Inhuman Swill : Science

Microwaves ruin everything

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The wonderful video below reminds me of a good story about a microwave oven. Two microwave ovens, actually. But watch the video first, before I tell it. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Wasn't that awesome? Especially the metal stuff. I used to have a girlfriend who would put metal in the microwave all the time. Spoons, aluminum foil, whatever—she wouldn't bother to remove any of it before nuking her food. I'd tell her that was a bad idea, a dangerous idea, but we had the kind of relationship where anything I said was considered silly and untrue just by virtue of my having said it, no matter that it was easily verifiable by checking with any other human being on the planet.

This was 1998. We lived together, and eventually the very bad breakup that had been coming for a very long time was upon us. Our microwave over was very old and very primitive, and my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend had at last saved enough money to buy the kind of very advanced, fancy new microwave she'd been dreaming of for a very long time. She didn't even take it out of the box when she bought it. It was going to be a housewarming gift to herself in her new apartment in her new city, and she was graciously leaving the old crappy microwave behind for me.

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I learned something very cool yesterday. Of course, I'm a science geek, but I still thinks it's cool enough to share.

I'm in Los Angeles this week, doing what I hope will be ongoing programming work for a new client. The client is a big printing facility that spits out reams of paper by the minute, sorts, collates, folds, stuffs, and meters. If you've ever received a one-page explanation of benefits from your health insurance company, or a huge booklet with all the legalese for your policy, this is the kind of place that produced it.

I went on a tour of the facility yesterday afternoon. Among the huge laser printers and folding/inserting machines chained together like a mechanical version of the Human Centipede was a big blue roll printer. It was fascinating to watch in action. At one end was a giant roll of white paper, about six feet in diameter and 17 inches wide. The paper was fed at high speed into a unit that printed two pages side by side. As it emerged from that unit, the continuous paper strip went through a complex series of rollers, some set at a 45-degree angle, that turned the paper over so the blank side was facing up as it went into the next printer. As the paper emerged, now printed on both sides, a blade sliced it lengthwise. The two narrow side-by-side strips were then brought together, one on top of the other, and fed into a cutter that chopped them up into perfectly collated stacks of 8.5 x 11" duplex-printed paper.

That was cool enough, but I noticed that as the paper emerged from the machine that sliced it lengthwise, it passed beneath a piece of wire that had obviously been juryrigged. The wire was wound with a spiral of tinsel, the kind you'd use to decorate a Christmas tree. The tinsel brushed the paper as it sped past.

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Hacking reality

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Wine Loft Panel Discussion, June 24, 2010
Back in June, during the week I attended the Starry Heaven workshop in Flagstaff, organizer extraordinaire Sarah K. Castle put together a little panel discussion on the interactions between science fiction and actual science. Titled "Science + Fantasy = Science Fiction," the panel brought seven scientists and writers together to talk about how science inspires science fiction and vice versa.

Besides Sarah, who is both geologist and SF writer, the participants included writer Bradley P. Beaulieu ([info]brad_beaulieu), writer and futurist Brenda Cooper ([info]bjcooper), biologist and computer scientist Dan Greenspan (blog), biologist and physiologist Stan "Bud" Lindstedt, and science historian David S.F. Portree ("Beyond Apollo").

Everyone's five- to seven-minute presentations were fascinating, and I wish I had time and memory sufficient to recap them all. Instead, though, I've been meaning for a couple of months now to post the loose notes I wrote up for my little presentation. Here they are:



My view of science is pretty well summed up in a conversation between two characters in the novel I'm working on now, Endgame. This is the story of two teenage friends named Hasta and Ivan who develop seemingly magical powers—except that they don't automatically accept magic as the explanation for what has happened to them. Instead they set about using the scientific methods of theorizing and repeated testing to get to the bottom of things.

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Give me a long enough lever...

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We're used to thinking of the movement of an object as homogeneous and instantaneous. In other words, for example, when I give a push to the fat end of my pool cue, the felted end moves at the same time to strike the cue ball.

But I have a question—and I'm asking this because I'm curious about the answer, not because I know the answer. Let's say I had a pool cue that was 186,282 miles long. In other words, light would take a full second to travel from one end of it to the other. So, if I were to give my end of this pool cue a push, would the far end move simultaneously? Or would the motion take something more than a second to propagate along the length of the cue (causing it to ripple, as it were)? Physicists, I'm talkin' to you.

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Ancient climate change

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Meanwhile, back in Chicago, we're going to Schuba's tonight for this week's Field Museum Café Science lecture, on ancient climate change. The speaker is the brother of one of Laura's coworkers. Science and beer, what could be better?

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Cuttlefish camouflage

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Speaking of animals, there's a cool article in today's New York Times about camouflage in cephalopods.

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Habitable planet for man?

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The headline of this Malaysian Sun story is rather optimistic, but the discovery of the most Earthlike extrasolar planet yet is definitely exciting.

A nice perspective on extrasolar planets is offered in this 2004 New York Times essay by Dennis Overbye, written on the occasion of the discovery of what was then the smallest yet detected.

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Hey, kids! Wondering why you should bother studying science and math? So you can work out the formula to describe the perfect bacon butty!

N = C + {fb(cm) · fb(tc)} + fb(Ts) + fc · ta
Duh.

Tomorrow we'll derive a formula to determine how many licks it takes to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop.

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Observations on "Observations"

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A relatively new science fiction podcast named "Retrieval Detachment" (part of the Radio Caravan podcast syndicate) features entertaining discussions of the concepts behind selected SF stories. This week they focus on my story "Observations from the City of Angels" and discuss the implications of full-sensory blogging:

Retrieval Detachment Episode 4 Subscribe to the podcast at the iTunes Music Store, or get the audio directly here.
I found the discussion very interesting, and in fact it gave me some ideas for the additional stories I plan to write in that milieu.

If you haven't read this story, you might want to before tuning in. You can hear Stephen Eley read it at "Escape Pod," or read it online (under a different title) at Salon.

"Observations from the City of Angels" will also appear in my chapbook, due next summer from Spilt Milk Press.

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Bring your own dustrag

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