Archive for the 'Odd' Category

The Secret War Between Sci-Fi Writers

October 27, 2006

Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson reveals the dark truth about his on-again/off-again rivalries with the other members of sci-fi’s holy triumverate, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in a 2004 interview with Slashdot. Who knew that Gibson and Stephenson were so schooled in martial arts and psychokinesis? And is it really a surprise that Sterling’s Viridian Design movement is little more than a cover for the development of superweapons?

Let me tell you how it came out on the three occasions when we did fight.

The first time was a year or two after SNOW CRASH came out. I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson’s Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson’s arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle. (Slashdot)


NB: The rest of the interview, while considerably less violent, is full of insights into writing and technology and well worth a read.


Foo Fu

September 24, 2006

According to Wikipedia, “Foo” is the “canonical metasyntactic variable.” In plain english, a metasyntactic variable usually means a nonsense word or other string of characters used as a placeholder in computer code (a really simple example of this would be: if Foo=10, then 5*Foo=50). Peek into programs written in anything from Javascript to C++ and you’re likely to find “foo” — along with other commonly used variables like bar and baz.

So I started to wonder where it all came from, especially in light of the fact that the premier IT insider get-together/unconference is called “Foo Camp.” Well, it turns out that Foo Camp derives its name from a completely different source — Foo in this case standing for “Friends of O’Reilly,” the tech guru who runs the exclusive invite-only yearly event. Foo the metasyntactic variable supposedly comes from very different sources. A complete etymology of foo can be found here. Apparently, it’s unclear whether it’s a leftover from WWII slang or a reference to an old Warner Bros. cartoon.

Importantly (if anything can be important with regard to subjects like this), Foo is only one of a long list of placeholder names used in computer code and language in general. The Wikipedia entry on placeholder names contains a great list of these kinds of words. Each of these words gave me a chuckle, so here they are for you in hopes that they may brighten your day:

* buddy[1] (Newfoundland English)
* chummy[2] (Newfoundland English)
* crap
* crud
* da’ kine (Common in Hawaii)
* dealie or dealy
* dealyjobber
* dingus
* doobri or dooberry
* doodad
* doo-hickey
* doofer
* doover or dooverlacky
* efamijig
* frammis
* frammisite
* frobnitz
* gadget
* geemie
* gewgaw or geegaw
* gizmo
* gubbins
* hickey (Common in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
* hodad
* hingmy (Scottish, derived from thingummy)
* jawn (Common in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
* jobby (Scottish, popularised by Billy Connolly)
* junk
* machine[3] (Newfoundland English)
* kerjigger
* McGuffin
* mumble
* oojamaflip
* oojamafurkle
* oojamawotsit
* phlebotinum
* shit
* stuff
* thing
* thingamabob
* thingamaflap
* thingamajig
* thingamajigger
* thingamajobber
* thingum
* thingummy
* thingy
* widget
* whatchamacallit
* whatnot
* whatsit (often spelled wotsit)
* whatsitsname
* whoosiwagger
* whozis
* whozeewhatsit
* yoke (Commonly used in Ireland)


This project’s for the birds!

September 6, 2006

I can’t decide if this is a utopian or dystopian use of skyscraper rooftops:

Australia-born engineer/artist Natalie Jeremijenko has recently completed ‘OOZ, Inc. […for the birds],’ a remotely-monitored social experiment that takes the technology and theories of contemporary urban planning and applies them to a habitat for New York’s native bird population. Jeremijenko studied avian traffic above Manhattan’s Postmasters gallery and then enlisted seven vanguard architecture firms to create high-density housing units that are customized for the birds and installed in a 1,000 square-foot roof garden. Beginning September 7, visitors downstairs in the gallery can monitor the birdhouses via a live video feed.


Snake Robots

August 16, 2006

“The question naturally arises, why snake robots? Biological snakes occupy a wide variety of ecological niches, ranging from arid desert to tropical jungle as well as swimming in rivers and oceans. Abandoning limbs and developing elongated spines has proved an effective survival strategy, allowing snakes to hunt underground in confined tunnels, above ground in grassy fields and up in the tree-tops, even falling in a controlled glide from one tree to the next. By attempting to build robots that emulate and perhaps match the capabilities of their biological counterparts, it is possible that we will create useful tools capable of carrying sensors, taking samples, and making physical changes in a wide variety of environments.” (

Grey goo problem a paper tiger?

July 14, 2006

Any paper containing the section heading “Minimum Replibot Dispersal Time as a Function of the Number of Uniformly-Distributed Replibot Release Sites” is worth a read:

Perhaps the earliest-recognized and best-known danger of molecular nanotechnology is the risk that self-replicating nanorobots capable of functioning autonomously in the natural environment could quickly convert that natural environment (e.g., “biomass”) into replicas of themselves (e.g., “nanomass”) on a global basis, a scenario usually referred to as the “gray goo problem” but perhaps more properly termed “global ecophagy.”

However, biovorous nanorobots capable of comprehensive ecophagy will not be easy to build and their design will require exquisite attention to numerous complex specifications and operational challenges. Such biovores can emerge only after a lengthy period of purposeful focused effort, or as a result of deliberate experiments aimed at creating general-purpose artificial life, perhaps by employing genetic algorithms, and are highly unlikely to arise solely by accident. (

An unusual solution to the Fermi Paradox: alien secrecy

July 10, 2006

…of course, any solution to the Fermi paradox is going to be unusual. Back in 1950, Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi wondered why, given the vastness of our universe and the fact of our own existence, we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations. His thinking led to several seemingly insoluble questions. Is life really so rare that we are literally alone, at least in our local galactic area? Or is it our observational methodologies that are “rare,” and are we in fact bathing in messages that we simply cannot detect? Another classic 20th century problem of uncertainty… Until now?

Dr. Gato-Rivera suggests that we might be embedded in a higher civilization in the same way that mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are embedded in our civilization, and that alien secrecy may be nothing more than an inability to communicate with beings on a lower level. She points out that it might make as little sense for aliens to send us an ambassador as it would for us to send ambassadors to baboon troupes. (

An abstract of Ms. Gato-Rivera’s paper can be found here, along with a PDF of the text itself.