Monday, October 16, 2017

Fleet of Worlds: The Tintinnabulation

On October 16, 2007, Fleet of Worlds was first published. That is: ten years ago to the day.

Larry and Ed at 2015 Nebula weekend
This epic space opera, a collaboration with Larry Niven set in his Known Space future history(*), remains my most popular title. Fleet of Worlds has been translated into eight languages. It was selected (by what was not yet called the SyFy channel) as a Sci Fi Essential title, had a slot as a Science Fiction Book Club featured book, and was a finalist for a Prometheus Award.

(*) Which isn't to say that Fleet assumes the reader is familiar with any other story or book. But if you are a Known Space aficionado? If the name Beowulf Shaeffer rings a bell, or the title Ringworld elicits fond memories, I'm happy to say Fleet offers you the occasional Easter egg ...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Wave like a nice black hole ...

I have posted enthusiastically several times about gravitational-wave detections by LIGO (that's the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) beginning with Leggo my LIGO, in February 2016. Gravitational waves being very weak, only cataclysmic events -- such as the collision of two black holes -- are (so far, anyway) detectable by the gravitational waves they emit. Of course black holes colliding are very cool events to be able to detect.

In breaking news, the Nobel Committee also thought this was pretty keen: "Three Americans win Nobel Prize in physics for gravitational wave discovery."

Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The three Americans are members of the LIGO-Virgo detector collaboration that discovered gravitational waves. The prize was awarded “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” the committee said in a news release.

That's one LIGO instrument
LIGO consists of two detectors, placed half a continent apart. To have just one won't do, because it's necessary to distinguish between the tiny jiggle of passing gravitational waves and, say, the rumble of nearby thunderclaps or passing trucks. As a bonus, when both instruments detect a signal, the slight difference in arrival times (the waves traveling at light speed) gives a rough sense for the direction from which the signal originated.

Emphasis on rough.

And another current event, from Sky and Telescope: "Fourth Gravitational Wave Event Detected." What makes this latest detection different from the original three is that, together with LIGO, the Advanced Virgo detector of the European Gravitational Observatory also recorded the event. It's the first for Virgo. And also, a Big Deal. From the S&T article:

With just the two LIGO detections, the uncertainty area measured some 1,160 square degrees on the sky," says Shoemaker. "By adding the Virgo data, this could be brought down to just 60 square degrees."

Mind you, 60 square degrees still covers a lot of sky -- the full Moon covers about a quarter of one square degree. But a reduction from 1160 down to 60 remains a huge improvement. Optical telescopes have not yet seen anything unusual in the target area, but  ... maybe next time.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The coming software apocalypse

I have railed on occasion in this blog about crappy software. The software I most often use, whether on my phone, my PC, or even in the cloud, is not life critical. The sometimes buggy, sometimes horribly designed, apps may frustrate me -- but they don't endanger me.

Down the rabbit hole
But what if mission- and life-critical apps are as buggy and as poorly designed as the stuff we use every day? The truth of the matter is: most apps are. We're talking about apps with millions of lines of code, too complex for any individual to fully understand. Apps that now (or soon) drive cars. Control power plants. Diagnose cancers. Fly planes. (What? You think that even today pilots fly planes? Often not. Pilots interact with computerized controls to specify intentions. Networked computers do the actual flying.)

Leading me to an excellent and thought-provoking -- and, be forewarned, lengthy -- recent essay in The Atlantic: "The Coming Software Apocalypse: A small group of programmers wants to change how we code -- before catastrophe strikes."

(Before offering a select few observations from this article, allow me to reminisce that I didn't always write SF for a living. I spent 30 years in information technology, at such marquee companies as Bell Labs, Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman. I designed and built software [and also sometimes hardware], led projects, and managed development teams of up to 300 engineers and scientists. Many of the systems I worked on were mission-critical. Most had to operate in real time, be fault-tolerant, accommodate many concurrent users, withstand hacking, or be widely distributed geographically -- or even do all those things at once. In short: I like to believe I know something about development of complex software. And yes -- the conventional practice of software development needs improvement.)

Now on to a few choice quotes from the essay:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Astronomy, old and new

We're accustomed to news of exciting celestial discoveries made by American (meaning here: of the USA -- a useful clarification because of other topics to come) observatories and astronomers. It turns out, and I was surprised to read this, that American interest in astronomy goes way back.  

JQ Adams: astronomy geek
The Atlantic had a recent fascinating piece about that history. To wit -- archaic wording chosen with malice aforethought ;-)  -- "The Surprising Space Ambitions in Colonial America: Long before NASA, private individuals and communities banded together for the pursuit of geopolitical power and scientific discovery." The article starts in colonial times, but doesn't stop there. Who knew, for example, that John Quincy Adams was an advocate for astronomy? Good stuff. 

Speaking of NASA, they recently went far afield to study the Kuiper Belt Object next up on the itinerary for the amazing New Horizons probe. And the journey was worth it. The agency reports: "NASA’s New Horizons Team Strikes Gold in Argentina." The (metaphorical) gold? That the KBO toward which New Horizons is hurtling seems, in fact, to be two objects, in tight orbit around their common center of mass.

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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The dreaded elevator speech (or, can a book be pitched in a very few words?)

In marketing, it's called the elevator speech. The scenario: you happen to find yourself on an elevator with the ideal target for pitching your idea/product/self (a venture capitalist, editor, hiring manager, or whomever). You have, perhaps, fifteen seconds till he or she gets to their floor and exits. What do you say? How do you get him or her to "take a meeting?"

For writers, there's an elevator-speech variant: when a prospective reader (at a con or bookstore signing, say, or just happening to meet you and discovering what you do for a living) asks "What's your book about?" He or she is not expecting a treatise. Answering -- for me, anyway -- can be surprisingly difficult.

Writers want to believe our books have depth, nuance, meaning. Even when a particular book is intended (not that there's anything wrong with this) only as entertainment, as mental popcorn, a brief description is hard. A pure adventure, spy story, or mystery may be in one sense formulaic -- but surely the author has aspired to unique twists and turns, to clever fake-outs and surprising reveals. "It's a murder mystery," for example, is so generic a description as to be lame and useless.

Writers struggle to synopsize for an editor in several pages what will be unique and interesting about a book. Call that a 1000 words, give or take a few. Post-sale, if a publisher is amenable to authorial input, we struggle even more to capture a book's essence in a mere 100 to 200 words. That's all the copy that will fit on a dust-jacket flap or back cover. We want the description or preview to be interesting -- nay, irresistible -- and yet avoid spoilers. But distilling a book into a sentence or two, to share in a chance encounter with a prospective reader? OMG!

And yet, it must be done. After the break, we segue from introspection to commercial material. You have been advised ;-)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bigger than a breadbox

I've found myself, over the past several days, pounding out text for a new novel at a splendidly prodigious clip. (The new book? It's a near-future technothriller set on the Moon. Thanks for asking.) My authorial philosophy is: when in the zone, stay there.

So: switching gears from committing novel to serious blogging is off the table (well, the keyboard), at least for a few days.

But should my loyal visitors suffer? Of course not! I recently came upon, in Cosmos, a brilliantly written overview (they rate the article a ten-minute read) on cosmology. I hereby commend it to you. See:

Cosmic microwave background
"How big is the universe? There is no bigger empirical question in astrophysics than how big space is. Cathal O'Connell provides a brief history of ideas about the size and shape of the universe."

Now if you'll please excuse me, I'll get back to the novel. Good guys and bad alike are up to their eyeballs in trouble ...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Auto oddities

My miscellany folder seems to have accumulated way too many items related -- in one way or another -- to cars, traffic, and/or their future.

When I was little, I so wanted one of these ...

You know what's a nuisance? Keeping car tires properly inflated. Even more of a pain is patching or replacing them when one gets punctured. Hence, I was delighted to see "Airless tire concept could change tires forever." Imagine: an airless tire made from biodegradable materials using a 3-D printer. Wonderful!

Governmental entities have the authority, and a reasonable case for, licensing various activities. (Yes, this item involves cars/driving. And not driver licenses. Bear with me.) One likes there to be a solid basis for the practice of, well, many professions -- piloting commercial aircraft comes to mind. But when the state of Oregon decided that a degreed, experienced engineer couldn't call himself an engineer because -- of all the nerve -- without a state professional-engineering license he cited an engineering background while committing math and physics to raise issues with the timing of traffic lights? That was going too far. That was abridging freedom of speech. See "Mats Järlström: I Am an Engineer."

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

NOT off on a tangent

Let me just say, this was unexpected.

Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, venerable genre review website Tangent Online posted their look at last year's the-end-of-the-world-and-what-comes-next interstellar adventure, Dark Secret. The opening paragraph of that review offered:

Amazon link
Visit on Amazon
Regardless of the theme, subject matter, or treatment, a Lerner novel never fails to intrigue, engage the intellect, or offer pure entertainment for its own sake. He can do it all, and well.

So: I continued reading with positive anticipation. And was not disappointed. And finished with a smile.

Here -- should I have happened to catch your interest -- is the Tangent Online review of Dark Secret

Monday, July 3, 2017

Happy Independence Day/Weekend!

I'm quite certain there are better ways to celebrate a national holiday than perusing whatever I might have to write about. So: have a beer(s). Barbecue. Enjoy some fireworks. Reflect on the American journey. Or -- my suggestion -- all the above.

That said, if you're looking for a bit of non-holiday-specific diversion, or you came to this post from (in my perspective) abroad, you might head over to Bookgrabbr for a free copy of the latest/July issue of Galaxy's Edge. It includes, among many things, my latest short story, "Too Deep Thought."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Plus ça change ...

... plus c'est la même merde.

And what merde (pardon my French) do I mean? Software that was perfectly good, but was "improved" anyway -- by deleting longstanding features. Software with an idiotic user interface. Software "standardized" to give the same experience on tiny phone screens and big monitors. Software that ...

I'm not opposed to change. That's kinda frowned upon among SF writers. And I'm fully supportive of updates that add new and useful features, squash bugs, improve security, or improve performance. I'm not complaining (today) about blatant bugs that -- somehow -- made it past QA, but that might -- someday, one hopes -- be fixed.

No, today's post (okay, rant) is about software stupidities by design. As both a user and onetime software developer, I feel entitled. Herewith a sampling (with names omitted not to protect the guilty, but because I don't care to moderate a flood of justification comments from the guilty) of software design stupidities that regularly vex me:
  • On a web portal, the checkbox set by default at logon to stay logged on. So rather than have someone who wants to stay logged on click or tap the box once, I have to uncheck the box daily.
  • On multiple browsers with the feature to change the font size of content, no way to change the tiny type of the browser's own text -- like menu items and bookmark names. (Yes, I know about add-ons. I use one. This one shouldn't be necessary.)
  • On a banking app, the camera feature changed to take check pictures faster than a normal human being could frame the check. (To give credit where it's due, the next update restored a reasonable few seconds for setting up the check image.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A slight change in story plans

In Short and Sweet, on April 19, I announced a bunch of pending short-fiction appearances. One of those stories, "The Pilgrimage," has since been rescheduled by Analog from the July/August issue (showing up about now in mailboxes and bookstores) to the November/December issue. As Yoga Berra instructed us: It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Indeed. For anyone just dying to read that particular tale ... sorry for the inconvenience.

Then there was my other prediction about an upcoming appearance in Analog: "My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage." That novelette remains on track for the September/October issue ... and it will be, I'm informed, the issue's lead story. That placement was a nice surprise.

Monday, June 12, 2017

While I get accustomed to bionic eyes ...

Following cataract surgeries and implanted lens, I'm without eyeglasses for the first time in ... sixty years. Yowza. But while I'm copacetic for distance, I still need to figure out what's best for close-up/reading. Ditto for the mid-range (as in: the computer screen across the desk even as I type). I suspect those won't settle out till my eyes settle in and another visit to the ophthalmologist.

The immediate upshot? I'm doing less reading, and less computer work, than has long been my norm. (And most of the time today that I felt okay to spend at the computer? Those hours went to my final polishing of a novella and sending it off.) Hence, today's post will be briefer than my usual. That's not to say, or so I shall flatter myself, this post will be any less interesting ...

Does not compute ... or does it?
NBC News offers, "Sex Robots Are Coming, and They're Not as Skeevy as You Think: Sex doll manufacturers and independent roboticists are designing and building the first humanlike robots that people can have sex with."

Just asking for trouble ...
And from Motherboard, by hacker, security researcher and human-rights activist Claudio Guarnieri, we have the earnest admonition, "Online Voting Is a Terrible Idea." A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. IMO, this short passage from the article sums up the issue perfectly:

... electronic voting attempts to solve a problem that just doesn't exist. With the predominant system of paper ballots, we normally get a preliminary count of the votes in a matter of hours already. The benefits provided by a more automatized counting process are not only questionable, but they simply do not outweigh the gravity of the risks involved.

Plenty of food here for thought. Now I'm off to rest my eyes for a bit.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Will wonders never cease?

Nope, I'm not being ironic. Recent astronomical reports are wonderfully amazing. I often marvel at the subtle details -- and mind-blowing implications -- astronomers can glean from their observations. Such as:

"NASA Space Probes Have Detected a Human-Made Barrier Surrounding Earth: We are changing space itself." And as this barrier of very low frequency RF waves is expanding the Van Allen Belts, extending the domain of near-Earth space that's not filled with deadly radiation, it seems like a good thing. If we can expand the protection zone out past geosynch altitudes, that will make travel up a space elevator safe. (If only we could build a space elevator ... but someday [I predict], that too, will happen.)

And speaking of waves ...

Suddenly, I want a pizza
"Massive Lava Waves Detected on Jupiter’s Moon Io." Consider this: Thanks to a rare orbital alignment between Europa and Io, an international team of researchers has identified and tracked a pair of lava waves as they coursed around Loki Patera, which is larger than Lake Ontario, and with a surface area of 8,300 square miles (21,500 square km). How cool (okay, that was ironic) is that?

Now on to a different sort of wave: gravitational.

Monday, May 29, 2017

From mighty oak trees, little acorns grow

And, on occasion, vice versa.

Faster than a speeding photon
Early in my blogging career, I did several posts about tropes in SF, collectively "Trope-ing the Light Fantastic." These posts were quite popular; more than seven years later, one of them (Trope-ing the light fantastic (life-sign detectors) ranks #5 in all-time popularity on this blog.

From those humble beginnings there developed ... a lot. The outcomes overlap, and they include:
  • An expanded series of treatments of SF tropes for Analog (collectively, "The Science Behind the Fiction") on topics as varied as time travel, AI, and ESP. 
  • A lecture on world-building at the U. S. Naval Academy.
  • A writers workshop on aliens and their societies.
  • Countless influences on my fiction self-inspired while I thought about tropes, and
  • The immediate reason for this post: my first all-nonfiction book.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cats and dogs, sleeping together ...

Okay, maybe not quite that out of the ordinary. But still we have:

"Report: Android overtakes Windows as the internet’s most used operating system." Having heavily used both products for years, I'm not surprised. One wonders if Microsoft is.

"Top Scientists Revamp Standards To Foster Integrity In Research." The sad thing is that the need even arises. Misconduct in scientific research makes me angry. No, furious.

As does bad science reporting. Herewith the debunking of some recent such "journalism" in: "No, we haven’t found signs of life -- alien or otherwise -- in the solar system." (Good article -- but I have a beef with the headline. I'm reasonably confident we've found signs of life on Earth. Which is, after all, within the Solar System to which the article refers. But, indeed, life has not as yet been found elsewhere in the Solar System.)(*)

(*) Pet-peeve alert. The nearby star around which our planet orbits is the Sun, aka (more formally) Sol. Sol and its attendant planets, asteroids, moons, comets, and other objects is the Solar System. Initial upper case, like Earth. And like the Sun. Any other star is a (lower case) sun. Any sun and its retinue is a (lower case) solar system.

And "Jeff Bezos Is Selling $1 Billion in Amazon Stock Yearly to Fund Blue Origin." That's what I call commitment. I wish him luck on his space endeavors.

To conclude on a personal note, I've been doing battle for the past three or so weeks with a new novelette. Well, it ain't gonna happen -- and in a good way. The story grew into a novella, of which I completed the first draft just last Sunday. (A calendaric coincidence, and no irony intended w.r.t. the foregoing sun/Sun, solar/Solar rant.) Said draft will sit for awhile, till I'm ready for a re-look with fresh eyes. All part of the process ...

Monday, May 15, 2017

Festivus in May?

Had the decision been mine, I'd have chosen December to publish "A Visit to the Network Control Center." And if December somehow wasn't an option, the case could have been made for a June release. But I'm the writer, not the editor -- I'm sure he had his reasons.

Perhaps it's an unseasonal Festivus miracle. Or perhaps (here's a nice thought) it's cuz I've achieved an SF spoof for all seasons. Whatever the explanation, here goes:
'Twas the eve of the Solstice, and no matter the hype,

     Not a creature was stirring, not even on Skype;

The chat rooms were silent, the listservs were bare ...

Check out the entire "A Visit to the Network Control Center" at Sci Phi Journal. And then plan to reread it in December :-)

Monday, May 8, 2017

MY life, the universe, and everything

File 770, the acclaimed genre website, this morning posted an extended interview/profile of my writing career. I'll crib their introduction rather than adding yet more words:

Retired professional scientist Edward Lerner talks about a host of hard science fiction topics, plus his collaboration with Larry Niven, his participation in SIGMA, and his nonfiction column for Analog.

Check out, if you're curious (and really, given that you're already here, you know you are), Edward M. Lerner: Crafted Science, Convincing Characters.

Monday, May 1, 2017

New stories -- check 'em out

A couple weeks ago in this space I previewed several stories I had pending. Today, two of them made an appearance.

To begin, an online novelette: "The Company Man." This noir/SF mashup is my debut appearance in Grantville Gazette. (But in the "Universe Annex" department. My piece isn't a part of the 1632 / Ring of Fire story line.)

Deep in the electron mines
Also fresh this morning from the electron mines, we have the short story "Nothing to Lose?" Abstractly, I wish this had come out in October (read it and you'll see why), but one can't have everything. The entire May issue of Galaxy's Edge is available free through Grabbr (but, as they say, For A Limited Time Only).

Two new stories. How better to observe May Day?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It's potpourri time all over again

I'm immersed in writing an intriguing (to me, anyway; YMMV) new novelette. So: today's post will be more telegraphic than my usual -- and no, that's not a hint to the nature of the story. But telegraphed or not, several physics and astronomy news items have recently caught my eye. Typical visitors to SF and Nonsense will likely find these of interest, too. So here ya go ...

When giants warped the universe. "The discovery that massive black holes existed billions of years earlier than thought possible is forcing a major rethink about galactic origins."

Researchers capture first 'image' of a dark matter web that connects galaxies. This study seriously challenges Modified Newtonian Dynamics. MOND theories are, collectively, the main alternative to dark matter as an explication of large-scale (galactic and larger) cosmic behaviors. That's not to say the new study determined anything about what dark matter itself -- if it truly exists -- might be.

Merely an artist's conception, alas
Discovery! Atmosphere Spotted on Nearly Earth-Size Exoplanet in First. That title speaks for itself.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Short and sweet

Updated  June 20, 2017

 I haven't posted a short-fiction update in awhile. Tsk on me, because a bunch is on its way ...

Upcoming in Analog:
  •  July/August issue: "The Pilgrimage." That's a Probability Zero (flash fiction) story.
  • September/October issue: "My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage." This is an homage to, well, it's best I not spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say the novelette is both hard SF and quite the change from my customary work. 
(Update: "The Pilgrimage" has been rescheduled to the November/December issue.)

Upcoming in Galaxy's Edge:
  • May issue: "Nothing to Lose?" This short story has a touch of horror to it.
  • July issue: "Too Deep Thought." Another short story, this time with deep, philosophical roots.
A company asset?
And my debut in the Grantville Gazette (in the "Universe Annex" department):
  • May issue: "The Company Man." This novelette is a different sort of homage, a mystery, and, quite possibly, the beginning of a series. Think Dashiell Hammett meets Robert Heinlein.
Oh, and one of my favorite (and most popular) short stories, "Grandpa?", will be reprinted in the upcoming anthology, "Science Fiction for the Throne." 

Now if only I could figure out why the novel in progress remains ... in progress.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Post posting

Another year gone by! April 12, 2017 is six years from when I first compiled a list/overview of what were then the most visited posts here at SF and Nonsense. To my continuing surprise, Postscript (or is that post post?) was itself instantly popular. Six years later, it's number three on the all-time list.

Let the annual tradition continue.

Old posts ...
Here's the latest all-time top-ten list, which I've assembled from data captured a few days ago. The format is: title/link; posting date; last year's rank in parens (if it was in the top ten); and a few words about the post content. Among these all-time favorites, there wasn't much change: it's the same ten posts, with the order among only the lower ranked posts slightly shuffled.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

MORE up in the sky

Just to be different, in this space-centric post we'll start far away and work our way back home.

Black-hole jets
To begin in the distance, consider this truly amazing nursery for stars: "Stars Born Inside Violent Black Hole Jets Spotted for the 1st Time." The takeaway quotes:

"Astronomers have thought for a while that conditions within these outflows could be right for star formation, but no one has seen it actually happening, as it’s a very difficult observation ..."


"If star formation is really occurring in most galactic outflows, as some theories predict, then this would provide a completely new scenario for our understanding of galaxy evolution ..."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Look! Up in the sky!

Nope. Not Superman. I have so ODed on superheroes, and there are more interesting things to be seen in the sky (though you may need a Really Big Telescope).

Such as? A planet(s), perhaps?

Pluto closeup (Thank you, New Horizons)
How many planets does the Solar System contain? Have you gotten over Pluto's demotion? Are eight planets too few for your taste? Planets being large, is "dwarf planet" an oxymoron? Good questions, all.

Help's on the way -- a new definition of planet has been suggested, the least of its features being a return to planetary status for Pluto. Said trial balloon has, as of yet, no official status, but still ...

To summarize that proposal, if an object is sub-stellar (and exhibiting, or having undergone, fusion is a pretty unambiguous characteristic) and it's basically round: that's a planet. None of the "cleared out its orbital neighborhood" judgment call, the cause of Pluto's demotion. The proposed rule would apply nicely to bodies orbiting other stars, where we have no possibility (for the time being, anyway) of knowing what orbital neighborhoods have or have not been cleared. By this definition, dear old Sol has about a hundred known planets (with the familiar Moon becoming our closest planetary neighbor)! For more about this proposal, see "Behind the Push to Get Pluto Its Planetary Groove Back."

It's an interesting concept, but I'm not completely on board. I like that mass -- which can be ascertained across even many light-years of distance -- is the determining factor:
  • Anything massive enough will collapse to be basically round. 
  • Anything too massive will sweep (or have swept) up enough hydrogen from its precursor nebula to initiate fusion ignition.
I don't like that in the new proposal the distinction between orbits-a-star and orbits-a-nonstar would go away. IMO -- and I'm not the only person to express this opinion -- we have a perfectly fine label for any round sub-stellar body: world. I'd be for world to be the label for any sub-stellar body that's round. There would then be three classes of worlds: planets (orbit stars), moons (orbit planets), and free-floating (orbit neither stars nor planets [but likely orbit much larger constructs, like star clusters or a galaxy as a whole]). Less massive objects, never round, would still be called asteroids.

Speaking of orbiting things ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It keeps going, and going ...

The Energizer bunny, you say? Sorta kinda. The topic for today's post is my 2012 technothriller Energized. Which is to reveal (dramatic drum roll) ...

Energized has been picked up by Arc Manor, for its Phoenix Pick imprint. This will be my third reissue via Arc Manor, and my fourth book overall with them. (Last year's Dark Secret was also published by them but as its first release.)

The original/2012 Tor Books cover
Hence: Energized will be returning to print and all the popular ebook formats. (The novel remains available in a plethora of audio formats.)

When? I've found that it's safest not to mention a specific publication date -- these things change -- any earlier than when typeset page proofs have made an appearance. Not too long, I hope. When I can venture a reasonably solid prediction, you'll see it here first.

Meanwhile -- and especially if you're curious about the splendid nearby/original cover (that object in the foreground is a solar-power satellite, miles square) -- check out what I posted when the Energized first made its appearance ...

Friday, March 10, 2017

Stranger than fiction?

Analog has just posted the finalists in its most recent annual readers poll, aka the Analytical Laboratory, aka the Anlabs. Prestige-wise, we're not talking Oscar or Tony Awards here -- but among genre aficionados, to be recognized by readers of the premiere hard-SF magazine is a high honor. So ...

I am delighted to report that all three of my 2016 fact articles, the latest installments in my The Science Behind the Fiction essay series, were among the finalists. They are: 
  • Human 2.0: Being All We Can Be, January/February 2016 & March 2016.
  • Here We Go Loopedy Loop: A Brief History of Time Travel, May 2016 & June 2016.
  • A Mind of Its Own, September 2016 & October 2016.
The 2016 Anlab finalists -- in story, poetry, and nonfiction categories -- are newly posted on the zine's website. That's some fine reading, from authors both long familiar and new! (But this opportunity, as they say, is For a Limited Time Only! And they are wise.)

In May, the winner in each category will be announced.

And who knows? Lightning could strike a second time. The second essay in my long-running SBtF series, aka “Faster Than a Speeding Photon: The Why, Where, and (Perhaps the) How of Faster-Than-Light Technology" was, as I discussed here, some years back, the Anlab nonfiction winner for 2012.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A new spin on things

What goes around, comes around? To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season? A wild game of Twister? This post will have us consider three different sorts of spin -- none, I hasten to add, of the political variety -- but nary a one of today's topics comes from that teaser intro. And every spin to follow is apropos of this blog.

Well? Are you intrigued?

Down a quantum rabbit hole?
To begin, consider the quite limited -- one is tempted to say, "toy" -- nature of the few implementations to date of quantum computers. A key obstacle: finding a way to build qubits that won't be exquisitely prone (as approaches heretofore tried have been) to decoherence. (Decoherence is any process by which a quantum storage or computing element lapses from a state of superposition into a particular -- and hence, classical -- bit.) In plain English, qubits have been fragile.

Coupling of the spin of an electron with an external magnetic field may offer a way to make a more robust qubit. See "Could this provide the spin control quantum computing needs? A new way of encoding information could redefine the quantum bit."

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

As hard as ... hydrogen?

At sufficiently high pressure, hydrogen liquefies starting at about 33 Kelvin.(*) That's cold. At about 14 Kelvin and yet more pressure, hydrogen will become a solid. And, it has been theorized since 1935, under enough pressure solid hydrogen can take metallic form.

(*) For mysterious reasons, absolute temperatures are shown in units of Kelvin, and not (as every other temperature scale would suggest) degrees Kelvin.

Not quite this easy
How much pressure? In round numbers, call it five million standard atmospheres. The amazing thing is, Harvard scientists reported last month that they had formed metallic hydrogen in the lab. "U.S. scientists create metallic hydrogen, a possible superconductor, ending quest." That's seriously cool. And high pressure.

Monday, February 13, 2017

This (maybe) is how the world ends ...

SF writers enjoy wreaking (fictitious!) mass destruction, and I'm no exception. In Dark Secret, for example, I pretty much sterilized the solar system with a gamma ray burst. (That's not a spoiler ... you find this out early in the novel. The story is all about what comes after the discovery of that imminent danger.)(*)

Amazon link
(*) I know what you're thinking: gamma rays travel at light speed -- because they are (high-frequency) light. If the arrival of gamma rays is the first you know about a GRB in the galactic neighborhood? Well, you're toast. That said, one of the mechanisms that can produce a GRB emits "I'm going to blow" indications before the actual blast (warnings which you won't detect without a gravitational-wave observatory, such as, but more sensitive than, LIGO).

How else, at a global or grander level, might things go Really Bad? I haven't done a death-by-asteroid novel (yet), but rocks from the sky are popular among my peers. (Though not so much with dinosaurs. Just sayin'.) A recent study suggests that asteroids may pose a bigger risk to us homo saps than formerly supposed. See "Fresh craters point to constant 'churning' of moon's surface." The takeaway: More than 200 new craters popped up on the moon over the past seven years – a third more than expected.

And the moon, after all, is quite nearby ...

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The universe never ceases to amaze

A few wonders (some still at the speculation stage, admittedly) to ponder:

Light's not only pushy, it can be a drag. "Sun's own light may be slowing its surface spin."

A little light music ...

One of the key parameters in modern cosmological thinking is Hubble's Constant -- and we may not yet know its value. "HOLiCOW! Astronomers measuring the expansion of the universe confirm that we still don’t understand everything."

Pulsars are very power emitters of energy in radio frequencies. Pulsars pulse with metronomic regularity -- except, apparently, not all of them. "Astronomers discover two pulsars with an 'off' switch: Now you see them, now you don’t." (Shades of the "on-off star" in Vernor Vinge's excellent A Deepness in the Sky.)

Rock of ages ...

And again close to home, "The solar system’s weirdest asteroid has frozen water on its surface: 16 Psyche, a metallic relic of the early solar system, just got weirder." (Does 16 Psyche ring a bell? Well it might. Just last month NASA picked it as the target for a future asteroid mission: "NASA Selects Two Missions to Explore the Early Solar System.")
And perhaps that's enough weird for one post ...

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yippee ki-yay

A roundup from the fringes of physics ...

Do magnetic monopoles exist? (Think of a magnetic monopole as a tiny north pole without a matching south pole, or vice versa -- even though bisecting a bar magnet always produces two smaller bar magnets, each with a north and a south pole.) No magnetic monopole has ever been detected, but some post-Standard Model (hence, speculative) theories of particle physics allow for magnetic monopoles. Here's one more notion about how -- if magnetic monopoles are real -- we might detect them: "Can corkscrewing lasers solve an enduring particle physics mystery?"

Part of ITER, under construction
Will we ever have fusion reactors? It seems like controlled fusion technology has been twenty years into our future for at least fifty years. The latest forecast for international science's premier fusion project (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, aka ITER) is again forecasting success in about twenty years (2035, to be precise). See "ITER Council endorses updated project schedule."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

About the status quo ...

No, this isn't a political rumination. I don't do those (and you're welcome).

The world as we know it ...
The standard model of particle physics has endured every challenge for more than half a century (see, for example, "LHC's Newest Data: A Victory For The Standard Model, Defeat For New Physics"). General relativity has withstood every challenge for a full century. And yet clearly our understanding of the universe is incomplete ...

Consider "Five Independent Signs Of New Physics In The Universe." If physics interests you, all five issues are worth a look -- but the item of most interest to me is dark matter. Bottom line: the behavior of such large objects as galaxies and galactic clusters doesn't fit with our understanding of gravity absent lots of unseen matter. If we do understand gravity -- the heart of general relativity -- then there must be lots of dark matter out there. But the standard model has no place for a dark-matter particle(s), and no search for dark-matter particles -- or for any particle physics beyond the standard model(*) -- has yet borne fruit.

(*) For example, super-symmetry or string theory.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Short stuff

If you haven't run across 'em, two of my short stories saw print (and electrons) this month.

In Analog, the January/February issue has "Paradise Regained." (And if you've lost track, I have another short story and a novelette in their queue.)

In Galaxy's Edge, the January issue also offers a short story of mine. The zine posts some of each issue, a subset which in this instance includes my contribution. Check it out: "The Torchman's Tale." (I have another short story in the queue there, as well.)

In related news, I completed the secret-history novella discussed in my last short-fiction roundup (aka, Short fiction. Shorter updates.). Then I knocked out a short story that came out of nowhere, demanding to be written. More news about both (and others?) as it happens.

With the holidays and the novella behind me, I really do need to get back to the latest, half-written novel ...

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The news is astronomical!

Happy 2017, everyone! To kick off the new year, I thought I'd share some fascinating (to me, anyway) year-end 2016 astronomy news.

Dry as a bone?
Mars is super-dry, right? Well, yes and no. The surface certainly appears to be, but, as reports,"Mars ice deposit holds as much water as Lake Superior." That should make eventual colonization easier. (Hey, the year is young. Permit me a bit of optimism.)

What lurks behind?
You'd think entire galactic clusters would be difficult to overlook. In general you'd be right. Even so, Cosmos reports that "Galactic supercluster found hiding behind Milky Way." (One of the many pluses of the new astronomical sub-specialty of gravitational observation is: gravitational waves pass through pesky obstacles like dust clouds and galaxies -- though that's not how this lurker was finally detected.)