Recently in News Category

(null)I can't remember a time when, as an adult, I regularly watched TV news. In the days before the internet, there were times when I got and read newspapers: the excellent Edmonton Journal in its heyday, The Globe and Mail, and the Sunday edition of the New York Times. But most of my news, in the nineties, came from CBC Radio One. They do regional, national and international series daily. Their coverage was balanced and interesting, their journalists are brilliant, and the people they got to do interviews had legit expertise in whatever they were being asked about. None of these were gimmes, even then, and it was all nicely curated and informative. It gave me that feeling I used to seek from the news, that of being connected to global goings-on.

All of that changed overnight, pretty much, on September 11, 2001.

One of the most disgusting pieces of legislation to be passed in the past decade in the UK — and it faces some stiff competition — is the badly thought-out and draconian Terrorism Act of 2006.

Among other things, this piece of legislation created several new crimes — including the rather peculiar one of "glorifying terrorism". The proximate justification for this offense seems to be public indignation at the sight of preachers praising suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel from the pulpit, but the effect of it is corrosive — it undermines political free speech. Just consider for a moment the vexing question of who is, or isn't, a terrorist. Is Nelson Mandela? Certainly if this law had been on the books in the 1980s it's possible that supporters of the ANC would have been prosecuted. Is the animal rights movement supportive of terrorists? Is Sinn Fein? Once you get into the gritty business of trying to pin down who is and isn't a terrorist you end up with a peculiar conjugation: "I am a freedom fighter, you are a guerilla, they are terrorists". It all depends on where you stand, and consequently this nonsensical piece of legislation went through on the nod with an appendix explaining that the IRA aren't terrorists (they're good guys now that they put down their guns) and neither was the ANC, and Menachem Begin couldn't possibly be a terrorist (despite Irgun Zvai Leumi's habit of kidnapping and killing British soldiers back in the day) ... only funny people we don't approve of or want to talk to are terrorists.

Oh, and they forgot to define "glorifying". In fact, they drew the net so widely that they forgot to leave out political satire, or works of fiction.

I'd therefore like to commend to your attention a curious little book titled, appropriately enough, "Glorifying Terrorism". It's an anthology of science fiction stories dedicated to demonstrating the asinine nature of this piece of reactionary and censorious rubbish by breaking the law. Featuring illegal stories by Kathryn Allen, Chaz Brenchley, Marie Brennan, Hal Duncan, Suzette Haden Elgin, Kira Franz, Van Aaron Hughes, Davin Ireland, Gwyneth Jones, Vylar Kaftan, Lucy Kemnitzer, H. H. L√łyche, Ken MacLeod, Una McCormack, Adam Roberts, Elizabeth Sourbut, Katherine Sparrow, Kari Sperring, myself, Rachel Swirsky, Lavie Tidhar, James Trimarco, Jo Walton, Ian Watson, and Ian Whates, this is the most political SF anthology published in the UK for a very long time.

You can buy it here.

Looks like there is now some hard evidence for dark matter. More commentary and explanation here. (Apparently it doesn't rule out MOND, but it does confirm that dark matter exists, which has been one of the most embarrassing questions in physics for a couple of decades now — given that visible matter accounts for only about 4% of the energy density of the universe, where is the rest hiding?

The two big question marks in our knowledge of what the universe is made of are dark matter (which doesn't interact with the type of matter we're familiar with, but which clumps gravitationally) and dark energy, which I can't get my head around (how the hell does something have negative pressure?). Dark matter appears to account for 22% of the universe, with dark energy making up the other 70-something percent (darn it, why is the universe seven-tenths made up of something I don't understand even the layman's definition of?). And today it looks like we're down one question mark.

Last week, the International Astronomical Union began work on a rather important counting-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin exercise: defining precisely which bodies orbiting our sun qualify for the appellation of "planet". Naturally, this has provoked considerable controversy, and I've been watching the ongoing arguments with amusement (especially the debate between SF writers John Scalzi and Scott Westerfield, who are both jolly excellent chaps, if a trifle over-excited right now — I blame the brain-eater).

One of the causes of controversy is the dubious status of Pluto. Pluto is way smaller than Mercury — indeed, it's smaller than Luna — and orbits the sun in a rather eccentric catch-me-if-you-can way. Back in 1930 a case was made for it being a planet before its size was established, but these days it's clearly just one of the easiest to see among a whole pack of also-rans, including Ceres (in the asteroid belt, over there), Charon (which it co-orbits with), Xena, Quaoar, and a bunch of other large Kuiper belt bodies. Rather than demote Pluto to the status of a mere chunk of rock like any other KBO, the IAU has compromised by defining a new class of planet, called a "Plutonoid".

This is bullshit. We all know that the only real planets — the big ones that accreted from the solar disk right at the beginning — are Jupiter, Saturn, Nepture and Uranus. They're self-accreting bodies that aren't massive enough to undergo fusion and that formed in orbit around a star. OK? That's a planet.

Naturally you're biased: you live on Earth after all. But I have to tell you, these days we have this theory called the heliocentric model that holds that Earth isn't the centre of the universe. Guess what? Earth isn't a real planet, either. It's just a ball of rocky left-overs that didn't get its fair share of gas when the accretion disk was still swirling. Indeed, the same goes for Mars, Venus, and Mercury. These tiny rocks (Earth, the largest, is barely a thousandth the mass of Jupiter) orbit in the wrong damn place, far to close to their primary star to have any hope of hanging onto a volatile envelope of hydrogen and a bit of helium. In fact, I think it's about time the IAU bit the bullet and admitted that these dwarfish rocky cores are just that, and introduced a new category, "failed planetary nuclei", to define the rocky Earthlike bodies of the inner solar system.

Given that the "Plutonoids" are believed to be mostly condensed gassy stuff, we can (subject to confirmation) then redesignate them as "failed planetary atmosphere fodder". The asteroids and small KBOs can then be allocated to one group or the other, or a fourth, catchment category: "irritating little shit". And the rationalization of the solar system is done.

It'll be so much easier to teach kids the names of the planets when we've pruned them back to four!

Thanks to James Nicoll for pointing out a fascinating paper explaining why factor 1,000,000 sunblock is inadequate when your star goes supernova, using a variety of concrete metaphors:

The energy flux would be roughly equivalent to having the entire earth's entire nuclear arsenal detonated a kilometre away, and would be sufficient to boil away the surface at hundreds of metres per second. Even on the temporarily protected night side, scattered light in the atmosphere and light reflected from interplanetary dust would far exceed normal sunlight, and radiation reflected from the moon would heat the earth to lethal temperatures if the moon were near full. ... We would expect the expanding atmosphere to propel a shock wave far into the night side of the planet and of course the air behind it would be at temperatures of thousands of degrees.
Luckily our particular star isn't going to go that way without some form of encouragement currently outwith the known laws of physics.



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