Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Sorry - I suppose I could find some virtual candy ;).

Happy Halloween to everyone, and enjoy something spooky for me.

Monday, October 30, 2017


...it's Halloween tomorrow, NASA did something real spooky. Go check it out:

NASA Halloween Playlist

Friday, October 27, 2017

We had a visitor...

...from another solar system.

Before you get hugely excited, the object, which streaked past the sun at a speed and angle that indicated it was not orbiting the sun (or going to be captured by it) is most likely somebody else's comet. Or asteroid. The most likely scenario is that it's a KBO from another nearby solar system that got ejected.

It is, however, the first object that shows strong signs of being from, well, way out there. It isn't confirmed yet, but if it is then it proves that space rocks can switch solar systems. Which is more interesting than you think. Especially if it's a comet, as comets carry a lot of the chemicals needed for life.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Single letter editing...

...of RNA. Yes, it just became possible. The advantage of this method is that it could allow the correction of a genetic defect without affecting germ line DNA (of course, how desirable or undesirable that is...)

The big thing is that RNA editing is potentially reversible. Which opens up all kinds of doors - some good and some bad. Octopi do it to themselves all the time, though...

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


...stop insulting people by calling them Neanderthals.

We don't really know how Neanderthals lived, but we do know:

They took care of disabled members of their community, allowing individuals with profound handicaps such as congenital deafness to survive and thrive.

They invented glue and used it to make weapons.

They may have built boats - we aren't sure on this one.

They had childhoods as long as ours - possibly even slightly longer.

Regardless of what may have happened to them, I suspect they were as human as we are. So, not a legitimate insult (I prefer "pre-hominid" myself :P).

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Saving the Orcs from Sauron

I'm doing a lot of RPG work lately and somebody just said something which started to trigger a rant I realized I hadn't posted here.

Evil races.

Of which the archetype is, of course, the orcs. (Trolls, too, but we see fewer of those).

Orcs are "a twisting of elves" and created by Sauron in his image. They are born evil. This isn't the concept of original sin (which really means "Human nature is flawed, try to do better" IMO), it's Orcs Are Evil And Always Will Be.

Because I dance around in both fantasy and science fiction, I have a desire for my fantasy races to make sense.

Inherently evil only makes sense if you're dealing with, for example, literal demons. And the inherently evil orcs are also, well. Problematic.

The idea that a sentient species is "inherently evil" is not dissimilar from primitive ideas about race, when you think about it. Tolkein portrays his orcs as scrambling for power, as not dissimilar from the demons in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters (A classic Christian apologetic if you enjoy that kind of thing) - although The Hobbit precedes The Screwtape Letters in publication by about five years.

But demons aren't inherently evil either, in Christian thought. Demons are evil because they rebelled against god, not because they were created by Satan.

Story wise, the orcs serve a purpose. They go up alongside zombies, actual World War II Nazis and Storm Troopers as "Things the PCs can kill without feeling bad about it." Or, in game terms, "monsters." In a classic dungeon crawl, everything you find in the dungeon is inherently and irredeemably evil or else bestial (e.g. bears). By making the orcs evil, it confirms the main characters in their goodness. They kill evil things. It avoids going into the nuances of "Well, murder is wrong, but it's a war" - and Tolkein knew plenty about war. The Hobbit was published in 1937, right before World War II. By the time he finished The Lord of the Rings, World War II had happened - and the veterans had returned (There's a lot about the difficulties of the returning veteran in the otherwise gratuitous epilogue "The Scouring of the Shire").

He knew all about dehumanizing the enemy - and he had already laid the ground for a literally dehumanized enemy.

So, is this a problem? Orcs aren't people...

...except they are. Individual orcs get names and personalities. Unpleasant ones, true, but personalities nonetheless. Tolkein, perhaps because of his time, perhaps because of the two major wars he lived through, failed to touch on something important.

The orcs are Sauron's chief victims.

Yes, victims. They are created twisted, short-lived, and raised in a culture that values only personal strength. And then even their ultimate creator brands them "inherently evil." Missing the fact that Britain's enemies in the war were big on branding people inherently bad.

Not one single orc is ever redeemed. Not one single orc is acknowledged as a victim of Sauron's manipulation. We never find out what happens to the orcs after Mordor falls - we're led to assume what? They all die?

And this problem spreads through D&D. Orcs appear in 5th edition only in "Volo's Guide to Monsters" - with only half-orcs being presented as a playable core race. Many players and GMs still see orcs as "an evil race."

Yet orcs, in the source material, should reasonably be reframed as victims of Sauron. Victims that the great and the good don't care about enough to save. Saruman's fall is in part represented by acquiring orcs - although we never find out from where.

It's time to unpack the evil race idea (and I say this as a fan of Tolkein's work) - to unpack it and understand that at its heart it is a weird kind of socially acceptable fantasy racism. (And as a note, The Force Awakens reframes storm troopers as victims of the Empire).

If nothing else, we can create fantasy worlds in which orcs are not evil - maybe just different. The reframing of orcs as primitive or barbaric which people commonly use to get around this problem can also lead to trouble.

It's time to save the orcs from Sauron - and perhaps to envision an orcish race that was indeed born in evil but has since risen beyond it. Hrm. I don't need any more ideas...

Monday, October 23, 2017


So, one of the things about Doctor Who that has been annoying me more and more as the years go on:

The lack of south Asian representation.

People from the Indian sub-continent form the largest ethnic minority in the UK at 4.2 percent per the last census (2.3% Indian and 1.9% Pakistani, so this may be a low ball as they seem to have forgotten about Bangladesh). This is compared to 3% African descent (counting Caribbean blacks).

Doctor Who is over sixty years old.

It says something, and not a good thing, that in over sixty years the show has not had a single major character of Indian or Pakistani descent. (And very few bit parts, for that matter).

And it's finally changed.

Meet Mandip Gill

The only thing we know about her character is the first name: Jasmin. Gill herself has only played one significant extended role - Phoebe Jackson in a soap opera called Hollyoaks. Essentially, the only option for Asian British actors is: Be in a soap opera or go to Bollywood. It's been this bad for a long time. I found a clip of her and she's at least as solid as Pearl Mackie.

But finally Desi kids watching Doctor Who will get to see a Companion who looks like them... No pressure, Mandip.

...except, there's more.

Chibnall has apparently decided that he likes the idea of a more crowded TARDIS. It's not like there isn't plenty of space. Gill will be joined by:

Bradley Walsh

He's playing "Graham" - and will be the oldest companion we've seen in a good while (Nardole is older, but doesn't look it). More of an Ian type, maybe? I've not seen this guy act, but I've seen him as...a quiz show host. Which is why I thought the rumor was wrong - he seemed to be busy, but apparently he's been a fan longer than I've been alive. Which is a frighteningly long time.


Tosin Cole as "Ryan"

Lt Bastian in The Force Awakens, btw.

So, Chibnall decided to settle the argument as to whether the new Doctor should have a male companion or a female one...pretty much the way I would have.

The only information about the three new characters we have so far is their first names.

Oh, wait, and there's more, in a major Doctor Who infodump. Sharon D. Clarke will be joining the series in "a returning role."

A returning role? So, not a new character? The obvious (and thus probably wrong) conclusion to jump to is that that might be...the new face of the Master.

The bad news? We won't see them until fall 2018, and the series will be shorter - one 60-minute episode and only nine 50-minute episodes (a net loss of 30 minutes of air time. I suspect the delay and the time cut are related - it's a lot of work taking over something like this and Chibnall might not have got as much put together as he hoped).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Feeding Wildlife...

...might be a bad idea. Because, apparently, the British fondness for attracting birds with feeders is actually causing evolution. Specifically, British great tits (which aren't very "great" at 4.9-5.5 in long unless you compare them with other tits) have a longer beak than those in the Netherlands, where people aren't as inclined to feed them.

Maybe it has to do with bird feeder design? (They're still adorable, though).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Uh oh...

...here come our AI masters.

AlphaGo Zero has taught itself to play Go (An Asian game more complex in its iterations than chess) - from scratch - and well enough to beat its predecessor 100 games in a row. Humans already have no chance.

No, this isn't really our AI masters - AIs have proved to be better at these kinds of games than mere humans before - but it's still...interesting. And perhaps slightly unnerving.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mapping the universe

Google Maps has left Earth - using NASA images they've added half the solar system, or so it seems. Including Pluto.

Might be a useful tool if you're writing in-system science fiction. (I know I've written with Google Earth on the other half of my screen before...it's insanely useful).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

We live in a golden age...

...of astronomy that is.

Things might not be great here on Earth, but we're doing everything from getting close-ups of Pluto to reading gravitational waves to discovering that exoplanets are more common than, well, not.

We've actually observed dark matter.

We've discovered gold is made when stars collide.

And we still have yet to work out what the is going on with Tabby's Star.

What next? I don't know, but when I get depressed all I have to do is pull up some of these discoveries and remember that no matter how much we might mess up...we all look at the same stars.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (Spoilers)

I have to admit - I was offended by the existence of this movie - and the cast list. The last thing we needed was a Blade Runner sequel. Especially one that appeared to answer "Are you a replicant?"

Well, they dealt with that with a very small retcon...

...and created a movie that, well, I've already said. If you liked the original, watch it. If you didn't, don't. Villeneuve (Arrival) was an excellent choice to direct. It had pacing issues - the same pacing issues as the original, so I was okay with it. Ana de Armas was particularly brilliant as Joi.

The thing I liked the most was they didn't try to "fix" it. Instead of trying to say the Blade Runner future is our future, they just went for being consistent with the original and had fun with it - ads for Atari and Pan Am, for example. They went for full retro futurism - and I loved it.

Did it have issues?


There is no excuse in 2017 for the line "No two humans have identical DNA" - twins, anyone? (An easy fix - the two identical DNA signatures were showing up for a boy and a girl, so they obviously weren't identical twins unless one of them was trans, which...wouldn't be in their birth records).

I personally could have done without the creepy hooker-AI threesome which was apparently supposed to be sexy and just came over as kinda...yeah. Just creepy.

Another thought I had wouldn't have worked with the storyline they were going for, with questions about parenthood and identity (which led, sadly, to my brain screaming "I am your father, Luke" right as two characters had a moment. If it hadn't been Harrison Ford, I would have been fine), the strong undertones of race in the story would have been far more powerful if "K" had been black. John Boyega might have been a good choice, or Michael B. Jordan. They had to match him to Ford and Sean Young, though, so it wasn't workable. But it would have made this not just another "Conventionally attractive white guy deals with pseudo-racism" movie, which I know black fans are somewhat tired of. That said, they did weave in issues of race and issues we might have to deal with.

Which brings us to the question.

Blade Runner asks "Are you a replicant?"

Blade Runner 2049 answers "You are human."

The answer to the question in the end is "It shouldn't matter."

Because we're all human.

Friday, October 13, 2017


Decided to do a full post because the hysteria is back.

1. We are not "overdue" for an eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano.

2. The discovery that magma changes preceding an eruption may be in "less than a human lifespan" is actually a good thing! It doesn't mean it will erupt within our lifespans. It means that when it does we'll get a few decades warning, and we can come up with an action plan now so if it does blow in the next few centuries...

3. Oh, and it's not likely to blow in the next few centuries either. More likely the next few millennia, if we're unlucky.

4. Even if it does erupt, it won't destroy all life on Earth. It would be bad, particularly for parts of the midwest, but it is not a world-ending event, it won't cause a mass extinction (we're doing good on that on our own) and it probably won't even end human civilization. Certainly it won't destroy our species.

So, please, stop.

Even if you secretly want it to, Yellowstone is not destroying the world in the next decade.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Scam Alert

I'm not famous enough to have gotten one of these - yet - but apparently some crooks have taken to impersonating editors from The Atlantic and soliciting articles. They're then sending out fake advances or taking other measures to get bank account details. (And yes, they're using the names of the editors).

This kind of thing isn't uncommon, but they're usually more subtle than this.

If you get an out of the blue offer to write something, verify it. Just in case.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Taking Offshore Wind Further

Turns out our entire civilization could be powered by the winds over the open oceans.

Of course, there's a number of problems with this:

1. We'd need to cover an area the size of Greenland with wind turbines.

2. We don't have the technology to build wind turbines right out in the open ocean.

3. It would cause, yup, more and different climate change.  Harvesting that much power would affect wind speed, temperature, etc.

So we can't actually do it.


(Oh, as a side note, if you saw the stuff about how Yellowstone is going to erupt again and we might not get much warning - no, the tabloids are wrong, Yellowstone blowing its top would NOT destroy all life on Earth. It has never triggered a mass extinction before. It would cause economic problems, particularly for the US, and probably a few years of not much in the way of summer, but it wouldn't destroy all life, our species or even our civilization).

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Welp, We Found It...

...dark matter!

Hideki Tanimura (Institute of Space Astrophysics) and Anna de Graaff (University of Edinburgh) have found hot filaments of gas linking galaxies. And those filaments amount to...all the missing mass. At least until we discover they were wrong. But they weren't working together - they were working separately - which makes it more likely that they got it right.

Are these filaments the glue which holds the universe together?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Capclave Roundup

Awesome convention. (This post is so late because my hotel room was less than awesome - too hot to turn the a/c off so the noise kept me awake).

Great to finally meet Julianna Rew of Third Flatiron Publishing. (She's purchased a couple of my stories and edits great anthologies).

Always good to hang out with the usual suspects - great conversation with Bud Sparhawk in particular. Tom Doyle, you rock and so do your books! (I already started American Craftsmen).

Broad Universe reading went well. (Next year, if I make it to the con, I will try and bring some books).

Panel highlights were Inge Heyer's presentation on Pluto and the Alternate History panel, which was pretty much star studded.

Great con!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Off to Capclave!

Heading off to Capclave in a couple of hours.

I'm not on programming (and thus will not have books for sale, although if you have something I will gladly sign it). However, I will be participating in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire (reading from Falling Dusk) on Saturday at 11am. (Opposite Ken Liu, which is unfortunate, but somebody had to be).

And I'll be around at various parties if anyone wants to track me down. Even bringing a new costume *evil grin*.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Is The Universe a Simulation?

Right now, scientists say...no.

Basically, they can't come up with a system that could simulate the universe. Of course, who knows what's hiding behind the scenes. They haven't disproved it...

...just said it's very, very unlikely. Which is probably a good thing. I mean, we don't want somebody accidentally pulling the plug, right?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Did life on Earth...

...come from out there? The "Starseed" theory is something which has been debated - and no, it doesn't involve intelligent aliens. At least not the version seriously considered by scientists.

The version seriously considered doesn't even involve microbes. It involves the precursor molecules for life being dropped on Earth by meteorites. In just the right conditions, they rapidly create RNA - which then becomes DNA and thus our kind of life.

If this is true, then it makes it more likely that extraterrestrial life will be based on DNA or something similar - good news if we ever want to expand beyond this planet (although bad news if worried about biocontamination).

The alternative is that life started spontaneously near hydrothermal vents.

Here's one thought, though:

Does one of these actually prevent the other?

I would argue that RNA forming in ponds hit by meteors and RNA forming by hydrothermal vents don't cancel each other out and an even more intriguing possibility is life starting by both methods and then combining. If both methods happened to produce the same chemicals, then we would never know.

Or did life, even at the start, compete with each other and are we descended from the winner?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Willing to Take a Bet?

Some guy at SETI apparently thinks we'll find intelligent aliens within 20 years - and is willing to bet coffee on it.

He wasn't specifying WHO he'll buy coffee for if we find them, though. Of course, if we find intelligent aliens, who knows...

...he might be able to buy us all cups of raktajino.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Orphan Black Finale (Spoilers)

Okay, so, I finally finished watching - bittersweet, although I'm hoping to see Maslany again. In something. In almost anything.

And...welp....I couldn't even call this blog post what I originally intended because it would have been a spoiler. If you haven't seen the finale yet, go away, watch it, and then come back when you have.











......still with me?

My first reaction: The bastards.

Because they pulled one of the best examples of the unreliable narrator trope.

The structure of the show leads you to believe it's Sarah's story and if I had an idea for who the narrator was other than Sarah, I'd have to go with Felix. Alternatively, as there's no actual narration, you could just go with Third Person Omniscient.

All of these options purport that what we see on screen in Orphan Black is the actual story of the Leda Sisters and how they broke free. Reality. The truth.

...and then on come the brakes.

...because it might not be.

See, it turns out that the entire show is in fact a journal. Written by...Helena.


The least sane of the sisters. The one who was raised to be an avenging angel and assassin. The one who represents the fragility of womanhood. The abuse victim. (Rachel is also an abuse victim, but in a different way).

Helena is not a reliable narrator.

Unlike the normal use of the unreliable narrator trope, though, we are never specifically shown that anything in the show is unreal or untrue.

Instead, we are simply given the reveal: "Helena told the story" and left with that. Literally left with that - it's all but the last scene of the show, the lasting image being of her with her sisters and the book titled "Orphan Black."

So, instead of being told "The narrator lied" we're just told "Hey, this was all written down by the madwoman. You decide how much to believe."

And the genius of it is that it made the show make more sense. Was there really a skeleton in the Hendrix garage, or did it represent something else? Do Helena's twins have a healing factor? Who do we believe?

And the truth is...you can also choose to believe Helena, to trust her. Which means believing the victim.

And all of the Leda Sisters are the victim.

So perhaps ending the show with the question of "Do you believe her?" brings in a theme of agency that was hinted at but never shown.

Are we people or things is a question women have often been forced to ask in this society.

"Do you believe her?" is a question society asks too often.

Especially of those who have been ill-treated and abused, of those who have been raped, of those who have been beaten, of those who's wombs have been used as a commodity.

So, it was brilliant, and the more I think about it, the more brilliant it becomes.

And the only answer for myself is:

I believe you, Helena.

It was all true.