Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Another Use...

...for the state of the art 3-D imaging techniques now being used for mammograms.

Researchers have managed to use them to pick out some letters from the Herculaneum scrolls - an ancient library we have never been able to read because the scrolls, buried under ash and lava from Vesuvius, are too fragile to unroll.

It's not perfect, but for the first time we have a hope of being able to read this ancient library - which may contain knowledge mankind has forgotten for centuries.

Note that I leave on a vacation tomorrow. I'll be back and posting on February 2nd!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Okay, Okay...People, Please.

...get it right.

Amazon Japan has a new one-off item for sale: A 13 foot mecha. The company is asking $1 million for the prototype...and the arms (and weapons) cost extra. It's supposed to be a toy...that's one expensive toy.

So, I google Kuratas and here are the headlines:

Meet the $1 Million Robot You Can Buy on Amazon

There's a functional $1 million mech robot for sale on Amazon

Giant wearable mecha robot suit currently for sale on Amazon Japan for $1m.

Even the suit's maker, Suidobashi Heavy Industry, is calling it a "human ride robot."


It's not a robot if you control it from inside.

It's a mecha.


Jeeze. Don't you people know how to speak English? (Well, "human ride robot..."

The worst part is that one of the few outlets using the correct terminology is the Daily freaking Mail, which is a rag, but has the headline "Amazon selling 13ft exoskeleton Kuratas for ONE MILLION"

When the Daily Mail is doing better than you...

(Okay, I know. Common usage. I shouldn't complain, but I can't help it).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: The Light In The Gloaming by J.B. Simmons

This short novel feels more like a historical novel set in somebody else's world than fantasy. There's no real magic - there's a sword that may be magic or it may just be believed to be magic - and that's it.

It's also subtly Christian and supposedly deeply philosophical - unfortunately, I didn't quite get the philosophy, although I did get the point - that throwing somebody down as far as possible makes them a better leader in the end. Maybe. (I also suspect that his Gloaming prison may have been partly inspired by the underground prison in the Batman comics, also seen in the movie The Dark Knight Rises - if not, then we have some great minds here).

It works better as a straight story than as an allegory, but it's very well written and pulls the reader in. Some people might be put off by the length - it's very short for a fantasy book, although it's more in line with what I'd expect from this kind of philosophical/allegorical fiction. However, there's nothing on the outside of the book to indicate it is an allegory. The nice thing is it's not so preachy as to annoy the non-Christian reader - Simmons is no C.S. Lewis, but he does try his best.

The fun part was that the good guys and bad guys alike were trying to work within their political system (Similar, by the way, to the Holy Roman Empire) to solve their problems instead of just killing each other.

Quite an enjoyable read.

Four and a half stars.

(Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book with my WFC membership).

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Update

The Silent Years: Crone is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Smashwords. (It can be read without "Mother" but I do recommend getting both, obviously).

I will be out of town from Thursday of next week until February 2nd - I'll probably be answering email if it's urgent, but other than that...I actually plan on trying my best to be on vacation.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

One of the common things you hear said about science fiction is that it's about "predicting the future."

It's true that science fiction has predicted a lot of things. Here are a few examples:

1. By an amazing guess Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's travels, tells us that Mars has two moons. He even got the orbital periods right...
2. In From The Earth To The Moon, Jules Verne put a major launch site in Florida, the location of current Cape Canaveral. Because of the earth's spin, it's safest to launch rockets on an east coast (or on the west side of a poorly inhabited desert, which was the Soviet choice) - so this is a fair prediction, even though he thought we would be firing space capsules out of giant guns. Then again, rail guns are a potential idea for the future.
3.  H.G. Wells put giant, armored, wheeled war machines on land in 1903. The first tanks were deployed in 1916.
4. In 1911, Hugo Gernsback had a character use a video phone in his serial Ralph 124c 41+. The first video phone showed up in 1964, although we now use computers and tablets more than phones for video talk - the larger screens help.
5. And in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke predicted geosynchronous communications satellites being used for television. Before broadcast television existed.

So, is the purpose of science fiction to predict the future? Not really. Trying to predict the future is fun, but not all science fiction is about it. And some science fiction, of course, predicts a future none of us would want to see. Dystopian fiction is extremely popular right now, most recently with The Hunger Games and Divergent, but older classes such as Brave New World enjoy some popularity. And apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre with some staying power - books such as Ill Wind (Kevin J Anderson and Doug Beason), Wool (Hugh Howey) vie with classics such as Lucifer's Hammer (Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven) and A Canticle for Liebowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.). All of these are still science fiction, but they aren't predicting a future we should work towards. In some cases, they may warn us of one we should avoid.

If it's not predicting the future, then why write science fiction? What, other than entertainment, is its purpose?

I'm going to put forward a different hypothesis. As editor of Analog, Stanley Schmidt defined science fiction in 1999 as "fiction in which some element of speculation plays such an essential and integral role that it can't be removed without making the story collapse, and in which the author has made a reasonable effort to make the speculative element as plausible as possible." So, what's a speculative element?

It's simply a "what if." What if you could build a submarine and thus become self sufficient? (Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). What if a giant asteroid hit the earth? (Lucifer's Hammer). What if a plague turned most of the population into zombie-like animals? (My own recent release The Silent Years).

So, the purpose of science fiction, by that definition, would be to postulate a "what if" and then answer it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tools Or Language?

Which comes first?

The answer should be obvious - tools. Many species of bird use tools, but don't appear to have languages as complex as ours (Appear being the strong word - I'm fairly sure they communicate more than we know).

The development of human language is a complicated thing, that probably had many different causes, but researchers have discovered that spreading complex toolmaking techniques is impossible without some kind of language. So, did humans invent language in order to teach each other to make knives?

It seems possible.

And can one envision a society and cognition in which only the toolmakers, the "smiths" use language?

Maybe...and it's worth considering that throughout Europe the smith is considered to be a magician...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Can We Trust Ted Cruz With NASA?

I normally keep politics out of this blog, but in this case it's relevant to science and exploration.

Ted Cruz has been named chair of the senate committee that overseas NASA (amongst other things).

The immediate reaction is that this is a bad thing. Actually, Cruz's record on NASA itself is mixed. He's attempted to cut the space agency's already rather thin budget, but he's also said he supports it. And he can only go so far against it given the Johnson Space Center is in his state - and Texas voters would probably not appreciate job cuts there.

Cruz's record, though, indicates that the alarmist kneejerk reaction that he will "defund" or "destroy" NASA might be premature. On the one hand, he's a Tea Party darling in very much in favor of cutting, well, anything he can get away with cutting.

On the other, he is in favor of manned space exploration and is likely to put a lot of weight behind Orion. However, he may well be against the use of commercial companies for access to the ISS (Something I'm very much in favor of), if for no other reason than because Obama likes it.

The other big issue with Cruz is that he's the climate change denier of climate change deniers. Which means he's likely to try and cut funding to NASA's earth science programs.

Here's the thing. Even if you're skeptical about climate change, those programs are useful. EPIC will launch this month and is programmed to take a panoramic photo of the entire planet. This will be a first. EPIC will be part of the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which will park at the L1 to monitor our planet. Cruz is unlikely to be able to stop this launch, but he might cut funding to the scientists actually getting the data from it. And guess what's also going up with it - a satellite to monitor the solar wind more accurately.

If Cruz messes with earth science programs at NASA, he'll mess with climate monitoring, meteorology, solar wind monitoring (useful for predicting flares) and possibly even programs designed to protect us from asteroids.

Therefore, I suppose, I'd like to make this a bit of an open letter to him - don't mess with NASA's earth science programs. Even if, Mr. Cruz, you don't believe climate change is happening, you should believe solar flares are a risk to our civilization. You should believe farmers in Texas need the most accurate meteorology we can get. You should believe that asteroid impacts are a risk.

I'm all for manned exploration, but I believe partnering with commercial ventures is the most efficient use of NASA's money in this regard. NASA should be about doing science that has no immediate commercial payoff, now and in the future. While I realize funding will not and should not be infinite, that only means we need to use it carefully...and without putting partisan politics in the way.