Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nerd Word of the Year: Reboot

[365 Toy Project: 057/365] To Boldly Go Where ...Image by nhussein via Flickr
Reboot (n.) - A new version of an existing story or franchise that discards or ignores existing story continuity. This is different from a retcon, which sees much or all of existing continuity maintained, but with select changes in the backstory. Reboots start from scratch in many ways, and are sometimes indistinguishable from remakes. For example, the Ron Moore/David Eick reinvention of Battlestar Galactica saw major deviations from the 1978 original with main characters changing race, gender, or even species alongside the introduction of major new characters, settings, and themes.

I bring it up because: As we look back at 2009, this was The Year of the Reboot. Culturally, politically , economically, and spec-fictionally, so much was given the reset button it's hard to fathom it all. Sticking close to the nerd-o-verse, Star Trek was conspicuously rebooted, as was the classic TV series V. You can be forgiven for ignoring the painful cinematic reboots of GI Joe, Land of the Lost, Friday the 13th, and Astro Boy along with the second punch-to-the-brain installment of the live-action Transformers reboot. Even classics like The Prisoner, Day of the Triffids, and Sherlock Holmes weren't above the reboot footprint this year. The aforementioned, critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica reboot -- which in many ways kicked off the reboot craze that dominated 2009 -- also drew to a close this year. Here's hoping that in 2010 we get a few more original ideas.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2010: The beginning of the end of free

With the exception of broadband/dial-up access charges, the history of the Internet has been defined by free. Content is free. Access is free. Applications and features are free. Once you're online, everything is free for the taking. It's a culture of free, to the point that even when content producers want to charge you for something -- movies, music, games, books -- there's an accepted practice of getting it for free anyway.

And I think 2010 is the year that all starts to change. 2010 is the beginning of the end of free.

Why do I say that?

First, because 2009 was the year that the previously presumed notion of online = free became a real discussion point. Back in 2007 and 2008 it was just quasi-contrarians like Jason Fried from 37signals who got press for "daring" to charge for online apps. But in 2009 the groundswell of "maybe it shouldn't be free" got loud enough that the free-lovers countered with a seminal text, Chris Anderson's Free: The Future of Radical Price. The fact that free was even a major topic of debate in 2009 -- let alone that guys like Chris Brogan came out against the idea of giving everything away -- was the first tremor of change. If you have to defend your position, that's an acknowledgement that the position is under assault.

Second, 2010 will be (I predict) the year the PC really stops being our primary Internet device, and our phones take over. Apple has a lot to do with this, thanks to the iPhone, though Blackberry did plenty to make us like and want mobile Internet. Google is here with its Android OS, playing the same game too. And if/when the Apple tablet gets here -- probably running the iPhone OS -- it will annex the ebook reader landscape into the phone universe. (Ray Kurzweil's Blio book platform will pick up the dedicated e-reader stragglers, because it shows better ebooks. And it's worth mentioning that almost everyone, Amazon included, would rather sell you a tablet PC than a dedicated e-reader, if only for the higher market penetration.) So what's that got to do with free?

Whereas we've been trained that our PC-based Internet is a world of free, we've always paid for everything on our phones. A phone-based Internet universe is a world of micropayments. We pay for ringtones. We pay to download text messages. We pay extra for data connectivity. We pay for apps. Phone-based features are a Chinese menu of mini-payments. And the tweens and teens raised in a text-messaging, pay-as-you-go world won't think anything of a not-free Internet when they are driving the culture and finance bus 10 to 15 years from now. Moreover, not only will we pay for online stuff on our phone, we'll use our phone to pay for stuff offline. Virtual payments using a secure mobile device are just beginning to take hold in the US, but this trend will escalate and cement the notion of our phone as a nexus of commerce.

And the third nail in free's online coffin? Content providers have to find a way to make money online, and they're dead set on charging us something for the work. Rupert Murdoch wants to delist his sites from Google and put up a paywall --  and he's crazy enough to do it. Other conventional print content creators are trying to create a "Hulu for magazines" to encourage online payment. The RIAA and MPAA aren't going anywhere, and Apple and AMazon are happily playing along selling you 99-cent content snippets. Now, I expect all of these moves to fail, but they will send ripples through the content marketplace that erode the concept of free. While I won't pay $50 for a year's subscription to Time, I might pay $5 for a Time/Warner app on my tablet/phone -- one that gives me access to all their print content across all their properties. But the problem for content providers isn't that charging is wrong, but that they are overcharging for the value consumers place on their products. 2010 is the year we start to zero in on a realistic, sustainable price -- and it ain't free.

I'm not arguing that free is going away tomorrow, or that it will ever go away entirely. I am arguing that 2010 is the year that free stops being the assumed standard price for everything online.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Truly Trivial: What school is secretly referenced in every Pixar film ever made?

Toy Story (1995) was the first fully computer-...Image via Wikipedia
Christmas is over, but this godless heathen is still taking it easy. As such, you get another rerun from my Geek Trivia archives. Don't worry; it's timely. For those of you with kids, there's a good chance somebody got the rugrat a Pixar film -- probably Up! -- as a holiday gift, and the adults in the house are watching the CG animation on a nigh-endless loop. Fret not, Jay is here to help. The following bit of info can be used to construct a Pixar drinking game to kill the pain:
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a CGI cartoon character voiced by John Ratzenberger, after all. John who? For the uninitiated, John Ratzenberger is merely the actor that portrayed iconic trivia geek Cliff Clavin on the long-running sitcom Cheers ... [and] he’s the only voice actor to appear in every Pixar feature film to date — to the point Ratzenberger is jokingly referred to as Pixar’s “good luck charm” ...
That said, Ratzenberger isn’t the only Easter egg that has so far snuck into every Pixar feature film to date. An inside reference to a famous academic institution has also shown up in each Pixar movie — if you know where to look for it.
Get the complete Q&A here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Santa Claus machine

Robot Claus UpcloseImage by ittybittiesforyou via Flickr
Santa Claus machine (n.) - Whimsical nickname for a self-fueling universal constructor; essentially, a machine that can create any object or structure desired by transmuting any materials already on hand. The term was coined by the late physicist and nuclear disarmament advocate Ted Taylor. Santa Claus machines are often seen as necessary components for the creation of megastructures, as the time and materials necessary to build Dyson Spheres or Niven Rings under direct human supervision and effort is astronomically impractical. (I once did some back-of-the-napkin math on what it would take for NASA to build a Death Star, and that's a pretty clear case for why we need Santa Claus and a legion of tireless robo-elves.)

Some allegory or equivalent of the Santa Claus machine is a long-held staple of speculative fiction. Star Trek's replicators are perhaps the most famous example, though the pharaohic chemical transmuter factories from Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy also fit the bill, as do the semi-sentient household "makers" from Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's comic series Transmetropolitan. Self-directing Santa Claus machines are also fodder for sci-fi-horror, as they may be a precursor to a gray goo outbreak. In the right hands, Santa Claus machines could lead to a post-scarcity economy (cue the Whuffie references). Paradise or apocalypse, Santa Claus machines could bring about either.

I bring it up because: Uh, Christmas Eve. Duh!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: SantaCon

Santa Lights a Winston (Santarchy)
SantaCon (n.) - A flash mob or mass gathering of persons dressed in Santa Claus costumes, usually for the purpose of performance art or mild civil disobedience. The term is a play on the -Con naming tradition of science fiction conventions. These events are also known as Naughty Santas, Cheapsuit Santas, Santa Rampage or Santarchy. SantaCons regularly occur in major cities during the holiday season, either as a celebration of, or commentary on, Christmas traditions (or simply as an excuse to dress up and act a little nutty). SantaCon participants may distribute gifts to strangers or sing bawdy versions of traditional Christmas carols, while other may simply descend on a retailer, restaurant, or area of town en mass.

Both SantaCon and perversions of the Santa Claus image have a long tradition in speculative fiction. No less a noted novelist than Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk wrote about a Santa Rampage in his book Fugitives and Refugees. William Gibson imagined a supposed Santa battling a sentient, burglar-repelling house in "Cyber-Claus", while both Doctor Who and the Futurama crew have faced off against robotic Santas with rather overzealous definitions of naughty and nice. Of course, Santa isn't always evil. In the pages of the webcomic PvPSanta fends off the Christmas-crushing ambitions of a superintelligent cat each year, occasionally with the help of the superhero team Jingle Force Five. In the same vein, Santa saved the world from alien invaders in the nonetheless horrible cult B-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. If you're a good little boy or girl, the real Father Christmas will place the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of this flick in your stocking, rather than the stinking lump of coal that is the uncut original.

I bring it up because: Four years ago tomorrow -- Dec. 18, 2005 -- the Auckland, New Zealand SantaCon supposedly erupted in a violent riot that included looting and property damage. The event was organized -- allegedly -- in the online forums of the skateboard magazine Muckmouth by one Alex Dyer, who claimed it was merely an excuse for drunken revelry that got out of hand. Like all Santa legends, the truth or the Auckland Santarchy has little to do with the public perception of the event. As such, SantaCon (or, at least, Santarchy) is developing a myth of its own, one that's far more often naughty than nice.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Truly Trivial: Who is the original creator of Festivus? (Hint: It ain't Seinfeld)

FestivusImage via Wikipedia
Today is my daughters birthday and thus I have no plans to do actual work today, so enjoy a recycled Truly Trivial from my old Geek Trivia days:
On Dec. 18, 1997, the Seinfeld episode “The Strike” aired for the first time, introducing the world to the now infamous faux holiday, Festivus. Billed as a counterpoint to the perceived increasing commercialism of Christmas (even though said commercialism is vital to the economy), Festivus — the so-called “holiday for the rest of us” — struck a chord with audiences, and real-world celebrations of this fictional festivity have been on the rise ever since. ... 
Lost in all this Festivus revelry is the fact that, despite Seinfeld’s role in popularizing Festivus, the holiday is not original to the sitcom. In fact, Festivus was over 30 years old when “The Strike” first aired [more than] a decade ago. 
Ironically, for a holiday ostensibly devoted to denouncing commercialization, Festivus may have been commercialized to the point of obscuring its own origins. 
Read the complete Q&A here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: God particle

This represents the Standard model of elementa...Image via Wikipedia
God particle (n.) - Nickname for the Higgs boson, a theoretical elementary particle that -- if proven to exist -- could explain many inconsistencies in the so-called Standard Model of the universe. The search for the Higgs boson, and its presumed importance, have given it something of a cult following within both science and science fiction, with the "god particle" becoming both a media darling for science journalists and a convenient plot device for authors and screenwriters. In Robert J. Sawyer's novel Flashforward, it was a particle accelerator's attempt to identify the Higgs boson that temporarily transported all of humanity's consciousness 20 years into the future -- a plot point so far absent from the FlashForward TV series based on Sawyer's book. John Ringo's novel Into the Looking Glass uses Higgs boson experiments as the catalyst for an explosion that allows alien invaders to enter our dimension. The film version of Dan Brown's novel Angels and Demons references the Higgs boson repeatedly, though often with dubious scientific accuracy.

I bring it up because: The Large Hadron Collider at CERN -- an instrument designed largely to find the Higgs boson -- became the highest energy particle accelerator in human history this week (breaking its own record) when it slammed together two 1.18 teraelectronvolt proton beams to create a 2.36 TeV collision. So far as kinetic energy goes, that's small, but so far as total energy in a hyperconfined space, that's astronomical. To grossly oversimplify, if physicists can get enough energy to occur in a extremely small space, they hope to recreate conditions necessary to create or observe otherwise unfindable exotic particles -- like the Higgs boson. We're likely still years away from that, but with the LHC online and hard at work crunching subatomic particles at notable fractions of lightspeed, odds are that the notion of a god particle -- if not its outright discovery -- will remain a regular subject of our science and our fiction.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Truly Trivial: What technology was the subject of 1968's famous "Mother of All Demos?"

The Xerox Alto workstation, first to use a gra...Image via Wikipedia
One Dec. 9, 1968, a watershed moment in computer science and consumer electronics took place: a technology demonstration now known as The Mother of All Demos. The events of the MoAD arguably lit the fire that eventually set forth the technological, cultural, and economic conflagration that was the invention of the modern personal computer. It's just that no one really knew it at the time.

A pair of researchers named Douglas Englebart and Bill English coordinated to MoAD under the somewhat immodest title of "A research center for augmenting human intellect" at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. In attendance at the FJCC was Butler Lampson, who went on to help found Xerox's Palo Alto Research Conference (PARC) in 1970. Two years after that, Lampson wrote a memo titled "Why Alto?" which outlined his vision for a new type of computer -- the Xerox Alto -- based in part on what he saw at the Mother of All Demos.

The Xerox Alto is rather infamous in computing circles. First for the many modern technologies the Alto integrated into what we now recognize as a modern personal computer, including a computer mouse, Ethernet, file servers, and a graphic user interface with a desktop metaphor. Second, because Xerox decided there wasn't a market for the Alto and refused to produce it commercially. The latter point is often considered one of the great missed opportunities in business history.

You'll likely not be surprised to learn a young engineer named Steve Jobs got a first-hand look at a prototype Alto at Xerox Parc in 1979, and it inspired him to build the first Macintosh. The Mac, in turn, so impressed Bill Gates that he originally licensed part of its GUI for Windows 1.0, which Gates himself later licensed for IBM PCs with some multibillion-dollar, world-changing success. (Though there was some rather ugly fallout from the Windows vs. Mac similarity, some of which still rages today.)

Thus, you can draw a straight line from the Mother of All Demos to whichever personal computer -- be it Mac, PC, or a GUI flavor of Linux -- sitting on your desk right now. Lost in all the fervor, however, was the actual inspirational technology displayed at the MoAD.

What technology was the subject of 1968's famous Mother of All Demos?

Monday, December 07, 2009

What force can bend even PR reps to his will? Cthulhu!

Cover for Del Rey's Lovecraft CollectionImage via Wikipedia
As a guy who currently earns much of his living from reviewing stuff, I get blasted with a fair share of press releases most of which hold little interest to me. Thus, it makes my Monday to get a little honest PR representing rightful fear and worship of The Elder Gods, as Tor sent me today. I recount it all for your benefit below:
Hi Jay,
This December, take a break from sparkly vampires and annoying good cheer with regular stops at, where every day we’ll be tempting the Great Old Ones to awaken for our inaugural Cthulhu-mas, a month dedicated to all things Lovecraft.
Upcoming features include posts from Weird Tales editorial director Stephen Segal, an original comic from art superteam Teetering Bulb, Cthulhu-themed gift recommendations selected by Ellen Datlow, a new short story with a Lovecraftian focus, and lots more.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the blog this month yet, here’s some of the posts you’ve missed:
*A list of H.P. Lovecraft-related titles available for 30% off all month:
*Very special Cthulhu-mas wishes!
*Lovecraft monster drawings from Mike Mignola, Michael Whelan, John Jude Palencar, and Bob Eggleton:
*The introduction of’s exclusive line of holiday cards:
*Patrick Nielsen Hayden on “H.P. Lovecraft, Founding Father of SF Fandom”:
As if your sanity weren’t already pushed to the brink this December.
All best,
As I've recounted before, Tor have a strikingly good PR staff who seem to get it. Invoking Lovecraft and taking potshots at Twilight both earn points in my book, and I'm pretty much the target audience of Tor products. Plus, I just finished the milSF-Cthulhu mashup "A Colder War" from Charles Stross's Toast, so I was primed for this missive either way. Still, for those of you wondering what a targeted (and geek-friendly) press release looks like, the above is a great example. Ami, keep 'em coming!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Tuckerization

Fanboy (comics)Image via Wikipedia
Tuckerization (n.) - The use of a real person's name for a fictional character as a conscious literary in-joke. The term derives from SFWA Author Emeritus Wilson "Bob" Tucker, a science fiction writer and fanzine editor who famously appropriated the names of his friends family for his fictional characters. A contemporary example of a serial tuckerizer is John Scalzi, who has made a habit of doing so in his novels, though Scalzi claims it's simply because he's terrible at conjuring names for his characters. (In fact, in Scalzi's novel The Ghost Brigades, he presents several artificially engineered soldiers named after famous scientists, and notes that their creators chose those names simply out of convenience, effectively as a meta-tuckerization.) Nonpersons can also be subjects of tuckerization, as in Allen Steele's novel Spindrift where the author named a pair of space probes Larry and Jerry, after sci-fi authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle -- authors who themselves were known for some famous tuckerizations.

It should be noted that tuckerization is different than including real people as fictional characters, as often happens in alt-history novels, or in the somewhat self-referencing tradition of including some version of the late writer/uberfan Forrest J. Ackerman in sci-fi works. Tuckerized characters are simply namesakes, not sci-fi versions of a roman à clef . Over the years, it has become tradition for established science fiction authors to auction off tuckerizations to benefit science fiction conventions or charitable causes.

I bring it up because: A host spec-fic authors are auctioning off tuckerizations this week in support of the Trans Atlantic Fan Fund, which pays for sci-fi and fantasy fans to cross the big pond in order to meet their respective ante-oceanic counterparts. Basically, it's an exchange program for geeks. Elizabeth BearDavid BrinJulie CzernedaCory DoctorowNalo Hopkinson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Charlie Stross all have TAAF-benefit tuckerizations up for auction now, with the most expensive one (Stross's) still lingering around $250. That's a very reasonable price for fan-insider literary immortality, even accounting for the price-sniping that will occur when the auctions expire on Monday. If there's an uber-nerd in your life and you've got a a Benjamin or three to drop on his/her hobby, this would make a frakkin' awesome Christmahannukwanzukah-Solstice-Festivus present. (Hint, hint.) And it might even be tax-deductible.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Truly Trivial: What non-sci-fi book was the original basis for the alien invasion series V?

V THE FINAL BATTLEImage by spike55151 via Flickr
The revamped version of the television minseries V just finished its initial four-episode "pod" run before embarking on a four-month (are you kidding me?) hiatus. When the series resumes in March 2010, it will have a new showrunner: Chuck's Scott Rosenbaum, who displaces the technically-not-fired-but-no-longer-in-charge Scott Peters, former  producer of The 4400.

In some ways this switchout is just another tribute that the 2009 V miniseries is paying to the 1983 V miniseries. Or, to paraphrase another sci-fi franchise: All of this has happened to V before, and all of this will (probably) happen to V again.

The Visitors were first brought to the small screen in 1983 by Kenneth Johnson, who at the time was riding high as creator of The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk TV series. During its original two-episode, four-hour run, V garnered a 25 share and over 40 million viewers -- which meant that a sequel was all but assured. In 1984, ABC television rolled out a followup miniseries, V: The Final Battle -- a series produced without Kenneth Johnson.

Johnson cowrote the original Final Battle draft script but ABC decided that it would be too expensive to produce and fired Johnson prior to rewrites. Many of Johnson's ideas survived the transition and thus ABC wanted to credit him as a writer on the sequel series. Likely in protest, Johnson is instead credited under the pseudonym Lillian Weezer. (For the record, you almost never outright refuse a writing credit because refusing endangers your royalty position.)

Thus, firing your showrunner prior to a cliffhanger is a V tradition. So is, apparently, the network wanting to "change the direction" of the series -- a tradition that started before the series even began production. Johnson, you see, originally pitched V without the Visitors as a non-sci-fi miniseries based on a non-sci-fi book. It was ABC's idea to "Star Wars" it up, which may be the only time in history that a TV network has asked for a series to be more sci-fi.