Friday, November 16, 2012

An actual blog about my writing

For a writers blog, I don't post about my writing much. Which is surprising, since I'm a shameless whore when it comes to self-promotion. Today I have the pleasure of talking about a recent literary development regarding the author I love above all others (me). I just sold my novel, Twin Suns, (If you know me personally, as both of my regular readers do, you've heard about it) to Double Dragon Publishing. It will be released either late in 2013 or early in 2014. There will also be a print-on-demand option.

If you go with the print-on-demand option, I will sign it if you bring it to me. Send it, I'll sign it. Bring it to me, I'll sign it, and buy you a beer. If you go the e-book route, I can sign your kindles, iPads or breasts, if you can find a way to get them to me (actually, I may be able to work out some sort of partial reimbursement deal to offset some of the breast transportation costs. Send me a pic. We'll talk.)

So, yeah, go buy it (in a year). Please. I've got student loans and a drinking problem. I need the money, and I love my fans (most of them are my friends, or related to me). Oh, and the book is really good, too.

On a mostly unrelated note, I would like to address my less than stellar popularity (It mostly bothers me because Klout likes to interrupt shows I'm watching on Hulu to tell me about my falling score).  A friend of mine does a thing where she posts a free poem every time she gains another fifty followers on twitter. She is a far better writer/internet user than me, so my expectations are much, much lower than hers.

Here's the deal. I'll post a free poem if I get five new followers on twitter, a new blog follower, or a single comment on my blog. If you post more than two comments, expect sexual favors. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Most Shocking Blog Yet...(excuse the bad pun)

     I clearly have too much time on my hands. As a result, I’ll be writing about stuff I did in my garage. Whoa, not THAT. Such activities are generally reserved for tool sheds (yeah, no one got the Beavis and Butthead reference, but I don’t care.) Before that brief mental detour to the gutter, I was getting ready to tell you about my latest project. I’ve mentioned homemade tazers at least once, but now I finally got around to making one. In the end, I came up with three prototypes. Two of which actually worked.

     The first was the most ambitious (an obvious mistake). I set out to put all the components of a tazer, (battery, transformer and capacitor) inside a dry erase marker. I pulled all of these components out of a disposable camera. Inside the camera, the battery goes to the transformer, which steps up the voltage, and then charges the capacitor. The capacitor then powers the flash, or in my design zaps anything that touches the two electrodes coming off of it. What I didn’t know (IDIOT!) is that when increasing voltage via a transformer using direct current (a battery), you need some mechanism (a transistor, resistor, diode or something else. Further research is required) to cause the current to fluctuate. A transformer NEEDS fluctuating current.

Plugging it into the wall for a dose of alternating current would work, but it would defeat the purpose of the device. (To build a tazer that runs on AC current, simply cut the end off of an extension cord (NOT WHILE IT’S PLUGGED IN!!!), strip the insulation and touch the two wires to your target.) Because the tiny little components on the circuit board in the camera are poorly labeled, I was unable to rectify this problem (yet).

     The second design was a return to the basics (I wanted to get it done quickly to watch the presidential debate). I simply put two holes in the camera case, and ran wires through them. I then soldered one of the wires to each of the posts on the capacitor. After I closed the camera back up, turning it on charged the capacitor, and anything I touched the wires to, got a good zap. Most of the designs call for you to solder the protruding ends of the wires to screws, and then have those stick out of the case. Again, I was in a hurry.

     The third design used essentially the same components as the last (including the complete circuit board on the camera, but trades the case of the camera, for a glove and a ton of electric tape (the initial design was difficult to remove from my hand). For this one, I stuck the capacitor and the battery inside a plastic pipe, with wires running to the circuit board. I put a button on one end of the pipe (It took forever, but I built one using a couple bits of copper from the camera, excess camera case plastic, a bit of cellophane from a cigarette pack, a spring from a pen, and of course, superglue.) I attached the pipe to the inside of the glove hand, and the circuit board ended up on the back of the glove (secured by copious amounts of tape). I ran the shock delivering wires to a pair of copper contacts (pre-1982 pennies that I reshaped) on the knuckles.

     Now the whole thing charges when I press the button with my thumb, and delivers a zap when I touch the contacts to something. So far it works well on tools with rubber handles, though with luck I’ll eventually get one of my dumber friends drunk enough to let me test it properly. Realistically (especially given the number of practice tests and the voltage drop due to distance travelled over thin wire) the zap delivered is probably more like one of those novelty hand buzzer things than a real law enforcement-grade tazer. At least probably (I’m not ready to test it on myself.)

     In conclusion, electricity is fun. Also, I really need to get a job.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


I find any research involving robots awesome. It brings me a step closer to having that robot army I always wanted (the one in my basement doesn’t count, as it’s made of Legos). Fortunately, Boston Dynamics, with the help of DARPA (Department of Awesome Robot Powered Armies, if memory serves), is building robots out of sturdier components than Legos (and you don’t have to move them or make sound-effects yourself).

Their largest walking robot is the LS3, (Legged Squad Support System). It’s designed to carry equipment over terrain that wheeled or treaded vehicles can’t handle. It’s a larger version of their BigDog robot, which can run up to 4 miles per hour and climb 35 degree slopes, which gives it capabilities similar to mine if I’m feeling motivated. Unlike me, it can also go 12 miles without stopping and carry 340 pounds. The larger LS3 will be capable of going 20 miles, and carrying 400 pounds. Based on the description, I immediately thought miniature AT-AT (All Terrain Assault Transport), but without the turbo-lasers (yet).

     The LS3 isn’t quite as badass (and has no lasers at all, let alone turbo-lasers), but it does have some advantages. Because of the lower ground clearance, it would be impossible to fly a snow-speeder through the legs of the LS3. Also, it exists in reality.

     Boston Dynamics’ other recent creation is the Cheetah, which holds the speed record for a legged robot, and recently surpassed the speed record for bipedal legged mammals (Usain Bolt’s top speed of 27.8 mph). Admittedly, it uses four legs, which is basically cheating (I just saved you from a really terrible pun. Be grateful). The Cheetah’s record of 28.3 mph is still pretty far behind actual cheetahs, which have been clocked at 75 mph. Though it lacks the speed of an actual cheetah, the Cheetah does run in the same manner, flexing its back with each step.

Like any fan of 1980’s Japanese cartoons that were ripped off and recombined into loosely related English language versions, when someone says robot cheetah, I think Voltron (which Apple auto-corrects to volition).


     So, yeah, the Cheetah would look a whole lot cooler with a head (and four other Cheetahs of different colors that could combine with it to form a giant humanoid robot with a sword). It would also be improved by not being powered by an external hydraulic pump and requiring a boom-like device to keep it in the middle of the treadmill. Fortunately, they’re still working on it and should have these problems remedied in the near future.

     While Boston Dynamics may be several years from providing me with the robot army I require, their legged robots are still steps in the right direction (sorry, I couldn’t help it).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Replacing the TV Remote

We’ve all tried to use the force. We mostly just looked silly, but soon new technology will let us all feel like Jedi (at least where controlling the TV is concerned.) Ok, admittedly, this is less exciting than choking incompetent underlings or convincing cops that “these are not the joints you’re looking for.” It’s still pretty sweet. If you don’t believe me, imagine this:

You’re loaded down with your favorite snacks, and a delicious beverage (and if you’re me, probably a plethora of electronic devices because I have no attention span). You flop into the recliner. You swivel to attain the optimum viewing angle (in my case this involves securing the recliner with a bungee cord because mine is poorly balanced). You stretch, slide, and shift into the perfect position. You are now ready for some quality TV viewing, but alas, the remote is just out of reach. You try to use the force, but the remote just keeps sitting there (presumably mocking you). You’ll have to get up, surrendering your comfortable position (perhaps even risking forfeiture of the much coveted recliner, depending upon your house rules concerning seat reservation.)

Okay, fine. It’s a minor inconvenience, but protecting us from minor inconveniences is what consumer technology is all about. This year, the focus for TV’s seems to have been remote-free options for changing channels, etc. One option uses a video interface (not unlike Xbox Kinect) to respond to hand gestures. While you may not be able to stretch out your hand, clear your mind, and bring the remote to your hand, you’ll be able to make gestures at your television to change channels, increase the volume and crush the throats of reality TV stars (Ok, none of the manufacturers have perfected that last feature yet).

The other common option (likely to be used in conjunction with the other) is voice command. That sort of technology has been around for a while. It’s steadily improving, but so far it’s almost always a disappointment. My laptop came with a voice control interface, but it’s only effective when my face is closer to the mic than it would be if I was typing. The other downside is that for voice recognition to work, you need to be in a room free of background noise. A friend of mine frequently tries to use the voice-to-text function on his phone in crowded bars while drunk. The texts are always amusing, but never make any sense. To get the best out of any sort of voice recognition thing, you need quiet. You’d definitely want to turn off the TV before . . . oh, yeah. I see the problem here.

In all fairness, they might have solutions to that problem (it might be able to recognize and ignore the sound it’s producing or something). It also allows for effective control from a wider area (you don’t have to sit directly in front of the camera). More importantly, it gives me a great excuse to shout at inanimate objects, which I thoroughly enjoy (and it’s much more satisfying when the object does as it’s told). Voice command has the potential to be nearly as effective as my plan to keep a trained Ewok in my entertainment center and just yell at it to control my TV (added advantage: it could also change DVDs/games, and fetch snacks).

The final option is even more impressive. It’ll make reaching out toward the TV in serene, Jedi-like concentration seem old-fashioned. This new technology will allow you to control your TV without lifting a finger; literally. Don’t get too excited, it’s not a direct brain-computer interface, which would be insanely awesome (Think BrainPal from Old Man’s War by John Scalzi). It’s actually a sensor that tracks eye movement. These sensors, once calibrated to the user, can tell when you look down and open a menu, much like when you move your curser to the bottom of the computer screen to make the start menu appear. You click by blinking.

While all these technologies may seem insignificant when the only problem they solve is saving me from having to get off my ass to find the remote, they have the potential to do amazing things in other areas. Video control interfaces have been used in operating rooms so that surgeons can scroll through medical data without touching anything. The ocular sensor technology has been used to help quadriplegics use computers, but apparently the company (Tobii) realized that there are far more lazy people than quadriplegics. And that’s really why we’re seeing new technologies used for something as trivial as controlling the TV. It’s a good way to test the technology, while making enough money to continue developing it. With any luck, the next version will offer the option to choke inept underlings (or at least the voice recognition might work properly).


Saturday, August 4, 2012


This post is the result of a hypothetical asked by Miss Kim, who runs one of my favorite places to watch girls swing around a pole. She asked: “Would you rather lose your hands or your eyes?” I sort of lack the ability to just answer a hypothetical question like a normal human being; I must seek solutions. Naturally, my response to that was it depends on which one technology is more likely to be able to remedy sooner (and if both are possible, I’ll take both. It’ll further my plan to eventually become a badass cyborg.)

     Based on all the extensive research I was able to accomplish (over the course of a longish lunch). I’ve got to go with eyes. They’ve had reasonable retinal implant prototypes since the early 2000s. They aren’t quite the high resolution images granted by “traditional retinas,” but they’re working on it. The prosthesis is essentially a camera that transmits wirelessly to an implant that stimulates (through microelectrode arrays) optic nerves. The major limiting factor right now is the number of microelectrode arrays (the more you’ve got, the higher the resolution). Also, because this is transmitted wirelessly, you also have to worry about efficient this transfer is (better than the Wi-Fi in my hotel hopefully). Then you have the standard issues with any electrical implant: heat dissipation (no one likes cooked brain matter, except for classy, civilized zombies) and battery life (no one wants to risk brain damage every few months to get their batteries changed).

     Despite these problems, I’m optimistic. The number of microelectrode arrays has been greatly improved upon in the last decade, and wireless technology is rapidly improving. According to a commercial at the theater last night, the new Samsung phones can transfer data amongst one another almost instantly by being held in close contact. I stream video wirelessly on my iPad constantly. Heat dissipation and battery life in all electronics are constantly being improved. There is even research into creating a biochemical battery that’s charged (somehow, I didn’t research it at all) by our bodies. Another option is charging them through wireless energy transfer. It gets exponentially inefficient at range, but if it’s only got to go through a few inches of skull and brain it’s a viable option.

Then again, I have an instantaneous solution for three of the four problems: It doesn’t have to be an implant. Glasses are not an implant, and we get by with them just fine. Hell, in Star Trek the Next Generation which is supposed to be in the 24th Century, Geordi La Forge had to use his visor, rather than an internal visual prosthetic. This simple design from the 24th century (ok, actually the late 80’s) makes battery changing/charging a simple task, allows for wired connections to internal implants, and can be air-cooled. Plus, with all that space, I bet you could stick a lot of extra stuff in it. You could have options to see electromagnetic fields and light in the IR and UV spectrums. Magnification and night vision would be a breeze. Plus, if I’m going to be a badass cyborg, I’d want to make sure the humans know it. I want portions of my head incased in metal and scary glowing red eyes like the Terminator (oh, and an HDMI input so I can play video games/watch amusing YouTube videos in my head).

Hand implants are a little farther off. The major factor with hand (or any other limb) implants is that there has to be data transfer in both directions for true functionality. Making prosthesis that respond to nerve impulses is possible, but providing artificial muscle feedback to let you know how hard you’re pushing/pulling/squeezing etc. is the problem. Imagine trying to pick up an egg without being able to feel how much pressure you’re putting on it? Or what if you’re interrogating a space pirate and you only want to choke them enough to get information without killing them? I shudder to consider the risks associated with using such a prosthetic hand for certain discreet adult activities (ouch!!).

So really, you need the sensory feedback. There is some promise in attempts to do this, but it’s tricky and solutions are probably a decade or two off. However, I think other forms of feedback could be used in the meantime. We frequently perform manual tasks with only non-physical feedback, and we rapidly learn to respond in a near instantaneous fashion. Think about video games (I usually am). Responding only to visual and audio feedback (and the occasional vibration on newer systems) we manage to perform some pretty complex motions with our fingers and thumbs. Also consider how rapidly our brain remaps those motions. We aren’t thinking “lift thumb, move forward and to the right, now press down,” we’re thinking “B,” or even “Melee attack” (or more likely “beat down that damn dirty alien.”) The even more amazing thing is how quickly our brains can remap these controls. Sure, immediately after switching from Mass Effect, to Modern Warfare I may have accidentally thrown a flash bang when I wanted to change weapons, but within fifteen to thirty minutes, I had no problems. For all you weird, non-gamer people, a reasonable example might be driving a car. When you want to turn right, you don’t think “pull downward with right arm while simultaneously pushing up with left arm, release right arm, continue pulling to the right and eventually down with left arm” you just think “go right.” With experience, our brain essentially bundles actions into a single process. In both cases we’re operating primarily on feedback from our other senses, rather than responses from our muscles.

Because of the brain’s ability to control muscle (and thus prosthesis) movement based on other forms of sensory input, it seems like we could come up with other forms of feedback to effectively operate prosthetics. Maybe a light or vibration that lets you know how much pressure you’re applying could work. In the case of badass cyborgs, it’d be easy to superimpose various meters in the lower corners of the visual input. I’d find the sweet-spot for safely picking up an egg or non-lethally strangling a space pirate just as quickly as I mastered jump shots on NBA Live. Speaking of video games, I could probably even make it so that I can hook straight up to the Xbox, without even using the controllers. Plus, there have to be options for attachments. I’m thinking Gatling-gun arm like Barrett in Final Fantasy 7, or at very least a combination cork-screw/bottle opener.

So I guess, to answer the original question: BOTH (but not for ten to twenty years, when the technology catches up). I wonder when they’ll be able to do robot legs . . .

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Big Boobs

Yes, the phrase “big boobs” (technically, B16B00B5) did crop up in a bit of Microsoft code. The hexadecimal string was found within code used to make a Microsoft program work with Linux, and Microsoft has already apologized. I’m now going to talk a bit about hexadecimal coding because it’s necessary to understand the issue, but I led with the bit about boobs because I actually want people to read this (that was a stupid thing to admit).

I began with some extensive research on hexadecimal codes, by which I mean I skimmed a Wikipedia article for a few minutes while texting a programmer from Stache Studios (who is also my little brother, Ian). Hexadecimal codes are strings of code that correspond to a base sixteen numeric system. The digits 0-9 represent (surprisingly) the digits 0-9. The letters A-F represent the numbers 10-15. The way you get a total is to add up the value of each letter/digit times sixteen to the power of whatever place it occupies. For example, B00B135 (boobies!) is (11 x 166) + (0 x 165) + (0 x 164) + (11 x 163) + (1 x 162) + (3 x 161) + (5 x 160), all of which equals 184,594,741. So if I ever tell you to “check out her one hundred eighty-four million, five hundred ninety-four thousand, seven hundred forty-one,” you now know what I mean (telling me to double-check my math should buy you enough time to quietly walk away).

These codes are commonly used to represent values (that’s actually the only thing any code has ever been used for in the history of codes). It’s entirely possible that some programmer actually had a legitimate need to use that number. 2,976,579,765 (big boobs) is commonly used as a sort of placeholder between 2,976,579,766 and 2,976,579,764. It’s also handy if you happen to have 2,976,579,765 of something and wish to accurately relay that information.

In all fairness, it’s equally possible he (or she) was using it as a password, unique id, test number, or one of many other functions that Ian told me about after I lost interest. In that case it was completely intentional (and pretty funny). Developer Dr. Matthew Garrett, who is quoted in the BBC article I stole this story from, disagrees with my assessment. “Puerile sniggering at breasts contributes to the continuing impression that software development is a boys’ club where girls aren’t welcome,” he wrote.

First off, lighten up (it sounds like someone could benefit from a little puerile sniggering.) Second, I’m not a software developer (I’ve done some light programming here and there), but I know a few, and I’m certainly a nerd. Software development may be a male dominated world, but it’s not at all intentional on the part of the members. As boy’s clubs go, it’s the sort that would happily waive membership dues for any girl willing to join.

And now they’re talking about whether such a chunk of code is sexist (and anything that can be construed as –ist is immediately malicious). This is despite the fact it could have been a legitimate accident (like a random five letter code coming up penis) or at worst a minor prank that most people would never know about (like a construction worker drawing a penis on a 2x4 that they’re about to put sheet rock and drywall over). I also have to wonder what the reaction would have been if the programmer had used the number 762,133 (BA115 or Balls). It would probably somehow get the same reaction, despite having the puerile sniggering directed at male naughty bits.

Maybe we’ll have to treat certain strings of hexadecimal code like the 13th floor (or 13th street in Rome), and just avoid them altogether regardless of how irrational and stupid it is. In case that happens, I think we should help them to determine which numbers to avoid. So, what sort of inappropriate/amusing things can you come up with using the following?

A  B  C  D  E  F 0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9

We’ve got B00B135, B00B1E5, B16B00B5 and BA115 so far. Let’s find more. Comment here, or Tweet possibilities (#B00B135). I’ll be Tweeting any I come up with throughout the day, and I’ll post them here sometime.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The S&M Cephalopod

"The squid mate for up to three hours and the male must physically restrain the female during this time," Amanda Franklin of the University of Melbourne told the BBC. I've always known that sex in
the animal kingdom tends to be on the rough side (hence similes such as the famous one found in Nine Inch Nails's classic love song "Closer"). However, when I picture rough animal sex (well, not like picture it, but, eh, you know what I mean), smallish dumpling-shaped squids are
not what comes to mind.

The Euprymna tasmanica, or Southern Dumpling Squid, is the creature described by Ms. Franklin. Recent research probably found out all sorts of fascinating things about it, but obviously, the bit bout sex is all that got reported, and thus is the part that I will be amusingly regurgitating for your consumption (that sounded gross, and rather bird-like). In their defense, if I had to skim a large article about squid and then to bang out 1000 words, I'd probably skip to the naughty bits too.

Aside from the bondage bit, most stories are also reporting that the squid swim at about half their regular speed for a half hour after mating. And they say it as if it's surprising that they're tired. I don't know if you've ever had rough sex for three hours, but it's not something where you're able to start swimming at top speed immediately afterward (you have a snack and go to bed). Not to delve into his personal life or anything (as people tend to do that), but I'd be willing to bet that Michael Phelps  didn't have sex for three hours, hop out of bed (untie her), and go win some medals. To be honest, it's fairly impressive that the squid can recover in that short of time.

The really remarkable thing is actually that they mate for three hours. You're probably smugly grinning and questioning my sexual prowess. And for humans, you're right. Three hours isn't all that
impressive (especially if you use lots of complex knots, or temporarily misplace the key to the handcuffs). But these squids only live for about a year. For a human who lives 70 years, that three hours of the squid's life is the equivalent of eight days and eighteen hours. Yeah, I'm good, but I'm not that good.

Isn't marine biology sexy?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

T-Shirt Capacitors

Yeah, scientists found a way to store electricity in cotton. Researchers at the University of South Carolina treated a plain old discount store t-shirt (using science) to give it the capacity to act as a capacitor. Xiaodong Li, the professor running the project, called it "flexible energy storage" (Science Pun!). The treatment process doesn't even seem that difficult. I don't say this to diminish their discovery, but to point out that it seems really likely to have cost effective real-world applications. All you have to do is preheat your oxygen-free oven to a high temperature, soak the shirt in a fluoride solution, dry the shirt, and throw it in the oven (presumably you can tell when it's done using a voltmeter).

That process converts the fibers (or fibres in the BBC article I read) from cellulose to activated carbon. Activated carbon can, if some small bits are made into an electrode, act as a capacitor. Technically speaking, a capacitor is a thingy that stores up energy, yet is not quite the same thing as a battery. Batteries store more energy, but capacitors can release energy at a higher voltage. You can't shock yourself with a AA battery (which puts out about 1.5 volts), but a capacitor hooked to the same battery can put out 300 volts. Some capacitors are strictly used for storage, like the ones in electronic devices that keep them from failing while you charge the batteries. Xiaodong Li predicts that we could use our t-shirt capacitors in a similar fashion to charge phones, iPads, and stuff like that. I've got some more exciting uses in mind.

Does anyone remember that YouTube video some kid got in trouble (possibly with homeland security) for making? In it, he demonstrated how to make a TASER out of a disposable camera. Disposable cameras have a capacitor (used for the flash), and can be modified to deliver a shock (300 volts or so, as previously mentioned). Immediately upon seeing this, I decided to figure out how to make it more badass (and unsafe). My idea was to pull a capacitor from either an amplifier or the flash from a much larger camera (thus we're talking more voltage). Then I immediately decided to attach the electrodes to a glove, power fist-style (that's a badass weapon from the badass game series Fallout).

Shortly thereafter, I decided that since I never punch anyone, it would be pointless. Instead, I came up with a plan to create "shock armor." Basically I'd just run tiny exposed wires in a loose mesh pattern across a coat (a leather jacket ought to be an adequate insulator), ensuring that they don't actually touch at the points where they cross. Thus, when activated, anyone coming into contact with two wires would get a satisfying zap. With a capacitor t-shirt this would be even easier (and I wouldn't have to lug a traditional capacitor around in my pocket.) Since portions can be turned into electrodes, you could turn many small portions into electrodes (meaning it doesn't end up looking like a leather jacket wrapped in wire).

Such a device could have a wide array of applications. It would greatly enhance the user's ability to order drinks in a crowded bar. They would always be at the front of the pit during concerts, and people reaching around to tap their left shoulder while standing to their right would learn a valuable lesson. Mass transit would be a breeze, and if the shirt was long enough, the user would never have to worry about pickpockets. It also has the potential to make football a whole lot more exciting (obviously you'd only have a limited supply of juice for each player, depending on their position). This new and awesome technology allows all of this...and if you want, I guess you can just use it to charge your phone.

The research is published in Advanced Materials.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I don't normally write reviews of books. Most of my blogging experience consisted of reviewing bars, bartenders and the occasional stripper. Perhaps I'll post a link to that blog someday. Statistically speaking, someone, somewhere actually really, really enjoys this sort of thing (given that plenty of people also enjoy cutting themselves, getting pissed on and watching Jersey Shore, this is not particularly exciting to me). But I digress (the handiest three words if you like to avoid having to write smooth transitions).

John Scalzi's latest novel, Redshirts, is a work of what one (or at least I) might call metametafiction and you should immediately go read it. (Seriously, stop reading this shit right now and go buy a copy). For those of you who are unfamiliar with Star Trek, I must first applaud you for reading a blog that's got a picture of a toy dinosaur (a dimetrodon, to be precise) wearing an aluminum foil hat in front of a field of stars (I don't know how you got here, but thanks for coming). Second, "red shirt" is the term used to describe the extras in Star Trek. They're the guys who go on away missions with main characters and usually die horrible deaths. The term has come to mean any secondary (or perhaps even tertiary) character whose only real function in the story is to die.

While Scalzi does a phenomenal job of lampooning many of the silly tropes and scientific impossibilites found in Star Trek and similar shows, there is much more to Redshirts. It tells the story of a group of these minor doomed characters (red shirts) as they become aware of their status as sacrifices upon the altar of drama (and not particularly good drama). This awareness leads them to take action to save themselves from the extra-dimensional force that controls their fate: The Narrative. This mission for survival leads them through the interior fourth wall (this story has two of them) via a black hole (they are fully aware of how badly this violates physics). Later on they even take a shot at the outer fourth wall, too.

I don't want to give away much, but rest assured it's an awesome read. If all you want is a good parody of TV science fiction, Redshirts has got it. If you want an honest and revealing examination of the nature of fiction, it's got that too. While I do recommend this book to everyone, I think that science fiction fans, as well as fiction writers will especially enjoy it (I'm a science fiction writer, so yeah, it rocked).

I actually listened to the audio version of this book (I do that a lot on cross country drives). I find it extra amusing that the reader is none other than Wil Wheaton, who is known for his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has been in other science fiction shows (Eureka, most recently). Not only is Wil a great reader, but his presence lends the audio book an extra bit of irony (I fucking love irony).

Monday, July 9, 2012

God Particle No More

DISCLAIMER: The fact that they call the Higgs Boson the "God Particle" does not mean that it has anything to do with God. I've seen lots of silly posts about how this discovery is somehow proof of God's existence. When they say God Particle, it's not like someone managed to bust off a chunk of God's toenail and take it to a lab to confirm its owner (as well as a partial DNA match to Jesus). It's just a very important particle.  

For my first post, I'd like to talk about the Higgs Boson. It seemed a good choice, as it applies to two themes that will be pervasive in this blog; science, and lateness. I'm so far behind that major news outlets have gotten around to mentioning it even though it's an election year. While I don't really understand the so called "God Particle," I am at least aware of this. I am a fan of science, in the same way I am a fan of music. I find it fascinating and have some basic knowledge, but giving me access to the Large Hadron Collider could be even more dangerous than listening to me play guitar. I'll try to mention the basics though.

The Higgs Boson was proposed by a dude named Peter Higgs, and several other people not named Higgs at all. It is the tiniest (we're talking quantum mechanics, so REALLY, fucking tiny) excitation of the Higgs field, which shares the name of Peter Higgs by pure coincidence (not really). This field is what gives all particles mass. The fact that it gives other particles mass is one theory for why people took to calling it the "God Particle." This theory seems unlikely, since it's actually priests who give mass (Pope Particle would have been great, though I'd never be able to picture it without a funny hat).

The reason the particle is important is that it was the last particle proposed by the Standard Model of particle physics. It more or less means that the Standard Model has been proven to be accurate. Another theory behind calling it the "God Particle," is its significance in that respect. Instead of listing theories I could probably just look up whoever coined the term, and then ultimately dismiss their reasons in favor of my own. (I would do that, but I'm on  a roll now.)

Personally, I thought the term "God Particle" fit, but is no longer apt, since they managed to observe it. It was some unobservable force that we determined was there because of phenomena we believed it to have caused. While evidence told us something was giving particles mass, we couldn't actually observe the elusive Higgs Boson. We took its existence on faith (and a whole lot of very detailed scientific data that left few other explanations for the way other particles behave). That all sounds pretty god-like to me.

The problem now is that its discovery has stripped away, or at least diminished all of those qualities. We've stopped calling the sun Apollo's chariot, and we know that it's just one of millions of stars, and a particularly mediocre one at that. Like a stripper without black lights, an observable Higgs Boson loses a great deal of its charm. Don't get me wrong, it's still pretty cool as particles go. It was just a lot more fun to try to observe the little bugger when no one else had yet.

But that's the way science goes. There are big discoveries and little ones. In years to come physicists will learn more about the Higgs Boson, but the huge discovery is passed. Fortunately though, in a universe as vast as ours, there will be a new "God Particle," some new pinnacle to strive for. There probably already is, but we just won't hear about it on the news until this election nonsense is over; longer if another celebrity dies.