Friday, June 24, 2016

Offline Again

I will not be posting next week due to unplugging and stuff.

And no, I am not going to talk about UK politics. Too depressing. (Which tells you which side I'm on).

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pollinator Week!

I was just reminded it's pollinator week. So, here's a reminder on ways you can help bees and other pollinators:

1. Plant pollinator-friendly native plants in a corner of your garden. Plants that attract hummingbirds are better than a feeder and require less maintenance.
2. Do not use neonicotinoid pesticides in your yard. Also do not purchase plants that have been raised with the use of these pesticides, as residue can stay in the plants for years. Be especially careful if buying milkweed - make sure it's raised without pesticides.
3. Consider putting out a bee waterer.
4. Buy raw, local honey rather than supermarket crap - it's better for you and can even reduce seasonal allergy symptoms.
5. If it's not a hazard and you have a dead tree or limb, leave them undisturbed to provide nesting habit for certain kinds of bee.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Goldilocks - not just temperature

...but there's something else which also has to be "just right" - a planet's electric field.

Earth has a natural electric field - it's caused by a potential gradient in the atmosphere - the earth is negative and the ionosphere is positive. This is, of course, what causes thunderstorms. Lightning actually triggers complex molecules, so a lifebearing planet needs thunderstorms. Lightning plays a role in nitrogen fixation.

Mars - may have. Dust storms produce static, which produces lightning - but Martian lightning tends to stay in the dust storms and not produce thunderbolts, keeping that energy in the atmosphere. It's likely that Mars does not have enough electric generation to help support life - but we don't really know until we get a rover down there with the right instruments on it.

Venus? Venus has way, way too much electricity. Earth has a tiny amount of charge in the ionosphere. Venus has so much that it's stripped the water from the planet. It actually has a true electric wind, akin to the solar wind.

If Mars has a very high electric charge too, then it may explain what happened to the atmosphere. But what if it turns out to be very low and that is the problem?

Do we have to look, in addition to the right temperature, for the right amount of electricity?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

RIP Anton Yelchin

I was at a convention all weekend, so I wasn't able to talk about this.

Until now.

Anton Yelchin, the second man to play Pavel Chekov, was killed in a tragic accident when his jeep, which was apparently not in park, rolled backwards over him. There are indications the accident was caused by a faulty gearbox (similar models had been recalled).

The rebooted movies had their flaws - but Yelchin's performance was not one of them (And to be honest, the flaws were pretty much all at the writing and directing level, not the acting). He was only 27 years old - and everyone in the Star Trek community mourns.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Stop Calling...

...stupid things "bird brained."

Certain birds have demonstrated that they are quite intelligent. I've had conversations with parrots - simple ones, but enough to show that the bird knew what it was saying. And I've talked before about the fact that many crows and relatives show abstract intelligence at least equal to the great apes.

Now scientists have studied the brains of two dozen bird species in an attempt to discover why - to be more precise, how a macaw with a brain the size of a walnut can show better cognitive abilities than a macaque with a brain the size of a lemon.

Turns out, birds have something interesting going on in their forebrains - their equivalent to our cerebral cortex. A higher density of neurons.

This is probably part of adaptation to flight. You have to be light to fly. A heavy brain is a problem - so you need a light brain that's more efficient. Exactly what birds have evolved. They have more, shorter neurons, and that allows them to reach the same cognitive capacity as primates.

...and possibly as humans.

The significance of this is that there's more than one way to design a complicated brain, and that we have to rethink what we "know" about brain size and even brain size to body size ratio.

Another significance is that the best bird brains are found in songbirds and parrots (crows and their relatives are, yes, songbirds) - the birds with the most complicated vocalizations. This might teach us more about the relationship between language and intelligence, and how the two might feed into and develop each other. Did intelligence come first or did complicated language actually come before intelligence? (Or was it one way in mammals and a different way in birds). Songbirds often have complicated songs, but not always the kind of complex behavior we see in crows. Who...don't have complicated songs, but do have at least a basic language.

Next time somebody calls you "bird brained" - thank them for the compliment.

(I leave for Origins Game Expo tomorrow and will likely not have time to post again until Tuesday. Don't burn anything down without me).

Monday, June 13, 2016


Not what I wanted to write today - and I'll forgive anyone who leaves immediately and comes back tomorrow.

At about 2am Sunday morning the worst terrorist attack in U.S. soil since 9/11 occurred when a single gunman opened fire in the "Pulse" nightclub in Orlando, Florida. For those who don't know, Pulse is the most prominent and largest gay club in Orlando. At 5am, SWAT stormed the club, liberating remaining hostages and killing the gunman.

Muddying the waters is the fact that the shooter had connections to daesh. (Note, I am not using his name. I will not use his name. After his crimes, he does not deserve that dignity).

But his own family, those who knew him best, came forward to say that he simply hated gay people.

50 people were killed in the attack and over 50 more injured (If you question how one man took out so many people, you've never been in a large night club on Saturday night). The LGBT community in Orlando is devastated.

And since the attack I have heard innocent Muslims vilified and blamed.

I stand with the victims and their families. I am a bisexual woman - I'm not the type to either hide in the closet or wrap myself in a pride flag. Our community has faced hate before. People try to argue we are no longer oppressed. But we are - and we are hated and feared. The target was chosen solely because the gunman hated gay people. Whatever connections he might have had, we don't need to look further for a motivation. It was an act of terror, because now people will think twice before going to a club to enjoy themselves, people who intended to come out may not. (And some people will come out because of this, to show they are not afraid).

But I also stand against the rabid Islamophobia that is spreading through the western world, in patterns that sadly remind me, as a student of that history, of 1930s Germany. At Balticon, we shared the hotel with Muslims. Lots of Muslims - there was a religious conference going on. I suppose I could say they got me with a biological weapon (I am fairly sure the source of the nasty bug I picked up at the con was one of their kids - they brought all of their kids, or seemed to) ;). I was not afraid of them. Nor did I think those women, most of whom were hijabi, seemed particularly oppressed.

Islam is not the problem.

Fanaticism is.

Homophobia is.

And we need to remember in this aftermath that:

1. Some people still just hate gay people. Maybe some people always will and the best we can hope for is that we'll all be civilized enough not to act on it.

2. Daesh is not Islam. Hate is not Islam.

Friday, June 10, 2016


...seriously checked the date when I read this story.

The BBC Broadcasting House in London has a few things in its lobby. One of them is a Dalek. Because, ya know. Daleks.

The host of a BBC Radio 4 show called Inside Science, one Dr. Adam Rutherford, decided to take part in a "Swab and Send" project where people were asked to take samples of their everyday environments. And, presumably because he was doing this for the show, he couldn't resist sampling the Dalek. Specifically, its eye stalk.

The sample did not provide a potential antibiotic.

It provided four potential new antibiotics.

Something or somebody out there has a sense of humor.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


...just when we thought the periodic table might be full, four new elements have been added.

The four new elements complete the seventh row, were officially recognized in January, and have now been named Nihonium (after Japan), Moscovian (After Moscow), Tenessine (After Tennesse) and Oganesson. There's still one stage of review, but...we keep finding out more and more about the world, and that's always awesome.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Rocket Science

Space X plans on relaunching a rocket this fall. They plan on reusing the one which successfully landed on their drone ship on April 8.

If successful, this would be the first launch to orbit using a rocket flying for the second time. (The shuttle doesn't count - only the crew capsule was reusable and the actual rockets were disposable). They already have customers lined up willing to risk their payload for a chance to be part of history.

Reusable rockets would drop current payload to orbit costs by a factor of about 10.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lisa Pathfinder a resounding success

The big thing in physics right now is gravity waves. Ripples in space-time. We've had some success detecting them - but as with so much in astronomy, we can get better detection if we launch our telescope into outer space.

Which is expensive, so ESA decided to do a test run first with a small satellite called Lisa Pathfinder, using test objects (with known mass).

The satellite is tracking the test objects 300 times better than the mission requirements. The current plan is to launch the actual telescope, which will consist of three satellites in linked orbit, in 2034 - but the success of this project might mean it's brought forward.

Let's hope so.

Monday, June 6, 2016


...some very cool time at AwesomeCon DC hanging out with some wonderful people from the Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Thanks for reminding me how cool the moon is, amongst other things.

Friday, June 3, 2016


Didn't get a post out before leaving for Awesomecon DC.

Did get to spend some fun time hanging out with wonderful people from NASA - they're always so much fun when they come out of their labs to say hi ;).

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Care about bees?

They've done more studies about what pollen domestic honeybees pick up - and yes, they forage in your back yard a lot.

The common wisdom says you should plant things bees like - but you should also be careful what insecticides you use, especially if you do have a "pollinator garden." You don't want to attract the ladies just to poison them, after all.

Don't use neonicotinoids and buy plants from nurseries that do not use neonicotinoids/neonics (which can stay IN the plant you bought - this also goes if you're buying milkweed for monarchs). This is a 2013 list of products that contain neonicotinoids -

(And that may not be comprehensive. It's probably better to avoid commercial insecticides altogether and go for traditional remedies such as soap or diatomaceous earth).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Early Writing

The Museum of London Archaeology has deciphered some tablets from AD 40-50 - the first decade of Roman rule.

One of them is a letter from one businessman suggesting another doesn't appear "too shabby" after all the money he's loaned.

The other is some kid's alphabet practice.

And from AD57 they found financial records that have the actual date on. They found a lot. London is basically one big ongoing dig.

(Sorry, had to let my archaeology geek out for once).