Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We've been paying all of this attention to Pluto...

...but it's not the only dwarf planet being explored right now.

Ceres also has attention. The largest object in the asteroid belt is being studied by the Dawn probe. And data from the probe has given us this.

There's a lot of contrast between the two. Pluto appears to be tectonically active with a young surface. Ceres? Ceres looks more like the moon. And the key difference may be that Ceres is older (and considerably smaller).

Whatever subsurface ocean Ceres may have had - and the evidence is that it had one - has now frozen solid.

There might be life on Pluto. There's almost certainly nothing on Ceres - which may be a good thing for humanity. Ceres' water might be key to exploring and exploiting the asteroid belt.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Stephen Hawking wants to ban AI military robots. How close are we to having actual "killbots?"

In my story "A Star To Steer By" the autonomous weapon is a spaceship. In Tom Kratman's novella "Big Boys Don't Cry" he paints a grim picture of the fate of sentient tanks. (Both stories are very similar with exact opposite endings and different points. Mine is rather more optimistic).

How about real military robots?

How close are we to this kind of technology?

Not very.

Right now, military robots tend to fall into two categories:

The first is drones, which are remote controlled by a pilot. They're cheaper than manned planes and pilots are, well, very expensive to train. So, despite the slight time lag, remote controlled planes are taking over from manned fighters.

The second is hazardous environment robots - used for bomb disposal, mine seeking and search and rescue. These are also remotely controlled by a soldier...and demonstrate an interesting tendency. Soldiers tend to name these robots, get attached to them and get upset when they get blown up. They're treated much the same way as the dogs (and rats) they sometimes replace.

The navy is working on robots to fight fires on ships - again so that less expendable sailors don't have to.

The theme is obvious: Military robots are used to protect human personnel by going into dangerous situations so they don't have to.

None of these robots can yet operate without a human controller - although there's some progress with drones that can identify targets for assassination.

What's the big worry? The worry is that the more robots fight our wars for us - the more likely we are to go to war. And,'s not like nuclear weapons.

Take Iran, for example. Iran just unveiled a robot tank, the Nazir, which appears to be armed with either a machine gun or a pair of man-portable anti-air missiles. Again, operated by a remote driver, but...oh, yes, and it can be smaller than a manned tank, too.

Syrian rebels have already used remote controlled gun robots.

And, you know, why sacrifice a person in a suicide attack if a robot can do just as well?

In other words - Hawking and his friends have a point. On the other hand, I think the robots in war ship has thoroughly sailed.

Which means that the issues raised in A Star To Steer By and Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry are going to be real issues we may have to face soon: When our robot soldiers start becoming sentient, what do we do?

Will robots make war more likely? More to the point, will we treat sentient soldiers as tools to be conditioned, used and then rejected (Big Boys Don't Cry). Or will we treat them as people...but still people with a purpose, who don't have rights outside the military (A Star To Steer By).

Will they be tools, slaves, or will be have the strength to realize that there is a point at which they have to be treated as soldiers. And allowed a soldier's freedom to say "Enough" and go home.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ant Man

...and pleasant surprises.

I'm going to be honest. Neither Hank Pym nor his protege, Scott Lang, have ever been high on my list of favorite characters. Add to that the news that they were killing off Janet Van the backstory...and I almost decided to give Ant-Man a miss.

Then somebody who's judgment I generally trust gave me a solid nudge. So, yeah. I saw it.

And I was...again, pleasantly surprised.

Ant Man finished number one on opening weekend, but grossed the second lowest of the MCU so far. On second week, it stayed number one, edging out Pixels. (Which is not as bad as it looked from the trailer: It's worse). No doubt the relatively low attendance has something to do with, well, it's Ant Man. He has a funky powerset, he's not overly popular amongst comics fans (even if the editors now try to argue it was never their intent to have him smack Janet around), and, well, ants. Who the heck takes a guy who shrinks and talks to ants seriously?

The answer is: Nobody.

Including the people who made this movie. And that was the right decision. In tone, Ant Man is much closer to Guardians of the Galaxy than Age of Ultron. Yes, there really is a fight on a (switched on) Thomas the Tank Engine train set. Yes, there are ants. There are also incompetent criminals, a marvelous heist, and...well. It's a caper movie, and it's a good one.

Paul Rudd hits the perfect note for Scott Lang - he balances being, to be frank, a bit of a jerk with the lovable rogue archetype. You do find yourself rooting for him. Michael Douglas was a delightfully grouchy Pym.

And I'm willing to forgive them Janet as long as I get Evangeline Lilly's Hope in the Wasp suit. Because even though she's not Janet, she convinced me she was the Wasp just by walking on screen.

IOW, Marvel did it again. How long they'll be able to sustain this, I don't know.

And, thinking about it, I'd like to give some special credit to somebody who isn't on screen and isn't "taken seriously."

Her name's Sarah Halley Finn and she's played a key role in the entirety of the MCU. Yup, in every single movie.

This brilliant woman is: The MCU casting director. Let's give her some kudos, because she has yet to miss a beat.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sailing on Jupiter?

NASA's working on a design for a "windbot" that might be able to stay aloft for extended periods in Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere.

And like so much else, the windbots might have applications right here on Earth - as a safe way to monitor hurricanes.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Planet 352b

385 day year. About 6 billion years old. Kepler 452-b is also nicely in its star's habitable zone.

It's the most earthlike exoplanet discovered yet, and it's older than Earth, so more time for life to develop and evolve.

I wonder if anyone there has a telescope trained on us right now...

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writing Versus Gaming

I had a thought yesterday.

Writing a novel is like composing a symphony.

A session of an RPG is like a jam session.

The two are very different art forms. I think about this a fair bit because I have sometimes found that if I'm roleplaying with somebody and tell them I'm a writer, they suddenly start expecting perfection from every post or statement.

Most novels are edited multiple times, often by multiple people. They're set aside, come back to, reworked. Obviously if I'm saying what my character is doing in an RPG - I'm doing it off the cuff in five seconds.

It's improv. There's no rehearsal. And that's what makes it special - creating a storyline with others more or less off the cuff.

But please don't compare the two things. If you're privileged enough to game with a writer, understand that what you're doing is the equivalent of grabbing random instruments and a corner of the bar and just going for it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Space X Rocket Failure

Space X has announced the cause of the failure of the June 28 Dragon launch. Apparently, a brace holding a liquid helium tank broke. They think it was a defect in the part - and are saying that they won't be able to resume launches until September.

They're also going to defer testing of the Falcon heavy lift rocket (presumably because it uses a similar design in that area). Oh, and switch vendors...