Book Review: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Questland by Carrie Vaughn

Vaughn is a prolific writer, though I haven’t read all that much of her work.  But I have to say, I really liked this one.

The story involves an obnoxious billionaire who is building his own ultimate immersive theme park, “Questland”.  It is inhabited by the highest tech animatronics, and delivers a fully live in fantasy quest.  With unicorns, dragons, dungeons, mead—the works.

Something has gone awry, and the dev team has gone rogue, cutting the island off from outside.  The protagonist—standing in for the author and all of us—is a professor of fantasy-ology brought in as a consultant and bond girl in a mercenary raid to retake control.

Professor Cox falls in love with the place, even though she can see the seams.  This turns out to not be a coincidence, because a lead designer is her ex, and apparently was designing stuff that “Addie would love”.

There are wonders around every bend in the trail. We never know what will happen next. This is supposed to be a safe and fun place, but it’s not really working correctly. And we really aren’t sure who is on who’s side.

And this is still the real world—the mercs brought actual guns—people can get hurt and killed.  Which really ruins the fun.

Can Addie fulfill the quest?  Should she really want to?  It’s so wonderful on the island, wouldn’t she just rather stay forever? Or is she just being dangled as bait, in a dangerous game of corporate espionage?

This whole story is a personal geek-out for Vaughn; an expression of her deep nerdish soul.  I’m sure that this is an adventure that she would love to experience herself, and is full of references to favorite novels, games, and films.  Either you get it or you don’t.  I got it. Either you’ll like it or you won’t. I liked it.

I have to say that Vaughn has done a great job of delivering the “gaming” experience as a written novel.  Too many recent “novels” read like transcripts of video game play, which I really don’t enjoy.  Vaughn shows how to tell the story of a game in the medium of a written novel.  Well done.

  1. Carrie Vaughn, Questland, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021.

Sunday Book Reviews

Magic words to locate you

OK, my phone is already tracking me more than I really want, no matter how many times not to track my location.  But I admit that every once in a while I might need to report my location, e.g., when I dial 911. Puny Carbon base lifeforms like me don’t always know how to tell you exactly where we are.

Even digital location—that I tried to disable multiple times—isn’t necessarily good at locating in human terms.  GPS might tell you a position in space (though it doesn’t work indoors or underground), but that may or may not be accurately connected to a street map.  We’ve all had a laugh at the crazy directions digital assistants come up with.   And there are plenty of places that don’t have any conventional address, such as the middle of a parking lot or swimming pool. 

So you and your mobile device may not be able to give good directions to where you are.

But, hey!  There’s an app for that, now.

What3Words is a strange but interesting service. They have gridded world in 3 meter squares, and assigned unique identifiers to each box.  That’s been done before. 

But the new thing is that What3Words identifiers are in the form of word triplets, something like ‘tango.foxtrot.ubangi’.  The idea is that for human communication saying three words is more reliable than reeling off 20 digit lat-long or GPS coordinates.

Steve Shankland reports this month on an example of what this is good for: the LA fire department is using this service to identify locations in the city [1]. These locations are far more precise that a block or even street number and cover the whole city, not just street addresses. And as noted, the English (or Spanish or whatever) words are something that can be reliably communicated by humans.

How precise is it?  Glancing at the map, I see that my own little yard has about 100 uniquely name blocks.  So I could potentially call for help and tell them whether to find me in the garage, the driveway, the back yard, or inside the house.  In fact, it looks like it can tell which part of the house.


And it’s covers places that don’t really have addresses.  So I can tell you that later on today, if the rain lets up, I’ll probably sit in the park and read for a while on the bench near “fool.tinsel.tidy”. 

: – )

  1. Stephen Shankland, Lost in LA? Fire department can find you with What3words location technology, in cNet, July 22, 2021.

Baby Moons Sighted!

Astronomers have extensive theory and mathematical simulations that describe how planets and moons congeal from spinning dust clouds.  But theory is just a story without observation of real events to ground it.  So, who knows how solid the theories are? There have been enough surprises in recent decades for everyone to be humble.

It’s hard to get much data about things that happened once, a billion years ago.  But the universe is huge, so practically anything that can happen probably will happen somewhere, sometime.

This summer astronomers from Europe report a remarkable sighting [2,3]:  in a solar system that is just forming (actually was forming about 400 years ago, but we are just seeing it now), there is evidence of not only new planets, but moons forming around one of them!


Figure 2. a, The Hα detection map of PDS 70 after removal of all direct and scattered starlight. PDS 70 b and c have their positions marked with white circles. The white star in the middle shows the position of the star. The feature just south of PDS 70 b is most likely caused by image slicing in MUSE, as the signal is perfectly aligned with the slicing and field splitting axis and we do not see it in the other datasets. b, The K1-band observations of PDS 70 with SPHERE/IRDIS after ADI processing. Both companions, with their positions marked by the white circles, are recovered in the data. The position of the star is marked by the white star. c, NACO observations in the L-band. PDS 70 b is clearly visible, while PDS 70 c is connected to the disk. This is due to the large FWHM of the point-spread function in the L-band. The disk should be a smooth ring according to previous research, the extension at the position of PDS 70 c is therefore most likely due to the planet itself. The position of the star is marked by the white star. (from [3])

These observations were done from a variety of ground based teslescopes, which, for an old guy like me, makes it all the more remarkable.  Adaptive optics are getting really, really good at dealing with atmosphere effects!

This once again shows that there is no substitute for actual observation and experiment.  As one of the investigators put it, “We have all these theories that are beautiful, but if you cannot test them, they could be completely wrong,” (Dr. Myriam Benisty quoted in[1]) Quite!

  1. Robin George Andrews, Astronomers See Moons Forming in Disk Around Distant Exoplanet, in New York Times. 2021: New York.
  2. Myriam Benisty, Jaehan Bae, Stefano Facchini, Miriam Keppler, Richard Teague, Andrea Isella, Nicolas T. Kurtovic, Laura M. Pérez, Anibal Sierra, Sean M. Andrews, John Carpenter, Ian Czekala, Carsten Dominik, Thomas Henning, Francois Menard, Paola Pinilla, and Alice Zurlo, A Circumplanetary Disk around PDS70c. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 916 (1):L2, 2021/07/01 2021.
  3. S. Y. Haffert, A. J. Bohn, J. de Boer, I. A. G. Snellen, J. Brinchmann, J. H. Girard, C. U. Keller, and R. Bacon, Two accreting protoplanets around the young star PDS 70. Nature Astronomy, 3 (8):749-754, 2019/08/01 2019.

A Blindingly Obvious Truth about Cryptocurrencies

Emperor Nakamoto founded a happy kingdom, inhabited by optimistic and chatty hobbits who despise “fiat” currency, rely on the kindness of strangers, and trust in “trustless” systems. 

At the heart of Nakamotoism trust is the belief that their cryptographical algorithms are secure.  The protocols are designed to be unhackable, and, by implication, the data they protect is unhackable.  We can trust it to be unhackable.

This trust is reasonable, more or less.  It’s very difficult to monkey with data on the Bitcoin blockchain or other similar system, and any monkeying would be easily detected. 

But how far should this trust be extended to the rest of the system? If we can trust that the blockchain is uncorrupted, then we trust transactions that use that blockchain, software that implements those transactions, and the parties that execute them.  Right?

Well the world would certainly be a happier place if we could.

This summer Alexander Bulkin points out a blindingly obvious, inconvenient truth:  “Blockchain Is Secure, but You Are Not” [1].

His point is that, no matter how unhackable and “trustworthy” data on a blockchain may be, it’s really no more unhackable and trustworthy than the sources that put it there.  Which would be you, me, and other Carbon-based life forms. 

And there is no safety net when we inevitably screw up or are screwed with.  (For some reason, Bulkin is particularly worried about being mugged or even kidnapped, a pretty extreme risk.)

In this, Nakamoto’s effort to create “digital gold” is far too successful.  Cryptocurrency works the same way as gold, only worse.  The asset is actually a cryptographic key, which must be guarded. If you lose it, tough.  In seconds your assets may be whisked halfway around the word and gone forever.

I would say, “Trust a blockchain, but don’t trust yourself”.

In case you are wondering, managing cryptographic keys is a very, very hard technical problem.  It is not something that ordinary mortals can do.  This was well known long before Nakamoto designed his system, so you have to say this trade off is baked in.

Bulkin describes this design as aiming for “self sovereignty”, which he views as a trade off against the “safety” offered by conventional institutions.  He also notes that the crypto “community” tends to blame the victim when someone inevitably goofs, which is less than helpful.

This is all obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.

But Bulkin’s main point is that despite all the chatter about “institutions” coming into the crypto arena, there is little chance that normal conventional institutions will use Nakamotoan cryptocurrency.

The degree of safety financial services require is far beyond what we in crypto can provide today.”  And this means not just cryptography but “also includes a reasonable ability to correct mistakes and retrieve stolen funds, as well as to share access with others and remain confident that such sharing won’t lead to problems.” (From [1])

He predicts that conventional institutions will adopt the best features of Nakamotoan blockchains into their own versions of digital currency.  Indeed, we are seeing this already, as large companies and central banks are developing non-Nakamotoan blockchain systems.

If this trend continues, Bulkin concludes, Nakamotoan cryptocurrencies “will become irrelevant in the grand scheme of things”.


This article certainly is a candidate for the CryptoTulip of the Year committee’s, “Emperor Nakamoto’s New Clothes” award.

However, I really have to disagree with his proposal that Nakamotoan cryptocurrency can actually be made “safer”, as “safe” as conventional finance.  The problem is, much of the “safety” of conventional institutions is a matter of trust.  Trust in third parties to help you when you need.  Trust in third parties to be fair and on your side.

There just isn’t any way to do Nakamotoan “self sovereignty” via trusted institutions.  It’s a contradiction in terms. Nakamotoan systems are, by definition, “trustless”.  If you make them safe, they won’t be Nakamotoan anymore.

So, I think we will see more digital money, but Nakamotoan “self sovereignty” will never be more than a side show.

  1. Alexander Bulkin (2021) Blockchain Is Secure, but You Are Not. Coindesk,

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Origami Robot Butterflies

…I love every one of those words!

This summer researchers in Colorado report on combining shape shifting materials with origami to create moving objects [1]. OK, this isn’t quite a robot—yet.  But the combination of origami folds and active material does make for shape changing objects.


The key technology is a composite material with “soft electrohydraulic” actuators that activate folds in a flat material.  Essentially, this works very similar to biological muscles, contracting in response to an electric signal, and pulling against a rigid, hinged skeleton.

This joins a number of other projects investigating “4D printing” and self-assembling artifacts.  And soon enough it can lead to robots.

This current work is just a demonstration.  These researchers are interesting in ways to interact with the artifact, e.g., to select how it folds.  This could lead to interesting ‘fold out’ interfaces, I guess.

As far as shape changing:  one thing that would be interesting would be one-way, snap tight folding.  E.g., their shape changing bowl could fold into shape and then lock permanently.

Anyway, it’s neat stuff.

  1. Sasha M Novack, Eric Acome, Christoph Keplinger, Mirela Alistar, Mark D Gross, Carson Bruns, and Daniel Leithinger, Electriflow: Soft Electrohydraulic Building Blocks for Prototyping Shape-changing Interfaces, in Designing Interactive Systems Conference 2021. 2021, Association for Computing Machinery Purnendu: Virtual Event, USA. p. 1280–1290.
  2. Daniel Strain, Origami comes to life with new shape-changing materials, in CU Boulder Today, July 20, 2021.

In Coworking, A Thousand Flowers Are Blooming [repost]

[This was posted earlier here.]

As I predicted coworking is coming back, and there are plenty of seats available. As Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner’s headline says  “Co-Working Spaces Are Back. And There Are Many, Many Options [2].  As she reports, there is pent up demand for face to face interaction and a vast oversupply of office space.

This means workers have many more choices (and who says you have to pick only one coworking space?)  Not only the old, pre-pandemic spaces, but new options including restaurants open for workers in the daytime, hotels, spaces in residential buildings, and many “smaller, resourceful co-working initiatives”.

As predicted here.

Let a thousand flowers boom” has always been my mantra for coworking.

Some of the new initiatives are things that I’d like to see succeed.  For one thing, some of the coworking spaces are near where the people live, i.e., instead of commuting, go to a coworking space near home.  This is surely a good thing, especially if you get to meet a bunch of other people who are also not commuting. This is the close in version of “zoom towning”.

Of course, the current crop of daisies has some dubious sprouts in the mix. 

One so-called “coworking” space rents you a pod, with no human contact at any point.

How is this “coworking” at all?, I ask.  This is a capsule hotel with a desk instead of a bed.

Another venture (in the Bay area naturally) is doing the Airbnb thing, renting you space in someone else’s apartment [1].

I’m not really seeing why I want to work at home in someone else’s home?  (OK, I guess you leave your kids at home, and the rental better not come with kids included.)

My own view is that these concepts will probably fail because they misunderstand the essential point of coworking:  to find a community of like-minded workers

So, work pods are basically pointless as far as I’m concerned.  About as useful as a phone booth—which is useful when you need it, but probably not if you have to pay by the hour.

Home coworking has been around for quite a while (remember Jelly?)  It can be really, really cool, bringing together a neighborhood, making friends, knitting, baking cookies.  But inviting strangers to use your home while you are not there is really not building community. So I really dunno about this app–it depends on how you use it.

We still don’t know how the new hybrid office will work out.  But remote workers will not be short of places to work.

The bottom line is, there are lots of choices for workers right now, which is a very good thing. 

And I hope remote workers will be able to find comfortable and mutually helpful communities of fellow workers, whatever that means to each of them.

  1. Aayat Ali, Bay Area Startup Is The Airbnb Of Coworking Spaces, in Allwork, May 16, 2021.
  2. Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner, Co-Working Spaces Are Back. And There Are Many, Many Options, in New York Times. 2021: New York.

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book and blog  “What is Coworking?”)

What is Cowworking?  What Will Coworking Become?

Biomimetic Ladybug Drone (And Vocabulary Lesson)

One of the cool things that beetles can do is right themselves if they fall upside down.  We have all seen a beetle crash land, pop right over, and fly away.  It would be nice if our UAVs could do that!

This summer researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) report a clever little airplane that can do just this [2]. 

The design is inspired by ladybugs, that have those big round wing covers, which I learned are called “elytra”.  These structures press against the ground, flip the aircraft over its nose, and then return to an aerodynamic position atop the wing.  As in beetles, the elytra are aerodynamic, and do not hamper the performance of the aircraft.

And off it goes.

The researchers are now looking at going full lady bug, with wings that fold into the elytra to make a compact crawling robot.

“We are currently investigating elytra for protecting folding wings when the drone moves on the ground among bushes, stones, and other obstacles, just like beetles do,”

(Charalampos Vourtsis quoted in [1])


  1. Michelle Hampson, Nothing Can Keep This Drone Down, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk, July 21, 2021.
  2. Charalampos Vourtsis, Victor Casas Rochel, Francisco Ramirez Serrano, William Stewart, and Dario Floreano, Insect Inspired Self-Righting for Fixed-Wing Drones. IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters:1-8,  2021.

Book Review: “The Past is Red” by Catherynne M. Valente

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Hughes looks back to the beginning for her inspiration, but Sensei Valente creates new myths, just for us. Again and again and again and again and again and again.

This short novel started as the short story, “The Future is Blue”, which I read in a collection of that name.

The new work continues the story of young Tetley, who loves the world she lives in, and seeks nothing more than to be happy.

To our eyes, she lives in a postapocalyptic hell, when all the ice has melted, and there is nothing left but floating islands of trash. The residents of even call their floating island “Garbagetown”. 

Tetley herself has a tough life; lonely, isolated, and punished. But she still finds her island beautiful.  And she still finds new things that delight her, every day.

I love her so dearly!

Valente’s ferociously imagined dystopia would be hilarious if it weren’t so horribly true. And Tetley’s opinion of us; people in her past who has so much that we had leftovers, stuff we care so little about that we throw away.  People who destroyed our beautiful planet just because we couldn’t bother not to.

Garbagetown has a word for us, and it’s not nice at all.

But Tetley.  Oh, Tetley!  What we can learn from Tetley.

We should all be lucky to live with such fierce love for what we have and what we are.

  1. Catherynne M. Valente, The Past is Red, New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 2021.

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Venus and Aphrodite” by Bettany Hughes

Venus and Aphrodite by Bettany Hughes

Hughes has become a familiar voice from TV shows and history books (see this and this).  This book is pretty much exactly what you would expect, a sweeping history spanning 4000 years, sprinkled with very personal testimony.

In this case, the topic is Aphrodite (later Venus, and with many other names over time), from prehistory down to today.  Hughes describes a continuous chain of conceptions and stories over this long, long period.  Of course, the stories and interactions with this goddess have evolved radically over the centuries and across continents.

We learn of the ferocious prehistoric goddesses of love and war born in Crete; Greek Aphrodite, goddess of mixing things up; Roman Venus, goddess of passion; Renaissance Venus, pin up girl; and Enlightenment Venus, symbol of irrationality.

Hughes finds her own version today, which she seems to describe very similar to the most ancient incarnations, i.e., “the goddess who mixes things up”, but also the desire that “pulls communities together, not apart.

“more than just a gorgeous goddess of love; she is an incarnation of, and a guide through, the messy, troubling, quixotic business of mortal life.”

([1], p. 148)

If nothing else, this version of Aphrodite seems to be quintessentially Hughesian.

“She is both the wound and the bandage”.

([1], p. 148)

  1. Bettany Hughes, Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire, New York, Basic Books, 2020.

Sunday Book Reviews

Making Hydroelectric Power More Ecofriendly

Hydroelectric power—dams—are elegant and low emissions.  It’s powered by gravity, man!

So that’s good.

But dams, especially large power generating dams, have a lot of environmental downsides.  They destroy rivers and everything that lives in or near them, including people.  Dams in the desert lose tons of water through evaporation.  Even worse, dams that flood vegetation, especially in warmer locations, generate copious amounts of methane from rotting vegetation.  These dams can be as bad or worse emitters than fossil fuel generating plants!

So what should the future of hydro be?

This summer Rahul Rao discusses the potential merits of retrofitting dams to make them greener [3].

First of all, there are a lot of dams that do not generate electricity at all. It is pretty straightforward to add turbines to any dam, getting some clean energy without increasing environmental degradation—if only because the damage is already done.

Older hydro generating dams can also be upgraded to get more energy with no additional harm.

Reservoirs held behind dams could potentially host floating solar arrays [1].  Such an array would have little impact on the water supply or hydro operation.  A PV array located near a hydro power station can connect into existing distribution infrastructure, effectively boosting the output of the existing station.  There may also be useful balance, when “The greatest potential for solar power is during dry seasons, while for hydropower rainy seasons present the best opportunity.” [2]

There may be other benefits as well. Shading from the floating array might reduce evaporative loss, preserving water resources.  And surplus PV power might be stored by pumping water up into the reservoir, to generate power later.

With all the drawbacks, building large new dams is probably not a good idea.  (They are gawd-awful expensive anyway.)  Smaller, less disruptive hydrogeneration is a good option to look at, especially in areas that are already disturbed.

  1. Nathan Lee, Ursula Grunwald, Evan Rosenlieb, Heather Mirletz, Alexandra Aznar, Robert Spencer, and Sadie Cox, Hybrid floating solar photovoltaics-hydropower systems: Benefits and global assessment of technical potential. Renewable Energy, 162:1415-1427, 2020/12/01/ 2020.
  2. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, News Release: Untapped Potential Exists for Blending Hydropower, Floating PV, in NREL News Release, September 29, 2020.
  3. Rahul Rao, Tomorrow’s Hydropower Begins With Retrofitting Today’s Dams, in IEEE Spectrum – Energywise, July 19, 2021.

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