Thursday, February 15, 2018

What the %^&$#!! NOW?

The incompetence that is Yahoo continues its luge ride to oblivion (an update to last month's frustrated post, "What the &$#!! is wrong with Yahoo?"). A set of new failings:

Why does my Yahoo home page lose the ability, from time to time, to display RSS feeds? Given that the suddenly unavailable sources are as disparate as Fortune magazine, Yahoo's own financial service, and PCworld, I have to believe the problem is Yahoo's.

Why has my Yahoo home page spontaneously switched from its three-column, years-old formatting to two columns? (It's worse than that, but the details of the uninvited formatting changes aren't important to my point.) And why does the "Edit Layout" button no longer operate, so that I can maybe undo the SNAFU?

Why do assorted Yahoo services suddenly decide I'm not logged in, but know better when I refresh the screen? 

Why do my Yahoo email filters only work sporadically?

Why, when I do a Yahoo Calendar edit selecting "this and future events" of a series, does the Save function not update this event?
The Kramer
You're doubtless wondering: why continue using Yahoo services at all? A fair question. Inertia, and the effort necessary to switch fully to Google-equivalent services (though I'm partway there, to be sure).

But to change completely? I don't see that happening. It's like the infamous The Kramer painting from Seinfeld (“He is a loathsome, offensive brute. Yet I can’t look away.”) IMO, it is hypnotically compelling to watch just how bad a once great company get become ....

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

That's heavy, man!

After yesterday's awesome launch -- and two-thirds recovery -- of the Falcon Heavy, what more is there for a technologist and  SF author to comment upon? Read on.

If you haven't yet had OD-ed on the coverage, check out "The best photos and videos of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch."

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is highly motivated to make humanity a multi-planetary species by colonizing Mars. (Yesterday's mission seems to have gone a bit off course: "Elon Musk’s Tesla overshot Mars’ orbit and is headed to the asteroid belt.") To which end (once these little navigational glitches are worked out), this recent news is very encouraging: " 'A fantastic find': Mars hides thick sheets of ice just below the surface."

Color-enhanced: blue = ice.
How much ice? Check the photo at left.

And equally awesome, IMO, is this item that has been overshadowed by the aforementioned stories: "LISA Pathfinder, the gravitational wave space mission, declared a success: European Space Agency reports final results of proof-of-concept mission, ahead the most ambitious science experiment ever attempted."

LISA stands for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. I've several times posted enthusiastically about the wonderful LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), its 2015 discovery of gravitational waves, and a few of its event detections. LIGO is an L-shaped instrument about four kilometers on a side. LISA Pathfinder was the proof-of-concept mission for an eventual L-shaped instrument 2.5 million kilometers on a side. LISA will offer sensitivity, and visibility into astronomical phenomena, far beyond anything LIGO -- or any Earth-based instrument -- can approach.

Life imitates art
Part of what spoke to me about the progress toward LISA is this quote: "... once the triangle of satellites is eventually up and running, it will be able to detect very early signs of a black hole merger, weeks before the eventual collision." In my 2016 novel Dark Secret, the (fictional) space-based Einstein Gravitational Wave Observatory kicks off the story by detecting the signs of an imminent neutron-star merger. That detection forewarns of a gamma-ray burst that will obliterate life in our solar system. (Post-wise, here's a second coincidence: Dark Secret opens on recently colonized Mars.)
Alas, we won't see LISA until, at the earliest, 2034. That's okay. LIGO was decades in coming, too (see Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space).

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Readin', writin', and 'rithmetic (authorial style)

Despite the traditional order of elementary skills you will have noted in my subject line, I'll begin with writing. To wit: last week, I completed the first draft of DEJA DOOMED. Woohoo! This is a hard-SF/space-opera/technothriller hybrid.  Everything we hold dear is in existential peril, of course ....
Crossing the 100K word mark?
That first draft of the novel came in at about 128K words, making it my longest. (Not that that comparison matters. My novels don't have a contest going on, or anything.)

Between first draft and final version, I generally find reason to expand by 5-10%. That growth comes of noticing passages in which (for example) some nuance failed to complete the trek from brain to fingertips, or a clue or foreshadowing is too cryptic, or a more complete description of person or setting seems appropriate. In any event, the MS is set aside for at least a couple weeks, to give my poor brain a rest.

As needed nightly relief from the stress of the final writing push, followed by the reward of a little time off, followed, all too immediately, by a nasty cold (almost gone now), these past few weeks I've also done a lot of reading. And I've had uncommonly good results from my selections. (Note that I didn't attribute the results to good luck. The books I'm about to commend to your consideration were all written by known, well-trusted authors. Even a new book by an author one has previously enjoyed comes without guarantees (authors will, and should, try different types of storytelling from time to time), but past performance is still a good writing-quality predictor.

What books have I found noteworthy this past few weeks? I'm happy to share ... and it's all spoiler-free.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Space-y matters

And my fascination with matters astronomical continues. If you share my interest, you will want to read on.
Whistling in the dark (matter)?
To date, not a single experiment has shed any light (bon mot intended) on the nature of dark matter or dark energy. The former is invoked to explain certain otherwise inexplicable, and presumably gravitationally caused, behaviors (e.g., the orbital periods of stars in galaxies, and galaxies within clusters). The latter is invoked to explain the otherwise inexplicable increasing-with-time rate of the Universe's overall expansion. The rate of expansion is inferred from the observed red shifts of distant, hence seen in their distant pasts, "standard candle" supernovae.

This lack of success in understanding dark matter and/or dark energy is what makes the following -- very sketchy, so far -- article so provocative: "Radical dark matter theory prompts robust rebuttals: The idea that dark energy and dark matter aren’t needed to explain the properties of the universe is meeting fierce opposition." Stay tuned.

And speaking of galaxies, what begins and ends their formation of stars? Again, there are lots of theories. Evidence? That's another matter. So I was delighted to read this: "We Just Got The First Direct Evidence That Supermassive Black Holes Control Star Formation." (How massive is super massive? Oh, about a million times the mass of the Sun.)

Among astrophysicists, a popular exercise is explaining, as best they can, the relative abundances and distributions of various elements and isotopes. (You don't wonder about the abundance of aluminum-26 in the early Solar System? What's wrong with you?) And why is that? Because it is believed the explanation(s) is to be found in a deep understanding of the mechanisms of the early Universe and, since then, such violent stellar processes as supernovae. (Useful buggers, those supernovae. As long as they don't happen in your neighborhood.)

Image by ESA/Hubble
In our Sun's beginning? (Image by ESA/Hubble)

Where the above/dark-whatever item speculated about possible changes in cosmic attributes over time, this item deals with a non-homogeneity in space. To wit: "Our solar system may have formed inside a giant space bubble: This new theory explains the proportions of certain elements in the early solar system."

Experience teaches that any explanation at odds with the Copernican principle merits skepticism. Still, nothing in astronomy precludes local anomalies. In this case, the local "quirk" would be our Solar System having formed from, and within, the exploded remains of a onetime Wolf-Rayet star (like the image immediately above). Bottom line: there's nothing definitive in this speculation, either ... just an intriguing idea.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

What the %^&$#!! is wrong with Yahoo?

Yahoo services have been getting worse and worse. What is the worst? It's so hard to choose.
  • In email, spam delivery (to my spam folder, which is a small mitigation) has risen to >100/day. This makes checking for the occasional misdirected real email all but impossible. Why can't Yahoo throw out the OBVIOUS spam (like, ya know, anything sent a dozen times per day!) as it did before Verizon took over? As Gmail does?
  • In email, if I empty my spam or trash folder, Yahoo uses the screen space to start streaming a video ad.
  • Clicking a link in a Yahoo news summary or search page often sends me to a new page with only the opening snippet of the desired story -- and lots of ads. I then have to click another link to get the full story -- and more ads. 
  • Stoopid, unsolicited opinions pop up over many news stories selected from Yahoo summary and search pages as I (try to) read. If I want to see comments, I'll scroll to comments.
  • Calendar reminders that are supposed to send emails as events approach. Some events do. Some don't. All are set up exactly the same. 
  • And if I want to scan the Calendar page to spot any events that didn't send notifications? It often take two or three tries to get the Calendar page to open!
  • And then there is the absurdly slow load time of Yahoo pages. Are the servers hosted on someone's retired 486 box?
Doubtless, I've overlooked for the moment more quality Yahoo "features." 

Is Yahoo TRYING to drive away their remaining users? Years of filed emails and bunches of past customizations make it inconvenient to go cold turkey ... but I use Yahoo less and less often.

Crappy service like this is the way companies die.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

I'm ENERGIZED! (Now you can be, too)

I'm delighted to report that my 2012 technothriller Energized is back in print and electrons. (Alone among my older titles, Energized was briefly unavailable in these formats.) It was and is available as an audio book.

Latest cover
Or perhaps I should call this my prescient 2012 technothriller. In the headlines: private space companies, renewable energy, the imminence of asteroid mining -- and, sadly, also nuclear proliferation, chaos across the Middle East, homegrown terrorism, and meddling by an assertive Russia. Energized incorporates all these elements.

Much of the action is set dramatically in Earth orbit: Aboard a zero-gee orbiting hotel/playground for the super-rich. On (and within) a threatening asteroid diverted to become Earth's newest moon. On a two-mile-square orbiting power station, beaming solar energy 24/7 to Earth.

(Have I recently mentioned my seven years as a NASA contractor?) 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

That's life?

For a change of pace here at SF and Nonsense, where physics, astronomy, and IT tend to dominate regular looks at the frontiers of science and tech, this post will consider biology.

We'll begin by "Introducing 'dark DNA' – the phenomenon that could change how we think about evolution." By analogy to dark matter, dark DNA denotes genes that conventional understanding insists must be present in a species's genome -- but aren't. Wild, wacky stuff.
And sticking for the moment at the cellular level, consider "Super-strong cell-size origami robots are coming: US physicists unveil game-changing biomorph nanobots."

These real-world nanobots are made in part from graphene: an allotrope of carbon atoms arranged into sheets one atom thick. Among possible applications of these nanobots is precisely delivering tiny doses of drugs. In my 2009 novel Small Miracles, the medical nanobots are made from single-wall carbon nanotubes: another allotrope of carbon, that is essentially a bit of graphene sealed into a roll. I love when life imitates art. Especially my art.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Starting off 2018 with the write stuff ...

Writing updates to begin the new year:

On the final day of 2017, I was happy to see "The Torchman's Tale," my debut short-story appearance in Galaxy's Edge, had received a three-star recommendation in the Tangent Online 2017 Recommended Reading List.

And I'm delighted to report that my secret-history novella "Harry and the Lewises" has been accepted by Analog. If the story title rings a bell, that's not by accident. But neither, I predict, is the significance what you think ...

Almost before you know it ...
Finally, I have a good-news/bad-news update regarding my forthcoming "science behind the fiction" book: Trope-ing the Light Fantastic ("From mighty oak trees, little acorns grow").

The good news? There's going to be, in addition to the initially planned ebook and trade-paperback editions, a hardback edition. Also: advance reading copies are in the hands of many review outlets. The less good news is a schedule shift. The original forecast was for late January publication -- but stuff happens. It now looks like hardback and ebook editions will be released in late March, with trade paperback to follow in late May.

All in all, there are far worse ways to begin another trip around the Sun :-)