Thursday, April 30, 2015

Body Incompatibility?

Apparently, they've discovered a problem with the new Apple Watch.

It can't read your heart rate if you have a tattoo.

Which sounds laughable, except that if it can't read your heart rate it can't tell if you're wearing it. It locks if you aren't wearing it. And disabling the autolock system also disables Apple Pay.

So, yeah. If you have wrist or sleeve tattoos on both arms, this is a problem.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is space real?

Okay. Stupid question, stupid answer.

But it is vaguely possible that the third dimension is nothing more than an illusion and we're actually living in flatland. The explanation involves some really complex math, which I really am not even going to try to get (I'm not a working scientist).

As with everything weird about the universe, though, it all boils down to the craziness that is quantum mechanics. It also probably doesn't make much practical difference - unlike recent breakthroughs in quantum computing.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

As Everyone...

...who knows me knows, I have a bit of a thing for space elevators.

At first sight, this might seem to have nothing to do with it.

A tiny robot that can lift thousands of times its own weight while climbing up a wall?

The first thought I had, though, was that a swarm of these little robots (which stick to surfaces like a gecko) might be more efficient for spinning the tether than a few larger ones. The downside is that they move very slowly (which means this wouldn't be useful for climbers).

Another thought - these little clinging robots might have quite a few uses in microgravity.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I'm back

I have returned from RavenCon.

Thank you to all of the staff, guests, and attendees for a wonderful convention.

(Sadly, the only picture of me I can find shows me at the 9am panel on Peter Capaldi's debut wearing my Doctor Who shirt and a hangover).

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Outta Here

Well. I'm leaving for RavenCon tomorrow fairly early, so probably won't post before I go.

I'll be in Richmond until some time on Monday and probably come back not wanting to do anything but sleep. (Looking at my schedule, sleep? I can sleep or party, and I can't party at home!)

As a reminder, here is my schedule:

5 pm (Panel) When I was 10 years old, Yoda was a puppet! / Room C
7 pm (Opening Ceremony) Rooms E & F
11 pm (Panel) The Slow Death of Dungeons & Dragons / Chesterfield


9 am (Panel) 12’s Debut: Peter Capaldi’s 1st Dr Who season / Room F
11 am (Panel) Troll Hunting / Room E
2 pm (Panel) Why Science Fiction Matters / Room F
4 pm (Presentation/Workshop) Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading / Chesterfield
10 pm (Reading) Boardroom
11 pm (Panel) Representations of Gender in Graphic Literature / Bon Air


10 am (Panel) Buffy: Looking Back / Bon Air
Noon (Soapbox) Writers & Movie Directors Are Wrong About Horses / Boardroom
2 pm (Panel) Stupid Superhero Powers / York

I will be bringing coupons good for a free copy of The Silent Years: Mother. If you're interested in the series, please look me up at the con and I'll gladly hand one over. The coupons take the form of Smashwords redemption codes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: The Warded Man by Peter Brett

I've heard nothing but good about this book since it came out (and unlike some people, Brett and his publisher had the sense to give away the first in the series even if it's older).

Brett has created a grim fantasy world. Every night, "demons" emerge from underground, determined to kill as many humans as possible. Victory is measured by the number of births relative to the number of deaths - and humanity is losing. The demons appear to prefer to hunt humans - and perhaps there's some explanation as to the origins of the conflict in the sequels.

Humanity's protection lies in magical wards, but the secret of constructing them (which appears to be mathematical) has been lost and as time passes, so have many of the wards themselves.

So, this is a story about, well, fighting back against impossible odds. It's also about rediscovery. Although it's not immediately obvious, this is also a post-apocalyptic story. It's definitely a fantasy, but I'm not entirely convinced it isn't a future Earth - again, maybe the sequels shed more light. Where did the "corelings" come from?

Oh, and it's also a story about courage and protecting what's yours. With some very well realized characters. It's every bit as good as rumor has it and I'll be tracking down the rest when I have a chance. 

(Copy obtained at World Fantasy Con).

Monday, April 20, 2015

This Week's Geek Award...

...goes to Samantha Cristoferetti.

Ms. Cristoferetti is an astronaut currently serving a tour on the International Space Station. They don't exactly get to take much luggage up there, it being so expensive to shoot things into space.

So, she definitely gets points for spending part of her valuable weight allowance on: A Star Trek uniform. It's Voyager style, command red, and...yup. Here's the evidence.

I do believe that's the first time a Star Trek uniform has been worn on a real spaceship.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Growing Plastics?

We can come up with alternatives to fossil fuels.

Plastics are harder. But artificial photosynthesis might be the answer - anaerobic bacteria combined with nanotech. They aren't using it to make oxygen (this might seem handy for space travel, but it's better to grow plants as they also give you fresh food so you don't get scurvy) but polymers and the like. Complex molecules.

This might be a replacement system for converting oil into plastics - and also might be very useful on, say, Mars...if you only need sunlight and a few bacteria to make the plastic that you then feed to your 3D printer...

Thursday, April 16, 2015


The SpaceX Falcon 9 almost managed to land on its barge. Almost.

In fact, it did land, quite successfully. Then it fell over. It seems that if you're going to land a rocket, you do have to have it absolutely vertical on touchdown.

It's still an improvement on their last attempt - it looks like they're going to get this eventually. (With significant reduction in cost to orbit).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dinosaur Killer?

We make a lot of assumptions in science. Or rather hypotheses. (Non-scientists often confuse these with "facts").

But the evidence definitely points to an association between an asteroid hid at Chicxulub and the extinction of most of the larger land animals at the time.

So, what if we could prove it? Well, we can't, but we might soon have more information - scientists from the University of Texas at Austin have plans.

Expensive plans. It's called a core sample, and they plan on taking one of the Chicxulub impactor - which is buried 5,000 feet below the sea floor. They might be able to work out, for example, what it was made of.

This is going to be next year, so we'll have to wait a good while for the results, but they might have implications for asteroid defense. I, for one, am rather interested.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot?

Nope, but coffee - a company has invented an espresso machine that should work in microgravity. It was supposed to go to the ISS for testing today, but the launch has been delayed by the most common issue with getting to orbit - the weather.

I'm not a coffee drinker, but I hope it works for the sake of those that are (and also because it may make a good prototype for other microgravity appliances.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: The Free by Brian Ruckley

This is a decent epic fantasy on the darker side - more Game of Thrones like in genre.

The Free tells the stories of the fading days of the last mercenary company. Times are changing and there's no place for them any more (for reasons which are never quite clear in the book). Levyman Drann ends up accompanying them as contract holder - the representative of their employer who's duty it is to prove that they are acting under contract rather than being mere bandits.

Unfortunately, perhaps because I've been spoiled by Elizabeth Moon's brilliant military fantasy, the mercenary company comes over more as an adventuring party than anything with military discipline.

Despite that, this is a fun read. Ruckley's magic system is interesting - magic is based off of the four seasons in the way it is often based off of the elements. Mages have a season - how that's determined is also left out, but it doesn't seem to be something they choose. The world is made up of entelech, which comes in season flavors. So, everything's about seasons. And the use of magic steals a mage's vigor and permanently shortens their lives. Because of this, magic is used somewhat sparingly - although this is still a slightly higher magic world in terms of frequency than Game of Thrones. It's always nice to see a new and different magic system.

The characters are well-realized and the story itself interesting, although the ending - no spoilers - is rather a downer. It leaves one with the feeling that things are already bad and can only go downhill from here. If you like happy endings, you might want to skip this one.

If you like unashamedly violent, dark epic fantasy with good worldbuilding and an interesting magic system, then I recommend it.

(Copy received at World Fantasy Con).

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Problem With Self Driving Cars

I'm a huge fan of self driving cars. I think they will make our roads safer, be good for the environment and improve mobility for disabled and elderly people. Oh, and won't it be nice not to worry about designated drivers.

But one scientist pointed out an issue.

I can't read in a moving car. Why? I get horribly motion sick.

And most people will be wanting to do stuff in their self driving car other than stare out the window - that's a good part of the point.

Which means that quite a few people may discover they get car sick when they thought they didn't, or hadn't since they were little kids.

Experts are recommending that designers of self driving cars provide large windows (because looking out the window does help), keep the seats facing forward (some of us can even get queasy on trains if our seats face backwards) and possibly have the seats fully recline (supposedly that helps, although I've never tried it).

This will particularly affect, of course, the subset of people who don't get sick when driving but do as passengers.

It's a minor issue, but one worth thinking of. And one thing that might be helpful is to find other motion sickness drugs than dramamine, which a small but significant percentage of the population can't take (I know. I'm one of them. It makes me worse).

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Unwanted Goldfish?

...don't dump them in a nearby river. Or lake. Colorado is having to consider completely draining one lake as the only way to get rid of invasive goldfish. It's not cruel to the fish - just the native species they tend to outcompete.

(Basically? Don't ever release any pet into the wild. Either they won't survive, which is cruel to the animal, or they will with sometimes devastating results).

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Hugo Awards

So, pretty much everyone who pays the remotest attention to the publishing world knows about the Hugo Awards scandal.

For those who need a quick recap:

Two groups - Sad Puppies, organized by Brad R. Torgersen and Rabid Puppies, organized by Vox Day produced overlapping "slates" of suggested nominees.

The number of people voting this year was much higher than normal.

The Hugo ballot pretty much resembles the combination of their two slates, including six nominations for John C. Wright (a record). (I'm not saying everything was on the slate, but a lot was).

They are not hiding the fact that they managed to skew the ballot - in fact, they are quite proud of it. They are also, as it happens, a group of political conservatives.

This is a set of people who want to dominate the Hugos with both the kind of science fiction they like and writers with politics they agree with. Their success - and the high level of publicity attached to it - has brought the integrity of the awards into question.

First of all, the Hugos have never been a popular choice award. It costs, currently, a $40 donation to WorldCon to become eligible to vote - this covers you for a year. Between the cost (which some people consider excessively high) and the fact that you need to be extremely well read in the field to have a clue what to nominate and vote for, the Hugos have always been chosen by a relatively small (in some years under 300) group of industry insiders and hardcore fans.

This obviously makes the awards easy to manipulate. And, like the Oscars, the Hugos tend to award certain kinds of work - which is one of the things the Sad Puppies are claiming they want to fix.

The problem is that they also, again, want to "fix" the awards so the kind of work they like gets nominated instead. And they've proved that ballot stuffing the Hugos works.

And, of course, there's been a backlash. Many fans and industry people - especially those of a more liberal persuasion - want to "fix" this by intentionally voting against anything on the Sad Puppies slate. This is despite the fact that there's no evidence anyone on either slate except for Mr. Vox Day (who had the poor taste to include his own work) and John C. Wright actually asked to or even wanted to be there. They did not "cheat." The argument I've heard is that we don't know if they would have been on the ballot otherwise. My return argument is that anyone who cares enough to want to fix this should have some idea of what they would consider worthy of a Hugo.

So, how should the Hugo awards move forward?

1. People who want to fix this and help the awards should, if they can reasonably afford it, pay for a supporting membership of the next WorldCon now. The voting packages will go out at the end of April. I bought mine yesterday and am fairly sure I'll be in in time (if not, I get to nominate next year, which should also help).
2. Those eligible to vote should do their level best to forget about the "slates." Either voting blindly for SP/RP nominees or blindly voting against them is wrong. The latter pushes the Hugos closer to being a liberal/conservative two-party fight - which it should not be. Instead, people should vote for their idea of artistic merit (I say their idea, because we all have different tastes).
3. The World Science Fiction Society should put some serious thought into the system. It's worked for years, but in today's world of the internet - this can happen. The proposal I personally like the most is to limit the number of works an individual can nominate to a number below the six item shortlist. This would not keep books from getting on the ballot because of a slate, but would significantly reduce the risk of a slate "sweeping" the ballot or close, as as happened this year.

And the takeaway?

No award system is ever going to be perfect. But there is a lot of politics in SF&F lately - and reducing the politics should be a goal of all of us.

The problem the internet gives us is that we can find out a lot more about the authors we like. We all know that Orson Scott Card is a homophobe, that Harlan Ellison was a jerk at conventions, that C.J. Cherryh is, despite the unisex name, a lesbian and that Neil Gaiman looks more like the Doctor than some of the actors who've played him. (I'd apologize to Neil, but I think he'd take that as a compliment. I hope so, anyway).

And then the temptation becomes to judge work not on its merit but on the perceived merits of the artist producing it.

Add in the quite reasonable desire to increase diversity and we Where an award ceases to be about the work and becomes all about the politics and maneuverings.

Which has always been the case, but this time everyone knows about the politics and maneuverings. They're out in the light - and maybe this was something that needed to happen.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On your feet all day?

CMU has something for you. It's a lower leg only exoskeleton that's unpowered and reduces the amount of energy used to walk by about 7%.

That's the equivalent of being about ten pounds lighter - making this useful for anyone who has to work on their feet all day (the designers plan on marketing it to nurses and similar). It may also be good for disabled people with conditions that make them tire easily.

(For that matter, I wouldn't mind one for conventions...)


Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

Three young people are being trained to use mysterious artifacts that allow dimensional travel - they think to protect the world from tyranny. In truth, their elders are nothing but mercenaries. It all falls apart when one of them is denied initiation.

This is an intriguing YA story, but one which offers little new. There is the currently-obligatory love triangle, a lot of violence (some of it gratuitous), a subplot about the destructive nature of drug abuse. It's not bad, but other than the method of traveling through "There," another dimension in which time doesn't always move at the same rate, it isn't all that original.

The author presents us with multiple POVs - all of them young people. Maud is the most interesting character (and, sadly, the one we see the least of). The themes of revenge and justice are important in the novel, along with the concept of who, if anyone, should play God. And we get an interesting look at Hong Kong, a city the author seems somewhat fond of.

Unfortunately, the description of the real world is somewhat lacking, to the point where it took me far too much of the novel to realize it was the near future (I think). Maybe if the book had its maps (missing from the ARC I received) it would help.

However, unlike a lot of books marketed as YA lately, this one really is. Growing up and coming of age are central to the story. It's well written and the characters are interesting, so I can deal with its minor flaws.

Book received at World Fantasy Con.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Silent Years: Maiden Released!

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.

Barnes & Noble:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Space Glasses?

Not the eye kind. The drinking kind.

Hospitality in zero G isn't exactly elegant. Astronauts drink from pouches through straws - rather like those juice pouches most of us took to grade school.

The Cosmic Lifestyle Corp wants to change that, by designing glasses that work in space. It works in a similar way to some rocket motors - grooves hold the fluid in the glass and keep it from floating away...except into the drinker's mouth.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that their kickstarter has worked out - with 4 hours to go, they've only raised a bit under $3.5k. They're now going to try an alternate means of funding. (Although it's a great project, their rewards aren't very good).

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Couple Of Tips

I was going to trawl the news for something to blog about - but, of course, it's April 1, and...yeah.

(You can believe this blog - I personally don't find tricking somebody into believing a hoax particularly funny).

So, instead, I'm going to toss out a couple of writing tips:

1. Make sure that your background "crowd scene" isn't a sea of white faces. Readers will tend to assume that any character is the default - white and straight - unless specified otherwise. Particularly in science fiction, this can be very upsetting to non-white readers who wonder "where did we go?" It's worth taking the time to add a bit of diversity to your background characters and nameless NPCs - whether it's skin color, or tossing in disabled people. This kind of thing really does mean a lot.

2. If you have to write a trope, make sure you do it well. There's nothing wrong with "classic" stories, but archetypes become tropes when, to be blunt, people keep doing them badly.

3. Make sure your world is consistent within itself, especially in fantasy or far future science fiction. It's fine to break the laws of physics as long as you always break them in the same way.