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RIP, Lucius Shepard, gone too soon

Lucius Shepard, one of science fiction's great writers, has died. He was 66 70. I had met Lucius on several occasions and found him to be just as you'd hope from his novels: smart and witty (but lots of writers are smart and witty), and kind, and weird in the most delightful ways. I watched a chess-boxing match with Lucius and I have never seen someone more delighted. Shepard was involved in many good causes, and we had brainstormed many ideas for helping friends of his who were eking out a living in Central America as skin-divers and facing grave physical peril. It had been a few years since I'd seen him in the flesh, and I knew his health was often poor, but this was sudden and terrible news out of the blue.

Tor.com's obit does a good job of getting at the facts of his career:

Shepard began publishing short stories in 1983 and his first novel, Green Eyes, appeared in 1984. In 1985 he won the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer; over the course of his career he won the Nebula for his novella “R&R,” the Hugo for his novella “Barnacle Bill the Spacer,” and the Shirley Jackson Award for his novella “Vacancy” in 2008.

But to stop there is to miss how Shepard's fans and friends reveled in his work -- its originality, its dazzling language, its hardbitten and hard-won verisimilitude. He was a writer who changed the readers who found him, and I miss him already.

Update: A fitting eulogy from Michael Swanwick.

Lucius Shepard, 1947-2014

Aaron Swartz's father, Bob Swartz, discusses his son's death

It's been nearly a year since my friend Aaron Swartz killed himself, and it's a year his friends and family have passed by trying to make sense of his death and trying to decide what to do about his legacy. His father, Bob, and I have spoken several times since then, and I've often returned to his insights when I've thought about Aaron.

Bob has done a long interview with Boston Magazine about Aaron and the aftermath of his death. He's especially damning of MIT's role in Aaron's death, and in the inadequacy of MIT's internal investigation following it.

Read the rest

Worth1000 shutting its doors

It's a sad day: the photoshopping remix site Worth1000 is shutting its doors, victim of being "technologically orphaned" after refactoring its codebase and then losing its programmer. The site's owner, Avi Muchnick, can't make any changes or updates to the site. He's looking for buyers, or suggestions for turning the site into "a static browsable museum." I've blogged plenty of great stuff from Worth1000 over the years and it will be sorely missed. Our commiserations to Avi and the W1K community.

Read the rest

You can be a loser at the game of social ostracism

Now you can play Cyberball — a computer game that psychology researchers use to study the effects of social ostracism and hurt feelings. Normally, the game is played by test subjects who are hooked up to some kind of brain scanning system and who are told that they are playing against other test subjects in other rooms. In reality, they (and now you!) are playing against a computer program that is designed to exclude you and make you feel unwelcome. Why would someone design such a thing? For science! Of course. (Via Rowan Hooper) Maggie

The Christmas Whale: A depressing reminder of the importance of love

While you were eating Thanksgiving turkey, surrounded by loving family and friends, one whale was all alone, swimming through the Pacific Ocean with no one to talk to and no one to care.

Since 1989, researchers have been tracking this specific whale based on its distinct vocalizations. Baleen whales — a category of cetaceans without teeth, separate from their toothy dolphin/beluga/orca relations — are famous for producing eerie, underwater songs and scientists think those sounds are probably an extremely important aspect of participation in whale society. Baleen whales lack keen eyesight and sense of smell underwater, so sounds are probably how they recognize one another, help each other navigate, and even find mates. But these vocalizations happen in very specific frequency range — between 10 and 31 hertz, depending on the species. The Christmas Whale, on the other hand, speaks at 52 hertz. Imagine brining a piccolo to a tuba party. That is analogous to the awkward position that the 52-hertz whale is in.

Scientists usually pick up the call of the 52-hertz whale sometime between August and December, as it makes its way through a Cold War-era network of underwater microphones in the North Pacific. Although this whale has apparently survived for many years and seems to have grown and matured during that time (based on its voice deepening slightly), it also appears to exist outside of whale social systems. It travels alone. Nobody answers its high-pitched pleas for love. Every so often, non-scientist humans remember that it exists and write sad stories about it. But nobody is sure why it sings out of range of its fellow whales.

It strikes me as the kind of horribly sad thing that should get made into a maudlin children's picture book. The central message: Appreciate the love you have and give love in return. This holiday season, remember the plight of the loneliest whale. Give thanks for the presence of the people who love you. Show affection to others.

Listen to NOAA recordings of the 52-hertz whale (these have been sped up 10x)

The Loneliest Mix is a fan-site where you can download 52-hertz whale audio and video clips.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's page on the 52-hertz whale

Research paper explaining how scientists capture whale sounds in the north Pacific.

Picture taken the day after Thanksgiving at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I don't think they meant to tie into the legend of The Christmas Whale. But hey, it works.

I am grateful for friends like Grady, who alert me to stories like this.

Sad news: Glitch is shutting down


Here's some very sad news: Glitch, the innovative and playful virtual world from Stewart Butterfield and his friends at Tiny Speck, is shuttering. The letter from Tiny Speck is very bittersweet.

This is a horrible day. This is a horrible thing to have to say: Glitch is closing. The live game/world will be closed on December 9th at 8pm Pacific time (see when this is in your time zone). The website and forums will remain available until the end of the year, so players can still communicate and find each other. Glitch HQ, the Glitch API and third party applications which rely on the Glitch API will become unavailable at the same time as the website closure.

Automatic refunds for recent purchases will begin immediately. Refunds for older transactions will need to be done manually and will be processed as quickly as possible, from most recent to oldest. For details on your payments, to request a refund, or to see the status of your refund, please visit the refund information page.

Unfortunately, Glitch has not attracted an audience large enough to sustain itself and based on a long period of experimentation and our best estimates, it seems unlikely that it ever would. And, given the prevailing technological trends — the movement towards mobile and especially the continued decline of the Flash platform on which Glitch was built — it was unlikely to do so before its time was up. Glitch was very ambitious and pushed the limits of what could be done in a browser-based game ... and then those limits pushed back.

For many of us at Tiny Speck, the creation of something like Glitch was a long-held dream. There's no better word than "heartbreaking" to describe what it feels like to have to do this. And we know that for many of you who poured your creativity, energy and imagination into Glitch and the community, it will be heartbreaking as well. We are sorry to have let you down.

We are grateful to have had the opportunity to play with you. The game was absolutely preposterous. And yet, we kind of liked it.

A Sad Announcement from Tiny Speck (Thanks, Ayzad and all the others who sent this in.)

Illustration from a peer-reviewed research paper provides poignant commentary on the futility of life

I'm not sure even Chris Ware could have done it any better.

In context, this illustration comes from a recently published paleobiology paper examining a cache of animal bones and pottery found in a sinkhole near China's Jiangdong Mountain.

One of the key things the researchers are taking away from this site: The range of the Giant Panda must have once been a lot larger than it is today.

Here's a link to the paper (which is behind a pay wall)

Via Ed Yong

Guy trying to cure friend's hiccups accidentally kills him

On Sunday evening, US Army private first class Isaac Lawrence Young, 22, was drinking and watching football with his buddies when he got the hiccups. His pal Pfc. Patrick Edward Myers, 27, pulled out a gun to scare him and cure the hiccups, but he accidentally shot Young in the face and killed him. Myers has been charged with manslaughter. (CNN) David

A guide to animal CPR

Back in May, I posted about how the Smithsonian National Zoo took another shot at inseminating Mei Xiang, a female giant panda. Female pandas are only fertile once a year, for 24-72 hours, and the zoo had already tried unsuccessfully to get Mei Xang pregnant for eight years in a row. This year, though, they pulled it off, and Mei Xiang gave birth just a little over a week ago. The bad news, which you may have already heard, is that the baby died last weekend. Nobody really knows why just yet.

Reading the stories about the baby panda's death, I noticed that zookeepers had tried to revive the baby using CPR. And that got me curious. Just how, exactly, do you give a panda CPR. At Slate, L.V. Anderson tackles this question. Turns out, the process isn't all that different from resuscitating a human.

CPR is appropriate when a patient’s heart has stopped (whether or not the patient is human), and the goal is to maximize the amount of blood flowing out of the patient’s heart into other vital organs and to get some air into the patient’s lungs so the patient’s blood will be oxygenated. Some animals, including humans and baby pandas, have bodies shaped in such a way that the best way to pump the heart is to directly compress the chest. Other animals, Iike most dogs and cats, have much rounder chests, which makes it harder to directly compress the heart. With these animals, vets recommend compressing the chest from the side, which puts secondary pressure on the heart.

As anyone who’s recently taken a human CPR course knows, the rate of compression recommended for humans is about 100 beats per minute. (Doctors recommend pumping the chest to the beat of the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive.”) The same rate of compression is recommended for animals; even though dogs and cats have a higher resting heart rate than humans do, the rate of 100 compressions per minute gives the heart a chance to refill with blood between compressions.

Read the rest of the story at Slate.com

Via Laura Helmuth

Image: Cheng Du Panda Base, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from su-may's photostream

Zombie in a Penguin Suit: poignant short film

This short film, "Zombie in a Penguin Suit," is a very high-production-value, often scary, and ultimately very touching seven-minute short film by Chris Russell. It's a good example of how a gimmick played for laughs -- the titular penguin suit -- can become a real emotional touchstone because it seems like such a lightweight gag at first.

(via JWZ)

Chicks in space: Baby quail floating in zero gravity (video)

[Video Link].

Not sure of the origin of this footage, or the mission in question. The quail chicks on the space station apparently didn't live long. (via Heather Goss)

Muppeteers sing Henson's favorite songs at his memorial service

In this sweet, melancholy, raucous video, several of Jim Henson's Muppeteers perform Henson's favorite songs at his 1990 memorial service.

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

How seasonal affective disorder works

Winter is coming. And Scientific American's Bora Zivkovik has a detailed explanation of the biological basics behind seasonal affective disorder. Maggie

RIP, Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart

As Mark posted yesterday, Project Gutenberg founder Michael S. Hart, who invented ebooks when he keyed in the text of the Declaration of Independence in 1971, has died. He was 64. He was a copyfighter and a hero of the Internet revolution. Michael honored me by including my books in the Gutenberg archive, and was a challenging and invigorating correspondent.
Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

In July 2011, Michael wrote these words, which summarize his goals and his lasting legacy: “One thing about eBooks that most people haven't thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we're all able to have as much as we want other than air. Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job." He had this advice for those seeking to make literature available to all people, especially children:

"Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that."

Michael is remembered as a dear friend, who sacrificed personal luxury to fight for literacy, and for preservation of public domain rights and resources, towards the greater good.

E-book pioneer Michael Hart dies

(Image: The Outlaw Michael Hart, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from benchilada's photostream)

This is a seventy-five dollar felt ice cream sandwich

It has a face and a bite taken out of it.

It is also apparently crying and wearing rouge.

A felt ice cream sandwich with a bite taken out of it and a face with little buck teeth that is crying and wearing rouge on Etsy for $75 - Thanks Sam!