Thursday, October 28, 2010

Highly technical...

but worth reading if you feel up to getting your mind around some particle physics.

Me? I'm still recovering from how unbearably hot it got in here yesterday and editing a story ;).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I somehow missed this.

Until now.

R2 with no D2. Humanoid, will work alongside astronauts. Limited, but considerably better than previous humanoid robots.

And think about this. One of the most difficult things to get a robot to do is walk. This one isn't going to have to. Future models may be programmed to handle the most dangerous EVAs.

Question: I wonder how long before R2 becomes R. Something. Humans will not be able to resist naming this guy.

I suggest Sammy. Or maybe Isaac...

Monday, October 25, 2010

We writers are insane...

Only amongst writers could I log into a chat, ask for a lasso to corral my plotbunnies then walk out towing a giant spider mech by a lasso...and not have people wondering where to send the nice men in the white coats.


We're all nuts. Deal with it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fear of flying

No, I don't mean the literal fear of getting on an airplane, although I suppose it might be relevant (Oddly enough, Asimov, one of, if not the, greatest science fiction writers of all time could not bear to get on an airplane. He never traveled far from New York).

I mean that a lot of people who might be very good writers are paralyzed by fear. What if I get rejected? What if I'm not good enough? What if I become too successful and the paparazzi come after me? Fear of success can be as hard to deal with as fear of failure, and some people experience both.

I'm going to use that ancient literary device of the parable.

The barn I ride at has a horse named Toby. Toby is of uncertain breeding, most likely a Thoroughbred crossed with some kind of Draft horse. If he is, he's the poster child for exactly why that particular cross needs to be approached with care...he has all the grace and agility of a Mack truck.

Toby is an animal dominated by fear. As sometimes happens with horses, his flight instinct is tuned way too high. This is a horse who has been known to spook the entire length of the arena because somebody standing at one end turned the page in a newspaper. Fly spraying him requires at least two people, sometimes three.

On top of that, he has to weigh 1400 pounds. To put this in perspective; the average modern riding horse weighs between 1100 and 1200 pounds. So, he's about a person heavier. He is HUGE.

Confession: The first time I saw that horse ridden, he terrified me. There was this ginormous thing closer in size to an elephant than to the cobs I was used to riding...and he wasn't calm. I was terrified that if I went near him I would become scared of him, he would become scared of me, and the anxiety would feed back into a wreck. And you can't take chances with an animal that size.

This week, I rode Toby. I finally found the courage to do so. And discovered...that he is *really easy to ride*. Sure, he spooks at things, but if you have the confidence and talk to him a little, he will settle right back down. He's insanely only have to think 'turn' and he turns. Everything is easy to do with him. I won't say he's an awesome horse...not with that conformation. But he's sure as heck a FUN horse.

So, lesson. If you're afraid of something because its big and scary and it might reject you...don't be. Because in the end, it is NEVER as bad as you fear it might be. And it might even be fun.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Could this really be true?

Remember when NASA crashed a spaceship into the moon...deliberately?

They now think the landing site may have more water than the Sahara desert. Hard to believe? Likely. And, if true, it may slightly rewrite some of our theories on planet formation.

Of course, if true, it will also make a moonbase rather more feasible.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's interesting here...

You have to read fairly carefully to see it.

But it says that a glaciation period we thought was triggered by an asteroid strike...wasn't. Makes one wonder, doesn't it...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bored now.

I seem to have run out of things to write about. Oops.

(I will note people are now making a huge amount of fuss about the fact that Gliese g is not *proven to exist*. Ahem. That's why I always try to say 'think they might have' or 'may have' on science reports. There's so much conjecture. And no, I don't buy yesterday's story either...)

Monday, October 18, 2010

My brain hurts...

I love and adore cosmology. And I also have a vague enjoyment be honest? I love when we have to rewrite the laws of physics. Again.

But this one makes my head ache. Read the article. Or don't. If you do, you may want alcohol handy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Today's random ramble.

Common wisdom has it that civilization begins when a culture begins to have a consistent surplus of food.

A fine point, maybe even a good one. But I would put it a little differently.

Civilization begins when a culture develops a consistent and significant surplus of labor.

To explain my point. If you look at the few surviving hunter/gatherers, every or almost every member of the band has one purpose in life: Gathering food.

A slightly more sophisticated culture is likely to have two individuals exempt from such duties: The chief and the shaman or priest. These individuals are, in most cultures, selected from those less useful for gathering food. The chief is generally an old man or an old woman. The shaman, in many such cultures, is actually's not uncommon for a deformed child or a young person crippled in an accident to be trained as a shaman...thus making them more useful (other cultures tended to select as the shaman an individual who was unlikely to reproduce by virtue of not conforming to norms of gender and sexuality...those of the 'third gender'...yet another way of making the shaman somebody less 'useful' in normal terms).

But then something happens. A woman realizes that if she puts the seeds of a favored plant closer to camp, she won't have to search for them. A man comes up with the concept of, instead of following the herds, getting the herds to stay put. People invent fences. The fence is a very important invention, up there with fire. Think about it. Where would we be without fences.

Somebody invents ploughing. Somebody else realizes that rather than pull this plough around himself, he'll train a horse or a cow to do it for him...much more efficient.

Every technological development in human history has held one purpose: Reducing the amount of direct labor a human must put to a task. Although we tend to hold a certain ideal of the 'great leisure time' of prehistoric man...just like any other animal, every 'wild' human has to worry about getting food.

Now. Answer this question.

How many farmers do you know?

I know precisely one (not counting, here, the stallholders at the farmer's market). And she's part time.

How many readers of this blog grow even a small portion of their own food? Sure, it's trendy of late to have a garden. But even if you do, if your crop fails, you...go to the supermarket and buy food.

You can't build pyramids if everyone is working the fields. You certainly can't have a government in the modern sense.

This trend has accelerated. In the 1890s, the percentage of the population of the United States involved in farming has been estimated as between 70 and 80 percent. In 2008? 2 to 3 percent. In fact, if you know somebody with Farmer as a surname? It doesn't mean what you think it means. When English surnames were 'settling' a farmer was a tax collector. You don't need a special word for somebody who works the land when ninety percent of your population is doing only need special words for those who don't.

In short, as technological development increases, the amount of labor required to feed the population decreases.

As early agriculture became more efficient, farmers no longer needed all of their children to work the land. A surplus of labor was created. The chief slowly became the king, with sub kings under him. The shaman became the priest, then the high priest. Casual barter between individuals became organized trade.

No doubt, in that process, some people ended up in that limbo that we today call 'unemployment'...their labor was of no value. And with technology, the value of labor reduces.

So, today, we have jobs that no American citizen will take because the value of the labor is too low.

Historically, humanity has dealt with the value of labor dropping too low in two ways. One is to throw a war (which rapidly increases the value of labor). The other is to invent new uses for labor.

None of us want a war.

And there is, of course, a third increase the value of labor by slowly reducing the number of human beings. We could simply try breeding less.

Most likely, though, we will need to create jobs in the most literal sense of the inventing new ones.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It must happen all the time.

But it has never before been caught on film. Check this out. Thank you again, Hubble.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Black holes, well, aren't.

It used to be there was a firm popular image of a black hole.

Okay, so we have an object with an escape velocity so high nothing, not even light, can escape. All it can do is become denser and denser...oh wait, its already infinitely dense. So it's what? Just pulling matter out of the universe?

I think logic says that the old concept of a black hole doesn't work. Then Stephen Hawking rolled up in his wheelchair and went 'Ahem. Thing is? They're not black.'

And got the radiation released by the space immediately around a black hole named after him. Now, we've come to realize that black holes form anchors for galaxies.

The more we learn about these mysterious phenomena, the clearer it becomes that far from being sinks of matter and energy, black holes are a key part of the dynamism of the universe and perhaps, ultimately, part of the key to life itself.

Many, many questions remain to be answered, but this article from National Geographic talks about how supermassive black holes affect the formation of not just the galaxy they are in, but its neighbors.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How long human?

Often an open question: When did our evolutionary ancestors become human? Some scientists actually think that Pan troglodytus (the chimpanzee) should be re-classified into genus homo.

Then again, what's our definition of human? Genetics, usually, but then...

Paloeanthropologists recently found the skeleton of an old...apeman. Probably forty-five years old. Probably needed a cane to walk. Probably lived that way for years. His people were ancestors of European Neanderthals. By speciesist genetic definitions, not human. Heck, they were cannibals. Yet, there is grandfather, clearly being cared for in his old age, perhaps valued for his wisdom. Chimpanzees value the wisdom of elder females who, past childbearing, travel from band to band to trade knowledge. And, of course, modern human females experience the interesting phenomenon of menopause (shared with only one other mammal: The rat). Contrary to popular belief, human females do not experience menopause when they 'run out of eggs' (A human female is born with more egg cells than she could ever possibly produce in a lifetime, presumably redundancy against some of them being damaged or non-viable). Menopause is a programmed cessation of reproduction occurring well before senescence. Why? Likely to prevent those older females, needed for other capacities, from dying in childbirth.

Of course, Grandfather could still reproduce, possibly...male fertility declines with age but not always to zero. Yet, it is a human thing to go out of our way to extend the lifespan of the elderly, even if they are no longer useful. Look at how much money is spent in the west on elder care...sometimes keeping Grandfather alive almost too long.

As for the cannibalism...not so far beneath our civilized veneer. I'd say these people were human.

Now, what definition of human can we apply to beings from another world?

Monday, October 11, 2010


For those who like to play with dinosaurs, this article from National Geographic mostly speaks for itself.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Literacy and thoughts thereon.

One of the social concerns that seems to be rising is the idea of the 'death of literacy'. Its not long ago did Bradbury write Fahrenheit 451? (The title, incidentally, is the temperature at which standard pulp paper, of which most books are made, burns).

On the one hand, we are consuming more of our media by computer. More by video and audio files. Podiobooks are a big thing. On the other, we are communicating by means of the written word more than ever. Those who worry about the death of literacy forget a basic fact: If you want to communicate without those in the room knowing what you're send a text or an email. For a while, it seemed literacy might die under the weight of textspeak, but I think we're safe from that.

The written word is not in danger until and unless we develop telepathy (By which I do not mean mental powers, but communication by thought through technological means...which is not unfeasible). At that point, I rather suspect there will be a campaign to protect books, and the value of archives if nothing else.

But there are other aspects to literacy. We have people who can't do simple arithmetic without reaching for a computer.

The one that came home to me, though, was when I was in Nowhere, Illinois and an intelligent, articulate woman in her twenties asked me if I had mapquested (it's a verb now) my route back to Chicago.

To which I told her... "I have a map."

She looked at me like I had descended from Mars and had tentacles! A well educated young American woman who not only could not read a map, but could not comprehend that somebody would rely on one for navigation.

I love maps. I was raised to *adore* maps. I literally do not remember learning how to read maps...a skill I was taught by my father using the British Ordnance Survey those are maps! I do remember learning to navigate with a map spread out on the living room floor, a map wheel (how many people even know what a map wheel is...they're like slide rules, I suppose) and the dog getting in the way.

(For those who don't know, a map wheel is a small device with a wheel on the bottom and a dial that shows miles and kilometers in various scales. Before Mapquest, you used one to work out how far you had to travel on a certain route).

Maps are FUN for me. My expensive atlas is a prized possession and when National Geographic happens to send us a map insert, me and my husband will pore over it, spread out on the floor...sadly no dog to get in the way.

It appears that entire generations of humanity may be denied maps...not taught to read them, not taught to use them, not even comprehending their use.

For a scenario, imagine you're on a road trip through, say, North Dakota...and your smartphone dies. You were using it as a GPS. There you are, middle of nowhere, in one of the most human-forsaken places on Earth...with no phone and no GPS. I would get out my map. What would most younger people do?

Besides. Maps are a dimension of human understanding. If you can read them you can understand the Sahara, or the bottom of the Atlantic, or the surface of Mars in a way no photograph can transmit.

The child who cannot read a map is a limited child, and it does not matter what technology we use to replace them. It is not as limiting as true illiteracy, but it is a limit parents and teachers should not allow to fall on any young mind.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Watching this one with interest.

We'll see what results they get, but the MAVEN probe is intended to shed light as to why Mars no longer has an atmosphere.

(Somebody at NASA spends far too much of our tax money coming up with these acronyms).

Could be interesting...especially as it might also shed light on the red planet's history of life.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Hidden languages.

This is not the first time a hidden language, different from its neighbors, has come to light in a remote area.

But this one shows a unique situation. Two languages, spoken by distinct subgroups...yet both groups claim to be of the same ethnicity. The only known parallel would be speakers of ASL...a language forced on deaf people by circumstances.

In almost all cases, language becomes identity (In fact, some deaf parents refuse to allow their children to be fitted with cochlear implants because deafness, having its own language, has become an identity). Yet these people insist there is no difference between them.

There's an alien feel to this. I may have to do something with it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Here's one...

for the cyberpunk types.

Or for sci-horror...this *screams* unintended consequences.

Actually, the unintended consequence it screams the loudest to me is: If we only need four hours sleep, then instead of employers expecting 16-18 hour days out of people, they'll start expecting 20-22. We live in a sleep deprived society and while this at first glance looks like a possible 'cure', I think it might only make the problems worse.

And what if there are people it does not work for? Will they be left on the scrap heap of the rat race? Maybe it's time to look towards social and technological developments that, instead, redefine success itself.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Perceptions of time.

Now, here is an interesting thought.

Postulate this. A sentient race evolves on a tidelocked planet. The life zone extends inwards from the terminator. Traveling to the dark side would require a reasonable level of technology. Thus, the sun is always visible. There are no stars in the sky. Very rarely, said sentients might glimpse another planet, if its between them and the sun.

The only variation in light level would occur by latitude. Because the life zone runs around the planet's equator, there is little or no seasonal variation. Day and night would be meaningless terms to such people.

How would such a people measure time? The only possible way would be 'the length of time it takes to'.

It is easy to postulate a sentience that has no concept of time that is not related to personal, directly caused change. 'In the time it takes me to walk to the next village'. Or 'The time it takes me to chop a log'. As it would take different individuals different amounts of time to perform any given action...

One might thus postulate a culture that never develops the concept of a separation between time and distance. Just as early humans likely measured distance by time (and how often do people today say 'Its four hours away' instead of giving a distance in miles), there would be no separation between time and distance or time and change.

The illusion of time as separate from space would therefore not develop in their minds.

As strange as all this seems, it might well be the perception of time experienced by beings on Gliese g...and thus the best ambassadors from Earth might be Inuit or, say, Aborigines. People who have never fallen into the 'time is separate from motion' trap.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I love it when a plan comes together...

Who said that?

Most people know. Even people who never watched the show OR the movie could probably guess that that is the catchphrase of John 'Hannibal' Smith, leader of the A Team.

For my generation, the A Team was something we grew up with. It was many things. One thing it was not...was good. The characters were two dimensional, the episodes were formulaic and the show has been accused of sexism...not without cause.

The plot? Find hot young woman who's in trouble. Break Murdoch out of secure mental. Turn BA's van into a tank. Get into massive shoot out in which they expend the entire remaining episode budget on ammunition...without hitting anyone. Get BA on a plane (most often by drugging him, sometimes by locking him in a cargo container). Get into second massive shootout. Defeat bad guy. Drive off into sunset...with BA's tank mysteriously having somehow turned back into a van.

Even the movie held many of the same formulaic episodes. (And somehow managed without Mr. T. Somehow.) know. It wasn't good. It wasn't deep. It certainly wasn't literature. What the A Team was was non stop, simple fun. Good, old fashioned (if somewhat violent) entertainment. Entertainment good enough that it has been continuously aired in the UK since the mid eighties. By somebody. Even the theme song...yeah, that theme song. The one that sticks in your head for days...

In short, a classic example of how it need not be quality literature to be fun. Possibly the best pure action show of all time.

So. Why did I just blather on about the A Team for paragraphs.

I wish it was for a good reason.

Last night, at the age of 69, the quirky producer of the A Team and the Rockford Files and prolific writer Stephen J. Cannell departed this life due to complications from melanoma.

I think that we have lost something...somewhere...between the 80s and now. Don't get me wrong, I love cerebral shows. But there is something that era gave us...that it would not be bad to recapture. And one of its giants has been lost.