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.