Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Leap Year

Why do we have leap years? It's a way of allowing for the fact that the Earth does not, in fact, orbit the sun in an even number of days. (We also have occasional leap seconds that only those keeping the most precise time need to worry about. If you sync your computer clock to an internet time server, they happen automatically for you).

When we think about other planets, we acknowledge that they will have to have different calendars. Whether these calendars are invented by natives or colonists from Earth, what are the chances that any planet's year will be evenly divisible by its day? Pretty slim. Another planet may have leap days every five years, or two, or ten. It's not something I've ever seen mentioned in fiction. And given the Romans invented leap years, you don't need what we would consider an 'advanced' society to realize the necessity (although a fantasy society may also use a purely lunar calendar and ignore the solar year except for planting...and a society that lives in the tropics is very likely to worry only about the lunar year. If you don't have seasons, the solar year becomes completely irrelevant).

What kind of calendars are used on your other worlds. And if humans have spread out into the stars, what kind of calendars do starships use...would Earth's year remain the standard for that kind of use?

It's these little details that make a world come to life.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Another BC recall

Spreading the word on this one, too.,0,4467264.story

Honestly, people?

Also, poor Juan Pablo Montoya will now be the guy who took out the jet dryer for all eternity.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Grrr....making history?

Of a less than good kind...I can't *believe* they had to postpone the Daytona 500. That never happens.

Literally, I mean, it never happens.

This is the first time ever. Maybe Danika jinxed it, I don't know.

(There was no way they were going to race in that. Maybe the Formula One people would have been crazy enough to...)

Friday, February 24, 2012


As everyone knows, I am not hardcore against copyright violation. I don't care too much if people pirate my stuff, because I think it might lead to sales.

I do have a problem, despite all that, with the poor way in which the Pinterest terms of service are worded. Anyone can pin any picture they find anywhere on the web. Hubpages has decided to add pin it buttons, implicitly giving permission. (Note, I did not agree to this and right now I would prefer my photos were not pinned, but I have no way to stop it).

People are not supposed to pin stuff without permission. They almost certainly are. Pinterest is claiming the usual boilerplate rights over stuff posted...with one exception. They have added 'sell' to the language.

It may be that they are just covering their butts in advance of a later addition of paid premium accounts. It may be that their lawyers told them they had to do that to make money off of advertising (But Facebook's TOS contains no such language).

Furthermore, pinning a photo does not link that photo to uploads a copy. Will it lead to sales and traffic? Quite possibly. But why, I have to ask, does Pinterest want the right to sell this content?

And what kind of legal firestorm might ensue if they directly sell images or material containing images that the uploader did not own? Will they pass the buck and tell people they have to nail the original uploader? That's my true concern.

People are not encouraged to upload anything and everything to Facebook or Google Plus. Meanwhile, I have no Pinterest account and this will not change until the terms of service do. Or until Pinterest clarifies why they feel the need to use this particular language, publicly, something they are avoiding doing. (Note that if you want to read them for yourself, they are poorly tagged...they do not show up under 'pinterest terms of service' or 'pinterest tos', but you have to search for 'pinterest terms of use').

It's a shame, because Pinterest is a great idea and potentially a great marketing tool, but as it stands, it is facilitating copyright violation. And while I don't mind being pirated, I don't hand my work over to be exploited by others with no payment to myself.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Things that make me see red...

The barn I ride at recently acquired a horse by the name of Trouvee. She is a lovely dunskin (buckskin and dun) Quarter Horse mare who is very well put together, with a sweet temperament.

She is also one of the most messed up horses I have ever sat on. She does not respond to normal leg cues, then over-reacts to the rider's heel (a clear symptom of a horse that has been over-spurred). Her reaction to the rein isn't much better. She carries her head up in the air and her back hollow. Worst of all, the first time they asked her to turn left, she nearly fell over. Her extreme tension has left her requiring chiropractic treatment and her left hind leg is so weak I joked that nobody had ever turned her left in her life.

I don't know whether I can go as far as to say this mare is a victim of abuse, because I didn't see it and I have no proof. But everything about her points to the fact that this sweet, tolerant horse has been ill treated. My guess, based off of the inability to turn left, is that they had her running barrels (barrel patterns are always run to the right), and never properly schooled or trained her. I can be absolutely sure some nasty spurs were used on her.

Yet, she still likes people, she still opens her mouth for the bit. Some people, like some horses, will stand the most extreme abuse for somebody they think they 'love'. I have no doubt that Trouvee was fond of her abuser (horses are capable of liking and friendship) and they repaid her by damaging her physical health and her sanity.

Most likely, they did so to win. To writers, we need to watch out for those who would abuse us in order to win. Also, we need to make sure we do not abuse ourselves in the quest to be published.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sustainable societies

I've long been fascinated by elephants. Their sheer size makes them impossible to ignore...but despite it, they somehow manage to be cute. (Baby elephants are adorable). They seem to have a sense of humor lacking in many animals.

Elephants are highly social creatures who share a surprising number of qualities with humans. Those trunks make a handy manipulator device, if not as versatile as fingers (but it does demonstrate that another race on another world might have different ways of using tools. Like humans, elephants have an extended childhood.

The sexes live mostly apart, with females forming small groups and males leading lives that used to be thought to be solitary. More recent research has indicated, however, that males socialize with one another. In one recent incident, a neighborhood in Africa was having trouble with a group of young elephants - all males - who were trampling gardens and vandalizing property. (Sound familiar?). A conservation group relocated an older bull to the area and the 'street gang' of elephants broke up and vanished quickly. Clearly, he got them back in line.

In fact, elephants don't have to live together to socialize. They communicate using infrasound, which carries long distances. Elephants can talk when several miles apart.

Elephants have midwives with them when they give birth. Orphaned calves are always cared for by another female (behavior which is unusual in other herd forming herbivores). They are the only species other than humans proven to honor their dead with ritual.

They are one of the few animals to pass the 'mirror test', demonstrating an ability to recognize their own reflection. The test is performed by drugging the animal then putting dye on it. They pass if they attempt to remove the dye. Other than elephants only bottlenose dolphins and the great apes have been demonstrated to pass the mirror test. What does that mean? It means elephants are self aware. In the true sense.

In the United Arab Emirates a huge array of fossilized elephant tracks, known as a 'trackway', was found recently. Analysis of the tracks (where they are going, the weight and size of the animal) indicates that the elephants that made the tracks were living much as elephants do today, moving in the same patterns as they went through their lives.

These tracks have been dated.

They are seven million years old.

Right here, on our own planet, we have a society that has been stable for seven million years. Talk about sustainability. In fact, the only thing that threatens that society is us...and I hope we have turned that corner.

The catch? Elephant society is non-technological. Although elephants do use tools - the National Zoo's 8 year old male Kandula demonstrated that when he was provided with food he couldn't reach...he went and got a stool and stood on it. Just as we would - they do not make them beyond basic modification. They're still in the stone age.

Which brings one to the worrying thought that a truly sustainable society has to be non-technological. Or does it? Can we learn from the elephants without sacrificing ourselves? If nothing else, elephants may teach us how to recognize, if we ever reach another world, non-technological sentients and other lifeways. At best, they may teach us how to save both them and ourselves.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Plate Tectonics and Possibilities

Recent observations have indicated that both Mars and the Moon may be more tectonically and geologically active than we thought.

This is a good indicator that planets in general may be more geologically active than we thought. This is extremely important. Life probably requires geological activity to get started. Certainly, it's important to keeping a planet habitable by our kind of life (consider that next time there's a massive, damaging earthquake).

So, if geological activity is 'easier', which these results might indicate, then life is easier too. Our kind of life, that is. Other kinds? Who knows. There may be living things out there we would not even recognize as living.

Monday, February 20, 2012

President's Day...

So I'm not working a full day. I will say, though, that I am still working, still thinking, still writing. Hopefully everyone else is, too.

Friday, February 17, 2012


Even speakers of English all sound different. We have accents, that are determined by where we grew up. An accent reveals somebody's origin quite clearly (as long as the person listening is familiar with it - I am often mistaken for an Australian by many Americans, for reasons I'm not sure of).

Whales, elephants and songbirds all have accents. We've now discovered that goats develop them, too. And I do sometimes wonder if dog barks vary regionally as well.

So much for the sounds animals make being just instinctive. If they were, then perhaps we would not have developed a sound-based language, but rather something else...gesture-based, perhaps.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Swiss...

They're known for precision, craftsmanship and neutrality. Oh, yes, and anonymous bank accounts.

So, perhaps, who better to launch janitor satellites to clean up all the broken satellite bits, dropped tools and other junk we're depositing in orbit. Somebody has to do it...but I bet a lot of people would be surprised to find out who.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Read it again, Sam...

It's kind of a silly thing, but there was just a study that says we really do get different things out of a book the second (or more) times we read it.

The first time we read a plot, we're concentrating on the plot. The second time, we know the plot, and thus have 'time' to focus on the characters.

To readers, this says that it's worth reading a book again.

What does it say to writers? How do we 'layer' our books so that re-reading is more enjoyable, or is this not something we need to worry about? Is it automatic if all of the elements are in place, or do we need to think about it?


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

To those...

...who have somebody, Happy Valentine's Day.

To those who do not, here's the anti-cupid with some chocolates to make you feel better.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Golden Hoard

The golden hoard is a staple of western myth and fantasy fiction. Two years ago, a man with a metal detector found the real thing...over three thousand pieces of gold and silver, many adorned with garnets, buried in a field in Staffordshire.

The most amazing thing is how long this hoard sat in the ground without being discovered. Now, though, it lends itself to mystery.

Every single item in the hoard was damaged. The vast majority were items of a military nature, but the hoard also contained crosses and what may have been the decorations from a book (possibly a Bible). But the pieces were broken, mangled and torn.

Archaeologists have speculated. Was this from an epic battle? It wasn't near a border, but was found along a major trade route. Did somebody steal the gold, bury it, and then never come back for it? Was it a pagan sacrifice, with the items deliberately destroyed before burial.

I came up with an idea of my own. Gold and silver are, of course, incredibly valuable. You do not waste gold. The evidence is that precious metals and gems were normally recycled.

Was the Staffordshire 'hoard' actually broken objects being taken from a King's court to a jewelsmith to be recycled? Was it not that they were deliberately broken, but that it was a selection of items that had already been broken? This could even explain the military nature of most of the items - military items would have seen heavy use whilst, for example, a woman's bracelet would be carefully stored when not being worn and likely last for generations.

Of course, one of the things about archaeology as a science: Most scientists want answers. Archaeologists are only happy with questions.

Friday, February 10, 2012

No More Tripods

I realize I'm late on this one, but one of my lasting memories of the 1980s is the Tripods television series, which then led me to read the books (although I think I never did get to When the Tripods Came)...I should fix that.

But this led me to explore Christopher's work further and as fun as the Tripods were, they were not his best work.

I give that title to 'The Death of Grass' (a novel that sometimes gets confused with the various post-apocalyptic novels of John Wyndham). Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels involving plagues are common. In fact, the first post-apocalyptic novel (at least that was published and survived) was Mary Shelley's The Last Man, which created the trope of the one sole survivor of a global pandemic). The Death of Grass was different - the plague did not attack humans, but grasses. It was a dark, frighteningly pluasible novel and it was, in my opinion, what John Christopher should be remembered for.

His career was prolific. He wrote 70 novels under numerous pseudonyms, although only the John Christopher name is remembered (his real name was Samuel Youd). His death earlier this week robs us of another of science fiction's greats.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Insurance and Risk

We, as a society, have become far too risk averse.

My trainer has a horse called Simon. No matter who rides him or how they ride him he will, on occasion, put his head down, lean on the bit and just take off. A curb bit makes him worse. He's just about rideable in a boucher with a very tight flash or crank. We don't want to try him in a gag or elevator in case that has the same effect as the curb.

I finally got my thoughts together enough to speak up to my trainer and suggest a different approach - trying him in an English hackamore. An English hackamore is a shanked bitless bridle - it's actually a fairly heavy piece of gear that is normally put on strong horses who, you guessed it, lean on or run through any bit you try.

Her response after a moment. "You know why we can't? Insurance."

Their insurance policy specifies that all horses have to be ridden with a bit. No doubt this is intended to keep kids from chasing around bareback in a halter, but seriously? Anyone who actually knows horses knows that for some horses a bitless bridle is the safest and most effective piece of tack. For horses with old injuries to the tongue and jaw, a bitless bridle may be the only thing they can be ridden in.

Specifying a bit is not just risk averse, it's ignorant.

Insurance in general has become a means for corporations to control what individuals do. I wonder if we can't get it back the way it should pay into a pool and then when something happens, you get payment back, regardless. In order to do so, we would have to stop the ridiculous liability suits, placing a different burden of proof on people who want to sue somebody for negligence or malpractice.

How do we do that? Bear in mind that it would lower healthcare costs, too, if doctors did not have to pay quite as much for liability insurance. It might lower the costs of entertainment activities that are inherently risky.

And people could use their own judgment instead of that of a claims adjuster...the people who are on the ground and, in this case, looking at the horse.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dreaming About The Stars

Over the last few years, one thing I've become very keenly aware of is that old fashioned, starships-in-space science fiction has become extremely rare in the visual realm.

The Sci-Fi channel (I refuse to use their hideous new name) did have some - Battlestar Galactica and the various Stargate shows.

Now? The only thing you'll see in that vein is re-runs. New shows are things like Sanctuary, Warehouse 13, Merlin, Being Human. Half of them are fantasy, and I'd call both Sanctuary and Warehouse 13 pulp. Alphas is superheroes.

I asked yesterday why we aren't going to the stars, but it also seems we've stopped dreaming about them. Gone are the days when science fiction on the small screen meant Star Trek, Babylon 5, Blake's 7, Battlestar Galactica, even Buck Rogers. Firefly died after half a season. There hasn't been a Star Trek show since Enterprise stopped airing in 2005 (although the most recent movie was quite excellent).

Looking at my huge to be read pile, I see only half a dozen books in this vein in amongst a glut of fantasy and near future stuff (And a few other random things like mysteries).

Kids these days would rather have sparkly vampires and witches and wizards than rocket ships and ray guns.

On top of that, most science fiction futures now are dystopian not utopian. We can't build a better future if we aren't willing to dream that future.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What Star Trek Got Wrong

I love Star Trek. Especially the original...the dynamic between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is far better than any modern bromance. (And I kinda hate that word).

Star Trek also predicted some aspects of the future beautifully.

I carry a PADD in my pocket these days and I suspect most of the people reading this blog too...we don't call them that, we call them 'smartphones', but they are the same thing. And, of course, there was a period when most cell phones looked exactly like Kirk's communicator.

Uhura's fancy earpiece? You might have one of those too, as part of a hands-free kit. We don't quite have tricorders, yet, but we're getting there. Videoconferencing didn't really exist when Star Trek was made.

And while hyposprays aren't in every doctor's office yet, they certainly exist and are in use.

So, what did Star Trek get wrong?

Everything. The original series was set in the 23rd century.

Look at what we already have now. Star Trek made fantastic predictions, but with the exception of the transporters and the warp drive (both of which were essential plot devices), they lowballed everything. We already have most of what they had on the Enterprise, in some cases better.

So, why aren't we going to the stars? Good question...perhaps we need somebody to invent the warp drive for us. Last I heard, Stephen Hawking was working on the math.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Next steps?

I'm once more excited about technology. Regrowing teeth? Likely to be possible within a couple of years.

Machine assisted telepathy? Getting there, although as it currently requires invasive probes, I doubt anyone other than people who can't otherwise speak will be getting it any time soon.

Replicators? 3D scanners are improving all the time.

How about a glass keyboard that is waterproof and touch sensitive? (Possibly not a good idea for those of us who rely a lot on tactile feedback, but it sure looks sweet).

Oh, and we know now how Alzheimer's symptoms spread through the brain, which places us much closer to a treatment (probably not a *cure*) for this disease.

I think at this point everything is an engineering problem and the main obstacles in the future will be political. (Everything except FTL and time travel, and I'm not sure we want the second of those).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Crazy Weather

Is it crazy where you are? I don't know what to put on in the's oscillating between almost seventy and below forty here. And Phil may have seen his shadow, but you can't have six more of what you haven't really had.


I guess it's making up for Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon or whatever. Of course, now people are talking about Warmageddon.


Can we know...stop with the hyperbolic construct words already?

Thursday, February 2, 2012


It's always fascinating to get an insight into other cultures and ways of life...but it can also reveal what never changes.

Like this letter, dictated by a former slave. Doesn't it read just like a modern person sending a nasty note to an employer they were glad to leave?

Humans will be humans - if you want something else, you'll have to write about aliens.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Uh oh.

Berkeley researchers have managed to translate brainwaves into words. Obviously, they're planning on using this to help people who have lost the ability to speak (and right now it involves invasive probes, so it's likely to stay there...right now).

But does this mean the thought police are on their way?

I see much good from this technology...brain-computer interfaces, machine-mediated telepathy (via a device that reads your brainwaves and then sends the words over the cell network). And they plan on pursuing language research - could this also be the very early stages of a universal translator?

But it can be abused, and history teaches us that anything that can be abused, will be...