Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Underdetermination

One hears much that scientific theories are underdetermined; that through any finite collection of facts, one may draws countless explanatory theories. The existence of at least four or five theories of quantum mechanics to explain the same body of facts is an illustration, even if one of them is more popular than the others.¹ ² The Copenhagen Interpretation insists that all potencies exist until the particle is actualized by measurement. The equations don't tell us how a particle’s properties "solidify" at that moment of measurement, or "how reality picks which form to take. But the calculations work."

Although in matters of religion the existence of multiple interpretations is said to prove that there is no "there" there, it does not do so in matters of Science!™ because Invisible Sky Fairies! It is simply in the nature of theories that there can always be more than one for any given set of data. Recall how, at the dawn of the modern age there were multiple theories explaining the motions of the heavens, with the Ptolemaic theory being the most popular, the "consensus science." The calculations worked, but they did not tell us how the planets moved as they did.

But "the quanta are a hopeless mess" and it is useful to have a more homey example of underdetermination. Detective fiction is good at this: maintaining multiple theories of whodunnit until the end, when a new fact or a new arrangement of the facts collapses the potencies into an actual. The new fact may be the discovery of stellar aberration or the Afshar Experiment.

But here is an example of how a fact may support multiple theories:

Matt Briggs, the Statistician to the Stars, recently noted a kerfuffle in the rarefied world of chess.
Chess Grandmaster Nigel Short caused a stink, reaching oooo-weee! but not quite burn-him! levels, when he said that men and women are different and that men are better at chess than women.

Female chess player Amanda Ross said in response that, it is “incredibly damaging when someone so respected basically endorses sexism”. Sexism is when a disparity of any kind exists between males and females.
Let's call these the Short Theory and the Ross Theory.
So let us appeal to the Facts! In a list of living Grandmasters, there are:
  • 1413 men 
  • 33 women.
This fact supports Short's theory that men are better at chess.

It also supports Ross's theory that sexism in chess suppresses women's achievement.

This is why proponents of a theory are seldom swayed by the facts. Facts alone have no swaying power, since they will (and must) be interpreted in the light of some theory.


Notes:
1. Further confused by the fact that the mathematical formalism common to them all is also referred to broadly as "quantum theory." But "quantum theory" as such is not a theory. 
2. For the record, four that come trippingly to mind are:
a) Copenhagen (Bohr, Heisenberg), which reifies Aristotelian potencies until measurement collapses reality onto one of them.
b) Standing Wave (deBroglie, Bohm), in which the particle rides on the wave.
c) Many Worlds (Wheeler) in which all potencies are actualized, but in different worlds.
d) Transactional (Cramer) in which the wave travels backward as well as forward in time, thus reifying final cause.

Friday, April 24, 2015

From the Corner of the Eye

The first of the Irish Pub stories, now up on the Story Page, was actually the second one written. "From the Corner of the Eye" appeared in Analog (Nov. 1993). Like all its successors, it is a frame story; that is, a story-within-a-story, amounting to some 3900 words. As such it is an heir and homage to Pratt and deCamp's Tales from Gavagan's Bar and Clarke's Tales from the White Hart as well as more recently, Spider Robinson's Callahan's Saloon. 

A frame device is distancing, so to maintain a degree of conflict, we have the denizens of the bar engaged in an argument, which elicits the story from Professor Cooker.

The regulars at the bar introduced in this story are O Daugherty Himself (the bartender), Mickey (the narrator), Danny Mulloney, Doc Mooney, and The O Neill. The latter has the habit of ducking out whenever one of these stories begins.

The compleat Irish Pub stories to date are:
  1. From the Corner of the Eye    (3900 words)
  2. Flame of Iron    (2200 words)
  3. Built Upon the Sands of Time    (6000 words)
  4. 3rd Corinthians    (3900 words)
  5. Still Coming Ashore    (11,000 words)
  6. Probably Murder    (930 words)
  7. Where the Winds Are All Asleep  (18,300 words)
Total: 46, 230 words. This is too short to interest publishers in a book length collection and, perversely, I have not thought of any further stories for the setting that would not feel forcibly shoved into it. In fact, #7 might have been better suited as a story without the frame.

Clearing the Tabs

Yes, it's that time again. TOF has been accumulating tabs on his browser like a hound dog accumulating ticks. Now he will blow them all off at once! Hang on.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nexus

Here is an excerpt from Nexus. The first part is a kind of prologue. Everything is roughly drafty.



Nexus

by Michael F. Flynn

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Journeyman: In the Stone House

Analog Magazine has very kindly put up a pdf copy of my novelette "The Journeyman: In the Stone House," which was recently nominated for a Hugo award. It is part of a series that began with "...On the Shortgrass Prairie" and continued in the issue after this one with "...Against the Green." Pending acceptance, it will continue next year with the recently submitted "...In the Great North Woods."

Because this novelette and the one that followed were originally a single work that was split in half (because it told two different stories), there are points raised in the text that are not resolved until the next.

The bad news is that two of its competitors are also Analog stories, each written by a friend of mine: Ed Lerner and Arlan Andrews. It would be an honor, as Teodorq might say, to defeat them! Those stories, too, along with a novella by Rajnar Vajra also nominated, can be found linked here.

Normally, Analog stories don't get the time of day from the usual block-voters, so it is interesting to find four Analogians on the ballot. While I have been nominated six times in the past, none of the other Analog nominees has ever been nominated. This year's Locus Recommended list contained only two short stories from Analog, both what we might call "edgy." However, three of the four did appear on Tangent's more inclusive list. However, perhaps because these lists are longer, have never been called "slates."


Monday, April 6, 2015

On the distinction between true and useful

Brandon provides on his blog the following parable:

The Parable of the Botanist

A botanist seeking a rare tree met two country people from whom he requested information. "There is one of those trees in this wood here," says the first. The other says to him, "Take the third path that you come to. Follow it for one hundred paces. You will be at the very foot of the tree you are seeking." The botanist takes the third path, he goes a hundred steps, but he does not reach the object of his quest. To touch the foot of the tree requires an additional five paces.
Of the two pieces of information that he received, the first was true and the second was false. Even so, which of the two country people has more right to his gratitude?
-- Pierre Duhem, "On the Subject of Experimental Physics," Essays in the History and
Philosophy of Science
, Ariew and Barker, eds. & trs. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1996), p. 110 
 

Meanwhile on a not unrelated issue...

 
 One might add that fiction is also much better when served the same way.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Indiana

"To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."
-- Thomas Jefferson, "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom"