Communion Of Dreams

The summit of beauty and love, *
September 30, 2010, 10:02 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Music, Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

A hand mirror? I think I had forgotten that. Which is interesting, because I know full well what the symbol  Venus means, both in astronomical terms and otherwise.

Anyway, the bit about the mirror is about the only new thing I got out of this well done but very pedestrian video. But part of that may simply be due to the fact that I’m a space exploration geek from way back, and remember following the different probe missions sent to Venus when I was a kid. And the thing is short – less than five minutes – so if you need a refresher course about what we know about Venus, take a look.

Jim Downey

*Of course.

“This thing went to space.”
September 29, 2010, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Science, Space, tech, YouTube

OK, as you might guess from my BBTI project, I am a sucker for “homebrew science”. I love people who are willing to spend some time and a little money to sort out the various issues and make use of current tech in order to do their own type of research, just for shits and giggles.

This is one such project: using a weather balloon, a digital video camera, and an iPhone, combined with a bit of styrofoam and ingenuity, these guys sent a camera into the edge of space – to some 100,000 feet. And then they recovered the camera, which landed just 30 miles from their launch point, thanks to the GPS tracking of the iPhone.

Now, how cool is that?

My hat’s off to you, Luke Geissbuhler & crew.

Jim Downey

September 28, 2010, 10:54 am
Filed under: Art, Blade Runner, movies, Predictions, Science Fiction, Society, tech

I’ll often re-watch a favorite movie. But seldom will I do so in the span of a couple of days.

However, this weekend I watched something which was so visually compelling, and which had me pondering a number of different issues, that I held onto the NetFlix envelop for an extra day so that I could watch the movie again after I had time to digest the first viewing of it. That movie is Renaissance.

OK, there are a lot of things to like about this movie. But first, let me say a couple of things about its weaknesses. The plot has minor problems. The dialog is uneven in places. Some of the characters are cartoonish.

Yet overall the movie is a success. As noted, most of the visuals are incredibly compelling – which is quite a nice accomplishment in using black & white (and grey tone) animation. When I re-watched the movie last night, I found myself pausing it just to take in some scenes more completely, and a bunch of the movie I watched at half-speed, just so I could appreciate how the artists did what they did.

I was also intrigued to see the vision of the near-term future the movie is based on. It’s set in 2054, just two years later than my novel Communion of Dreams is set. And a lot of the tech they foresee is the same sort of thing I do, at least that’s implied by what shows up on the screen. I found myself wanting to know a *lot* more about that world and how things worked – a good sign, and part of the reason I wanted to think about the movie for a couple of days before watching it again.

Another good thing about Renaissance are the references it makes to other highly regarded science fiction stories, as well as some of the less well-known ‘arthouse’ movies. But it doesn’t beat you over the head with those, or drop them in gratuitously – they serve a purpose, and are part of the overall look and story of the movie.

If you like good science fiction, if you like film noir, if you like animation not intended for children, then track down and watch Renaissance.

Jim Downey

Demolition Derby.
September 28, 2010, 10:22 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, tech, YouTube

What’s big, round, and cost a gazillion dollars – all in order to just smash things? Why, the  Large Hadron Collider Large Hadron Collider, of course.

At least that might be the impression you take away from the first part of today’s Sixty Symbols video.

Oh, there’s actually a lot of good science and decent imagery in the video, as well. But it’s an odd mix of being too simplistic and then on the other hand assuming that you understand a fair amount of physics. The explanations are good, if a little basic – but then there are repeated use of images showing the energy traces from collisions (in both two and three dimensions) without much in the way of explanations of what it is you are seeing. Someone who doesn’t understand those might easily come to a conclusion that they’re some kind of explosion (which they are, but not in the sense most people think) and think that the whole thing is dangerous (which it is, but only if the multiple safety features fail). That there have been some problems with this massive machine which resulted in a segment of superconducting magnets breaking loose and dumping a ton of liquid helium into the tunnel doesn’t help matters. These are the sorts of things which may well have contributed to the nonsensical fears in the popular press about the LHC creating a black hole and destroying the Earth.

Anyway, it’s a good video, if you ignore some of these problems. I did learn a couple of things from it (I didn’t realize that they were getting their particles accelerated to within 10 meters-per-second of the speed of light, for example). And I like that they did address how basic scientific research leads to real world applications which more than pay for themselves in the aggregate, though that almost seemed like an afterthought at the end of the video. So if you get a chance, check it out.

Jim Downey

“Should we be worried?” “Yes.”
September 27, 2010, 10:08 am
Filed under: Astronomy, NASA, Science, Space, tech, YouTube

That’s an exchange in today’s Sixty Symbols video, on the subject of asteroids:  Asteroids

But the point is made clearer as the scientist explains that the threat is unlikely – yet, if we had a major impact, the results would be catastrophic.

However, the bulk of the relatively short (6:36) vid is just talking about the asteroid belt, and how it is now thought to be a planetary body which failed to form, due to the gravitational effects of the other planets. One good item was discussion of how even though this is the case, the vastness of space is such that the chances of encountering an asteroid while traversing the belt is very remote.

It would have been nice if they talked about project WISE, which was used to detect some 25,000 new asteroids recently. But I suppose it was important that they talked about the 1970s video game “Asteroids”, instead.

Jim Downey

The little particle that isn’t there.
September 26, 2010, 11:20 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, tech, YouTube

Today’s Sixty Symbols video is about neutrinos, represented by the symbol:  Neutrinos

Most of us have heard of neutrinos, a fundamental particle which has almost no mass and is almost impossible to detect, leading to some pretty amazing technological wonders designed to find them. But this video is disappointing – no, the information is good, and you’ll come away from it with a better understanding of the role of the neutrino in particle physics and cosmology. If you don’t fall asleep. Because it is almost entirely talking heads.

The same sound track – the same series of physicists explaining what neutrinos are and how they factor into our understanding of how the universe works – could have been used with an entirely different set of visual images. Maybe just a bunch of static diagrams. Or some of the images of neutrino detectors linked up above. Or animations. Or just about anything.

I’m not complaining about the enthusiasm displayed by the scientists, as they talk about this topic. That’s pretty clear. But that isn’t at all what I would think is most effective in conveying information about the subject to a lay audience.

Jim Downey

For a day that started out with “You’re going to die,” this was turning out all right.
September 26, 2010, 8:11 am
Filed under: Health, Hospice, PZ Myers

We all die. Only some of us know that our death is imminent. If it turns out that I’m one of those, I hope I’ll be able to come to terms with it with the kind of grace Mike Celizic did.

Edited to add: No, there’s no subtext here. I’m not trying to prep my friends for any bad news. Sheesh, people, you know I’m more blunt than that. I just thought it was a good article.

Jim Downey

Via PZ.

Friggin’ magnets, how do they work?*
September 25, 2010, 10:28 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

So, this is the symbol for magnetic susceptibility: Magnetic Susceptibility

And the Sixty Symbols vid that goes along with it doesn’t actually explain how magnets work, but rather explores some of the fun things which can be done with magnetic fields. Specifically, magnetic levitation. And they do this in a way near and dear to my heart – by levitating a drop of beer. Yay!

OK, it’s silly. And the vid isn’t just levitating a drop of beer. Rather, it is just a demonstration of why scientists might want to levitate something: to simulate the effects of weightlessness when you don’t happen to have a space station handy. Understanding how materials and organisms behave in the absence of gravity actually is important. And besides, even astronauts deserve a beer now and then.

Jim Downey

*Yeah, OK, it was a pop culture reference.

September 24, 2010, 10:04 am
Filed under: Science, Sixty Symbols, Space, YouTube

Getting back to Sixty Symbols . . .

Today’s symbol/vid is  Vacuum and Pascals which stands for “Pascal” – the SI measurement of vacuum.

This is a fun video. Just let the words “vacuum cannon” bounce around in your head for a moment, and you’ll see the possibilities. It’s a graphic demonstration of the amount of air pressure we live with here on Earth, and how a vacuum can be used. A little more historical context for the idea of a vacuum would have been welcome (one of the first steam engines – the Newcomen – used vacuum pressure to create mechanical energy), but the folks at Sixty Symbols are trying to teach a little science, not history. And it does nicely explain how what most people think of as a vacuum is nothing like what exists in space, or what scientists need to do to recreate such a vacuum in the lab.

And the vacuum cannon is just plain cool. Check it out.

Jim Downey

This sums it up, nicely.
September 22, 2010, 12:20 pm
Filed under: Promotion, Publishing, Writing stuff


I’ve mentioned here and on Facebook that I’ve jumped into the pit of despair known as Searching For An Agent for the care giving book. Talk about a soul-sucking, mind-numbing process.


Anyway, since my Good Lady Wife has been tackling this problem in the logical way (using Literary and Agent guides and listings, websites designed to help bring authors and agents together, et cetera), I thought I would approach it from somewhat less conventional directions, hoping that I might come across some possibilities she might not. One such effort has been to read Agents’ blogs. There’s a bunch of these, and of course they’re stuffed with “insight into the industry” and “helpful tips on how to get your query letter noticed” and suchlike. Good, basic information.

Or is it?

Here’s what I mean: the industry is changing. And a lot of what you read on these blogs doesn’t necessarily apply a year or a month or even 30 minutes after it has been posted (if it ever did). And if it did apply then, the advice may have reflected someone’s own agenda more than reality. Or their own misunderstanding about the industry.

Here’s a classic example that sums up my point, nicely. Alan Rinzler is a well established, well-connected editor and agent with decades of experience. He has a blog stuffed with information about the publishing industry. Occasionally he does profiles of literary agents, and two years ago he did one of Elise Proulx, which went on at some length about her desire to find upcoming talent. Here’s a quote from that piece:

I’m eager to discover writers who aren’t famous yet but will be,” says San Francisco-based literary agent Elise Proulx.

“My mission is to promote literature and make some money for deserving authors,” said Proulx, whose five tips for unpublished writers appear below. “My specialty is both high quality fiction and what I call “pragmatic nonfiction”, meaning books that are useful and prescriptive, like good parenting books,” added Proulx, an associate at the venerable Frederick Hill Bonnie Nadell Literary Agency.

Cool, eh? She sounds like someone pumped about her job, her firm, her industry, doesn’t she? Well, here’s the kicker, an addendum to that same profile piece:

News flash (12/08):

We’ve received word from Elise that she’s left the literary agency business. We’re very sad to see her go and wish her good fortune in all her endeavors.

OK, I don’t know why Ms. Proulx decided to get out of the business. Could have been for personal reasons completely unrelated to what is happening in the industry. But that move came about two months after the profile piece that Rinzler posted about her. She had to know that this change was coming – and yet see what she told Rinzler?


Jim Downey