Thursday 27 February 2014

Analyzing The Universe – Course Review

When a new supernova, SN2014J, ignited in a spectacular display near the galaxy M82 in January 2014, Rutgers University was already in the process of delivering a fascinating free online course – Analyzing The Universe. I was taking this course, and enjoyed it very much. I found the course stimulating, interesting and very informative, so I'd like to tell you a little about it.

The 6-week course is available, free to students, via the excellent organisation Coursera, and is delivered by Dr. Terry Matilsky of Rutgers University. If you haven't already come across Coursera, I thoroughly recommend that you take a look at their offerings.

About the course, from the Coursera website: “Using publicly available data from NASA of actual satellite observations of astronomical x-ray sources, we explore some of the mysteries of the cosmos, including neutron stars, black holes, quasars and supernovae.”

Having read the detailed course introduction, I had little idea what to expect from the course. They say there are no pre-requisites other than high school algebra and geometry, but a course that starts by assuming no knowledge would struggle to analyse the universe in 6 weeks of video lectures. Also I wasn't sure what kind of time commitment it would take. They say 5-7 hours a week, but is this really so? What kind of interesting new stuff would I learn? And if I'm interested in astronomy, why particularly a course on x-ray astronomy?

Professor Matilsky has said that this course will be scheduled again in the future, so in case you're wondering whether to sign up, here are my impressions:

According to the course details: “There are no pre-requisites for this course – other than high school mathematics (algebra and geometry).”

This is true, but don't be fooled. You really need those skills if you want to get anywhere with the quizzes, and the ability to do algebra and geometry is not enough. You need to apply deep, analytical thought. Professor Matilsky does not hand it to you on a plate, even if it looks as though he does in the video lectures. Having said that, the course discussion forums are a great place for interaction with the other students, and Professor Matilsky, together with the other fine staff of the Rutgers course, are active on the forums, answering student questions and helping where needed.

Tools: The course heavily uses an excellent free tool called DS9 from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. To use this you'll need Linux, Windows or Mac, (unless you're willing to use the source code to make it run on something else). If you have a tablet computer, but no access to one of those three operating systems, you'll be able to access the course videos and the course Wiki, but you won't be able to run DS9, which means you won't be able to do all of the quiz questions. I can vouch for the Linux and Windows versions of DS9, but I haven't tried the Mac version.

Do expect to read the course Wiki. It's part of the course, and without it the video lectures are not enough to answer the quiz questions.

Realistically I've taken longer than the estimated 5-7 hours a week. In all I've probably spent nearer 10 hours each week, possibly more, on the video lectures (frequently paused for copious note-taking), the course Wiki and the quizzes.

This is where the rubber meets the road. What will you learn?

I'll give a blow-by-blow account of the course in a subsequent post, but here's a summary:

Each week Professor Matilsky takes us through a some of the pertinent history behind the week's lecture, and explains the physics and maths that will be needed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the course serves three purposes. Firstly he gives us a guided tour to the free tool DS9, which is available to all from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's website. Secondly, using DS9 and some of the observations made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, he helps us to see how we can investigate what is going on out there in the Universe for ourselves. Thirdly, but not least, he offers an excellent introduction to modern astronomy. That is the part I hadn't anticipated, and it added to my enjoyment of the course immensely.

We look at stellar evolution, and at the different kinds of supernovae, and the mechanisms behind them. We look at Cepheid variables, neutron stars and pulsars, quasars, galaxy clusters and black holes.

Most importantly we look at the data for ourselves, and we see how the data shows us what's going on out there. We see just how much we can learn about the Universe from publicly available x-ray data, using a freely available tool.


I sincerely hope this course will be, as Professor Matilsky has indicated, available again in the future, and that you are able to take it yourself. This offering is a high quality educational course offered by a leading university, and delivered to you free of charge. The standard of education and of course production is as high as you could wish, and Prof Matilsky's inimitable presentation style is both is interesting and entertaining.

If you are interested in astronomy, but wonder whether a course on x-ray astronomy might be a little too specialised, worry no more. This course uses x-ray observation data to illustrate many fascinating aspects of modern astronomy, and this course, quite the opposite from being too specialised, offers a heck of an introduction to astronomy.

Professor Matilsky shows us how, armed with an understanding of some basic physics, and with the application of some high school mathematics, anyone can download DS9 and draw some pretty amazing and extremely interesting conclusions about some of the celestial objects for which the Chandra x-ray observatory has collected data.

Thank you Professor Matilsky, the staff of Rutgers University and the organisers of Coursera for this excellent offering. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject.

 I took this course from 28th January to 25th February 2014

Thursday 6 February 2014

Steampunk With A Heart: Steampunk FAQ

Today I have the pleasure of hosting the Steampunk With A Heart blog tour with the Steampunk FAQ by authors Rie Sheridan Rose and Cindy Spencer Pape.

Then of course, there are the give-aways. There are books, M&Ms, steampunk jewellery and more, so read on...

Steampunk with Heart: Steampunk FAQ
with Rie Sheridan Rose and Cindy Spencer Pape
**see bottom of post for steampunk giveaways**
**see Steampunk With Heart Page for Facebook Party schedule**
What to ask (or not to ask) your friendly neighborhood steampunk author.  Here are some of the mostly commonly asked questions, how Cindy Spencer Pape and  Rie Sheridan Rose usually answer and what they’d sometimes like to say.
1) What the heck is steampunk, anyway?
Cindy: This is the big one—the one we hear ALL the time. My answers range from snarky (Jules Verne on crack) to oversimplified (science fiction set in Victorian times). For folks my age and over, I sometimes reference the old Wild, Wild West TV show. The long answer, which I never say, is that steampunk is a blend of historical feel and advanced technology. It’s not just a fiction genre, although it certainly is that, but it’s also a mood, a feel, and a thriving social phenomenon. It embodies futuristic technology, sometimes fantasy elements, and a rebellious attitude, along with a return to pride in manufacturing and craftsmanship. Most of all? It’s a whole hell of a lot of fun.
Rie: I usually say science fiction/fantasy set in a Victorian time frame. What might have happened if Steam technology had been developed along the times that Verne and Wells postulated? Emphasis is often on adventure and romance, as those are very Victorian tropes.
2) Why write steampunk? And why do you mix fantasy and/or romance elements into your steampunk stories? Or don’t you?
Cindy: Again, because it’s fun. I like writing books that I’d like to read. I love mixing history, SF, fantasy and romance. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s what I enjoy.
Rie: I started off writing Steampunk as a challenge from my writing partner, but I really enjoy it. I've always been an Anglophile, and the Victorian era is so rich in detail and history. Is there any period as romantic in retrospect? The clothing, the manners... Mixing in the concepts Cindy mentioned is very accurate to the period, and adds spice to the writing. It makes for a very fun, open, and exciting genre to explore.
3) What’s the coolest gadget you’ve invented for your books?
Cindy: Gee, I’ve had cybermen and networked computers in Victorian London. Typewriter, telephone, germ theory and dirigible are all there ahead of their real time. Rings that eject poison darts and clockwork powered artificial limbs. Beyond all of that, however, the coolest creation in the Gaslight Chronicles world is George, the mechanical dog. George is kind of like Mr. Data on Star Trek. He’s exceeded his components and programming to the point where he’s really more or less a living creature.
Rie: My biggest and best invention is Phaeton, the Marvelous Mechanical Man. He is a nine foot tall automaton with self-awareness and superior strength and reflexes. I also have an airship, a Steamcar, and a "Mechano-Velocipede" which are integral to the plot.
Since I am only on book one of the series, I haven't been as creative as Cindy. J
4) How much research do you do, or do you make it all up?
Cindy: Short answer: Quite a bit. Long answer: I do a surprisingly heavy amount of research for my steampunk stories. I very carefully take the key incidents that changed my world from the one we live in, then I follow those changes and decide how they would have effected everything else in the world where the characters live. In my case, the tipping point is twofold: 1) Magic has always existed and been acknowledged, and werewolves, vampyres, etc. DO exist. Therefore the Order of the Round Table was never disbanded in England and still exists, Knights with extraordinary powers who protect England from supernatural threats. 2) The computer was invented in the 1840s, by a man called Babbage, and is called an analytical engine. (There’s history behind this. Babbage in fact, did design this machine, but it was never built in our world.) Since a woman wrote the code for this machine, women in the sciences were catapulted ahead of where they were in our world. I also do a lot of research on clothing, settings, historical events and figures. In Cards and Caravans, I had to tweak the Scottish legal system, since they weren’t really burning witches in the 1850s. But that means I had to know it before I could tweak it. And maybe, in a world where magic was a known reality, those laws might have been a little different.
Rie: Yes, I do. I research the technology to the point where I can make sure it is logical and not impossible. I check dates and events to make sure that I don't put something in that hasn't happened yet for no good reason. I research clothing, architecture, foods, etc.
Since I am set in New York City instead of the UK, it is a bit easier to find out some things.
5) Have you read… (insert your list of other people’s books that are or may be close to my genre)
Cindy: Answer: yes, no, maybe. Much steampunk is YA, and I don’t read a lot of that. I also don’t read a lot of hard SF, where it’s all about the technology and the world. I like my character-driven stories and my romance, so that’s most of what I read. I have read William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, which  is one of the seminal works of SF. Also, since steampunk is so maker-driven, there is a lot of self-published and web-original work out there. I read some, but may not have had time to read all of it.
Rie: I have read most of Gail Carriger's work (all of the Parasol Protectorate, but haven't started Finishing School yet.) Gale Dayton's Blood books were wonderful. I am way behind, but I will be reading a lot more!
6) Who are your favorite steampunk authors?
Cindy: LOL, besides myself? Snark. I love MelJean Brooks, Gail Carriger (except for the book where the main couple breaks up at the end—HATED that one) Kate Cross and Seleste Delaney. There are so many more I need to read, but haven’t yet.
Rie: Mostly the two mentioned above, Tee Morris and Phillipa Ballentine, but I haven't read any of the Ministry novels, just the short story collection.
7) Where can I buy your books? Are they at WalMart?
Cindy: My steampunk series, so far, is only in e-book. That’s kind of awkward in a community that wants everything to look like it’s 1885. So yes, you can get them at Amazon, or B&N, or the Carina Press website. No, you can’t get them at the grocery store. Sorry. I wish that wasn’t the case, believe me.
Rie: My book is available in paperback, but you have to special order it to get it in a brick and mortar store. It is available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or through Zumaya Publications. It is also an ebook, and I believe can be gotten at Smashwords and Kobo as well.
8) How many more books will there be? When is the next one coming out? Which characters are in it?
Cindy: Truthfully? I don’t know. It depends on a lot. Mainly, sales. That’s the hard reality of the fiction business. The more they sell, the more there will be. A girl’s gotta eat, you know? There are two more on the table with my publisher. That’s all I know at the moment. The characters? Well, that’s up to the publisher, too. Let’s just say there’s one more MacKay sibling and a whole bunch of Hadrians who still need happy endings.
Rie: I hope I am just getting started. I am currently working on Book Two of the series, but it is proving a bigger challenge than I thought! It's my first sequel. Theoretically, it will be out this year...but it has to be written first. All the main characters should be back. I love my characters, particularly my heroine, Josephine Mann.
9) Where do you get all your cool steampunk clothes?
Cindy: Thrift shops. (I’m short, so a lot of skirts are floor-length on me, so I cheat there.) Renaissance festivals. The vendors there tend to be awesome, but pricey, so build your wardrobe a few pieces at a time. Catalogs and online companies like Victorian Trading Co., Pyramid Company, Corset-Story and Holy Clothing. Finally, there’s the custom vendors. That’s where things get really pricey, but really, really, cool. I’m not very crafty, but honestly, if you can sew, you have it made.
Rie: Most of my wardrobe is thrift store as well, with certain key pieces being bought at conventions. My main vice is hats. I have way more hats than logical...
10) Last question:  How do you come up with the ideas for all this far-out stuff?
Cindy: Usual answer: No idea. I just have a wild imagination. Snarky answer #1: I’m just twisted like that. Snarkier answer: The idea fairy leaves them in my shower and under my pillow, so I find them when it’s least convenient.
Rie: Everywhere. A chance comment can lead to a bit of an idea. One thing follows on another. I might read something and file it away for later. Dreams sometimes. Ideas come from everywhere. You just have to collect them.

"To me, Steampunk is an alternate look at a period of history that fascinates almost everyone. What would have been different if technology had taken a slightly different direction? And it is fun to play with the gadgets." Rie Sheridan Rose's short stories currently appear in numerous anthologies. She has authored five poetry chapbooks, and collaborated with Marc Gunn on lyrics for his “Don’t Go Drinking With Hobbits” CD. Yard Dog Press is home to humorous horror chapbooks Tales from the Home for Wayward Spirits and Bar-B-Que Grill and Bruce and Roxanne Save the World...Again. Mocha Memoirs published the individual short stories "Drink My Soul...Please," and “Bloody Rain” as e-downloads. Melange Books carries her romantic fantasy Sidhe Moved Through the Faire. Zumaya Books is home to The Luckless Prince as well as her newest novel, The Marvelous Mechanical Man. You can find her at her website.
The Marvelous Mechanical Man (A Conn-Mann Adventure)
Kindle | Nook | Print
Josephine Mann is down to her last two dollars when Professor Alistair Conn hires her to work on a wonder--a 9-foot-tall automaton Jo dubs Phaeton. When an evil villain steals the marvelous mechanical man, Jo's longing for adventure suddenly becomes much too real...and deadly.

"Steampunk is being able to mix together all the things you love from the Victorian, modern and all eras in between, along with the addition of future tech and fantasy." Cindy Spencer Pape firmly believes in happily-ever-after and brings that to her writing. Award-winning author of 18 novels and more than 30 shorter works, Cindy lives in southeast Michigan with her husband, two sons and a houseful of pets. When not hard at work writing she can be found dressing up for steampunk parties and Renaissance fairs, or with her nose buried in a book. You can find her on her website.
Ashes and Alchemy (The Gaslight Chronicles)
Kindle | Nook | Audio
London, 1860
Police inspector Sebastian Brown served Queen and country in India before returning to England to investigate supernatural crimes. Minerva Shaw is desperately seeking a doctor for her daughter Ivy who has fallen gravely ill with a mysterious illness when she mistakenly lands on Sebastian's doorstep. Seb sniffs a case and musters every magickal and technological resource he can to uncover the source of the deadly plague, but it's he who will need protecting—from emotions he'd thought buried long ago.