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Blitzing 24 Hour Comics Day 2012

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24 Hour Comics Day is a challenge to create 24 pages of a new comic in 24 Hours. The challenge was originally conceived by comics whiz Scott McCloud in 1990, and the challenge was organized into a formal day by Nat Gertler in 2004. Now, eight years later, 24HCD is a global event in which thousands of people participate.

My first two tries at 24 Hour Comics Day were miserable failures in 2009 and 2010. My good friend Nathan Vargas also failed, and we started putting our heads together about how to succeed. For me, pulling a Jim Lee and taking a year off to massively cram at being a great artist might merit an angry note from my mortgage service provider, so we needed other options.

We analyzed how we failed, developed strategies and tutorial materials, and ultimately produced the Blitz Comics Survival Kit --- not called 24 Hour Comics Survival Kit because we didn't want to look like we were providing "official" materials; the Survival Kit was just our take on how to succeed, and we didn't even know whether it would work, because we hadn't done it yet.

As it turns out, the techniques in the Kit did work in 2011, not just for Nathan and me but also for a wide variety of other people as well. Nathan has worked hard to promote the ideas and concepts in the Kit while I've been a slack ass lazy bum writing novels, so since he works hard now Comics PRO distributes our materials as Participant Resources. But was our success a fluke?

Well, to test the theory, we tried it again. A few months before we reviewed our exercises and updated the Survival Kit, though website problems prevented us from updating the materials everywhere in time for the 24HCD event. We re-ran the tutorial we'd done before, and practiced a month or so in advance, cracking the knuckles so to speak, to get ready ...

Because yesterday was 24 Hour Comics Day.

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We both succeeded, of course; me around 8:20am and Nathan an hour and a half so later. It was great to participate at the always wonderful Mission Comics, but unlike previous years where we were too zonked to think at all, this year we had an interesting and lively conversation about what we did, why we did it, why we're doing this, and how to make it better in the future.

And unlike last year, we're planning to meet next week, rather than a few months in advance. Hopefully there will be some great stuff to show you - such as our comics, which we finally may have a strategy to get online without fixing the server error that's been a pain in the patootie to fix. Next up: a 24 Hour Comics Day Timeline, like last year's. Stay tuned.

Now, home to bed, because at this point I've been up 32 and a half hours straight!

-the Centaur

Pictured: the last page of my 2012 24 Hour Comic, "Stranded Part 2", my adaptation of my own story "Stranded," published in the book STRANDED. Got that? Also pictured is a bunch of writers at Mission Comics and Art. Thanks Leef!

Prometheus is the movie you show your kids to teach them how not to do science

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Too Diplomatic for My Own Good

I recently watched Ridley Scott's Prometheus. I wanted to love it, and ultimately didn't, but this isn't a post about how smart characters doing dumb things to advance a plot can destroy my appreciation of a movie. Prometheus is a spiritual prequel to Alien, my second favorite movie of all time, and Alien's characters often had similar afflictions, including numerous violations of the First Rule of Horror Movies: "Don't Go Down a Dark Passageway Where No One Can Hear You if You Call For Help". Prometheus is a big, smart movie filled with grand ideas, beautiful imagery, grotesque monsters and terrifying scares. If I'd seen it before seeing a sequence of movies like Alien maybe I would have cut it more slack.

I could also critique its scientific accuracy, but I'm not going to do that. Prometheus is a space opera: very early on in the movie we see a starship boldly plying its way through the deeps, rockets blazing as it shoots towards its distant destination. If you know a lot of science, that's a big waving flag that says "don't take the science in this movie too seriously." If you want hard science, go see Avatar. Yes, I know it's a mystical tale featuring giant blue people, but the furniture of the movie --- the spaceship, the base, the equipment they use --- is so well thought out it could have been taken from Hal Clement. Even concepts like the rock-lifting "flux tube," while highly exaggerated, are based on real scientific ideas. Prometheus is not Avatar. Prometheus is like a darker cousin to Star Trek: you know, the scary cousin from the other branch you only see at the family Halloween party, the one that occasionally forgets to take his medication. He may have flunked college physics, but he can sure spin a hell of a ghost story.

What I want to do is hold up Prometheus as a bad example of how to do science. I'm not saying Ridley Scott or the screenwriters don't know science, or even that they didn't think of or even film sequences which showed more science, sequences that unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor --- and with that I'm going to shelve my caveats. What I'm saying is that the released version of Prometheus presents a set of characters who are really poor scientists, and to show just how bad they are I'd like to compare them with the scientists in the 2011 version of The Thing, who, in contrast, do everything just about right.

But Wait ... What's a "Scientist"?

Good question. You can define them by what they do, which I'm going to try to do with this article.

But one thing scientists do is share their preliminary results with their colleagues to smoke out errors before they submit work for publication. While I make a living twiddling bits and juggling words, I was trained as (and still fancy myself as) a scientist, so I shared an early version of this essay with colleagues also trained as a scientist --- and one of them, a good friend, pointed out that there's a whole spectrum of real life scientists, from the careful to the irresponsible to the insane.

He noted "there's the platonic ideal of the Scientist, there's real-life science with its dirty little secrets, and then there's Hollywood science which is often and regrettably neither one of the previous two." So, to be clear, what I'm talking when I say scientist is the ideal scientist, Scientist-with-a-Capital-S, who does science the right way.

But to understand how the two groups of scientists in the two movies operate ... I'm going to have to spoil their plots.

Shh ... Spoilers

SPOILERS follow. If you don't want to know the plots of Prometheus and The Thing, stop reading as there are SPOILERS.

Both Prometheus and The Thing are "prequels" to classic horror movies, but the similarities don't stop there: both are stories about scientific expeditions to a remote place to study alien artifacts that prove unexpectedly dangerous when virulent, mutagenic alien life is found among the ruins. The Thing even begins with a tractor plowing through snow towards a mysterious, haunting signal, a shot which makes the tractor and its track look like a space probe rocketing towards its target --- a shot directly paralleling the early scenes of Prometheus that I mentioned earlier.

Both expeditions launch in secrecy, understandably concerned someone might "scoop" the discovery, and so both feature scientists "thrown off the deep end" with a problem. Because they're both horror movies challenging humans with existential threats, and not quasi-documentaries about how science might really work, both groups of scientists must first practice science in a "normal" mode, dealing with the expectedly unexpected, and then must shift to "abnormal" mode, dealing with unknown unknowns. "Normal" and "abnormal" science are my own definitions for the purpose of this article, to denote the two different modes in which science seems to get done in oh so many science fiction and horror movies --- science in the lab, and science when running screaming from the monster. However, as I'll explain later, even though abnormal science seems like a feature of horror movies, it's actually something that real scientists actually have a lot of experience with in the real world.

But even before the scientists in Prometheus shift to "abnormal" mode --- heck, even before they get to "normal" mode --- they go off the rails: first in how they picked the project in the first place, and second, in how they picked their team.

Why Scientists Pick Projects

You may believe Earth's Moon is made of cheese, but you're unlikely to convince NASA to dump millions into an expedition to verify your claims. Pictures of a swiss cheese wheel compared with the Moon's pockmarked surface won't get you there. Detailed mathematical models showing the correlations between the distribution of craters and cheese holes are still not likely to get you a probe atop a rocket; at best you'll get some polite smiles, because that hypothesis contradicts what we already know about the lunar surface. If, on the other hand, you cough up a spectrograph reading showing fragments of casein protein spread across the lunar surface, side by side with replication by an independent lab --- well, get packing, you're going to the Moon. What I'm getting at is that scientists are selective in picking projects --- and the more expensive the project, the more selective they get.

In one sense, science is the search for the truth, but if we look at the history of science, it isn't about proving the correctness of just any old idea: ideas are a dime a dozen. Science isn't about validating random speculations sparked by why different things look similar - for every alignment between the shoreline of Africa and South America that leads to a discovery like plate tectonics, there's a spurious match between the shape of the Pacific and the shape of the Moon that leads nowhere. (Believe it or not, this theory, which sounds ridiculous to us now, was a serious contender for the origin of the Moon many years, first proposed in 1881 by Osmond Fisher). Science is about following leads --- real evidence that leads to testable predictions, like not just a shape match between continents, but actual rock formations which are mirrored, down to their layering and fossils.

There's some subtlety to this. Nearly everybody who's not a scientist thinks that science is about finding evidence that confirms our ideas. Unfortunately, that's wrong: humans are spectacularly good at latching on evidence that confirms our ideas and spectacularly bad at picking up on evidence that disconfirms them. So we teach budding scientists in school that the scientific method depends on finding disconfirming evidence that proves bad ideas wrong. But experienced scientists funding expeditions follow follow precisely the opposite principle, at least at first: we need to find initial evidence that supports a speculation before we follow it up by looking for disconfirming evidence.

That's not to say an individual scientist can't test out even a wild and crazy idea, but even an individual scientist only has one life. In practice, we want to spend our limited resources on likely bets. For example, Einstein spent the entire latter half of his life trying to unify gravitation and quantum mechanics, but he'd probably have been better off spending a decade each on three problems rather than spending thirty years in complete failure. When it gets to a scientific expedition with millions invested and lives on the line, the effect is more pronounced. We can't simply follow every idea: we need good leads.

Prometheus fails this test, at least in part. The scientists begin with a good lead: in a series of ancient human cultures, none of whom have had prior contact, they find almost identical pictures, all of which depict an odd tall creature pointing to a specific constellation in the sky not visible without a telescope, a constellation with a star harboring an Earthlike planet. As leads go, that's pretty good: better than mathematical mappings between Swiss cheese holes and lunar crater sizes, but not quite as good as a spectrograph reading. It's clearly worth conducting astronomical studies or sending a probe to learn more.

But where the scientists fail is they launch a trillion dollar expedition to investigate this distant planet, an expedition which, we learn later, was actually bankrolled not because of the good lead but because of a speculation by Elizabeth, one of the paleontologists, that the tall figure in the ancient illustration is an "Engineer" who is responsible for engineering humanity, thousands of years ago. This speculation is firmly back in the lunar cheese realm because, as one character points out, it contradicts an enormous amount of biological evidence. What makes it worse is that Elizabeth has no mathematical model or analogy or even myth to point to on why she believes it: she says she simply chooses to believe it.

If I was funding the Prometheus expedition, I'd have to ask: why? Simply saying she later proves to be right is no answer: right answers reached the wrong way still aren't good science. Simply saying she has faith is not an answer; that explains why she continues to hold the belief, but not how she formed it in the first place. Or, more accurately, how she justified her belief: as one of of my colleagues reading this article pointed out, it really doesn't matter why she came to believe it, only how she came to support it. After all, the chemist Kekulé supposedly figured out benzene's ring shape after dreaming about a snake biting its tail --- but he had a lot of accumulated evidence to support that idea once he had it. So, what evidence led Elizabeth to believe that her intuition was correct?

Was there some feature of the target planet that makes it look like it is the origin of life on Earth? No, from the descriptions, it doesn't seem Earthlike enough. Was there some feature of the rock painting that makes the tall figures seem like they created humans? No, the figure looks more like a herald. So what sparked this idea in her? We just don't know. If there was some myth or inscription or pictogram or message or signal or sign or spectrogram or artifact that hinted in that direction, we could understand the genesis of her big idea, but she doesn't tell us, even though she's directly asked, and has more than enough time to say why using at least one of those words. Instead, because the filmmakers are playing with big questions without really understanding how those kinds of questions are asked or answered, she just says it's what she chooses to believe.

But that's not a good reason to fund a trillion dollar scientific expedition. Too many people choose to believe too many things for us to send spacecraft to every distant star that someone happens to wish upon --- we simply don't have enough scientists, much less trillions. If you want to spend a trillion dollars on your own idea, of course, please knock yourself out.

Now, if we didn't know the whole story of the movie, we could cut them slack based on their other scientific lead, and I'll do so because I'm not trying to bash the movie, but to bash the scientists that it depicts. And while for the rest of this article I'm going to be comparing Prometheus with The Thing, that isn't fair in this case. The team from Prometheus follows up a scientific lead for a combination of reasons, one pretty good, one pretty bad. The team from The Thing finds a fricking alien spacecraft, or, if you want to roll it back further, they find an unexplained radio signal in the middle of a desert which has been dead for millions of years and virtually uninhabited by humans in its whole history. This is one major non-parallel between the two movies: unlike the scientists of Prometheus, who had to work hard for their meager scraps of leads, the scientists in The Thing had their discovery handed to them on a silver platter.

How Scientists Pick Teams

Science is an organized body of knowledge based on the collection and analysis of data, but it isn't just the product of any old data collection and analysis: it's based on a method, a method which is based on analyzing empirical data objectively in a way which can be readily duplicated by others. Science is subtle and hard to get right. Even smart, educated, well-meaning people can fool themselves, so it's important for the people doing it to be well trained so that common mistakes in evidence collection and reasoning can be avoided.

Both movies begin with real research to establish the scientific credibility of the investigators. Early in Prometheus, the scientists Elizabeth and Charlie are shown at an archaeological dig, and later the android David practices some very real linguistics --- studying Schleicher's Fable, a highly speculative but non-fictional attempt to reconstruct early human languages --- to prepare for a possible meeting with the Engineers that Elizabeth and Charlie believe they've found. Early in The Thing, Edvard's team is shown carefully following up on a spurious radio signal found near their site, and the paleontologist Kate uses an endoscope to inspect the interior of a specimen extracted from pack ice (just to be clear, one not related to Edvard's discovery).

But in Prometheus, things almost immediately begin to go wrong. The team which made the initial discovery is marginalized, and the expedition to study their results is run by a corporate executive, Meredith, who selects a crew based on personal loyalty or willingness to accept hazard pay. Later, we find there are good reasons why Meredith picked who she did --- within the movie's logic, well worth the trillion dollars her company spent bankrolling the expedition --- but those criteria aren't scientific, and they produce an uninformed, disorganized crew whose expedition certainly explores a new world, but doesn't really do science.

The lead scientist of The Thing, Edvard, in contrast, is a scientist in charge of a substantial team on a mission of its own when he makes the discovery that starts the movie. He studies it carefully before calling in help, and when he does call in help, he calls in a close friend --- Sander, a dedicated scientist in his own right, so world-renowned that Kate recognizes him on sight. He in turn selects Kate based on another personal recommendation, because he's trying to select a team of high caliber. Sander clashes with Kate when she questions his judgment, but these are just disagreements and don't lead to foul consequences.

In short, The Thing picks scientists to do science, and this difference from Prometheus shows up almost immediately in how they choose to attack their problems.

Why Scientists Don't Bungee Jump Into Random Volcanoes

Normal science is the study of things that aren't unexpectedly trying to kill you. There may be a hazardous environment, like radiation or vacuum or political unrest, and your subject itself might be able to kill you, like a virus or a bear or a volcano, but in normal science, you know all this going in, and can take adequate precaution. Scaredycats who aren't willing to study radioactive bears on the surface of Mount Explodo while dodging the rebel soldiers of Remotistan should just stay home and do something safe, like simulate bear populations on their laptops using Mathematica. The rest of us know the risks.

Because risk is known, it's important to do science the right way. To collect data not just for the purposes of collecting it, but to do so in context. If I've seen a dozen bees today, what conclusions can you draw? Nothing. You don't know if I'm in a jungle or a desert or even if I'm a beekeeper. Even if I told you I was a beekeeper and I'd just visited a hive, you don't even know if a dozen bees is a low number, a high number, or totally unexpected. Is it a new hive just getting started, or an old hive dying out? Is it summer or winter? Did I record at noon or midnight? Was I counting inside or outside the hive? Even if you knew all that, you can interpret the number better if you know the recent and typical statistics for beehives in that region, plus maybe the weather, plus ...

What I'm getting at that it does you no good as a scientist to bungee jump into random volcanoes to snap pictures of bubbling lava, no matter how photogenic that looks on the cover of National Geographic or Scientific American. Science works when we record observations in context, so we can organize the data appropriately and develop models of its patterns, explanations of its origins and theories about its meaning. Once again, there's a big difference in the kind of normal-science data collection depicted in Prometheus and The Thing. With one or two notable exceptions, the explorers in Prometheus don't do organized data collection at all - they blunder around almost completely without context.

How (Not) to Do Normal Science

In Prometheus, after spending two whole years approaching the alien world LV223, the crew lands and begins exploring without more than a cursory survey. We know this because the ship arrives on Christmas, breaks orbit, flies around seemingly at random until one of our heroes leaps from his chair because he's sighted a straight line formation, and then the ship lands, disgorging a crew of explorers eager to open their Christmas presents. We can deduce from this that less than a day has passed from arrival to landing, which is not enough time to do enough orbits to complete a full planetary survey. We can furthermore deduce that the ship had no preplanned route because then the destination would not have been enough of a surprise for our hero to leap out of his chair (despite the seat-belt sign) and redirect the landing. Once the Prometheus lands, the crew performs only a modest atmospheric survey before striking out for the nearest ruin. In true heroic space opera style this ruin just happens to have a full stock of all the interesting things that they might want to encounter, and as a moviegoer, I wasn't bothered by that. But it's not science.

Planets are big. Really big. The surface area of the Earth is half a billon square kilometers. The surface area of a smaller world, one possibly more like LV223, is just under a hundred fifty million square kilometers. You're not likely to find anything interesting just by wandering around for a few hours at roughly the speed of sound. The crew is shown to encounter a nasty storm because they don't plan ahead, but even an archaeological site is too big to stumble about hoping to find something, much less the mammoth Valley of the Kings style complex the Prometheus lands in. Here the movie both fails and succeeds at showing the protagonists doing science: they blunder out on the surface despite having perfectly good mapping technology (well, speaking as this is one of my actual areas of expertise, really awesome mapping technology), which they later use to map the inside of a structure, enabling one of the movie's key discoveries. (The other key discovery is made as a result of David spending two years studying ancient languages so he can decipher and act on alien hieroglyphs, and he has his own motives for deliberately keeping the other characters in the dark, so props to the filmmakers there: he's doing bad science for his team, but shown to be doing good science on his own, for clearly explained motives).

SO ANYWAY, a scientific expedition would have been mapping from the beginning to provide context for observations and to direct explorations. A scientific expedition would have released an army of small satellites to map the surface; left them up to predict weather; launched a probe to assess ground conditions; and, once they landed, launched that awesome flock of mapping drones to guide them to the target. The structure of the movie could have remained the same - and still shown science.

The Thing provides an example of precisely this behavior. The explorers in The Thing don't stumble across it. They're in Antarctica on a long geological survey expedition to extract ice cores. They've mapped the region so thoroughly that spurious radio transmissions spark their curiosity. Once the ship and alien are found, they survey the area carefully in both horizontal and vertical elevation, build maps, assess the structure of the ice, and set up a careful archeological dig. When the paleontologist Kate arrives, they can tell her where the spacecraft and alien are, roughly how long the spacecraft has been there, and even estimate the fracturability of the ice is like around the specimen based on geological surveys, and already have collected all the necessary equipment. Kate is so impressed she exclaims that the crew of the base doesn't really need her. And maybe they don't. But they're careful scientists on the verge of a momentous discovery, and they don't want to screw it up.

Real Scientists Don't Take off Their Helmets

Speaking of screwing up momentous discoveries, here's a pro tip: don't take off your helmet on an alien world, even if you think the atmosphere is safe, if you later plan to collect biological samples and compare them with human DNA, as the crew does in Prometheus. Humans are constantly flaking off bits of skin and breathing out droplets of moisture filled with cells and fragments of cells, and taking off a helmet could irrevocably contaminate the environment. The filmmakers can't even point to the idea that you could tell human from alien DNA because ultimately chemicals are chemicals: the way you tell human from alien DNA is to collect and sequence it, and in an alien environment filled with unknown chemicals, human-deposited samples could quickly break down into something that looked alien. You might get lucky ... but you probably won't. Upon reading this article, one of my colleagues complained to me that this was an unfair criticism because it's a simply a filmmaker's convention to let the audience see the faces of the actors, but regardless of whether you buy that for the purpose of making an engaging space opera with great performances by fine actors, it nevertheless portrays these scientists in a very bad light. No crew of careful scientists is going to take off their helmets, even if they think they've mysteriously found a breathable atmosphere.

The movie Avatar gets this right when, even in a dense jungle, one character notices another open a sample container with his mouth (to keep his hands free) and points out that he's contaminated the sample. The Thing also addresses the same issue: one key point of contention between paleontologist Kate and her superior Sander is that Sander wants to take a sample to confirm that their find is alien and that Kate does not because she doesn't want the sample to be contaminated. Both are right: Kate's more cautious approach preserves the sample, while Sander's more experienced approach would have protected the priority of his discovery from other labs if it really was alien, or let them all down early if the sample just was some oddly frozen Earth animal. My sympathy is with Kate, but my money is actually on Sander here: with a discovery as important as finding alien life on Earth, it's critically important to exclude as soon as possible the chance that what we've found is actually a contorted yak. More than enough of the sample remained undisturbed, and likely uncontaminated, to guard against Kate's fears.

Unfortunately, neither the crew of Prometheus or The Thing get the chance to be proved lucky or right.

How (Not) to Do Abnormal Science

Abnormal science is my term for what scientists do when "everything's gone to pot" and lives are on the line. This happens more often than you might think: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are two recent examples. Strictly speaking, what happens in abnormal science isn't science, that is, the controlled collection of data designed to enhance the state of human knowledge. Instead, it's crisis mitigation, a mixture of first responses, disaster management and improvisational engineering designed to blunt the unfolding harm. Even engineering isn't science; it's a procedure for tackling a problem by methodically collecting what's known to set constraints on a library of best practices that are used to develop solutions. The tools of science may get used in the improvisational engineering that happens after a disaster, but it's rarely a controlled study: instead, what gets used are the collected data, the models, the experimental methods and more importantly the precautions that scientists use to keep themselves from getting hurt.

One scientific precaution often applied in abnormal science which Prometheus and The Thing both get right is quarantine. When dealing with a destructive transmissible condition, like an infectious organism or a poisonous material, the first thing to do is to quarantine it: isolate the destructive force until it's neutralized, until the vector of spread is stopped, or until the potential targets are hardened or inoculated. After understandable moments of incredulity, both the crew of the Prometheus and The Thing implement quarantines to stop the spread of the biological agent and then decisively up the ante once its full spread is known.

The next scientific precaution applied in abnormal science is putting the health of team members first. So, for goodness's sake, if you've opened your helmet on an alien world, start feeling under the weather, and then see a tentacle poke out of your eye, don't shrug it off, put your helmet back on and venture out onto a hostile alien world as part of a rescue mission! On scientific expeditions, ill crewmembers do not go on data collection missions, nor do they go on rescue missions. That's just putting yourself and everyone else around you in danger - and the character in question in Prometheus pays with his life for it. In The Thing, in contrast, when a character gets mildly sick after an initial altercation, the team immediately prepares to medivac him to safety (this is before the need for a quarantine is known).

Another precaution observed in abnormal science is full information sharing. In both the Fukushima Daiishi and Deepwater Horizon disasters, lack of information sharing slowed down the potential response to the disaster - though in the Fukushima case it was a result of the general chaos of a country-rocking earthquake while in the Deepwater Horizon case it was a deliberate and in some cases criminal effort at information hiding in an attempt to create positive spin. The Prometheus crew has even the Deepwater Horizon event beat. On a relatively small ship, there are no less than seven distinct groups, all of whom hide critical information from each other - sometimes when there's not even a good motivation to. (For the record, these groups are (1) the mission sponsor Weyland who hides himself and the real mission from the crew, (2) the mission leader Meredith who's working for and against Weyland, (3) the android David who's both working with and hiding information from Weyland, Meredith, the crew and everyone else, (4) the regular scientific crew trying to do their jobs, (5) the Captain who then directs the crew via a comlink and then hides information for no clear reason, (6) the scientist Charlie who hides information about his illness from the crew and his colleague and lover Elizabeth, and finally (7) Elizabeth, who like the crew is just trying to do her job, but ends up having to hide information about her alien "pregnancy" from them to retain freedom of action). There are good story reasons why everyone ends up being so opposed, but as an example of how to do science or manage a disaster ... well, let's say predictable shenanigans ensue.

In The Thing, in contrast, there are three groups: Kate, who has a conservative approach, Sander, who has a studious approach, and everyone else. Once the shit hits the fan, both Kate and Sander share their views with everyone in multiple all-hands meetings (though Sander does at one point try to have a closed door meeting with Kate to sort things out). Sander pushes for a calm, methodical approach, which Kate initially resists but then participates with, helping her make key discoveries which end up detecting the alien presence relatively early. Then Kate pushes for a quarantine approach, which Sander resists but then participates in, volunteering key ideas which the alien force thinks are good enough to try to sabotage. Only at the end, when Kate suggests a test that the uninfected Sander knows full well will result in a false positive result for him, do they really get at serious loggerheads - but they're not given a chance to resolve this, as the science ends and the action movie starts at that point.

The Importance of Peer Review

I enjoyed Prometheus. I saw it twice. I'll buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray or something. I loved its focus on big questions, which it raised and explored and didn't always answer. It was pretty and gory and pretty gory. It pulled off the fair trick of adding absolute classic scenes to the horror genre, like Elizabeth's self-administered Ceasarean section, and absolute classic scenes to the scifi genre, like the David in the star map sequence - and perhaps even the crashing alien spacecraft inexorably rolling towards our heroes counts as both classic horror and classic science fiction at the same time.

But as Ridley Scott was quoted as saying, Prometheus was a movie, not a science lesson. The Thing is too. Like Prometheus, the accuracy of the scientific backdrop of The Thing is a full spectrum mixture of dead on correct (the vastness of space) to questionable (where do the biological constructs created by the black goo in Prometheus get their added mass? how can the Thing possibly be so smart that it can simulate whole humans so well that no-one can tell them apart?) to genre tropes (faster than light travel, alien life being compatible with human life) to downright absurd (humanoid aliens creating human life on Earth, hyperintelligent alien monsters expert at imitation screaming and physically assaulting people rather than simply making them coffee laced with Thing cells).

I'm not going to pretend either movie got it right. Neither Prometheus nor The Thing are good sources of scientific facts --- both include a great deal of cinematic fantasy.

But one of them can teach you how to do science.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a mashup of The Thing and Prometheus's movie posters, salsa'd under fair use guidelines.

Thanks to: Jim Davies, Keiko O'Leary, and Gordon Shippey for commenting on early drafts of this article. Many of the good ideas are theirs, but the remaining errors are my own.

The Future of Warfare

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Every day, a new viral share sparks through the Internet, showing robots and drones and flying robot drones playing tennis while singing the theme to James Bond. At the same time we've seen shares of area-denying heat rays and anti-speech guns that disrupt talking ... and it all starts to sound a little scary. Vijay Kumar's TED talk on swarms of flying robots reminded me that I've been saying privately to friends for years years that the military applications of flying robots are coming ... for the first time, we'll have a technology that can replace infantry at taking and holding ground.
The four elements of military power are infantry, who take and hold ground, cavalry, which break up infantry, artillery, which softens up positions from a distance, and supply, which moves the first three elements into position. In our current world those are still human infantry, human piloted tanks, human piloted bombers, and human piloted aircraft carriers.
We already have automated drones for human-free (though human-controlled) artillery strikes. Soon we will have the capacity to have webs of armed flying robots acting as human-free infantry holding ground. Autonomous armored vehicles acting as human-free cavalry are farther out, because the ground is a harder problem than the air, but they can't be too far in the future. Aircraft carriers and home bases we can assume can be manned for a while.

So then soon, into cities that have been softened up by drone strikes, we'll have large tanks like OGREs trundling in serving as refueling stations for armies of armored flying helicopters who will spread out to control the ground. No longer will we need to throw lives away to hold a city ... we'll be able to do it from a distance with robots. One of the reasons I love The Phantom Menace is that is shows this kind of military force in action.
Once a city is taken, drones can be used for more than surveillance ... a drone with the ability to track a person can become a flying assassin, or at least force someone to ditch any networked technology. Perhaps they'll even be able to loot items or, if they're large and able enough, even kidnap people.
It would be enormously difficult to fight such a robotic force. A robotic enemy can use a heat ray to deny people access to an area or a noise gun to flush them out. Camera detection technology can be used to flush out anyone trying to deploy countermeasures. Radar flashlights can be used to find hiding humans by their heartbeats, speech jammers can be used to prevent them from coordinating, and face detection you probably have on your phone will work against anyone venturing out in the open. I've seen a face detector in the lab combined with a targeting system and a nerf gun almost nail someone ... and now a similar system is in the wild. The system could destroy anyone who had a face.
And don't get me started on terminators and powered armor.
Now, I am a futurist, transhumanist, Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, very interested in promoting a better future ... but all too familiar with false prophecies of the field. Critics of futurism are fond of pointing out that many glistening promises of the future have never come to pass. But we don't need a full success for these technologies to be deployed. Many of the pieces already exist, and even if they're partially deployed, partially effective mostly controlled by humans ... they could be awesome weapons of warfare ... or repression.
The future of warfare is coming. And it's scary. I'd say I don't think we can stop it, and on one level I don't ... but we've had some success in turning back from poison gas, are making progress on land mines, and maybe even nuclear weapons. So it is possible to step back from the brink ... but I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater the way we seem to have done with nuclear power (to the climate's great detriment). As my friend Jim Davies said to me, 99% of the technologies we'd need to build killbots have nothing to do with killbots, and could do great good.
In the Future of Warfare series on this blog, I'm going to monitor developing weapons trends, both military systems and civilian technologies, realistic and unrealistic, in production and under speculation. I'm going to try to apply my science fiction writer's hat to imagine possible weapons systems, my scientist's hat to explore the technologies to build them, and my skeptic's hat to help discard the ones that don't hold water. Hint: it's highly likely people will invent new ways to hurt each other ... but highly unlikely that Skynet will decide our fate in a millisecond.
A bright future awaits us in the offworld colonies ... but if we want to get there, we need to be careful about the building blocks we use.
-the Centaur
Pictured: an OGRE miniature. This blogpost is an expansion of an earlier Google+ post.

efface[john-mccarthy;universe]

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John McCarthy, creator of Lisp and one of the founders of the field of artificial intelligence, has died.

He changed the world more than Steve Jobs ... but in a far subtler way, by laying the foundation for programs like Apple's Siri through his artificial intelligence work, or more broadly by laying the foundation for much of modern computing through innovations like the IF-THEN-ELSE formalism.

It's important not to overstate the impact of great men like John and Steve; artificial intelligence pioneers like Marvin Minsky would have pushed us forward without John, and companies like Xerox and Microsoft would have pushed us forward without Steve. But we're certainly better off, and farther along, with their contributions.

I have only three stories to tell about John McCarthy. The third story is that I last saw him at a conference at IBM, in a mobile scooter and not looking very well. Traveling backwards in time, the second story is that I spoke with one of his former graduate students, who saw a John McCarthy poster in my office, and told me John's illness had progressed to the point where he basically couldn't program any more and that he was feeling very sad about it.

But what I want to remember is my first encounter with John ... it's been a decade and a half, so my memory's fuzzy, but I recall it was at AAAI-97 in Providence, Rhode Island. I'd arrived at the conference in a terrible snafu and had woken up a friend at 4 in the morning because I had no place to stay. I wandered the city looking for H.P. Lovecraft landmarks and had trouble finding them, though I did see a house some think inspired Dreams in the Witch House.

But near the end, at a dinner for AI folks, I want to say at Waterplace Park but I could be misremembering, I bumped in to John McCarthy. He was holding court at the end of the table, and as the evening progressed I ended up following him and a few friends to a bar, where we hung out for an evening.

And there, the grand old man of artificial intelligence, still at the height of his powers, regaled the wet-behind-the-ears graduate student from Atlanta with tales of his grand speculative ideas, beyond that of any science fiction writer, to accelerate galaxies to the speed of light to save shining stars from the heat death of the universe.

We'll miss you, John.

-Anthony

Image stolen shamelessly from Zach Beane's blog. The title of this post is taken from the Lisp 1.5 Programmer's Manual, and is the original, pre-implementation Lisp M-expression notation for code to remove an item from a list.

Taking Criticism

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At Comic-Con I catch up with a lot of old buddies, particularly one of the Edge who's solidered through many drafts of my early stories.

He's got a script he's working on, and is making a lot of progress. In contrast we know a friend who's written a dozen scripts and is making no progress at all. Why?

One of the conclusions we came to is that it's important to accept criticism of your work. Timely feedback is critical to improved performance - but you must respond to it.

I think writers should put down all their dumb ideas and then convince everyone that they're brilliant. Your quirky ideas are your contribution - I mean, who'd think a story about a naked blue guy and a homeless vigilante investigating a murder would make one of the greatest comics of all time, but hey, that's Watchmen.

But you've got to sell those ideas. "Ideas are a dime a dozen, but a great implementation is priceless." So if you show someone your story with a naked blue superhero and they don't buy it - you have to fix your story.

That doesn't mean you take out the naked blue guy, even if your critics want you to. It's your story, and just because it doesn't work for someone they may not know the right way to fix it. It's up to you, the author, to figure out how to solve the problem.

Readers give bad advice about how to fix stories because people are notoriously bad at introspection. If someone gets a funny bad feeling about the manuscript, they may latch on to the most salient unusual feature - not realizing it's the bad dialogue or structure which gives them indigestion.

But authors are also notoriously bad at accepting criticism because they take the criticism as a personal attack. But if you get criticism on your story, you've done a great thing: you've produced a story that can be evaluated.

Authors are also bad at accepting criticism because they have fragile little egos. But you can't afford to explain everything away. If people are complaining about your story, they did so for a reason. You need to figure out what that is - and it's your problem, not theirs.

So, if you get criticism on your story you don't think is fair, you get one --- ONE --- chance to explain yourself. If your critic doesn't immediately get it, then --- even if you don't agree --- say, "Yes, thank you, I'll take it under advisement."

Then put it in your trip computer and remember it for later. If others see the same thing, you have a problem. If you personally start to feel even slightly the same way, you have a BIG problem.

But your biggest problem is not taking criticism at all. Me and my friend have encountered a fair number of leaders whose egos are so fragile they've insulated themselves from all criticism.

You can still achieve some degree of success in an echo chamber if you're willing to critique yourself and you have high artistic standars. But usually it just makes for unnecessarily flawed stories, movies and products - and an unnecessary slide towards the dustbin when your ideas stop working.

So if you're lucky enough to have someone who reads your pre-baked work and gives you feedback, listen carefully, explain at most once, and take the criticism gracefully. Your art will be the better for it in the long run.

taking criticism graciously

-the Centaur

Oh, the point … what Warren Ellis uses.

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books, montalbano, reflected books, and gabby

Oh, there was a reason I got on the Warren Ellis kick. He posted a note on what he uses to write. Maybe I'll me-too sometime and post a note on the tools I use, already having done the why and the how, but for now I wanted to focus on the following piece of wisdom from Warren Ellis which should be familiar to anyone who's ever worked on a Ph.D. thesis:

Back-ups. Oh, my god. Burning your stuff to CD or DVD is not good enough. Trust me on that. Things go wrong. Understand that Storage Will Always Fail. Always. I have a ruggedised, manly and capacious 32GB USB memory stick that can withstand fire, water, gunshots and the hairy arseteeth of Cthulhu itself — but my daughter decided she wanted to liberate one of my bags for her use, took the stick out of it and put it ’somewhere safe.’ It has never been seen again. Storage Will Always Fail.

Dropbox is your friend. 2GB of storage for free, a frankly superb little piece of software that syncs your stuff off into the cloud as easily and simply and clearly as possible. I know writers, artists and tv producers who swear by Dropbox, and so do I. I have Dropbox on both computers. If you have a smart phone of the iOS or Android type, you can also have an Dropbox instance on your phone, a fact that’s saved my arse more than once.

I also auto-sync Computer 1 hourly to Jungle Disk. Very cheap, very good. My media library lives on another storage service, Zumodrive, that lives both in the cloud and on my machine as a z:/ drive. (The Zumodrive application also lives on Computer 2.)

Also, I do all mail through Gmail. Which means that a copy of every document I send off lives in the Gmail cloud.

And every five minutes or so, a Western Digital 1TB MyBook copies everything on Computer 1’s desktop.

Paranoid? Yes. Covered? Yes.

Got that, everyone? If you write, especially if you want to do it for a living, go do something like this. And for God's sake, please, keep a copy offsite. I know too many people who have lost their homes and their art or writing to fire.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Books, Montalbano, reflected books, and Gabby - a reminder to me that my library is a potential firetrap (God forbid!) and that I should be better at storing stuff offsite.

Guest Posting for Blogathon at A Novel Friend

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My friend from the DragonWriters, Trisha Wooldridge, is participating in the Blogathon - sort of the 24 Hour Comic Day for bloggers - and I'm sponsoring one slot with a donation to Bay State Equine Rescue and a guest post on "Greed and Charity". A teaser:

At the beginnings of their careers, a lot of authors and other creative types are obsessed with making money off what they produce and are deathly afraid of people stealing it. I've seen people charging their friends for copies of short stories printed in magazines, putting their artwork on the web behind passwords or with huge watermarks, or pricing their software out of reach of the people who want to buy it. But this doesn't help them - in fact, it hurts. And I'm here to tell you to give stuff away for free.

If you want to read the whole post, please check it out at her blog, A Novel Friend - it should go up sometime this weekend.

-the Centaur

15 Books

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shoulder cat sees farther

Recently I got nailed with the following note on Facebook or Myspace or some other damn thing:

"Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Copy the instructions into your own note, and be sure to tag the person who tagged you."

Well, neo-Luddite that I am, I don't want to encourage this whole walled-garden social networking thing, so I'm not going to post a note there until I can effortlessly crosspost with my blog and everywhere else. But I can come up with 15 books:

  • Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
    Convinced me to get into Artificial Intelligence. I've probably read it half a dozen times. Has a fantastic layered structure that Hofstadter uses to great effect.
  • The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky
    Opened my mind to new ways of thinking about thinking and AI. Also read it several times. Has a fantastic one-chapter-per-page format that really works well to communicate complicated ideas very simply.
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Feynman, Leighton and Sands
    Taught me more about physics than the half-dozen classes I took at Georgia Tech. I've read it now about four times, once on paper (trying to work out as many derivations as I could as I went) and three times on audiobook.
  • Programming Pearls by Jon Bentley
    Opened my mind to new ways about both thinking and programming. The chapter on estimation blew my mind.
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
    A true epic, though it's probably better to start with the Virtue of Selfishness if you want to understand her philosophy. Every time I think some of Atlas Shrugged's characters are ridiculous parodies, I meet someone like them in real life.
  • Decision at Doona by Anne McCaffrey
    I must have read this a dozen times as a child. I still remember two characters: a child who was so enamored of the catlike aliens he started wearing a tail, and a hard-nosed military type who refused to eat local food so he could not develop cravings for the foods of (or attachments to the cultures of) the worlds he visited.
  • The Belgariad by David Eddings
    A great fantasy epic, with all of the scale but none of the bad writing and pointless digressions of The Lord of the Rings. I've heard someone dismiss Eddings as "third carbon Tolkien" but, you know what? Get over yourselves. Tolkien wasn't the first person to write in the genre, and he won't be the last.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
    All of the adventure of the Lord of the Rings, but none of its flaws. The long journey through the great dark forest and the Battle of Five Armies still stick in my mind. I like this the best out of what Tolkien I've read (which includes The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion, and some other darn thing I can't remember).
  • The Dragon Circle by Stephen Krensky
    Loved it as a child. Still have a stuffed dragon named "Shortflight" after this book.
  • Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini
    Another true epic, this time a graphic novel. Resonates with me in a way that few other fantasy epics do. I have the first 20-issue series in a massive hardbound volume which is now apparently worth a shitload of money. Out of my cold dead fingers, pry it will you.
  • Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming: Case Studies in Common Lisp by Peter Norvig
    Yes, your programming can kick ass. Let Peter show you how.
  • Reason in Human Affairs by Herbert Simon
    Helped me understand the powers and the limits of human reason, and why we need emotion to survive in this complicated world.
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
    More than anything, I appreciate this book for a few key vignettes that made me realize how important it was to understand other people and where they are coming from, and not to impose my own preconceptions upon them.
  • The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers by Ayn Rand
    Straight talk about fiction from one of its most effective writers. You don't have to agree with Ayn Rand's personal philosophy or even like her fiction books to learn from this book; half her examples are drawn from authors she personally doesn't agree with.
  • In the Arena by Richard Nixon
    Straight talk about surviving in politics from one of its most flawed yet effective masters. A glimpse into the workings of a brilliant mind, broken down into different sections on different aspects of life. Don't bother reading this if you feel you owe a debt to your personal political leanings to say something nasty about Richard Nixon in every sentence in which you mention him simply because Nixon did some bad things. (Note: I think that Nixon's alleged crimes are the worst of any President, because they attacked his political opponents, undermining our democracy. However, his political philosophy, once divorced from his personal paranoia, is something very important people need to understand).

What did I forget? The Bible, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Das Energi by Paul Wilson, The Celestine Prophecies by James Redfield, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, One Two Three Infinity by George Gamow, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Unfinished Synthesis by Niles Eldredge, Neutron Star by Larry Niven, The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, the collected works of Martin Gardner, Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Albedo Anthropomorphics by Steven Galacci, and of course, Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, the Volume Library, and before that, back in the dawn of time, the World Book Encyclopedia. Read into that list what you will.

Blogosphere, consider yourselves tagged - your turn.

-the Centaur

Renewing the Library

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Recently I started to notice that the design of the Library is getting long in the tooth.  One friend who was a web designer commented that it looked very "old Internet".  I've watched another friend innovate on his blog design while mine was staying still.  Work on my wife's web site made me revisit some of my choices, adding a description and picture but making few other changes.  I know the site needs a redesign because I have a lot more material coming out soon, but the final trigger was when I couldn't attend a talk and looked up one of the authors to learn more about their work - I think it was Oren Etzioni - and I was struck by his straightforward site design which enabled me to quickly find out what he was working on.

SO, I'm redesigning the Library.

I'm an artist in addition to an author and researcher, so simply gutting the site and making it simpler wasn't my goal: I have specific ideas about what I want the site to look like, and I started designing a new one.  Partway through that redesign, I noticed that I was doing a fair amount of research work - examining other blogs that I admired, investigating blog widgets, investigating CSS and HTML advances, researching color theory and design principles - but not blogging any of it.  In fact, come to think of it, typically when people redesign their sites they put all their work under a bushel, trying to hide their planned change until the last possible moment, possibly exposing it to a few trusted users in beta or with an alternate link prior to springing it on the world as if freshly formed and fully new.

Well, phooey on that.  The thought process that a web designer goes through producing a web site is interesting (well, to other web site designers, anyway) and provides a valuable resource to other designers doing their work.  I wished that other people had blogged the process that they went through and the alternatives they explored, as it would help me make my own choices - but you know what?  I don't control other people.  I only control me.  And if someone else hasn't filled the gap, then it's my own responsibility to come up with something to meet my needs. 

SO, I'm going to blog the redesign of my blog.  How "meta".

There's far too much to put into a single blog entry, so I'll start off going over the thought process that led to the design in more detail, then explain my strategy.  The first thing that I did was look at other web sites that I admire.  Earlier when working on my wife's web site I found a number of beautiful looking blogs, but when I started the redesign, I started my search over, focusing on sites of artificial intelligence researchers, bloggers, writers, and artists, trying to find ones I instinctively admired with interesting ideas, features or appearances that I could steal.  Some of these included:

  • Oren Etzioni's Home Page: Quickly Present What You Are Doing
    An "old school" (not that there's anything wrong with that) web site from an academic researcher, it has an "old style nav bar" up top that quickly tells you how to find his publications.  Below that is text which points you to his research projects and most cited publications.   From this I gleaned:
    • Organize your work into logical areas
    • Make navigation between areas easy
    • Put things people want up up front
  • Rough Type by Nicholas Carr: Put Your Content Front and Center
    Featuring a straightforward design that gets you straight to his content, Rough Type also has an author blurb and a pointer to his most famous article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and his book "The Big Switch" The key points I gleaned from the site:
    • Get your content out front and center
    • Tell people who you are
    • Point them to your best work
  • Vast and Infinite by Gordon Shippey: Show the Author, Try Fun Features
    Written by an old buddy from Georgia Tech, Vast and Infinite isn't that different from Rough Type.  However, he's constantly innovating, adding a site bio and author picture, tweaking his banner, adding shared items and flickr gadgets and more, whereas my blog tends to stand still.  The lessons from this:
    • Show people your picture
    • Keep your content front and center (sound familiar?)
    • Trying out new technologies generates interest in the site
  • Home Page of Jim Davies: Show the Author, Organize Your Site Logically
    Jim Davies is another academic researcher, with a much more modern site.  Like Oren Etzioni, he has a navbar, but also a large picture, a more detailed description, and links to his art, store and blog.  Unlike Oren, each area of the site seems a little more organized, without the duplicated links to publications and the odd inclusion of news articles in his personal page.  Jim takes this further by having extra blogs just for rants and links.  My takehomes were:
    • An academic site can have a modern design
    • Showing people your picture creates interest
    • Don't be afraid to segregate content into areas
  • Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy: Tell People About Your Work, and Share It
    Two of the greats in artificial intelligence have interesting sites filled with lots of content.  Both start with a description of them and their work and then continue with many, many links to their most prominent work.  Minsky puts up chapters of his most recent book; McCarthy includes a lot of narrative that gives context.  What I like:
    • Tell people what your site is about using narrative
    • Put work you are interested in front and center
    • Fill your site with lots of content
  • Greg Egan's Home Page: Fill Your Site With Lots of Content, and Share Your Research
    Greg Egan is an author I admire primarily for his novel Permutation City and his short story Dark Integers, though I have more of his books in the queue.  His site's layout is a little harder to read than some of the others, but it is filled with pointers to all of his work, to the research that he did to create the work, and applets and essays related to his work.  The takehome from this firehose is:
    • Fill your site with lots of content
    • Share the research you did on how you p
      roduced your work
    • Don't be afraid to promote your work by showing it to people

There was one more site that kicked this all off, which I will hold in my pocket for a minute while I talk about opinions.

Unlike Jacob Nielsen, I don't have research backing up these conclusions: they're really just guesses about what makes these site work, or, worse, just my opinions about what it is that that I like about these sites.  What's dangerous about opinions is that recent scientific work seems to indicate that they're often post-hoc explanations of our instinctive reactions, and they're often wrong.  So, to combat this tendency, I looked at other resources that specialize in information about good design of web sites to try to get information about what I "should" do.  I don't pretend I've absorbed all the information in these sites, but am simply including them to show you the kinds of things that I looked at:

  • Jacob Nielsen's UseIt.com: Make your site fast, simple and standards based
    Jacob Nielsen's site on web site usability is so simple it hurts my eyes.  I don't like to actually look at it, but I do like the ideas.  He's got a breakdown of recent news on the right and fixed web site content on the left; the idea of the breakdown is good but seems opposed to my goal to work with Western left-to-right reading.  Jacob points out that he uses no graphics because he's not a graphic designer, and that's fair; but since his site is unpleasant for me to read I only loosely follow his recommendations.  But one cool thing about his site: if I resize the browser his content stays divided more or less the way he's put it because the structure is so simple and well designed.
  • But What Are Standards?  W3C and Webmonkey
    The W3C is the official source of standards for the web like HTML and CSS, but I've always found their standards hard to read (and I've read many, many of them over the years).  The new site redesign they're testing seems to make it easier to navigate to find things like the CSS Standard, but it is still hard to read and lacking the practical, let's get started advice that I want.  Back in the early days of the web, I used Webmonkey as a source of good tutorials, but the site seems crufty and broken - trying to narrow in on the CSS tutorials got me nothing.  I have a number of offline books, however, and am a whiz at reverse-engineering web pages, so when I get to the CSS articles I will detail what I learn and what sources I use.
  • CSS in Practice: FaceFirst.us and CSS Zen Garden
    I know the designer of FaceFirst.us, a social networking site, and in exchange for me beta testing his site he turned around and gave me a tutorial on how he uses CSS in his process to ease his site design.  In short, like Nielsen, he recommends separating the "bones" of the site from the content using CSS id's and classes.  One example he showed me was the CSS Zen Garden, which has fixed content that is modified radically just by stylesheets.
  • But What Did Your Thesis Advisors Do? Ashwin Ram and Janet Kolodner
    I also dug into what Ashwin Ram, my thesis advisor, and Janet Kolodner, a member of my thesis committee and my original advisor, did with their web pages.  Both Ashwin and Janet have profile pages back at the College of Computing, but they also have richer pages elsewhere with more detailed content.  I have no intention of slavishly copying what my thesis advisors are doing, but as far as the research part of my web is concerned they're similar people solving similar problems whose solutions are worth looking at and adapting for my own use - why, yes, my Ph.D. was in the case-based reasoning tradition, why do you ask?  On that note, it occurs to me to look at other colleagues' web sites, like Michael Cox's site.

Standards, shmandards, cool sites and web lights - all well and good.  My brain exploded, however, when I saw Warren Ellis's web site (billed as a blog for mature adults, so it's occasionally NSFW - be warned).  In my mind, Warren's site had a number of great features:

  • Show the Author's Name:
    The author's name is hugely printed across the top - so you immediately know who this is, as opposed to say my dumb blog where my name is printed in 2 point type.  And Warren's domain name is also his own name plus dot com, so that he can actually show his name and site name in the same logo.
  • Keep the Text to the Left:
    The text of all the articles is corraled to the left margin so they can be PRINTED, aligned to the top of the page so it dives into the header and is immediately visible.  Almost as if Warren's site was designed knowing that the majority of the people who read the English language read it from left to right, therefore the text should appear where their eyes go.  This pattern, plus the pattern of the rest of his design, is consistent with putting the good stuff in the F-shaped heat map that typical users eyes take when scanning your page.
  • Use the Middle of the Page:
    There is a bar of links in the MIDDLE of his page, immediately to the right of the articles, which puts it close to the golden ratio of the horizontal space of his site design (as viewed on my monitor).  This "linkbar", held in place by CSS wizardry and a black magic compact with the Old Ones,  contains permanent site features that most need to be linked - message board, mailing list, comics, his novel, his agents, and his bio inline.  Think of it as sexier version of Jacob Nielsen's "Permanent Content" box.
  • Put Sparkly Things to the Far Right:
    Beyond the linkbar are all the cool fun site features like a search bar, podcasts, images and other nonsense, which are fun to look at but less important.  On my site, some of these are on the right, or even at the very bottom of the page; on other people's sites they appear on the left, distracting Western readers from the article and possibly shoving the right ends of the articles over the printable width of the page.  Ellis' contract with Cthulhu and the hellish powers of the W3C enable him to safely corral these fun elements to the right where they belong.

The linkbar was the most mindblowing thing.  It eats into the banner.  It's readily visible.  It leaves the text on the left, but it's close enough to be visible on most monitors.  The whole site is 997 pixels wide, so it will fit on a typical 2009 web screen, but if your screen is smaller, first you lose the fun sidebar, then the important linkbar, and only then do you lose the text.  Even better, since the li
nkbar CSSes its way into the banner, the size of the site is controlled by the header image so it won't get wider.  So your Nielsen-style variable content is always visible on the left, and your important fixed content is always on the right, and God willing it will never get hosed by someone resizing their window.  Once I saw that, I decided I'd done enough work researching, and it was time to start redesigning.

SO my first step is to unashamedly steal Warren Ellis's linkbar.

Immediately I sent out my secret agents out to download his HTML and CSS and transport it to my secret lab so I can take it apart piece by piece until it has no secrets left.  Of course, some of Warren Ellis' choices won't work for me, so I will have to do a lot to adapt the ideas he and his team used in his site design.  And simply imitating the form of Warren's site won't be successful, any more than just making a movie just like Star Wars called Sky Battles would be immediately successful.  (Battlestar Galactica fans, take note: while I loved the show, I think it's fair to say that it took the reinvention of the show to really produce a success, which was based on making the show interesting in its own right and not copying Star Wars).

The outer form of his site is the product of his inner success - he is a popular, prolific author with a message board, mailing list and weekly online comic he uses to promote his other writing and books, which makes the prominent placement of the message board agents and books highly important in the linkbar.  Starting a message board and getting an agent won't help me.  I, in contrast, am a jack of all trades - developer, researcher, writer, artist - using this blog as a tool to force me to stop being a perfectionist, complete my work, and put it out in front of people.  So my goal is to make sure this website displays my content, prominently surfaces the areas of interest I work in, and has a few flashy features to attract attention to individual items of more permanent interest.

In upcoming articles I will detail my original constraints for the blog version of Library of Dresan and why those constraints failed as the site evolved over time, my goals for the new site design, what I think I understand about how wide to make your web pages and where to put your content (and where I got those crazy ideas) my move to the use of CSS and my attempts to make the site work well on screen, on printers and phones, my attempts to better exploit Blogger, Flickr and other web gadgets, and the work that I'm doing investigating color theory and generating the new art assets that will make up the site.

Hopefully you'll enjoy the process, and when it's done, that you'll enjoy the site more.

-the Centaur

People who can think

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I was going to start this article by tossing up a shout out to taidoblog, andy fossett's in-depth analysis of taido, but it then occurred to me that taidoblog is only the most recent of a whole category of blogs and articles that I've only recently started to notice, and even more recently started to truly admire: people who can actually think.

The object of inquiry of andy fossett's taidoblog is taido, his (and my) chosen martial art. This alone would capture my interest, but what's always struck me is not just andy's subject, but his method. He puts deep thought into his chosen interest: he maps out the landscape of practice, critically evaluates existing opinions, formulates radical new ideas, and puts them all to the test. He's not afraid to boldly throw out bad traditions OR to slavishly follow traditions that work, at least until he has learned all he can and/or developed something better.

Big Jimmy Style is the platform of Jim Davies, a similar investigator whose chosen interest is research and science. He and I don't see eye to eye in areas like healthy eating, environmentalism and voting, but I don't personally know anyone who puts deeper thought into artificial intelligence and cognitive science research - what it is, why it's important, how it should be done, and what it's goals are. Jim regularly holds my feet to the fire in our private correspondence, and in his blog he continues the tradition of calling bullshit when he sees it and constructing frameworks that help him tackle hard problems.

The strength of Gordon Shippey's Vast and Infinite comes from his clear personal philosophy, strong scientific training and strength of character. While at this instant his blog is suffering from Movable Type's "I'm busy this month" whitescreen, Vast and Infinite is the sounding board for G'hrdun's ongoing exploration of what works in the work place, a topic of deep personal interest that he explores from a clear objectivist ethical perspective informed by his psychological knowledge, scientific training and personal experience. If you watch long enough you'll also see scientific/libertarian analysis of modern political and scientific developments.

Scott Cole's The Visual Writer has always been overwhelming to me: there are more ideas bouncing around on his site than I've ever been able to mine. For a long time I read his articles on the theory of writing stories but his philosophical articles are just as interesting. While there are some areas he and I might disagree on particular points, on the majority of writing topics he's explored more issues that I was even aware existed.

And then of course, there's Richard Feynman's blog The Smartest Man In the World. Actually, it's not, and he disliked that title, but we can only wish Feynman hadn't died before blogs came to being. In lieu of that, I can recommend The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which, despite some people's complaints that it rehashes his other books, does a good job of putting in one place Feynman's essential thoughts about the scientific method, the importance of integrity, the difficulty of not fooling yourself.

The point of me mentioning all these people is that they're good examples of people who are thinking. They aren't just interested in things; they're actually cataloguing what they see, organizing it, judging it, evaluating it; deciding what they want to do with it and formulating opinions on it. In andy's writings in particular he goes further: he's not willing to settle just for opinions, but must go test it out to find out whether he's are full of shit or not. And at the highest level, Feynman integrates challenging his own ideas and reporting the results of his challenges into the very core of the his being - because he who sees the deepest is the man who stops to clean his lens.

That's what I want to be when I grow up.

So go check 'em out.
Because everything is interesting if you dig deeply enough.
-the Centaur

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