Thursday, July 31, 2014

Odd Orbits

It used to be believed that planets in binary and trinary systems couldn't be stable - that Tatooine, for example, was an impossibility.

We've now found planets in stable orbits in such systems - and now we're working out how they manage it.

When two stars orbit close together, it affects the development of their planetary discs...which tilt away from each other. (Check the article here).

This then means that when the planets form, instead of orbiting around the star's equator (as the planets in our solar system do), they orbit at an angle...keeping the two systems separated. Thus, there's little to no risk of them hitting each other, affecting each other's orbits or otherwise becoming unstable.

(We still don't know why exoplanets in single star systems sometimes have bizarrely tilted orbits...but there are a number of possibilities, all of which may well be true).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Thoughts On Convention Panels

I'm not the world's most experienced panelist - yet - but I think I've picked up a few things.

I saw some complaints to tumblr that a panelist at SDCC didn't mention things that these people thought were important. I'm not going to go into details, but it caused me to think that a lot of fans...and new writers...don't know what the other side of the table is like. This is part of why I did the Public Speaking panel at Balticon, something I'm hoping to repeat at Farpoint in February.

Here's the thing.

A typical convention panel fills an hour of programming, but is timed to 50 minutes. The reason that is done is logistical. It gives time for audience turnover, for panelists who are scheduled back to back to move rooms if necessary, go to the bathroom, take throat lozenges, etc. That ten minute gap is really important - it stops the entire con from starting to drift over time.

The moderator's job is, in part, to keep the panel to 50 minutes. It's not a lot of time.

It's really not a lot of time. The Doctor Who panel at RavenCon nearly went over and I had to have time called on me the first time I moderated, which was the online reviews panel at that convention. (There's a bit of a knack to it and it often takes new moderators 2-3 attempts to get it right).

Because of this, there are two things con goers need to bear in mind:

1. It's not possible to cover every aspect of any issue in 50 minutes. I have stuff I wanted to cover in Public Speaking that I didn't get to, in part because I had a wonderful panelist who was sharing her extensive knowledge of Toastmasters, an organization which can be very helpful if you need to learn how to do it. But it's just not possible. Stuff will get left out. Questions will not get asked. There's nothing anyone can do about it.

2. Panelist etiquette, that new guests have drilled into them, is to answer the question you are asked and stay brief. Wandering off topic, speaking at too much length or, worse, digressing into attempts to sell your books? These things make a panelist look bad and run the risk of the panel hitting the wall and having to be cut off short, reducing time for audience questions. A panelist who doesn't address something that wasn't in the question is, in fact, doing it right. You answer the question you were asked, not the question you wish you were asked or want to answer. I was on a panel where there were some disability issues I badly wanted to bring up, but there simply was no opportunity.

So, please, don't judge panelists for not covering something. There's many good reasons an aspect of an issue might be left out - and 50 minutes just is no time at all.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I Almost...

...had grilled octopus on Saturday. Now I'm having second thoughts.

The pacific striped octopus is not like other octopi. Most octopi are loners. Females sometimes kill and eat their mate. Cannibalism is common, and reproduction seems to trigger rapid aging followed by death.

Not so for the Pacific striped. They mate face to face, lay multiple clutches, don't suffer from senescence and live in colonies...or dare we call them tribes...of up to 40. Unfortunately, octopi are hard to rear in captivity and we don't know much about these guys.

Maybe the hatchlings aren't eating because they're getting something from the adults we can't give them. Like, say, proper communication...

(Sorry, boring tentacles, Nobilis ;)).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Timing is Everything?

Scientists researching the dinosaur extinction have actually determined that the Chicxulub asteroid did indeed cause the extinction of most dinosaur species (We call the ones that survived "birds").

On top of that, if it had happened 5 million years sooner or later, i.e., not in the middle of a major period of volcanism, then we wouldn't be here. Or maybe we would be dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were successful and stable through several other mass extinctions. 160 million years is a long time...long enough that it's surprising they didn't evolve technological intelligence (birds are certainly capable tool users). Or maybe they did and it never got to the point to leave traces that survived what happened after the impact - a global firestorm from which earth's atmosphere still hasn't recovered.

Which links up to my personal theory on why they didn't make it. The firestorm was followed by decades of global winter, but there was a distinct drop in oxygen levels. The Earth of the dinosaurs had more oxygen in the air than the Earth of today.

No bird gives birth to live young. Even the ratites, who don't have to stay lightweight for flight (and besides, bats manage fine). It's entirely probable that no dinosaur did either. In Japan, there's a rather interesting species of lizard. It's a very ordinary lizard - except that the subpopulation that lives at sea level lays eggs and the subpopulation that lives at high altitude is a live bearer. Scientists studying the little creatures to work out why realized that it's harder to raise young in eggs at altitude - because eggs need a lot of oxygen.

Did the dinosaurs not survive the impact, ultimately, because the drop in oxygen levels prevented their young from coming to term inside such large eggs?


Or maybe it was the decades of winter, although growing evidence that dinosaurs were probably endotherms, like us, and grew feathers, the best natural insulator there is...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Updates

Most of this week has been working on a certain script. I wish I had more announcements, but I don't.

I can say there's cool stuff coming and we have awesome art for Strange Voyages - our artist is working apace and giving us everything we asked of him. I highly recommend +Juan Ochoa - professional, fun to work with, reasonable prices and quick turnover.

(Always give the artists their shoutouts).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Annoying Promotion Tactics

I need to vent a little bit.

I've had to throw three followers off of my twitter feed in the last week for excessive promo tweets.

The thing is, these people weren't tweeting their own books. They were retweeting other people's - in batches which in one case reached 100 in about 5 minutes, spamming my feed out completely.

There's a common wisdom that retweeting other people's promo links is a polite thing to do. But if you really have to - spread them out. You're not benefitting anyone if people unfollow you for spamming.

Spread them out. Use scheduling software correctly. (The people I had to unfollow were probably using it incorrectly...nobody can type that fast).

Oh, and as a reminder. Never send unsolicited Buy My Book messages to people directly on any social media. That's another thing that will get you unfollowed pretty quickly. And possibly blocked.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reminders of...

...those wonderful vanity publishers. There's a new one on the block - Green Shore. I won't link them because I don't want to give them the hits, but according to the wonderful Victoria at Writer Beware they're going as far as to create fake Facebook pages of fake authors. Sigh.

Here's the thing.

Vanity publishers generally don't offer a very good deal. That is, their packages are seldom cheaper than you would get buying those services yourself. If they include marketing, the marketing is often half-assed. Why? They've already been paid - unlike real publishers, who make their money off of book sales.

Again, if you want to self publish, you are better off buying the editing and cover art yourself and learning how to do the conversion and layout (If you really can't, there are people who will do it for a reasonable price - heck, I'd do simple ebook conversion for a price, but I encourage people to learn. It's not hard).

You'll get a better deal and because the editor is working for you not a third party you'll retain the creative control that is, after all, why most "indies" self publish.

And if you want a real publisher? No reputable publisher asks for money from their authors up front. A few even give you the money up front (advances are rare these days, but not completely non-existent). Reputable publishers use the money from the last book to pay for the next one.

And any publisher that claims to be something new, different, and amazing - isn't.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Should-Have-Been-Expected Benefit

So, we know that fish tend to frequent underwater structures - but somehow people are surprised that this includes offshore wind turbines.

The discovery was made by seal researchers, who spotted that some seals were visiting one column after another. To a seal, the bottom of a wind turbine is basically a buffet. Researchers are now suggesting that it might be possible to site and design turbines to increase this effect and benefit fish and other wildlife...and possibly even fishermen.


Seals are cute.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Few Notes On Kindle Unlimited

The news of Amazon's new "unlimited library" or "Netflix for books" service broke after I posted on Friday.

And one of the first things I was asked was why only some of the anthologies I'm in were on it.

So, I'm going to explain a little bit about how it works from the author/publisher side of things.

Kindle Unlimited works fairly simply. Amazon sets aside money - at first from their capital, and presumably eventually tied to the number of subscribers. Authors/publishers get a percentage of this fund prorated to how many times their books are borrowed.

It's potentially a good way for an author to be found by new readers. However, there are some roadblocks.

The biggest is that to enroll your books in Kindle Unlimited, they have to be in the Kindle Select program. This means that the electronic version of the book can only be sold through Amazon. The Select program has quite a few perks associated with it, including Amazon taking a lower commission on sales and some free promo stuff. Some authors/publishers, however, feel that those perks are not worth the price of limiting their books to one ecosystem. Being in Amazon Select means your book is only available in .mobi format, which is proprietary to Amazon. This is a fairly small deal as any phone can read .mobi books (I have the app on my phone myself, as my ereader is a Nook). It also means that you can't sell through other outlets and, which matters to some people, you can't sell to traditional libraries - libraries purchase their ebooks through other systems. If you are an e-only publisher, this is a big deal.

Additionally, a few authors don't like the KU terms and are pulling their books out of the system. Others are putting some books in and not others - there's been a fair bit of talk that KU might be a good outlet for short fiction "singles," which are hard to sell.

What it boils down to is that for each individual book, each individual author or publisher has to make the decision of whether to enroll that book or not. It's nothing personal to those looking for books on KU - it's a matter of doing business and choosing the strategy that we think will lead to the most sales. (And this isn't a knock on Amazon either - they too are choosing the strategy they think will make the most money).

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Updates

The cover for Strange Voyages is done and interior art is in full string (backers - look for a special surprise perk to come your way).

As the publisher tweeted about it - I can now reveal that I've been working on the script for a steampunk graphic novel, Rapscallion. (That's literally all you get right now, folks).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Let's Get This Straight...

...the giant crater that suddenly appeared in Siberia was not a crashed alien spaceship. We know that because we know it wasn't caused by something hitting out of the sky (like, say, a meteorite).

What caused it? It was probably a very large gas explosion. Gas extraction is taking place not that far from the area - for those who don't know, it's the Russian peninsular of Yamal, literally called "The Ends of the Earth" by its original inhabitants. A bit of melting of the permafrost in areas where methane is close to the surface can cause explosions. This one is just unusually large. Scientists aren't entirely sure exactly what caused it, but it definitely seems to have happened from below. Thus, it's closer to a sinkhole than a crater.

(Apparently some people are blaming ET. Nope. I wish that was remotely possible, but nope.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Squishy Robots?

So, we might be one step closer to the T1000.

The robots created aren't that good at shapeshifting - or remotely humanoid - but they can switch between soft and squishy and rigid - based off of temperature. Of course, it's a DARPA (military) project, so one could envision listening devices squeezing into cracks. Or bombs. Or robot tentacles squeezing into small spaces to defuse IEDs without disturbing their surroundings.

The new robots might also be useful in surgery, search and rescue and even, if the price comes down far enough, home repair and maintenance.

Of course, they'll also be put to other uses...I'll leave that to the imagination of my adult readers.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Aww. That puppy or kitten is so adorable.

Experiments made in Russia with foxes indicate that breeding for "tameness" - a lack of fear of humans and willingness to stay with us - also produced features we associate with domestic animals such as floppy ears, weird tails and patched coats.

Scientists call it "domestication syndrome." And it appears to have an effect in the brain. Or rather, selecting for tameness brings out a neural crest deficit - a reduction in the stem cells that eventually create the adrenal glands, making the animal less fearful. In dogs and rabbits this is also associated with floppy ears, which are caused by a cartilage deficit - something which might be harmful in the wild, but isn't a problem for our domesticated critters. (Floppy ears in horses cause major problems with socialization and on the rare occasion that they show up, horses with the defect are not bred on).

Here's a theory, though.

Do we find animals with "domestication syndrome" cute because we actually subconsciously know they're more tame and thus less dangerous? This doesn't explain how some people can see a very high degree of cuteness in wild animals such as otters or even (albeit more rarely) snakes, but for most human beings...we look for "cute" features that include floppy ears, curly tails and flat faces.

Just a thought.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Where Are The Good Futures?

I'm going to make a confession and say this post was inspired by something on tumblr, but I wanted to talk about it here as well.

We're on a dystopia kick as a society. A bad one. I just looked at the 2014 sci-fi movies. Eight of these movies in some way, shape or form, visit the future.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - we get our asses kicked by uplifted gorillas.
The Maze Runner - imprisoned kids in weird maze, appears to be YA dystopia mildly ripping off THG.
Interstellar - The Earth runs out of resources and we build wormholes (Heinlein used this idea in a much more hopeful manner in Tunnel In The Sky) to virgin planets.
Mockingjay Part 1 - Latest installment of The Hunger Games, say no more.
Divergent - post-apocalyptic (sort of) Chicago YA.
Edge of Tomorrow - not sure what actually happened in this movie as I'm a Tom Cruise anti-fan, but I'm guessing it's VR or cloning. Either way, alien invasion. Or fake alien invasion. Or...something.
Days of Future Past - at least they stop the killer robots in this one.
Jupiter Ascending - goofy space opera I heard nothing about until today even though its supposed release date is the 18th.

There are two other pure sci-fi type things, but Guardians of the Galaxy is not set in the future. And neither is the E.T. ripoff Earth To Echo.

Last year, we had Star Trek, but even that has gone dark and gritty, with Vulcan, the world of pure science and reason, destroyed.

If science fiction reflects the society creating it then our society is in a pretty poor shape. Literary science fiction, of course, runs the gamut, but I haven't read many Star Trek futures there lately either. And television? Falling Stars. Need I say more?

Are we as a society just losing hope? Are some of us wanting the world to end? Or is this just a case of bad news selling?

And how much of it reflects the growing rift between science and religion, two things that aren't nearly as contradictory as some of their adherents want to claim. I don't know, but I do know that the world needs more upbeat science fiction. And it needs to be on the screen, because science fiction readers already know the world can get better if we let it. We need to remind everyone else.

Oh, side note. Those of you not lucky enough to have seen me in action at a con - here you go.

Friday, July 11, 2014

I Love...

...when scientists are wrong. The exciting things happen when we realize our understanding of the universe is not what we thought it was.

And the latest one is a doozy. The University of Colorado Boulder put a giant spectograph on the Hubble. The Cosmic Origins Spectograph has been analyzing the stuff in outer space. (Which is not empty).

They've been looking at traces of hydrogen floating between galaxies, because we can do cool stuff like that now. When hydrogen is struck by UV light, it becomes ionized - charged. Here's the problem.

There are more hydrogen ions in intergalactic space than can be explained by the existing sources of UV light. Oops. And not just a few more. A lot more. 80% more. Maybe we're wrong about how hydrogen behaves when that far from a gravity well? The lead theory is that the ionization is somehow being caused by the decay of dark matter.

Oh, and then it gets really interesting. This effect is only being seen relatively close to us. When we look further away, the amount of ionization is perfectly explained by the number of quasars and very young stars - the UV sources we know about.

So, whatever is causing this, it's new. By the standards of the universe, anyway. Decay of dark matter could indeed explain it, but in that case something happened to speed it up.

What else could be new? New kinds of stars, we'd know about. And as much as I'd love to jump on the theory, starship exhausts wouldn't create that much energy, surely...

So, we have a mystery. And the only time our understanding of the universe can evolve is when we're wrong about something.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Things I'm Looking Forward To

Because, every so often, I need to remind myself that I'm a fan.

I am very psyched about the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It just looks so good. I was worried it would be way too corny and the Raccoon would be way too stupid. But nope. I think, from the trailers, that they have the right balance of goofy and badass. And Vin Diesel as a tree. Seriously.

August 23 Doctor Who comes back. I can't wait to see what Capaldi brings to the role (And I am not part of the anti-Moffatt crowd, either).

Orphan Black has been renewed for a third season. Tatyana Maslany will continue to wow us (Seriously, when I first started watching, I had to check IMDB to see it was really the same actress...)

I am very annoyed that Mockingjay is being split into two movies. The trend of "see how many movies we can get out of one book" that's given us Jackson's bloated Hobbit continues. But the first part will be in November. (And the third part of the Hobbit in December).

So...what are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Thoughts for Newer Writers

Just a few reminders of things I've learned over the years:

1. Don't pay to submit your stories. The exception is reputable contests with large prizes and reasonable entry fees. Don't pay "administrative fees." (Optional donations are another matter, but are a grey area - the donation button should not be linked to the submission button).

2. Never sign over any rights on submission. Even if they say you'll get them back when they reject you (what if they never respond?) Do not enter newspaper writing contests without checking the fine print - newspapers are absolutely notorious for claiming first rights on everything submitted. This goes for photography contests too.

3. Follow the guidelines. Mistakes happen and won't be held against you, but a repeated pattern will. As frustrating as "no simultaneous submissions" is, follow it.

4. Do not sign a contract that doesn't have a rights reversion clause if the company goes out of business (why yes, I did learn that one the hard way). Publishers? Please have such a clause. Otherwise your writers might be held to a lengthy exclusivity period on a story that isn't even available and for which they never got paid. Also avoid novel contracts that demand first refusal on anything you might write ever again even if it's not their genre.

5. Don't give your work away for others to profit from (unless it's for charity). Consider marketing freebies very carefully - and if asked to provide something for a convention package or other giveaway, ask if it can be a reprint (which costs you essentially nothing). Don't devalue your work.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Things We Get Wrong...

...include the maximum size a bird can be and fly in Earth's gravity.

Scientists have confirmed that Pelagornis sandersi most definitely flew. Probably a lot. It's essentially a very big albatross.

A very big albatross.

The extinct bird has a wingspan between 20 and 24 feet, twice the size of the current record-holder, the Royal Albatross, but very similar in build. Scientists aren't sure how it took off (one story says it couldn't take off from a standstill...but neither can the Royal Albatross, which has to run into the wind for a considerable distance to build lift - presumably Pelagornis had runways in its colonies as well).

The entire family died out 25 million years ago - and we're not sure why on that either. But if there could be an albatross that big, does this mean there was once such a thing as a roc?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Do We Have An Off Switch?

It's possible that we might. Scientists were experimenting with brain stimulation on a woman with epilepsy...and managed to discover that if you stimulate the claustrum in a particular way, the person loses consciousness.

The development might lead to drug-free anesthesia and new treatments for epilepsy...possibly even a way to wake people up who are in a coma for apparently no good reason. But some people might be disturbed - turning somebody off? If this could be done from a distance, the criminal possibilities are also quite, quite endless. (Knock everyone out in a bank? Date rape?)

The "switch" probably has something to do with how we sleep.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Fourth! those in the USA, anyway. To everyone else, at least it's Friday?

Not much to report from over here. Been slightly sick all week, but very close to having August Making Fate done - need to tweak a couple of things. Mostly, planning on enjoying the three day weekend before I have to strap my nose back to the grindstone.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Stray Genes? Not So Much

There's been a lot of information coming out of the Human Genome Project and other studies lately. We now know that in Europe homo sapiens sapiens interbred with Neanderthals.

In Asia, we appear to have mated with a different extinct human species, Denisovan man, identified only by a few bones. We know almost nothing about the Denisovans other than that they existed, interbred with modern Asians and then went extinct, leaving a few stray genes behind.

Except, not so stray. Interspecies crossing when the resulting offspring are fertile or semi-fertile (the evidence indicates that in modern/Neanderthal crosses only the females were fertile, an interesting pattern also seen in small cats) is one of the mechanisms of evolution. Crossing brings new genes into the population, some of which are going to be useful - and spread.

Enter...Tibet. Most humans can't survive at elevations above 13,000 feet without either a lot of training or supplemental oxygen. We aren't designed for it, and our red blood cell production shoots up (causing altitude sickness and other dangerous symptoms).

Not so for the Tibetans. They carry a gene that reduces this effect, allowing them to be perfectly comfortable at altitude. And this gene has been seen only in Tibetans and a few Han Chinese.

Guess what?

It's a Denisovan gene. (With as much certainty as we can give at this point). Does this mean that the Denisovans were high altitude humans?

It proves that inter-species crossing can be a way to get stable (over 90% of Tibetans carry the gene) genetic variance that can allow a species, especially one migrating, to adapt to new environments more quickly than by evolution. In fact, the fact that this variant gene doesn't exist in other high altitude populations such as some of the South American and African groups...although nowhere is as high as the Himalayas...indicates that mutation and selection alone hasn't come up with it yet.

But it also tells us that inter-species crossing can result in the extinction of one of the species involved. Apparently, what we call modern man was overall better adapted - and thus the only genes that survived from our cousins were the ones we found useful.

We're all gene thiefs, apparently. Unless all of your ancestors are African.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bigfoot Is A Bear

A massive study of supposed Bigfoot and Yeti samples revealed that the majority were (as should be expected)...bears. (The lead theory is that if the Yeti exists it's some kind of rare species of bear).

Other samples turned out to be wolves, raccoons, porcupine, deer, sheep, cows and, in at least one case, an actual primate - a human. So, while Bigfoot isn't "dead" there's definitely an absence of evidence going on.

In brighter news, some friends of mine just launched a kickstarter.

They're producing a new line of miniatures - of goblins. These miniatures are part of an ongoing campaign to fill the niche of goblin stuff for people who actually want to play the little blighters.

Anyone who pledges at least $8 will get their very own goblin - these are going to be pewter metal miniatures with slotted plastic bases. $20 will get you a choice from several different packs of Goblin miniatures. They're scaled to fit with your current 28mm miniatures.

(I'm not a big miniatures person myself, but these people are doing some really nice painted minis for those out there who just love the battle maps).

Dark Hold Goblin Adventurers Miniatures.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Few Science Things

NASA successfully tested a craft designed to soft land on Mars...sort of. The primary purpose of the test was fulfilled, but the parachute used to slow the landing of the "flying saucer" didn't fully deploy. On Earth, it deployed enough for the splashdown to be successful anyway, but they'll have to fix that before trying it in Mars' much thinner atmosphere.

And Californian scientists have discovered a new species of elephant shrew. Because I always have to share completely adorable new species - here you go. Can't say that thing's not cute...