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This Year’s Flame Challenge Winners for “What is Color?”

I have really, really badly neglected the blog lately.  I am very sorry to anyone who actually looks forward to reading this on a regular basis for that neglect.  My lame excuse is some incredibly crappy personal stuff and much craziness at work… which all means I haven’t found much awesome stuff to share here lately, or had the energy to write about what I have found!

I hope you’ll bear with me and keep reading here, though, and I promise some good things are coming this week.  Those good things will be in the form of a new STEM female role model post, a book review, and today’s topic: the latest Flame Challenge winners.

If you missed my first post about Alan Alda’s flame challenge you can read it here, but in a nutshell he started this great annual competition a few years ago to explain a specific concept in terms an eleven-year-old can easily understand.

The entries in written and video categories are vetted by scientists and judged by actual 11-year-olds.  The challenges are questions that on the surface seem easy, and you think to yourself, “Oh, everyone knows what that is.”  But when you try to actually explain them using words in any kind of coherent manner, they are hard.

Previous years’ challenges included What is a flame?  What is color? and What is time?

This year, the question was What is Color?  The winners this year, both amazing women who work in STEM fields, are science communicator Melanie Golob for the written category, and physicist Dianna Cowern in the video category.  Here are the winning explanations:

Winning “What is a Color” entry by Melanie Golob

And now I’m totally hooked watching Dianna Cowern’s other awesome science videos.  You should check out the rest of her down-to-earth, quirky, and highly accurate science videos at her Physics Girl channel on YouTube.

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Hugo Award Winners

If you’re looking for something new to read/watch/listen to/look at, I recommend checking out the newly-released list of Hugo award winners just announced at this year’s WorldCon, Loncon 3:

2014 Hugo Award Winners
Best Novel: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Best Novella: “Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
Best Novelette: “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com /Tor.com, 09-2013)
Best Short Story: “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
Best Related Work: “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative” by Kameron Hurley (A Dribble of Ink)
Best Graphic Story: “Time” by Randall Munroe (xkcd)
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): Gravity written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Esperanto Filmoj; Heyday Films; Warner Bros.)
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere” written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter (HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
Best Editor – Short Form: Ellen Datlow
Best Editor – Long Form: Ginjer Buchanan
Best Professional Artist: Julie Dillon
Best Semiprozine: Lightspeed Magazine edited by John Joseph Adams, Rich Horton, and Stefan Rudnicki
Best Fanzine: A Dribble of Ink edited by Aidan Moher
Best Fancast: SF Signal Podcast Patrick Hester
Best Fan Writer: Kameron Hurley
Best Fan Artist: Sarah Webb
The John W. Campbell Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2012 or 2013, sponsored by Dell Magazines (not a Hugo Award): Sofia Samatar

I would like to point out that seven out of seventeen awards went to women this year.   I see that as continued proof that, despite what a few obnoxious grumpy old men whined about recently on the internet, women are not destroying science fiction.  Except, you know, when we want to 😉

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Longing for LonCon3

Clearly I need to figure out some way to either 1) make way more money or 2) get paid to go to cons.  Because I would pretty much give my right arm to be one of the people headed to LonCon3 right now.  London is this year’s location for the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon), home of the Hugo awards, a global collection of amazing geeks, and much mischief and fun.  Alas, a trip to London was not in the budget by a long shot.  

We did still get to go to the North American Sci-Fi con in Detroit DetCon1) so I can’t complain.  Much.  But I will be following the events in London with much jealousy and longing!  Someday… someday, Gadget, I will make it to one of the overseas WorldCons.

Can’t wait to see who the Hugo winners are this year – and who wins the bid for 2016, since there is some fierce competition between Kansas City and Beijing, the first-ever bid for a location in China.  Fun as Beijing would be, I’m hoping for Kansas City – that one is a do-able distance- and budget-wise and could be combined with visiting family in the area.  The site for 2015 has already been decided (Sasquan, in Spokane).  Not sure I’ll be able to get time off for that one, but certainly will try.  Otherwise our one con next year will probably be LosCon.

Are you going to London?  What are you looking forward to most at LonCon3?

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New Stephen Hawking Movie!

I don’t care if it’s overly dramatized.  I can’t wait to see this movie.  I adore Stephen Hawking.  I love his books, and I love that he hasn’t just beaten the odds in his life, he has smashed them to itty bitty smithereens.

He is one of those rare people who is not only brilliant, but also able to bring his ideas to the masses.  He has been quite the controversial figure in the last few decades, though, so I’m also interested in how they treat all that in the movie as well.

Watch the trailer.  Try not to cry.

As to other Stephen Hawking-related things, I highly recommend:

For teens and adults: A Brief History of Time (The classic!  There’s also a movie, but the book is better)

For kids: George’s Secret Key to the Universe

And for adults and kids around 10 and older, the Masters of Science Fiction TV series where Hawking does the intro is really fun.  It consists of six episodes made from some classic, well-known and loved, science fiction short stories.

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Origami robots build themselves and walk away

I heard about this on NPR today, too. Way cool. Sorry for the short post tonight, more tomorrow. Enjoy the ridiculously awesome origami robots.

Gigaom

Origami is a complex art, but when it comes to robots, it could actually make things simpler. A team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering created paper robots that, when heated, fold from a flat form into complex shapes that can walk and turn.

The robots are made from paper, plastic and electronic components. Networks of circuits deliver heat created by a battery to the areas of the robot that need to fold. The plastic, which was made to transform into a preset shape when exposed to temperatures higher than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, then begins its transformation. The robots created at Harvard took about four minutes to turn into their final 3D shape.

An origami robot transforming from flat to 3D. Photo courtesy of Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute. An origami robot transforming from flat to 3D. Photo courtesy of Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute.

Origami robots are more than a totally rad party trick (people do origami at parties, right?). They fall into a…

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The Spectacular Feat of Accomplishing Rendezvous With a Comet

This did make a bunch of headlines today, but I want to highlight just how phenomenally cool and under-appreciated this event is.  For the first time in human history, a spacecraft has made rendezvous with a comet.  It’s actually a lot of firsts/bests in one, in the rendezvous department – farthest object away, first rendezvous with a comet, I could go on and on.  Ok, I am going to go on and on here.  There’s going to be a bit of gushing, because this is really, incredibly exciting.

This required some serious planning, and some overwhelmingly complex orbital mechanics.  The European Space Agency pulled of an amazing feat here, and they deserve major kudos.  Rosetta has been on its way from Earth to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Chury for short) for ten and a half years.  It launched when I was a senior in college, and now it has, after a very long and complex journey, arrived.

In order to get out to Chury, Rosetta made multiple maneuvers over the last decade.  It flew past the Earth several times, gave Mars a pass, and in an elegant and carefully planned dance, traveled billions of miles to intercept a body that’s on its own 6.5 year orbit around the sun.  The complexity involved in this whole endeavor is mind-blowing.  It makes the orbital mechanics for the Apollo missions look like child’s play.   The journey looked like this:

And they’re not even done!  For their next trick, the ESA will have Rosetta continue to orbit, and launch the Philae Lander – oh no, folks, rendezvous is not enough, studying the comet up close and collecting data isn’t enough, they are also going to put a lander on the comet.  Philae has all kinds of sensors, but also can drill and take samples.

These guys do not think small.  They are going big, and I will be waiting with breath held and fingers crossed when Philae goes to land.  That event is currently scheduled for 11 November, once a good landing site has been selected.

And if all my rambling doesn’t get you excited about this mission, this video should:

I expect Rosetta to continue with its pioneering firsts.  I can’t wait for the pictures and data and other new discoveries to start hitting the news in the days to come.  If you’d like to know more, there are some really great resources at the ESA Rosetta page, and this Guardian article is also quite good.

Did I mention I’m excited about this?

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Female Superheroes Drawn With Actual Clothes On

I just discovered the art of Mike Lunsford, who, among other things, has drawn a bunch of female superheroes that are — gasp — fully clothed.  As in no cleavage, no butt cheeks hanging out, no metal bikinis or corsets.  As an added bonus are in positions that can be achieved without breaking one’s spine.  And guess what?  They still look totally gorgeous, even by America’s really weird standards.  I’m really loving this art.  

The only downside I see is that the outfits still don’t really look like clothes that would be terribly practical for fighting in, with the possible exception of Wonder Woman’s much more functional-looking upper body armor.

Here’s the link, and below is my favorite, his rendering of Supergirl without her usual cheerleader skirt.  

What do you think, improvement or messing with the originals?  What could make these even better in terms of both being practical and empowering the girls who read these comics?

Super Girl looking much more anatomically correct than she usually does.

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Military Sci-Fi & Fantasy – Who gets it right?

The Military SF panel I was on at DetCon1 did not get to a lot of the topics we had hoped to cover (partially due to a ‘hijacking’ panel member and partially due to the fact that we only had 50 minutes!) and several con attendees asked me follow-up questions in the days after. I love Military SF&F, and enjoy talking about it, so I’m glad so many others wanted to keep talking about it, too.

The most popular question is always: so who gets it right? Not every Military SF&F writer who has been in the military gets it right. Sometimes this is because the person is far removed from their time in the service, other times because they are writing what they don’t really know (a desk jockey writing about special forces missions, for example), it’s possible they aren’t that great at writing or storytelling, and sometimes they are just sensationalizing it or following a cheesy trope trend in order to supposedly give the audience what they want.

That last one disturbs me the most, because I like to think that SF&F readers are smarter than that, and because it is damaging to military members to continue to be stereotyped. There are especially quite a few military SF&F stories that get women in the military wrong (really badly wrong) and even take us a step – or many steps – backwards, despite supposedly taking place in a better future.

People are still writing books where the square-jawed, beefy, swashbuckling white male hero serves in an all-male unit while blowing many things up and saving the day. If there are women, they are often just there as a sex object, motivation tool for the main character, or a secretary.  One panel member last week rightly called some of the worst stories “war porn” – that is, nothing but loads of gore and things going boom, and glorifying war… with no real plot to speak of and very cliche’d one-dimensional characters.

But enough on all that depressing stuff. What I really like to talk about is the people who get it right. These include both people who have served and those who have simply done their homework very well. I’ll list them here in both categories, and the branch the author served in if applicable, if I can easily find it. This list is, of course, limited to what I have read and what I enjoyed. Please share your own recommendations in the comments!

Note that there can be some debate about how ‘military’ some of these are. I include anything involving professional military members, mercenaries, civil defense forces, rebel fighting groups, and fights big enough to be considered battles under the umbrella for my own personal definition. That can be debated in the comments as well!

Good Military SF&F written by authors who have served (in no particular order):
Paksennarion series (fantasy, Elizabeth Moon, US Marine Corps)
Familias series (sci-fi, Elizabeth Moon)
Valor series (sci-fi, Tanya Huff, Canadian Naval Reserve)
Forever War series (sci-fi, Joe Haldeman, US Army)
Starship Troopers (sci-fi, Robert Heinlein, US Navy)
Dune (sci-fi, Frank Herbert, US Navy)
Lost Fleet series (sci-fi, John Hemry writing as Jack Campbell, US Navy)
Stark’s War series (sci-fi, John Hemry)
Paul Sinclair series (sci-fi, John Hemry)
The Healer’s War (fantasy, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, US Army)

Good Military SF&F written by civilian authors (also in no particular order):
Old Man’s War series (sci-fi, John Scalzi)
Vorkosigan series (sci-fi, Lois McMaster Bujold)
Ender’s Game series (sci-fi, Orson Scott Card)
Liaden series (sci-fi, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller)

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#DetCon1 Wrap-up – thanks, @DetconOne!

Ok, now that we are finally mostly done with the massive road trip home, here’s the rest of the recap of DetCon1, the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) held in Detroit last week.  The other entries relating to DetCon1 are here and here.

In a word: awesome.  This was by far the smoothest-run con I’ve attended.  Smoother than the two WorldCons I’ve been to.  Three cheers for the staff and volunteers!  I did not run into a single programming snafu or any people having a shouting match.  It was all smooth sailing, and I had a lot of fun.

For the most part my panels were good.  There was one that devolved into that dreaded one-panel-member-and-that-one-guy-in-the-front-row-hijack-the-whole-thing, and another (“Teens Talk to Scientists”) where we only had two teens show up, but the other four panels I was on went really, really well.  So four out of six ain’t bad.  Even the one in the last slot of the last day was interesting and well-attended.  Those were some hardcore audience members – clearly exhausted but still enthusiastically participating.

The “Designing Fictional Spacecraft” panel went so well that people were still commenting to me two days later on how much they enjoyed it.  So that made me feel all warm and fuzzy – plus it was a really fun panel to be on.  Kudos for that to the excellent moderator, Philippe McNally, for skillfully steering the questions and conversation.  If anyone from programming is reading this, I highly recommend him as a panel moderator in the future.

The hotel was great.  Having inexpensive options at the food court was a nice change of pace from overpriced hotel restaurants, and the variety was good.  The hotel bar/restaurant was also nice, with decent food and less exorbitant price inflation than many places I’ve been.  I rarely had to wait more than a minute or two for the high-speed elevators, and the room was comfortable.  Navigating the facilities was a little confusing at first, but quick and easy once I got the hang of it.  It especially helped that the con staff put up more signs after the first day.

The attendees were well behaved – better behaved than I have ever seen.  The code of conduct was taken very seriously by the con-runners, and it showed.  A couple panel audience members made some sexist comments, but they were not as overt or hostile as I’ve heard at other cons.  And many people jumped in to shut them down quickly.  Even the rowdier parties felt like completely safe places to be, and the staff made themselves very visible walking around, making sure party hosts were carding, asking if there were any problems, etc.

I’ve already written about John Scalzi’s ’80s dance but it bears repeating: bodacious, dude.  Totally radical.  Some folks dressed up, some didn’t, but I still smile at the memory of one of my favorite authors rocking out in a tiara, and executing a pratfall-roll off of a chair he’d been dancing on.  I even broke out the neon headbands and entered a dance floor for the first time in… well, let’s not go there.  A long time.

The panel topics and panelists were interesting.  My favorites I attended as an audience member – identified by the fact that on the road trip, my husband and I were still talking about our favorites and these kept coming up – were the “Science Education Roundtable,” “What Am I Looking For,” and “Gender Roles in Genre Fiction.”  I’m not an educator but I am a parent and I do STEM outreach, so it was good to hear what’s new in science education from the “Science Education Roundtable,” learn what difficulties our educators are facing, and  pick up new ideas for improving how our kids learn science.

The “What Am I Looking For” panel featured editors and agents who work with both short and long fiction, non-fiction, pro and semi-pro.  They talked about what they are looking for, what they don’t want to see, what they would really love to see, and common mistakes/habits/crazy things authors do that drive them nuts.  This was really valuable for my writer husband, and interesting to me, as a reader.  “Gender Roles in Genre Fiction” I’ve already written about as well, but in a nutshell: it’s time to get rid of the nastier anti-woman tropes, and Jim Hines is really serious about it.

The programming track had great variety, and I routinely faced the dilemma of how to choose between three or four things happening at the same time that sounded  great.  I also wished I had the kiddo along as an excuse to attend some of the amazing-sounding kids programming events.  Ditto for the teen programming track.  I still look so young I always get carded, so maybe I should have just gone to the teen stuff anyway!

Not too many hall costumes or masquerade entries at this con compared to most, but the costumes I did see were excellent.  The masquerade evening, a combination event with the Golden Duck and YA awards, was the one absolutely painful time of the whole weekend.  I have no idea what took the masquerade judges so long to judge so few entries, but they probably should have just told everyone to go away and come back, rather than continue to have people try to stall… and stall… and stall.  I do like that they started some YA & middle-grade SF awards, though.  About damn time, and hopefully they get added as a category for the Hugo awards soon!

Overall, great con.  Kinda sad that this isn’t one they do every year because it means I can’t go back.  But now I have high hopes for next year’s WorldCon in Spokane, if the schedule and budget allow for us going.  They and LonCon both have a tough act to follow…

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#DetCon1 Highlights so far

I really, really appreciate how supportive of the military Baen books is.  I know they have a program for sending boxes of books to deployed troops, but was very surprised when they kicked off their roadshow by asking anyone active duty to come up and grab a free book.  Then they invited reservists, veterans, schoolteachers, first responders, and librarians.  It gave me a warm fuzzy.  And of course I enjoyed getting to see all their new books, new covers, etc.  I wish Tor was here doing the same!

The “Designing Military Spacecraft” panel yesterday was simply awesome.  We had a highly capable moderator, a very interesting mix of panelist backgrounds, and an enthusiastic audience that gave us some great questions to work with.  Best panel I have been on, and I hope I can do as well with my two panels today: “Women in STEM” at 2:00 and “Military SF” at 7:00, just before the awards ceremony and masquerade, followed by ’80s dance with John Scalzi as DJ.  I can already tell this  evening will be epic.

The best panel I have been an audience member so far was yesterday’s “Gender Roles in Genre Fiction.”  The panel discussed the past and current limitations on gender roles, and ripped apart some of the most damaging tropes out there (rape as a plot device or character-defining feature, the one strong woman who stands out among a society of weak and suppressed women).  Jim Hines made me want to hug him for his righteous indignation and rage over how often and how horribly these tropes are used.

They also talked about who isn’t well-represented in the currently conservative mainstream market (strong men who don’t have to show that strength with violence, minorities and people of color, and LGBT characters, to name a few).   Overall a great panel and I walked away with some new book recommendations to check out and hopefully find something new and different.

Due to our kid-free status at this con, this is the first time I’ve been able to check out the late-night con party scene.  About what I expected, except I actually had fun.  Normally I’m way too antisocial and awkward for that and end up bored and/or terrified in a corner, but I am among my people here.  Meaning it doesn’t matter if I can’t dance and don’t fit the mainstream media’s definition of pretty.  Rather, I found people who appreciated my Uhura impression, walked around showing off their lovingly and carefully made costumes. and didn’t care what anyone thought of their dancing.

At the Helsinki in 2017 bid party I enjoyed their spread of Finnish food and beverages, spent a few minutes mesmerized by the club lights at the Barfleet party, and observed the fireworks after the Tigers came from the 69th floor Con Suite while pigging out on cheese and crackers.  Fireworks viewed from above are awfully cool.

Ok, enough writing, I am off to hunt down breakfast and more panels to attend.

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