are:

-- "hard takeoff": a computer develops human-level AI, and then within a few hours doubles, quadruples it, etc., and very soon becomes intelligent beyond our comprehension and takes over the world;

-- "soft takeoff" -- technological advance is gradual enough so any given human does not lose comprehension of what's happening; however, in a few hundreds of years the society and technology nonetheless changes so much that it's incomprehensible to a modern-day human.

We examined some of those scenarios and objections to them.

Social Media Camp 2008: the Half-Baked game

P1010459 beerbuzz.com logo

The most entertaining event in the Social Media Camp (July 30, 2008) was the Half-Baked game. In this game, people are randomly assigned into 6 teams. The goal of each team is to come up with a startup idea and present its business plan to the judges. This being a Social Media Camp, one of the requirements is that the social media aspect should be built into the business plan.

It was fascinating to see how aspiring internet entrepreneurs think. It left me shaking my head: so this is how internet bubbles form! These are the kind of minds that gave us stuff like Pets.com in 2000. But it would be unfair to reach sweeping conclusions based on what I saw. 20 minutes is hardly enough time to come up with a business plan that's both original and viable. It was only a game after all.

First, the audience comes up with 50 random words, and those words are written on the whiteboard. Each team needs to pick any two words that will make up their company's name. Then they have 20 minutes to come up with a tag line and a business plan. (Preferrably also a logo -- the room was full of people with computers, and I bet a lot of them, like me, had Photoshop).

Here are the words suggested by the audience. These were the judges' criteria for evaluating each business plan. Here are the startup concepts the teams came up with: Buzz Squad -- like GPS for drinking; Porn Sucks -- promoting positive porn to save sex workers; Beer Buzz -- good beer, good times; Time Pirates -- find a hidden treasure in your calendar; Green Ninjas -- it's easy buying green; Love Cookies -- customizable cookies.

Here is my blog post on other events that took place at the Social Media Camp.

Nebula Awards 2008

CIMG9357 Linda and Michael Moorcock, John Picacio

Nebula Awards 2008 took place in Austin, TX on April 24-27. Being in Texas, the award ceremony had to have some Texas flavor, and that was amply supplied by the MC John Moore and the toastmaster Joe Lansdale. Moore started by explaining Texas dialect to the out-of-state folks. He said, "in Texas you don't say 'I'm going to have a glass of wine', you say 'I'm fixing to mosey down to Hospitality Suite and rustle up a Shiner Bock'. And right now I'm fixing to introduce our toastmaster. He's a kick-ass Texas writer, and I mean it literally: he founded a school of martial arts."

Joe Lansdale's speech was the highly anticipated highlight of the award ceremony. Everyone in the Texas fandom knows Lansdale is pretty damn funny. And his speech was funny indeed, although a bit rambling. I managed to remember a couple of anecdotes Joe told; for the sake of brevity, I'll compress the details which, in my opinion, didn't add much to the story. (Though what do I know? Perhaps readers adore Joe Lansdale precisely because of those details I consider rambly.)

His point was that Texas is such a weird place it can't help but inspire science fiction. Here is an incident that happened to him and an even stranger one, to another Texas writer. Lansdale also listed his rules for the attendees of science fiction conventions.

(Later at the ArmadilloCon 2008 Joe Lansdale told more stories from his life on the Campfire Stories panel. They can be found in my blog post.

Michael Moorcock, who was bestowed a title of SFWA grandmaster, had his own funny stories to tell about life in Texas -- and why he likes it here.

Pictures from the Nebula awards can be found in my photo gallery.

How Friendly Were Frodo and Sam? An ApolloCon 2007 panel

CIMG6461Selina Rosen and Jess Nevins

Description in the program book: Was there a homoerotic subtext to Lord of the Rings? Is subtext in the eye of the beholder, or is Spec Fic friendlier to GLBT characters and readings than the mainstream? Panelists discuss the perception of alternative sexualities in SF/F.

Panelists: Alexis Glynn Latner (moderator), Lee Martindale, Jess Nevins, Selina Rosen, Mel. White

What was it really about:

The discussion didn't focus so much about a relationship between Frodo and Sam (though there was some speculation), or even whether SF is friendlier to gay / lesbian / bi /transsexual (GLBT) characters than mainstream literature. Mostly it revolved around fan fiction, especially slash fiction.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2007 are in my photo gallery.

Dating 101: Remedial Flirting: a Linucon 2004 panel

CIMG0930 Eric and Cathy Raymond

Official Synopsis: Cuddling with the computer too much? We've been there too. Ways to learn (or relearn) social skills.

Panelists Eric and Cathy Raymond discuss flirting tactics and first date ideas that work well for geeks.

Eric Raymond's speech: Linucon 2004

P0000554 Eric Raymond at Linucon 2004

At Linucon 2004 Eric Raymond gave a speech on the basic principles of the Unix philosophy. They are the same principles as described in the "Basics of the Unix Philosophy" chapter of Raymond's book "The Art of Unix Programming". Since the book is available online, I put a link to each rule so you could compare what's said in the book with what was said in the speech. He dwelled a little longer on each rule and gave more examples than he does in this chapter of the book. At the end of the speech he answered questions, some more, some less related to Unix philosophy. He also ranted on XML (after admitting not having an opinion about it) and expressed his opinion on Hurd.

Pictures from Linucon 2004 are in my photo gallery.

Pros and cons of the GNU General Public License: Linucon 2005

CIMG0927 Jay Maynard in his alternative Tron costume

Synopsis from Linucon program book: "The most popular open source license, the GPL, inspires controversy to this day. Eric Raymond recently expressed some ambivalence about it, so he and his lawyer wife Cathy are moderating this panel, with Jay Maynard, a.k.a. The Tron Guy speaking out against the GPL and Rob Landley defending it."

One of Rob Landley's pro-GPL arguments is that it can prevent a project from forking. Jay Maynard claims credit for coining the term General Public Virus. His objection to GPL lies in its ideological agenda. Rob says GPL keeps companies from taking open source code, incorporating it into their products and making money off of someone else's work without giving back to the community. Jay objects that even if companies did that, the good consequences of this action would outweigh the bad. Eric Raymond then inserts himself physically and ideologically between these two "nutcase friends" of his. His position is that GPL is slowing down the adoption of open source, because it is often incorrectly perceived that a company that uses open source software would be obligated to blow open their entire intellectual property. Furthermore, he says, GPL is based on the assumption that defecting from the open source community is attractive, whereas in reality it is its own punishment. Both sides use Linksys as an example to support their arguments. :-) They briefly debate whether the reason BSD did not become as popular as Linux was due to its license, or, as Eric Raymond argues, because they got their social machinery wrong.

Some pictures from this panel can be found in my Linucon 2005 photo gallery.

Read more about The Tron Guy in my blog.

Costuming 101: a panel at Linucon 2004

EX000045 The Tron Guy up close

Synopsis from Linucon program book: Wanting to build a costume? Grab a seat for some tips and tricks from those who know.

Panelists: Kim Kofmel, Jay Maynard, Cathy Raymond

My impression. There are several ways you can win a costume award at a masquerade. By making audience laugh, for example. By being original. There is also a fairly self-explanatory "workmanship" category. This panel devoted quite a bit of space to the tips and tricks of how to make a costume, and they managed to be quite entertaining while doing that. Far from being tedious, their discussion was enlivened with all kinds of titillating details from the costume history. The panelists also spoke about the psychology of wearing a costume, and the motivation for making one in the first place. All in all, an interesting panel even for those who, like myself, have only a marginal interest in costuming.

Pictures from Linucon 2004 can be found in my photo gallery.

Read more about The Tron Guy in my blog.