The Hugo Awards Debacle

For many years, the Hugo Awards have been a well-respected industry award for some of the best science fiction stories. Originally dominated by white men, the Hugos have realized that there is a much wider audience for science fiction with vastly different perspectives and have begun including those authors. The variety and quality of works recently are, in my opinion, the true golden age of science fiction.

Hugo Awards Logo

Numerous times when I’ve been looking for a new book to read, I would just go to the Hugo Award winners or nominees for the past couple years and pick something out. It’s how I discovered Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, among others. I’m currently reading (very slowly, I might add) The Hugo Winners Volumes I and II, which collects the Novella, Novelette and Short Story winners from 1955 to 1970. There are many titans of the science fiction world collected in that book: Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, and others. In short, the Hugos meant something. Until this year.

Continue reading

My Love of Podcasts

Back in the day, I used to watch The Learning Channel (back when it had real content, not loads and loads of “reality TV”) and then the Discovery and Science Channels. Since I cut the cable a couple years ago, a new medium has filled that void: podcasts. I consume podcasts voraciously.

My friend Jon introduced me to podcasts with an episode of Radiolab a couple years ago and I’ve been addicted ever since. I wanted to share my love of podcasts with you to spread the word about programs I love. Or, if you haven’t gotten into podcasts, you can learn about some of the great things you are missing out on.

I’m sure most of you know what podcasts are and how to listen to them, but just in case, I’ll give you this video from Ira Glass and his old friend explaining it.

Ira references the Apple Podcasts app for iPhone and Stitcher for Android (which is also available for iOS), both of which are free. My personal preferences are Downcast for iOS/Mac and DoggCatcher for Android. They cost a few bucks, but offer more features that I like. I have been meaning to try out Pocket Casts, which is cross platform and gets good reviews, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Some of My Favorite Podcasts


radiolabRadiolab is a radio show produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. They cover pretty much anything that intrigues them, often science-related. I love Radiolab mainly because it is the most well-produced radio show I have ever heard. Jad is an absolute master of putting together sounds to convey the story crisply, wonderfully and uniquely. My favorite episode is Apocalyptical because it features dinosaurs. You can see a video recording of Apocalyptical from one of their tour stops at that link, as well.

Hardcore History

DC_HH_iTunesHardcore History is a podcast about, duh, history. Dan Carlin has a unique style all his own. He is a compelling storyteller that takes an unflinching look at every aspect of the events and puts you in the mindset of those participating in the events. He has some one-off episodes, but most of his episodes are multi-part, multi-hour series covering major events in humanity’s history: the Mongol Invasions, the end of the Roman Republic and beginning of the Roman Empire, and, currently, World War One.

This American Life

logo-v5If you listen to public radio at all, you have probably heard of This American Life. Ira Glass’s show is the juggernaut of public broadcasting and of podcasts. They cover everything from the mundane, like two days at a highway rest stop or stories about babysitting, to ground-breaking journalism detailing the controversial inner workings of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and its uncomfortable coziness with the bankers it is supposed to regulate. This podcast also happens to be Maria’s favorite, though she and I like it for completely different reasons. Maria loves This American Life for the personal stories, while I like it for its journalism, especially the co-productions they do with the next podcasters on my list. This American Life has done two live shows, which were simultaneously beamed to theaters around the country. Return to the Scene of the Crime tells stories about criminals returning to the scene of the crime (obvi) and Invisible Made Visible is a bit more of a variety show with stories about things unseen or normally behind the scenes. Not only did This American Life do those two live shows, they also had a TV show on Showtime that aired for two seasons.

Planet Money

icon_510289Planet Money started as a co-production between This American Life and NPR. Their very first episode was scheduled to first be released in September of 2008. And then … the Great Recession happened. Adam Davidson, one of the producers of Planet Money, had to scrap all the work they had done, and record a whole new episode on his laptop at home. And they went on to explain the Great Recession, its causes and ramifications, in plain English. Listening to this podcast from the beginning is almost like reliving the recession all over again. Now that the recession is (technically) over, they have moved on to other topics and are still going strong. If you have any interest in how our economy works, this is a fantastic way to learn about it. The Planet Money and This American Life co-produced episodes about the Great Recession are astounding works that explain why the recession happened in a human and understandable way.

99% Invisible

99invisible-logo-itunes-badgeRoman Mars (what a name) created this wonderful podcast all about design. You would not believe the amount of design that goes into the world around you; hence, the name of the podcast. The stories often have an architectural bent, but there are plenty of other topics, including sound design in sports on television, cow tunnels (you’ll just have to hear it to get it), and the parentheses around area codes in a phone number (a design choice with a shocking amount of thought behind it).

Stuff You Should Know

og_imageStuff You Should Know is another very popular podcast. The hosts give you a basic rundown of how the topic for the episode works. This show is one of my staples because of the chemistry of the hosts. Josh and Chuck feel like friends having a normal conversation about random stuff (which also happens to be informational). They cover all kinds of topics, like How Redheads Work, Capgras Syndrome (a rare psychological condition where you think your loved ones have been replaced with imposters) and Who Owns the Oceans?

Stuff You Missed in History Class

symhc-new-logo-1600x1600Stuff You Missed in History Class is a sister-show of SYSK. The show has had a number of hosts over the years, but the current hosts are Holly and Tracy and they have been around for quite a while now. As the title of the show implies, Stuff You Missed in History Class covers interesting stories from history that, while not important enough to often make it into history books, are still extraordinarily interesting. From mentally-ill royalty to serial killer H.H. Holmes and the Murder Castle in Chicago to loads of shipwrecks to Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who posed a very real threat to the Roman Empire, there is a LOT of history out there that you may not have heard.

Freakonomics Radio

freakonomicsFreakonomics Radio started as a book by an economist and a reporter, who wanted to use economics to look at unexpected aspects of everyday life. Like, does a daycare center charging a fee for picking up children late actually increase late pick-ups? Or, does your name affect how well you do in life? The podcast is an extension of that theme. They have episodes on whether expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, whether tipping in restaurants should be banned, and whether college is actually worth its cost.

The History of Rome

history_of_rome_logoThis podcast is the most self-explanatory of the bunch. Host Mike Duncan starts from the mythical founding of Rome and runs through right up until the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He covers everything: the civil war between Marius and Sulla, Julius Caesar, Augustus, all of the Emperors, the division of the Empire, and, of course, its fall. The audio quality starts off a little rough, but Mike got better equipment about ten episodes in and the audio quality jumped up dramatically. Since the story is linear, I recommend starting at the beginning. If you like the podcast, you can continue on to hear about the History of Byzantium (AKA, the Eastern Roman Empire), which picks up where Mike left off. Mike also started a new podcast called Revolutions where he reviews various revolutions throughout history, including the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

This is a podcast I only became aware of in the past couple years. Brian Cox should be fairly recognizable as the host of the Wonders of … series from the BBC. Robin Ince is a British stand-up comedian. The two of them host a panel of scientists and B-list celebrities to discuss a particular topic in science. The conversation is almost always highly entertaining; I particularly love the ongoing debate of at what point a strawberry can actually be considered dead.

Keeping My Fingers Crossed for New Horizons

Well, the wedding is now done and Maria and I are hitched. We’re getting back into our daily routine and I’m hoping I’ll have more time to do posts here on Spare Time Science, my labor of love.

In the meantime, I woke up this morning to the news that the New Horizons probe, which is just 9 days out from its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, lost communication with Earth for a while and entered into safe mode. NASA has since reestablished communication and the probe seems to be healthy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that all will be well so we can see more beautiful color images like this of Pluto (this is the first color photo of Pluto and its largest moon Charon ever):


Go See the Geminid Meteor Shower!

A few months ago, Maria and I attempted (and failed) to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Tonight is the best viewing night for another meteor shower, the Geminids. We won’t be able to see them in Michigan as it is supposed to be too cloudy, but you should go try to check them out yourself.

Just go find Orion and look a bit above and a bit left. That’s where the meteors should come from. You can start viewing around 9 or so and the viewing will be the best before the moon rises at midnight. Enjoy!

Operation Potato Gun

Gunshots echoed dully in the distance of the mineshafts. A radio crackled. “We’ve got gizmos here!” a tinny voice shouted over the radio. “There’s about twenty of ‘em.”

Stevens looked up briefly from the laptop screen. Dammit, we needed a couple more days to run system tests, he thought. He looked over at the lieutenant, John Sayers.

Sayers saw him looking and said, “Get back to work, Stevens.” Sayers picked up the radio. “Clark, we need to give Stevens time. You know the plan; now execute it.” Sayers turned to Stevens: “You don’t have time for tests now. You need to finish and set the timer. Can you do it?”

Stevens swallowed. He had so much to do still. There were still hardwire connections to make and software to ensure was properly set. For Christ’s sake, the equipment had only arrived yesterday. “I think so, sir.”

“Get back to work then. We’ll give you the time you need to finish.” Sayers turned and walked out of the small man-made cave into the mineshaft, presumably to direct the defense of the mine.

Yeah, no pressure or anything, thought Stevens. He sighed and sat back down at the computer to finish configuring the software. Continue reading

Richard Feynman: Physicist, Widower

I’m never really sure how many people have heard of Richard Feynman. Pretty much anyone involved in science has heard of him, but he doesn’t seem very famous outside those circles anymore. I did want to talk about him on the blog eventually. The inspiration for me to write this post, though, came from a letter Dr. Feynman wrote to his first wife, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. He wrote her the letter about a year and a half after she died. You can find the entirety of the letter at Letters of Note – a blog that I highly recommend. Continue reading

Patent Basics

A long time ago (seriously, it’s able to be rounded up to a decade now), I trained to be a patent lawyer. I’m even licensed and everything. I’ve never practiced as a patent attorney, nor will I pretend to blog seriously about patents (why would you even try when Dennis Crouch does such an amazing job over at Patently-O). However, I feel like I have some amount of insight that I might be able to impart about the patent system, despite the drastic changes the system has undergone in recent years. Hell, my great grandfather was a patent holder. That’s gotta count for something, right?

I love that my great-grandfather invented a coffee machine.
I love that my great-grandfather invented a coffee machine.

Monopoly in Exchange for Disclosure

The idea behind patents is pretty simple. It’s good for society for technology to advance in an open and public way. But, the theory goes, there is no incentive to invent unless you are able to make money off of your invention. And it’s hard to make money off of your invention if everyone else can just steal your idea. So the government makes a trade: you publicly disclose how to make your invention and we’ll give you a legal monopoly on that invention for some set amount of time. It’s right there in the Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

That is the Copyright and Patent Clause in the enumerated powers of the US Congress. This clause is enacted by various patent laws, which are mostly found in Chapter 35 of the United States Code.

The Basics of a Patent

Currently, patents are for 20 years and are given to the first inventor to file a patent application. That “first to file” part is a recent development. Until 2011, patents were awarded to the first person to invent, even if they filed after another person claiming the invention as their own. This lead to a lot of lawsuits where people fought over who invented the thing first. That’s no longer an issue now; all you have to do is look at the filing date.

To be granted a patent, your invention is supposed to be novel (new), non-obvious, and useful. There is a pants-load of case law developing these ideas further, but that’s the short version. If you meet those three criteria, you get a patent. Though, I should point out, that you may still get a patent even if you don’t meet those three criteria. (Hint: that was foreshadowing for a future post about problems with our current patent examination system)

In the application for the patent, you have to define what your invention covers. The description of the patent is one sentence that attempts to describe the invention in as broad of terms as possible; that way, the inventor is able to cover as many possible variations of the invention as he can.

This description of the patent is where the vast majority of patent disputes are found: does the defendant’s product fit within the boundaries of what the inventor described in his patent? A really good example of this can be found in a This American Life episode about patent trolls (a subject I want to discuss later). If you don’t want to listen to that story, the basics are that someone patented what was basically an internet service that would deliver tapes with audio magazine stories on them when you order them. That same person is now suing several podcast distributors, claiming that their podcast delivery system fits within the definition in his patent. So, the question is, do podcasts fit within the scope of his audio tape delivery patent? It’s probably a tougher question than it seems on the surface.

I’ll have some other posts in the future, but I just wanted to lay some groundwork here for those future posts.

Nerdy Music

I have been busy lately helping my fiancée Maria with a rather time-intensive project on her blog, one that involves quite a lot of (extremely basic) HTML coding. While I was working on it, I was reminded of one of my favorite songs, Code Monkey by Jonathan Coulton. If you haven’t heard of Mr. Coulton and are nerdily-inclined in any way, I highly recommend him. The particular version of Code Monkey that I thought of is this delightful dance interpretation by another fan found here:

The “Proud to Be Awesome” shirt with the pink PJ pants is quite the combo.

Mr. Coulton has created many other delightful songs, including a song about the presidents of the United States (surprisingly enough, titled “The Presidents“), a song about Christmas in a space mine/prison, and a song about an NPR host secretly being a rave dancer. These are just few examples of a pretty large catalog, of course. There are two other songs you may like to know about, both of which I will include videos for. The first is this delightful tune composed entirely from random Flickr photos Mr. Coulton found:

Mr. Coulton also composed this closing song from a video game near and dear to my heart, Portal:

Look at me still talking when there’s science to do

Dying to Preserve Life: the Risks of Fighting Ebola

The Ebola outbreak in Africa is an unprecedented epidemic of one of the world’s deadliest viruses. Doctors and scientists are working furiously to try to stem the tide of the epidemic, by putting measures in place to prevent infection, isolating and treating those who have been infected and attempting to develop more effective treatments.

A paper published in Science two days ago analyzed the genetic data of the 2014 Ebola patients and concluded that the 2014 outbreak can be traced back to one individual who was infected from the “natural reservoir” of the Ebola virus, which is to say, the natural host of the Ebola virus. The paper ends with this:

In memoriam: Tragically, five co-authors, who contributed greatly to public health and research efforts in Sierra Leone, contracted EVD in the course of their work and lost their battle with the disease before this manuscript could be published. We wish to honor their memory.

Science, sometimes, is dangerous.