Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bird Brains?

Words are made up out of letters. We all know that.

Letters represent mostly meaningless sound. (Note that even in syllabic languages such as Japanese, the words are still made up out of sounds).

We thought no other animal could put sounds together in different combinations to make words.

Nope. And, surprise surprise, it's a bird. The chestnut-crowned babbler is a highly social Australian bird that has been discovered to put one sound with another sound to create something that, well, means something.

Uh oh.

The birds are definitely coming for us.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Space X Dragon Explosion

This weekend's Dragon launch ended prematurely when the rocket blew up two minutes into flight, towards the end of first stage firing.

The only data on why so far is a potential issue with the liquid oxygen tank on the second stage.

Space is hard - and although landing the Dragon is still experimental, the launch vehicle itself is fairly routine at this point. Unfortunately, it doesn't take a major failure to blow up a rocket - they're tricksy beasts at the best of times.

Here's hoping it proves to be a one off or an easy fix for future flights.

Friday, June 26, 2015


...normally keep politics off this blog, but today's news is too big to ignore.

Regardless of what you feel about the specific ethics and morals - we do not live in a country where Biblical law is also secular law (and really, who would want to?)

(Also, the Bible does not define marriage as between one man and one woman - far from it).

I believe the court made the right decision. I don't believe this is completely the end of the fight on marriage (and certainly not the LGBT fight in general). But I do believe the right decision was made.

There is no justification for denying the important secular benefits we have put into the marriage package to same sex couples, other than the fact that it might offend some people. I saw a comment today from somebody who felt this was forcing her to accept homosexuality as "normal." Honestly? I don't care whether random people think homosexual relationships are normal.

I care about protecting the stability of those relationships and the children being raised by them. I care about people being able to visit their spouse in the hospital or bring their spouse into the country. I care even more about ensuring that if one parent dies any children are not separated from the surviving parent...or even from each other...by their blood relatives.

The argument to protect the children is often used to try and force LGBT people into the closet. In this case, the Supreme Court used that very same argument in the opinion that granted the right to marry one's committed partner.

Rainbow flags flying today.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Pyramid on Ceres?

Aliens on Ceres are the latest conspiracy theory. The bright spots on the dwarf planet have now been joined by a pyramid. A very big one.

And yes, it's real. Most likely it's a cryovolcano - a volcanic cone formed when water acts like lava at low temperatures. But it's still a giant pyramid on Ceres.

Worth being at least a little fascinated with, perhaps?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

London Design of the Year

The London Design of the Year awards have been announced.

The overall winner? Human Organ on a Chip. These little devices are designed to exactly mimic how specific human organs react to drugs. The idea is to use them instead of animal testing. (It wouldn't completely eliminate it, of course, because it only deals with specific, not systemic, reactions).

The full list of category winners include a new way to get plastic out of the ocean and Google's self driving car. (The rest are of less interest to technophiles, but you can see them here).

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


...your cell phone isn't picking up a signal today, blame the sun. We're currently experiencing a severe geomagnetic storm that allowed the aurora borealis to be seen as far south as parts of Texas.

It also turned the auroras red - a rare thing captured by ISS astronaut Scott Kelly.

Geomagnetic storms can disrupt satellite communications and cell phones, so if you think you have a couple less bars than normal - maybe you do.

Monday, June 22, 2015


I think I'm going to go estivate now. (Estivate is the opposite of hibernate - it means to sleep through the summer).

We're looking at 97 degrees tomorrow. That's not counting the humidity. Yeah. I think I'm hiding in the a/c until it cools back down from inferno to merely unbearable.

Anyone got any ice?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Only humans...

...have democracy. Right?

Nope. Baboons decide which way to go when the ranking animals disagree by...popular vote. They'll mill around until one of the leaders has more, and then everyone goes that way. (And baboon leaders can be both male or female).

So, did democracy start as humans migrated out onto the plains in troops? Maybe.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Don't Self Reject

I was talking to an aspiring writer a little bit ago who insisted he wasn't going to bother sending his book to agents or major publishers because it wasn't good enough.

That's self rejecting - don't do it!

Now, this doesn't mean you should send a sword and sorcery story to Analog or space opera to Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

It means you should accept that as writers we are often (not always, but often) the very worst judges of the quality of our own work and let editors do their job.

I've been writing for long enough that I can sort of tell which of my stories are really good and which are only good. But I can't be entirely sure, and you never know what an editor would like.

The only thing you lose by submitting to major publications first is a bit of time.

You can lose a lot by wasting your best stories on for the love markets because you have some idea that you have to start at the bottom or because you don't have faith in your own work...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I'm going to confess. I hate wasps the way some people hate spiders and snakes. I particularly hate social wasps.

I have good reason - I was stung badly as a small child and nearly ended up in the hospital.

But wasps are quite fascinating creatures. Some kinds are my friend no matter how much I want them somewhere else - they eat horse fly maggots, and anything that eats horse flies is my friend.

Social wasps are the most fascinating...along with ants and bees.

Humans are social animals - but we also fight a lot. We even fight our siblings. Like most social mammals and birds we're more intelligent than our solitary counterparts. (In our case, that would be the orang utan, although it's still a pretty brainy ape). Social interaction may even increase the need for brain power. (And in humans, social interaction would also have driven the development of first spoken and then written language, and it may well have turned into a cycle...the complex communication systems driving an increase in intelligence).

Social wasps have now been demonstrated to be considerably less intelligent than solitary wasps. The area of the insect brain dedicated to higher functions is smaller. As wasps become more social they become, as individuals, dumber. Why spend energy on a complex brain when you can rely on your buddies?

It's a very different way to arrive at intelligence - probably related to the limits insect physiology puts on size. But it supports the hypothesis that an insect colony may be a single consciousness. The hive mind, though, does not resemble the classic science fiction trope where the queen mind controls everyone - instead the entire colony is the "brain." A quite different idea...

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Oh my...

...it really is a real life pokemon. Meet Opisthoteuthis Adorabilis - which might also be a ghost from Pacman.
Check it out here. Do you think they should call it that?
I agree. It's absolutely cuteness incarnate. And I needed something cute today ;).

Monday, June 15, 2015


I finally (blame con schedules) saw Mad Max: Fury Road.

I understand why some people *ahem*MRA*ahem* are upset by this movie. It took a testosterone-fueled franchise and, well...

...kept it exactly what it was except, more girls.

The really important thing about this movie is that the story, plot, and relationships between the characters would not have been materially different if Imperator Furiosa had been a man. Some of the dialogue would (they would probably have had to tweak the Many Mothers scenes a little). But it would have been the same exact movie. Except it would have been less fun because it wouldn't have pissed certain people off.

Most importantly, the relationship between Max and Furiosa would have been no different.

It's not just that Furiosa wasn't sexualized (they left that to the harem girls, although even they were clearly not meant to be for fanservice. In fact, I think it was written so as to make sure people who were tempted to objectify them were uncomfortable because, hello, sex slaves. In fact, the first time we really see them (as opposed to faces peeking from the smugglers' hold) they're cutting off their chastity belts. (Take home: After the apocalypse, make sure you have bolt cutters. I swear those bolt cutters were more useful than any guns they had).

At the same time, they kept it very much Mad Max, with the highlight being the guy in the red suit with the flamethrowing axe. Playing death metal. I mean, you can't get much more Mad Max than that.

I'm actually thinking somebody intended to annoy sexist action movie fans with this film. (And I think the people behind Ghostbusters are up to something too - Chris Hemsworth as the hot receptionist?)

The other thing I really liked about this movie was the almost complete lack of CGI. I have nothing against CGI effects, but one thing they don't yet do well is gritty, dirty and run down. (Which is why I'm glad Abrams is filming the new Star Wars analog). The sense of realism was very strong.

Yeah. I should have gone opening night ;).

Friday, June 12, 2015

Best Work Experience Ever

In Britain, teenagers traditionally do a period (2 or 3 weeks) of work experience in the summer between the first and second years of GCSEs. These kids are 15, and mandatory education stops at 16.

It's supposed to help kids work out whether the career they're thinking of is a boom or a bust.

Tom Wagg probably had the best work experience ever. The young man, now 17, clearly did not intend to leave school at 16 when he chose to do his work experience for an astronomy project at Keel University...

...and discovered a new planet. As far as we know he's the youngest person yet to discover a planet, which has now been properly catalogued. It's a hot Jupiter, the easiest kind of planet to find, but still.

And yes, Wagg is planning on getting his degree in physics.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

RIP Christopher Lee

Actor. World War II veteran (special forces). Honorary member of three stuntmen's unions (he did his own fight scenes before it was cool). Oh, and in the Guinness Book of Records as the "Tallest Leading Actor" (He was 6'5 and everyone in Hollywood is short).

He acted in nearly 230 films, making him one of the most prolific actors of all time. 85% of the time he was the villain, whether in a major or small role.

He played, of course, Saruman, a Sith lord (Count Dooku/Darth Tyrannus), Dracula (many, many times), Death (more than once), Ramses/Rameses (At least twice, possibly three times. Wait, four, he played a Captain Rameses too...what's with that?), Sherlock Holmes AND Mycroft Holmes, multiple starship captains, Cardinal Rochefort, Lucifer, Fu Manchu, Grigori Rasputin, Frankenstein's Monster. Oh, and he also had some role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the 2005 version), The New Adventures of Robin Hood, Sleepy Hollow, The Odyssey, more than one version of Ivanhoe, a Discworld short (as, of course, Death), Around The World In 80 Days, The Last Unicorn...and a slew of B movies (sometimes he took work for the money, ya know).

The man was everywhere and the man was brilliant. He had just finished filming a fantasy comedy entitled Angels in Notting Hill.

He will be missed...

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Drunken Apes?

Chimps prefer their food cooked, as we recently discovered. They're also fond of another vice we tend to think of as human - drinking.

Most animals will try alcohol (bears have been known to steal people's beer and horses will also go after your pint given a chance). Chimps? Chimps will find a palm tree of which the sap has fermented and have a frat boy style party. (These trees are used to make palm wine).

So, yeah. Chimps are almost as bad as we are.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Couple of Announcements

The first is that I have sold a fantasy story, Successor, to Bards and Sages Quarterly. I'll let people know as soon as I know which issue it will appear in.

The second is belated for reasons that are entirely and completely within my control. Guess who spaced on the fact that the Analytical Laboratory (Analog Readers' Choice) awards are announced in the July/August issue and just put the issue on the bottom of her to be read pile without looking at it.

Turns out that "A Star To Steer By" earned third place in a highly competitive short story section. Thank you Trevor Quachri...and Analog readers.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Off Again

And I'm heading out of town again - this time to Origins Game Expo in Columbus to help run the Smithee Awards.

I'll be back...well, realistically Tuesday. And probably having eaten way too much ice cream. Because, mm, ice cream.

Monday, June 1, 2015


You've seen it happen. (Or maybe had it happen if you weren't careful). You head over to a website only to discover it's suddenly a porn site. Oops.

If you aren't careful enough about renewing your domain name, it can go up for sale - and then be bought by a bad operator.

This is particularly embarrassing if you happen to be...the FBI. Oops.