A Tale of Momentum

This little animation is just over a minute long, but its protagonist has tons of character (literally), the best eyebrows ever, and an attitude I have to admire.

And: the animation studio is in Portland, Oregon! It’s HouseSpecial.

Posted in humor, video | 6 Comments

The ESA’s day in the sun

NASA/JPL usually gets all the press, but yesterday the European Space Agency had its moment. That’s because in March 2004 the ESA sent out a probe called Rosetta, which then traveled 6.4 billion kilometers over a period of ten years in order to intercept a tiny little speck of a comet that was zipping along at varying speeds as high as 135,000 kilometers per hour. (Right now it’s going 66,250 kph.) And since no rocket exists that could drive a probe the size of Rosetta all the way to the comet, the scientists who programmed this mission sent Rosetta bouncing around the inner Solar System in order to get gravity-assisted speed boosts off Mars (once) and Earth (three times). This is pretty much the equivalent of hitting a billiard ball off all four sides of the pool table to knock in the 8-ball — if the four sides of the pool table were all simultaneously in motion, along with the 8-ball. And if the whole thing took ten years. And if the pool table was a billion or so kilometers long.

In other words, just getting Rosetta to its destination—Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, but let’s call it Comet 67P for short—was epic. Then last month, Rosetta hovered about 10 kilometers above the comet and took some gorgeous closeups, including this one. Did you know that comets have sand dunes?

NAVCAM top 10 at 10 km – 3

If you want to see the rest of this collection, it’s here.

But that still wasn’t why the ESA was in the news. Yesterday, Rosetta finally released its lander, named Philae, to make a direct landing on the comet. This was a first in human history.

Now, keep in mind that Philae doesn’t have any engines. So the idea was to get Rosetta in exactly the right place, going exactly the right speed (the comet is moving at 66,250 kph, remember—that’s 41,166 mph), so that Philae could be released and then simply drift down onto the comet’s surface. Over a period of seven hours. While everyone is ripping along at Ludicrous Speed. So, no problem. Oh, and did I mention that this was the culmination of ten years of work and waiting? And that some people have spent their entire professional lives working toward this moment?

So, here’s one of them. Her name is Monica Grady, she’s the Professor of Planetary and Space Science at Open University and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), she’s been on the Rosetta team since the beginning, and in this video she is reacting to the news of Philae’s successful touchdown with the typical reserve we expect from a decorated British scientist.

The “David” she is apologizing to is the BBC’s Science Editor David Shukman, who appears to have quite enjoyed that enthusiastic hug. And who wouldn’t?

You can learn much more about Rosetta, Comet 67P, and little Philae on the ESA’s web site. It’s a good primer with easy-to-understand text, but if you’d like a visual shortcut, don’t miss the two animated videos describing the journey (Are We There Yet) and the preparation for landing (Preparing for #CometLanding). I really can’t see NASA producing these! They are without a doubt the most adorkable science videos I have ever watched. And yet they still manage to get all the relevant information across. I can’t wait to see the next one.

Finally, and possibly best of all, SPLOID has put up size comparison photos of Comet 67P. Some of them are courtesy of the ESA, such as this one comparing the comet to London.

Comet and London

You can also see it compared to Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris and Rome. But my favorite images are the ones by high school physics teacher Christopher Becke, who decided to show what the comet would look like next to various science fiction ships…like Battlestar Galactica.

Comet and battlestar galactica

You can also see it compared to the Death Star and various Federation constructions like Deep Space Nine and a Federation Space Dock (which is freaking huge; I had no idea).

Science is cool.

Posted in astronomy, event | 4 Comments

The Caphenon

I’ve been waiting a long time to post this one.

The book cover for my new science fiction novel The Caphenon is done, and it’s beautiful. Having a ship I envisioned in my head take shape in the “real” world is a pretty amazing thing.

Those of you who know me from my online stories and who loved Without A Front will be delighted to know that The Caphenon is a prequel to that novel. I’ve created a new universe for the Alseans to live in, with the usual complications of politics and philosophy—and of course a whole lot of world-building added in.

And yes, Without A Front is next in the pipeline. It will be divided into two volumes to be published next fall. The Caphenon will be out in March 2015 in both e-book and paperback format.

The Caphenon

Here’s the blurb for The Caphenon:

On a summer night like any other, an emergency call sounds in the quarters of Andira Tal, Lancer of Alsea. The news is shocking: not only is there other intelligent life in the universe, but it’s landing on the planet right now.

Tal leads the first responding team and ends up rescuing aliens who have a frightening story to tell. They protected Alsea from a terrible fate—but the reprieve is only temporary.

Captain Ekayta Serrano of the Fleet ship Caphenon serves the Protectorate, a confederation of worlds with a common political philosophy. She has just sacrificed her ship to save Alsea, yet political maneuvering may mean she did it all for nothing.

Alsea is now a prize to be bought and sold by galactic forces far more powerful than a tiny backwater planet. But Lancer Tal is not one to accept a fate imposed by aliens, and she’ll do whatever it takes to save her world.

If you’d like a sneak preview, head over to my book page at Ylva Publishing and click on “Read a PDF Online” in the Excerpts box.

You can also check out my author page, and maybe bookmark that one, because by this time next year there will be two new novels in the “Books by” section. It’s going to be a busy year!

Posted in event | 10 Comments

The microwave

Our microwave stopped rotating its internal plate some time ago, so for well over a year we’ve been heating our dishes by putting them in for a minute or so, taking them out to stir the contents, and then putting them back in. Rinse, repeat. It was a pain, but I refused to buy a new microwave when this one worked fine, if a bit inconveniently. Besides, I remember when all microwaves worked like this. My parents’ machine did, and they’re still using it, because it was built in the days when folks expected appliances to last more than two years. That monster is around 25 years old.

Three days ago I put in some leftover chicken to reheat. It was in a glass container (we never reheat in plastic). After one minute on the medium setting I took it out to stir and put it back in. Forty seconds later, I heard POW and looked in to find my glass container in two pieces, with a few shards stuck in my chicken.

Last night I put in a different glass container to reheat. The exact same thing happened: POW, broken dish, less than one minute of heating.

Apparently our microwave has developed some sort of frighteningly strong hot spot, which can break the molecular bonds of glass in under a minute. Yikes.

I said, “Okay, let’s go microwave shopping before we break every container in our cupboards.” My wife jumped for joy, because she hates the whole take-out-and-stir regime, and the fact that it takes twice as long to heat anything. She’s been waiting for this appliance to die.

We found this at our local store:


I said, “I’m not sure I can trust a brand name like Candy.” My wife said, “It’s a really good name.”

It is?

She’s right; it’s a German brand and has a good reputation. This is one of those disconnects that hits me at times: as an American shopper, I knew the good brands and what to look for. As a European shopper, I’m still lost. Candy, really?

Also, there’s no Consumer Reports over here to help me figure out what’s good and what’s overpriced. But I do have Google Translate, which helped me read the consumer reviews on Amazon.de. Lots of folks are happy with this microwave. I also found a German magazine that tested 13 microwaves and gave this one second place. (First place went to a Panasonic that cost more than twice as much.)

So I guess we’re getting a Candy microwave, which still makes me laugh. If I were into cooking sweets, I’d have to make some candy in my Candy just so I could say I did.

But I bet it won’t last 25 years.

Posted in Europe, life | 10 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Finland autumn

For US readers, a bit of peace to celebrate the fact that as of today, the onslaught of political noise is over.* Congratulations, you survived!

As a reward, here is a gorgeous autumn scene from Nukarinkoski, Finland. Imagine hearing that brook laughing over the rocks as the brilliant fall leaves tumble into its waters…ahhh.

(Click the image to embiggen.)

* Until the presidential campaign starts heating up, that is…which should be in about four days. Sorry about that.

Posted in Europe, wallpaper | Leave a comment

Anti-arachnophobe post

Remember when I posted that video of the gigantoid web produced in Brazil by a colony of cooperatively-hunting spiders? And many of you North Americans said, “OH GOD — well, at least that’s in South America and not here”?

Guess what was found in the Baltimore Wastewater Treatment Plant a few years back?

A four-acre spider web.

Orb weaver 4acre web

This is not an exaggeration. The entomologists who responded to the treatment plant’s call for “extreme spider help” subsequently wrote a journal article about it, which was published in American Entomologist in autumn 2010:

We were unprepared for the sheer scale of the spider population and the extraordinary masses of both three dimensional and sheet-like webbing that blanketed much of the facility’s cavernous interior. Far greater in magnitude than any previously recorded aggregation of orb-weavers, the visual impact of the spectacle was was nothing less than astonishing.

In places where the plant workers had swept aside the webbing to access equipment, the silk lay piled on the floor in rope-like clumps as thick as a fire hose.

I’ve edited scientific journal articles, and I can tell you that academics don’t use terms like “extraordinary masses” or “nothing less than astonishing” lightly. My guess is that these folks wandered around the treatment plant saying things like “Holy shit” and “Oh my lord we are SO going to publish this!”

Especially when they found places where the weight of the webbing was so great that it pulled 8-foot florescent light fixtures out of the ceiling.

Over at Wired, journalist Gwen Pearson wrote:

The scientists described their estimate of 35,176 spiders/m³ as “markedly conservative” and “representing a minimum volume” of spiders, by the way.

Question: do you measure spiders in Metric ShitTons? Or in Imperial ShitLoads?

I think this is a very relevant question, because when was the last time you heard of spiders being measured in volume?

I sure hope the city of Baltimore recognized what a fantastic tourism resource this was. They should have put up some strobe lights, piped in some freaky music, and charged a pile of cash for people to go in on Halloween.

Posted in biology, USA | 9 Comments

The sunlit path

Watching my home nation undergo a tidal change in social understanding has been an amazing experience. There are very few times in our lives when we can know, without a doubt, that we are watching history in the making.

When Portugal recognized my marriage, I knew that returning to Oregon to live was never going to be an option—not so long as our marriage would be legally stripped away from us the moment we crossed the US border. Besides being a covenant, an oath of love and loyalty, and a socially recognized family unit, a marriage is also a bundle of legal protections. Those protections are especially important for a bi-national marriage, when one spouse can be summarily deported for overstaying a visa. And the US doesn’t issue visas or residency cards for “roommates” of citizens.

I’d be a careless and irresponsible spouse if I put my family in danger. So home was not an option.

Then the Windsor decision happened, and the US Supreme Court declared that the federal government could not treat state-sanctioned heterosexual marriages any differently from state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. There was a lot of rejoicing that day in June 2013, because those of us watching the court system knew that United States v. Windsor was going to have an enormous effect on state laws.

But even in my wildest dreams, I did not think that effect would be the tsunami it has been. There was a time when I could rattle off from memory the names of states with equal marriage rights. I can’t do that now. There are already 32 of them, nearly half of which happened just this year. (One of those was Oregon, on 19 May.) In five more states, the courts have declared the state law preventing issuance of same-sex marriage certificates to be unconstitutional, but then issued a stay on the ruling pending appeal. It is a near-certainty that those appeals will be decided in favor of equal rights.

It is now easier to remember the states that don’t have equal marriage rights than the states that do.

This gif from the Huffington Post is a good illustration of how the gradual build-up went kapow in late 2013 and 2014.

MarriageEqualityMap GIF4

Nor is it just legal change. By 2010, more Americans supported equal marriage rights than opposed them. In a single decade, the nation shifted. What made the difference?


I remember a time when the common agreement was, “If every gay person suddenly turned blue, everyone in the US would realize they’ve been living with, working with, or attending church with someone who is gay. And that those people are perfectly ordinary and normal. Wouldn’t that change everything?”

We haven’t literally turned blue, but we have been coming out in greater and greater numbers. It’s amazing how extremely conservative politicians suddenly modify their stance on equal marriage rights when they find out their own son or daughter is gay. Denying rights to a vilified “other” is one thing; denying them to someone you love is something else. And the impact of the high-profile announcements cannot be overstated. Most of us can only affect our small circle of family, friends and acquaintances, but some individuals can affect millions.

That’s why announcements such as Tim Cook’s are so important. As Tim wrote today in Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

…if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

Kudos to Tim for turning blue, and for leaving us with this beautiful ending to his article:

We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.

As for me, home is now an option. Of course, I’ve made Portugal my home after all these years, so I don’t plan to return to Oregon any time soon, but just knowing I can makes all the difference. When I learned that I could take my family back to Oregon if we wanted to go, I had a good cry and a large gin and tonic.

Posted in life, politics, USA, video | 11 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Coquille Falls

A little view of home — Coquille Falls, on the southern Oregon coast. Portugal is such a lovely place, but it really does need more waterfalls and ferns.

(Click the image to scenify.)

Posted in wallpaper | 4 Comments

Don’t lose that number

Recently I placed an order in a shop, and the owner wanted my mobile number so that she could call me when the order came in.

I have had the same mobile number for nearly eight years. It’s burned into my brain. But I can never repeat it in Portuguese. It always happens the same way: I get five numbers into it and then lose track of where I was. Under pressure, with the clerk’s pen poised and an expectant look directed my way, I flounder back and forth in my mind, pulling up the number in English and mentally translating, then losing my place again halfway there.

Clearly, our brains (or my brain) handle the memory and translation of numbers differently from that of words. I have no problem rattling off Portuguese numbers or translating English numbers into Portuguese. But remembering a string of nine numbers in Portuguese rather than English? It just doesn’t happen. Translating it on the fly? Nope. There’s something in the combined process of numeric memory recall plus translation that puts a wrench in the works.

One of these days, I’m going to remember to print out a card with my damn number on it and stick it in my wallet. So long as the numbers are written down, I’m golden.

In the meantime, I keep finding this song running through my head.

Posted in life, Portugal | 6 Comments

Wallpaper Tuesday

Jacobite train

Photographer Vytenis Malisauskas labeled this photo “Glenfinnan Viaduct,” but it could also have been called “The Jacobite.” This is the Jacobite train, better known to moviegoers as the Hogwarts Express. The real-life route it travels from Fort William to Maillaig, Scotland isn’t quite as spectacular as the route it travels in the Harry Potter films, but it’s close. The Glenfinnan Viaduct, with its 21 arches, is so beautiful that it was imported wholesale into the Harry Potter films.

(Click the image to steamate. And yes, I know it’s Tuesday. Monday got away from me.)

Posted in wallpaper | 1 Comment