Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hacked off *still*. You should be, too.

So. The passage of several days has done nothing to alleviate my pique. At what? That the "Equifax security breach leaks personal info of 143 million US consumers: Criminals snagged info including names, social security numbers and more." If anything, as the details emerge, I've gotten angrier.

What details?
The upshot? Million of people scrambling to obtain and review -- and often, to freeze -- their credit reports. Millions of people unable even to take such proactive steps, because Equifax's switchboard and website are totally overwhelmed. Thousands, at least, of retailers (who issue, for example, auto loans and private-label credit cards) and other financial institutions confronting a major hit to their businesses from consumers' prospective identity thefts and credit-report freezes.

And continuing with today's cyber (in)security story line, had you noticed ...

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Making the world safe for frogs (and other diversions)

Frequent visitors to SF and Nonsense may have inferred my scientific/technological interests lean most often toward physics, astronomy, and space exploration. True enough. That said, other items are sometimes too quirky or too important not to catch my eye. Herewith several such -- and, I'll venture, you'll also find them noteworthy.

After all, who doesn't want to read "Dinosaur Extinction Allowed Frogs to Conquer the Planet."

The mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs paved the way for a totally different type of creature to take over -- frogs.

The slimy amphibians exploded in numbers and diversified in the millions of years after a massive asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, taking advantage of the huge holes in the ecosystem that extinct creatures left behind, a new study suggests.

Interested in the quest for extraterrestrial life? Here, possibly, is a new criterion for narrowing the search space. "Ultraviolet light may be key to finding alien life."

Ultraviolet light may have played a critical role in the emergence of life on Earth and could be a key to finding life elsewhere in the universe, a study ... at Harvard suggests. The study found that red dwarf stars might not emit enough ultraviolet (UV) light to kick-start the biological processes most familiar to our planet.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Water, water everywhere (but beware which sort you drink)

One of my longtime favorite novels is Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, in which a major plot element is "ice nine." This is a form of H2O, not naturally occurring in nature, that's crystalline at room temperature. A seed crystal of ice nine turns all regular water in which it is in contact to more ice nine. Bear in mind that we are about 90 percent water. Quite the unique doomsday device ...

Highly recommended
Today's post isn't a book review (although I highly recommend Cat's Cradle; we're talking about one of Vonnegut's best). The book came to mind because of what is our topic: the recent real-world discoveries of new forms of H2O).

On the liquid side: "Physicists Discover Two Low-Temperature Forms of Liquid Water: A Stockholm University-led team of physicists has discovered two low-temperature phases of liquid water with large differences in structure and density." Sort of the opposite of ice nine, which is solid at an unexpectedly high temperature.

The takeaway: 

"When we think of ice it is most often as an ordered, crystalline phase that you get out of the ice box, but the most common form of ice is amorphous, that is disordered, and there are two forms of amorphous ice with low and high density. The two forms can interconvert and there have been speculations that they can be related to low- and high-density forms of liquid water.

Not ice nine (fortunately)
“We found that water can exist as two different liquids at low temperatures (minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 148 degrees Celsius) where ice crystallization is slow,” said Anders Nilsson, professor in chemical physics at Stockholm University, and senior author of the paper reporting the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science."

And on the solid side, we have "To make hot ice, take one diamond and vaporise with a laser: Creating an exotic state of water that may exist on other planets is a high-pressure job." ("Vaporise" is not a typo... this article is from Cosmos, an Aussie zine.) The takeaway here:

Friday, September 1, 2017

A month to savor

Happy days :-)

My novelette "My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage" is the cover story in the September/October issue of Analog. (And what a great cover it is! Hat tip to Eldar Zakirov.)

Who is the narrator? Well, who dressed in that distinctive manner made four famous voyages? You might suppose this to be Christopher Columbus ... but not so.

And in the September issue of the Grantville Gazette (Universe Annex), the reluctant detective of "The Company Man" (perhaps you met him in the May issue) returns as "The Company Dick." And matters aren't faring any better for him in this novella ...

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Look! Up in the sky! Dark awesomeness.

My most recent post having been about the awesomeness of last week's total solar eclipse, why not post more generally about astronomy/cosmology news? Exciting things are happening in the broader (heh!) field -- as these four recent articles from Cosmos attest.

Pink: most normal/visible mass. Blue: where most mass seems to be.
What we (think we) understand about the distribution of dark matter is inferred from observations of the motions of stars. A small fraction of stars move much faster than expected. So: what's that about? It's hard to know when so few stars are anomalous speed demons. If we had a bigger population to analyze, maybe we'd understand better. And -- leveraging a quite non-astronomical discipline -- perhaps soon we will. See "Artificial brain scans the galaxy for speeding stars: Neural networks come to astronomy as a self-adapting algorithm digs through star maps to find rogue fast-moving stars."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


I'm newly home from Columbia, SC, where the wife and I went to see the solar eclipse. For both of us, this was our first total eclipse.

Wow, Just, wow.

The nearby photo isn't one I took. Plenty of photogs better than me are filling the web with eclipse imagery. I just wanted to take it all in. The excitement and expectancy of hundreds of people all around. The near-totality moment the crickets woke up. The pink sunset tinge looking west over Lake Murray, while the (mostly obscured) Sun remained high in the sky. Day become night. Baily's beads. The solar corona: way cool. The purple flash -- for which I have no name -- that appeared in the last instant of totality.

I'll be reliving this experience for awhile :-)

(Also the nightmarish drive home. I hope that fades from memory.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

An olio portfolio

Notwithstanding -- and more likely related to --  my most recent post (Weird process, this writing), the writing has been progressing smoothly over the past week. Lots of deeper back story worked out and retrofit, where appropriate, into the novel presently under construction. Lots of new text added. (We won't, however, speak of the single paragraph in the original, high-level outline that has transmogrified in my latest plans into five future chapters. Those wounds are too fresh.)

A veritable cornucopia
Amid the progress, my willpower on occasion did slip, leaving me to lapse into some of my customary surfing. And so, herewith, I shall bring to your attention several eclectic -- and relevant -- observations of the sort visitors here seem to find of interest.

SF is about world-building, with "world" loosely defined. Something about an SFnal story setting(s), whether in time or place, dimension or natural law or the state of technology, is different. One peril of the process is describing a world that's too uniform (e.g., "the desert planet" or "the ocean planet"), because we tend to find those unbelievable. The single world any of us know is, after all, rich with plains, forests, deserts, mountains, oceans, glaciers .... And neither are natural resources uniformly distributed, available at the convenience of our characters. A recent real-world reminder of that inhomogeneity involves helium:

... the element is needed to use or make all sorts of things: semiconductors, rocket fuel, computer hard drives, the Large Hadron Collider, magnets in MRI machines, airships, scuba tanks, arc welding, anything that needs to be super cold, and of course, balloons.

See "How the Qatar Crisis Shook Up the World's Supply of Helium."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Weird process, this writing

A couple weeks back, I reported being in fast-and-furious writing mode. More recently, the work has continued fast and furious ... but I've been cranking away for more than a week without adding, or even changing, a word in the novel in progress. (The first draft is at about 70K words, so more than half complete. The book's working title is Déjà Doomed.) 

For anything beyond a short story -- and often for those -- I write from an outline. After dozens of novels, novellas, and novelettes, I've learned a thing or two. One lesson is: don't make the initial outline too detailed, because late story elements developed early on will often require rework. Hence, my original, full-story outlines tend to be no longer than a handful of pages. Section by section, as I come to it, I develop a more detailed partial outline. Often I do an outline for each chapter within a section as I come to it. And almost always there is a need to iterate, as the details of Chapter X or Section Y ripple forward or backward through the overall story.

So there's another lesson: The outline(s) works for me, and for the story, not the other way around.