Wednesday, December 31, 2014

And Another Year Almost In The Can

2014 is almost over, and what did we see?

Here's some of the stuff that got me excited in 2014:

1. 3D printing in space. The Star Trek replicator came one step closer with the Made In Space device that is now being tested, successfully, on the ISS. 3D printers will reduce the cost of manned (and some unmanned) space exploration significantly.

2. Machine-mediated telepathy. Without surgery. Brain-computer interfaces have allowed people to think to each other across the internet. And we no longer need to implant electrodes to let people control machines with their mind - although the technology's not perfect yet, the trope of the VR "crown" is almost upon us.

3. Self driving cars are getting closer and closer to reality, with everything that means for accident levels (yes, as far as we can tell they're safer) and mobility for disabled people.

4. We confirmed the first Earth-sized planet that may be habitable (in the Goldilocks zone). We'll see what pans out from it, but the exoplanet search points more and more towards us not being alone. And what about those mysterious radio bursts? Nope, still not sure. Could they be the signs of another civilization? Or am I just being overly optimistic?

5. And good luck to the group of scientists at Imperial College London who are trying to work up a collider experiment to turn light into matter...they actually think it's possible.

What made you excited in 2014?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Be Careful Out There...

...and don't get the flu. It's a bad year for it.

The flu vaccine is based off an educated guess as to which strains will be dominant. This year they missed one, and it's an H3 strain - particularly dangerous to kids and the elderly.

There have been 15 deaths of children associated with the flu. And it's no better in Canada.

So, yeah. Wash your hands. Stay home if you're sick (please, please, and employers, stop firing people for staying home when they have a fever - somebody told me they had to go in or be fired even though they're obviously ill). Please, just be careful out there.

Please try not to get the flu. I'm considering going into hiding this year...

Monday, December 29, 2014

Venus Goes Steampunk

So, apparently NASA's think tank has come up with a way to colonize Venus. Called HAVOC, the initial plan is for two astronauts to visit the cloud-covered, lethal planet, but the design could scale up to a small outpost...and from there, who knows.

The best part - it uses airships. Yup. Airships. HAVOC stands for High Altitude Venus Operational Concept.

The surface of Venus has eaten the few probes we've got to it in a matter of hours. Earth's "sister" planet might better be called her evil twin. The atmosphere is not only toxic, it's corrosive, full of sulfuric acid and other nasties.

At thirty miles up, though, we find conditions more earth-like than anywhere else in the solar system. The pressure, gravity and radiation protection are all similar to the surface of the Earth.

Hence, airships. A lighter-than-air vessel is the best way to hold scientific equipment...and brave that thirty mile zone. The challenges include inflating the airship on arrival and protecting it from the atmosphere - not nearly as bad there as closer to the surface, but still dangerous.

But, intriguingly, this may be more immediately feasible than a manned mission to Mars. The much shorter distance reduces the challenges of spaceflight and the environment is more hospitable in the ways that really matter...

And the idea of an airship city on Venus is just too cool to pass up.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Updates

Okay, so...I'll be gone all next week dealing with Christmas and family stuff.

Finished January Making Fate.

"Crone" is back from the editor, and I'm definitely looking at a mid-January release date. If you don't have your copy of "Mother" yet - go get it.

Strange Voyages is in layout, but that might not be done until after the holidays. We're just adding the backer content now.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Science Fiction Things Under Serious Discussion

Here we go again. This is why science fiction writers keep having to up their game. Here's a few things that are now seriously in discussion and development that, you know, belong to science fiction:

1. Power sats. Four countries - the US, China, India and, of course, Japan have projects in development. SpaceX's reusable rockets could be key to bringing the project into economic feasibility - the number of launches required could give the first one a price tag of $20 billion.

2. Self-guilding bullets. DARPA claims they've cracked this one. Of course, being DARPA, they won't go into details as to how, but with modern miniaturization the bottom size of a guided missile has to have dropped a lot.

3. Mind over machine. Mind-controlled robotic arms are close to being ready for primetime. And machine-mediated telepathy's on the way too.

What do we think will be 2015's breakthrough?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fraudproof Credit Cards?

Personally, I don't think such a thing exists.

Dutch researchers are proposing using something they call quantum-secure authentication - a nanoparticle strip that has a unique pattern carved into it by a laser.

They claim it can't be hacked.

The hackers of the world slaver at such claims. I'm not sure even quantum physics can end the arms race between the white hats and black hats of the world. There's a good explanation of how the system would work here.

What do people think? Is this really "unhackable"?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Domestication Gene?

There isn't really a domestication gene. (There is something called domestication syndrome, which refers to the physical changes that are genetically linked to breeding for tameness - the "symptoms" include physical neoteny especially of the face, floppy ears, and patched or piebald coats).

Researchers studying the horse genome, though, have found 125 domestication genes. Or to be more precise, 125 genes involved in the physical and behavioral traits we favor. Stuff like, you know, not bucking people off, paying more attention to humans, having good withers to support a saddle and, most likely, size (wild horses are smaller than most domestic breeds).

I find this particular topic fascinating. One day I'll get a convention panel together on it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Evolution does cool things

For one thing, we now know that only one mutation caused birds to lose the ability to produce teeth. (Beaks are an advantage in some situations, but a disadvantage in others).

Even more cool is a species of deep water worm. These worms eat bones - they eat the skeletons of whales and bony fish that fall to the bottom of the ocean. And in almost all of them the males have shrunk. Females keep harems and the males are permanently attached to them.

Almost all. They just found a new species in which the sexes are the same size - and they're saying it's an evolutionary reversal - a return to an older state. This doesn't happen very often because unused genes tend to slowly atrophy or disappear (just like the genes that would make teeth in birds). And these males are, of course, fully mobile.

Turning stuff back on? Evolution doesn't do that very often.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Updates

No huge news this week - although I did get caught up on what I planned on doing writing-wise. Pretty quiet pre-Christmas lull here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


...dinosaurs are extinct, right?

But the closest genetic relative to the dinosaur is an animal we've all seen (and almost all eaten), an animal so common we don't even think about it twice.

Yup - the humble chicken is the most dinosaur-like of all birds, genetically. (The second most is, of course, the turkey).

Also, birds evolve more slowly than mammals, possibly explaining why none of the flightless birds have invented livebearing yet. (And the slowest evolution? Crocodilians).

(My dear darling husband will insert a Doom Chicken joke here. It's a bad movie reference).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Good Luck, Space X

Commercial space flight has seen a couple of setbacks lately.

So, here's hoping that the December 16 attempt to land a reusable first stage rocket safely goes well. SpaceX will be trying to bring down the Falcon 9 first stage onto a floating platform (based off of oil rig designs).

They're estimating a 50/50 chance of actually pulling this off (it won't be a disaster if they don't - they'll probably just miss the platform) on the first attempt.

So...yeah. Good luck with it. It would be a welcome boost if they manage it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

So, how wet was Mars?

Wet enough to create layers of sedimentary rock. Gale Crater, for example, appears to have contained a lake that, over time, varied in size.

And apparently for it to exist, there had to have been seas. It's now looking as if Mars was once quite habitable by our kind of life.

The problem?

We can't work out how. None of the models we have allow Mars, with its small size, to have a thick enough atmosphere to be warm enough for what the rocks are telling us happened.

Unless, of course, the NASA researchers are wrong. We'll see what ends up happening, but there's still a lot to learn.

And a lot, apparently, that we don't quite understand about the Red Planet.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mockingjay (Spoilerish)

Anyone who knows me knows I like The Hunger Games. (They also probably know my rather controversial opinion that the entire thing is mis-marketed and should not be considered Young Adult).

I was very worried, though, about Mockingjay on film. First of all, the splitting into two movies which has become a trend sadly exemplified by Jackson's Hobbit, which has definitely consumed too many second breakfasts. Second of all - both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire really read as books written to be filmed.

Mockingjay doesn't. The book is about what war does to people, to individuals. It's deeply psychological and shows a disturbing understanding of PTSD, losing one's humanity, and other forms of insanity - and there's no way you can film that. Books and movies are different media.

The movie worked because it didn't try. Understanding that the task was impossible, writers Peter Craig and Danny Strong (with an adaptation credit given to Collins herself) and director Francis Lawrence chose to tell a different side of the story.

The book is about what war does to individuals.

The movie is about what war, especially civil war, does to nations.

And as that, it works. Destruction, rubble, fields of skeletons - these things film well in a way the inner workings of the mind don't.

My criticisms are minor and in at least one case personal.

1. I didn't like how they did District 13. I'd always envisioned command bunker combined with nuclear fallout bunker. The filmmakers apparently envisioned giant missile silo. (Ironically, some of the visuals were nearly identical to the space station/bunker in Interstellar, albeit bigger). I also had an argument with Greg - I thought the movie District 13 was more sinister than the books. He disagreed. Ah well.

2. The split was done at a good spot, but. They had a very strong end point, and then carried on for five minutes after it. I think it would have been a much stronger movie if they'd ended after the fight between Peeta and Katniss.

3. Peeta's falling apart was too subtle. You need to overplay things like that, and we shouldn't be needing the rest of the cast to tell us he's messed up while he sits there looking perfectly fine.

High points:

1. Natalie Dormer as Cressida. She was unrecognizable (I had to look her up to realize who she was) because of what they did to her hair, but she was clearly channeling a nice mix of the directors she's known.

2. R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman. You were a great Plutarch Heavensbee. Nobody could do it better.

3. Effie's complaining about her missing wigs and acting as if she was still in the Capitol. Awesome. And yes, people do go into that sort of denial.

4. Pollux using actual ASL in the drop ship. Apparently he said "Isn't she hot?" (I don't speak ASL, so...)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Updates

Two good, solid reviews of The Silent Years. One isn't up on the blogger's actual site yet but can be seen on Amazon and Goodreads.

The other, from Long And Short Reviews can be found here.

If you haven't got your copy yet, what are you waiting for?

Apparently, "Anyone who likes apocalyptic fiction should check this out."

Book two is still at the editor. Working on it!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Elizabeth Moon Does It Again

I finally finished her Paladin's Legacy series - a sequel to The Deed of Paksenarrion.

Except for one niggling continuity error (Mages in The Deed become Wizards in Legacy so she can use the term mage to talk about what I would be more inclined to call a sorcery) it's a worthy continuation. It's been quite a few years and Moon's writing has matured.

I'm not going to do a full review here - but I do recommend it. When you finish a series and your only complaint is that you've finished - you know it's pretty good.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

This is actually a several year old book, but I've confirmed it's in print status.

Robert A. Heinlein was a prolific writer...and like most writers left unfinished work. We don't know why he never finished this novel, but his outline and notes were found in his desk. In 2003 long term Heinlein fan Spider Robinson (best known for Callahan's Cross Time Saloon was hired to finish it).

Posthumous collaborations don't often work very well. This one does - the choice of Robinson to do the job was excellent, given some strong similarities in voice between the two writers. The book is set not in Heinlein's fairly well known "Lazarus" universe but in the world of Revolt in 2100 (which is one of the scariest future timelines ever written, especially when I look at some of the religious crazies who have way too much power these days). The protagonist is a young man - a little older than the norm for Heinlein's classic juveniles, but still falling into the category of protagonist Heinlein wrote the best.

And Robinson does a really brilliant job. The protagonist, after discovering that his girlfriend lied to him and is now expecting him to do stud duty and learn to be a high powered manager (he's a musician and composer) decides to storm out of the entire solar system and sign up to be a colonist. The book is...well...had Heinlein written it on his own, it would have been hard science fiction. But this is Robinson, and there are some things he can't resist. Starflight by meditation? That's classic Robinson. But the actual technology is classic Heinlein.

Here's the flaw.

Heinlein has two flaws in his writing. One is a tendency to stop the story to explain either his science of his sociology. The other is his...well known peccadillos about human sexuality and the way people fall in love.

Robinson has two flaws in his writing. One is his obsession with learning telepathy via zen meditation. The other is his obsession with music, which is only two steps below that of my late (and much missed) mother.

Guess what.


The book has all four. Now, to be fair, Robinson tones down the creepy sexuality and at least there's no dubious consent incest presented as a good thing. He also tries, tries, tries to leave what I assume is his own religion/philosophy out of it. But there's still the edges of both in there, and a lot of stopping the story to talk about music along with some stopping the story to talk about science. I have to admit it had me laughing at times. Also, if you haven't read Revolt in 2100 (which is somewhat obscure) you might want to get or borrow it and read it before this book, because a couple of references to events in it aren't really explained that well.

Despite the fact that it collects the flaws of both writers, it also collects their good points. I've decided not to do star ratings, but I'd recommend this to fans of either writer...and to people who like their space opera, which it really slides over the edge into in terms of its level of "hardness."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Let's Talk Star Wars. And things I don't want to associate with Star Wars

So, this was supposed to be yesterday's post.

Abrams and Disney chose this weekend to release the first "teaser" preview of the new Star Wars.

I know a lot of people are less than happy with J.J. Abrams right now. And yes, there are many, many issues with his Trek. (I don't necessarily blame him for casting a famous white guy to play Khan, but I do blame him for everything being 20 minutes from everything else).

Here's the thing. The very things that make his Star Trek less than perfect are the same things that should make his Star Wars...pretty damn good.

But then here's the "problem".

The trailer starts with John Boyega in a Stormtrooper uniform on what looks to be Tatooine. And hoo boy is this causing a furore.

Apparently, there are quite a few fans who have a problem with this. Some are making the argument that as Stormtroopers are clones they have to be white. (Except Jango Fett isn't white and by 30 years after Endor, I doubt the Stormtroopers are still clones).

Most are just being, well.


The Youtube comments give a good picture.

Commenters saying things like "If they need to put in a black guy" (And insisting Jango Fett, played by an actor of Maori descent, was Caucasian/white).  According to these people the black Stormtrooper is stupid, "they have sinned". Apparently there was some real racist filth in the comments that has fortunately been deleted.

The point being, people are mad.

A bit of history. Lucas did not originally intend Lando Calrissian. He was put in because people bitched that everyone in the universe appeared to be white.

Now we have people bitching that what is presumably a very significant character (the first we see) is black. I'm just going to say: Get over it. Whether he's an actual Stormtrooper (perhaps in the process of defecting) or somebody in Stormtrooper armor, there is no legitimate justification for complaining about his color. None. It's not like this is a character canonically established as white. They are not wrecking canon.

Jango Fett was not white. Not all Stormtroopers are clones. We have never seen a Stormtrooper without his helmet before, so for all we know they're all black.

Complaining about this is racism. Sorry, but it is.

Now, rant over, the rest of the teaser. We see a young woman who matches well with Carrie Fisher on a new kind of landspeeder - my guess is she is Han and Leia's daughter. We see a Sith with a red lightsaber who's apparently worried about losing his hand, based off of the guards. There are a lot of fan complaints about this, but there is rather a precedent (from 1-3) of Sith using cool looking but not entirely practical lightsabers.

And we see an X-Wing pilot - another important character, I suspect. Plus the Falcon versus TIE fighters.

And that's about it. It's a teaser, so they aren't handing us very much to go on. Except a fan controversy that shouldn't be.

Monday, December 1, 2014


I was planning on writing a nice cheery blog post about Star Wars today. Or a review of a book I read recently.

Those are being put off. Very quietly, with pretty much no mention in the media, the EU has been implementing plans to really mess up the lives and livelihoods of a large number of people.

The tagline is "VATMOSS." It's planned to prevent Amazon and Google from sitting in Luxembourg with its 3% VAT rate and selling to the rest of Europe.

In fact, it's pretty much entirely aimed at Amazon.

It classes certain things as digital services. On those products, the VAT threshold is suddenly zero if you're selling to an EU country you are not resident in. (Norway and Switzerland have also bought into this).

It applies to digital products sold to customers in the EU. This means ebooks, software, logo templates, anything that a customer buys that is pre-made. Physical products aren't affected, only electronic ones.

It also applies to browser games with subscription options or freemium.

So, what's the big deal?

In order to comply with the legislation, all businesses, regardless of their size or profit level, that sell digital products to a country in the EU other than the one they are in must:

1. Collect VAT and remit it to the country their customer is resident in.
2. Store at least two "non-contradictory" proofs of which country that customer is in for ten years, and abide by privacy rules (there's some indication this means the data has to be stored in the EU, but that's only from one source).
3. File a VAT return and/or prove they have no customers in the EU.

They are providing a system that allows companies to file only one VAT return for the entire EU. (This is the MOSS part).

So, here's the problem:

1. US companies are now required to collect and store information US payment processors are legally forbidden to provide them. It is nearly impossible to comply with the reporting aspect of the law if you are not in the EU.
2. In order to be sure they can cover the VAT for any possible EU customer, companies will have to raise prices by somewhere between 20 and 30 percent for all customers. So, people who are not in the EU, have never been to the EU, and are buying from a company not in the EU will have to pay more to cover VAT rates. The alternative is to use a full e-commerce suite - prohibitively expensive for most very small businesses.

The only way to avoid the law is to 100% guarantee nobody in the EU can buy from your site. This is, by the way, impossible. If one customer gets through an IP block or geolocation system, then no matter what you did, or what lies they told, they can come after you with "potentially unlimited" fines. (Although realistically, it appears the only thing they can actually do to a US company is prevent them from selling to the EU).

And you're supposed to be able to prove nobody in the EU has bought from you that year if they decide to come after you.

So, this mess is impossible to fully comply with without ceasing direct sales of digital products. For some people - writers, musicians for example - that means going through a marketplace that handles all of this for them. That means, you know, Amazon, Google, Apple...the very companies this is actually supposed to be hitting. Amazon is going to make bank off of this.

For others, it means going out of business - or attempting to comply and hoping they don't get caught.

This is particularly bad for games companies that do in-browser "freemium" games outside of Facebook (another company the EU doesn't like). I'm also told it's going to stifle the sales of digital knitting patterns. And it's also going to hit the maker community hard (3D printing stuff will be hurt by this).

There are small business people all through Europe planning on shutting up shop on January 1, because that's their only option. These people are generally not eligible for welfare (at least not in the UK). People aren't just going to be inconvenienced by this. People are going to be really hurt.

A law designed to make sure huge corporations pay their fair share of sales tax is going to have the unintended consequence of destroying small businesses and possibly even wrecking the economic recovery.

And they kept this so quiet that nobody knew about it until the comments and complaint period was not weeks, not months, but years in the past.

It cannot possibly be right or ethical for a country, any country, to ask foreign citizens to act as tax collectors.

How this affects me is that I will now be unable, ever, to sell ebooks direct through my website until and unless this is fixed to allow reasonable compliance. I wasn't planning on doing it any time soon.

But it's not about how it affects me. It's about how it affects others. This is a blunder of epic proportions and no matter how desperate countries are for tax revenue, 20% of zero is still zero...and can any country afford to suddenly lose several hundred thousand jobs? That's the scale we're looking at. HMRC has predicted 30,000 businesses will need to register for MOSS. The real number is closer to half a million. Many of those will evade by switching to selling through a marketplace...if they can afford to do so. For those for whom that is not currently an option, shuttering may be the only way...and then what do they do? There aren't exactly an amazing number of jobs out there right now.