Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Anticipated Cars

Anticipated Cars

When I was a kid, the next anticipated ‘improvement’ to cars would be hovercars. ‘The Jetsons’ cartoons also seemed to promise flying cars, but we figured they had to float before they could fly.
Floating cars were on our doorstep... almost. But they never arrived. Loooong before I could drive, I asked my dad what was taking so long to get hovercars ‘off the ground’.
Now, dad was a mechanic, with no formal schooling beyond high school, but his answer made sense to my less-than-10-years-old brain. The layer of air under the car had to support the car’s weight, so they had designed a rubber skirt around the bottom to keep the air from dispersing. However, they couldn’t control the car’s height precisely enough to keep the skirt touching the ground. I’ve accepted that explanation for over half a century.
Eventually, we stopped hearing about hover cars.
These days, the big thing is cars that drive themselves. Sounds good!
You see, I rather routinely drive to Orlando 2-4 times a year. In my car trunk, I have my suitcase, my husband’s luggage, my laptop, my cpap... sometimes I even take my sewing machine. Hubby flies down after a few days, and all he needs to bring is a bag of books to read and his cpap. By driving down, we don’t have to rent a car.
This is a 22-hour drive, straight through, but I can’t do that. I can’t even manage 11 hours of driving - between boredom and highway hypnosis - so it takes 3 days to get there. I love Orlando, but the drive is dreaded.
If the car drove itself, I could read, write, crochet, or just enjoy the scenery. The trip could be as enjoyable as the destination.
I imagine other transportation methods would undergo changes, if cars drove themselves. Flying is expensive, especially with luggage, so people may decide to use their car. Trains are as expensive as flying, take at least as long as driving, and the route might not be as direct, so why not take the car? As for buses... well, some things might not change that much.
Bring on the self-driving car! While you’re at it, make them electric, solar-powered, and re-chargeable in a few minutes, with plenty of recharge stations around the country.

Then we could really get somewhere.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Death Mask

A few days ago, I had a cast made of my head. I have costumes I want to make, and they all require a mask, partial mask, or prosthetics, so I needed a copy of my head to make such things and be sure they would fit.
The procedure took about 2 hours to get the cast of my head, and was done by a friend who has done this procedure many times, and two assistants. I was afraid I would experience claustrophobia as they layered items onto me.
We’d had a discussion beforehand on how to ‘deal’ with my long hair. I gathered it at the nape of my neck, and it trailed down my spine. They put a bald cap over my head, trimmed it, and glued it down. They left the back of the bald cap as long as possible, to cover as much hair as it could.
They applied plastic wrap to my shoulders and upper back, because the procedure is messy, and there was still hair to protect. Tiny ear plugs would let them get as much ear detail as possible. I could still hear, but not as well. Now they put mold release on my face and neck. I had to close my eyes for that, and keep them closed until the procedure was done. I was beginning to lose some contact with the world.
Silicon liquid had to be mixed and applied to my head before it solidified. That is a matter of a few minutes for each small batch. If they tried to mix it all up at once, a large portion of it would set before it could be applied. As they covered my ears, their voices became more muffled. When they covered my eyes, my little world became darker. A 10 or 15 minute wait let the silicon ‘cure’ enough to go on.
The final layer was plaster bandages. Again, I lost some ability to hear, and my world definitely went black. And another wait for the plaster to set. Have you ever worked with plaster? It warms as it dries. It was hard to stay awake. However, since I still had some hearing, and the workers frequently touched my arms to get my attention before they asked me a question (“How are you doing?”), and I had an arranged method of responding (thumbs up for okay), I didn’t experience any claustrophobia.
They pulled the plaster outer mold off, and then the inner silicon mold. We had started at 10 am, it was now noon, and we had a ‘negative’ mold and a support case for it.
After the materials had cured some more, our friend showed us how to make the positive casting. By 2 pm, we had a one duplicate head. It looked just like me.
It was ugly.
After a good night’s sleep, I figured out why I had such a strong negative reaction to it. Looking at it was like looking at myself, dead. There is no life in this resin head. It cannot smile, move its eyebrows, or open its eyes. It’s the same reaction I have when viewing a body at a funeral. I had heard of death masks; now I own a Death Head. I can deal with it.

How about you, would you like to have your very own Death Head? What would you do with it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Can Dinosaurs Be New?

One of my Junior High science projects was a ‘diorama’ and report on dinosaurs. I carefully carved my 3 chosen specimen from Ivory soap bars and painted the inside of a cardboard box to be their home.
That was so long ago, the dinosaurs I carved out and reported on were the stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, and the... brontosaurus. Nobody talks about brontos anymore. It’s kind of like they never existed. Actually, they never did. Somehow, somebody stuck the wrong head on another dino’s body, and nobody caught it until-- Well, I don’t know when they figured it out, sometime between my science project and the time my kids went into their ‘dinosaur’ stage.
Since then, there have been tons of dinosaurs and other creatures discovered. Instead of a world inhabited by a handful of giant, scaly lizards, we can now picture a world inhabited by any number of lizards, fish, insects, some mammals, and birds. Even some reptiles that disguised themselves as birds.
Take, for instance, the one I read about this week; the Changyuraptor yangi. It was covered in feathers, including foot-long tail feathers. It was a reptile, and it couldn’t fly. It might have been able to glide, or as one scientist put it, “... if you pushed them out of a tree, they'd fall pretty slowly.”
This despite being described as having 4 wings. Really? No, not exactly. The feathered forelimbs were somewhat akin to a bird’s wings. The backlimbs were also feathered, in such a way that they looked like wings. Lots of feathers, but not a bird.
The Changyuraptor was discovered in China, which seems to be THE place for any self-respecting feathered reptile to have lived. Stegosaurs lived in Western America some 25-30 million years earlier. Since they had armour instead of feathers, I guess they couldn’t aspire to live in China. T.Rex  and their relatives seemed to live where-ever they wanted.

I’m glad I didn’t have to try to carve 4 ‘wings’ and feathers on a creature for my science project. Still, my hackles rise a little when I see a headline about a ‘NEW’ dinosaur being discovered. Whatever their form, dinosaurs aren’t ‘new’. Their dead body has been sitting in the ground for millions of years. It’s not their fault if we’ve only just found them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


One of the panels I’ve given at several conventions this year has been “Where did the first Americans Come From?” In that panel, we discuss 6 different theories held by various scientists, from the one most of them agree is most likely to the one most people ridicule.
In doing my research for that panel-and just generally reading up on science subjects that spark my interest-I have arrived at one conclusion about humans and our ancestors... We have been nomads pretty much as long as we’ve been hominins. An article I read this past week has done much to confirm that, in my mind.
The article was actually about the Tibetan people and how they can thrive in the rarified atmosphere of the high altitudes where they live. Genetic studies have shown that most Tibetans (and a much lower percentage of the Han people in China) have an archaic gene. Not a mutant gene. An archaic gene inherited from a type of human that no longer exists.
This dead species of human is called the Denisovans. They are believed to have been related to-but distinct from-The Neanderthals (also extinct). And scientists probably would not know anything about the Denisovans at all, if someone had not found a single finger bone and 2 teeth in a Siberian cave. DNA study of those 41,000-year-old bones showed they belonged to people who were not Neanderthals, but definitely not modern human, either.
A genetic study of the Tibetan and Han people revealed they had inherited just enough Denisovan genetics to have the ability to up the production of hemoglobin in their blood. This increases their ability to get enough oxygen to their cells in an environment where most of us would have a tough time, due to lack of oxygen.
So, in order for the more modern humans to have bred with Denisovans (or the Neanderthals, for that matter) those earlier versions must have not just left Africa at some earlier time, but spread out across all of Eurasia. After all, Siberia is just about as far away from Africa as they could have gone. And later groups of hominins and humans would have exchanged DNA as they moved into the area, or passed through the area, or whatever.

If humans were not naturally nomads, they might never have left Africa, and then where would we be? Well, I guess we might all still be in Africa.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fact Follows Fiction

Hey, remember that last Star Trek tv show? The one that was a ‘predecessor’ to the Original Series, and thus to all of the Star Trek shows? Earth had just built its first warp-drive spaceship, and sent Capt Archer out to explore the galaxy with a Vulcan First Officer.
I recently stumbled across a news article that pretty much blew my mind and made me think of that show. It seems NASA scientists are designing a warp-drive space ship. Yes, the disk-shape that is so familiar to Trek fans is part of the design. And yes, it is called Enterprise. The IXS Enterprise, to be exact.

I’m not sure how well they can design a warp-drive ship when they haven’t figured out warp drive yet. How much room will they need for engines / warp drive, and how will that equipment need to be distributed around the ship?
In the meantime, scientists are working on warp drive. They think they’ve found a possible ‘loophole’ in the Law of Relativity (which says you can’t go faster than light.) I can’t really explain this ‘loophole’ because the physics are way over my head, but just the thought that they are exploring the possibility is exciting!
Of course, this isn’t the first time that the fiction of Star Trek has become real life fact. If the first ST show hadn’t had those cute flip-top communicators, we might not have cell phones. Their electronic ‘clip-boards’ might well be a predecessor of ipads and ereaders. Cloaking devices? Almost perfected, although not yet ready to be used on starships. And 3-d printers could be a step toward replicators.
Next week - or maybe next month - I expect to hear that some scientist thinks he can make transporter beams. Although, I’m kind of with Dr McCoy on that one. I’m not sure I want my atoms ripped asunder and then reassembled in a new place.

How about you? What science fiction technology would you like to see them start on?