jeremy_m (jeremy_m) wrote,

Odyssey 2010 - Message in a Klein Bottle

It's Spring time, when young SF fans' fancies turn to spending 4 days in panels vaguely related to their topics, if not to SF, and so this year we came again to the Radisson Non-Euclidean Hotel, just off Heathrow Starport. Its topology remains as bewildering as ever, with non-contiguous floor numbering and parts of the fourth floor not path-connected, so geodesics need to be extra-dimensional. No wonder the first sign posters trying to make navigation easier were never seen again.

But now they've added quantum light switching, so one day a switch controls the bathroom light, and the next it does nothing, but another (doubtless entangled with the same qubit) switch takes over. Obviously this is far more convenient than the Classical Electronics system of having wires between switches and lights. Probably.

Friday dawned too bright and too early with "The life of a Hydrogen atom", an epic of almost Dickensian length from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch, in which we learn that "The Expansion" of the universe in its first seconds brought it almost to the current size, with only slight growth since then, and our hero atom spent its formative youth in Population III hyperstars. These are millions of times as big as any stars we've ever seen, and all disappeared without trace back in the Time of Legend.

And this is the worry really, adding a whole class of star to the alarmingly rapid expansion, and dark matter, and dark energy, and string theory, in a Jenga-like intellectual structure that provides our basic understanding of the universe, but lacking any evidence or testability. Which is ironic as these are the very flaws we condemn the bonkers belief systems for, but I don't want physics to be a pseudo science where the "truth" is whatever it's fashionable to like this week :-(

At least with the incredible weirdness of biology it's based on direct observation of the incredible weirdness of reality, rather than the equivalent of guessing thunder might be caused by distant elephants playing football.

Then to "Pratchett - Time Travel and Alternative History", short on Pratchettness and very heavy on being an essay read out word for word. I'm not sure why that bothers me, as it's more accurate than the presenter just talking, and similar to the nature of writing, but it doesn't engage my primate communication urges like normal public speaking.

And on to "Homer's Odyssey - the World's First Fantasy Novel", which it isn't of course, being neither first nor a novel. But good to see a nod to the proper Odyssey and reminded me I still need a suitably heroic translation (I have an eBook version but it's 19th century and I can't get past constant epithets like "the naughty suitors"). And you have to admire Cunning Odysseus' approach to producing excuses for why he was so late home from work after the business with the horse - "Big Gods made me do it and ran away, and oh yes, I was a sex slave in the Web of Calypso for seven years, dear."

Next was "Is the New Trek a Trekkies' Trek?", to which the answers cluster around yes, no, and it's complicated. There is real resentment at 40 years of canon being wiped out, in the way you always feel affronted when they build a mall on the site of your primary school. It's _our_ Trek and they have no right to mess with it!

On the other hand, it was becoming strangled by its own continuity constraints, even with ignoring most of them, and we needed something quite radical to make everyone forget "Enterprise". But perhaps most worrying was the spoiler for the second new film, which is to be a sillier variation on the classic episode "Spock's Brain". Sacrilege.

Then "Farmville - the Social Dynamics of Online Games", which made me feel like Dr Frankenstein. The grizzly bit was spelling out that the design "errors" that make these bad games aren't errors at all, but sacrificing playability in favour of causing addictive misery that makes the players pay more cash to keep suffering.

That's what I was doing this time last year, in the 24/10 online nightmare that is Travian, but that is at least sufficiently hardcore to keep the player numbers down to thousands. With Facebook going beyond its original remit of identity theft and virus transport into social gaming, they've sucked in more people than most countries and religions.

Apart from the enormous cost in time, this leads to odd views on what "friends" are, with one panellist dropping 2000 friends she'd acquired only as helpers for a game and another distinguishing real friends from the more common "allies" - a return to the Roman model of amici as people who can be useful to you.

This wasn't what I had in mind when laying the foundations of multi-player remote gaming 35 years ago :-(

And on to a break in the panel format for "Poly Social Gathering", mostly not suitable for publication in polite company, except for a quote about SF fans from hotel staff at a previous con: "They drink like a rugby club, and behave like a chess club". Though even this is breaking down a little now as this is the first con where I've seen people literally falling down drunk, and they're all women. How modern.

By then it's 9pm and darkness has fallen on "Alternative Sexualities in SF Literature and Media", which most people find not very alternative - "Even when an alien's just a cloud of ether, you know it's really a straight male". Also distressing, if made-up, is the statistic that there were more poly people in the audience than in the SF they've read.

This ultra conservatism might be aggravated by the way creative writing is taught, as in a panelist's anecdote about submitting a story with a single reference to the heroine being gay, which led to being told off for muddling up sexuality with the rest of the story. Clearly only exotic perverts are not straight males and they should be confined to stories about their peculiarities.

Ironic then that so much of fan fiction is slash, and the panel on that was shocking enough to break random hotel staff who overheard the bit on male pregnancy fantasy.

Friday ended with "The Physics of BDSM", slightly broadened by half the presenters not having read the title and doing the history and biochemistry instead. But that was good for recalling the pioneering 19th century account of SM which the author heroically wrote in Latin to keep the wrong sort of people (i.e. not doctors) from reading it, only to see it translated into 40 languages in 3 years.

It's the only panel where I've seen anyone put 30,000 volts through members of the audience, but the very small amounts of serious research in the area were more interesting. Unfortunately this can't be done on guinea pigs as the paddles and cuffs aren't small enough, and it's very hard to get control groups of people keen to be spanked although they _don't_ like it. So there's hardly any proof for results suggesting about 20% of people have the right balance of Dopamine neuro receptor types to respond favourably.


Crack of dawn was "Living Forever - Is it a Good Thing?", to which the answer always seems no at that time of day, though actually the panel didn't touch on the question and assumed yes throughout (only the lovely pogodragon questioned this, and even then the panel weren't interested in considering their own topic). It was generally disappointing with the panel disorganised and the moderator bored when not wandering off, and most of the time was spent on meaningless red fish such as being invulnerable and not needing food. I'd rather have seen some mention of the practical immortality we'll need in this century to conserve resources, with virtual reality uploads.

Then perhaps on to "Quantum Computing for Beginners", which like all such primers was interesting and largely incomprehensible. The implications make sense though, in that once we have quantum computers big enough to factorise large numbers they'll do it almost instantly (in fact they can't run slowly or their bits would decohere, oo-er missus), and immediately break all current encryption.

Since by then all our identities and money will be in the form of encrypted data, that'll be inconvenient. On the bright side, we may have quantum communication, which allows detection of eavesdropping before they get more than half our data, so we can at least blog securely about the end of the world.

Then the big George Hay Lecture, this year on geoengineering, a surprising amount of which was tracing the roots of this terraforming / planetary engineering science back to the 18th century Sublime aesthetic - art history indeed! This fits nicely into the SF love of incomparably big grand things that can as easily be technological as natural - we like ringworlds as much as the rings of Saturn.

Its practical use probably depends on cases of high leverage, e.g. feeding iron to ocean blooms can take out hundreds of thousands of times as much carbon as the amount of catalyst we provide. But it would be good to bear in mind that we've almost never made a large scale intervention into a natural system that didn't lead to unexpected disasters of some sort.

Can't make an omelette without breaking the galaxy the eggs come from.

And on to "Evolution of Board Games", in which we hear Go described as a puzzle, and as simple, oops, but the rest was mostly sensible. On one side we see the obvious evolution in design by designers stealing each others' ideas like bacteria indulging in horizontal gene transfer. But there's also the isolated speciation sort where some families have passed on Monopoly by word of mouth for three generations since they last looked at the rules, so they're now playing something they've accidentally invented, like cave fish in the dark losing their sight.

Then joining everyone else behind the sofa for Dr Who on the big screen. Nothing to discuss as you've already seen it and discussed it, except to say watching it with an SF convention audience is ideal, in the same way that one should always watch the Rocky Horror Show with a BiCon audience.

And then appropriately for the venue, "Non-Euclidean Geometry", from the same presenter as last year's Poincaré Conjecture, but less accessible this year as we quickly got into the magic maths without much time on the pictures that gently introduce weird two dimensional geometries by making them the surfaces of curvy things. E.g. it would be nice to emphasise that Euclidean geometry is really the strange one, as it doesn't apply to the ground we walk on (Earth being curvy in a fairly simple way), or tattoos (people being curvy in a variety of complicated ways).

Some comments on unexpected synonyms showed the links in mathematical usage between words such as "interesting", "complicated" and "insane". There is a deep irony in the way that the search for simplicity keeps leading into things so bizarre they can't be drawn or described in anything but language made up especially, which itself of course can't be drawn or described in anything but ...

And finally, "QI", the panel that the television program was stolen from, in advance, and very much in the same format. It would have been more natural for the topics to be SF-related, but difficult to find a lot of questions for which the well known answer is wrong.

Which ends Saturday: come back for Sunday tomorrow, or use the time travel hyperlink format:

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