STARSLAM ’17

Science!

FiveThirtyEight has a wonderful story about how August 17th was pretty much the biggest day in astronomy history.

On that day, astronomers bore witness to the titanic collision of two neutron stars, the densest things in the universe besides black holes. In the collision’s wake, astronomers answered multiple major questions that have dominated their field for a generation. They solved the origin of gamma-ray bursts, mysterious jets of hardcore radiation that could potentially roast Earth. They glimpsed the forging of heavy metals, like gold and platinum. They measured the rate at which the expansion of the universe is accelerating. They caught light at the same time as gravitational waves, confirmation that waves move at the speed of light.

That’s a big day!

Richard O’Shaughnessy, an astronomer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, describes the discovery as a “Rosetta stone for astronomy.” “What this has done is provide one event that unites all these different threads of astronomy at once,” he said. “Like, all our dreams have come true, and they came true now…”

“It’s a wonderful time, it’s a terrifying time,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I can’t really capture the wonder and the horror and glee and happiness.”

Coincidentally The Wonder and The Horror and Glee and Happiness would be what I’d call a barbershop quartet, if I were in one. Or they were still a thing.

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You Beta Be-read It!

If you deciphered my clever pun, you’ll have worked out that Causal Nexus is in the hands of my lovely beta readers! They always provide excellent feedback to strengthen the story, make the characters more interesting and point out those pesky plot holes that it’s easy for the writer themselves to miss after being down in the weeds of the story for so long. I can’t wait!

In the meantime I’ve started the groundwork for Untitled Book #4! Step one is to go back over Ascension Point and Venus Rising, and to compile a list of all the open plot threads that I’ve set up in the series so far, that I may want to pick up and complete in this, the final book in the series. I have a habit of semi-casually tossing little elements into my stories that hint at potential goings-on, so I daresay that I won’t choose to follow up on every single possible plotline that I sketchily set up; but in addition to the exciting new major story arcs I’ve got planned, I am planning to tie off at least the big loose ends from prior books and wrap up key character arcs, and thus generally bring The Unity Sequence to a satisfying close.

Sunday Roundup

Happy Sunday, folks!

Down in San Antonio, the winners of the 2017 World Fantasy Awards have been… well, awarded. Lovely to see Terry Brooks get a lifetime achievement nod. Shame I almost certainly won’t get around to reading many of these books for years, if ever.

In at #1 in the chart of movies I’m looking forward to that aren’t actually real: Black Panther vs. Wolverine!

That is probably the most lovingly created fan mashup trailer I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet (probably will on Tuesday) but if it’s even half as funny as James Corden’s Thor: Ragnarok 4D, it’s going to be hilarious.

“She’s crushed your special hammer!”

“Nooo!”

(Mild spoilers, but nothing you can’t guess if you’ve seen the trailers.)

Meanwhile, Amazon are in talks to produce a live action Lord of the Rings TV show. Personally, I’d much rather they spent their billions producing an adaptation of a never-before-filmed series: how about a Bas-Lag series based on China Mieville’s novels, or a Malazan series based on Steven Erikson and Cam Esslemont’s world? Push the envelope, Bezos!

Finally, over at the Wertzone, or rather at one of his other blogs Atlas of Ice and Fire, Adam has completed another series of wildly ambitious maps of G. R. R. Martin’s SoIaF world. That’s dedication.

Have a good week!

‘Bitter Grounds’ by Neil Gaiman

A fantastic short story for Halloween from Neil Gaiman at Tor.com.

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving. If I could have physically passed away, just let it all go, like that, without doing anything, stepped out of life as easily as walking through a door, I would have done. But I was going to sleep at night and waking in the morning, disappointed to be there and resigned to existence.

gaimen-berry-bittergrounds

Art copyright © 2010 Rick Berry, Neil Gaiman, and Ekaterina Slepicka

A Tale of Two Marketing Systems

Great stuff from David, as always. Personally, I’ll be putting my upcoming book up across all platforms, and leaving the others in the series there too, at least for some time. I might experiment with Kindle Unlimited while I’m busy writing book four!

David Gaughran

Lots of people right now are asking themselves whether they should leave Kindle Unlimited.

I’m generally agnostic on it, and I think writers should do what is best for them and their books, but there’s no doubt this is the big question of the moment.

That’s partly down to falling pay rates, Amazon’s inability to deal with scammers and cheaters, or the increasing concern about having all your eggs in one basket when something like this (or this, or this) regularly happens. But I think authors are asking themselves the wrong question.

The real issue, I suggest, should surround how you are going to find readers on these retailers (or on Amazon, if you have decided to swim in the other direction). Because I often see people taking the wrong approach – using the wrong tools for the job.

I gave a talk at NINC earlier this month…

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Monday Morning Multiverse

Morning, gang. Let’s get those science synapses firing with some layman’s terms explanation of why ‘The Multiverse is Inevitable and We’re Living in It‘:

Imagine that the Universe we observe, from end-to-end, is just a drop in the cosmic ocean. That beyond what we can see, there’s more space, more stars, more galaxies, and more everything, for perhaps countless billions of light years farther than we’ll ever be able to access. And that as large as the unobservable Universe is, that there are again innumerably more Universes just like it — some larger and older, some smaller and younger — dotted throughout an even larger spacetime. As rapidly and inevitably as these Universes expand, the spacetime containing them expands even more quickly, driving them apart from one another, and ensuring that no two Universes will ever meet. It sounds like a fantasy picture: the scientific idea of a Multiverse. But if the science we accept today is correct, it’s not only a valid idea, it’s an unavoidable consequence of our fundamental laws.

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Basically:

…the Multiverse is a theoretical prediction that comes out of the laws of physics as they’re best understood today. It’s perhaps even an inevitable consequence of those laws: if you have an inflationary Universe governed by quantum physics, this is something you’re pretty much destined to wind up with.

Thus proving what I always knew: DC Comics were right all along!

Sunday Roundup

Ooh, we’ve got some good stuff today. Let’s start at Pornokitsch, with Draft Posts:

We all become ‘authors’ as soon as we open a Word file, ‘artists’ as soon as we buy paint, ‘bloggers’ as soon as we register our domain name. By contemplating creation – simply by having an idea – we re-identify ourselves.

But then, we also leap to the other extreme. A creator isn’t ‘allowed’ to claim that identification until they have successfully created. You’re not really an author until you finish a book. (Or perhaps even publish one.) You’re not really an artist until you finish a painting. A blogger without posts is a poor example of the breed. This isn’t unfair: inspiration might be the easiest part of the project. Socially, we should celebrate the do-ers and which means focusing on the evidence of what they’ve done.

But what about everything in-between?

Looking a bit further back (because I haven’t read Pornokitsch closely in a while), what if Apple bought the entire UK publishing industry?

What if they just bought the entire British fiction publishing industry?

The point of this (obviously impossible) scenario, of course, is rethinking the value of the book, and taking the terrifying (and hopefully inaccurate) perspective that books qua books are toast. Instead, let’s think of what the value of fiction publishing would be to Apple: a cost-effective way of identifying, developing and testing creative concepts. Books as a massive means of consumer-testing. Think of book sales as upvotes and the fiction-reading population as a gigantic network of slush-pile readers.

According to YouGov Profiles, 18-34 ‘avid or regular’ readers are exactly the people that matter to our networks.

They significantly overindex for all of the following:

  • Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and XBox Live/Video
  • Watching films, in general, on a streaming service
  • Watching films on a streaming service, once a week or more
  • Agreement with “I primarily listen to music through streaming services”
  • Agreement with “Live TV is a thing of the past”
  • Paying for music streaming

If you’re a content streamer, this is your most valuable audience. So why not keep monitoring what they read, and turn that stuff into video content?

Fun stuff, but feels like it’s kind of missing the point: if Apple ran the entire UK publishing industry they would, to a large extent, determine what UK readers were able to read. (Because, while the largely Amazon-based, word of mouth driven discovery of books is extremely alive and kicking, there’s still a heck of a lot of books that get sold simply because a trad publisher puts them out and they end up in bookstores). Basing future movie/TV production decisions on the reception to content that you’ve already implicitly curated seems… well, let’s be honest, nonsensical.

Fun idea, though. Next!

Oh, more Amazon, by way of t-shirts:

Batman, Superman, Spider-man are all t-shirt brands with comic book spinoffs. I think Harry Potter belongs in that pantheon as well: geek culture brands where the identification is now so embedded that they’re part of the visual vernacular. It isn’t just about a nerd franchise being in Primark, it is about a nerd franchise being in Primark and coverage in the Sun.

If anything, Harry Potter’s gone a step further and given us four lifestyle brands. Superhero logos say, generously, something about you. But the four Hogwarts houses have become a socially-accepted Meyers-Briggs self-classification.

#RAVENCLAW4LIFE

The click-baitingly titled (for nerds like me) ‘Are independent bookstores the new conspicuous consumption?

We are constantly repositioning indie bookshops around their moral, not commercial, benefits, and Pullman et al.’s arguments seem to play into that vein. I’m not wild about it because, well, virtually every consumer study says that, whatever customers may say, price and convenience will trump morality at the till. But based on Currid-Halkett’s research, maybe this is actually the best route to survival? Turn independent bookshops into the exclusive playground of the virtuous wealthy, who are happy to pay full price for their Philip Pullman novels. Publishers and retailers can get name-brand designers to create tote bags (done!) and discreet-but-not-too-discreet stickers that say ‘locally purchased’, so those that paid £20, not £10, can get the virtuous and visible buzz they’ve paid for.

I can’t disagree. I haven’t bought a brand new book in a bookstore in five years: I love going to my local store and picking up five second-hand for a couple of dollars, but that’s it. It’s one of those awkward semi-hypocritical situations where I certainly don’t want to see my local brick and mortar book store disappear, but I’m definitely not going to start buying all of my books there. Come on virtuous wealthy, only you can save us now…? (Ugh.)

Meanwhile, a long read over at The Atlantic, from the frustratingly-briefly-named X:

snake-robot designer, a balloon scientist, a liquid-crystals technologist, an extradimensional physicist, a psychology geek, an electronic-materials wrangler, and a journalist walk into a room. The journalist turns to the assembled crowd and asks: Should we build houses on the ocean?…

Like a think-tank panel with the instincts of an improv troupe, the group sprang into an interrogative frenzy. “What are the specific economic benefits of increasing housing supply?” the liquid-crystals guy asked. “Isn’t the real problem that transportation infrastructure is so expensive?” the balloon scientist said. “How sure are we that living in densely built cities makes us happier?” the extradimensional physicist wondered.

But also:

Just beyond the drones, I find Astro Teller. He is the leader of X, whose job title, captain of moonshots, is of a piece with his piratical, if perhaps self-conscious, charisma. He has a long black ponytail and silver goatee, and is wearing a long-sleeved T‑shirt, dark jeans, and large black Rollerblades. Fresh off an afternoon skate?, I ask. “Actually, I wear these around the office about 98 percent of the time,” he says. I glance at an X publicist to see whether he’s serious. Her expression says: Of course he is.

Astro? Astro? Anyway, it turns out it’s just a nickname. Keep reading for a fascinating deep dive into Project Loon, X’s quest to bring internet to the world with balloons.

The world’s biggest need wasn’t hardware but access. Cables and towers were too expensive to build in mountains and jungles, and earthbound towers don’t send signals widely enough to make sense for poor, sparsely populated areas. The cost of satellites made those, too, prohibitive for poor areas. DeVaul needed something inexpensive that could live in the airspace between existing towers and satellites. His answer: balloons. Really big balloons.

The idea struck more than a few people as ridiculous. “I thought I was going to be able to prove it impossible really quickly,” said Cliff L. Biffle, a computer scientist and Rapid Eval manager who has been at X for six years. “But I totally failed. It was really annoying.”

The Atlantic also asks ‘Have we become too squeamish about the inevitable human cost of exploration?‘:

Today, industry and government are both upshifting gears, back into novelty, which means the public’s attitudes toward space travel and its inevitable accidents may return to what they were in NASA’s early, more adventurous days. After decades in a stable and predictable orbit, American spaceflight will return to new vehicles and, maybe, new destinations. The country is deciding which far-off world to point ships toward next, with the moon and Mars the most likely candidates. Private companies are doing the same, and preparing to take high rollers on suborbital romps. And with that leap into the unknown, Americans may become more tolerant of the loss of astronaut life. If they don’t, the government and private industry might not be able to make the leap at all.

Next: octopuses continue to be amazing. Look at this bad boy:

Naturally, scientists are trying to create an artificial version. Sadly, so far the real deal is far too badass to be emulated:

The robots are certainly cool, but they’re nowhere near as versatile as the real deal. Shepherd’s material, for example, can change texture about as fast as an actual octopus, but it can only make one rough shape at a time. The animal, meanwhile, can produce far finer undulations in its skin, which are tuned to whatever it sees in its environment. For now, nothing we produce comes anywhere close.

Finally: Hulk’s bed from Thor: Ragnarok is… maybe exactly what you’d expect?

Good night, moon. Good night, Hulk.

The Universe Might Be Very WHIM-sical

What a terrible pun. Anyway, a quick one from the Guardian, ‘Astronomers find half of the missing matter in the universe’:

The distribution of galaxies in the universe follows a web-like pattern and scientists have speculated that the missing baryons could be floating in diffuse gaseous filaments and sheets linking the galaxy clusters in the cosmic web.

Theoretical calculations suggest these gaseous threads, known as the warm–hot intergalactic medium, or the Whim, ought to be around a million degrees celsius. A mist of gas at this temperature is too cold to emit X-rays that could be spotted by ordinary telescopes from the Earth – but not cold enough to absorb significant amounts of light passing through it.

This Whim stuff sounds a bit like aether to me. Very nineteenth-century.

Back in the Guardian:

The initial measurements still do not account for all the ordinary matter, and some believe the remaining portion could be made up by exotic unobserved objects such as black holes or dark stars. Cosmologists are also still yet to discover the nature of dark matter, which makes up even more of the universe.

I, for one, have faith that our cosmologists will solve this mystery, as soon as they complete their 1960s Soviet-era spacewalks and come on home.

Wait, that’s cosmonauts.

Space, it turns out, is much like getting a beach-ready body while having it all at work and learning sizzling sex moves: dominated by Cosmo.