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.