Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Updates

I can't talk about it much yet, but keep an eye on Damien Broderick - he's up to something that might just involve some really nice short fiction.

Strange Voyages interior art is progressing really well and on schedule.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kids, Guns, Arizona

You may or may not have heard about the incident on a shooting range in Arizona. A nine-year-old girl was being allowed to fire a mini-Uzi. She lost control of the weapon and ended up shooting her instructor in the head.

Both gun control advocates and responsible gun owners have spoken out about this. (Gun rights idiots have, of course, pointed out that the range wasn't breaking any laws).

Well, no. Only the law of common sense.

A nine-year-old girl is a pretty small person, in general. Automatic weapons - and she was firing the weapon on full auto - do this thing called "climbing." where the barrel tends to drift upwards. (Another interpretation of the situation was that the stock was not secure against her shoulder, slipped, and she squeezed the trigger again trying not to drop the gun - something which has got inexperienced shooters killed before).

The range was the World Famous Arizona Last Stop, a roadside attraction on US 93 in Arizona. It offered a designer, a cafe, an RV park...and the opportunity to shoot a machine gun.

This wasn't a professional training range. It was a tourist trap where people off the street, including children as young as eight, could get the experience of playing with an automatic weapon. I attempted to load a website that might have had more information, but it appears to be down. The range itself is "closed indefinitely."

I'm not a gun control freak - it's one way in which I diverge from most liberals. I have nothing against the responsible use and ownership of firearms.

But...the gun owners I've talked to about this all unite on one point.

Nine year olds are not physically or mentally ready to shoot fully automatic weapons. To be blunt, they are simply too small to handle the recoil and may not quite understand how deadly what they have in their hands is - a lesson one little girl learned in the most traumatic way possible.

Children should not be shooting machine guns. If you want to teach your kid to shoot, give them a .22 targeting pistol or a properly designed youth gun. Not a mini-Uzi.

And in my opinion a place that bills itself as a chance for untrained people to play with machine guns was an accident waiting to happen.

The Sheriff's Office is pursuing no charges - presumably having decided that the party responsible for the accident was the dead instructor. But some responsibility has to fall on his employers. This wasn't a case where the client begged for the chance to try - it was their entire business model. And maybe even a little bit on the parents, who might have been able to see (might) that this wasn't a good idea. Legal does not mean smart or safe.

I compare this incident to putting a nine-year-old girl on a fully race-fit Thoroughbred. Adults are responsible for not letting children handle things they simply don't have the body mass or skill to control.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

So, How Many Dimensions? the universe, that is. Susan Foreman in "The Unearthly Child" informs us there are five - counting space and time.

In the 1960s that was advanced physics. Today? Today we're not sure. String theory supports dozens of dimensions, but most of them are too small for us to see. And today we think space and time are basically aspects of the same thing.

But now, just to confuse the matter, physicist are thinking there may only be two.

What? Are we saying we live in Flatland now? This all, like the idea of almost infinite dimensions, goes back to string theory. String theory suggests that the entire universe is an optical illusion - a hologram created by light diffraction. Another piece of evidence - the fact that it seems you can't have anything smaller than the Planck length - is that the pixel of the universe? And the Holometer at Fermilab is supposed to find out.

I don't buy it, but then neither would the people of Flatland buy three dimensions. So... Also, the Holometer may answer other basic questions about space and time.

And if the universe really is a hologram, what does that mean for us? (Why am I suddenly flashing back to Reynolds' Terminal World? Oh, right, pixel sizes).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Welcome Our Robot Overlords?

Humans are weird.

A (small) study indicated that if you put humans working with robots on a task, the humans are not just more efficient but happier if you let the robots be the boss.

It might be that we see robots as impartial? Or maybe people just like to be ordered around. Number Five, what do you think on the matter?


The study is part of efforts to design a workplace in which humans and robots are integrated. And the truth is that the study participants found it easier to trust robots that seemed to have more of a mind of their own.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hug a tree!

(For Groot, as Vin Diesel might say).

If you're a koala, hugging a tree helps cool you down on hot days. It also works for leopards...and even your own house cat (so if your cat climbs a tree and flops on a branch, they're probably feeling the heat).

And, yes, chimps do it too. Humans? With no body hair, the effect - the tree's circulation pulling heat away from the animal - might be even more pronounced. Our ancestors likely hugged trees to cool down on warm days and possibly even to warm up on cold ones (although as we originated as a tropical species...)

So, go ahead. Hug a tree on a hot day. You never know, it might help you feel better.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Updates

I have been invited back to RavenCon for 2015 - hope to see at least a few of you in Richmond.

(Only piece of news I can tell, but at least it's a good one).

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Cosmonauts cleaning the ISS's windows and sensors claim to have found sea plankton.

On the outside.

On the freaking OUTSIDE.

NASA is remaining mum on the subject and says it's not confirmed and I'm only seeing it in UK sources, but if so...the question is not so much how it survived (tardigrades can survive in vacuum for days) as how the heck it got there.

And if this is real, then it's one piece of evidence for biological contamination between and beyond planets.

Or it's all a hoax. No way of knowing yet.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I Am...

...feeling the need for a bit of extra cute this morning (Don't worry, nothing's wrong, I just want cute).

So, how about some baby snow leopards?

Or just go hang out on Zooborns for a bit, on which the current star is baby cranes trying to dance.

Now I need to go do a bunch of writing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I've Talked About...

...the undersea power line from Iceland to Scotland before.

DanTysk is building a 99 mile submarine transmission cable to connect a wind farm off of Germany with the land. It's being put together by an Italian cablemaker, the Prysmian Group.

The lines will transmit DC electricity (which loses less over long distances than AC).

Other projects include Western Link, which will bring renewable energy from Scotland to England. Canada is building one to move hydroelectric power from Labrador to Nova Scotia.

As for the Icelandic link? Here's something as of last October.

Except for oil for transportation, all of Iceland's power comes from sustainable sources - and as electric cars improve in range, that might change. (They're also using geothermal electricity to create methanol from water).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tech News!

SpaceX has released a video of the booster splashdown from July 14. Reusable rockets are one step closer. Follow the link here.

The Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in math has been won by a woman for the first time - Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford University. She earned the medal for some highly theoretical stuff connected to the "symmetry of curved surfaces." (Like most pure mathematicians, she apparently finds this kind of thing fun).

And for more fun along the same lines. Electrons and lasers, oh my - link here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Updates!

Forgot to mention - I got my contributors' copy of Thirst. It's a rather interesting looking book - looks like a comic on the outside, prose on the inside. (It's basically the same print format as pamphlet comics - I haven't seen that before, but it's ideal for the size).

Other than that, been working on stuff I can't talk about again. Always fun - by some definitions of fun.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams

Night at the Museum.  Bicentennial Man. Good Will Hunting. Hook. Dead Poets Society. Good Morning, Vietnam. Mork & Mindy. The list goes on.

Robin Williams was a very funny man...but also a very sad one. He suffered from bipolar disorder - a mental health condition that is characterized by periods of high mood and activity and deep depression. And on August 11, during a particularly bad bout with the latter, he took his own life.

The reaction from his fans was despair and grief. But that's not the only reaction I saw.

Zelda Williams was driven off of social media by "trolls" who decided to blame her for her father's death.

And on social media I actually saw an individual, who shall remain nameless, forward a Youtube video about why Robin Williams is in hell now.

Celebrity suicides happen. It's a high pressure business and sometimes people are driven over the edge even without an underlying condition. In this case, Williams died, essentially, of bipolar disorder.

But I have never seen this level of hate aimed at the person...and worse, their family. What is wrong with us?

What kind of person reacts to somebody's death like that? I don't know...but I'm more saddened by these reactions than the initial tragedy. Some days I honestly just don't want to admit to being the same species as some so-called human beings.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hemp, hemp, hemp.

No, I'm not going to talk about our old friend Mary Jane - although she's going to become relevant.

The war against drugs has led to the growing of all forms of hemp being banned, even though hemp is actually a very useful fibre used in textiles and building materials in more sensible parts of the world.

The 2014 farm bill does include a provision for "industrial hemp" to be grown solely by universities and agricultural departments for experimental purposes. A lot of people - especially artists who would like to get their hands on hemp fibres - think the ban is stupid. Industrial hemp does not have enough THC in it for anyone to get high off of. Some varieties have none at all.

Industrial hemp has another downside, though. The inner bark is useless...

...until now.

Researchers in the UK have built supercapacitors out of the stuff - a kind of battery that could ultimately power electric cars and tools far more cheaply than the expensive graphene currently being used for the task. (The same team also made a battery out of...banana peels).

So, how about it. No matter how you feel about marijuana, banning industrial hemp is just stupid...and here's another reason to stop being so short-sighted.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Another Warning For Writers

The wonderful Victoria of Writer Beware chose to point out another scam today - so I'm going to signal boost.

Agent middleman services. They promise to make sure your query gets read by an agent. Many of them will put you together with a professional editor (Hint: Although professional editors are vital if you intend to self publish, their use is a red flag if you send a manuscript in to an agent or publisher - the concern is that you don't know how to do the necessary self-editing).

Then they'll charge you a nice fee what you should be doing yourself. Finding the right agent and querying them. Of course, can you really trust these people not to send your manuscript to an agent who doesn't take your genre or, worse, a fly-by-night, fee-paying, or fake agent. Likely a fee-paying one if they do "find" you an agent. These people tend to scratch each other's backs.

Don't do it.

If you want your query letter critiqued, try an online writer's forum or group - there are quite a few out there where people who have already been published will gladly tell you what works and what doesn't.

If you want a quick way to find the right agent, try or another database site. They're free, and they list agents by the genres they take and often keep on track of who is open to subs and who isn't.

These services are at best unnecessary, at worst scammy...and many reputable agents block their emails when they come across them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Thoughts

Honestly, everyone's probably already seen least this point.

After all, at the ten day mark, the latest offering from the MCU had made $313.2 million including $40.1 million overseas - surprisingly, the top foreign market for the film was Russia...perhaps because of the small guest appearance by Cosmo.

So, why is this news?

It's news because this is a movie that stars, no joke, a talking raccoon who loves guns and his partner, a tree (voiced beautifully by Vin Diesel).

Well, technically, the star is the Han Solo-esque Star Lord, played by Chris Pratt, but honestly? The raccoon and the tree were what people first started talking about. Well, that and a bit about green Zoe Saldana - who apparently loved the role.

DC tried superhero space opera with the mediocre Green Lantern. Marvel, apparently, took one look and countered with...a raccoon and a tree.

Bluntly, the concept of this movie spoke more of some kind of bizarre Star Wars parody than anything else...then the trailers started coming out. The sequel was greenlighted based off of the buzz. Then pre-sales hit Fandango and the movie became the highest August pre-seller in the ticket retailer's history. As Rocket Raccoon says when thrown a gun bigger than him. "Oh....yeah."

So, what the heck is it about this movie?

The first thing is that it crosses three different audiences.

It's a comic book movie, building on the dominance of the MCU of not just the superhero genre but sci-fi as general, and attracted superfans of the comic who added to the buzz.

It's also classic space opera, with all of the tropes that we remember from Flash Gordon and Star Wars. The daughter of the evil emperor is there in the form of Gamora, adopted daughter and personal weapon of the mad titan Thanos. Who, of course, betrays him. The Han Solo-esque rogue is visible in both Star Lord/Peter Quill and Rocket. In fact, one of the thoughts I had during the movie was "Damn, if Episode 1 had been this good."

And, I haven't laughed so much at a movie in years. So, it also pulled in at least part of the comedy audience. And made them watch sci-fi.

This movie had everything. It had huge set piece space battles. It had dogfights. It had assorted aliens - and while there isn't much space to create fascinating aliens in the space of a feature film, there were at least nods to these people not just being funny looking humans. It had a bad guy with absolutely no redeeming qualities who met appropriate comeuppance. And the entire core cast were ne'er-do-wells who found the heroism within themselves at the right moment.

But most of all this movie gave the same sense of everyone just having fun don't see very often. The first of the new Star Trek movies got the edge of it, but the second was too professional and serious. Green Lantern? The people behind it didn't get space opera at all. They didn't get the difference between space opera and science fiction, tried to do the former and ended up with a bastard combination of the two that made the movie only average.

We haven't had a movie that captured the original Star Wars since, really, Return of the Jedi. Not at the big budget level. Until now. And with Disney working on the next Star Wars movie - what about it, guys? Can we get at least a little bit of the spirit of this movie into it? It was a breath of fresh air into all of the serious "science fiction" being made lately.

Thank you Marvel and Disney.

(Okay. I will add. The movie was not perfect...specifically, the prologue. The prologue demonstrated exactly why we tell novice writers not to do prologues. I was wondering where my movie was...should have been a flashback, guys).

Friday, August 8, 2014

Friday Updates

Just plodding along here.

Have to go see Guardians of the Galaxy tomorrow. Dodging spoilers has become far, far too hard - it'll still be crowded, but...

Working on all sorts of different stuff here - hope to have some updates soon.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Invasive Species

Pet rats are banned in Alberta. Some species of snake are banned as pets in other places.

Preventing the spread of invasive species didn't used to be a human concern (in fact, humanity may be the most successful invasive species of all time, having spread across the globe and absorbed all closely related species). But now we appreciate biodiversity.

But it can have its challenges. Take wildlife corridors - leaving strips of land through developments to allow local wildlife to disperse. Sometimes they do that. Sometimes, though, they disperse invasive species even more effectively - this was found in Florida with a certain kind of fire ant.

In California, this week is Invasive Species Week - a campaign designed to educate people on what they can do about it.

In the Midwest the Asian carp has become a huge problem, and behavior deterrents are in place at many locks - loud music or electrical shocks to keep the fish from passing the barrier. Ships that travel certain routes have to be cleaned to prevent the spread of shellfish.

And feral hogs are a problem in Florida and least.

So, what can people do?

First of all, don't let exotic pets escape. If you keep snakes, consider choosing species that can't survive long in the wild where you live.

Avoid planting non-native garden plants that are inclined to spread - choose native ground cover when possible. If you weed out invasive species, don't compost the flower heads, but bag them and label them for landfill - talk to your local jurisdiction about the rules on this.

Oh, and if you burn firewood, buy it as locally as possible.

(Amusingly, the list of animals that will eat invasive weeds is long, separated by weed type - and "goats" are on every list. I love goats).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Chasing cows...


No cows.

Or horses.

Museums Losing Things

So, there's another one. The Penn Museum just found a 6,500 year old human the back of the storage rooms.

How do things like this happen? A lot of people with no background in archeology or museology wonder that.

People who've never had the privilege to spend time in the basement of the British museum. A fascinating place if you can get access to it - which is not easy. ('I'm writing a book' might get you a guided tour, though).

So, how does it happen?

Most of the "lost then found" artifacts were collected in the late 19th into the early 20th century. During that time it was fashionable for wealthy gentlemen (and even some ladies) to collect artifacts. They often donated them to the nearest museum. A lot of artifacts came in, some of them not well provenanced - remember, these were amateurs. And in many cases museums just put anything that wasn't pretty (like, say, skeletons) in boxes in storage to sort out later.

Then later never actually happened.

Museums have larger collections than what you see in glass cases and on shelves and sometimes they don't really know what they have.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ebola: Should We Be Worried?

I've talked to a lot of people who are worried about the fact that the US has already flown one ebola patient back from Africa - with a second en route.

Ebola, full name "Ebola hemorrhagic fever," is a rather nasty zoonotic disease that flares up occasionally in tropical parts of sub Saharan Africa, often as a result of people eating bush meat - specifically dead primates (This is also how AIDS got into the human population...but the people in these countries are very poor and this is often the only way they can get meat).

And yes, it's a scary virus. There is no vaccine (yet). There is no specific treatment. Fatality rates range, depending on which of the five species of Ebola is involved, from 50 to 90 percent. And some of those infected bleed from every orifice.


Should we be worried? And why would the United States risk flying people with this horrible disease back to the country?

Okay. Here are some facts.

Ebola is nasty. It is likely to kill you. It is also not that contagious. In order to catch ebola, you have to come into contact with the bodily fluids of somebody who has ebola (or eat a monkey or pig that was infected with it). Unlike influenza or some of the other respiratory viruses that have caused scares lately, ebola is not an airborne virus. (It can, however, survive on surfaces for a couple of days).

So, the only people at real risk of ebola are family members...and healthcare workers. Both of the two infected Americans being returned to the United States are doctors. Another top expert on ebola who went to deal with the outbreak died of the disease.

You won't catch ebola from, for example, being on the same plane as somebody who has it. Or in the same building.

Next question, though, why take the risk?

The reason this ebola outbreak is so bad is because it hit particularly poor parts of Africa with a lousy medical infrastructure. So, it might simply make sense to bring these people somewhere with better medical care, but there's more to it.

There's no treatment for ebola...yet. An experimental serum has been developed and tested on monkeys. Until now it has not been tested on humans...and the patient brought back to the US last week was the first human "guinea pig."

The treatment is not approved - so it would have been given under what the FDA calls a "compassionate use" exemption. This means an unapproved treatment being given to a patient they know is very likely to die anyway. I've seen it asked why they're testing it on Americans - the answer is because if they tested it on a non-US citizen and they died, it could cause diplomatic problems.

And obviously, you don't want to be messing around with experimental treatments in an area where the medical infrastructure is particularly crappy.

The tl;dr:

1. We are highly unlikely to have an ebola outbreak in the United States. The disease is not that contagious and modern hygiene can control it to an extent.

2. The patients being brought back are being brought here for some very good reasons, under full quarantine precautions.

And the good news? The patient given the serum appears to be improving...

Monday, August 4, 2014

Weird Science

It's called a "quantum vacuum plasma thruster" and nobody knows how it works. Or why it works. In fact, most experts are saying it can't possibly work.

NASA has done test bed work, though, and they're claiming They aren't willing to say why, though.

Oh, to make it even better, they intentionally configured a test rig not to work.

It still worked.

So, is this cold fusion, or is this the future of space travel? It's a rocket engine that requires no "fuel" in the traditional sense - it's powered entirely off of the sun's own electrical field (which means it will probably not be usable as a stardrive, but...)

There's going to be a lot of people rushing to duplicate this one. I'm hoping, obviously, that it's not cold fusion - because a space drive that doesn't need to carry propellent right away makes interplanetary travel much more feasible.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Updates!

Penumbra magazine has bought my story "Saturday Night at the Wonderland Club" for their Lewis Carroll-themed issue.

(This was quite a tough story to write - trying to get social commentary and a touch of the surreal, so I'm glad I apparently pulled it off well enough to impress an editor).