This week, my corn maze–a trilobite in a cabinet of curiosities–was featured in the journal Science. I told the interviewer that I’d always hoped to be in Science, but I’d thought it might be for my ground-breaking research. (Perhaps that was at least ( very remotely) possible when I was actually participating in research, but it’s been pretty long since I’ve been in a lab.)
Designing our corn maze every is one of the parts I enjoy most about running our seasonal agritourism business. I spend about a week thinking about the intersections of art and math and science, and mixing in whatever I find interesting–because if it’s interesting to me, I can convey that to our staff, and our staff can engage our customers in conversation about the maze theme.
This year, the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum contacted me and suggested doing a trilobite corn maze. I’ve never partnered with anyone for our corn maze design, but Rich and Brooke were very persuasive. They are both full of ideas and are ridiculously enthusiastic about making science interesting to everyone. Initially I was skeptical about making the main figure a trilobite because I figured many people would have no idea what it was. However, I eventually realized that it looked like a big ugly bug, and that worked just fine as well.
It’s funny how things work out. Trilobites work fine as bugs, and the path to Science passes through a maze of corn.
I remember the very first time I saw a computer-generated image that actually looked awesome. It was in Scientific American, I think, probably in the late 1980’s, and it was a scene with a simple sphere and a single light source. The article discussed the “ray-tracing” software, a mind-blowing concept at the time. I think it took like a million hours to render the image–and it was AMAZING.
Fast-forward to the future, which we now live in. My son and I have been taking a class at Madison College to learn Blender, which is an incredibly robust open source 3D design software. We are going to make some projects to send off to be 3D printed at Shapeways, but Blender can also be used for animation and all kinds of 3D projects.
Look, I made a coffee cup! I love living in the future!
Actual quote from 1984 by George Orwell that we were listening to in the car the other day
“He did not know how long she had been looking at him, but perhaps for as much as five minutes, and it was possible that his features had not been perfectly under control. It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself — anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.”
Actual quote from Scientific American publication that arrived at my house later that same day….
The Big Screen: High-tech security on the ground keeps passengers safe in the air
“Anyone showing up at the airport with bad intentions is unlikely to comport himself like he’s spending the day at the beach. At the minimum, he’ll be furtive and evince some measure of edginess—even if subtle and subconscious. And this is where California-based Eyeris’s micro-expression recognition software, EmoVu, comes in.
Interfaced with a color or 3-D time-of-flight camera overlooking an airport terminal, EmoVu’s self-learning algorithms register even the subtlest facial cues—lasting just 1/20th of a second—that correspond to a suite of universal human emotions: joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, neutral. To put this into perspective, the human eye only recognizes macro-expressions, such as a smile or grimace, which usually last just 0.5 to 4 seconds. Such performance is largely determined by how many frames per second (fps) a visual device can capture, with the human eye topping out at about 5 fps, and EmoVu processing images at 140 fps. In addition, the human brain needs several seconds to register what the eye is seeing, but EmoVu’s “brain” does so almost instantaneously.
In practice, EmoVu functions like so: 12:05 pm, three people in field of view, 1 male—distressed, 2 females—happy. If programmed accordingly, it can then dispatch a security alert when certain affective criteria are crossed.
Eyeris’s CEO, Modar (JR) Alaoui, claims that his software consistently boasts an astounding 96.8% accuracy on account of its self-correcting and deep-learning artificial intelligence, which makes it more accurate at interpreting facial cues as it collects more data. In other words, the longer the technology operates, the more formidable it becomes.
Coincidence? I think not…
…at least, they are for me right now, as I’m having the intensely pleasurable experience of introducing my son to the great science fiction that I grew up with, and recommending good current fiction as well.
My Aspergian son reads well but slowly, so he’s not able to get through the sheer number of books I did at his age (plus, I never had to deal with the siren song of the digital world.) He often listens to recorded books (thank you, Audible subscription) but I still have to make recommendations knowing that he won’t read as many books.
So, where do you start? Start in the Golden Age and work your way up? Start now and go back?
I also homeschool him for his core classes, including English and Social Studies, so a few novels made their way in under the guise of assigned reading. Last year, he read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow at the same time we were following the Edward Snowden situation, so that was a huge success (my son is feverishly reading Homeland right now.) We also started listening to 1984 on a car ride recently, and maybe it was the narrator, but we were both super creeped out by descriptions of the Ministries in the beginning, especially the Ministry of Love–I’d forgotten how great George Orwell’s prose is.
This past school year, my son read Starship Troopers and then All Quiet on the Western Front, which, along with The Iliad, made for an entire year-long examination of war in literature. He has a dystopian literature class coming up, so he’ll read Fahrenheit 451 and Ready Player One. (The class also covers World War Z, which he’s read and loves–of course…)
So my son’s getting quite a dose of dystopian fiction–I’ll need to bring in a broader view of science fiction and fantasy. For sure more Heinlein, some Asimov and Clarke. Plus John Scalzi, Neal Stephenson, Iain Banks, Stephen King…LOTR! Narnia!!!
So many great books, so little time…luckily, he likes to get recommendations from me (so far), and even more luckily, I feel the need to revisit these novels to make sure my recommendations hold up over time…
Any ideas? If you could read only ten books EVER again, what would they be? Or, if you were designing a high school curriculum around science fiction, how would that look?
I usually go to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute each spring–it’s a great way to connect to writer friends and meet new people, and spend a weekend in Madison. And, for a dose of extra awesomeness, I had two winning entries in the First Page of Poem Contest (1st and 2nd places in the YA category.) This contest is about writing a compelling beginning (first page, so about three hundred words-ish) that will hook your reader. For the writer, it’s an exercise in anguish as you try to polish and hone such a short piece…
The first pages I submitted are from my YA trilogy about the rise of vastly-beyond-human artificial intelligence. The first book is close to being ready to query (and the Writer’s Institute is just the thing to motivate me to just get the damn thing done and out the door.)
Ist Place PROJECT JOEY
The first time the feds came for me at school, I’d been pretty freaked out—probably the effect they were going for when they read me my rights in the principal’s office. I was only ten, so sobbing was probably a reasonable reaction under the circumstances. Still, later, I was a little disappointed in myself.
The second time, I saw the black car with government plates pull up, and so I had time to put on a convincingly innocent and confused face while remaining calm. Same agents, same black suits and ties. Same questions for me. Same angry mother having to leave work to deal with her delinquent son.
This time, though, I could tell things were going to go down differently.
For one thing, I wasn’t expecting them—I hadn’t been technically breaking the law in my online activities in some time. So, when the speaker broke into my English class and requested my presence in the office, I had this idea that it was about my science fair award. I knew I was going to win–when your project has to do with self-assembling nanobot swarms, it stands out from the usual middle school displays on how bean plants grow better when you talk to them.
I was mentally rehearsing how humble and surprised I’d be, but as I turned the corner I practically ran into my two personal federal agents. They gave me the usual death glare.
Two other guys were with them. One guy had a t-shirt with digits of pi arranged in fractal swirls, and the other one’s shirt had a Tardis from Dr.Who. Both had a little scruffy beard growth, and they were very clearly not federal agents.
I knew them—not them, personally, but the kinds of guys they were. Engineers or programmers or someone who actually knew what they were doing in the digital realm.
The feds had brought along guys like me. And that meant that this time, they might actually figure out what I’d been up to.
FEEDBACK FROM JUDGES ON THIS STORY
This is compelling because we have the Feds coming after a teenager, and he admits he’s been up to something they are interested in. This feels big in scope. It’s also well-written; the flow is excellent. In addition, this is clean of typos or mistakes in punctuation, etc. This is a pro writer deserving of attention from any agent or editor or reader.
2nd Place Relinquishment
From my hotel room window I can see the cheerful stick-figure WALK Guy, and the serious, no-messing-around DO NOT WALK hand. I’ve been bored, so I’ve timed them by counting in my head: forbidding red hand for thirty seconds, happy WALK guy for twenty.
The real people walking do not look cheerful or happy like WALK guy, though. It has been raining and snowing, and with the subways and trains all shut down, most people just walk in the slush.
But they have to be careful, because the people who are driving aren’t always watching for pedestrians. I’ve seen five people hit while I’ve been in the hotel. People have forgotten, my mom says. It’s been a while since people thought of cars as something that could kill you, and I guess even if you know that it’s just people driving them now, it’s easy to forget and step in front of them when WALK Guy says to.
I wonder if autonomous vehicles are banned in other countries, too, and for about the ten-thousandth time, I reach for my phone before I remember it’s gone. Phones were the first thing that the Relinquishment Regulations targeted.
Not that my phone would do any good, because the internet came apart (or was dismantled, depending on who you talk to) right about the same time. And then the electrical grid went down, and although we’ve got power now it’s iffy. The WALK guy sometimes goes dark and motionless and the cars and pedestrians become a mass of slowly twirling eddies on the pavement. From above it reminds me of swirls of milk in hot chocolate.
Thinking about hot chocolate that reminds me of our kitchen at home, and that place is gone now. Just a smear of radioactive rocks, probably, although my mom says it wasn’t a nuke, just a regular missile. Even they wouldn’t have used a nuclear weapon against U.S. citizens, she says, but anyone we talked to said that they’d heard it was a nuke.
FEEDBACK FROM JUDGES ON THIS STORY
This is clever! It feels fresh with the character making something of “WALK Guy” and “DO NOT WALK hand”. We’re told right away that this very observant character has also seen five people hit by traffic while he’s been at the hotel. And then we find out that phones have been banned by the Relinquishment Regulations! Any young person reading this is now pretty darn hooked. We also learn that their home is gone. We’re turning the page.
I am once again reviewing a book that has been out for a while, but it’s only because I just discovered it. (Well, technically, my friend Marty discovered it, and then gave it to me.)
I love hard science fiction. Sometimes. I used to love it more, back when I was reading any science fiction I could get my hands on, when I was catching up on everything that Clarke/Asimov/Heinlein, et.al. were writing and had written. But full enjoyment of hard science fiction can be elusive for me, and I think it has a lot to do with the types of characters I encounter–anytime I get pulled out of the narrative by sub-optimal characterization, I start to get antsy and will put the book down. I’ve become a horribly fair-weather reader: it only takes a few slip-ups for me to turn elsewhere for my limited reading time pleasure. Gone are the childhood days of sticking with books that I wasn’t sure I liked and re-reading anything I liked as often as I liked. Now, I need to be AMAZED…
The Martian by Andy Weir amazed me. Over and over again, until I was hiding in my own house, compulsively reading, hoping no one would notice that it was time for ski practice or dinner or that the kids should really be going to bed. I finished in two sittings, but I would have done it in one if I could have managed it (damn you, responsibilities and schedules! Why did I think growing up was a GOOD thing?)
Main character, Mark Watney, is totally a guy you want to spend time with, and he has a consistent, utterly believable voice. I forgot I was even reading, and I’m pretty jaded as a reader (see above.) He’s stranded on Mars and has to survive by his own ingenuity. That’s pretty much it, and I was actually shocked at how much I liked the book right away. All of the science and engineering felt real, but never in a didactic way. I even recommended the book to my non-SF friends. The gems of real science are fully embedded and if you skim over a few places that don’t fascinate you, that’s okay. Mark’s voice is so utterly compelling, though, that I really wanted him to explain to me how he had to electrolyze his urine…
SLIGHT SPOILER: It’s Incredibly suspenseful–is he going to DIIE?–even though I was pretty sure my friend Marty would have warned me if the author had killed him off in the end; we’ve had several discussions in our writer’s group about endings in which the main character dies (I’m looking at you, Iain Banks!)
I’m still laughing at things the main character said, and the box of pure radiation quote is my favorite. I kind of want to steal it and write a novel called A Box of Pure Radiation. I have no idea what it would be about, but it would have to be awesome if it had a title like that.