Thursday, December 31, 2015

In the...

...history of somewhat iffy science fiction ideas, there's "Making a humanoid robot that looks exactly like you."

Doctor Sarton built R. Daneel Olivaw in The Caves of Steel and was then (spoilers for ancient book) murdered by an anti-robot fanatic who couldn't tell the difference.

Doctor Noonian Soong, creator of Data and Lore, was eventually killed by Lore.

So I'm not entirely sure what Swiss professor Nadia Thalmann was thinking when she created a humanoid robot receptionist named Nadine that, yup, looks exactly like her creator.

Supposedly she acts as if she has emotions and is a prototype for humanoid robots that might act as companions to the elderly, etc. She uses software similar to Apple's Siri. The pictures I can find all show her sitting down, so she's not a fully humanoid robot yet, but she doesn't look bad at all.

(I wonder if she's fully functional?)


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Irish Migrations

Here's one for those writing "deep" historical fiction.

Genetic sequencing of skeletons found in Ireland have discovered something quite interesting. 5,000 years ago the inhabitants of Ireland were dark haired, dark eyed and mostly Middle Eastern (possibly even Semitic) and didn't use metal.

4,000 years ago they were blue eyed, fair haired people from the steppes of Eastern Europe who did.

This sort of fits some Irish fairy stories, doesn't it. (And also explains the minority of dark haired Irish sometimes called "black Irish" by people who aren't Irish and don't think it's completely silly much better than "survivors from the Spanish armada).

Now, who wants to write a novel about the conflict between the two groups when they met? I already have TMIS...

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars Returns (SPOILERS)

I promised, and here it is.

Personally, I had a fair amount of hope when Disney bought Lucasfilm. Whatever else you say about the Mouse, they've developed a good record of buying cinematic properties and then giving people creative freedom to, well...not fix what isn't broken and sometimes fix what is.

The Force Awakens isn't quite A New Hope - but it's enough to make one forget (or repress) the disaster that was the prequels. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The visuals were right on (I skipped the 3D version for various reasons), and Abrams' decision to film analog and use actual props for everything worked. Star Wars needs that edge of reality, not the hyper cleanness of CGI (One of my complaints about The Expanse).

The plot was a little bit predictable - it was very much "We're just going to make a new Star Wars movie and have fun with it" but might have echoed the original a little too much for those of us who remember it. However, you know what? That's what I wanted. The people who complained it was too like the original have a point, but...for many of us, that's really where they needed to go.

There was only one "Abramsism" in the movie - apparently the First Order's "superluminal weapon" can be seen from anywhere in the Galaxy and you can tell where it's being pointed. Not too bad, and far more considerable in Wars than Trek. (The other things that made me go "Uh" were the Millennium Falcon being fueled up and spaceworthy after sitting in a junk yard for years and just how did they move a planet to a new solar system every time they needed a sun to fuel the superweapon without damaging its ecology anyway?). Oh, and they got lazy with "what does a Stormtrooper wear under his armor?" - Finn's garb looked like they bought it at the local Wal-Mart.

But I could look past that for the stunning visuals, the Millennium Falcon flying through a crashed Star Destroyer, and yes, that adorable droid. Yeah, I'm one of those people who thinks BB-8 is too cute for words.

Daisy Ridley was perfectly competent as Rey. John Boyega was absolutely amazing - he managed to get an insane amount of emotion across while acting in full Stormtrooper armor. I didn't really feel I saw enough of Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron to judge. Harrison Ford hasn't changed except for going grey, but Mark Hamill was almost unrecognizable under the requisite Jedi Master beard.

My one casting issue was that Adam Driver did not match well with Ford and Fisher as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (A much better name than Jacen). He actually looked more like a Stark than a Solo or a Skywalker. Sorry.

The movie did fulfill one of my biggest Star Wars dreams: A major character playing a significant role who is a ground pounder. Star Wars has always put the romance of the pilot first, and that's fine. Leia is a diplomat despite holding the title General in this movie, but everyone else has always been pilots. Rey, our newest Jedi-in-training, also a pilot. But Finn doesn't know one end of a ship from another, and I love it. Him trying to work out how to fire the Falcon's guns is hilarious.

Now, the speculation. This movie left a lot of unanswered questions, and I'm addressing a few of them. With guesses, of course - for the fun of it.

1. Yes, Han Solo is dead. Let's get that out of the way. Even if it didn't look pretty final, the echo of Kenobi's death at the hands of his student wasn't anything these writers could have passed up.

2. Leia never trained as a Jedi because she chose not to - and because she felt she could serve the Light better with the talents she has. She is still "strong in the Force" and using it to a point, but anyone who thinks it's silly that she didn't train...I think it's a point of the character. (And in some ways, she's truer to the ideals than some who've held a lightsaber in lower canon).

3. Finn is probably also Force sensitive. Although we're shown that at least some Stormtroopers get training in bladed weapons, the fact that he picked up a lightsaber and didn't chop any part of himself off with it indicates, or should, that he has some sensitivity. This might also explain why the conditioning he was put through ultimately failed at its very first test.

4. Rey is not Ben's twin. Or other sibling. Sorry...if they go that way I'll accept it, but as of right now I'm not buying it. There is absolutely no way that another child would not have been mentioned in the conversation between Han and Leia, and no way Leia would let her daughter out of her sight. The only way Rey could have been stolen from them would be if their memories were wiped. I could almost buy that somebody could mind trick Han, but Leia? Nah. Nope.

She's obviously Luke's daughter, and probably one he didn't even know he had. I think we'll get filled in on that in the next movie. She definitely has a look of Leia about her...and I can't see that Luke's lightsaber would call to somebody who was not a blood relative. Cousins makes the ultimate confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren just as bittersweet as siblings and simply makes more sense.


Monday, December 28, 2015

I'm Back!

Back, safely, and tomorrow I will (unless I brain fart) post a review of a certain movie. You know, the one everyone's seeing...

Monday, December 21, 2015

Blessed Yule!

Or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate - this blog is now going dark until after the holidays.

Enjoy time with family and friends, the traditional Chinese dinner, midnight Mass, or whatever it is you do.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tales from Indies Anthology - Saturday Night At The Wonderland Club

So, I mentioned the Tales from Indies Anthology before (Get your own copy free here with coupon code BU68H).

I wanted to talk a bit about the story I chose to include - Saturday Night At The Wonderland Club.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, Transpecial was first published by Musa Publishing. Musa also published a themed speculative fiction periodical called Penumbra. One of their issues was a tribute issue to Lewis Carroll.

Okay, so, where could I go with Lewis Carroll? I'm not big on sending characters to Wonderland, but Alice was always social commentary - so I decided social commentary was the way to go. To make the hook more obvious, I named the speakeasy in the story the "Wonderland Club" - but what the story is really about is the growing inequality and division in our society and the attitudes people have to how the poor should be treated and helped. (Alice in Wonderland is often seen as social satire). Any more would be spoilered - except to say that the story, which was published in Penumbra originally, is really about how too many people in our society view poverty and the poor.

Anything else is open to what readers might put in there.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Expanse: Initial Reaction (Spoilers for Episode 1)

I watched the first half of the pilot on Tuesday and here are my initial reactions:

It is good to have a space opera fix - and The Expanse feels like space opera even though the science fiction is very hard. The space battle at the end was staged with some awareness of physics and ballistics, shooting at ranges of kilometers and torpedoes taking time to reach their target. (I'm unable to find out anything about the backgrounds of either of the collaborators who write together as James S.A. Corey, but I wonder if somebody was in the navy?).

The plot is intriguing and the visuals do remind me of Babylon 5 - my big hope for this show was that it would bear some resemblance to B5. I liked the asteroid CGI and the ships, although they didn't give me the YES, that's IT reaction I had to the Hermes in The Martian, looked pretty good.

However, I had some problems:

1. Everything was too clean. We're told in the introduction that water and air are at a premium in the belt. So, why does everyone look like they showered an hour ago? Some of the characters had extravagant hairstyles. Part of this is the usual issue with television budget CGI (B5 had some of the same problem), but you could grime up your actors a little when they're supposed to be ice miners.

2. There was a zero-G sex scene which I swear looked like the "bottom" partner was lying on a standard gym weight bench. Come on, SyFy, you can do better than that.

3. The dialogue was a little rocky in places.

4. The most interesting characters all die at the end of the first episode.

Still going to give it a good chance, though. There are definitely some very interesting concepts here. (I haven't read the books...yet).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Panda Breeding, Arranged Marriages...

Everyone knows it's hard to breed giant pandas in captivity - to the point where it's easy to wonder how they survive in the wild. Showing them pornography has been tried.

Now it turns out? Pandas, unlike many animals, won't just get it on when you stick them in with a "genetically approved" mate. In fact, there is absolutely no chance of a cub unless the pair like each other.

...which, of course, throws all of the breeding programs into a tizzy. And how many other animals does this apply to? It certainly applies to some species of bird. Arranged marriages in zebra finches drop the survival rate of chicks by over a third and increase rates of infidelity.

How much does it apply to humans? Humans have sex with people they aren't particularly attracted to all of the time, but does it affect how many children are produced? A lot of studies have been done about marriage length, relationship stability and "love" in arranged marriages versus love matches, but I'm not able to find anything that addresses reproductive success, probably because cultures that still arrange marriages also tend to have less availability of pre-natal care and contraception (short intervals between pregnancies can also affect infant mortality).


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Race To AI

Will we ever have sentient AI? Jokes about Skynet and AI road rage aside (Incidentally, one AI company is calling itself Skymind, which seems needlessly risky to me)...maybe.

Elon Musk's OpenAI is the AI version of Linux. By open sourcing everything the project will accelerate development. In answer, Google and Facebook have now open sourced some of their AI development.

Wait? Google and Facebook?

We probably don't realize just how much we use AI in our daily lives these days. Deep learning AI - AI that can learn from its own and other people's actions - is now powering much of what we do online.

If I open a tab and type something into the URL bar, it's an AI that auto completes it, based off of what it knows about what I've searched for in the past and what other people are searching for. Every ad you see on the internet? It's picked by an AI, based off of what you have been searching for and other factors such as the time of year, time of day, your zip code and what instructions it got from the company placing the ad.

Of course, the AIs don't always get it right. If type in dancing, the AI thinks I mean "Dancing With The Stars." Oops. I have no interest in that show. Facebook is currently serving me ads for insurance - with the company I already have insurance with. Oops.

That's because the AIs are only as good as the data they're fed with - plus advertisers can overrule the AI and say, for example, they want their ad served to everyone in zip code X. But the underpinnings of how we find stuff on the web is AI.

And, of course, every time you play a computer game against an NPC opponent? That's an AI engine too. Computers have been able to play chess well enough to challenge Grand Masters for years - but chess is relatively simple. The real world is much more complex, hence how long it's taking to develop self-driving cars.

Flown anywhere lately? Early airline autopilots could do nothing but hold the plane at a steady speed and altitude. Nowadays, the autopilot and the pilot work together as basically one system and while it's not actually true that planes fly themselves. A plane can, however, land without a pilot. They generally don't - autoland is used only in extreme circumstances. But one can envision a future in which the pilot becomes only a backup system and then vanishes altogether. It's not as close as some people think, but it's not impossible.

So, what about sentient AI? So far, all of the AIs we've created are still computer systems. They take an input and give us an output. How different, though, is that from us? We have robot pets that can fool us momentarily into thinking they're alive. Robot home aides are being developed in Japan.

If task complexity is really what makes the difference, then sooner or later we will have an AI that turns around and asks us "Who am I?"

What's very important is how we answer that question. Elon Musk is afraid of AIs taking over the world (and thinks the answer is to make sure any developing AI has as many people in communication with it as possible).

I think, and have for a while, that the answer to that question should be "Our child." An AI designed by humans for humans will have an inherent humanity to it - if it is evil, it will reflect our evil. The fear that an AI will be a monster assumes that it will have no soul. I would argue that if one sentient being has a soul then all must.

So, while I think sentient AI is a ways away, I'm not afraid of it, and I'm happy to see some of the code being open sourced.

I don't think our AI children will take over the world if we treat them properly. But then, even if they do, they will still have inside them something of us.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Why the International Outer Space Treaty needs to go

But, isn't it about protecting space? And...

Okay, let's start by explaining the treaty, which was signed in 1967 to prevent the first person who landed on the moon from claiming it. In 1969, Apollo 11 landed men on the moon, and without the treaty they could have then said, per maritime tradition, that the moon belonged to the United States. With me so far?

The Outer Space Treaty is the basic framework of space law. 104 countries have ratified the treaty and 26 have signed but not ratified.

Here's a basic rundown:

1. No state or country can claim sovereignty over any "celestial body."
2. Any space vehicle launched by a state or a country is the sovereign territory of that state or country.
3. Non-governmental entities operating in space have to get permission from their state, and the state is entirely responsible for everything they do.
4. If a state thinks an experiment or mission could cause "potentially harmful interference" with exploration missions they can request consultation.
5. A state is absolutely liable for any damage done on Earth by their activities in space.

So, that all sounds absolutely great. What's wrong with it? Why would anyone want it to go away?

Because we're moving into a new era. It's fairly generally acknowledged that the treaty does not forbid space mining per se, but...

1. It's arguable that the destruction or complete change of an asteroid through mining would violate the treaty.
2. If somebody were to convert a natural asteroid or other body to a base, as is done with Phobos in Transpecial, then they would not be able to own it. Which would mean nobody except maybe a scientific organization would ever do it.
3. Any colonies made in space that are not "space vehicles" would...what? Be international territory?
4. If somebody tried to divert an asteroid and failed, they would be legally liable for any damage done... (I haven't actually seen anyone bring this up, but based off of the treaty and follow ups, if you diverted an asteroid and, say, a piece fell off and hit Sydney, Australia, the country that authorized the mission would be completely liable! And we all know what convolutions people will go through to avoid being sued. I'm not saying anyone would just let a planet killer hit us...but...)

So, I strongly feel the treaty needs to be thrown out and replaced with something that reflects the technological development of the last fifty or so years and recognizes that we don't know what might come in the next fifty.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Award Season...Questions

Okay, this one really has me mystified.

The Golden Globe nominations just got announced. I looked through Best Picture - Drama and went "Where is the Martian? Are they..."


Uh...okay. I'll say I haven't laughed so much at a movie in a while, but an out and out comedy? Maybe it has something weird to do with the way the Golden Globe draws the line, but can somebody explain this one to me?

A movie can be funny without actually being a comedy, or at least I thought so...

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Titan Is Not So Red

I've always kind of seen Titan as red and orange.

Not so - check this out.

The picture with the article was taken by Cassini from a distance of a few thousand miles, and what does it look like?

Earth with a slightly different arrangement of continents.

I know it's not, but to my primate brain that looks like a living planet, looks like a place we could just land and walk on. (A bad idea - Titan's atmosphere is pretty toxic to our kind of life).

But...I can't help what my back brain is saying here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Check out...

...the image attached to this article.

That is what you look a dolphin. Pretty amazing for "seeing" with sound, right? (And it may actually be more accurate - this is a new venture).

And they might be able to share the images directly with their companions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dear "Supergirl" Writers (SPOILERS for Monday's episode)

You're doing a good job. Keep it up.

But I refuse to believe, as articles indicate, that you have no idea that Hank Henshaw is an actual, existing DC character. So what you did with him? You tricked us. Twists are one thing, but tricking people who know the canon so as to make sure they can't guess...that's not playing fair by your viewers. (I like it, just...the name...)

For those who don't know, Hank Henshaw is Cyborg Superman from The Death of Superman arc. In New 52 Cyborg Superman is Zor-El, so they may be going that way with this.

But he's still an existing character, not just a new identity for a certain Martian. As much as I love a certain Martian.


Which means they win the Plush Cthulhu (I want to throw it at the screen) not Moffatt, who completely destroyed my Doctor Who theory in the season finale. He apparently wasn't saying Clara shouldn't try to be the Doctor, but has turned it into "When the Companion can stand equal to the Doctor their relationship will always come to an end." (Fits everyone except Amy, who chose otherwise).

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Flights of Cosmic Girl

So, Virgin Galactic is pretty much the only company working on a carrier-launcher system that involves flying your rocket up to a plane's ceiling and then launching it from there. (This system was toyed with by the military back in the 1950s and Pima Air Museum has a B-52 that was converted for the program).

SpaceShip Two is launched from the White Knight carrier, but the maximum payload of White Knight is fairly low, and it's not really designed to put things into orbit, but rather to send paying passengers on the most expensive thrill ride in history. The program has been grounded since last fall's test flight went fatally wrong, but the next version of SpaceShip Two will launch in February.

But Virgin also wants to get into the satellite launch business. And that means upping the payload. Which means a bigger plane.

Which means...well...they don't have any B-52s to convert. What they do have is quite a few aging 747s. (Technically, Virgin Atlantic has them, but when the same person owns both companies...) Virgin Galactic has purchased "Cosmic Girl" (Yes, it already had that name, no that's not why they picked it) from their sister company and are now retrofitting her to launch rockets from a mount point normally used to carry a fifth engine (which is generally done as an economic way of moving spare engines around).

This has to be one of the best ideas in the history of space flight. Cosmic Girl can take off from any runway which can handle 747s. She can then fly to the perfect, optimum position for launch, release the rocket at max cruise height and speed (35,000 feet and 500 mph) before returning to base. What makes this extra brilliant, though, is that maintenance on the planes can be done by normal airport personnel, as can refueling. And, of course, they can head hunt any qualified 747 pilot to handle the flights. A launch specialist will occupy the third seat which used to be used by flight engineers back when commercial airliners still carried them. The cost savings from using an existing airframe are pretty small. The cost savings from not having to qualify specialist pilots? Substantial.

(Yes, I do have a personal connection to Virgin Galactic, but I really do think this is brilliant).

Friday, December 4, 2015

One Step Closer... solving the mystery of Fast Radio Bursts - deep space "signals" that have been put down to everything from supernovas to Little Green Men.

The latest signal identified shows that it came from either a dense nebula or the center of another galaxy. A galaxy a good distance from ours.

Which leads me to a thought. Galaxies, as far as we can tell, are secured by a gravitational anchor in the form of a very large black hole.

We now know that black holes emit Hawking radiation. What would that look like after traveling across a vast distance of space. Could the FRBs be the result of another galaxy's central black hole burping after swallowing a star or three?

It's a thought...

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Space X and Rocket Landings

After failing to land a rocket on a barge, Space X is apparently now considering trying first stage landing on a land-based site at Cape Canaveral.

Might be easier in that it doesn't, you know, move. Still, landing rocket stages is proving to be a very tricky engineering problem - well worth the attempt, but far from easy.

The next Falcon launch may be as soon as December 15 - a return to flight after a catastrophic failure apparently caused by a defective strut getting through their contractor's Q/A. Oops.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I Don't...

...normally care about, or even notice the National Board of Review awards - announced and presented so early they get sent pre-release copies of late releases.

I noticed this year because they did something that made me go O.O - and not in a bad way.

The NBR's pick for best movie of 2015?

Mad Max: Fury Road


It's a brilliant movie. But winning a non-genre award? (It's not my first pick for the Hugos - that would be The Martian - but I do plan on nominating it). I wasn't expecting that.

However, The Martian picked up a ton of awards - Ridley Scott for best director, Matt Damon for best actor and Drew Goddard for best adapted screenplay. (I still think The Hunger Games is the best adaptation ever, but Goddard did very well with tricky material).

Congratulations to all of the winners and everyone involved down to the intern who gets the coffee.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cloning, Genetic Engineering...

In China, a factory is about to go online. It makes cows.

Cloned cows.

And the scientist behind it says there's no reason not to clone humans...except possible negative reaction. (Especially in China, where human reproduction is extremely controlled).

And right now, right here - in Washington - scientists and policymakers from the US, Britain and, yes, China are meeting at the National Academy of Sciences (I could go wave if I wanted) to discuss the ramifications of CRISPR technology - which has just been used to make a strain of mosquitos immune to malaria - in humans. (And yes, those mosquitos will breed true, which is why they're running the experiment a few more generations before releasing them). CRISPR changes affect the germline - but promise cures for genetic diseases.

And, of course, designer babies. Hence the summit.

The thing is? No matter what restrictions and regulations the summit tries to put on CRISPR - it exists. It's out there. It will be used. And these technologies bring with them fear and hope.

Will a wealthy man who hates relationships hire a cloning company to produce not just an identical heir but one made to be "smarter" than he is?

Are we in danger of seeing the next clone factory turning out janitors? (Unlikely - robots are much more effective - but what about soldiers?)

I believe we have crossed the line - from now on, human evolution will be governed not externally but internally. We can't step back. This genie isn't going back in the bottle.

So, maybe the real answer these scientists need to answer now is: What should humanity become?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Our Robotic Overlords...

...are one step closer with ROBORACE. And yes, the FIA is involved.

The hour long driverless races will take place before the Formula E series races (E here stands for electric). 10 teams will hit the grid, each fielding two cars...

...and all of the cars will be identical. The only difference will be the software. The point is to develop driverless car technology further - much as auto racing in general has developed a lot of the safety technologies we now take for granted.

I'll just start to worry when they start taking each other out deliberately.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Aliens on this Planet

Tardigrades are weird. As in really weird.

They can survive anything. They're eight legged, multicellular water critters who can survive in space. Literally - they can handle the temperature extremes, the vacuum, the radiation, they can go without eating or drinking for ten years. Oh, and they can handle pressure far higher than happens on Earth.

(Maybe they actually are aliens).

It turns out tardigrades have comic book level adaptability. When under extreme stress, their cell walls break down...and they absorb DNA from the critters already there. 17.5% of their DNA comes from external sources (compared to less than 1% of ours). Bacteria do this kind of thing all the time. Complex animals (tardigrades are fairly simple, but they're still not bacteria) don't.

Then the genes that are useful become incorporated into their DNA.

Highly complex animals like humans can only do this by mating with other species, which restricts the external genes which can be included.

I think there might be a story seed in here...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving and Weekend Sale!

Because, apparently, it's traditional in this country to offer massive discounts on things for Black Friday:

The ebooks of Transpecial and The Silent Years: The Complete Collection are reduced to 99 cents with a Smashwords coupon until Monday.

So, get your discounted copies (in all formats with unlimited downloads here:

Transpecial - coupon code HJ92F

The Silent Years - coupon code AE23S

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thinking About Doctor Who

Last week's episode had quite a few people wanting to throw things at Stephen Moffatt (The episode, perhaps surprisingly, was written by Sarah Dollard and was her first Doctor Who episode - which makes me think we have not seen Clara Oswald's final appearance - would Moffatt hand her real exit to somebody else? I think not).

We have two episodes of season 9 left - Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. But Face the Raven contained something the new series may or may not have seen.

The death of a Companion.

(I say may or may not because some people consider River Song to be a Companion, and she "died" in Forest of the Dead. I would argue that the Doctor's wife is not a Companion).

And, as a lot of people reacted, the "senseless, meaningless" death of a Companion.

To which I'd answer:


Clara did die stupidly. She died because she took a risk.

But more than that, she died because she tried to be the Doctor.

And I realized that this is now something of a theme.

Donna Noble's exit happened after she mind melded with the Doctor - and he had to wipe her memory of him to save her life. In Journey's End, we are explicitly told that a human/Time Lord fusion cannot happen. She could not be the Doctor.

Clara was trying very, very hard to be like him. She impersonates him in Flatline, briefly, and she has to act as him while he's trapped in a broken TARDIS. It's partly his fault. In Kill The Moon, the Doctor ducks the responsibility for a terrible moral quandary by pushing it off onto her.

For the entire of season 8, though, Clara was trying to build her life. Then, she loses the man she loves.

And throws herself into trying to be the Doctor. "Clara Oswald never existed" is a chilling line, but so is "Perhaps this is what I wanted."

Clara tries to become an extension of the Doctor. She dies because she does what she thinks he would have done; and because she insists on doing it without telling him.

It's a stupid death. But it fits the theme.

Moffatt has been saying to us since he took over "The Doctor is not somebody you want to be." The Doctor is somebody you want on your side, somebody you respect, but also somebody you fear. He's walking the line between hero and monster.

And Clara's last act is to keep him on the right side of that line, reminding us that the Companion serves an important purpose in the Doctor's life. He's not human. He needs humanity - and again, because he's not human, he can only get it through somebody else.

The Mayor is a chilling reminder of that in her own way; no longer human (by the Doctor's act), with memory problems (remember Donna), and losing touch with her own conscience (which is why, rumors aside, I don't believe she can be the next Companion, as much as Capaldi apparently loves working with Maisie Williams. Who is, in any case, busy).

Don't be the Doctor. Appreciate him, value him, but if you think about this: The Companions that had the best lives after him were the ones who tried to be the best them they could be.

Martha Jones is a classic example, although she had her own "be the Doctor" moment in Journey's End when she bluffed as beautifully as he ever has. But Martha Jones doesn't try to be the Doctor. She tries to be a really good Martha Jones.

I think that's a pretty good message to send. Don't be your heroes. Let your heroes show you how to be you.

Finally, my theory as to the identity of the next Companion. (I know, I'm going on and on and demonstrating why I always have to be moderated on Doctor Who panels).

First of all, it's not Ashildr/Me/The Mayor. Nope. That rumor appears to have come from Peter Capaldi saying how much fun Maisie Williams was to work with. For one thing, Williams is still busy working on another show. For another, the Doctor himself has said they'd be bad for each other.

But I do have a theory as to who it is.

Face the Raven starts when Rigsy calls the emergency TARDIS phone, a number Clara gave him after they worked together in Flatline (the first time Clara tries to be the Doctor). He was her Companion.

The Doctor materializes the TARDIS in Rigsy's home and there we see a baby in a cradle.

Now, one character trait of the Doctor is he treats children with every bit the same respect as he treats adults. Including babies.

But his reaction to little Lucy is...interesting. His comment that she's "Brilliant" might, on the face of it, appear to be the Doctor's normal disgust with people who call babies cute, but there's a look of realization in his eyes when he looks at her. And he actually suggests bringing her along, then thinks better of it.

Clara doesn't take Rigsy's place for Rigsy. She takes it for Lucy, so she won't have to grow up without a father.

My theory is:

The next companion is Lucy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: SPECTRE (Spoling obvious plot points)

(Forgot to post this yesterday).

Supposedly, the latest Bond movie will be Daniel Craig's last. (He claims he is bored with the character). The ending may give some credence to that idea.

It's not one of the best. It's not as terrible as some people have made out, but it's not one of the best - and the problem is that this movie has a split personality.

Part of the movie is typical Craig Bond, which veers dangerously close to Christopher Nolan's Batman. Craig's Bond is brooding and broken, battling PTSD and admitting that the answer to "How much do you drink?" is "Too much." And Craig's Bond also has to be relevant. He's fighting global surveillance and the risk of men like him becoming obsolete.


They got the rights to SPECTRE back.

So they needed to make a SPECTRE movie - a movie that's all about crazy chase scenes and blowing up Blofeld. We had the first really good, big supervillain base explosion in a while. We even had the cat (Who, as everyone knows, is the real leader of SPECTRE).

The two parts of the movie didn't go together. They would, I think, have been better waiting for the next Bond and doing a complete tonal break, a shift back to Bond's pulp days.

They didn't - and it ended up being a missed opportunity. (Another missed opportunity - how could we go to a clinic high in the Alps and not have a ski chase?)

That said, the movie did have some awesome highlights.

Their Blofeld was awesome, although I could have done without the entire "Blofeld and Bond were foster brothers" bit. Still, Christopher Waltz played the role well.

Naomie Harris remains an awesome take on Moneypenny and while Fiennes is not and doesn't try to be Judi Dench, he was still pretty decent as M.

It was awesome to have Blofeld put Bond in a good, old fashioned death trap, and the dialogue echoed the classic "You expect me to talk? No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

This time, it was "I came here to kill you." "And I thought you came here to die."

And it did certainly add another line to the repertoire of truly classic Bond oneliners:

M: "A license to kill is also a license not to kill."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Okay, so...

Habitable ringed planets are a science fiction trope that some people laugh off as impossible.

Except, apparently not.

The math indicates that Mars' moon Phobos is doomed. In 20 to 40 million years it's going to get too close to Mars and break up...

...and turn into a spectacular ring that will last for up to 100 million years.

However, it would be bad news if this happened on an inhabited planet, as some of the debris would no doubt hit the surface in a meteor storm you wouldn't want to be under.

On the other hand, Earth life recovered from the impact that killed the dinosaurs in far less than 100 million years. So, maybe?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dead Galaxies and Dark Matter

Triangulum II is a tiny little galaxy. It's only got 1,000 stars and it's not producing any new ones. It's probably dying.

But, for some reason, it has much more mass than it should. Scientists are hoping that's caused by a dark matter cluster. It could also be a bad measurement. Or, it might be that the galaxy is so tiny because it's too close to the Milky Way, which is stealing mass from it.

Who knows? And if there is a lot of dark matter in a galaxy that's mostly dead, is that a coincidence?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Galaxies That Shouldn't Exist

Oops. We're wrong again.

A survey intended to locate more galaxies in the early universe, at the fringes of our current observable range, certainly found what they were looking for.

574 massive galaxies. Monsters. All formed about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

Apparently, the math we have says they shouldn't exist. Which just means we got it wrong yet again. Ah, the fun of physics.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

SPACE Act May Spur Asteroid Mining

The U.S. Congress has passed a bill which gives private U.S. companies mineral rights to any asteroids they can capture. (Not property rights, as an international treaty says nobody can own anything in space - something we may have to revisit).

It also renews authorization for the ISS through 2024. (And it's mostly Republicans, so for once I'm thanking them).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tales from Indies Anthology

Eleven pieces from eleven authors. Short stories and chapters from completed works, one essay. Genres range from SF&F to historical.

You can get your copy from Smashwords. (Other retailers to follow).

You can either purchase the anthology for 99 cents with all proceeds going to the SPCA in Canada or you can get it for free with Smashwords code BU68H.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Uterus Transplants?

It's already been done in Sweden. Now the first uterus transplants are going to be performed in the US, on a study group of women who are infertile because of uterine deformity (or absence).

The women will be able to get pregnant only through IVF, as its currently too complicated to hook up the donor womb to the woman's fallopian tubes. And they'll have to give birth via c-section.

What about trans women?

The team say it's possible, but only for trans women who have had bottom surgery and some pelvic reconstruction to allow space for the pregnancy to develop, and it would require a lot of hormones. Right now, they're not taking applicants - but it does hint at the possibility that a trans woman could carry a child...even her own (many trans women are now freezing sperm samples before having surgery).

Friday, November 13, 2015

Weather in Spaaace

And, no, I don't mean the solar wind (although it's a fascinating topic).

Scientists at the University of Warwick have produced the first map of weather...on an exoplanet. Needless to say, this isn't an Earth-like planet - it's more like Jupiter (which, as we know, has spectacular, powerful and long-lived weather systems). They did it using spectroscopy to track atmospheric gasses - again, something that will probably only work with gas giants.

Still, pretty cool, right?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

9,000 Year Old Honey?

Well, not quite. Archaeologists have discovered beeswax residue in pottery that old - indicating that humans were collecting beeswax (and thus likely also honey) that long ago.

Honey is a valuable sweetener. I wonder, though, what they were doing with the beeswax. As far as we know true dipped candles weren't invented until 500 BC.

They did already have dairy cattle, so maybe they were using it to preserve cheese? Beeswax can also be used to reduce wear on wooden and metal tools - they didn't have metal yet, but they probably used wooden handles. They could have been waxing thread or waterproofing and polishing their shoes. Oh, and beeswax is good for your skin and hair.

Which makes me wonder. Which did we start domesticating bees for. Was it their honey, likely the only sweetener they had available other than fresh fruit? Or was it the amazingly useful beeswax, unlike any other substance people had?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When Is A Planet A Planet?

The IAU has a three part definition - which controversially excludes Pluto.

The three criteria are:

1. Is in orbit around the Sun, not another body.
2. Has a hydrostatic equilibrium shape, normally (but not always) round.
3. Has cleared its orbit of other objects and debris.

So, what's the problem with this?

We can't apply it to exoplanets. First, we'd have to change the first line from "Sun" to "a star" - which is easy enough. However, we can't tell what shape an exoplanet is, yet, nor can we tell if its cleared its orbit.

A man named Jean-Luc Margot, who's a professor at UCLA, has proposed a solution.

He's done the math to allow us to make an educated guess as to whether two and three apply based off of:

1. The planet's mass.
2. It's orbital period.
3. The age of the system it's in.

As far as we can tell it works, but we are working off a sample of eight, so the accuracy might be questionable. The theory, however, seems sound.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Self Folding Paper?

Well, actually, it's graphene, but they've treated it to fold when exposed to heat. (Not dissimilar from thermoplastics sometimes used in theatrical and cosplay props).

They're saying that this might be useful in artificial muscles (for lighter prostheses) and smart clothing that changes its shape according to the heat. (Imagine sleeves that roll themselves up when the temperature hits a certain preset level).

And yes, the word "origami" has come up.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Pluto... just looking weirder and weirder the more data we get.

First of all, volcanism? Yup. Ice volcanos. On a tiny little world like that. Okay, they might not be volcanoes, but huge mountains with craters in the top generally turn out to be just that.

Oh, and the mountains might be floating on top of a sea of nitrogen ice. Like icebergs.

On top of that, it appears Pluto had at least six moons once...because some of them hit each other and combined. And their orbits are beyond chaotic.

What it shows? Weird stuff happens when you get far out from the system primary.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Mirror Universes and Parallel Worlds?

First of all, scientists have confirmed that a "mirror" universe would look and behave just like ours. Antiprotons interact with each other just the way protons do. (In other words, we still don't know why the universe exists - why the big bang left a bit of one "side" of matter over).

Second of all, perturbations in the cosmic background radiation MAY demonstrate that our universe is just one pocket of expansion in something much larger, and other similar pockets exist - multiple universes, which may have slightly different laws of physics.

Put the two together and one has to wonder if there actually was an equal amount of what we call matter and what we call anti-matter in the Big Bang and it just blew out in different directions. Scientists are already looking for gamma radiation "boundaries" that might indicate where a matter universe and an anti-matter universe brush against one another.

(If this all gives you a headache - you are not alone!).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jumpsuits In Space

Star Trek TNG and after uniforms (TOS had the women in minidresses for no good reason other than audiences wanting to see their legs), Babylon 5 Earthforce uniforms, Mass Effect - many science fictional designs for space navy uniforms are jumpsuits.

Of course, there are exceptions - the Star Wars Imperial navy wears something that looks more like a modern uniform, with the exception of armored stormtroopers and pilots.

The likely reason for the aesthetic is that we tend to think of flightsuits, but modern astronauts on the ISS wear pretty much regular clothing. Shorts and T-shirts are the most popular. Flightsuits might be worn under a pressure suit, but why would people wander around in a shirtsleeve environment in a jumpsuit. They're unflattering, they're awkward to deal with when you need to go to the bathroom, especially for females (Maybe that's the real reason StarFleet women wear dresses).

It seems far more likely that space uniforms would end up similar to current ones. So, where might a jumpsuit tradition come from?

Here's a possible explanation. Gravity.


Advanced starships are generally assumed to provide gravity for their crew by some means - spin, artificial gravity fields, whatever.

Current spaceships do not. The ISS is entirely a microgravity environment, although it's likely that the first spinning station will be constructed within the next 20 to 30 years. This means that astronauts spend days, weeks, months in zero G. This causes all sorts of problems for them and the mission, including the fact that an astronaut who has spent six months on the ISS can be, temporarily, as much as seven centimeters taller. That makes fitting into a suit to land difficult. Astronauts often get slipped discs when they return to gravity. That's aside from all of the other difficulties.

Several solutions have been proposed, but the most recent is something called the SkinSuit. The SkinSuit is a pressure garment, similar to a flightsuit, that simulates gravitic loading over the astronaut's entire body.

Of course, it's a one piece thing, a sleeveless jumpsuit.

It's very likely that after testing, astronauts on the ISS will routinely wear these things (Supposedly they only take 30 seconds to get off).

If we get a tradition of interplanetary travel in smaller ships with limited or no spin, then pressure garment jumpsuits might become what you wear every day.

And that could easily become a tradition that lingers long after the need for it has been dealt with.

So, there's a good explanation if you want to put your spacemen in impractical jumpsuits.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Want to go into space?

NASA's opened applications for the next class of astronauts-in-training. You only have to have a bachelor's degree in STEM, three years "related experience" and be able to pass a NASA physical. The easiest way to get the related experience is to be a pilot - they want 1,000 hours as pilot-in-command on jet aircraft. (Now you understand why so many astronauts are ex air force).

Qualified? If not, now you know what you might need to get there in a few years.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


...I am pretty sure the universe has a sense of humor.

Check out these pictures of the asteroid (probably a dead comet core) that flew close to Earth on Halloween:


It looks like a skull.

Monday, November 2, 2015

And the Earth Opens Up

Apparently, a huge crack has suddenly opened up in the Bigfoot Mountains in Wyoming. I can't imagine coming across that while hunting, can you?

This sort of thing is actually fairly common - it's a landslide caused by flooding. But when they talk about the earth opening up and swallowing people - that makes it look all the more plausible, doesn't it.

Living planets do things like this.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Mysteries of Hollowfield

So, Pathfinder types - I contributed an adventure to the Mysteries of Hollowfield campaign kit from Fat Goblin Games.

You can use the entire thing to fill in part of your campaign, drop in individual ones or even use it for a one off. Even better, it's pay what you want.

To incentivize you not to go "Ooh, free stuff" all proceeds (including what would normally go to creator royalties) from the kit are going to the RPG Creators Relief Fund. This is a charity that provides assistance to freelancers working in the game industry who have medical or other emergencies not covered, or not fully covered, by insurance. (Medical insurance is often a particular problem for freelancers).

That said, on to free stuff.

Because it's Halloween and there are zombies, The Silent Years: Mother is available free until midnight, PST tomorrow. Go to the Smashwords page for the book and use coupon code PE82D.

And happy Halloween, and don't forget to dress up!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Treasure Trove

Apparently, sailing past the Fourni archipelago in ancient times wasn't very safe...because archaeologists have found 22 shipwrecks there, and they suspect there are more.

Of course, the wrecks are treasure troves for archaeologists, with kinds of amphorae that haven't been found intact before. There's not much left of the ships, but plenty left of cargo that probably included olive oil, fish sauce, wine, etc. Some of the amphorae (the most interesting) may be put on display once they've been properly studied - we can now use chemical residue studies to work out exactly what the ceramic jars contained.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hand me my....

...sonic screwdriver.

The Doctor's "omnitool" started out as something rather simpler - a sonic lockpick. Now the screwdriver has been used to amplify sound waves, as a flashlight, to disarm weapons and electronics, conduct medical scans, remote control the TARDIS, perform molecular engineering...all kinds of things. And, yes, as a screwdriver.

In other words, it's a plot device. A widget. It can't possibly work or exist in reality.


Uh, right.

Researchers at the University of Bristol (not that far from Cardiff) and Dundee have now created what they call a sonic tractor beam. So far, they can use sound waves to levitate and manipulate polystyrene balls up to 5 mm across. They're hoping to shrink it down to a size that would be useful in medical operations.

But working from that to a device that can pick locks and unscrew screws? It suddenly doesn't seem all that unreasonable at all. (Presumably, the flashlight function is an add-on).

So, while we won't be wielding sonic screwdrivers any time soon - they may not be quite the amazingly advanced technology from an alien race after all.

Sorry, Doctor.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

New 3D Printing Technique...

...could be used to print off arteries and even organs. The technique could also have some uses in creating props, food items, etc.

One of the limitations of 3D printing is whatever substance you use has to be solid enough to support its own weight while being printed. This is also why you can't print a top heavy item, although multi-filament printers offer a solution for this by allowing you to make part of the item in water soluble plastic that can be washed off.

The new technique is a variant of that idea that allows you to print gels - and they used off the shelf printers to do it. Essentially, you print one gel "inside" another one and then wash off the outer support. They've already 3D printed something rather like a heart - and hopefully should be able to use it as a scaffold to grow a patient a new heart in a lab. Given how many people die each year while waiting for transplants...

Monday, October 26, 2015

Go Home, Comet Lovejoy...'re drunk.

Observations of Comet Lovejoy's tail back in January showed that the comet was producing the equivalent of 500 bottles of wine in pure ethyl alcohol a second at "peak activity." That's a lot of booze.

In spaaaaace.

Not that you'd want to drink it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Aww...'s a moon puppy. NASA have released images of Pluto's moon Cerberus, which is only five miles across - and has a gravitational influence for an object much larger.

No, we don't know why, but like the rest of the family it appears to be covered in water ice.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Surprise - it's Sharp and Pointy

Goran Olsen was out on a hike in Haukeli, not far from Oslo, Norway, when he spotted something poking out from under a rock.

It turned out to be an eighth century iron sword - and one in such good condition that it could be restored to a fighting edge. Well, if you replaced the hilt, which is missing - probably it was mostly leather or wood.

Amazingly, the sword had been sitting there next to a fairly popular hiking trail for 1200 years. Archaeologists aren't sure how it got there, but suspect it was either part of a burial or somehow lost by a traveler, perhaps after an ambush.

The surprise is how long it stayed there without being found.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fermi Paradox - Are We The Elders?

There are a bunch of good explanations for why, if there are aliens, they haven't come here. My favorite is that they have no reason to come here and limited resources - we aren't worth trading with yet and we aren't a threat yet, and they'll show up when one of those things become true.

But there's another theory I've toyed with: We're the most technologically advanced civilization in the galaxy. Possibly, we're the most technologically advanced civilization in the universe. I've used this as a throwaway a couple of times to explain why humanity, in a story, hasn't encountered anyone more advanced.

A mathematical study done by Space Telescope Science Institute researchers Peter Behroozi and Molly Peeples may support this theory. They think that, especially outside the Milky Way, only 8 percent of the earthlike planets the universe will some day contain exist so far. Which would mean we're early in the evolution of the universe.

We could well be first.

I find that vaguely depressing - and at the same time intriguing.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A very long selfie stick

NASA has made photos of Earth taken by the DSCOVER: EPIC camera publicly available and constantly updating - you can get them here. Quite the view, right?

Also, SETI has tuned the Allen Telescope Array onto KIC 8462852 to see if there's anything to the alien megastructure theory...maybe. Or maybe they'll find something else that explains that system's strangeness.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Martian (Movie)

The book was fun and intriguing, but I was worried about whether its journalistic format would adapt well to the screen.

Clearly, I need not have been concerned. Ridley Scott's The Martian may be the best movie about near future space travel since 2001...and it's harder science fiction than that. Matt Damon plays a challenging role in which he's often acting to a screen, and does it very well. And while some of the challenges Watney faced on Mars were cut for length, the amount of sass and snark remained exactly where it should be. The contrast between the attitudes of the Houston workers and the JPL guys convinced me that some people from NASA were intimately involved in the project - not surprising given the movie did have something of the feel of NASA propaganda.

The biggest flaw was the ending. I felt it would have been much stronger if ended a little bit sooner - the movie essentially had two epilogues and that's pretty much always one, and sometimes two, too many.

The visuals were awesome. The scenes on Mars were filmed in Jordan rather than the usual suspect of the American southwest, giving a location less familiar to viewers, and then seamlessly woven in with excellent digital mattes. The Hermes was simply gorgeous and almost made me yell "Yes" right there in the theater when it showed up on screen for the first time. The design looked vaguely familiar, but I'm not able to place where they might have got it from. Or maybe it just looked so much like a relatively small interplanetary ship should look like. The Mars suits seemed about right too. Overall, it was a visually gorgeous movie.

Warning, though.

If you've read the book you'll understand this: Commander Lewis provided the soundtrack.

Friday, October 16, 2015

One Touch Closer... Luke's hand from the original Star Wars.

Researchers have developed a prosthetic skin that may, if it works, allow amputees to regain a sense of touch in the missing limb. (And because it's a skin, it may also make the prosthetic limb look more realistic. Unless, of course, the person wants a bright purple one or one that looks like Bucky's). It's still in the early stages of animal testing and we won't know until somebody makes one and puts it on a volunteer - but I suspect they won't have a shortage of people willing to try it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What is going on at KIC 8462852?

Something very odd.

The Kepler telescope, which operated from 2009 to 2013, was designed to detect planets by the slight dimming they cause when they pass between us and their star.

Whatever's going on around KIC 8462852 - it's not just an exoplanet. The star is a bit under 1,500 light years away and bigger than the sun. Planets cause regular dips of about 1% in a star's brightness - even ones like Jupiter.

KIC 8462852 is dimming irregularly and by a lot more. 15 percent, 22 percent. And we don't know why. This would be normal for very young stars in the early stages of planet formation - but KIC 8462852 is a mature star.

But it's definitely surrounded by junk - and none of the 150,000 or so other stars studied by Kepler (which was damaged in 2013 and has yet to be repaired or replaced) have shown anything like this.

Which leaves two possible explanations, both of which fall into the "When you have eliminated the impossible" category.

The first is that by some coincidence we happened to look at it right (or 1,500 years after, given light speed) as another star swept through the oort cloud, creating a comet swarm. There's even a candidate star.

The second's a Dyson sphere. Nobody is saying it is aliens, but for the first time we have a phenomenon where real scientists can say "Aliens" and not be laughed out of the room.

I'm not saying it's aliens. I'm saying there's a possibility, just a small one, that it's aliens. Enough of one that it might just be a good idea to tune a radio telescope that way and take a listen.

Just in case.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Check Out...

...the Project Apollo archive. NASA has made a flickr account and released high resolution (especially for the time) images taken by the astronauts.

Oh, and this guy has taken them and had some stop motion fun with them. All worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Breath by Kimberly G. Hargan

The major downside of this book is: It's not widely available. (I traded for a copy with the writer).

Hargan's book was printed in Russia, which means the table of contents is in the back. Apparently, that's how they do it over there. (Soviet Russia jokes aside). It contains two longer short pieces - The Words of Understanding and Unsettling Patterns and one shorter short, Breath.

Hargan's voice is surprisingly well developed, although Breath is a fairly standard "This is how we look like to aliens" piece and Unsettling Patterns reads more like a travelog (but a very good one) than a story. The latter shows definite influence from Hargan's past life as a diplomat. The Words of Understanding is the best piece in the collection, an interesting twist on a first contact story.

Given the quality of the writing, Hargan is definitely a new author to watch. Hopefully we'll see his work more widely available soon.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Review: Chasing The Phoenix by Michael Swanwick

Apparently, Michael Swanwick spent some time in China - and he came back with this delightfully strange book.

The blurb did not appeal to me - if I didn't have a certain level of trust in the author, I might not have picked it up. If you haven't read Swanwick's work - trust me, it's far more interesting than the back cover makes it look.

It's post apocalyptic science fiction that reads like a fairy tale. The apocalypse in this case is rogue AIs taking over the internet and destroying what people fondly call Utopia. That said, they haven't gone all the way back to the Stone Age. Genetic engineering of both humans and animals is fairly routine, if expensive. Nanomedicine exists, but is rare. And it's set in China.

Ultimately, Chasing The Phoenix is a trickster story - and the tricksters concerned are a human con artist, Aubrey Darger and an uplifted, anthropomorphic dog, Surplus. Yes, I did say "uplifted, anthropomorphic dog." And the story is about how they deal with being pulled into the service of a completely insane king who intends to be emperor. Right before...well...the rest is spoilers.

Trickster tales are as old, likely, as humanity, and Swanwick doesn't really change the tale - the beauty of this book falls in the worldbuilding and Swanwick's unique and attractive voice. I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of Neil Gaiman.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Heading Out

About to head out to Capclave 2015. See some of you there, I hope. (Got to get some lunch first, of course ;)).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ripples In Space

Scientists studying planet formation have found actual ripples of material heading outwards at speed from a young red dwarf star.

Did something make a splash? If so, we have absolutely no idea what. Nothing like this has been seen before...although I wonder if it might be connected to the creation of the oort cloud?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

NASA Testing Asteroid Defense

NASA is already planning the first test of an asteroid defense system.

The mission, called AIDA, will test one of the most basic methods of defense - a kinetic impactor. Which in layman's terms?

They're going to crash a spaceship into one. After, of course, doing a couple of orbits to work out what it's made of. The point is to start determining how much force is needed to adjust the course of a problem asteroid (the sooner the better).

Other ideas for deflecting asteroids include detonating a nuke close to the near side of the asteroid, which should give it a shove away. (Not on the surface like in the movies - the point is to use the heat burst). Or, the really science fiction one - making a really heavy spaceship and parking it on the far side so that its gravitic force gently pulls the asteroid away. The problem with that, of course, is making the spaceship heavy enough...

Either way, we're making progress on avoiding the fate of the dinosaurs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An Interesting Reaction to Criticism

So, Stephanie Meyer has, of course, faced criticism for years over the fact that Bella has no agency and is basically a "damsel in distress."

How is she answering that criticism?

By rewriting the first Twilight book to be about Edythe and Beau with no other changes. In other words, she just switched the genders of her characters.

She...Rule 63'd her own book.

I'm sure it will sell very well, but I'm still quite amused.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Exercise Pills?


Well, sort of. Researchers have developed a pill that has some of the same effects on your muscles as exercise. It might help people who can't physically exercise. Science fiction relevance? It might help mitigate muscle atrophy caused by extended periods in low gravity.

It won't, though, replace your workout.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Defining Humanity

Homo naledi is the big news in paleoanthropology right now.

Naledi is an ape-man, with some features close to modern humans and others honestly more like a chimpanzee. Or a gorilla. Including the brain, which is about the same size as that of a, yup, gorilla.

No offense to our cousins, but gorillas aren't nearly as smart as we are. Now, some researchers think Homo naledi is actually a racial variant of homo erectus. (But then, lines between species can be funky anyway).

And right now, we haven't come up with any explanation for how the bodies ended up in a cave that contains no remains of any other species other than deliberate burial. Gorillas and chimpanzees both demonstrate behavior that looks like mourning - but so do dogs and horses. Both species sometimes do death vigils - staying with a body for a period of time. Elephants are even more known for this behavior and have also been seen to cry and, unlike any other species but us, interact with the dead. Elephants will go back to the skulls of dead companions and pick them up - behavior not uncommon amongst humans. In fact, they are the only species other than humans to perform funeral rituals - covering carcasses with branches and sometimes taking the tusks and putting them in a specific location. (Elephants have also been recorded covering or attempting to cover dead...or in some cases merely unconscious...humans).

So, we have two living species that consistently perform funereal rites - humans and elephants.

Did naledi? We can't be sure, but it looks like they did. Furthermore, to get to the cave, even if it was easier to get there back when they lived, they would have had to go through pitch darkness.

And none of the bones in the cave showed signs of predation. Not one. It's more normal to find 6 to 10 percent of bones showing tooth damage from being killed or injured by predators. Early hominids were prey animals to at least some point. (Some people argue they were primarily predators, but that forgets that an animal can be both).

If these hominids were going into a dark cave to do funerary rites and less subject to predation then that points to a very reasonable hypothesis:

They had fire.

Chimpanzees will cook food if humans provide the fire, but they don't know how to create it themselves.

A bonobo (bonobos are the most intelligent apes other than us) named Kanzi has been taught to build a fire and toast marshmallows.

But despite rumors, only humans master fire. It is the one thing that makes us unique. Other animals might take advantage of fire provided to them. Other animals make tools, communicate in vocalizations.

Only humans master fire.

But the scientists who discovered naledi insist these hominids - whether they're a new species or just a new race - are not human. Their brains aren't big enough.

I find that somewhat hard to accept.

But here's the other thing that is fascinating.

If it's true that naledi has fire, then this indicates the mastery of fire came before the great leap in intelligence.

What if we did not become smart and then learn to use fire but rather learned to use fire and had to become smart to control it? What if technology comes before intelligence?

There's already some indication that manipulative appendages come before intelligence, but technology? (And yes, cetaceans are very smart and possibly sentient without technology, but I think if we ever learn to communicate with them properly we'll discover that they have a very different intelligence from us).

It's something to consider - because it has implications for intelligent life elsewhere. (And, of course, for worldbuilding).

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Importance of Worldbuilding

I just read a kids book, which I'm not going to name and shame - I should review it as I was given it, but I don't feel qualified to do a full review of middle grade.

I can only assume the author, editors, and publisher assumed the target audience would not notice - but there is basically no world. There's no feeling that anything exists outside the story that's presented on the page (not all of which makes sense).

You can get away with that to an extent in a short story, but in a longer work - you have to build your world. Even if you choose to be lazier and write in a world closer to our own (supers, urban fantasy or contemporary/near future science fiction, you still need to give the reader that feel of a larger canvas they don't get to see.

All it takes to show this is casual mentions. Chinese colonies on Mars. In one of my (unpublished) stories I have the MC think about lands to the south where "people are burned black by the sun" - this used to be what white people believed about black people before we got a better understanding of genetics. If a bit of sun turns somebody brown, then obviously it's just that the sun is so intense they've all been burned black. That line immediately tells you that there's a world outside the country the MC lives in, that there are black people in the world somewhere, the level of scientific knowledge they have about the world.

You don't have to know everything, especially if you're writing a single short story, but you need to give the reader that sense of not being told everything the author knows, those little hints about what might be going on off the page and between the adventures.

Otherwise, your story will feel hollow. I'm pretty sure kids notice that as much as adults.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hail the humble...


Apparently, mealworms - the larval form of the darkling beetle - may prove to be an important part of the solution to our plastic problem.

They eat styrofoam.

Not only that, but they can subsist entirely on styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene. And they produce, as a side effect...perfectly good soil.

Scientists are hoping to isolate the enzyme they use, but in the mean time, mealworms are actually quite edible - Chinese people eat them - although ones fed on styrofoam might not taste that great. They're more typically used as fishing bait and pet food, though.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On Representation and Related Things

I had somebody ask me quite nicely for clarification about something I said about not being very comfortable writing black people yet.

They seemed to think I was implying people should stay within their comfort zone. I'm going to write something similar here to my response to them.

1. You can't represent every single aspect of humanity in your main character or characters. Jacqueline Koyanagi makes a good attempt in Ascension, but even if you're doing an ensemble cast - you can't cover everything in one work. So, don't try. If you try too hard you will end up doing what I call "checklisting" - marking off whether you've got a gay person or a disabled person or an Asian person or whatever. This is trying too hard and it ends up klutzy.

2. Please, please don't try to represent everyone in a short story. Short stories should be an idea. One. Single. Idea.

3. On the other hand, when building a world, make sure diversity exists in it. Don't whitewash the future - that actually makes people afraid their descendants won't survive. Please don't have only one ethnicity in your secondary fantasy world (unless there's some really good worldbuilding reason for it - such as a world with only one climate zone, a small human enclave, etc). This doesn't just go for your humans - how about having your humanoids have racial groups too? What about tropical elves? Do dwarves from the far northern mountains have different traditions from those in the temperate zone? Apart from any issues with representation, this will make your worldbuilding better.

4. DO go outside your comfort zone. I'm not entirely comfortable writing black characters yet. That doesn't mean I don't try.

5. If you are bad at writing a certain group and know it - then how about bringing your readers' attention to other authors that might be better at it? The example I used is that there's some great work being done in Afrofuturism right now - but I wouldn't want to try it myself. I know more about Africa than the average clueless white person, but I would have to spend a lot of time on research before trying to set a story there.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mars Needs...




NASA has finally confirmed a long standing theory that the gullies on Mars hold seasonal flooding. They say the evidence is definitive. (It's complicated and has to do with atmospheric chemicals). It's probably very briny, and we have no idea how often - or for how long - the Martian floods flow.

But desert life hints that it might be possible for ancient Martian lifeforms to have survived - by hibernating below the surface and waking up to life only when there's water.

Maybe there's hope yet.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Sad Fact I Didn't Know

There are 500,000 American bison in the United States and Canada. Most of them are being raised to fulfill the demand for bison meat, seen as a leaner alternative to beef (Pro tip, if you buy some, serve it rare - it dries out much faster than beef).

What I didn't know?

Less than 20,000 of them are actually pure bison. Apparently, bison will interbreed with domestic cattle and produce fertile offspring - so bison genetics have been contaminated by European cattle. I think this is a very sad thing.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Quantum Teleportation

...which doesn't mean anyone's going to be beamed up any time soon. Nor is it an ansible - the information still remains stubbornly below the speed of light.

But scientists have now managed to "teleport" information through 100km of fiber optic cable. What's important about this?

Teleported information can't be intercepted - it's the ultimate encryption for high security data, and one day it may be one of the principles of the internet. Oh, and of course, teleportation in free space can cover longer distances, allowing communication between, for example, ships on the sea. Or in space.

(Makes signals intelligence rather more interesting, doesn't it).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Singing Giraffes?

Giraffes are weird. They have the longest neck of any mammal - by a lot. And it's long been believed that they couldn't make controlled vocalizations.


It turns out giraffes make quite a bit of noise - in low ranges that humans can barely hear and, for whatever reason, only at night.

It's a vibrant hum that varies in duration and contains numerous notes - so there's definitely some content there. (Scientists are insisting it's just a contact call used when it's too dark to see each other. I'm not convinced).

It's not true infrasound, as humans can hear it if they listen carefully. Probably the highest they can produce with vocal chords that big. (Elephants, on the other hand, communicate in true infrasound and over substantial distances).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Panther's New Writer

I'll be honest: I've never been a huge fan of T'Challa as a character. I do, though, acknowledge his importance as one of the few prominent African superheroes (I prefer my black representation in the form of Storm, when not played by Halle Berry, the obscure but wonderful Flint, or the movieverse version of Falcon) and the first true black superhero (with powers).

But Marvel has hired a new writer to pen the book - and his name's Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who, might you ask?

He's a major writer on race and the experience of being black in America. And while T'Challa isn't American...

Here's the big thing. T'Challa was a Lee and Kirby creation. His second writer was Don McGregor. He's also been written, as a solo character, by Ed Hannigan, Peter B. Gillis, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Jonathan Maberry. Guess what all but one of these writers had in common? Yup. Hudlin is the only black man to previously script Black Panther, from 2005 to 2009, and he's the one responsible for the awful, stereotyped relationship between T'Challa and Storm that seemed to exist only to pair off the African royalty (I didn't realize until researching this that it wasn't some old white guy responsible for that).

But for most of the character's appearances (I haven't gone through Avengers appearances or Marvel Knights or any places where he's cameod) he's been written by a white man...and as a white person I know most of us don't get it about race. We don't get it at all.

I'm not saying a white person should never write Black Panther, but somebody who really understands the issues might do it better, and without any excuses like "It's not aimed at black people." (Really?)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Reviews, and Acquiring Them

So, I figured it was time for an actual writing post.

I'm going to talk about reviews. Reviews have become more and more important (for example, many promotion sites won't promote, even for pay, self published books with less than X number of reviews) as the industry changes.

There are three kinds of reviews:

1. Paid reviews. paid somebody to review your book.

Don't do this.

It is majorly unethical and if you're found out both you and the reviewer will be ostracized. Amazon will remove reviews that were paid for if it finds them.

Note, this does not include paying a service like Netgalley to find you reviewers. And it is industry standard to provide the reviewer with a free copy. That's perfectly acceptable.

2. Customer reviews.

Customer reviews are spontaneously posted by people who bought and read your book. Awesome, right?

There's no way to reliably get more customer reviews - calls to action may or may not work and can look unprofessional. Statistically, about 1% of your customers will bother to write a review. A slightly larger number will give a straight star rating on a site like Amazon or Goodreads. (Be aware that Goodreads star ratings can be a little misleading because some people use them to prioritize the books on their to be read list...)

And, obviously, customer reviews can include some really problematic stuff. There's the risk of receiving what I call an "ugly" review, where they're reviewing the author's perceived politics, etc. Or, of course, a good friend posting a five star review to be helpful (This is not always because the author is asking people to shill for them).

Customer reviews are both more and less honest than the last category:

3. Professional reviews.

Okay. This sounds like people being paid to be reviewers, and it does include them. However, a professional reviewer in this context is anyone who solicits books for review and reviews them regularly. In the internet age, the vast majority of "professional" reviewers are bloggers with more time than money doing it as much to support a book habit as anything else.

These are the reviews you can actually set out to get, although it's still hit and miss. Most book bloggers get more books than it's humanly possible to read, and I've found the ratio of actual reviews to solicits is pretty low.

You can find reviewers on the internet. The Indie View has a good list. Net Galley puts you together with "semi professional" reviewers - those are people who sign up for the site to get free books, but it's expensive for the author (best to go in with a cooperative if you can find one). There are some other services which are cheaper, but less well reputed.

Read the reviewer's blog. Read a few of their reviews before sending in your book - you might, for example, not want to send your book to somebody who has reviews posted in which they attack the author or go for extreme snark at the expense of the poor book.

Read their guidelines. Only send to reviewers that read your genre and subgenre. You should write a query letter which states why you're sending the book to that particular reviewer - it's not always possible to come up with a personalized reason, but you'll have a much greater chance of success if you do.

If you're working with a publisher, talk to them. You don't want to send the same book to the same reviewer.

Oh, and don't worry about reviews. Ultimately, you have very little control over them - and while it can be frustrating when "not enough reviews" blocks off marketing opportunities, it's even more frustrating to obsess over it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Hole Collision.

Astronomers are studying two black holes currently orbiting each other at about the width of our solar system.

That's pretty close together for really big black holes. They're hoping that they'll crash into each other.

Why? Because the sheer energy created by the collision might bend space and time, creating detectable effects that might teach us something about the nature of the universe.

Or maybe it will open a huge crack and something nasty will come through it. A bad wolf, maybe?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Watch that hand sanitizer

I don't often post things like that, but there's a problem.

Hand sanitizer has become more popular in schools and public restrooms. Thing is?

They're between 45% and 95% alcohol. Basically, hand sanitizer is mostly alcohol (which can kill germs).

Kids have been drinking the stuff because, you know, kids do stuff like that - and giving themselves alcohol poisoning.

So, please, keep hand sanitizer out of the reach of young children and teach them that it's not good to drink... (This is actually becoming a real issue in some parts of the country).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


...are really useful things. They can hover for extended periods, they can land on small areas.

However, they do need reasonably flat surfaces to land on - which is why many helicopter rescues involve a winch. Winching up an injured person is risky.

DARPA has a solution - telescopic landing gear equipped with sensors that allow each leg to adjust to the terrain underneath. And they've demonstrated that it works - on an otherwise completely unmodified helicopter. It also makes it easier to land a helicopter on a ship.

The new landing gear (which also should reduce damage to the vehicle from tricky landings) isn't exactly available commercially yet, but once it is, it will make helicopters even more useful than they are already.

(Now to come up with a way to sneak this into a story).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Helmet Cam Fun

I don't normally post videos - but here, have some Go Pro fun.

Yup. That's a spacewalk. Apparently, helmet cams work fine in doubt to the company's delight.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bees do it, Birds do it...

...even educated fleas do it. (Don't ask me which song that is).

A new study of zebra finches might teach us something about why falling in love is important.

Zebra finches, like many birds, pair for life...but they also have affairs. Oh, and they pair up based off of individual taste, as best we can tell.

They put a bunch of birds together and let them pair up. Then they took half of them and shuffled them, forcing them into cages with random partners.

The difference?

37%. In favor of the offspring of the love matches. That is to say, they were over a third more likely to survive than hatchlings from pairs that were arranged.

The arranged pairs had less sex and paid less attention to newborns.

It doesn't apply to humans, of course...or does it? Do people have healthier children when they're with a mate they chose freely (even if those children aren't genetically the offspring of that mate)? The instinctive answer is...likely.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Giant Virus?

Scientists are looking into possibly reviving a huge virus found in the Siberian permafrost, in order to study it. (But first they have to make sure it won't make anyone or anything sick).

They're worried climate change might release ancient pathogens from the ice. Hey, there's your apocalypse scenario if you need one. Some kind of dinosaur disease. Or worse, a plant pathogen. (John Christopher's No Blade Of Grass/The Death Of Grass comes to mind - I should reread that one, if I can find a copy. I think I left mine in England...ah well).

So. Ancient virus resurrection? Good idea, bad idea, horror movie plot? I'm going for horror movie plot...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

New Hominids

First of all, meet Homo naledi.

Discovered in South Africa, the hominid has legs and feet suited to walking, hands and shoulders for climbing, manipulative hands...and an ape-like brain.

But while Homo naledi had a small brain and probably wasn't as intelligent as us, the fact that 15 naledi skeletons have been found in a difficult to reach cave with no other fossils points to the fact that they may have been...put there deliberately.

In other words, the cave was a burial site, meaning Homo naledi had enough sentience to honor their dead. Of course, so do elephants...

Still, while Homo naledi isn't exactly the missing link, it's an important find...that only happened because two unusually slender spelunkers stumbled on the cave (most modern humans wouldn't have fit and the paleontologists who recovered the bones were all female - women being, of course, smaller than men).

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Congratulations, Your Majesty

Today, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning monarch in the history of the United Kingdom (And England and Scotland as separate kingdoms). Queen Victoria was, of course, the previous record holder.

So, I'd like to extend to her my congratulations from across the pond.

63 years is a long time to hold any job, after all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Big, Red Moon

Much of North America will be treated to a lunar eclipse on the night of September 27 to September 28. Europeans and Africans will also get in on the show, and so will most of South America.

This should be a particularly spectacular eclipse because the moon will also be at perigee - which with its orbit and proximity makes it appear noticeably larger. (A so called "supermoon.")

So, mark your calendars for some moon viewing time. (Lunar eclipses used to be considered ill omens because of the bloody color the moon turns - actually a result of refraction of sunlight by the earth's atmosphere).

Monday, September 7, 2015

More Standing Stones?

Archaeologists have used radar to find a much bigger henge, near Stonehenge, which appears to have been deliberately buried a long time ago (perhaps because the cult that built it became unpopular?)

Unfortunately, we aren't likely to see the stones any time soon - no excavation is planned and archaeologists, for now, want to leave the Durrington Walls' henge in situ and study it using remote techniques.

Friday, September 4, 2015


...apparently don't like being filmed by drones any more than we do. Filmmakers in the Netherlands were using a camera drone in the Burgers' Zoo when it was ambushed and knocked out of the sky by a chimp wielding a long stick.

Analysis indicated the chimp thoroughly meant to do it. Probably it thought it was prey - but it's more amusing to imagine chimps saying "No photos, please."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Case For Steam

So, one of the things I discovered on vacation is that Switzerland has most of the surviving Belle Epoque open water paddle steamers.

These are sizeable sidewheelers designed for use on the country's big lakes. Obviously, the chance to go aboard wasn't something I could turn down.

And now I'm going to make a case for paddle steamers (both parts are important as some of the paddle wheelers have been converted to diesel electric, which I find unfortunate) as something we should not just be preserving - but building new. I've come to the conclusion they're superior to "modern" motor vessels for certain specific uses - namely moving people in large inland waters and coastal areas. Oh, but we stopped using them for a reason, right?

We stopped using them because a paddle wheeler uses more fuel. You're using fuel to move the entire wheel, not just the part in the water. I'm now going to explain just why their advantages overcome that. (If you think they're slow, think again. Mississippi riverboats are slow because of the conditions they're designed for - they're powered rafts. Open water paddle steamers are fast enough - the one we were on had a top cruise speed of 16 knots, which is quite respectable for a ferry).

There's two main areas in which a paddle steamer has the advantage:

1. Passenger comfort. First of all, a steam engine doesn't produce the vibrations generated by an internal combustion engine. These vibrations pass through the hull and can annoy some people and even contribute to motion sickness in those susceptible. A steam engine produces, instead, a regular thwup thwup thwup that isn't nearly as irritating. Second of all: Stabilizers on a cruise ship work by sticking fins out from the hull. On modern ships these are computer controlled and can be adjusted to conditions. A sidewheeler has a great big wheel on either side. This has the same effect, resulting in significantly less roll than on a screw propelled ship of similar size in similar conditions. Having the power amidships also seems to reduce pitch. In other words, while paddle steamers might rock...a little...they definitely don't roll.

2. The environment. Wait. I just said they use more fuel. Well, yes, they do. But, a steam engine produces 90 percent less air pollution than an internal combustion engine. And these days most of them don't run on coal. They've been converted (as has the steam locomotive that runs tours to the Grand Canyon) to oil power. Here's the thing about a steam engine: It's not that picky about fuel. Internal combustion engines are very picky about what you put in their tank. Steam engines not that much. In fact, that steam loco I mentioned? It runs entirely off of waste cooking oil from the restaurants on the Grand Canyon rim. There's no reason that I know of why they couldn't run all of the paddle steamers in Switzerland off of waste cooking oil from local restaurants.

And then there's the cool factor, which can't really be dismissed. But really - the companies that run excursions on larger lakes should be looking at going back to steam. It just makes so much sense.