Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Space-X Explosion: Even the Students Feel the Pain

Julia Powell, age 15, is in high school. Her group’s science experiment was on its way to the International Space Station aboard the Space-X rocket when it was blown to smithereens by the failure of the Falcon 9 booster last Sunday.

That’s got to hurt.

What’s got to hurt even more is that it was the second time her experiment was blown up in a launch failure. Yes, she and fellow students had their first space-bound experiment aboard the Antares rocket that exploded on launch last October.

Those students are learning just how hard spaceflight can be. But God bless them, they’re not giving up. You go, girls and guys.

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Happy Asteroid Day!

Yes, today is Asteroid Day, intended to heighten our awareness of our planet’s vulnerability to assault by Nature, in the form of asteroids that could smack us and reduce cities—or even civilization itself—to rubble. The threat is not imminent, perhaps, but it’s certainly real. And some of our agencies are starting to get serious about planning ways to protect ourselves.

Proposed methods of diverting asteroids range from painting one side of a threatening asteroid white (to change the balance of sunlight pressure and outgassing), to using ion traction motors, to repurposing something else that threatens our world: nuclear weapons.

I like to think of this day as also celebrating the opportunity to do cool and constructive things with asteroids, like mining them for water and metals, and hollowing them out to live in them. We’re working on that, too. 

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a picture of the biggest asteroid in the inner solar system, Ceres, currently being orbited by the Dawn spacecraft—and its mysterious white spots. Alien winter Olympics? Alien ice cream stands? I guess we’ll find out together.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Curse You, Skunk Baron! [PHEW!]

He looks innocent, doesn’t he? All doe eyed and mild mannered. Well, at 2:45 a.m. Sunday morning, when I took him out for a late-night pee, he wasn’t so mild mannered—not when he saw Philippe LePew in the bushes in front of our house. He vaulted over the side of the steps and dove after it, nearly yanking me head over heels with him. (Thank God for retractable leashes—and that he was on the leash.)

As I yanked him back, I saw the flash of white and black in the bushes, and I knew my night—which just hours before had been a pleasant gathering of friends for movie night—had just taken a serious turn for the worse.

Going inside was out of the question, even though it was cold and raining. I leaned on the doorbell, rousting Allysen out of bed. She began a long series of trips up and down the stairs, bringing me all the supplies: bucket, rubber gloves, old T-shirt, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, dish detergent, vinegar, Nature’s Miracle, towels, etc. (Forget tomato juice; it doesn’t work.) Here’s the recipe we used (it’s on a refrigerator magnet that we got at the animal hospital):

1 quart hydrogen peroxide
¼ cup baking soda
2 teaspoons dish detergent

Mix it up, lather it in, and wait 20 minutes. I especially liked the waiting part, standing in the cold rain in bare feet, in shorts and t-shirt, trying to keep Captain Jack from shaking it off all over me. Then around the house to the hose, to wash him down. Repeat. We were soon out of H2O2, so I switched to vinegar and baking soda.

Eventually I toweled him down and poured Nature’s Miracle skunk treatment all over him. By the time we got upstairs it was 4:30 a.m., and Allysen had set up sleeping arrangements for us in the living room—Jack in his crate, me on the sofa on multiple sets of sheets, and a fan in the window. (No way was I going to risk taking skunk essence into our bedroom.)

Me sleeping on the sofa and Jack in his crate was the sight that met our daughter Lexi when she passed through early Sunday morning. What have they done to make Mom that mad? she wondered.

Amazingly, the next day, the skunk smell was almost entirely gone. But Captain Jack hadn’t forgotten. The next few times we went out, one thing was clear: He wanted to find that skunk and teach him a lesson he wouldn’t forget!

Fortunately, Philippe the skunk had moved on.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

You Cannot Sell the Sun!

I have a t-shirt with the warning “You cannot split the sun!” on the back. It’s a souvenir of the first time I spoke at the Odyssey Fantasy Workshop. It seems there was a student who wrote a story in which a character did something to split the sun in the half. The class unanimously roared, “You cannot split the sun!” And when they created their class t-shirt, that’s what they put on it.

Well, it seems there’s a lady in Madrid who has been making a nice little business of selling plots of “land” on the surface of the sun—selling them on eBay, in fact. Until eBay shut her down. Now she’s taking eBay to court. Here’s what Newser.com had to say about it:

She had been selling parcels of about 11 square feet for about $1 each and had racked up 600 orders before eBay shut her down....

“I am not a stupid person and I know the law,” Duran has said of her solar real estate gambit. She's basing her claim on a loophole in the UN's Outer Space Treaty that says no nation can stake ownership to a heavenly body but makes no mention of individuals.
The court, alas, will rule only on whether she violated eBay’s terms of agreement, not on whether she can claim ownership over these plots on the sun.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

James Horner, 1953 – 2015

Another heartbreaking loss for film and music lovers. Composer James Horner died in a small plane crash north of Santa Barbara last Monday. He was 61.

James Horner was right up there with John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith in my pantheon of beloved composers. I first fell in love with his music with the scores for two of the best classic Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. Just as the second movie built on the first, so too did the music, adding depth and texture to the themes introduced in Khan. There was a nautical flavor to the themes, evoking the wonder and peril of deep space like nothing else I had heard.

His credits included Aliens, Titanic, Avatar, Apollo 13, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, and countless other films. He was by all accounts a man of extraordinary generosity.

James Cameron, in a tribute in Hollywood Reporter, recalls beginning work with Horner on the score for Titanic:
I asked if he could write some melodies. I believe that a great score really consists of something you can whistle. If that melody gets embedded in your mind, it takes the score to a different level. I drove over to his house and he sat at the piano and said, “I see this as the main theme for the ship." He played it once through and I was crying. Then he played Rose’s theme and I was crying again. They were so bittersweet and emotionally resonant. He hadn’t orchestrated a thing, and I knew it was going to be one of cinema’s great scores. No matter how the movie turned out, and no one knew at that point — it could have been a dog — I knew it would be a great score. He thought he had done only five percent of the work, but I knew he had cracked the heart and soul.
Of all of them, though, his haunting score for The Search for Spock is the most memorable to me, and one I’ve listened to countless times while writing.

Farewell, James Horner. May you continue to fill the heavens with your splendid music!

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Note to Self: Include Cat Check in Preflight

It’s been a few years since I last had a chance to do any private flying. But I’m pretty sure I never missed this when I performed a preflight on a rented Cessna. Look for a third passenger somewhere around the 35 second mark.

More on the story here.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Spot the Robodog Isn’t Herding Sheep. Yet.

Spot isn’t Captain Jack, but it’s still pretty nifty. Check out this robot from Boston Dynamics (now owned by Google), running through its paces.

More about Spot and his siblings here: The Guardian

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Monday, June 15, 2015

How to Tire Out a Border Collie If You Don’t Have a Herd

Captain Jack considers my socks from the hamper and his pillow from my office to be his flock, his to move about the house as the need comes over him. It’s cute, but it doesn’t really serve the purpose of tiring him out.

This might. 

Click picture to biggify

This is our new 1-Running-Dog Bike Tow Leash, attached to my recumbent bike. It weirded him out pretty good for the first few minutes, but now that he’s gotten the hang of it, he really seems to like it. We live near a bike path, so we can get going without worrying about car traffic, at least for the first mile. I’ll have to get some video of it. When he breaks into a gallop, I feel like Roy Rogers on Trigger, with Bullet racing alongside.

I also have to say I like our town. In the space of two minutes, yesterday, I passed a young girl on a unicycle and a guy on a Segway. The Segwayist yelled to me and Jack, “Man, that... is... cool!”

I  had to agree. But I’m already starting to see signs of Jack getting into shape. A vigorous forty-five minute run just leaves him wanting more. 

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Friday, June 05, 2015

Thar Be Dragons in Them Stars!! Arrr!

It’s been almost a year since my novel Dragons in the Stars was available as a standalone book. Well, it’s back, all reformatted and with a brand-new cover! The artist, Magdalena Almero Nocea, is a European artist. This is the first time I’ve worked with her, and I’m quite pleased with the result. (She’s hard at work right now on a new cover for the sequel, Dragon Rigger.)

This book was something of a departure from the hard SF I had been writing, even from the other Star Rigger novels, which were a little more rubbery than, say, The Infinity Link. For one thing, it had dragons. In space. Dragons that felt very much like fantasy dragons. Except that they appeared in the Flux of hyperspace, and liked to duel with unsuspecting star pilots who ventured too close. (The first mention of them was in Star Rigger’s Way, in an offhand comment in a spaceport bar. They appeared for real in a short story, “Though All the Mountains Lie Between.” And that story became the basis of this novel.)

I was deliberately blending the genres of SF and fantasy, and that presented both writing challenges and marketing challenges. My editor was all for it, but my agent was a little skeptical. They were both right. The final book was one I liked a lot, and would have wanted to read, if I hadn’t written it myself. But marketing it, and especially the sequel, which ventured even further into mythic fantasy territory, was a tougher sell than my other work.

But that was then, and this is now. You don’t have to pay attention to any of that. It’s a story I’m glad to have told, and whether you already own it or are just hearing of it for the first time, I hope it’s one you enjoy.

(By the way, it’s also in ebook as part of Dragon Space: A Star Rigger Omnibus*. If you own that, you don’t need this. Unless you prefer individual books, or just really like that cover.)

*To folks who’ve recently bought Dragon Space: Some typographical issues with the recently revamped edition have come to light. I expect to have a corrected version up by sometime next week.

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Summer’s Here! And So Is Our New Rhodo!

After all those pictures of snow last winter, I thought it’d be nice to post a picture of our new, baby rhododendron, at the front of our house. It was in full bloom just a few days after we planted it!

Can you suggest a name for it? (Free ebook to the person whose suggestion we use!)

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Another Ebook You Should Read

If you like to laugh, that is. My friend Craig Shaw Gardner recently reissued his Cineverse Cycle in ebook form, and it’s probably my favorite of his funny trilogies. (His humorous fantasy is often compared to that of Terry Pratchett.)

The series starts with Slaves of the Volcano Gods. But honestly, the best title of the bunch (and really, one of the best titles in all of literature) is the third book, Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies. Slaves is where you start, though, with Roger’s life changing forever with his discovery of the secret decoder ring that unlocks the parallel universes of B-movies! And pits his destiny against that of the grand Plotmaster!

Totally silly, totally fun.

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How Many Ebooks Can We Give Away? And Why Would We?

The ebook in question is Neptune Crossing, which has been my free loss-leader for several years now. I ran a Bookbub ad on it the other day, to try to goose interest in the downloads, which had dwindled to a small handful every day. The result? Over 32,000 downloads in two days! Zounds! (About three fourths of the free downloads are at Amazon Kindle, and the other quarter are spread out among B&N Nook, Apple, Google, and Kobo.)

Why would I want to do such a crazy thing? Ha-ha, crazy like a fox! (A smart fox, I hope, not a rabid fox.) The answer, of course, is that I hope everyone who reads their free copy will be so eager to read the next books in the series that they’ll fall all over themselves rushing to buy them. Stampede! That’s what I’m talking about.

So is it happening? Well, paid sales went up the same day at Amazon Kindle. Not out-of-the-ballpark up, but nicely and encouragingly up. At the other stores, I haven’t seen any change whatsoever. Is that because of the sheer weight of Amazon, or because of some difference in the algorithms of how books are shown to customers in the stores? Wouldn’t I like to know.

Anyway, time will tell. People need a chance to read the books, after all. I hope it looks interesting enough that they won’t put it on their to-read pile and forget about it. Excuse me a moment while I shout:

“Hey, folks who downloaded Neptune Crossing! I hope you read it and like it! And if you do, please leave a review! And try the next book in the series!”

And thank you.

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