Back from Europe 2016 – Part III

Back from Europe 2016 – Part III

Hey folks! It’s taken me some time, but I am finally getting around to finishing my story of this past year’s Eurotrip. The year of 2016 is rapidly coming to a close, so I really wanted to get this done before New Year’s. After all, this trip marked the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, Beaumont Hamel, and many other World War I events. Leaving it until next year just seemed wrong.

Picking up where I left off, my family and I witnessed some really amazing things during the first week that we were in Normandy. Our visit coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day and the Liberation of Normandy. And once we had finished witnessing these, visited the D-Day beaches, taking part in the commemorative ceremony at Grangue, and paying our respects to my great-uncle Wilmott, we got in some last-minute visits and started carrying on to Belgium and Holland.

Cabourg:

Our first stop after the ceremony at Grangues was to the town of Cabourg, located on the Normandy coast overlooking the English Channel. This place is famous for being a the favorite hangout of French writer Marcel Proust, and is the home of many waterfront hotels and casinos. Personally, I felt it was a bit Niagra Falls-esque, that is to say, a bit tacky. But we still got in a lovely walk along the waterfront (Promenade Marcel Proust) and enjoyed some lunch at the famous Grand Hotel Cabourg.

Upon returning to Grangues, we packed up and got ready for the next part of our adventure, which included stops in the border towns of Amiens and Albert…

Amiens:

During the Great War (aka. World War I), Amiens found itself being on the front-lines of battle. Between 1914 and 1918, it was occupied by both the Germans and the Allied forces. And the Battle of Amiens (1918) was the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive, where Allied troops (led by the Canadian Corps) began pushing the Germans out of France completely and back through Belgium. In World War II, it was heavily bombed by the British Air Force and suffered immense damage. After the liberation, the city was rebuilt and has gone on to become a very modern urban environment.

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My father outside of the Amiens Cathedral side entrance

Once we arrived, we checked in at a Best Western, located next to a park where a big ol’ monument honoring Charles de Gaulle and the French resistance stood. From there, we set off on foot to the old part of the city to see the Cathedral and take in some of the local culture. The Cathedral Amiens was quite the sight, as it is the tallest classic Gothic churches in France, and is today recognized as a World Heritage Site.

The interior was quite amazing and we took many pictures. We also got treated to images like the one above that showed how the Cathedral was fortified during the war. After a few hours inside, we stepped out into the courtyard and enjoyed some sour ale at a bar sitting right next to it (my wife and folks were not fans of it!) By dinner time, we enjoyed some rather lackluster burgers at another joint that honestly had horse meat on the menu (steak cheval, I kid you not!)

That night, we didn’t all sleep so well. My wife and I had a cramped room that was tucked in the inner corner of the building, and the heat was sweltering. I opened the room’s only window, but she feared a pigeon would fly in (a realistic anxiety, since they seemed to be nesting right outside). As such, we basically tossed and turned and got a very restless sleep. By morning, we weren’t so happy. But we soldiered on to our next destination!

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The interior of Amiens Cathedral during World War I

Albert:

After taking our breakfast in the downstairs dining hall and continued on to our destination for the day – the border town of Albert. Here was another historic town that was on the front lines during World War I, specifically during the Battle of the Somme. It also boasts an impressive cathedral – the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières – that saw its share of action as well. And today, it has an impressive WWI museum that is major draw.

To give you a little history lesson, the Basilica dates back to the 19th century and was built in the Byzantine tradition. Its tower features a gold statue, known as the “Golden Virgin”, which shows the Virgin Mary holding forth a baby Jesus. On January 15th, 1915 – while French, British and German forces were battling for control of the border region – a shell struck the tower and bent it to a near-horizontal position. There it would remain for years to come, and a popular mythology quickly emerged, claiming that whoever knocked it over would be the side that would lose the war.

By the time of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, British shelling destroyed the church. And after the war, like every other town and landmark in the region, the Basilica was rebuilt, complete with the statue of the Golden Virgin on top. Another thing which survived the war was an underground tunnel that sits beneath the cathedral, where wounded were brought when the town was on the front lines. Today, that tunnel serves as a museum, where rooms that sat to the sides of the tunnel are now displays showing equipment and recreated scenes of the war.

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The tower of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières, showing the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures from the tunnels to post, so my meager descriptions will have to do. For one, despite being brightly painted and well-lit, they retain an undeniable sense of claustrophobia. The entire time I was wandering through them, I felt the oppressive feeling that comes from being underground and there only being a few feet between one wall and the other. This really helps to impress upon you how awful it must have been during the war, when the entire place would have been lit by gas lamps or a few bulbs and it was overcrowded with wounded soldiers, nurses and equipment.

Once you get the other end, there is a lovely shop that sells lots of (what I assume were) historical recreations – helmets, bullets, badges, uniforms. I have heard tell that some people have retrieved various war artifacts from their fields, or have memorabilia lying around the house, and have chosen to sell them. However, the stuff we saw seemed in too good of shape to be a century old.

Speaking of which, we also took this day to visit Beaumont Hamel, the memorial where the Newfoundland Regiment suffered terrible losses during the Battle of the Somme. We had missed the centennial celebrations, which took place a few days before on July 1st, 2016, which was a bit of a blessing. According to the tour guides, the place was packed to capacity, with people even standing in the fields (which are usually off-limits due to worries of there still be unexploded ordinance).

Like last time, before going to the site, we stopped in at Avril’s Tea Room for some eats. This consisted of chocolate milk (the powdered-chocolate mix and milk, which you have to keep stirring if you don’t want a mouth of powder!) and some slices of quiche with bacon (very salty!). Luckily, one of Avril’s cats was doing the rounds and helped me eat some of the bacon bits.

The wall outside the Albert museum, where poppies grow wild!

This was followed by a quick demonstration in a neighboring field, where I showed my parents my latest Taekwon-Do pattern. We all used to train together, and got our Third Degree Black Belts at the same time (1997). However, they quit a few years later and I’ve been training (and keeping them in the loop with occasional demonstrations) ever since. We then visited a farmer’s field that sits next to Beaumont Hamel because my father wanted to see if he could find a crater that he had read about.

Unfortunately, we never found the crater. The field was dense with what we took to be rye and was pretty much impenetrable. And after fearing that were dangerously close to trespassing, we fell back aways and started looking in a plot that was mostly dirt for some shrapnel. As I explained from our last trip, shrapel and unexploded ordinance often turns up in fields throughout Flanders. This, more than monuments and grave sites, lets you know just how totally the landscape was altered by the war years.

And much like the last time we went digging – outside of Langemark cemetery in Belgium – we seriously hit a motherload here! Within minutes of searching, we found several large pieces of metal that bore markings that indicated that they were from an artillery shell. And my father found several shrapnel balls that were still intact! We packed this up in a little bag, and then proceeded to Beaumont Hamel.

My father and I searching for shrapnel in the farmer’s field

As I described it last time, the site is a preserved battlefield. Though it is now grown over with grass, the field still bears the marks of war. As you enter, you see where the British and Newfoundland troops (then part of the Commonwealth and not Canada), were stationed. When you spot the key locations, like the danger tree, and the German lines at the far side of the field, you come to understand how staggeringly wasteful the First World War was. Thousands of men died within the space of a few minutes, and on a stretch of land measuring not much longer than a football field.

We got to see more of it this time, walking from one end to the other. This included all the grave sites and monuments that dot the field, the British and Commonwealth lines, the German lines, and the visitor center. And with this visit complete, we proceeded on to our next (and possibly favorite) destination!

Ypres:

This town is one that captured the hearts of my wife and I after our first visit in 2014. In fact, it would be fair to say it captured my heart long before I visited, thanks to my fathers descriptions of this town, its people and its deep connection to the events of WWI. In fact, I think I spoke so at length of these in my posts about our 2014 visit that I almost feel like nothing more needs to be said.

Psyche! Okay, so we turned up in Ypres midway through our trip. And we checked back into the hotel that served us so well last time. This would be the local Albion, which endeared itself to us in large part because of their awesome breakfasts! I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful a good Belgian breakfast is. Seriously, it combines the best aspects of a French and German breakfast – hard boiled eggs, meats, cheese, muesli, yogurt, croissants, bread and bakes goods, jams and spreads, and lots of butter! And the coffee is none too shabby either!

The preserved trench line at Vimy Ridge

We had already laid out which places we wanted to see – the In Flanders Fields Museum, the Menin Gate, the Market Place during Market Day (Saturday), the British Grenadier Bookshop, the medieval walls, and of course the many monuments and cemeteries that are in driving distance from the town.

The wife and I also took the opportunity to go for a job around the wall which guards the old part of town. We had done this the last time we visited – in 2014 – and wanted to see more of it. After running along the part that follows the canal, we ran across the bridge, around the other side through one of the wall’s main gates, and then farther around to the section of the old city that the wall doesn’t encompass.

After that, we had a nice meal near the Cathedral that sits next to the In Flander’s Fields museum, where I discovered a new type of food (Flemish Stew, which is cubed beef is a rich ale gravy, usually served with salad and mashed potatoes) and a new beer (Keizer Karel, a nice Belgian Blond ale), both of which I loved!

The sheep that grave in Vimy’s fields today

But the greatest jaunt we made was definitely to the Vimy Monument, commemorating the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. Visiting this place is tantamount to to a holy pilgrimage for Canadians, as it commemorates the battle that effectively defined Canada as a nation. Once again, we took the underground tour, passing into the tunnels that the Canadian and British used before the battle in an attempt to place mines under the German trenches. As the craters in the region can attest, the resulting explosions were quite large!

One thing I absolutely must include is the story of my mother’s lost purse, and the story of our lunch. I cannot impress upon people enough how excellent French culture is at doing a simple lunch. Pull into any roadside bakery, get yourselves some subs made with French baguettes – they have all kinds of interesting options, from sliced meet to curried chicken or pesto and veggies – and grab some delicious baked goods for desert. This time around, we all got assorted baguette subs and some delicious apple tarts (my mother got a pistachio cream goodie). We bought these before going to the monument and then ate at the picnic area afterwards.

We packed up to leave after all that, got back tot he hotel, and realized my mother left her purse behind. We called the staff at the monument only to find that they were closed for the day. So my folks went back to look for it. As it turns out, there was an RV parked by the picnic area. When my folks returned, the nice couple who owned it (a lovely French Canadian couple) had picked it up and were holding it in case we returned. When they saw my folks, they let them know it was safe and sound and turned it over.

That was a load of my folks minds, let me tell you. They were already dealing with the stress of knowing that one of their beloved cats (Beethoven, their oldest), had broken his leg in an accident (he’s doing fine, btw). With all that complete, we retired back to town for a quiet dinner and a nice sleep. On the next day, we made for our next stop on the tour.

That consisted of seeing locations in central Belgium, Holland, and then our return to France. All of which will be covered in Part the Last!

Almost Done!

Almost Done!

Hey all! I have more in the way of novel-writing news. For starters, The Cronian Incident is now just a few chapters short of completion. After over a year of writing, editing, and back and forth with my prospective-publisher, the novel is just about finished. All told, it is now 31 chapters long and just over 85,000 words in length. I anticipate it will be about 100,000 by the time its finished, though I have been known to exceed estimates in the past!

And as per my agreement with my publisher, I have begun working on its sequel. Apparently, publishers like to know the people they sign have more books in them. And they prefer to release sequels within a few months of the first book, to ensure that any buzz they generate with the first release can be capitalized on. Lucky for me I had plans for a second and third novel before my publisher and I started talking, not to mention some spin offs.

So here’s the commercial description for the proposed sequel (i.e. what you’d read on the back of the dust jacket), as well as a rundown on some other ideas I’m working on:

The Jovian Manifesto:

The Solar System is in the midst of a crisis. In the Jovian and Cronian systems, the populations are up in arms, thanks to an inflammatory document that has appeared on the local nets. Known as “The Jovian Manifesto”, this document details how a powerful faction in the Inner Solar System conspired to seize control over the moons of Callisto and Titan and forcibly alter them. Behind the leak is a mysterious personality known only as Clio, who is threatening to release all the details unless the guilty parties come forward.

Back on Venus, a former analyst named Valéria Gallego is called before the Solar Assembly to investigate the Manifesto and its author. In this, she is assisted by Kadera, an infiltration specialist who can get in and out of any location in the Solar System. If they can determine its authenticity, perhaps they can prevent open conflict. But if not, the Inner Worlds may have no choice but to send armed forces to the Outer Worlds to ensure peace and stability.

Meanwhile, a string of violent acts has threatened to bring things ever closer to the brink. For Gallego and all those who are seeking the truth, time is running out…

Luna Invictus:

Now this is a book that doesn’t come with a commercial description, just a general one. But it is set in the same universe as The Cronian Incident and The Jovian Manifesto. Here’s what I am thinking. Basically, I wanted to do a story set on the Moon, ca. the 22nd century, when the Moon is now effectively colonized,,,

Between the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, the Russians (Roscosmos), India (the ISRO), and China (CNSA), the lunar surface now has multiple permanent settlements. Whereas the ESA and NASA have established themselves at the southern polar region – in a domed settlement in the Shackleton Crater – and the Chinese have established a colony in the northern polar region, the Russians and Indians have claimed the mid-latitudes, where stable lava tubes have allowed for the creation of underground cities.

And on the “Dark Side” of the Moon – that is to say, the side looking away from Earth – are a series of installations known as the Unrestricted Zones. It is here that all kinds of weird research, development and experiments take place. Nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, and man-machine interface – anything goes in these places! Ever since the explosion in learning that took place during the previous century, places all over Earth and the Moon have become dedicated to pursuing technological progress and integration without restriction.

And it is here that a young man named Frankling Houte is seeking to go. Years ago, his sister – named Constant Houte – chose to undergo a procedure where her organic brain would be augmented by merging it with quantum components. But after all contact ceased, he is determined to find her and return her home. But whereas Franklin fancies himself a brave rescuer, it is his sister who will come to save him.

Transverse:

This story will take place entirely in a generation ship that is making its way towards the nearby star system. Within the confines of this self-contained world, thousands of humans have committed to waiting and working for generations as their massive ship – the Traverse Velocity, which in astronomical terms refers to the speed at which a star moves perpendicular to our line of sight – transports them to an Earth-like world outside of our Solar System.

The location of that world is up for grabs at the moment, mainly because new discoveries are being made all the time. Did you hear about the latest exoplanet discovery, located about 39 light years away and already said to be the “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”? Between that and new findings that claims how previous discoveries are not likely to be habitable after all, I’ve decided to leave the destination blank until I actually start writing it!

But of course, no story would be complete without some intrigue and big ol’ inciting event! And the way I see it, things begin to go awry when the Captain and crew get notification that one of the passengers has awakened from cryosleep prematurely and disappeared into the ship. Shortly thereafter, one of the crew is found dead in what appears to be a sabotage attempt gone wrong. A ship-wide search begins to find the culprit while the atmosphere quickly devolves into one of paranoia and suspicion.

To make matter worse, the crew becomes aware of another ship that is threatening to catch up and overtake them. It seems that another faction from the Solar System, which was also intent on settling (insert exoplanet here) is now trying to get their ahead of them. What began as a journey to a new world, characterized by hopes and dreams, has become a race to lay claim to a planet. And it appears that the planet may have inhabitants of its own, ones which are not interested in welcoming the intruders.

I Am Signed!

I Am Signed!

After many weeks of waiting and waiting, it has finally happened. A publisher has offered to take me on and I have accepted. Which means that when The Cronian Incident is finally available, it will be a Castrum Publishing product. But before you go thinking its all good news, let me tell you that the road getting here was a bit awkward!

For starters, I was first approached by the man I’m currently working with (let’s call him Paul) back in October. At the time, he was the acquiring editor (AE) for the science-fiction and space opera division of a UK-based publishing company. After the usual back and forth with edits and suggestions, he said he wanted to sign me for a three book deal and a short story.

Shortly thereafter, he announced to all those authors who he had been working with that he had quit the company over “creative differences”. He also told me in a private email that he would still be interested in signing me once he got his own press up and running. I was flattered, but kept talking to the press to see where things stood. I was told by Paul’s boss (the AE for the entire operation) I was still in good standing, and he asked me to submit my latest draft for them to look over.

Then, after about a month of waiting, the editor told me he was handing me off to someone they had hired to fill Paul’s shoes. At about the same time, Paul contacted me again and said his press was up and rolling and wanted to know if I had signed anything yet. I said I had not, but was still waiting on a reply. He said cool, and that if I was interested, he would give me a contract with the standard rules, rights, and royalties. In other words, distribution via paperback, ebook and audiobook, with a 40% cut of each.

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I was more than prepared to jump ship because honestly, I wasn’t sure about them and only really decided to sign on because I had had the chance to talk to Paul extensively and trusted him as an editor. You could say we shared a lot of the same goals and he seemed entirely on the up and up. But of course, I wanted to do my due diligence.

So I naturally started knocking on Tickety Boo’s door to see what was going on. The owner himself got back to me and asked me to send him my latest manuscript. He said if it grabbed him in the first ten pages, we would be good to go. I seriously didn’t know what the hell was going on, as I’d already submitted my manuscript to his company multiple times and had been given the green light by his former acquiring editor (Paul), and the AE above him.

In any case, I did as he asked and was told he would get back to me in 24 hours. When that time has passed, I let him know that I had a competing and needed an answer. He messages me back to say  he was willing publish my book, but that it would need like two big editing sweeps, and he was only willing to give me 30% royalties until it proved its worth. He also made it clear he wasn’t about to get into any bidding.

Less than an hour later, he messaged me again and said his editors had “overruled” him and he was not going to publish me. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. But it genuinely felt like he was at first trying to shake me down, and then just dropped me. I also noted the timing and how it seemed rather conspiratorial. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought the mention of another offer made him get defensive.

This also came after a month of runaround from his operation, which Paul had quit because (as he explained just recently) he didn’t like the way they were treating their authors. After all this, I could certainly see why some people felt this way. And so I emailed Paul back and said we were a go. I also let him know that I had already decided to sign with him, but wanted to make sure I didn’t leap without looking.

So the good news is that I am a go and should be ready to see my book in print within a few months time! The only bad news would be it took awhile to get to this point and I had to get the runaround from some jerkoff and his printing press in the process! But it’s the journey, not the destination, right?

So expect to hear regular updates on the progress of this story as it goes from final draft to on sale. And expect updates on its proposed sequel – The Jovian Manifesto – which is currently in the works!

My First Article for Popular Mechanics!

My First Article for Popular Mechanics!

There’s a potentially Earth-like planet around the closest star to Earth—that’s the space headline that captured the world’s imagination this summer. But here’s something that was easy to forget in all that furor over Proxima Centauri. Our neighboring star doesn’t look anything like the Sun.

We humans have known only one life-sustaining planet in the universe: a green-and-blue globe called Earth. So perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking the ideal ingredients for creating life must resemble what we se here: a bunch of planets around a medium-sized yellow star.

Mind-expanding missions like the Kepler Space Observatory, however, have scientists questioning whether a solar system like ours really is the perfect place to hunt for new Earths and the possibility of life beyond our planet. Lately, astronomers have been taking a closer look at red dwarfs—stars with low mass, low temperatures, and slow rates of fusion.These stars don’t look much like our life-giving Sun, but they make up almost 70 percent of the observable stars in the sky and could survive for trillions of years—far longer than our star.

If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, many scientists believe it will be orbiting a red dwarf. Here’s why.

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Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc. Credit: ESO

The Alien Worlds of Red Dwarfs

In the past, planet-hunters thought the odds of finding potentially habitable worlds around red dwarfs were quite low. Because of their low mass and temperature, red dwarfs emit just 3 percent as much light as our sun. For an orbiting planet not to freeze into an uninhabitable iceball, it would need to be as close to the star as Mercury is to our Sun. Unfortunately, being so close to a star means the planets probably would be tidally locked, where one side is constantly facing the star and the other side always faces away. Not ideal conditions for creating life.

Red dwarfs are also far less stable compared to larger stars, undergoing sudden rises and drops in the amount of light and heat they emit. This creates big variations in temperature, adding yet another challenge for budding life.

If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, it will likely be orbiting a red dwarf.

It’s not all bad news, though. Red dwarfs have a considerable advantage over other stars in their incredible lifespans. Our Sun has been around for 4.57 billion years, yet humanity has existed for just 200,000 years. Life takes a long time, and complex life even more so.

Time is one thing red dwarfs have plenty of—they can exist for trillions of years because of their low mass and slow rate of nuclear fusion. Since they’re also so common in our cosmos, the odds of finding planets within that habitable Golidlocks zone is statistically high. For astronomers, the pros are starting to outweigh the cons.

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Artist’s impression of what the surface of Proxima b could look like. Credit: ESO

The Case for Going Red

In 2005, astronomers from around the world converged on Mountain View, California, for a workshop sponsored by The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) where scientists argued the case that red dwarf stars could be the best place to look for aliens. In the end, it comes down to sheer probability. Within 33 light years of Earth there were 240 known red dwarfs at the time, compared to just 21 stars like ours.

Although red dwarfs are hard to find because they’re dim, once they’re spotted it’s much easier to see how many chunks of rock are in orbit. The so-called transit method of finding exoplanets, which the Kepler telescope used to great effect, relies on looking for changes in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. It looks something like this:

Because planets orbiting a red dwarf are likely to hug their stars so tightly, the orbital period is often just a few days long, which makes for pretty good odds of seeing such a transit.

New Worlds Emerge

Since that SETI conference more than a decade ago, oodles of new planets orbiting red dwarfs have been discovered. Between 2005 and 2010, astronomers found six exoplanets orbiting Gliese 581, a red dwarf located about 20 light years from Earth. Two of these planets, Gliese 581-c and -d, lie on the inner and outer edge the star’s habitable zone. Another exoplanet, Gliese 581-g, may also have an orbit fit for habitability (though its existence is still contested).

In 2012, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published the results of a spectrographic survey that examined 102 red dwarf stars in the Milky Way over the course of six years. They found that red dwarf stars were more likely to have an Earth-like planet orbiting them than a gas giant. Two years later, another ESO study concluded that virtually all red dwarfs in the universe have at least one exoplanet orbiting them. At least a quarter of them have a super-Earth (a planet like ours but slightly bigger) orbiting within their habitable zones.

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Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The drumbeat goes on. This past July, researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) released a study in which the team calculated the likelihood of Earth-like planets forming within our universe over cosmic timescales, starting with the first stars to form, billions of years ago, and continuing into the distant future. They determined that low-mass red dwarf stars would be more likely than giant stars to maintain a system of planets long enough for life to emerge, and that likelihood only increased with time.

“We considered the likelihood of ‘life as we know it’ to form between the appearance of the first stars and the death of the last stars,” Professor Avi Loeb, a science professor at Harvard University and the lead author on the paper, told PM. ” We found that the likelihood peaks in the distant future around low-mass stars, simply because these stars live much longer than the Sun.”

Other discoveries made in the past five years have also bolstered the case for habitable planets around red dwarf stars with exoplanet candidates around Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and most recently Proxima Centauri. All of these star systems are located relatively close to our own, though still impossibly out of reach with only today’s space-faring technology.

In the coming years, as more exoplanet hunters like the James Webb Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite look to the sky, it’s probable that scientists and astronomers will focus much of their efforts on nearby red dwarf stars.

“One of the great discoveries made in the past decade or so is that it seems like there are planets all over the place,” TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart told PM, “even around these small stars so different from our own.”

See it here: Popular Mechanics

New Trailers: MARS

Just came across these new trailers for a series that will be premiering on Nov. 14th. The show tackles the increasingly-relevant concept of a crewed Mars mission. Such a series is very timely right now as NASA gears up for its “Journey to Mars”, and quite understandable given the recent popularity of The Martian.

As you can see, the show chronicles the first crewed mission to Mars, which involves a ship based on the

The series is directed by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (director of Apollo 13), and some big names had input into the series. This included SpaceX founder Elon Musk, famed science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Robert Zubrin. For those familiar with proposed Mars missions, these names should be instantly recognizable. Musk is the man pushing for regular missions to Mars in the coming decade (using his Interplanetary Transport System – or ITS), while deGrasse Tyson is the successor to Carl Sagan, communicating the wonders of science through public outreach and the show Cosmos.

But most important of all is Robert Zubrin. Not only is he the founder of the Mars Society, he is also the man who wrote “Mars Direct” (1990) -the seminal study which renewed interest in exploring Mars. This was followed by the book The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle Mars and Why We Must (1997).

Here is the description from the National Geographic Channel:

The year is 2033, and humanity’s first crewed mission to Mars is about to become a reality. A unique blend of scripted drama and modern-day interviews with the field’s best and brightest, Mars tells the story of how we will one day call the red planet home through groundbreaking research and innovation. The global series event premieres Monday, November 14, at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.

Don’t know about you, but I will be watching every episode!

Thanks to Kepler, We Just Doubled our Chances of Finding Aliens

You know how this is going to start, don’t you?  Yes, with one of these:

Aliens-meme

In any case, here is an article that I wrote for UT recently. However, due to a surprising lack of response to the subject on social media, it never got published. So I have decided to publish it in full here. Enjoy!


Since it was deployed in March of 2009, the Kepler space telescope has been responsible for the discovery of thousands of potential extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets). In fact, as of January 2015, Kepler confirmed the existence of 1,013 exoplanets in about 440 stellar systems, along with a further 3,199 unconfirmed planet candidates. This is certainly an impressive feat, especially when you consider the fact that it accounts for almost half of all the exoplanets discovered so far.

But earlier today, NASA hosted a news conference in which they declared that Kepler has effectively doubled the number of exoplanets it has discovered. In what is the largest single batch of discoveries to be announced at one time, NASA claimed that the Kepler mission has validated the existence of 1284 new planets with 99% percent certainty (along with 428 likely false positives).

Not only is this the largest group of discoveries made by NASA (or any space agency) to date, it doubles the number of planets in the Kepler catalog. As of May 9th, 2016, some 1,041 confirmations had been made. But with this latest addition, that number now stands at a robust 2,325. Quite the accomplishment for a mission that was nearly abandoned due to mechanical failure.

Since its deployment in 2007, Kepler has confirmed the existence of over 2000 extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA
Since its deployment in 2009, Kepler has confirmed the existence of over 2000 extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA

Back in 2012, the Kepler mission suffered a setback when one of the spacecraft four reaction wheels – which are used to point the spacecraft – stopped working. This was followed by a second failure in May of 2013, which disabled the collection of science data and threatened to end the mission three years ahead of schedule.

After much consideration, NASA declared on August 15th, 2013 that they had given up on attempting to repair the reaction wheels and had instead chosen to modify the mission. By November, NASA reported that Kepler would henceforth be dedicated to searching for habitable planets around smaller red dwarf stars – a mission which they named K2 “Second Light”. This mission extension was approved shortly thereafter, and Kepler has been carrying on with this mission ever since.

And with this latest batch of discoveries, Kepler is showing that it is still pulling its weight, and then some! Of those planets confirmed in this latest batch, most fell into the class of “mini-Neptunes” – planets that are the lower limits of a gas giant’s size. The next greatest sample consisted of “super-Earths” – terrestrial planets that are larger than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant.

The remainder of those discovered fell between those that were Earth-sized or Neptune-sized gas giants. And as was made clear at the NASA-hosted conference, the discovery of over 2000 more confirmed exoplanets will also be of major importance for the next-generation of space telescopes, all of which will picking up where Kepler leaves off.

The number of confirmed exoplanets, by year. Credit: NASA
The number of newly discovered exoplanets, by year. Credit: NASA

These include missions like the James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Space Survey (TESS), the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and the ESA’s Plato mission. Much like Kepler, they will be searching for more than just extra-solar planets. Using similar detection methods as Kepler, as well as coronagraphic measurements, these missions will be hunting for more worlds, and assessing their properties to see if they are capable of supporting life.

And in the meantime, there is still plenty for Kepler to do before its mission is set to expire (in October of 2016). For example, there are more than 3,000 candidate planets in the Kepler database that need to be confirmed or ruled out. And then there are the “Kepler Objects of Interest”, a list of detections that need to assessed to see if they can even be considered as true candidates.

It certainly goes without saying that this latest announcement is also a major step along the road to finding extra-terrestrial life in the Universe. The more planets we find, the greater the odds of finding ET! While it may be naive to assume that they would live under conditions similar to our own, we are looking for the low-hanging fruit first. And finding and studying more exoplanets could also help us to understand what other conditions life might flourish under.

The research that led to this announcement was also published today in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “False Positive Probabilities For All Kepler Objects Of Interest: 1284 Newly Validated Planets And 428 Likely False Positives” by Timothy D. Morton (et al.).

Some Thoughts On Game of Thrones Season SIx

Some Thoughts On Game of Thrones Season SIx

Hello folks! As you may know, I don’t get around to posting much in the way on this blog lately. These days, my time has been pretty much stretched thin with writing for Universe Today and HeroX, and what time I have left over I generally dedicate towards my personal writing. But I felt the need to hop on here today and share something which it pains me to admit.

I do not care for Game of Thrones anymore! And since I have friends who were so excited about Season 6 and raved about how Season 5 ended, I know this will lead to some arguments down the road. But I must be honest here…

When the show began, I was a non-initiate, someone who had never read the books or ever heard of George R.R. Martin. Once the first season was complete, I took it upon myself to read all five books and found myself quickly turned into a ASOIAF geek. Naturally, this lessened the experience of the show as for Season 2, 3, 4, and 5, I knew how the story would go and reacted predictably whenever they changed any details. But that was only because I liked the story so much.

But last season, the writers of GOT went so far off book and left so much stuff out that I became genuinely disinterested with the show. Still, I felt I had to see what they were going to do with Season 6, so when “The Red Woman” premiered, I was sure to tune in. And then I watched the follow-up in “Home” to see where things went from there. Needless to say, the way they handled things reminded me of why I lost interest.

GOT6

Let me explain why…

When the show writer’s tackled season 5, they had material from two books to work with  – A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. And whereas they divided the third book (A Storm of Swords) into two seasons and ended up padding the second half with lots of things they made up, for Season 5 they skimmed over much of it, left a whole bunch of things out, and then reached the point where they had nothing more of Martin’s material to work with.

And it seems obvious to me why they did that now. In the course of making Season 5, they knew they would be flying without Martin’s net by Season 6. And so they began moving to eliminate all the material they didn’t want to work with and began simplifying the plot. Too bad, because so much of what they eliminated was intriguing and made the story interesting.

Also, it seems obvious that the promos they made for Season 6 – “Anybody can be killed” – have been less than honest. In reality, they’ve been killing off only certain kinds of characters, and it seems clear why. Now covering all of what they changed would take some time, so here’s the Cole Notes version of it. This is where the story left off in the books, and where they diverged from it…

Tyrion In Essos: Having killed his father, Tyrion fled King’s Landing with Jaime and Varys help, and travels to the free city of Pentos, where he is in the care of lllyrio Mopatis (the same man who had played host to Daenerys and her brother Varys for years). Tyrion is then sent to Volantis in order to meet with a party led by a man named Griff and his son, young Griff, which will be traveling east to find Daenerys. After spending time with them, Tyrion learns the startling truth.

tyrion_river
Tyrion pulled from the river, by Dimitri Bielak

Young Griff is in fact Aegon Targaryen, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen (and cousin to Daenerys) who was thought to have died in Robert’ Rebellion. Griff, meanwhile, is Jon Connington, the Hand of “The Mad King” Aerys II. For years, Aegon has been raised in secret, for the day that he could return to Westeros and reclaim the throne. With Daenerys having risen to become queen of Mereen and the “Mother of Dragons”, they now intend to find Daenerys’  and convince her to marry Aegon, at which time they will return to Westeros in force and claim the thrones.

Unfortunately, Tyrion is kidnapped by Ser Jorah Mormont, who intends to take him to Daenerys as a gift. But they are taken by slavers who intend to force them to fight in Mereen’s recently reopened fighting pits. During the opening fight, when Daenerys is attacked and flees on the back of Drogon, Tyrion, Mormont, and Penny (another dwarf taken as a slave) flee outside the city.

Beyond the walls of Mereen, the armies of Slaver’s Bay are gathered.Having retaken Yunkai and Astapor from the freed slavers, they are now gathered to lay siege to Mereen. Daenerys managed to broker a truce by reopening the fighting pits and marrying Hizdahr zo Loraq. However, with her gone from the city, the truce is broken. Tyrion and the others manage to join with a sellsword company Second Sons, and hope to switch sides while the camp suffers from a plague that has broken out (the Bloody Flux).

a-song-of-ice-and-fire-dany_drogon
Daenerys and Drogon in Daznak’s Pit, by Marc Simonetti

While in the wilderness, Daenerys is found by an old foe – Khal Jhaqo, the man who took command of the khalasar after Khal Drogo died.

Iron Islands: The Ironborne choose a new king after Balon Greyjoy dies in a fatal fall at Pyke.  Euron, Balon’s brother, becomes the new king by promising his people victory thanks to a “dragonhorn”, an instrument which can control dragons that he managed to procure. He orders his younger brother Victarion to sail to Essos to bring Daenerys and her dragons back.

Dorne: The Sand Snakes plot to kidnap Princess Myrcella has failed thanks to the intervention of Prince Doran Martell. After freeing the ringleader – his daughter, Arianna Martell – he explains to her that he has a plot to get revenge on the Lannisters, Baratheons and Tyrells and is not the weak man they think he is. This plan involves sending his son Quentyn Martell to Mereen to marry Daenerys and bring her home to Dorne, where their kingdom will pledge support for her and take the Iron Throne for House Martell.

Arianna Martell and Ser Arys Oakheart, by Magali Villeneuve
Arianna Martell and Ser Arys Oakheart, by Magali Villeneuve

However, this plan went a bit awry when Daenerys fled Mereen, and Quentyn is burned alive when he and his men try to take matters into their own hands and free her dragons. At the same time, the Ironborn are traveling to Mereen in the hopes of striking an alliance with Daenerys and bringing her and her dragons back to Westeros, also with the hope of conquering the Iron Throne for themselves.

In the Riverlands: Brienne of Tarth still searches for Sansa and Arya with the help of Podrick Payne. Along the way, she runs into the Brothers Without Banners, who arrest her and take her before their master – Lady Stoneheart. Brienne learns, to her surprise and horror, that Stoneheart is actually Lady Caitelyn Stark.

After being murdered at the Red Wedding, her body was thrown into the river and washed up on shore. The Brothers found her, and Lord Berric Dondarion (having been resurrected many times by Thoros of Myr) breathes his last life to her. A cold, viscous shadow of her former self, she orders Brienne killed on suspicion that is she working for the Lannisters, but Brienne is released after agreeing to kill Ser Jaime.

Lady Stoneheart, by Azad Injejikian
Lady Stoneheart, by Azad Injejikian

She finds Ser Jaime in the Riverlands, where is he busy negotiating an end to the sieges that are still taking place there. When they meet, she tells him that she has found Sansa Stark, but only Jaime can accompany her. The reason, she claims, is that Sandor Clegane (The Hound) is alive and with her, and that he will attack if he Brienne comes alone. In short, we are led to believe she is leading him into a trap.

In The North: Jon Snow allows the Wildlings to pass through the Wall after their defeat at the hands of Stannis. While it is believed that Mance Rayder was burned alive, along with the other Wildlings that would not bend the knee to Stannis’, Jon learns that he’s actually alive. With Melisandre’s help, who cast a spell of illusion on him, he switched places with Rattleshirt and has been carrying on in disguise. Jon asks him to travel south and rescue his sister Arya, who he was told was married to Ramsay Bolton (not knowing that he married Jeyne Poole, who is being forced to impersonate Arya).

Melisandre also warns Jon that she has seen him in her visions, where he is surrounded by daggers in the dark. As he prepares to ride south to fight the Boltons, the vision comes true when Jon is attacked and stabbed severely by Bowen Marsh and other members of the Night’s Watch. The book ends with us not knowing if he survives or not.

Jon Snow and Ghost by guillemhp
Jon Snow and Ghost, by guillemhp

Just south of them, Stannis has taken Deepwood Motte and captured Asha Greyjoy (Theon’s sister). However, he is unable to march on Winterfell since the winter snows have made movement impossible and hunger begins to set in. However, the Boltons are doing just as bad at Winterfell, where the Boltons and their allies begin turning on each other. In the confusion, Theon rescues Jeyne Pool (who was posing as Arya) and they escape the castle together. They flee into the wilderness, eventually being picked up by Stannis men and brought back to camp. Theon reunites with his sister for the first time since his capture.

Oldtown: Samwell Tarley, Gilly, and Maester Aemon travel from Castle Black to Oldtown via Bravos. It is there that Sam is to become a Maester, seek out the old prophecies, and learn all he can about the coming of the White Walkers and the prophecy of Azor Ahai reborn. Aemon reveals to him that he once thought that this might be Varys, but now believes it to be Daenerys. Aemon dies before they can reach Oldtown, but when Samwell arrives, he speaks to the masters at the Citadel of what Aemon told him. When they hear this,  Archmaester Marwyn leaves to go to Mereen with the intention of becoming Daenerys’ maester.

At King’s Landing: Cersei confesses to having sex with her cousin, Lancel Lannister, and performs the penace walk back to the Red Keep. There, she meets Ser Robert Strong (a resurrected Gregor Clegane) who will she is relieved to know will be fighting for her if she asks for a trial by combat. With Ser Jaime out of the city and her father dead, the task of running things has fallen to her uncle, Kevan Lannister.In addition to trying to clean up the messes Cersei and Joffrey has made, he must also deal with the fact that Aegon Targaryen’s forces appear to be landing in the east and raising a banner of war.

Walk of shame, by Marc Simonetti
Walk of shame, by Marc Simonetti

 

Shortly after Cersei arrives home and they dine together, Ser Kevan is murdered in his quarters by Varys (who has also killed Grand Maester Pycelle). Varys explains to Kevan before he dies that he is part of the conspiracy to bring Aegon Targaryen home and to see him made king.

So that’s the story up until Season 6 (or the end of A Dance of Dragons) in a nutshell. As you can plainly see, so much of the plot had to do with Daenerys at this point, who has been revealed to be intrinsic to the whole prophecy of the coming of winter, the coming of the Others, and the war that will decide the fate of Westeros and the world. Basically, the War of Five Kings is over, and all roads lead back to Westeros by way of Mereen.

Where They’ve Change Things:

In the series, things changed drastically by Season 5. Basically, they were using material at that point from both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, but seemed to be skimming through much of it, leaving a lot of other stuff out, and taking various story threads and tying them together.

got_dorne

For example, rather than showing the full intrigue that was happening in Dorne – which included Arianna Martell’s daughter and the Sand Snakes kidnapping Myrcella and positioning her to become Queen on the Iron Throne, thus making her betrothed (Trystane Martell) king – they instead made a story about Oberyn’s paramour (Ellaria Sand) and the Sand Snakes trying to kill her. Instead of Prince Doran thwarting this and telling Arianna of his plans, we get a big mash-up with Jaime and Bronn trying to save her and the whole thing ending in failure.

Ellaria and the Sand Snakes respond by killing Doran, Myrcella and Trystane all in one shot. Not only did none of this happened in the story, but killing off ALL these people means that their attempts to get Daenerys on their side and come back to Westeros are not going to happen. It eliminates the Dorne thread from the story altogether, and also means Cersei is mourning two dead kids instead of one as she prepares for her trial.

Speaking of murdering people off, they also killed off Stannis in a way that was very sudden. Not only did he not burn his daughter at the stake in the story, his daughter and his wife weren’t even with him as he marched to lay siege to Winterfell, which only made sense. You don’t bring family with you on a war march! Another person he left behind was Melisandre, so none of these people abandoned him or committed suicide on him. He also didn’t then march on Winterfell only to get his butt handed to him by Ramsay and then killed by Brienne. The way this all happened in one episode showed that they were eager to kill off his thread.

got_brienne_stannis

Speaking of Brienne, she was supposed to be in the Riverlands. But since they decided, for whatever reason, not to touch the Lady Stoneheart part of the story, this meant the writers had to give her something to do. In the same vein, Sansa had little to do, so they changed it up and made it her who was married to Ramsay Bolton and who got rescued by Theon.

At the same time, Ramsay Bolton spent the second episode of this season hatching a plot to kill his father, his stepmother, and his new brother is some big power play. With Roose gone, this means that Ramsay will now likely try to kill Jon Snow again (something they never bothered with in the books). With no epic battle looming between Stannis and he, there’s not much left for him to except get killed off himself, thus eliminating that thread as well.

Meanwhile, Theon’s father has been killed off and the island has fallen into political divide. Sure, this is close to what happened in Crows, but they’ve done it here makes it seem like this is just another minor thread they intend to tie off.

GOT4_mereen

Getting to Mereen, the show skipped over the  siege on the city. While just about everything else has happened according to the books (except that Tyrion and Mormont have not found their way into her court yet), this removes a major aspect of the story which was Martin was gearing up for book 6 – The Winds of Winter. So now, all Daenerys can do now is escape the Khal, return to Mereen and resume being queen(unless they choose to throw the sage in later).

But worst of all was the way they handled Jon Snow’s death/resurrection. After showing him to be dead in “The Red Woman”, it was quite obvious what was going to happen. A disheveled and broken Melisandre would be called upon to resurrect him, she would, and he would resume command of the Night’s Watch. It just felt so… predictable!

Ah, and of course, the entire thread involving Aegon Targaryen was completely left out. That means that in Westeros, there isn’t currently a war looming as Jon Connington lands forces loyal to Aegon, Kevan Lannister isn’t murdered, and we are not treated to the knowledge that Varys was conspiring with them all along. Instead, Varys is in Mereen conspiring to bring Daenerys home, but can’t do that until she comes back.

got6_jaime_myrcella

Why This Is Wrong (IMHO):

Basically, I didn’t like any of this because it eliminated so much of the plot. Sure, Martin can be (and is) criticized for writing stories that are too convoluted and too detailed. And in all fairness, I really began to feel by book four that things were going nowhere and I was determined to quit. But then, the ending of A Feast for Crows brought everything together quite succinctly and let us know exactly why what seemed like diversions and a drawn out tale was important.

And after the fifth book, A Dance of Dragons, things were really coming together and there was a sense of synthesis to the long tale that had been delivered thus far. By eliminating four separate threads from the story, the series writers are depriving the universe of a lot of its best material and altering the story inexorably.

For instance, the Iron Islanders are all but gone from the plot. The Dornish plans for revenge are all but gone too. Stannis’ plot to secure the crown for himself is gone, and in all likelihood, so will the war to secure the North. Aegon Targaryen and his hopes to secure the throne were never included. And Lady Stoneheart and House Stark’s hopes for revenge have also been excluded.

And in this, it seems pretty clear what the writers are doing. By closing down these other threads, they are now left with the Big Three – King’s Landing, The North, and the East. In all fairness, this was how the show started and it seemed like a classic narrative structure. And since then, Martin expanded the story greatly and took things in many different directions, to the point that a lot of people felt exhausted by books 4 and 5. And with him out of the picture, it looks like the show writers want to bring things back to a good old fashioned three-pointed story.

But doing so means that the ending will be a simplified, watered-down, and less detailed. It also means that – unless Martin gave them some indication of how the story is to end – it won’t be in keeping with the creator’s vision. Sure, at this point, they’re writing it out how they see fit and its not like they have much of a choice. But from now on, the story will be so different that it really doesn’t even make sense to call it Game of Thrones.

But of course, I just know I’m going to tune in next and watch episode three. I mean, who knows? Maybe they do have the deets on how things are supposed to proceed from here and are just giving us the scaled-down version. Only one way to find out! 🙂