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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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

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.

The New Star Wars Trailer Is Everything

Oh. My. Word.

  • Andy Serkis’ voice as Supreme Leader Snoke. Chilling.
  • Robot hand.
  • ALL TRAINING MONTAGES ALL THE TIME.
  • Luke confirms (?) he trained Kylo Ren in the past.
  • Kylo has a cool metal patch on his cheek now!
  • …and is also a badass pilot. No surprise, runs in the family, I guess.
  • Is he about to blow up mom?!
  • CHEWIE!
  • That delightfully cute animal next to Chewie is a Porg.
  • Poe being exploded!
  • Finn fighting Captain Phasma (maybe?) with an electrostaff. (I’m still angry that they retconned these to allow them to stand up to lightsabers, but I’ll allow it.)
  • BB8, shaking off that electrocution like a boss.
  • Snoke being villainous. Rey in trouble!
  • And… TWIST?!

Christmas can’t come quickly enough.

Sunday Roundup

Hey, did you know there’s a Justice League movie coming out soon? No? You didn’t?

I DON’T BELIEVE YOU.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. BvS: DoJ was pretty relentlessly grim and… whatever the opposite of uplifting is. Downdropping? But I’m hopeful that DC will have taken on board what made Wonder Woman so popular and leaned into the more positive themes that made the League so popular in the comics. Bringing Jos Whedon on board to captain the ship after Zack Snyder’s sad departure was a good choice, too.

Meanwhile, check out the Pacific Rim: Uprising trailer for HOT ROBOT VS. ROBOT NINJA SWORDFIGHTING ACTION:

Over at io9 they have news on Amazon’s upcoming series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams:

“I don’t like to call it episodes, I like to call it a series of 10 movies,” showrunner Michael Dinner said.

Dinner explained each episode has different writers and directors, and they were given creative freedom to take the short stories and interpret them in whatever way they saw fit. This is in addition to the rotating cast, which includes stars like Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Janelle Monae, and Liam Cunningham, the only actor who appeared at the panel. Executive producer (and Philip K. Dick’s daughter) Isa Dick Hackett said she felt this was the best way to approach Dick’s short stories, which she called “the gems of his ideas,” in a way that both honored his work but also made the messages relatable to a modern audience.

Aslo at io9, we discover Scott Snyder is working on a new Batman book:

Here’s how Snyder describes Last Knight:

Batman suddenly wakes up and he’s… young. But he wakes up in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, crawling out of the sand in this Gotham City that’s been ruined. He’s got the Joker’s head chained to his belt, but it’s alive and like, ‘You gotta move, kid!’ It’s got old Wonder Woman, Baby Superman—it’s like my Lone Wolf and Cub Batman story.

Cheerful!

The Atlantic has a very interesting–and somewhat worrying–piece on satellites, on Sputnik’s sixtieth anniversary.

Sputnik’s spectators could not have anticipated that this event—the launch of the first human-made satellite into space—would ignite a race to the stars between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor could they have known that they were, all of them, standing at the precipice of a new era in human history of near-complete reliance on satellite technology. For them, Sputnik was a sudden flash of innovation, something at which to marvel briefly. For their children and grandchildren and generations after, satellites would become the quiet infrastructure that powered the technology that runs their world.

And what if they all fell out of the sky tomorrow?

Without operational communications satellites, most television would disappear. People in one country would be cut off from the news reports in another. The satellite phones used by people in remote areas, like at a research station in Antarctica or on a cargo ship in the Atlantic, would be useless. Space agencies would be unable to talk to the International Space Station, leaving six people effectively stranded in space. Militaries around the world would lose contact with troops in conflict zones. Air-traffic controllers couldn’t talk to pilots flying aircraft over oceans….

“Would it severely disrupt the way we live right now? Yes,” Collins said. “Would people be starving in the streets or would there be civil disobedience? That’s hard to say. Potentially.”

Fingers crossed for no, then.

Finally, in vaguely fantastical but mostly just hilarious TV news: you should be watching The Good Place.

When Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in the afterlife, she’s both relieved and surprised that she’s made it into the Good Place. But it doesn’t take long for Eleanor to realize she’s there by mistake.

Oh my word is it funny. Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, sharp writing, great acting all around. Season one is on Netflix now. Check it out!

35 Best SF Movies Since Blade Runner

This is superb. Over at the AV Club, ‘The 35 best science-fiction movies since Blade Runner’ including the excellent question ‘what is sci-fi anyway?’.

One possible definition of sci-fi involves questions posed in the terms of a futurological imagination: technologies that haven’t yet been invented, worlds that haven’t yet come to be, places that haven’t yet been discovered. Most fantasy or superhero narratives ask us to accept their realities, while sci-fi films more often than not beg us to question theirs, even if the characters don’t. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a current of paranoia running through the genre, such an obsession with secrets: references hidden in the production design, subtexts, ambiguous endings. Whether the world of a sci-fi film is a decadent distant future where eugenics, drugs, and mental conditioning have replaced computers or a garage in a present-day Texas suburb, it’s based on some kind of question, even if the question is simply, “Is this real?”

So much to agree and disagree with! While their #2 should clearly be at #1 and Fury Road is too low for me, I’m delighted to see Moon and Looper in here, and Primer ranked so highly.

“I am furious-a about this ranking!”

Ah, charts: where you can please some of the people some of the time and all of the people none of the time.