Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Domestication of Viruses

It's one of the big advances of our time. (And perhaps ironically, the most useful virus may turn out to be HIV).

But another virus is now showing promise. Remember polio? Thank vaccination for the fact that most of us can't. (And thank anti-vaxxers if any of us see it again, but that's a side issue).

Scientists have redesigned polio to make a virus called PVS-RIPO. This virus likes...cancer cells. And only cancer cells. It's erased or significantly reduced brain tumors...and not just in monkeys, either.

It's very likely that the "cure" for cancer will turn out to be an entire pack of redesigned viruses. And that the descendents of the virus that crippled Franklin D. Roosevelt will save a lot of lives.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: The Finisher by David Baldacci

The Finisher is yet another YA dystopia. I'm honestly starting to get tired of them - can we have some positive YA science fiction already?

It's well written and appears to be fantasy - I stress appears to be because the book is kind of strange and I'm not sure where it falls - with no help provided by the back cover or the imprint. The worldbuilding is solid so far.

Vega Jane is a young woman growing up in the town of Wormwood which, as everyone knows, is the entire world. Around it is the Quag, a forest full of monsters that can and do eat anyone who enters it. She works at the factory that makes everything used in Wormwood, putting the finishing touches on various objects to make them look handmade. With both of her parents in the town nursing home facility (apparently with dementia), she's also trying to look after her kid brother John.

Of course, the story's really about the truth behind Wormwood, the Quag and what might lie on the other side of the Quag...but in this first book we don't get to see anything outside of Wormwood itself. Which is more than enough - corrupt politicians, sorcery (or psionics, it's not clear), places people are forbidden to go and a divide between the rich and poor that might as well be a gulf. It's not a classic dystopia...from almost page one I feel as if Wormwood is more like, well, a concentration camp. There's no feel of "this is the way somebody thought society should work but they screwed it up" as in the best dystopias. It's more "these people are trying to control everyone, possibly for their own survival."

Where the book really falls down is the use of conlang. For example, Baldacci uses male and female instead of man and woman throughout, and then resorts to the hideous construction of "male-handled." Uh, nope. If you're going to use alternate terms for basic concepts like years, then they have to feel like words people will actually use. (Sessions? Really?) Instead of pulling me further into the world, the conlang threw me out of the story repeatedly. And the use of another word instead of human made me wonder if the people were human, except from the way they were described? Okay, I still don't know if they're human.

Despite this, there's some solid worldbuilding in here, an interesting heroine and absolutely no love triangles. He has to get points for that last.

Copy obtained at World Fantasy Con.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Watch Those Contests

I entered a writing contest. I'm not going to name and shame, but it appears they may have published people's work without an actual contract or payment.

Make sure you read the terms and conditions before entering a contest - in this case there were no formal terms and conditions, and from now on I'm going to be making sure there are some.

The most common scam is to claim first rights on - or even ownership of - all entries. This is often done by reputable organizations (for example, there's a reason I've never entered a National Geographic photography contest even though I consider myself a decent amateur photographer).

But now it seems you also need to watch out for ambiguities. Sometimes small writing contests are quite legitimate - I won the Enchanted Photoflare contest (and then stopped entering because I felt like I would be, in British terms, "pot hunting") and know that one's a good one.

Sometimes, they simply aren't.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


...the sci-fi horror trope about "superice" that freezes at room temperature.

It, uh, exists.

Under enough pressure, water will form a special kind of ice with square rather than hexagonal crystals. The stuff might have medical applications, but I can't help but think about a short story about a guy's nightmares while in cryo-sleep...

Source: http://en.yibada.com/articles/22485/20150326/2d-ice-discovered-exist-room-temperature-takes-square-shape-traditional.htm

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Year In Space

I'd just like to wish good luck to astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.

These two men will be spending a full year on the ISS to assess the potential effects on human health of long duration space travel - such as a trip to Mars. (I'm a little disappointed they chose two men for the first experiment and I hope somebody will realize that we do need to repeat this with a woman - our plumbing is a little different, after all).

They will be looking at things like eyes (the shape of the eyeball changes in microgravity), gut bacteria, etc. Hopefully they won't have the kind of major problems that might delay our efforts to get off this rock until we come up with reasonable gravity simulation (from spin or otherwise).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Forcefields? Really?

Boeing has apparently filed a patent for a real, working forcefield.

Actually, they filed it two years ago and, of course, kept the details hidden. Apparently it relies on creating a "backwash" of sorts through rapid heating that dissipates the shockwave from the explosion. Kind of like how the Flash stopped the tsunami in that recent episode.

It's a transient forcefield, rather than "up shields" (And the source article seems to think forcefields are common in Star Wars, where they are almost never used. I think you mean Star Trek, people).

But it is a protective forcefield. And I am now wondering if the same principle - sending a wave of something out - might also be used to protect against radiation. Thoughts?

Source: http://www.irishexaminer.com/examviral/science-world/may-the-force-be-with-you-boeing-unveils-plans-for-a-star-wars-style-force-field-320177.html

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Okay. I have to be honest.

I didn't like this book. It's much in the vein...very much in the vein of Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains, except with less cursing and casual use of slurs. I liked the one, so I should like this.

It boils down to the main character. Jal is meant to be a reluctant hero, but the way in which it's expressed means he comes over as somewhere between Adric and Luke at the start of A New Hope. Yeah. He whines.

The world is...odd. The use of historical names makes me want to put it in the Dark Ages, but it's clearly set after we nuked ourselves back to the Stone Age. Except...yeah. Instead of being cool, it's confusing. And while the magic system is interesting, it's not as well fleshed out as I'd like. The result was a book that felt as if it wanted to post apocalyptic science fiction - but ended up, for some reason, as fantasy.

It's well written. I'm sure some people, even a lot of people, will enjoy it - but it simply isn't for me.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Protein Sequences And Family Trees

DNA typing has tracked down the "relationships" of numerous fossils. It's failed with a group of fossil ungulates in South America.

We now know, though, that they're related to horses. How? Protein sequencing. DNA doesn't survive well unless the animal's fossilized in a cold environment. Collagen? Survives much better. And the scientists who developed the technique think they can sequence samples that are 20 million years old in colder places.

It might be useful for learning more about evolution - or just finding out cool stuff.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bode's Law

Bode's Law supposedly predicts the ratio of planetary orbits and predicted the orbit of Uranus.

Scientists have now applied Bode's Law to exoplanets - trying to establish how many of the systems with larger gas giants might have small planets in the habitable zone. They took 151 systems scanned by the Kepler satellite and predicted 238 planets, with 1 to 3 in the habitable zone.

Problem: Bode's Law failed to correctly predict Neptune (which should, per Bode's Law, be about where pluto is).

They are claiming to be using a "new version" of Bode's Law, but...I'm a little skeptical of their calculations. (And of one of the articles, written by somebody who claims we need "time travel" to reach these systems...)

Thoughts? Am I being too skeptical here? (I firmly believe, by the way, that there are indeed a lot of habitable planets in our galaxy - it's their methods I'm questioning. If they've fixed Bode's Law, that's useful, but...)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

One Step Closer To The Replicator

I said at Farpoint Con when talking about 3D printing that we're nowhere close to the replicator.

We just got a huge step closer. It's called CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production), and it doesn't work like any other 3D printer created so far.

You use a liquid resin and an oxygen-permeable window. And then you fire light through the window to solidify the resin in only the places you want - and drain the rest. It's called tunable

This has three key advantages:

1. It's much faster than traditional 3D printing (Did I ever think I'd use that phrase?). Objects that would take hours or even days to create using normal additive printing can be done in minutes. This is particularly useful for medical applications such as dental implants or prosthetics - the object can actually be made while the patient is in the office, saving everyone time and money.

2. It's much finer than traditional methods. They've created objects with "feature sizes" below 20 microns. That's less than a quarter of the width of paper, people. This is not quite in the true nanotech realm, but it's close, close, close. They can, thus, make objects that couldn't be made using additive methods. It eliminates the limitation of not being able to have a higher part of the object more than X larger than the base.

3. It may, and I stress may, allow new materials to be used that haven't been printed with before, including nylon and ceramics.

No word on how much these 3D printers will cost - they will probably not be something you can have in your home any time soon. But...well...

Source: http://gadgets.ndtv.com/laptops/news/new-3d-printing-technology-is-100-times-faster-claims-startup-671926

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson may have missed his vocation.

What a thing to say about one of the most respected current writers of high epic fantasy.

Steelheart is not high epic fantasy. It's supers. Without the heroes part. Sanderson asks us to consider a world in which people are granted powers by a mysterious event.

And every one of them is evil.

Then he introduces us to 18-year-old David. Yes, this is YA post apocalyptic. It reminds me a lot of Divergent, perhaps because both books are (by some coincidence) set in Chicago. Except it's better. Much better.

The "Epic" Steelheart kills David's father as part of a rampage in which he takes over Chicago and turns it into the cyberpunk-esque Newcago. Vowing revenge, David dedicates his life and considerable intelligence to one cause: Vengeance.

But how can normal people take on supervillains that are, in some cases, even more powerful than Superman?

Fortunately, Brandon gives them an edge - each and every Epic has a personalized achilles heel. Some weakness. Some way to destroy them - if you can only find it. And David, hooking up with the Reckoners, a rebel group determined to take down the epics, might just have the key to Steelheart's locked in his memory.

This isn't your bright and cheerful Golden Age superhero story - this is a chilling, gritty tale in which, yes, the death count gets fairly high. (It's YA, but I'd put it in the older teen range).

(Copy received at World Fantasy Con. Sequel bought promptly).

Monday, March 16, 2015

More Transpecial News

The paperback is now available via Amazon. Furthermore, if you buy it from Amazon you can get the ebook completely free.

Yup. Free. Because I don't believe in making people pay again for content they already bought once and Amazon makes doing that easy.

(As a note. Please buy from Amazon, not the third party retailers - the price may be slightly lower, the amount received by the publisher is a lot lower - I'm not sure if you still get the ebook for free, but I'd very much prefer using the actual Amazon link).

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett

In all honesty?

I was never a Terry Pratchett fan. I never got into his particular brand of humor (Probably because I have a strange sense of humor).

But let's see here.

The man wrote forty Discworld novels. Forty. His total output was 70 books. I write pretty quickly. I don't write that quickly. He sold more than 85 million copies.

He wore a self-deprecating shirt to cons that became famous.

He collected carnivorous plants.

He had, of course, a turtle named after him, an extinct sea turtle named Psephophorus terrypratchetti.

Oh, and his response to being knighted for "services to literature" was that he got it for "refraining from trying to write any."

The speculative fiction community has a tightness to it. Even if you didn't know somebody and didn't read their work, each person sends out ripples and the degrees of separation aren't exactly small.

And finally, I'd note that Pratchett was apparently on particularly good terms with Death. So, I suspect he's doing just fine on the other side.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Some Small Announcements

First of all, the print version of Transpecial is available, although only in the Createspace e-store as yet. (I get more money, but shipping costs are higher).

Createspace Paperback

And buy links for:

Barnes & Noble


Also, my RavenCon schedule has changed.

Minority Report has been removed from the schedule. Instead, at the same time (11pm Friday) I will be part of a panel entitled The Slow Death of D & D - I think you all know what my stance on that panel title will be.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

As Invisible As...

...a chameleon.

Chameleons are fascinating. Their ability to change their color quickly to either match their background or communicate with others is, well, unparalleled in nature. (They aren't the only creature that changes color, but they're the best at it.

Researchers now know how they do it (well, part of it anyway). Chameleons grow crystals under their skin. These crystals, presumably modified scales, can be expanded and contracted, changing the frequency of light the chameleon reflects. It's even possible they can reflect near-infrared light, i.e. heat, a useful ability in an endotherm. (What we still don't know: How the chameleons record their backgrounds to copy them).

Practically? We'll probably find that the chameleons make making these shapeshifting crystals look entirely too easy. However, it might well be that, at the very least, this is something that might show up in color changing clothing.

Or, better yet: Auto paint. Imagine being able to press a button on your key and change the color of your car. More practically? The ability to reflect near-infrared light might be very helpful to drivers in warm climates.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Silent Years: Maiden For Preorder!

The third of the novellas is finally out! You can preorder your copy today!

In what used to be the suburbs of Chicago, a community lives and breathes despite the Silents in the wilds beyond. It's a bit of a straightjacket for fifteen year old Becky, facing marriage to one of the available men and bearing children who may or may not be sane. Until the unthinkable happens - the zombie-like Silents begin to recover their reason. The stage is set for a conflict between survivors and recovered, and between old ways and new.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: Lupus Rex by John Carter

I'm extremely picky about talking animal stories. I loved Watership Down as a kid - and few match up.

Lupus Rex doesn't - quite - I prefer my talking animals to less closely resemble oddly-shaped humans and more closely resemble animals who happen to talk. That said, Cash produces a well written tale that is both suitable for children and enjoyable by adults. The characters are fairly lightly developed - it's a kids' book after all - but different from each other and sympathetic. It also has the charm of being an underdog story. Out of all the species he could have chosen, Cash makes quails the heroes.

It does fall into the "prey vs. predator" trope to a point - and then mildly subverts it. A couple of things irritated me (king snakes eat other snakes, so why are they allied with them?) but, for the most part, this is a well written, if simple story about how might doesn't always equal right. He does frustratingly malign wolves, but that's another matter.

Copy received at World Fantasy Con.