Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Plasma Rocket


Top boffins working at a NASA spinoff company are thrilled to announce that their plasma drive technology – potentially capable of revolutionising space travel beyond the Earth's atmosphere – has checked out A-OK in ground tests.


According to the Ad Astra Rocket Company, building the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), the firm's VX-200 prototype engine has just completed its latest round of trials with flying colours.


Thanks to Jan Harald Fonas for putting this my way. I wonder what, exactly, it means?


WASHINGTON -- NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.


Here's the link.


Quick question for you all. What would be a good (big) encyclopedia for me to download onto my laptop to use when I don't have Internet access?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Solar Death Ray

Well, it's not quite the Elysium smelter mirrors, but it's getting there...

Writing Update.

After running around sorting out our TV (aerial coming on Wednesday) and also de-crapping the loft, I’m back on course with Zero Point. 2,000 words cleared today and some neat little plot elements beginning to tie off. One character, created in a Chandlerish moment of ‘this is getting slow, need to walk in man with gun’, started to turn into a bit of a loose end. This was, until I realized that he fits into the story like that dusty old jigsaw piece you find under the sofa.

It would be easy to think in terms of predetermination at such a point, but it’s not that at all. I mean, I hadn’t been considering the possible existence of Line War when I was writing Gridlinked. I had written an outline and about 30,000 words of The Line of Polity but, as I’ve mentioned before, I dumped the outline and all but a few thousand words when I came to write it. And at that point I didn’t even know the title of the next book, or the ending of TLOP.

I think it’s all about having read an awful lot, and then having written an awful lot. Maybe the programming is in place in my skull and now all I have to do is feed in the story as it occurs to me. Plot elements, characters, situations, technology, whatever, all get number crunched and results start popping up on the mental screen, and the answer to that perennial question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ has to be a finger tapped against the skull with perhaps the addition of the words, ‘Fuck knows how.’

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where's my Hammer?

Bloody televisions!

Our old TV was still a 26 inch tube, with a chip in the screen and was generally not as clear as it used to be. The only freeview we had available was through a Sky box (though we no longer subscribe to Sky), and the old DVD & hard disk recorder has been playing silly buggers for some time. So, also bearing in mind that VAT his going to shoot up, we decided it was time to invest in some new equipment. We got a Sony LCD flat screen (with integral freeview) and a Panasonic DVD & hard disk recorder. And I haven’t even got to the stage of turning on the second of these on.

I unplugged about twenty metres of various cobwebby cables and detached all the other equipment, then got the new TV and recorder in place – nice and simply connected with an HDMI cable. All a lot neater, lighter, better…

The instructions were of course pretty simple. They always are until something goes wrong. I ran the automatic tuning on the thing and all seemed hunky dory and the picture was superb. Then I checked the digital program list and found ITV, Channels 4 & 5 and numerous other channels missing. I tried again, but they were still missing. I tried the manual retune but could make neither head nor tail of it until I researched it on the Internet. Meanwhile Caroline turned on the TV in the bedroom only to discover heavy interference on all channels. We searched out the manual for that, retuned it, but with no luck.

Tomorrow I’m going to have to call up ‘Academy Aerials’ since, it seems, either the connections in the co-ax in the loft are causing problems, or we need a new aerial. But I’m still not sure how that relates to the problems with the bedroom TV.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

24 Terabytes?

Now is this taking us forward a bit faster than stated by the updated version of Moore's Law?

The technology, when applied to current density HDD (with areal density of about 500Gbits / square inch), will result in an 8-fold increase in the recording density. This means that we could see HDD with capacities of 24TB in the future.

Super Capacitor Advance

I picked up some info on graphene from a newpaper article this year, but haven' pursued it much. Anyway, this is looking pretty cool:

These energy density values are comparable to that of the Ni metal hydride battery. This new technology provides an energy storage device that stores nearly as much energy as in a battery, but can be recharged in seconds or minutes. We believe that this is truly a breakthrough in energy technology.

Brass Monkeys

Damn, the brass monkeys have bought up all the insulated scrotum protectors and are running for cover. The snow hasn’t hit us in this part of Essex yet but, as you can see, it ain’t exactly Cancun outside and the snow is on the way.

I have to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to keep on cycling without risking being mowed down by some prick in an SUV who thinks ice is what happens to other people. I fully intend to keep trying, even going so far as raking out my old fleece-lined fishing suit if necessary. But cycling through blizzards will have to be a no-no since I don’t have windscreen wipers on my eyes.

Mmm, I wonder what the betting now is on a white Christmas?

11.05AM and the temperature reads minus 4.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jebel Krong Bookmarks 3

And some more. Okay, Jebel, time for that Anafranil/Prozac cocktail now...

Jebel Krong Bookmarks 2.

Here's a refinement of Jebel Krong's bookmarks (he tells me his OCD kicked in).

And to remind everyone: I want bookmarks, using the Jon Sullivan cover pictures (clear versions can be found on his site), and they must include this blog address. No more entries after January 1st when I'll be judging this competition (if the poll I put up before is anything to go by). The top three get copies of my books that they haven't got in their collection (after their prizes) ... oh, and when I say that, I mean any of the Macmillan books. The top two get the Spatterjay series with the new covers, whilst the winner also gets the Cormac series, all signed of course. Send them to me here at ndotasheratvirgindotnet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


A couple of evenings back I watched an episode of QI, which often comes out with some interesting facts. This particular episode touched on something that’s been a fascination of mine for some years: parasites (and I don’t mean the human kind). Here’s the little darling they were talking about:


The Spotted Rose Snapper Fish, which lives off the coast of California, is oft victim to another freaky parasite. The Cymothoa exigua parasite, a type of crustacean, swims into the fish’s mouth and attaches itself at the base of the poor Snappers tongue. It leeches blood from its victim and as it grows, the tongue withers and dies due to lack of blood supply. Eventually when the tongue dies completely, either diminishing or falling off, the parasite then switches places with the stump and acts as a working replacement for the organ, allowing the fish to use it just like a normal tongue.

The parasite spends the rest of its life living off both the fish’s blood and bits of food that enter the fish’s mouth. The Cymothoa exigua is the only parasite known to effectively replace a body organ.

If any of you have read any of the interviews with me you’ll know that The Skinner and the ensuing Spatterjay books can all be traced back to one instance. I was loaned a book on helminthology (the study of parasitic worms) by a vet, and read through it with growing fascination. I think the thing that got me first was the sheer number of transformations in the lifecycles of various parasites when, before, the limit of my knowledge on such changes was egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly, and how some parasites actually change their host for their own benefit. Two of them stuck in my mind. One includes both ants and sheep in its life cycle. It interferes with the ant’s brain and makes it climb to the top of a stalk of grass and cling there, waiting for a grazing sheep. Another gets inside a snail to breed, but to protect itself, causes the snail to grow a thicker shell. Here, with Cymothoa exigua, are a few more.

This reading resulted in various short stories: The Thrake, The Gurnard, Out of the Leaflight, Choudapt, Spatterjay and Snairls. They then resulted in the novella no one can get hold of: The Parasite. Then I took two short stories, Spatterjay & Snairls, and on the basis of them wrote The Skinner. I definitely must read some more of this stuff.

The Aliens Are Here.

Y’know, there are lots of conspiracy theories running around the world – the moon landings were falsified, alien spacecraft in AREA 51 – but I’m here to tell you now that one of them is true: there are aliens amongst us. If you were to split open a particular shiny forehead that’s been prominent on your TVs and in your newspapers you would reveal the green lizard skin of glombulfrog from the planet Zaarg. Cameron is not alone, of course, glombulfrogs have taken control of all the parliaments and senates across the world, because nothing else could possibly explain their deep disconnect from real human beings.

It is a conspiracy to give us the worst possible rulers, to fuck up our financial systems, blow our money on complete rubbish, involve us in pointless wars, control and dictate, nanny and generally leave us so totally and utterly pissed off with them. The purpose of this is quite simple. When, in about ten years, the invasion arrives and the particle beams lash down, turning the House of Commons to rubble, the White House to a smoking ruin, the European Parliament to a bomb site snowed with the pages from burning accounts books, we’ll all cheer. When the glombulfrogs stride out of their massive space ships and tell us that they are now in charge, there will be a collective worldwide sigh of relief and cries of, ‘Thank fuck for that.’


The latest Cameroonism is a perfect example of how they work:

‘Hey, the country is in huge debt, people are worried about their finances, worried about the massive amounts of money we’re blowing, so how can we hack them off further?’ he asked at a recent glombulfrog focus group.

‘I know,’ a climber in the frog hierarchy answered, ‘let’s spend some money on something completely needless and pointless just like our agents in the previous government did. That always seemed to work.’

‘Ahah,’ said the Camerofrog, ‘let’s do a happiness consultation and spend, I dunno, a couple of million.’

‘Only a couple of million?’

‘Well, we can’t get too drastic – the main invasion fleet won’t arrive for another ten years.’

‘Very true – we do actually need something left to rule.’

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New Office

New desks purchased and assembled. Layers of crap removed from the drawers and discarded, since I’m one of those annoying people who tends to keep stuff because ‘it might come in handy’ and have reached that point where the handy thing is so buried in other handy stuff that I can’t find it.

My old desk, which I bought second-hand and has followed me through four homes and at which I’ve written every book published by Macmillan, was getting rather wobbly and tired. With its metal back I also needed to extend a few of the USB cables to reach the computer underneath. It’s also the case that it was good when I worked a lot with that archaic paper stuff and when I needed the room for a bloody great screen, but is not necessary now. I thought I’d be sad to see it go, but I’m not.

The loft next. All those handy plastic containers, all that computer hardware no one will ever want, the boxes for things purchased years ago, a big container of rusty nails retained from when I used to do fencing and a load of door handles whose history I’m a little confused about. All down the dump.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Yer Bike

It’s very definitely been the case that since coming back from Crete I’ve been spending far too much time on the Internet, and the most exercise I’ve had is moving the furniture out of a bedroom ready for a new carpet. And, as is usual with me, I’ve started to get annoyed with how indolent and crappy I feel.

Time to get on my bike again.

My usual route has been from our house here over to my mother’s house, where I would have a cup of tea and a chat, before cycling back again – an eight mile round trip. Last winter, because it was so damned cold, I didn’t do it as much as I should have. My resolution this winter is that I will cycle this route three times a week. The only times I won’t do this is if there’s an actual blizzard, ice on the roads, or a torrential downpour. I’ve also resolved to throw in a bit of weight training too.

Today was the first day. Cycling to my mother’s house against a headwind left me absolutely knackered, but the trip back wasn’t so bad. Once I got back I collected a dustpan and brush so as to occupy myself, in the rest period between each weight-training set, sweeping up all the crap that had blown into our garage over the summer. The training itself was surprisingly easy, and only left me feeling a bit tired and shaky, however, the real effects won’t kick in until tomorrow.

Why such madness? I need it. You have to remember that before I got taken on by Macmillan I worked in a very physical job for 13 years. Maybe I need the endorphins. Anyway, if I don’t get some exercise I’ll end up looking like this:


'nuff said.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Iron Man

I picked up the DVD of Iron Man in the supermarket about a year ago and have only just got round to watching it. What can I say? It was great fun and, if you haven't seen it, I recommend you do.

Of course the usual big hole was there: power supply. In this they got round it by 'genius creates a palm-sized fusion reactor in a cave'. It's the kind of thing we saw a lot in SF many decades ago but we're too wise to go with now ... or could it be that we're too cynical and pessimistic? Thinking on this sort of thing let me to You Tube where I note that military exoskeletons are getting closer:

However, note the power cables. Power storage is always going to be a problem ... unless of course you actually wear the battery?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

We Are Doomed.

Sometimes I feel optimistic and think the human race has a future. Then I catch a glimpse of something like X-factor, I'm a Celebrity, or Strictly Come Dancing and think 'bread and circuses' and realize there's no hope at all.

Freeman Dyson

This article is pretty well-balanced for the New York Times, and very interesting. This particular paragraph had me chuckling:

At Jason, taking problems to Dyson is something of a parlor trick. A group of scientists will be sitting around the cafeteria, and one will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it’s possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, “Oh, that’s not difficult,” allow two short beats to pass and then add, “but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long.” When this happened one day at lunch, William Press remembers, “the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds.” The meal then ended with men who tend to be described with words like “brilliant,” “Nobel” and “MacArthur” quietly retreating to their offices to work out what Dyson just knew.


And this comment got to me too:

His older sister Alice, a retired social worker still living in Winchester, remembers how her brother “used to lie on the nursery floor working out how many atoms there were in the sun. He was perhaps 4.”

Dyson is a genius, but also a contrary and original thinker and, it seems, of a kind that we just don't see so many of now. Where are the upcoming people like Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer and Bethe now? I wonder why we don't see them? Maybe something to do with politicized consensus science? Being brilliant and original doesn't really work in the groupthink that so much science has become.

Update: And here are some of his heretical thoughts...

Friday, November 19, 2010

More Marie Srbic Bookmarks

Just so you all know, submit as many entries as you like and, if you want to update old entries you can do that too.

Worlds Without End

Another SFF site I haven't come across before. The guy running it is also one of the contenders in this bookmarks competition: Worlds Without End. It's quite odd to look at biographical bit beside my photo and see that the 'Died' section is ready to be filled in.

Dave Post's Bookmarks.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jebel Krong's Bookmarks

Maybe these should win. I don't want to be U-capped!


I just received an email from ‘spaceoperaghost’:

‘Thought this might interest you if it hasn't been emailed or otherwise brought to your attention already. CERN trapped antimatter! I suppose it's too soon to start demanding warp drives and clean energy, but it's still awesome.’

Yeah, I think we can safely assume that this is of interest to me.

Geneva, 17 November 2011. The ALPHA experiment at CERN1 has taken an important step forward in developing techniques to understand one of the Universe’s open questions: is there a difference between matter and antimatter? In a paper published in Nature today, the collaboration shows that it has successfully produced and trapped atoms of antihydrogen. This development opens the path to new ways of making detailed measurements of antihydrogen, which will in turn allow scientists to compare matter and antimatter.


Here’s a link to the article at CERN, and here’s the press release. It’s all rather dry, but then, I have become rather tired of ‘scientists’ who step over the line into politics, produce self-aggrandizing press releases and start making ludicrous predictions based on their work.

CERN created the first nine atoms of antihydrogen in 1995, and then started to produce atoms in large quantities in 2002, as part of the ATHENA and ATRAP experiments. This is the first time that scientists have been able to trap antihydrogen atoms for a long enough time to study them, keeping them at 9 degrees kelvin (-443.47 degrees Fahrenheit, -264.15 degrees Celsius), suspended in a magnetic field inside this Ghostbusters-style machine. The other reason why this is an important step is its potential to solve our need for unlimited energy. When antihydrogen touches matter—as shown in the image above—it releases a huge amount of energy. Many scientists speculate that antimatter may be the key to provide unlimited power capable of driving machines that are unthinkable right now. Eventually, it could be the stuff that could power new engines capable of taking us to the stars at near-light speed.

Um, so why the present press release?

More About the Bookmarks Competition.

Now, first off, I'm not trying to opt out of the responsibility for judging all of these. This bookmark competition itself, just like the art competitions before it, the pictures of people's collections and that 'who reads my books' thing I ran a while back, is me trying to make this blog more 'inclusive'. I want people to join in, have a bit of input, and this to not be all about me standing on a pedestal and prating into a vacuum.

So, to that end, how would you all feel about YOU being the judges. When the time comes I can set up a poll here from PollDaddy and all of you reading this can decide. In fact, I'm going to do one now.

Incidentally, since the number of people reading this blog had about doubled over the last year, how about some more additions to 'Who Reads My Books?' As before, I want a short biog plus a photograph or two.

Graeme Dobson Bookmarks

And more...

Rob Hartwell Bookmarks

And more...

Marie Srbic (Athena) Bookmarks

And more...

Tad Kelson Bookmarks

And some more...

Mark Chitty Bookmarks.

Wow, I'm getting quite a response to this one!

More shortly...