Saturday, May 27, 2017

Quick notes from Balticon

I had no early panel, so I got to sleep late for the second straight day.  It was delicious, better than dessert.  I won't have that luxury for the next three days, so I quite enjoyed it today.

I spent some time studying a painting by the artist guest of honor, Donato Giancola, and then had the opportunity to discuss it with him.  That conversation was a lot of fun.

In my panel, "It's All For a Good Cause," we talked about various ways to help with charities.  The audience was quite small, but I think we all enjoyed the hour we spent together.

Speaking of trying to do good things, did I mention that the LYG shirts are now available for order?  If not, pop over to, pick up some shirts, start some conversations, and help us try to change the world!

Dinner was a decent but no better meal at Azumi.  I don't think I'll go there again, though, unless someone I trust recommends it.  The sushi wasn't up to par, and what they claimed was Australian Wagyu beef was nowhere near the quality of other such meat I've tasted.  Azumi's value is just not up to its cost.

I enjoyed some late-night conversations with friends, and now I must prep for tomorrow's panels!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Balticon and barbecue

I enjoyed the treats of sleeping late and lunch at a nearby Shake Shack before my con duties began in earnest.

First up was a panel on writing snappy dialogue. Four other writers and I spent an hour discussing dialogue tips and tricks and answering audience questions. I'm never sure whether such panels really helped the audience, but we certainly tried to be useful.

I stayed in the same room for the next panel, which immediately followed the first. This one focused on writing major minor characters. Again, we shared a lot of ideas, but whether we provided information the audience members could really use is hard to know.

I had less than an hour to change and work with the tech crew before it was time to take the stage for my role as MC for the opening ceremonies. Despite having to start late and bring in two remote guests via Skype, the show overall went off well, and everyone seemed to have a good time.

Dinner was a late meal at the nearby Dinosaur BBQ, a place I've visited before. I had planned to eat my traditional combination plate until I saw this menu entry.

Click an image to see a larger version.

When you spot something this odd and potentially gruesome or great, your reaction will be either to flee or to know you must order it.

You know how I reacted.

Oh, yeah, I ordered it.

It was mighty tasty, though the two sides were weak. It was not, however, a sandwich you could reasonably pick up. Instead, I used a knife and fork to cut it into more manageable bites.

Tomorrow, I get to sleep late again!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Getting too damn fancy for my own good

Like most people, I tend to think of myself as the hero of my own narrative. Most days, I try to at least behave well enough that I'm not embarrassed to be in that narrative. Today, for a short spell, I blew it.

On the drive up to the Balticon hotel, where I am now, we took the Ashland, Virginia exit to try to find a place for lunch. As we were looking for a tolerable fast-food restaurant, I spotted the Rise & Shine Diner. Always up for a diner, we pulled into the lot of its strip mall, parked, and got out.

The facade told me a lot about the place.

Click the image to see a larger version. 

The wall behind the cash register confirmed everything I thought.

So did the fact that Fox News was playing on the two TVs in the place.

Yes, I was in the heartland, Southern U.S. version, in a room full of Trump voters, and if that wasn't scary enough, I was wearing a rainbow "WE ARE ALL FIGHTERS" UFC special t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

On the way out, I even tweeted this: "Just ate a bologna burger in rural Virginia. Dining in Trump's America. Gotta admit it was mighty tasty."

I am a lover of good junk food, so I went for it and ordered the bologna burger with sides of macaroni salad and mac-and-cheese.

The bologna burger was everything it should be, with a thick slab of greasy, delicious bologna, and it tasted great. The macaroni salad was better than what I usually have. The mac-and-cheese was the weak link, okay but no more.

My tweet was snarky at best, with a nod to the food. My attitude mirrored my tweet.

Here's what my tweet didn't say.

Every single person in that place treated me with respect and kindness. A woman walking by even said my bologna burger looked like a fine one, and I had to admit it was. Everyone was polite. No one said a word about my shirt. If anyone thought poorly of me for it--and I have no evidence they did--no one said anything. Maybe our political beliefs differ, but maybe they don't; I assumed but did not ask. Regardless, they fed me, treated me well, and charged me half what this would have cost back home.

For many years growing up, we never ate out. We couldn't afford to. When we did, it was at places a lot worse than the Rise & Shine Diner.

I behaved well to the people there, I was polite, and I tipped well,  but in my quiet comments and my later tweet, I was a jerk, or as my mother would have said, too big for my britches, too damn fancy for my own good.

Maybe the folks at the diner could tell what I thought, and maybe they couldn't. Either way, they deserve better, and I need to be better. I need to remember that all of us are just people, and I need to give everyone a chance to earn whatever opinions I end up having. Judging with inadequate data is never a great choice.

For what it's worth, if you, too, like fried bologna sandwiches, you could do a lot worse than the one on offer at the Rise and Shine Diner.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A very intriguing AI development

Reinforcement learning has been a hot tech in AI for a while now. The basic idea is to use rewards to steer an AI toward a goal you want it to reach. It's one of the key techniques that Google's AlphaGo uses, and that program just won the first game (of several) against the highest-ranked human Go player. A problem for this approach, however, is that often there just aren't a lot of rewards on the way to a goal.

A new and fascinating paper, which you can read about here in the MIT Technology Review, offers another way to keep the AI improving: give it curiosity. Mind you, this is not curiosity as we experience it, but rather a very self-focused desire to explore whatever in the world can directly affect the AI. This artificial curiosity can encourage the AI to keep busy improving itself even when no rewards are in sight.

I find this both exciting and a bit frightening. Imagine any entity that explores the world and learns from it but cares only about itself. Phrased that way, this sounds more dangerous than it is--right now. I'm also ignoring the likely safeguards programmers would embed in the AI. Still, it's a fascinating and a bit scary prospect, and one I hope to follow.

Interesting times.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Planning to be in Baltimore this coming weekend? Come on by Balticon!

I'll be there, and I'll be busy. I'll fill you in on my activities in the next couple of days, but key among them will be having the privilege once again of acting as the Master of Ceremonies for the Opening Ceremonies of the con.

If you'll be at the con, definitely come by one of my panels and say, hi!

Monday, May 22, 2017

A test of my loyalty to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

I'm a huge fan of Johnson's films. He generally turns in an appropriately scene-chewing performance, his comedic flair keeps getting better and better, and some of his films are even legitimately good (ref., for example, Central Intelligence).

This weekend, however, brings us the movie that may well push my loyalty to the breaking point: Baywatch.

I never watched the original show, and each time I've encountered it in reruns, I've either scooted right past it to the next channel or given it two minutes and then moved on by. Every minute I caught was painfully dumb.

From the trailers, it's clear that Johnson and the folks behind this reboot are frequently playing it for laughs, which is a welcome goal. I'm just not yet sure if that's enough to get me to the movie theater.

Time will tell. If I do go, I promise to report back.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alien: Covenant aims to return to its Alien roots

The real title of this film should be Prometheus, Part 2, but the Alien franchise, old as it is, has more marketing power than the kinda-sorta prequel, Prometheus. I didn't hate Prometheus, but I didn't love it, either, as my earlier entry on that film stated. The good news about this sequel is that it's a more engaging and entertaining movie than its predecessor--and Michael Fassbender is again wonderful. The bad news is that it shares some of the worst flaws of the earlier movie.

This time, we follow a group of colonists who are heading for a distant planet when something happens. Rather than delving into spoilers, I'll just say that from almost the moment humans get involved, they start making poor choices. The quality of the choices goes down as the film progresses.

Meanwhile, the scenery and the effects are gorgeous, the people act reasonably well, and Fassbender is a delight.

So, yet again, we have a big summer action movie that is fun and will entertain you--as long as you turn off your reason.

It makes me yearn to write a movie about aliens or about zombies in which smart, well-trained, efficient people make intelligent choices, execute them well, and carry the day. Alas, there doesn't seem to be a market for such offerings.

If you're in the mood for big, brainless fun that is gorgeous to watch, check out Alien: Covenant. If you insist on involving your reason, give it a pass.


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