Friday, July 31, 2015

The Silent Years

I did a thing today:

Yup. If you've been hesitating about getting the Silent Years novellas, you can now get them all in a bundle for a slightly cheaper price.

This does mean print, too, although that will probably (thanks to summer schedule and family stuff and vacation) be early September.

It's up on Smashwords right now here. Amazon is still in the queue, but you should be able to find it there tomorrow.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

These days we think of a masterpiece as an item of art of unparalleled beauty.

That's not what the word actually means.

A masterpiece was the piece of work a craftsman would present to his guild in order to be considered for master.

Thus, a masterpiece is the work that elevates somebody from merely good to, well, a level above that.

Uprooted is Naomi Novik's masterpiece.

Don't get me wrong. I love Temeraire. I love how she handles dragons, her deft understanding of the Napoleonic war, and her ability to channel the voice of Master and Commander. I still recommend the series.

The difference in maturity, voice and sheer ability to handle words between Temeraire and Uprooted is something else. It's a very different piece of work. Temeraire starts off squarely in the realm of military fantasy and then drifts into globetrotting adventure fiction.

Uprooted is a fairy tale. It has all of the fairy tale elements - the protagonist is a woodcutter's daughter. (And the only Dragon in it is a man - a wizard who has taken that as his magical title). It has monsters that hide in the dark woods. It even has Baba Yaga - Naomi Novik is a second generation Polish immigrant.

And this is a very eastern European book...down to the names.

Without revealing anything, the Dragon is a wizard who, for reasons known only to himself, takes one girl from the valley every ten years, keeps her as a servant and then releases her. This, of course, is a story that could easily be twisted into sacrificing maidens to dragons.

Then, he finds Agnieszka, and his intentions for her are quite different from ten years as his housekeeper...

And it goes from there. It's beautiful, it's dark, it's in the true tradition of the fairy tale (and very much for adults). Oh, and it has a couple of things to say about the folly of war as well.

Anyone who enjoys twists on fairy stories needs to read this book.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

We've been paying all of this attention to Pluto...

...but it's not the only dwarf planet being explored right now.

Ceres also has attention. The largest object in the asteroid belt is being studied by the Dawn probe. And data from the probe has given us this.

There's a lot of contrast between the two. Pluto appears to be tectonically active with a young surface. Ceres? Ceres looks more like the moon. And the key difference may be that Ceres is older (and considerably smaller).

Whatever subsurface ocean Ceres may have had - and the evidence is that it had one - has now frozen solid.

There might be life on Pluto. There's almost certainly nothing on Ceres - which may be a good thing for humanity. Ceres' water might be key to exploring and exploiting the asteroid belt.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Stephen Hawking wants to ban AI military robots. How close are we to having actual "killbots?"

In my story "A Star To Steer By" the autonomous weapon is a spaceship. In Tom Kratman's novella "Big Boys Don't Cry" he paints a grim picture of the fate of sentient tanks. (Both stories are very similar with exact opposite endings and different points. Mine is rather more optimistic).

How about real military robots?

How close are we to this kind of technology?

Not very.

Right now, military robots tend to fall into two categories:

The first is drones, which are remote controlled by a pilot. They're cheaper than manned planes and pilots are, well, very expensive to train. So, despite the slight time lag, remote controlled planes are taking over from manned fighters.

The second is hazardous environment robots - used for bomb disposal, mine seeking and search and rescue. These are also remotely controlled by a soldier...and demonstrate an interesting tendency. Soldiers tend to name these robots, get attached to them and get upset when they get blown up. They're treated much the same way as the dogs (and rats) they sometimes replace.

The navy is working on robots to fight fires on ships - again so that less expendable sailors don't have to.

The theme is obvious: Military robots are used to protect human personnel by going into dangerous situations so they don't have to.

None of these robots can yet operate without a human controller - although there's some progress with drones that can identify targets for assassination.

What's the big worry? The worry is that the more robots fight our wars for us - the more likely we are to go to war. And,'s not like nuclear weapons.

Take Iran, for example. Iran just unveiled a robot tank, the Nazir, which appears to be armed with either a machine gun or a pair of man-portable anti-air missiles. Again, operated by a remote driver, but...oh, yes, and it can be smaller than a manned tank, too.

Syrian rebels have already used remote controlled gun robots.

And, you know, why sacrifice a person in a suicide attack if a robot can do just as well?

In other words - Hawking and his friends have a point. On the other hand, I think the robots in war ship has thoroughly sailed.

Which means that the issues raised in A Star To Steer By and Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry are going to be real issues we may have to face soon: When our robot soldiers start becoming sentient, what do we do?

Will robots make war more likely? More to the point, will we treat sentient soldiers as tools to be conditioned, used and then rejected (Big Boys Don't Cry). Or will we treat them as people...but still people with a purpose, who don't have rights outside the military (A Star To Steer By).

Will they be tools, slaves, or will be have the strength to realize that there is a point at which they have to be treated as soldiers. And allowed a soldier's freedom to say "Enough" and go home.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ant Man

...and pleasant surprises.

I'm going to be honest. Neither Hank Pym nor his protege, Scott Lang, have ever been high on my list of favorite characters. Add to that the news that they were killing off Janet Van the backstory...and I almost decided to give Ant-Man a miss.

Then somebody who's judgment I generally trust gave me a solid nudge. So, yeah. I saw it.

And I was...again, pleasantly surprised.

Ant Man finished number one on opening weekend, but grossed the second lowest of the MCU so far. On second week, it stayed number one, edging out Pixels. (Which is not as bad as it looked from the trailer: It's worse). No doubt the relatively low attendance has something to do with, well, it's Ant Man. He has a funky powerset, he's not overly popular amongst comics fans (even if the editors now try to argue it was never their intent to have him smack Janet around), and, well, ants. Who the heck takes a guy who shrinks and talks to ants seriously?

The answer is: Nobody.

Including the people who made this movie. And that was the right decision. In tone, Ant Man is much closer to Guardians of the Galaxy than Age of Ultron. Yes, there really is a fight on a (switched on) Thomas the Tank Engine train set. Yes, there are ants. There are also incompetent criminals, a marvelous heist, and...well. It's a caper movie, and it's a good one.

Paul Rudd hits the perfect note for Scott Lang - he balances being, to be frank, a bit of a jerk with the lovable rogue archetype. You do find yourself rooting for him. Michael Douglas was a delightfully grouchy Pym.

And I'm willing to forgive them Janet as long as I get Evangeline Lilly's Hope in the Wasp suit. Because even though she's not Janet, she convinced me she was the Wasp just by walking on screen.

IOW, Marvel did it again. How long they'll be able to sustain this, I don't know.

And, thinking about it, I'd like to give some special credit to somebody who isn't on screen and isn't "taken seriously."

Her name's Sarah Halley Finn and she's played a key role in the entirety of the MCU. Yup, in every single movie.

This brilliant woman is: The MCU casting director. Let's give her some kudos, because she has yet to miss a beat.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sailing on Jupiter?

NASA's working on a design for a "windbot" that might be able to stay aloft for extended periods in Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere.

And like so much else, the windbots might have applications right here on Earth - as a safe way to monitor hurricanes.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Planet 352b

385 day year. About 6 billion years old. Kepler 452-b is also nicely in its star's habitable zone.

It's the most earthlike exoplanet discovered yet, and it's older than Earth, so more time for life to develop and evolve.

I wonder if anyone there has a telescope trained on us right now...

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writing Versus Gaming

I had a thought yesterday.

Writing a novel is like composing a symphony.

A session of an RPG is like a jam session.

The two are very different art forms. I think about this a fair bit because I have sometimes found that if I'm roleplaying with somebody and tell them I'm a writer, they suddenly start expecting perfection from every post or statement.

Most novels are edited multiple times, often by multiple people. They're set aside, come back to, reworked. Obviously if I'm saying what my character is doing in an RPG - I'm doing it off the cuff in five seconds.

It's improv. There's no rehearsal. And that's what makes it special - creating a storyline with others more or less off the cuff.

But please don't compare the two things. If you're privileged enough to game with a writer, understand that what you're doing is the equivalent of grabbing random instruments and a corner of the bar and just going for it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Space X Rocket Failure

Space X has announced the cause of the failure of the June 28 Dragon launch. Apparently, a brace holding a liquid helium tank broke. They think it was a defect in the part - and are saying that they won't be able to resume launches until September.

They're also going to defer testing of the Falcon heavy lift rocket (presumably because it uses a similar design in that area). Oh, and switch vendors...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Are our robot overlords here?


There's two sides to what we call sentience.

One is self awareness - the awareness of ourselves as a distinct individual separate from others.

Two is reason - the ability to think through a problem and then apply the solution to that problem to other problems.

Many animals possess self awareness but not reason. Horses, for example, demonstrate the ability to identify and remember specific individuals, as do dogs. (A recent study showed that dogs would refuse treats from people who treated their owners badly). It's fairly simple to extrapolate from being able to tell Jane from Joe to knowing who you are. However, a horse can't apply the logic from one problem to another. They can only remember the solution to the problem they solved last time. I often talk about animals as having limited processing power. A cat, for example, is not able to work out that two paths can lead to the same place, leading to the amusing "looking for the door into summer" phenomenon so many cat owners observe.

Computers demonstrate reason, but not (as far as we can tell) self awareness. Computers can play chess well enough to beat the best human players - chess being a solid test of reason.

Now, I'm not entirely convinced by the test (it looks like simple diagnostics to me and thus a test of reason not self awareness, which computers possess). But it may have come somewhat close.

(And there are definitely non human animal species that demonstrate at least some high level "reason"'s not a black and white line).

Friday, July 17, 2015


...I keep forgetting I've posted it everywhere but here.

Border is now up for a quick free read on Evil Girlfriend Media's web site. (And I do mean quick - got a break at work? ;))

Thursday, July 16, 2015

More Pluto...

...because, yes, we're all Pluto obsessed this week. It's going to take months to even transmit all of the data New Horizons got in a brief flyby.

Pluto has mountains. Not little mountains, either. Mountains that, according to scientist John Spencer, "Would stand up respectably against the Rocky Mountains."

And those mountains are mostly made up out of, uh, good old fashioned H2O. Water ice. It's the only thing that could exist on Pluto that could give topography like that.

On top of that? Pluto has no impact craters. None.

What does that mean? It means that Pluto's surface is being constantly renewed. We don't know what by, but this actually means that Pluto is more of a living, active world than Mars is. It means some form of tectonic activity is happening. On Pluto.

Probably involving water.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Some Cool Stuff

New Horizons has sent a signal indicating that it got past Pluto and Charon safely (Yeah, there were some doubts, given the distance). We should get some really neat data soon.

Scientists have come up with a technique that reveals the spots on melanistic leopards and jaguars. (Their spots are black on black). This will allow visual identification of individual animals - handy for conservationists.

And another group of scientists may have solved the ultimate vegetarian dilemma: They (accidentally) created a strain of seaweed that, when cooked, tastes like bacon. Mmm....

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

All Eyes...

...on Pluto.

New Horizons made its closets flyby at 8am, but between hours of light speed delay and processing time, we still don't know quite how it went.

This amazing gallery from National Geographic shows us how our view of Pluto has improved. Pretty soon we'll have all of the data from New Horizons (hopefully) and we'll know even more about the enigmatic dwarf planet.

Here's to Pluto. (And Charon).

Monday, July 13, 2015


...need nitrogen. Some plants can't get it from the soil - but instead trap insects. We call these "carnivorous" plants and they include the Venus flytrap and the pitcher plant.

One pitcher plant has found a rather, shall we say, nicer answer to the nitrogen problem. Nepenthes hemsleyana doesn't trick insects into falling into its pitcher to be digested - it invites bats.

The pitcher is about the same size as the bat, which is called the Hardwicke's woolly bat. In fact? It's the perfect sleeping bag. The bat sleeps in the pitcher...and poops in the pitcher, providing the plant with nice nitrogen-rich fertilizer. (It's called mutualism - both species benefit with no downside to either. Plants are very fond of it - any plant that gives nectar in exchange for pollination is practicing mutualism).

Even more fascinating, the pitcher doesn't attract its "blind as a bat" friends visually - it's evolved leaves above the pitcher that give a specific signal when the bat's ultrasound bounces off.

Way more polite than eating innocent insects.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Messing things up?

One of the ways you can start or add to your story is to have somebody screw up.

Your explorers don't do the right scans and their ship sinks through the crust and gets stuck. Somebody gets into a fight with their partner over something stupid.

Human beings make mistakes. Characters need to make mistakes sometimes - and making those mistakes key to the story is one of the ways you can keep your protagonist from being a Mary Sue. How many episodes of Doctor Who hinge on the fact that the otherwise, frankly, insanely powerful and ridiculously perfect Doctor is actually a lousy pilot who's eternally messing up his navigation?

If your story's getting stagnant, think about having somebody mess something up. Maybe they said a word wrong in a spell and summoned a horde of demons instead of the helpful entity they were trying for? (You can go for horror or comedy with that. Or...any way you want to go).

Even the best of us mess up - make that true for your characters as well.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review Exchanges, Amazon's Policy, etc.

There's been a flap because Amazon is cracking down (unevenly, as always) on people who review books written by people they view as "knowing them personally."

Here's the thing.

It's actually technically against Amazon's TOS for any author to review any other author's book. The actual policy in practice is that they'll swipe reviews that are either too positive or too negative. (Sometimes. Sometimes they don't seem to notice them). Which leaves the reviewer in the position of not actually being able to review honestly.

That's why I don't review other people's books on Amazon. I have been reviewing on Goodreads, but after a conversation the other day I've been thinking about this.

Somebody was on Facebook asking for "honest review exchanges" and they got very upset when multiple people told them not to do it. A review exchange is when you trade reviews. Thing is: If you review somebody you're trading with badly, they'll likely get upset. No matter how much we say we want honest reviews, there's always that secret desire to ensure good ones. We can only squash that way down and hide its presence.

So here's the thing.

Amazon's review system is a customer review system.

Professional reviewers should not use it. They do - and the author doesn't have any control over that. But Amazon's review system is for and by customers.

If you write books, you're a professional. Therefore, you should review as a professional if you're going to - ideally on your own blog. Yes, we're customers too, but we're also professionals.

This means our reviews are not the same as a review from some random person who bought the book. They have both more and less weight, depending on how you see it.

And also? We know each other. We have, in some cases, power over each other's work - many writers are also editors to at least some degree.

Amazon doesn't want us reviewing each other's books in their system and, you know what? Amazon's right.

Which is why I don't do reviews of books on Amazon. (Other products, absolutely).

And they're also right that we shouldn't review books written by our friends, relatives, etc.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Upgrade Flash

Interrupting this blog for a PSA.

A company called Hacking Team was, well hacked. These people look for exploits in popular software...then sell them to governments, possibly including repressive regimes.

Amongst the leaked documents was a Flash exploit that they never reported to Adobe (thanks, guys) - along with a cheat sheet for properly using it.

Unless you are on the very latest version of Flash (ends in .203 for Windows and Mac users), you're vulnerable. The leak also included a Windows kernel exploit that would allow people to use this bug to take control of your computer.

Even if you're not on Windows, it can hijack your browser and send you somewhere you don't want to go - such as a bad porn site or to download a trojan.

And most people have not had .203 pushed to them. So, please, update your Flash (or disable it until the patch is pushed out). Google has said they are in the process of pushing a patch to Chromebooks.

If you can't upgrade, disable Flash until the patch is in place.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


It may not technically be a planet any more, but Pluto's still proving an interesting object.

Ceres, also a dwarf planet, has bright patches on its surface that may, or may not, be ice.

Pluto has a dark band around the equator. Why? We don't know. Hopefully New Horizons' nine day flyby will tell us more about both Pluto and its companion, Charon. (Pluto has several other moons, but Charon and Pluto appear to be a binary system, so while it's generally called a moon, I think "companion" is better).

Pluto was discovered in 1930 (although later searches of earlier data reveal it had been sighted before but not recognized) by the Lowell Observatory. The observatory is no longer actively doing science, and its main scope is currently closed for renovation, but once it's finished, it will be made available to the general public and students doing projects as before. (Yes, I've looked through that scope). But we still don't know much about it.

Pluto's mass is about 0.2% of the Earth, but its 1.3-2 times greater.

As of right now, we think that Pluto's surface is primarily nitrogen ice - and the blotchy pictures look ice-like to me. It probably has a rocky core under a mantle of ice. It may have liquid water at the core-mantle boundary. (Yes, this means that there's a slight, slight possibility of life, but it's unlikely there's enough energy to fuel it). Oh, and it has an atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. A thin one, which tends to snow out at distant points of the orbit.

So, will New Horizons confirm this or prove us wrong? So far, it looks like an iceball to me...

What do you think?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Life on a comet?

Sadly, probably not. I was excited to read a story that two scientists thought that data from the Philae lander indicates there might be life on Comet 67P. Not very exciting life, of course - we're talking microbes, not little green men.

Unfortunately, the claims are being made by Chandra Wickramasinghe - who has previously attempted to ascribe extraterrestrial origin to the SARS virus and the Spanish flu. He's a long time supporter of panspermia - a theory I think is possible, but for which we have no evidence - and probably saw what he wanted to see.

So, what did Philae find? Organic molecules - which we were expecting. Organic molecules are everywhere. They don't need life to exist and they don't mean life is there.

So, yeah...this one's probably a bust. But it would be fascinating if it was true...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy Fourth of July... my American friends.

To anyone in Europe - please stay cool and drink lots of water. Hopefully that particular ordeal will end soon. (For those who've missed it - it was 98F at Heathrow this week).

Thursday, July 2, 2015

It's Started American robotics company has challenged a Japanese robotics company to...

...a mecha fight. (The article here calls them robots, but they're piloted, so they're mechas).

Who else really wants this to happen? I mean, we have small robot fights now, so we need mecha fights.

The American machine has two guns, one of which is a paintball gun and the other is designed to fire soft projectiles. Who knows how they'll alter it for the actual duel.

Mecha fighting leagues are a sci-fi staple and now it seems they might become reality. Like, well, so much else in science fiction.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Asteroid Day

Today is Asteroid Day - the anniversary of the Tunguska strike.

So, I figured I'd put out some asteroid facts.

1. If it burns up in the atmosphere, it's a meteor. If it hits the ground, it's a meteorite. A lot of people get these confused.

2. The most recent damaging strike took place in 2013 when a meteor exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. About 1,100 people were injured - most of them by flying glass when they rushed to windows to watch the show. (Hint, huge fireball in sky, go AWAY from the windows). This was caused by an object about ten meters across that did not even hit the ground.

3. The best preserved impact site is Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, which is nearly a mile across and over 550 feet deep. This was caused by an object about 50 meters across.

4. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event - a fancy way of describing the destruction of the dinosaurs - was almost certainly triggered by the meteorite that created the Chicxulub crater, which is 112 miles wide. This rock was probably somewhere between 10 and 15 kilometers across.

So, uh...we don't want to get hit by one of those. (I don't even really want to be hit by a little one *eyes the picture windows*).

Which is why we need asteroid diversion (and ideally capture and mining, because some of those asteroids are made out of pretty valuable stuff - including gold and platinum).