Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hail the humble...


Apparently, mealworms - the larval form of the darkling beetle - may prove to be an important part of the solution to our plastic problem.

They eat styrofoam.

Not only that, but they can subsist entirely on styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene. And they produce, as a side effect...perfectly good soil.

Scientists are hoping to isolate the enzyme they use, but in the mean time, mealworms are actually quite edible - Chinese people eat them - although ones fed on styrofoam might not taste that great. They're more typically used as fishing bait and pet food, though.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On Representation and Related Things

I had somebody ask me quite nicely for clarification about something I said about not being very comfortable writing black people yet.

They seemed to think I was implying people should stay within their comfort zone. I'm going to write something similar here to my response to them.

1. You can't represent every single aspect of humanity in your main character or characters. Jacqueline Koyanagi makes a good attempt in Ascension, but even if you're doing an ensemble cast - you can't cover everything in one work. So, don't try. If you try too hard you will end up doing what I call "checklisting" - marking off whether you've got a gay person or a disabled person or an Asian person or whatever. This is trying too hard and it ends up klutzy.

2. Please, please don't try to represent everyone in a short story. Short stories should be an idea. One. Single. Idea.

3. On the other hand, when building a world, make sure diversity exists in it. Don't whitewash the future - that actually makes people afraid their descendants won't survive. Please don't have only one ethnicity in your secondary fantasy world (unless there's some really good worldbuilding reason for it - such as a world with only one climate zone, a small human enclave, etc). This doesn't just go for your humans - how about having your humanoids have racial groups too? What about tropical elves? Do dwarves from the far northern mountains have different traditions from those in the temperate zone? Apart from any issues with representation, this will make your worldbuilding better.

4. DO go outside your comfort zone. I'm not entirely comfortable writing black characters yet. That doesn't mean I don't try.

5. If you are bad at writing a certain group and know it - then how about bringing your readers' attention to other authors that might be better at it? The example I used is that there's some great work being done in Afrofuturism right now - but I wouldn't want to try it myself. I know more about Africa than the average clueless white person, but I would have to spend a lot of time on research before trying to set a story there.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mars Needs...




NASA has finally confirmed a long standing theory that the gullies on Mars hold seasonal flooding. They say the evidence is definitive. (It's complicated and has to do with atmospheric chemicals). It's probably very briny, and we have no idea how often - or for how long - the Martian floods flow.

But desert life hints that it might be possible for ancient Martian lifeforms to have survived - by hibernating below the surface and waking up to life only when there's water.

Maybe there's hope yet.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Sad Fact I Didn't Know

There are 500,000 American bison in the United States and Canada. Most of them are being raised to fulfill the demand for bison meat, seen as a leaner alternative to beef (Pro tip, if you buy some, serve it rare - it dries out much faster than beef).

What I didn't know?

Less than 20,000 of them are actually pure bison. Apparently, bison will interbreed with domestic cattle and produce fertile offspring - so bison genetics have been contaminated by European cattle. I think this is a very sad thing.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Quantum Teleportation

...which doesn't mean anyone's going to be beamed up any time soon. Nor is it an ansible - the information still remains stubbornly below the speed of light.

But scientists have now managed to "teleport" information through 100km of fiber optic cable. What's important about this?

Teleported information can't be intercepted - it's the ultimate encryption for high security data, and one day it may be one of the principles of the internet. Oh, and of course, teleportation in free space can cover longer distances, allowing communication between, for example, ships on the sea. Or in space.

(Makes signals intelligence rather more interesting, doesn't it).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Singing Giraffes?

Giraffes are weird. They have the longest neck of any mammal - by a lot. And it's long been believed that they couldn't make controlled vocalizations.


It turns out giraffes make quite a bit of noise - in low ranges that humans can barely hear and, for whatever reason, only at night.

It's a vibrant hum that varies in duration and contains numerous notes - so there's definitely some content there. (Scientists are insisting it's just a contact call used when it's too dark to see each other. I'm not convinced).

It's not true infrasound, as humans can hear it if they listen carefully. Probably the highest they can produce with vocal chords that big. (Elephants, on the other hand, communicate in true infrasound and over substantial distances).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Panther's New Writer

I'll be honest: I've never been a huge fan of T'Challa as a character. I do, though, acknowledge his importance as one of the few prominent African superheroes (I prefer my black representation in the form of Storm, when not played by Halle Berry, the obscure but wonderful Flint, or the movieverse version of Falcon) and the first true black superhero (with powers).

But Marvel has hired a new writer to pen the book - and his name's Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who, might you ask?

He's a major writer on race and the experience of being black in America. And while T'Challa isn't American...

Here's the big thing. T'Challa was a Lee and Kirby creation. His second writer was Don McGregor. He's also been written, as a solo character, by Ed Hannigan, Peter B. Gillis, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Jonathan Maberry. Guess what all but one of these writers had in common? Yup. Hudlin is the only black man to previously script Black Panther, from 2005 to 2009, and he's the one responsible for the awful, stereotyped relationship between T'Challa and Storm that seemed to exist only to pair off the African royalty (I didn't realize until researching this that it wasn't some old white guy responsible for that).

But for most of the character's appearances (I haven't gone through Avengers appearances or Marvel Knights or any places where he's cameod) he's been written by a white man...and as a white person I know most of us don't get it about race. We don't get it at all.

I'm not saying a white person should never write Black Panther, but somebody who really understands the issues might do it better, and without any excuses like "It's not aimed at black people." (Really?)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Reviews, and Acquiring Them

So, I figured it was time for an actual writing post.

I'm going to talk about reviews. Reviews have become more and more important (for example, many promotion sites won't promote, even for pay, self published books with less than X number of reviews) as the industry changes.

There are three kinds of reviews:

1. Paid reviews. paid somebody to review your book.

Don't do this.

It is majorly unethical and if you're found out both you and the reviewer will be ostracized. Amazon will remove reviews that were paid for if it finds them.

Note, this does not include paying a service like Netgalley to find you reviewers. And it is industry standard to provide the reviewer with a free copy. That's perfectly acceptable.

2. Customer reviews.

Customer reviews are spontaneously posted by people who bought and read your book. Awesome, right?

There's no way to reliably get more customer reviews - calls to action may or may not work and can look unprofessional. Statistically, about 1% of your customers will bother to write a review. A slightly larger number will give a straight star rating on a site like Amazon or Goodreads. (Be aware that Goodreads star ratings can be a little misleading because some people use them to prioritize the books on their to be read list...)

And, obviously, customer reviews can include some really problematic stuff. There's the risk of receiving what I call an "ugly" review, where they're reviewing the author's perceived politics, etc. Or, of course, a good friend posting a five star review to be helpful (This is not always because the author is asking people to shill for them).

Customer reviews are both more and less honest than the last category:

3. Professional reviews.

Okay. This sounds like people being paid to be reviewers, and it does include them. However, a professional reviewer in this context is anyone who solicits books for review and reviews them regularly. In the internet age, the vast majority of "professional" reviewers are bloggers with more time than money doing it as much to support a book habit as anything else.

These are the reviews you can actually set out to get, although it's still hit and miss. Most book bloggers get more books than it's humanly possible to read, and I've found the ratio of actual reviews to solicits is pretty low.

You can find reviewers on the internet. The Indie View has a good list. Net Galley puts you together with "semi professional" reviewers - those are people who sign up for the site to get free books, but it's expensive for the author (best to go in with a cooperative if you can find one). There are some other services which are cheaper, but less well reputed.

Read the reviewer's blog. Read a few of their reviews before sending in your book - you might, for example, not want to send your book to somebody who has reviews posted in which they attack the author or go for extreme snark at the expense of the poor book.

Read their guidelines. Only send to reviewers that read your genre and subgenre. You should write a query letter which states why you're sending the book to that particular reviewer - it's not always possible to come up with a personalized reason, but you'll have a much greater chance of success if you do.

If you're working with a publisher, talk to them. You don't want to send the same book to the same reviewer.

Oh, and don't worry about reviews. Ultimately, you have very little control over them - and while it can be frustrating when "not enough reviews" blocks off marketing opportunities, it's even more frustrating to obsess over it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Hole Collision.

Astronomers are studying two black holes currently orbiting each other at about the width of our solar system.

That's pretty close together for really big black holes. They're hoping that they'll crash into each other.

Why? Because the sheer energy created by the collision might bend space and time, creating detectable effects that might teach us something about the nature of the universe.

Or maybe it will open a huge crack and something nasty will come through it. A bad wolf, maybe?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Watch that hand sanitizer

I don't often post things like that, but there's a problem.

Hand sanitizer has become more popular in schools and public restrooms. Thing is?

They're between 45% and 95% alcohol. Basically, hand sanitizer is mostly alcohol (which can kill germs).

Kids have been drinking the stuff because, you know, kids do stuff like that - and giving themselves alcohol poisoning.

So, please, keep hand sanitizer out of the reach of young children and teach them that it's not good to drink... (This is actually becoming a real issue in some parts of the country).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


...are really useful things. They can hover for extended periods, they can land on small areas.

However, they do need reasonably flat surfaces to land on - which is why many helicopter rescues involve a winch. Winching up an injured person is risky.

DARPA has a solution - telescopic landing gear equipped with sensors that allow each leg to adjust to the terrain underneath. And they've demonstrated that it works - on an otherwise completely unmodified helicopter. It also makes it easier to land a helicopter on a ship.

The new landing gear (which also should reduce damage to the vehicle from tricky landings) isn't exactly available commercially yet, but once it is, it will make helicopters even more useful than they are already.

(Now to come up with a way to sneak this into a story).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Helmet Cam Fun

I don't normally post videos - but here, have some Go Pro fun.

Yup. That's a spacewalk. Apparently, helmet cams work fine in doubt to the company's delight.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bees do it, Birds do it...

...even educated fleas do it. (Don't ask me which song that is).

A new study of zebra finches might teach us something about why falling in love is important.

Zebra finches, like many birds, pair for life...but they also have affairs. Oh, and they pair up based off of individual taste, as best we can tell.

They put a bunch of birds together and let them pair up. Then they took half of them and shuffled them, forcing them into cages with random partners.

The difference?

37%. In favor of the offspring of the love matches. That is to say, they were over a third more likely to survive than hatchlings from pairs that were arranged.

The arranged pairs had less sex and paid less attention to newborns.

It doesn't apply to humans, of course...or does it? Do people have healthier children when they're with a mate they chose freely (even if those children aren't genetically the offspring of that mate)? The instinctive answer is...likely.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Giant Virus?

Scientists are looking into possibly reviving a huge virus found in the Siberian permafrost, in order to study it. (But first they have to make sure it won't make anyone or anything sick).

They're worried climate change might release ancient pathogens from the ice. Hey, there's your apocalypse scenario if you need one. Some kind of dinosaur disease. Or worse, a plant pathogen. (John Christopher's No Blade Of Grass/The Death Of Grass comes to mind - I should reread that one, if I can find a copy. I think I left mine in England...ah well).

So. Ancient virus resurrection? Good idea, bad idea, horror movie plot? I'm going for horror movie plot...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

New Hominids

First of all, meet Homo naledi.

Discovered in South Africa, the hominid has legs and feet suited to walking, hands and shoulders for climbing, manipulative hands...and an ape-like brain.

But while Homo naledi had a small brain and probably wasn't as intelligent as us, the fact that 15 naledi skeletons have been found in a difficult to reach cave with no other fossils points to the fact that they may have been...put there deliberately.

In other words, the cave was a burial site, meaning Homo naledi had enough sentience to honor their dead. Of course, so do elephants...

Still, while Homo naledi isn't exactly the missing link, it's an important find...that only happened because two unusually slender spelunkers stumbled on the cave (most modern humans wouldn't have fit and the paleontologists who recovered the bones were all female - women being, of course, smaller than men).

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Congratulations, Your Majesty

Today, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning monarch in the history of the United Kingdom (And England and Scotland as separate kingdoms). Queen Victoria was, of course, the previous record holder.

So, I'd like to extend to her my congratulations from across the pond.

63 years is a long time to hold any job, after all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Big, Red Moon

Much of North America will be treated to a lunar eclipse on the night of September 27 to September 28. Europeans and Africans will also get in on the show, and so will most of South America.

This should be a particularly spectacular eclipse because the moon will also be at perigee - which with its orbit and proximity makes it appear noticeably larger. (A so called "supermoon.")

So, mark your calendars for some moon viewing time. (Lunar eclipses used to be considered ill omens because of the bloody color the moon turns - actually a result of refraction of sunlight by the earth's atmosphere).

Monday, September 7, 2015

More Standing Stones?

Archaeologists have used radar to find a much bigger henge, near Stonehenge, which appears to have been deliberately buried a long time ago (perhaps because the cult that built it became unpopular?)

Unfortunately, we aren't likely to see the stones any time soon - no excavation is planned and archaeologists, for now, want to leave the Durrington Walls' henge in situ and study it using remote techniques.

Friday, September 4, 2015


...apparently don't like being filmed by drones any more than we do. Filmmakers in the Netherlands were using a camera drone in the Burgers' Zoo when it was ambushed and knocked out of the sky by a chimp wielding a long stick.

Analysis indicated the chimp thoroughly meant to do it. Probably it thought it was prey - but it's more amusing to imagine chimps saying "No photos, please."

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Case For Steam

So, one of the things I discovered on vacation is that Switzerland has most of the surviving Belle Epoque open water paddle steamers.

These are sizeable sidewheelers designed for use on the country's big lakes. Obviously, the chance to go aboard wasn't something I could turn down.

And now I'm going to make a case for paddle steamers (both parts are important as some of the paddle wheelers have been converted to diesel electric, which I find unfortunate) as something we should not just be preserving - but building new. I've come to the conclusion they're superior to "modern" motor vessels for certain specific uses - namely moving people in large inland waters and coastal areas. Oh, but we stopped using them for a reason, right?

We stopped using them because a paddle wheeler uses more fuel. You're using fuel to move the entire wheel, not just the part in the water. I'm now going to explain just why their advantages overcome that. (If you think they're slow, think again. Mississippi riverboats are slow because of the conditions they're designed for - they're powered rafts. Open water paddle steamers are fast enough - the one we were on had a top cruise speed of 16 knots, which is quite respectable for a ferry).

There's two main areas in which a paddle steamer has the advantage:

1. Passenger comfort. First of all, a steam engine doesn't produce the vibrations generated by an internal combustion engine. These vibrations pass through the hull and can annoy some people and even contribute to motion sickness in those susceptible. A steam engine produces, instead, a regular thwup thwup thwup that isn't nearly as irritating. Second of all: Stabilizers on a cruise ship work by sticking fins out from the hull. On modern ships these are computer controlled and can be adjusted to conditions. A sidewheeler has a great big wheel on either side. This has the same effect, resulting in significantly less roll than on a screw propelled ship of similar size in similar conditions. Having the power amidships also seems to reduce pitch. In other words, while paddle steamers might rock...a little...they definitely don't roll.

2. The environment. Wait. I just said they use more fuel. Well, yes, they do. But, a steam engine produces 90 percent less air pollution than an internal combustion engine. And these days most of them don't run on coal. They've been converted (as has the steam locomotive that runs tours to the Grand Canyon) to oil power. Here's the thing about a steam engine: It's not that picky about fuel. Internal combustion engines are very picky about what you put in their tank. Steam engines not that much. In fact, that steam loco I mentioned? It runs entirely off of waste cooking oil from the restaurants on the Grand Canyon rim. There's no reason that I know of why they couldn't run all of the paddle steamers in Switzerland off of waste cooking oil from local restaurants.

And then there's the cool factor, which can't really be dismissed. But really - the companies that run excursions on larger lakes should be looking at going back to steam. It just makes so much sense.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Strange Voyages

I realize it's been a while, but there are updates!

1. We're still working on the print edition. There have been some technical problems. Backers will get their print copies as soon as we have them resolved.

2. The PDF edition is now on general sale! So, if you didn't back and want a copy, go here.

If you haven't been following this: Strange Voyages is a Fate Core campaign setting that combines life on a Renaissance-era sailing ship with an "all the myths are true" occult setting with evil Atlanteans, tricksy Fae, and all sorts of other mythology (mostly European - I personally would like to expand into Africa, Asia and America sourcebooks, but I don't know if anyone else involved is up for it ;)).

The book also contains combat and chase rules for ships, ship creation rules and tips, and templates to help design a variety of mythological creatures. Oh, and fantastic illustrations from Juan Ochoa.

So, gamer types, please do check it out.

In other news, I just got the galley proof for the October Bards & Sages, which will contain my fantasy flash piece Selectors.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

This Is Cool...

Scientists have discovered that if you add a certain perfectly natural protein to our favorite summer delicacy - ice cream - it will take much longer to melt.

Supposedly, it also stops crystals forming. However, it also changes the texture of ice cream...which may or may not be a good thing.

Personally, I think we'll see this in cheap supermarket ice cream but probably not at a good gelateria or Jeni's.