February 29 2012

Happy Leap Day

Happy Leap Day everyone. We have a tradition of giving little gifts involving leaping things to each other to celebrate this day. I thought this post on Safari Ecology was kind of apt. So, if you really want to get into the spirit of leaping, then make like a lion and leap onto a wildebeest, wrestle it to the ground and well, then let it go because wildebeests are kind of fun. Wildebeest wrestling–not just fun but good for you.

January 25 2012

Hugo Nominations 2012

It is time to nominate for the 2012 Hugos. You have until January 31 to register and be eligible for placing a nomination. You have until March 11th to actually do the nomination. The rules are that you may nominate up to five works in each of a number of categories. You don’t need to feel obligated to fill out five (or any) for every category.
Rather than frantically searching through lists of works, I decided to stick with things I had actually read (or watched) already. If I didn’t feel strongly or hadn’t read or watched something in a category I didn’t vote for it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy candidates–I just didn’t see them. When the nominations come out I’m sure I’ll have plenty to read and watch that I hadn’t seen before. Here are the nominations I have submitted:

Best NovelA science fiction or fantasy story of 40,000 words or more that appeared for the first time in 2011. I had a very hard time narrowing this list down. There were a lot of very good SF novels released in 2011:

Best NovellaA science fiction or fantasy story between 17,500 and 40,000 words that appeared for the first time in 2011.

  • Countdown” — Mira Grant, orbitshortfiction.com

Best NoveletteA science fiction or fantasy story between 7,500 and 17,500 words that appeared for the first time in 2011.

Best Short StoryA science fiction or fantasy story of less than 7,500 words that appeared for the first time in 2011.

  • “THE MAINSPRING OF HIS HEART, THE SHACKLES OF HIS SOUL” by Ian Tregillis in Human for a Day
  • “CINDERELLA CITY” by Seanan McGuire in Human for a Day
  • Ghost Hedgehog” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, tor.com

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)–Any television program or other production, with a complete running time of 90 minutes or less, in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during 2011.

  • The Doctor’s Wife — Doctor Who

Best Editor (Long Form)–The editor of at least four (4) novel-length works primarily devoted to science fiction and/or fantasy, published in 2011 that do not qualify as works under Best Editor, Short Form.

  • Betsy Wollheim — DAW

The John W. Campbell Award

January 9 2012

Oracles

A full blown oracle can be quite a challenge in fiction. Historical oracles are usually vague enough that people misunderstand what they are trying to say or (like Casandra) they are ignored or have some other flaw. If, however, we have a true oracle i.e. one who really does know the future (including possible branches) we can have some trickiness. If there is no possibility of the oracle being wrong or being defeated (if the oracle is evil), then there can’t really be any tension in the plot. I thought it might be fun to look at a few ways in which modern works make use of an oracular character and what methods are used to create tension. There are some spoilers ahead for Watchmen, Bitter Seeds, The Wise Man’s Fear and Singularity Sky/Iron Sunrise. Each of these works has an oracular entity and each deals with those entities in interesting ways. If you want to remain completely unsullied on these works then it is best not to proceed. If you don’t mind being sullied a bit, then proceed after the cut:

Continue reading

January 6 2012

Consciousness

What does it mean to be conscious? Silly question, right? We all know what it means–at least I do but how do I know about you? And how can I be sure about me? Therein lie a million questions.
Luckily, there is an increasing tide of research that is looking into what is really going on with the phenomena that we call consciousness. I think I’ll do a few posts on this through the year as it is a subject that really interests me. We’ll start with a very interesting experiment performed by BENJAMIN LIBET, CURTIS A. GLEASON, ELWOOD W. WRIGHT and DENNIS K. PEARL in the early 80’s and presented in a paper called “Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act.” in Brain, 106:623-642.

The experiment is:
Electrodes are placed on a subjects scalp and hooked to an EEG to measure cortical neuronal responses.
Electrodes are also placed on the skin over the activated muscle of the forearm. The timing of this is measured with an EMG.
An oscilloscope whose face displays a dot moving in a circle with marks is shown to the subject.
The subject is asked to perform a task like pressing a button. The subject is also asked to note the position of the dot upon the oscilloscope when they first became aware of the intention to press the button (for example).
The actual time of the button press is recorded electronically and the position of the dot is also recorded at the same time.
On average it was found that about 200 milliseconds elapsed between when the subject claimed intention to when the button was pushed. Of even more interest was that approximately 500 milliseconds before the button was pushed, the EEG would record mounting neuronal activity. In other words, prior to “you” deciding to push the button, subconscious processes have already made the “decision” and the “you” in the process is just along for the ride as an observer.
I’d say that qualifies as pretty interesting.

December 2 2011

Scrivener

I used Scrivener as my editor for the recent NaNoWriMo. I’ve got to say that I found it very useful. I didn’t use all of the features that it has, but the ones that I did use fit my style very well.
The ability to place text into separate pieces and keep track (or move) them easily within the tool was very nice. For example, you can create a chapter and some scenes in that chapter all as different pieces. You can move the order of the scenes around as you wish.
You can mark the state of each of the separate pieces (first draft, note, …) and whether you want to include it into the actual text right now or not. The “compilation” phase lets you include exactly what you want in the format you want. If two editors demand different formatting, for submission it is easy to create a final version that fits their desires.
For each of the pieces, you can associate notes right with the piece and also keep whatever research you have done in the same project all nicely useable and consolidated.
For creating a new story where you are doing background material and research this makes things amazingly easy to use and keep track of. If you were doing a research document (like say a thesis or tech book) this would be fantastic. (The fantastic is opposed to something like Word where it isn’t easy to organize separate pieces of work into a single document.)
I used the Microsoft version of Scrivener and it did crash twice during the month. I didn’t lose any text as a result of either crash so it does a very good job of making sure things are saved.
For NaNoWriMo I used the free version they provided for the event, but I now plan on purchasing the real version. Since I finished NaNoWriMo, it will be half price but I see on their site that it is only $40 normally. It seems like quite a good deal.
For writing projects, Scrivener is now going to be my tool of choice.

September 28 2011

Interesting Neutrinos from CERN

The recent CERN paper on neutrinos traveling (60.7 ± 6.9 (stat.) ± 7.4 (sys.)) ns faster than the speed of light in a vacuum is interesting from a number of perspectives. First, the original purpose and layout of the experiment is pretty interesting all by itself. The idea is basically to create muon neutrinos (νμ) using a proton beam fired at a graphite target. This produces a number of particles that are focused via magnetic lenses towards a detector at the Gran Sasso laboratory OPERA detector, 730 km away. Various shields and 730 km of rock prevent any particle other than the neutrinos from reaching the detector. Here’s a nice picture of this:

As the νμ are merrily ghosting through the rock, some of them oscillate to become tau neutrinos (ντ). The first point of the experiment is to detect the oscillation: νμ→ντ. While they were doing this, they also realized they could try to measure the neutrino velocity from CERN to OPERA. The paper is largely concerned with the velocity measurement.
In order to measure the speed of the neutrinos they need a couple of pieces of information. They need the time of flight (TOF) of the neutrinos between emission and the detection and the distance traveled. They measured the TOF in a fairly clever fashion. Here is a picture from the paper of the TOF measurement:


There are a couple of clever things here. They are using a common GPS as the clock for the experiment rather than trying to messily synchronize diverse clocks on the ground (this would lead to all sorts of problems). Then, rather than using the GPS clock as a stopwatch, they are using it to timestamp the profile of the time of neutrino emission and the time of neutrino detection. These profiles then can be compared and the difference compared to the travel time of light. Chad Orzel has a nice post here on how this is done.
So, they do an experiment, try to nail down all the uncertainty and find out that the neutrinos are getting there before a photon would travel that distance. This is where a couple of more interesting things happen. Being scientists, they write a paper but then, rather than sending it off for peer review (although there are a bunch of them listed as authors) they send it off to the internet for comment. This is actually kind of cool if we now think of the whole internet as the peer review process. This is actually kind of similar to the process that got followed for Deolalikar’s P vs NP paper. As a review process it actually works quite well and gets a lot of eyes looking at interesting results.
If it turns out that there is a mistake somewhere in the set-up or calculations, this will be interesting and help future experimental set-ups. If there isn’t a mistake and the neutrino’s are really arriving faster than a photon then all sorts of interesting possibilities arise (and no, it doesn’t necessarily mean that relativity is wrong). We’ll have to stay tuned to see just what all is learned from this. Science at work–cool stuff.

September 15 2011

Glowing Kittens

Here in Rochester, researchers used a lentivirus to carry genes into the eggs of a cat. In particular, one of the genes encodes for a fluorescent protein. This isn’t just for fun, the ‘fluorescent gene’ provides for an easy way to tell if the gene implantation was successful.
In any case, the next time I’m at the clinic and the doctor asks if I have any questions, I now have–“Yes, do you happen to have any extra glowing cats around?”

September 15 2011

‘Dinosaur’ Feathers

On the Science Now website of the journal Science is a neat little article about what appear to be feathers found in Canadian amber. Some seem similar to modern feathers while others appear to be more of a proto-feather like structure. Since there are no bones or other artifacts associated with the feather structures, the researchers point out that that cannot associate the feathers with a particular creature. Very neat.