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Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category

I forgot to mention yesterday’s Super Flower Blood Moon eclipse. Hopefully you saw at least some of it, but if you missed it NASA has a number of livestreams, including this one from Georgia in the US:

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Some of my time today was taken up by story edits, so I thought I could use a bit of help on the blog post today.

You may have heard the fuss around OpenAI’s GPT-3, a new AI that can generate impressive results with text and code. (Here’s an explainer, or you can think of it as the world’s most sophisticated auto-complete.) I decided to test out an open-source version called GPT-J by asking it to create a list of ten speculative fiction books.

* Disclaimer: I am an untrained hack playing with a system that (in some hands, at least) is giving the Turing Test a run for its money. Cue hilarity.

My new assistant was happy to help, if sometimes a bit, um, off base. After tweaking the prompt, settings, and iterating several many times to get around the length limitations, here is the result:

Original Prompt (My comments in brackets and bold, all else from GPT-J):

List 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Result:

List 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. 1984 by George Orwell

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

4. The Shining by Stephen King

5. The Stand by Stephen King

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve been reading a lot of speculative fiction lately, mostly dystopian and post-apocalyptic, so I decided to put together a list of ten of my favorites. It’s probably a bit more of a guilty pleasure than an accurate reflection of my reading habits, but these are all books that I’ve really enjoyed and can’t wait to reread. I’ll probably be back to add some more to the list.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The first fantasy book I ever read and it’s still one of my favorites. I picked it up when I was 14 or 15, and I’ve read it a few times since. It’s a story of good versus evil, with good triumphing over evil. [geesh, spoiler alert] I read the trilogy in order, though I’d recommend reading the prequel, The Hobbit, first if you haven’t already.

2. 1984 by George Orwell

Orwell’s dystopian novel about a future where the government has full control over the citizens. It’s written in the form of a diary entry by an unnamed character, so you don’t really know who it’s talking about. It’s probably my favorite dystopian novel and the one I’ve read most often. I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while, but I haven’t found the time yet.

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This book is about a teenage boy named Alex who is doped up on hallucinogenic drugs. He gets in trouble with the police, and when the drugs wear off he goes berserk and starts brutally attacking people. He’s a classic anti-hero. [I saw the movie. don’t want to see/read it again]

4. The Shining by Stephen King

I haven’t read this one in a while, but I remember enjoying it. It’s about a writer who gets trapped in a hotel during a blizzard, with an evil presence in the hotel. It’s got a great story and a lot of twists and turns, but it’s also very scary.

5. The Stand by Stephen King

Another Stephen King book I haven’t read in a while, but I remember enjoying it. It’s about a virus that’s being spread by a zombie-like virus, and the only way to stop it is to kill every single person. [admission: haven’t read it, but even I know this isn’t quite on the money]

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is a dystopian novel about a future where women are subjugated to the men. The story revolves around a woman named June, who becomes pregnant and has to go through an arranged marriage with a man named Nick. [I mean, sort of? on the money about “the men” though]

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is one of my favorite science fiction novels. [I can tell, see below] It’s about a time traveler from the future who is stuck in the past, and the only way he can get back to the future is to find the way to his home world. [eehhhh, close enough]

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve read this one before, and I loved it. It’s about a group of hobbits and elves [um, kind of?] who go on a quest to destroy an evil ring. It’s not just a simple story about good and evil, but a story about friendship and loyalty. It’s a great fantasy novel. [truth]

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

[not speculative, but at this point we’re just going with it]

This is a bestseller in Sweden [and everywhere else], and it’s the first in a trilogy. It’s about a journalist who is hired to investigate a crime in Sweden, and the story is told from the perspective of the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist.

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is the second in a trilogy, and it’s about a girl named Katniss Everdeen who gets sent to the Hunger Games to be a tribute, where she has to fight and kill other contestants in a fight to the death.

I’m a big fan of both dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I was excited when I found this book at a used book store. I’d been wanting to read it for a while, and I was happy to find it for a reasonable price. 

[So, errors but it’s really not terrible so far, although it’s often almost right enough to be problematic if you’re not careful; now here’s where it goes off the rails]

The story is told from the perspective of a 14 year old girl named Charlie who has to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I’m not a big fan of the Hunger Games series, but I did enjoy this book. It’s a story about the dangers of technology, and it’s one of the few dystopian novels I’ve read that I actually enjoyed. It’s about a man named Anthony, who has a terminal illness and is given the chance to be frozen in a cryogenic chamber and wake up later.

The story is told in the form of a journal entry by the protagonist, Richard. He has a wife and son, and he’s trying to cope with his son’s death, as well as his own imminent death. The story revolves around Richard trying to make sense of what has happened, and trying to cope with the loss of his son.

I read this book in one sitting, and I’m still thinking about it. [me too, GPT-J, me too]

I’m sure there’s a tech explanation for what happened there, but for now I’ll just be amused. 

* * *

In earlier tests, GPT-J did a pretty good job of identifying both science fiction and more generally speculative fiction, but did get a few things wrong.

Examples:

9. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This is a novel set in a virtual reality world called the Matrix. It’s a world in which you can literally “hack” reality.

It’s a brilliant book. It’s set in a future where virtual reality is the new reality. But it’s a bit like the movie Snowpiercer. Snow Crash is a bit like a cross between Snowpiercer and Snow Crash.

It’s really, really, really good. I can’t recommend it enough.

[just, yeah]

7. The Stainless Steel Rat by John Creasey [nope, that was Harry Harrison; it didn’t know that Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War either]

Also, from some of the earlier versions of this experiment GPT-J seems to have a serious thing for H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Here’s an example:

Prompt:

Complete this list of 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Result:

2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

3. The City and the City by China Miéville

4. The Iron Heel by Jack London

5. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

6. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

8. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

10. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Ok, then!

* * *

I will say that all of this took a great deal more time than actually, I don’t know, writing the list myself. That said, even this tiny glimpse shows off the system’s enormous potential. 

So (aside from “Generative Pretrained Transformer”) what does GPT stand for? 

GPT-J has thoughts:

A: GPT stands for Genuine Personal Testimony.
A: GPT stands for GNU Parted Table. It’s the name of the backend to which I’m referring to when I say that I’m talking about the “system” and not the “table.”
A: GPT stands for “grandparents’ primary teacher”. I created the term to describe those teachers who start a conversation with students and parents as if they are a student’s grandparent. It’s a term I use to describe teachers who have the experience of a parent.

Me, I say it stands for generate, proof, and for the love of The Time Machine, please think.

* * *

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

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Interested in the short and long term future of food? (Of course you are, we all have to eat.) Then you might like this article from Bon Appètit:

Predicting the Future of Food

To take a look at what the future of food might look like, we talked to experts to come up with menu predictions for the future. For the years 2023 and 2024, scientists offered their insights on how food might change. But for 100 years from now—the year 2122—we spoke with people who were unafraid to make some bold claims: science fiction writers. 

Fascinating, sometimes frightening, fun.

* * *

While we’re examining the relevance of science fiction for real-world action, you might also be interested in the next meeting of the Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club. They’ll be discussing All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a.k.a. Murderbot.

Join Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology at 6pm ET on Wednesday, June 1 to discuss the novel and its real-world implications.

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Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

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We’ve reached the point where most people are aware that pollinators need help, that traditional grass lawns do little to support bees and other wildlife, add to pollution, waste water, and contribute to a host of other environmental problems. 

I have mentioned that I am not a big fan of grass lawns. We also know that Mrs. Mannerly (not her real name) down the street will give us stink eye if we don’t toe the weed-whacked, chemical-laced, 2-inch tall, monoculture turf line.

What’s the answer?

Partly, it’s changing what we grow, and we’re adding pollinator-friendly plants as much as we can. But until we’re ready to completely upend the lawn paradigm, we need better ways to deal with the grass we have.

And we’re hoping to bring our little corner of the world along for the ride.

* * *

When Mr Man and I moved to this charming area a decade ago, a typical weekend was filled with the roar of lawn mowers. One fellow a few doors down sported a first-generation corded mower, but for the most part our new neighbors were all about gas.

Garage doors would open each Saturday morning to show off rows of gas-powered mowers, bright red gas canisters, leaf blowers and battle-hardened lawn trimmers. Our morning walks often required us to step gingerly around streams of spilled fuel and shout to be heard over the racket. 

No more.

Sure, that one neighbor with the riding mower still manages to spend a large proportion of his afternoon outside, but that might have more to do with his home life than his landscaping needs.

Otherwise, a remarkable sense of peace has taken over our street.

As new homeowners standing in front of the row of mowers at Home Depot, gas power did not appeal. We picked up a battery-powered unit that played well with our other power tools. The unit was light, easy to use, quick, quiet, cut well and, perhaps most impactfully, was a bright fluorescent green.

The neighbors noticed. The couple across the street watched us for months, then asked about it. It took time, but eventually they converted to an electric mower. Other neighbors on afternoon walks eyed us up as we mowed. Several years in we noticed another handful of neighbors had made the change as well. As minds changed the trend continued to spread.

Now a decade in, it’s hard to find a neighbor with a gas mower, and that’s terrific. 

* * *

What’s the next challenge? Our neighbors still mow early and often. The good news is that the city lets our extensive network of road separators grow bumper crops of dandelions. Bright yellow carpets fill the streets (and feed the bees) for weeks. Still, private lawns account for a substantial amount of acreage* and could be key to turning the tide for bees and the rest of our unpaid pollinator workforce.

“When you run the numbers, it turns that almost anything is better than a grass lawn — except pavement.” 

Lawns are the No. 1 irrigated ‘crop’ in America. They need to die.

Take No Mow May. This movement started in Britain but quickly jumped the Pond to North America. 

What Is No Mow May | Better Homes & Gardens

No Mow May isn’t about laziness (although that is a side benefit); it’s about helping the bees.

Also laziness. Whatever works for you, no judgement!

No Mow May: 8 Reasons to Let Your Lawn Grow This Month – Bob VIla

When it comes to spring yard work, what if you could actually do more by doing less? By participating in No Mow May, you’ll spend less time, money, and energy on your lawn while helping to improve the planet.

I’m hoping that at least some of our neighbors will realize, as we have, that in the case of mowing, less is definitely more.

Why You May Not Want to Mow the Lawn This Weekend

* * *

I hope our shift to an electric mower had some small local impact but it’s not just us, of course. The folks around the corner switched to a xeriscaped yard and posted signs about helping pollinators. The world is noticing that the pollinators need change and wants to help. The question is now less about “what” and more about how to do it in ways that work with the world we have.

So this year I’m supporting my local eco organizations, planting native flowers, and braving potential side-eye from Mrs. Mannerly across the street. 

Who knows? Next time I see her across my bee-filled yard, she might even smile.

* * *

* For example, lawns can be counted as the single largest “crop” in the U.S. and are estimated to take up over 400 million acres in the U.S. And they don’t even taste good!

* * *

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

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“Honestly, if you’re given the choice between Armageddon or tea, you don’t say ‘what kind of tea?’” 

― Neil Gaiman

Wise advice.

Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change

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Need to take a quick break, maybe get off the planet for a bit? Now’s a great time to visit the Moon!

Send your name to the Moon with NASA’s Artemis mission!

Send Your Name to Space

Add your name here to have it included on a flash drive that will fly aboard Artemis I.

You could even do a little public service and cleanup litter once you’re up there, because Space Junk Just Crashed Into the Far Side of the Moon at 5,800 MPH.

While we’re talking space, you can also check out the current Location Map for Perseverance Rover.

Because sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of the good that humans can do, too.

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Photo by Silas van Overeem on Unsplash

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I may have mentioned that I am entertained by maps, clever science jokes, and not-too-scary pirates. This xkcd comic ticks all the boxes.

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Photo by Hatice Yardım on Unsplash

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I love history. Not the memorization of dates and tests and such, but that moment where you realize in a sudden, visceral way that the past isn’t ever really gone. That the present is built on its bones.

I also like the idea of uncovering that past, either via literal bones or the items that people leave behind. Gold is nice and all (not least because it lasts) but I have a soft spot for the ordinary. What was once worthless, like a broken pot, a used envelope, translucent blue glass jar or a single button, becomes a window into the everyday.

A window in time, if you will.

From museums to restored footage to dragon bones (ok, not exactly but still) and virtual reconstructions, there are a lot of ways to see the past.

* * *

I tend to prefer the more tactile alternatives. 

My mother used to take us out to a friend’s cabin in the woods. In winter we helped her gather sap for maple syrup, but in summer my brother and I would head to the stream at the base of the hill. The water had cut a small cliff into the shale, and if we were lucky and good we could find fossils. 

* * *

Here are two examples of hands-on history I think would be fun to experience.

The fossil hunters of the Jurassic Coast

… with the West Dorset cliffs eroding at such a rapid rate, scientists alone could never hope to save even a fraction of the fossils emerging onto the beaches before they’re swept away by the waves. This has left amateur collectors as key partners in the fight to preserve the area’s extraordinary fossil bounty for study and display, and has, over the past two decades, fuelled a huge rise in the number of people visiting the local beaches in search of prehistoric treasures.

How to Mudlark

… the majority of the things salvaged from the mud are more recent—often medieval or later—and are small, humble reminders of what people used, maybe loved, and eventually discarded. Exploring the shore as a mudlark is like conducting a swift, simple, satisfying archaeological dig, with almost no digging at all.

More fun for the future!

* * *

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Yes, it’s Tuesday and work is crazy as usual but it’s not all negative news. We will not be hit by an asteroid today!

A huge asteroid will fly safely by Earth today. Here’s how to watch it live. | Space

See? Tuesdays aren’t all bad.

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Not an asteroid but I liked the rainbow. Photo by Cyrus Press on Unsplash

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Ha ha ha ha, this is 110% amazing!

More info and videos on this obviously critical area of scientific research:

So if humans visit underwater environments in a submarine, are these fish driving around in a supermarine? 

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Oh hello, nice of you to stop by. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

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