Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Monday, February 26, 2018

White Dwarf Stars and Other Wonders

White dwarf’s inner makeup is mapped for the first time

Tiny changes in a white dwarf’s brightness reveal that the stellar corpse has more oxygen in its core than expected, researchers report online January 8 in Nature. The finding could challenge theories of how stars live and die, and may have implications for measuring the expansion of the universe.

As a star ages, it sheds most of its gas into space until all that remains is a dense core of carbon and oxygen, the ashes of a lifetime of burning helium. That core, plus a thin shellacking of helium, is called a white dwarf.

Luckily, some white dwarfs encode their inner nature on their surface. These stars change their brightness in response to internal vibrations. Astrophysicists can infer a star’s internal structure from the vibrations, similar to how geologists learn about Earth’s interior by measuring seismic waves during an earthquake.

Saturn’s rings, made of countless icy particles, form a translucent veil in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Saturn's moon Titan sports Earth-like features

Using the now-complete Cassini data set, Cornell astronomers have created a new global topographic map of Saturn's moon Titan that has opened new windows into understanding its liquid flows and terrain.

The map revealed several new features on Titan, including new mountains, none higher than 700 meters. The map also provides a global view of the highs and lows of Titan's topography, which enabled the scientists to confirm that two locations in the equatorial region of Titan are in fact depressions that could be either ancient, dried seas or cryovolcanic flows.

The map also revealed that Titan is a little bit flatter -- more oblate -- than was previously known, which suggests there is more variability in the thickness of Titan's crust than previously thought.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Book Review: Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon

I pick up a new Elizabeth Moon novel with anticipatory delight. In its pages (or phosphors, for the ebook version), I will find fascinating characters with skills and intelligence, subtle conflicts of culture, superbly handled tension and plot twists, and insights into people who are different from me. Unlike the heroine of Into the Fire (and Moon herself), I have no military experience whatsoever (30 years of Chinese martial arts notwithstanding). I was a long-haired, sign-waving war protester. Most military fiction leaves me looking around for those love beads. But not Moon’s, and a big part of that (aside from her sheer story-telling skill) is the intelligence and compassion of her military characters.

In the previous novel, Cold Welcome, Ky Vatta and an assortment of people under her command and not-under-her-command manage to survive a shuttle crash into icy waters and make their way to an abandoned base in a frigid, barren landscape. Their survival depends not only working together and making the best decisions but a huge measure of luck. Ky’s training and experience give her a structure to establish leadership and discern what must be done, and by whom, and in what order, how to best use the skills of the others, how to resolve conflicts without squelching initiative. Most of the book centers on how leadership, delegation protocols, the balance between negotiation and creativity and obedience, and the skills to construct and carry out strategic planning can save lives. In fact, there’s very little shoot-‘em-up and a great deal of wow, these people have thought carefully about how to manage desperate situations. Into the Fire continues that story.

After the grand finale and rescue, Ky might think her ordeal is over. Ha! Her meticulously collected records of the sabotage go missing and her people mysteriously disappear, drugged and kept incommunicado by forces inimical to her family. The focus shifts from physical to political survival. Sabotage, betrayal, immigration raids, poisoning, and a rescue executed in typical Ky Vatta style build and sustain tension. Again I was impressed by the skillfulness with which Ky and her companions make and execute plans, whether it’s marshalling an academy full of unseasoned cadets to defend the planetary president or nab the drugged prisoners from several different locations. Ky didn’t just jump into action, as characters in many other military novels so often do. She didn’t say, “Trust me, just do what I say” to her subordinates. She conferred with those with expertise, made plans, revised them, revised them again, made backup plans and backups to the backups, made sure everyone had the information they needed to do the best, smartest job. Things went wrong, as of course they must in fiction. And that’s half the fun of the adventure.

Moon provides enough backstory for Into the Fire to stand on its own, but I recommend reading it together with Cold Welcome. And I do recommend it!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

If You Were a Story...

“We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.”

― Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Today's Moment of Art

Asher Brown Durand (American, 1796–1886) 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Today's Wisdom from Middle Earth

"How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer."

-- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

Monday, February 19, 2018

Lace and Blade 4 Author Interview: Judith Tarr

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Lace and Blade 4 offers a bouquet of sensual, romantic, action-filled stories. Order it from iBookKindleKoboNook. Table of contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross” Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?

Judith Tarr: I've always been a writer, in the sense of telling stories. I can't remember not doing that.

DJR:  What inspired your story in Lace and Blade 4?

JT: A piece of jewelry. The wonderful Elise Matthesen names all of her pieces, and they're all part of her Writer's Challenge. Those of us who are so inspired can write the story or poem or article or whatever else seems to us to fit the name of the piece.

I bought a beautiful pendant of silver and boulder opal, called "On the Peacock Path." I could see the path and the colors, and realized that it had something to do with the (or a) Peacock Throne. And that led me to Iran, which was ancient Persia. The rest came as I followed the path into the jewel.

DJR: Why do you write what you do?

JT: Because that's what happens when I get ideas. I love history, especially ancient history. I love to mix up genres. I get in trouble for that, but I can't seem to stop.

DJR: How does your writing process work?

JT: Horribly slowly now, but it still works, after a fashion. I get ideas and prompts from all kinds of places. I keep a file of them, multiple files in fact, and when one really needs to have a story, I pull it out and make notes and brainstorm and throw things together and see what comes of it. I do outline, but it's an ongoing, circular, organic process, which grows and changes as the characters wake up and start talking (or often yelling), and the settings make themselves visible, and the gears of story--the friction, the "what does this character want?" and "what are the stakes here?" questions that move it all forward--start to turn. Sometimes in totally unexpected directions.

Friday, February 16, 2018

In Troubled Times: Bystander Intervention Training

In January 2018, I attended a seminar entitled Stand! Speak! Act! A Community Bystander Intervention Training. The subheading suggested I would learn how to nonviolently support someone who was being harassed. The event was presented by the local chapter of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), the Muslim Solidarity Group, and the local rapid response team. The idea of becoming a nonviolent ally in directly ameliorating the harm from harassment greatly appealed to me. I found the seminar enlightening, although not always in ways I expected.

To begin with, although two of the event’s three sponsors were specifically Muslim solidarity groups, the techniques and strategies apply whenever a person is being targeted. Although hate crimes against Muslims have increased drastically (first after 9/11 and then ongoing since the last presidential election), racism (anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-Asian) still accounts for the majority of incidents, and anti-LGBTQ violence continues. Most of my friends and relatives who have been harassed have been targeted because of race, sexual orientation, or gender identification, but by far the greatest number have been because of race. The principles of intervention remain the same, and if in the future some other group becomes a target for extremism and violence, allies will step forward.

The workshop drew its guidance and inspiration from the principles set out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
  • Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people
  • Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding
  • Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people
  • Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform
  • Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate
  • Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

It’s tempting to lash out when you or someone you observe is a target of violence, whether physical or verbal. We’ve all seen enough superhero movies to want to jump in, swirling our capes, and single-handedly take on the offender. Outrage at what we perceive to be hateful and wrong fuels our adrenaline. It’s hard to remain calm, to think clearly, and to act from principle instead of reactive emotion. That’s why practice is so important. Harassment can escalate very quickly, and unless we have some experience in how we are vulnerable to engagement, we can become swept up in the confrontation.

Bystander intervention isn’t about confronting the person spewing hatred, it’s about supporting the person being targeted.

The best way to do this is through de-escalation, but in a way that respects the needs and wishes of the targeted person. This means, firstly, not engaging with the attacker: not making eye contact, not responding to their words, not contributing to the drama in any way. It can also mean including other witnesses; one person can video the incident (using their phone, with or without the ACLU app that sends the video directly to them*) or call appropriate help (ambulance, paramedics).

Intervention at its best empowers the person being harassed. (That’s why the workshop avoided referring to them as “victims.”) The principles encourage us as bystanders to approach that person calmly, introduce ourselves, explain that we saw what was happening and we want to offer support. This can mean proposing courses of action like “Would you like me to sit with you?” or “What can I do to help you?” or “Shall we walk together in the other direction?” Or it might mean striking up a friendly conversation that excludes the attacker, like “The weather’s been lovely, hasn’t it?”

The targeted person may not want to interact with us, or may say they’re fine, and as difficult as it is, we should remember the goal is solidarity not rescue.

In practicing various scenarios, I was amazed at my own emotional reaction even though I knew it was an exercise.  We split into groups and acted out various situations (a woman in hijab being harassed on a bus, a black person being insulted by someone driving by, a Spanish speaking person being threatened in a language not understood). Tempers flared, and the person playing the target often felt fearful. That happened to me when I was portraying a Spanish-speaking person in a line at a store. Even though I understood the English verbal attacks (based on perceived immigration status), I felt confused, frightened, and trapped. All I wanted was to escape. The participants playing bystanders bunched together to make what felt like a wall of hostiles, even though they were supposed to be portraying allies. Then one approached me from the side, made sure I noticed her, and gently said, “Hola.” I was amazed at how my body relaxed. I engaged with her, feeling I was safe, then asked her to help me leave the store. How much more terrifying must it be when it’s not a practice scenario!

The final caveat was that no one should feel obligated to intervene if they don’t feel it is safe to do so. Emotions can run high in harassment situations, and matters can escalate very quickly. Always trust your instincts. Even if you aren’t able to act at the moment, approaching the targeted person with support and help after the danger has passed can do much to minimize the harm.

*The ACLU’s Mobile Justice app is available in California and other states.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fabulous Times for Astronomy (and Other Science).

We begin with a familiar sight: the Horsehead Nebula. This image was taken by the 3.6-m Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii.

The red glow originates from hydrogen gas predominantly behind the nebula, ionized by the nearby bright star Sigma Orionis. The darkness of the Horsehead is caused mostly by thick dust, although the lower part of the Horsehead's neck casts a shadow to the left. Streams of gas leaving the nebula are funneled by a strong magnetic field. Bright spots in the Horsehead Nebula's base are young stars just in the process of forming.

Cassiopeia A, near the end of its stellar life, as seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Collapsing from vast cosmic clouds, their nuclear furnaces ignite and create heavy elements in their cores. After a few million years, the enriched material is blasted back into interstellar space where star formation can begin anew. The expanding debris cloud known as Cassiopeia A is an example of this final phase of the stellar life cycle. This false-color  image shows the still hot filaments and knots in the Cassiopeia A remnant. Still expanding, the blast wave is seen as the blue outer ring.

The surface of a distant star, thanks to The European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 700 times larger and several thousand times as bright. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.

Say hello to a new species of giant octopus, the Frilled Giant Pacific Octopus.

Researchers have now learned that the giant Pacific octopus (GPO)—the largest known octopus on Earth, ranging from California to Alaska to Japan—is actually two species.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

BOOK RELEASE DAY! Lace and Blade 4

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Lace and Blade 4 offers a bouquet of sensual, romantic, action-filled stories. It's now available in trade paperback, Kindle, Nook, and other ebook editions.

Here's the Table of Contents:
“At the Sign of the Crow and Quill,” by Marie Brennan
“On the Peacock Path,” by Judith Tarr
“Sunset Games,” by Robin Wayne Bailey
“Sorcery of the Heart,” by Lawrence Watt-Evans
“The Butcher’s Boy and the Piri Folk,” by Pat MacEwen
“Gifts Tell Truth,” by Heather Rose Jones
“A Sword for Liberty,” by Diana L. Paxson
“Hearts of Broken Glass,” by Rosemary Edghill
“The Game of Lions,” by Marella Sands
“The Sharpest Cut,” by Doranna Durgin
“Pawn’s Queen,” by India Edghill
“The Heart’s Coda,” by Carol Berg
“The Wind’s Kiss,” by Dave Smeds

I've been posting interviews with some of the authors. Here's the list, in case you missed any of these delightful chats:

Early praise for Lace and Blade 4:

Publisher's Weekly:  Dave Smeds’s “The Wind’s Kiss,” ... captures not only the imagination but also the heart, leaving behind a sense of peace and longing. India Edghill’s “Pawn’s Queen” follows a young woman on the path to her own destiny, seamlessly marrying a feast for the senses with the darker whimsies of magic and duty. Marella Sands’s excellent “The Game of Lions” focuses on the strength of bonds between sisters and teammates. The ... stories evoke wonder and excitement.

Kevin O'Brien: This volume contains thirteen stories that range from action tales where romance is at best a subplot, to love stories with nary a hint of violence. Similarly, the romance varies from intense to casual, with both men and women as the aggressors. Also, the level of intrigue ranges from being the point of the plot to being practically non-existent. The level of quality is consistently high, I found no typos or obvious grammatical errors, and those stories set in alternate realities had good world-building; the settings felt real, not thrown together with spit and tissue paper.

And if you enjoyed this anthology, please post a review!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lace and Blade 4 Author Interview With Carol Berg

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Lace and Blade 4 offers a bouquet of sensual, romantic, action-filled stories. Order it from iBookKindleKoboNook. The Table of Contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?
Carol Berg: I grew up reading classics, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, adventure stories, and spy thrillers, but never imagined I could ever write one for myself. Instead I majored in math, had a short stint as a teacher, had a family, got another degree--this time in computer science—and was halfway through a software engineering career when a fellow engineer (and good friend) convinced me to write a series of letters “in character” so she could practice her writing. It was so much fun, I couldn’t quit! After a number of years writing novels just for myself, reading an article about writing now and then and revising with the newfound knowledge, I wrote a story that was most definitely the best thing I’d written thus far. It felt as if I’d made a huge step forward. My friend agreed, and we stuck our toes in the publishing waters by attending a writers conference. A year later I’d sold three books to the publisher who’s bought them all so far.

DJR: What inspired your story in Lace and Blade 4?
CB: One of my aims when I create new heroes or heroines is to make them real people. I want readers to believe they had a life before walking onto the canvas of my story and will (if the story permits!) have a life when they walk off again. But of course, after the traumas/losses/victories of the story, the nature of that life is often irrevocably changed. Ever since my novel Song of the Beast was published, I’ve had readers asking what became of Aidan McAllister--a scarred, broken singer of visions, who saved his world from the scourge of dragon warfare. At the end of the story, he abandons his friends and his hope of a normal life to lead the beasts into the wild. I decided that it would be fun to satisfy the readers’ curiosity and mine, and so I wrote “The Heart’s Coda. “

DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing?  What about them do you find inspiring?
CB: So many! One of the first was Mary Renault, who took the mythological hero, Theseus, and the historical myth, Alexander the Great, and wrote them as fascinating, flawed human beings in worlds that felt real and true. Another Mary--Mary Stewart--showed me the epic story of Merlin and Arthur through a very human Merlin’s personal lens.  And then there’s Ellen Kushner, who created true magic with exquisite prose and deep emotion in her novel, Thomas the Rhymer. Alongside these three are many mystery and thriller writers like Dick Francis and Len Deighton who instilled a love of complex stories and exciting adventures, and fantasy writers like Roger Zelazny and Poul Anderson who taught me the delights of building magical worlds.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Guest Post: Nancy Jane Moore on Fighting and Gender

At a recent meeting of my writers’ group, we discussed fight scenes while critiquing an early draft of my novel in progress. The discussion went something like this:

“Women fight differently from men,” one of the guys said in pointing out that the sword fight scenes didn’t vary much.

I didn’t think he was referring to the inaccurate stereotype that women can’t fight, but I also didn’t think his point applied, so I said – speaking as a long-time martial artist and instructor as well as a writer – “In my experience, that’s not always the case, especially with weapons.”

And he replied, “Yeah, but you’re big.”

I let it go at that, because he was right that the fight scenes needed work, but it bothered me. After some reflection, I realized what the problem was: If my experience isn’t key to discussions about how women fight simply because I’m a woman about the size of the average U.S. man, then the issue isn’t biological sex or gender; it’s body size and build. The average man may be bigger than the average woman, but there are plenty of small men – and big women – in the world. Also, there are some people who don’t fit into standard gendered categories, and they, too, come in a variety of body types. As writers, if we make assumptions about fighting styles based on sex or gender, we’re not going to create scenes that reflect the complexity of real fights.

There is only one situation in which writers should give some consideration to the gender of their fighters, and that’s if they are creating a world in which the culture puts distinct rules on gender behavior. Most current societies give girls and boys very different signals from an early age, with the girls getting the message – incorporating it into their bodies – that they aren’t capable of handling themselves physically in dealing with men, and the boys, regardless of size or skill, learning that they have power over women. In a world in which calling men and boys “girls” (or much less acceptable words for female) is a major insult, women who fight will have to deal with the cultural dynamics.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

Lace and Blade 4 Author Interview: Marie Brennan

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Lace and Blade 4 offers a bouquet of sensual, romantic, action-filled stories. Order it from iBookKindleKoboNook. Table of contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?

Marie Brennan: I generally credit that to Diana Wynne Jones, and specifically her novel Fire and Hemlock, which I read when I was nine or ten years old. The main characters in it are writing a story together, and when I put the book down, I thought, I want to be a writer. It was the first time I recall thinking about making up stories, not just for my own entertainment, but for other people to read. I got serious about it when I was eighteen, sold my first novel when I was twenty-four, and have never looked back.

DJR: What inspired your story in Lace and Blade 4?

MB: Some years ago I bought a pair of black-and-red beaded earrings from the jeweler Elise Matthesen, who habitually gives titles to all the pieces she makes. The earrings are called "At the Sign of the Crow and Quill," and like many authors, I pledged to Elise that I would try to write something by that title someday. The mood that evoked in my mind was very much a Lace and Blade mood, so when I received an invitation to submit to the anthology, that turned out to be the spark I needed to transform the phrase into characters and plot.

DJR: What has most influenced your writing?

MB: Definitely my academic background. In college I majored in archaeology and folklore; in grad school it was cultural anthropology and folklore. I never took a single creative writing course. I know that some people find them great; if you have a good teacher you can grow enormously as a writer, and even without that, just having permission to treat writing as something important, rather than just a hobby, can be vital. But for me, the most effective thing was to take classes and read books that gave me something to write about. The real world, in all its multifarious historical and geographical and cultural glory, is an endless source of inspiration to me.