meow, cat, Siamese, catty

The Geology of Tibet's Earthquakes

It's been known for some time that the Himalayas are the product of the Indo-Australian plate forcing its way under the Eurasian plate (geologically, India is not actually part of Asia, although it is geographically). However, geologists have been struggling to understand the peculiar patterns of earthquakes in the area around Tibet.

Now, using improved imaging technologies, geologists have discovered the remnants of a shattered continental plate under Tibet. It has broken into four finger-like slabs, two pushing downward deep into the mantle, and two pushing upward to grind against the bottom of the Asian plate.

Even more interesting, those slabs are only a few of almost a hundred fragments of ancient plates that are being discovered all over the world as imaging technologies become ever more sophisticated. And scientists are finding traces of even more ancient lost plates, and just waiting for clearer data to come in before publishing their findings.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby
Tags:
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Heads Up -- New Book

Not my own -- right now all of mine are in various states of disassembly. But a friend of mine has an anthology out, and has included a novella of her own that is just that difficult length that most publishers view as falling into the Unpublishable Void.



It Happened at the Ball by Sherwood Smith

*The pleasure of your company is requested.*

Graceful feet tracing courtly steps.
Eyes behind jeweled masks meeting across a room of twirling dancers.
Gloved hands touching fleetingly—or gripping swords...

Anything can happen at a ball.

You are invited to enjoy these stories of fancy and fantasy from thirteen authors, framed in the splendor and elegance of a ballroom. Be it at a house party for diplomats and thieves, or Almacks in a side-universe in which the Patronesses have magic, or a medieval festival just after the plague years ...

*Prepare to be swept into the enchantment of the dance!*
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: excited excited
  • Current Music: "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: The First Space War

One last interesting bit from the Fencon programming schedule, and then I'll wind it up.

The imagery of space warfare goes back to the Golden Age of science fiction, to the Buck Rogers serials, to Flash Gordon and all those stories of derring-do. And then it was pretty well cemented by Star Wars and Babylon 5.

So most of us, when asked to imagine a space war, visualize old school dogfighting In Space. We see navy-style classes of large spaceships complete with anti-aircraft emplacements along their critical faces. We see intricate swooping maneuvers as heroes and villains close in to fire on each other in visual range.

What we don't see is the actual physics of movement in an environment in which gravity rather than aerodynamics is the principal governing force. Back in the Gemini program, orbital rendezvous initially confounded the experienced Air Force and Navy fighter pilots who were commanding the spacecraft. Orbital maneuvers are counterintuitive -- speeding up puts you in a higher orbit, which may well not be the right maneuver to close in on an object you're pursuing. Jim McDivitt had to be ordered to call off his attempt to rendezvous with the spent second stage of the booster for Gemini IV because he was using up too much maneuvering fuel.

And if your target is at any distance, you can't just aim for where it is now -- you have to aim at the location will be when you can get there on the necessary transfer orbit. This requires some fairly sophisticated planning, not the "kick the tires and light the fires" sort of flying we often see in sf space battles.

In fact, I've often speculated that actual space warfare is apt to take place as much in cyberspace as in physical space. As modern military forces grow increasingly dependent upon space assets, it becomes increasingly likely that their opponents would strive to take those vital satellites (communications, surveillance, weather, etc) out of action by hacking their controls.

However, we're also seeing a number of nations building anti-satellite weapons intended to physically destroy enemy satellites. This could make things Very Interesting, and not in a good way -- near-Earth space is becoming quite crowded, and there have already been concerns about a collision between two dead satellites creating so many debris that it leads to a cascade of destruction that could render Low Earth Orbit unusable for years or even decades -- effectively an enforced hiatus in the Space Age. Say good-bye not just to the ISS and crewed spaceflight, but also to a huge range of satellite-based services that we have come to take for granted. Even the satellites that orbit at higher altitudes, above the debris cloud, would from then on be operating on borrowed time, because there would no longer be any way to launch replacement satellites until the necessary orbits could be cleaned, whether by natural orbital decay or by some form of "garbage scow" or "trawler" satellite.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: AI: Threat, Promise or Mirage



Here's another interesting tidbit from the Fencon programming lineup. Is AI going to be a global Menace that presents an existential threat for humanity, or will it be the Everything Machine that its promoters claim? Or will it turn out to be just a flash in the pan, so much vaporware?

It's interesting to look back at the history of the portrayal of computers and AI in science fiction, especially media sf. From the 1950's, when computers first began to appear on ordinary people's awareness, we've had the co-existence of the two views of artificial intelligence -- of the dangerous too-smart computer, often as a cybernetic slave revolt scenario in which the computer (or robot) rises up against its creators and seeks to destroy them, and of the wonder-working electronic genie that solves all our problems and usher in a new Golden Age of peace and prosperity. And time and again, actual computers prove to be extremely limited in their scope and ability to solve problems.

Back in the 1970's, our biggest problems with computers were the various errors that cropped up and had to be corrected, usually in something incredibly important like a bank balance or some government database. Computers had to be meticulously programmed, and while modern computer languages were beginning to appear, a lot of stuff was done in machine language -- and input was extremely fault-intolerant. People might fear "computers taking over" in some kind of cyber slave revolt, but the real danger was having your life screwed up by some badly-written code and the people at the agency refusing to acknowledge that it could be a problem.

Computers have come a long way since them, and most of us routinely carry more computing power in our pockets and purses than were in those huge behemoths whose mysterious workings could turn our bank balances or Social Security payments upside down. We're getting some fairly sophisticated robots, enough to move out of the carefully controlled environments of laboratories and factories to do some housekeeping chores in regular people's homes. However, seemingly simple tasks have proved astonishingly complex, as we can see in the ongoing problems with self-driving cars. Although they do decently well on well-marked streets in clear weather, many of them have problems with even a relatively small amount of rain or snow.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Mr. Roboto" by Styx
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: Space Habitats and Mega-Structures



Here's yet another interesting bit from Fencon -- the creation of artificial worlds in space. Most people have at least a glancing acquaintance with Larry Niven's Ringworld, a sort of expansion of the "wheel in the sky" space station concept to encircle a star and provide vast amounts of living surface for the system's inhabitants. People more interested in near-future technologies are likely to have heard of the L5 Society and Gerald O'Neill's ideas for free-flying space colonies in the form of rotating cylinders (again, using the rotation to produce an inertial simulation of gravity).



There have been all kinds of discussions about the feasibility of such constructions, from the tensile strength of the materials needed to build the giant ones to the issues of Coriolis effect issues in the sort that would be possible to build within the next century or so (whether by mining lunar materials and forming them in a zero-g version of traditional Industrial-age building techniques, or by planting a nuke inside an asteroid and lighting it off while spinning the asteroid to hollow it out). But one of the most interesting aspects of interest in megastructures has been in SETI -- the suggestion that, instead of looking for radio transmissions, we should instead be searching for evidence of alien technologies modifying the environment of other stellar systems on scales we can only dream of doing.

At least one person has suggested that the peculiar dimming of Tabby's Star might be the result of the wreckage of an alien megastructure passing in front of it.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby
Tags: ,
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: Yesterday's Tomorrow



Here's another tidbit in the FenCon program: how the images of written and (especially) visual science fiction of the 1950's and 60's set certain expectations that still have the power to create a certain nostalgia for an imagined version of the future. It was the Atomic Age, and the dawning of the Space Age. And the architecture matched the energy and optimism, with its sweeping lines, its tall pillars that suggested rockets or aircraft tail fins, and the eight-pointed starbursts that ornamented the neon trim.



And it really did seem like that bright, wide-open future was right around the corner. Even the Mercury astronauts were wide-eyed with enthusiasm -- in one of their early interviews, one of them commented that Gordon Cooper (the youngest of them) would probably be the only one of them to reach Mars (with the Moon almost seeming presupposed).

Now a lot of it is being rediscovered, with an intense pang of nostalgia for the future that might have been. If only we hadn't gotten mired in Vietnam. If only the Apollo I fire could've been averted and Congress hadn't cut NASA's funding as punishment, so that the Apollo Applications Program had been fully realized instead of chopped down to a single space station, and that abandoned after three crews used it. If only the Soviets had stayed in the race to the Moon, so the US wouldn't have been able to call victory and go home.

In the wake of steampunk's success, we're now seeing another retrofuturism centered around re-imagining those dreams of a High Frontier that would include settlements on the Moon and Mars, but in the light of the present. Call it Atomicpunk or Rocketpunk or Raygun Gothic, it all centers around rediscovering the dreams of that time when space travel was new and exciting, and recreating it with the experience of hindsight. What if the US had kept going with the Apollo spacecraft, until it became for NASA what the Soyuz has been for Soviet and post-Soviet Russia? What if we had built upon our successes in the original lunar landings instead of retreating to Low Earth Orbit for four decades and counting? What kind of world might have we had, if we had not reduced our ambitions to small plans that lack the power to stir men's souls?

Interestingly enough, very little of it is being published through traditional channels. Instead, we're seeing a lot of it coming out indie, via Amazon's KDP program or the other channels by which individuals can publish e-books and even print paperbacks and hardcovers.



I published own novelette The Moon Mirror that way. It sits on that blurry boundary between sf and fantasy, since the mechanism that turns the titular mirror into a window on another world operates more like magic. But the world in those images drives the protagonist to pursue that lost dream -- until she realizes that things are not so simple as she thought, and not everyone who acts friendly is indeed her friend.
  • Current Mood: nerdy nerdy
  • Current Music: "Rocket Man" by Elton John
meow, cat, Siamese, catty

Bittercon: In Comics, Death Is Not Necessarily Fatal

Here's an interesting nugget from the Fencon programming schedule.

I think we all remember the huge "Death of Superman" sequence a decade or so back, and how, just when it looked like yes, they were going to close the doors on an iconic character forever, they brought him back. For some of us, it felt like a cheat, with the original "death" being pretty much a publicity stunt that they never really intended to follow through on.

OTOH, there have been a number of costumed super-heroes who've been able to have multiple incarnations without it feeling like a cheat. Batman has been rebooted several times for successive generations, and for a time the DC multiverse was arranged such that each of them occupied his own universe. The original Golden Age Batman, who fought in World War II and subsequently retired to marry a reformed Serena Kyle, lived on Earth 2, while the Silver Age Batman lived in Earth 1, which was supposed to be contemporary for the readers of the 1970's. Presumably the Bruce Wayne of Earth 2 eventually grew elderly and passed on when his time came, but it wasn't really dwelt on. By the late 1980's and early 1990's, the second incarnation of Batman was getting a little dated, so DC ran Batman: Year One, an edgy new retelling of how Bruce Wayne first assumed the cowled cape of the Dark Knight, set in a world just entering the Information Age.

And there were the several different versions of the Flash. Each of them had a distinct character with a different backstory under the costume, so the (presumed) death of the earlier version of the Flash and the appearance of a new one had more the feeling of the passing of a torch.

If we move beyond the costumed superhero genre of comics, we find many sf comics in ultratech and cyberpunk settings in which technology has made death negotiable instead of final. For instance, Schlock Mercenary has characters who regularly get "killed" only to be brought back by technology indistinguishable from magic to our 21st-century perspective.

However, this raises the problem of how to have adequate stakes for your characters when "life and death" is no longer an absolute. Most writers of ultratech settings have done something similar to the Eclipse Phase game and included some form of "restore failure" risk to maintain the possibility of permanent death. Alternatively, some forms of technological resurrection may have a social stigma attached to them, and characters who have had to undergo it may find themselves unwelcome on certain worlds -- which could create some very interesting plotlines if they have to go there for some kind of business and must conceal their status.
  • Current Location: home
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
  • Current Music: "Cast No Shadow" by Oasis
Tags: ,