Friday, November 12, 2010

It's That Kind of a Family

This evening, one of my kids said "and whatever you do, don't make eye contact with the blender."

It's that kind of a family.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: Military Occupations

My efforts at being 'creative' have been frustrated, a bit - not by anything big, but by a whole lot of little things. Like a pipe in the laundry room bursting. Well, maybe that was sort of big.

Anyway, I've done what I sometimes do when writers block seems to be made of reinforced concrete. I research.

It's great, not having a deadline. Or not so great - and that's another topic.

Back on track.

A 'Galaxy Cadet' story involves military occupations. I could follow the lead of major motion picture studios, and do my research by watching M*A*S*H reruns. Or maybe be very serious and watch Apocalypse Now. Maybe that's unfair. I'm sure that some folks in the entertainment industry are able to do a little fact-checking. And that's yet another topic.

Instead, I did a Google search.

I know, "I read something on the Web" has come to mean "I have not clue and believe anything I hear." True enough, there's a lot of - somewhat alternatively-accurate assertions out there.

And there is a massive amount of reliable sources.

Like ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) - an ancient (by contemporary standards) repository of knowledge.

Here's what I found:The PDF document seems to have been created from a microfiche copy of the original publication. The original's photographs and most of the illustrations are, well, poorly reproduced. The text, though, is quite readable. By a human being. The document's information is stored as a series of graphics - not text.

I've gotten most of what I wanted from it - and figured I'd pass the links along.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Exoplanets, MIT, Mathematics, and Thinking With a Cold

It's almost two months since I've done a post here. There's some excuse - or explanation, at any rate. A busted pipe in the laundry room created something a distraction, for one thing. ("Busted Water Pipe, Day 32: Plumbing Progress and Regress," Through One Dad's Eye (October 18, 2010))

Now, back to the general topic of this blog.

You've heard of writer's block? I've got something more like writer's fog. I've heard that I'm recovering from a cold - and that may be so. I don't feel sick, which is nice. I don't even feel tired. But it's been one of those Mondays where I can't seem to think all that well.

Like I said, I'm recovering from a cold. Or so I've heard.

'Creative' work being off the table, I decided to do a little - wait a minute. "Off the table?" What does that mean? Did 'creative' work fall onto the floor? Maybe I should look there. No. Wait. It's a term from parliamentary procedure. Not 'creative' work. The other thing.

And that's the way it's been today.

Anyway, I decided to do a little research. Like the animated Jackie Chan's Adventure's Uncle: "MORE RESEARCH!" I like that series. Don't watch it much now.

Anyway, I decided to do a little more research.

About exoplanets. There's quite a bit out there: everything from (fairly) hard data; to serious research; to stuff that may or may not have been intended as a practical joke. Don't get me wrong: some of the more solid resources haven't been 'real' academic or government outfits - dedicated, intelligent amateurs - - - and I'm drifting off-topic again.

The again, sometimes an old-school academic institution gets it right.

CalTech had some interesting pages - some of which I eventually found. They'd done a more-than-usually-creative rehash of their website. Sort of like dropping an encyclopedia into a food processor, hitting 'puree,' pouring out the results and telling folks that they've reorganized the information - please browse our new-and-improved website.

It wasn't that bad, actually, although the data I was looking for wasn't - quite - there. Like I said, they'd 'improved' the website.

I had a little better 'luck' at MIT, finding a 19-page paper about exoplanets by Seager and others. It's in PDF format, and starts with:
"We use new interior models of cold planets to investigate the mass-radius relationships of solid exoplanets, considering planets made primarily of iron, silicates, water, and carbon compounds. We find that the mass-radius relationships for cold terrestrial mass planets of all compositions we considered follow a generic functional form that is not a simple power law:..."
(Seager and others, via MIT)
That "simple power law" uses symbols that aren't in all character code sets, ASCII or otherwise, so I'm not quoting more from that paper here.

Besides, anything that gets into mathspeak after the first 55 words isn't something I want to tackle right now.

On the other hand, it's an excellent resource.

So, in case someone at MIT gets the bright idea of handing their website over to a caffeinated intern for "improvement," I dropped a copy of the PDF file into a server I trust:
    The Astrophysical Journal, The American Astronomical Society (November 10, 2007)
    S. Seager, Kuchner, C. A. Hier-Majumder, B. Militzer (Received 2006 December 25; accepted 2007 June 21)
Please note: The AJ of the AAS seems to own the copyright to this paper. A bunch of folks who know a whole lot more math than I do created the paper's content. All I'm doing is putting a copy where I'm reasonably sure I can find it, a week or a month from now.

That disclaimer out of the way, the paper is a pretty good discussion of how mass and size (diameter) are related - or should be - for differentiated and undifferentiated planets. In other words, for planets that are pretty much the same material all the way through, and those with onion-like layers, like Earth.

Mostly, it's a fascinating look at what researchers are doing, making sense of what's being learned about planets circling other suns.

From the point of view of this blog, it's also a pretty good resource for working out plausible fictional planets.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Not-Entirely-Misspent Afternoon

I've been spending a moderately productive afternoon in the attic: reading, relaxing, reviewing notes on a story that's starting to almost make sense; and letting my mind off the leash.

That last is an exercise that can have interesting, sometimes entertaining, and occasionally useful results.

On the other hand, occasionally not-so-useful results.

As I was getting toward the bottom of the thermos of coffee I'd taken up with me, I remembered that I had a Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette column to write. That's 250 words for a fictional newspaper in an equally fictional small town. Sort of like Garrson Keillor's Lake Wobegon: except that I actually life in a place like that.

Where was I? Remembering that I had a deadline coming up. Right.

While mulling over my weekly challenge of finding something to write about for that nonexistent small town's imaginary newspaper, this phrase dropped onto the front desk of my mind:

"Loonfoot Falls and eight tiny reindeer."

In the context of what I'd been reading a couple hours earlier, that almost made sense - in a convoluted, quasi-metaphoric way.

I think.

On the other hand, aside from that aphasic glow of self-satisfaction I experience when cool phrases fall out of whatever bit of cognitive ductwork they've been lurking in, there didn't seem to be much I could do with that conjunction of ideas.

Besides, I was starting to feel hot and in need of dealing with all that coffee. Which, eventually, led me back here to my place by a north window.

And I still don't know what I'll do about Loonfoot Falls today.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Setting, Research, and a Telephone Directory

This post really does get around to the topic of writing. But first:

Minimum Standards and Scraping By

My household's cable got cut while a contractor was removing a couple trees from my back yard. Not his fault, I think. Turns out the cable service provider is under the impression that as long as the cable is (just) under the sod, it's okay. Which works fine, until somebody with a Bobcat comes by.

Live and learn.

The point is that I had quite a lot of time on my hands yesterday afternoon. With the cable cut, I couldn't get online - which meant that my blog writing and research (other way around, actually) was a 'once and future' set of tasks.

So I drove over to my father-in-law's, used his phone to contact our ISP/phone/cable television provider, talked, took a few photos - all of which still left with me with time on my hands.

Fairly Normal: For a Guy Who Reads Dictionaries

Some fifty-something guys, in my position, would get out the golf clubs, or watch a replay of the Super Bowl. I transcribed a telephone directory.

It wasn't a very large directory: I ended up with a spreadsheet that's less than 700 lines, top to bottom.

One of my daughters, at least, has been impressed that I read dictionaries. For fun. I don't do so all that often, but sometimes I enjoy going through the pages, looking for interesting words and noting where they came from.

In the case of the phone directory, it was more work than fun - but I'll admit to enjoying the data-entry process.

Getting to Know Another Way of Life

This wasn't just any phone directory: One of America's naval bases has a telephone directory that's available to the public, with what appears to be a modestly-complete list of offices, desks, schools, and stores. Along with, in many cases, which building they're in.

I'm not entirely clear on where Building 160 is: but I don't need to. I've learned that it's the building to go to with questions about vending machines, recreational vehicles, and cable television.

On a naval base? Isn't that, you know, military?


I also know how to call someone with questions about child care for kids age six weeks to five years, and the bowling alley's number.

The assumptions I made, taking data from the directory, have me with the bowling alley and a barracks being in the same building. Which either means that my assumptions are wrong - or some sailors aren't getting much sleep.
Why Would Any Sane Person Deconstruct a Phone Directory?!
I wasn't seeking "to expose deep-seated contradictions in a work by delving below its surface meaning" by tweezing apart that phone directory. (deconstruction, Princeton's WordNet) I figured that, once I mined its data and put it into a spreadsheet, I'd be able to see what sort of activities happened on the base, and - in very general terms - how they were organized.

I found out that there were quite a few schools on the base. That wasn't a surprise: I knew that one of its functions was training, and training happens in schools.

I found out that a sailor stationed there could rent recreational vehicles on the base. That was a bit of a surprise.
M*A*S*H, College, and the Real World
I've enjoyed watching reruns of "M*A*S*H." Because of the show's wide and lasting popularity among American audiences, I've used Frank Burns as an example of a particular sort of mindset in another blog.

But "M*A*S*H" isn't real. It's a moderately well-researched television series - of the 'relevant' sitcom variety. There's an element of truth to many of the show's characters, but I'd no more use it as a reliable reference for military life than I'd watch Star Wars to learn about astrophysics.

I could draw from my own life experiences: but I know better. I'm old enough to have picked up my limp in Vietnam, but my draft classification is 4F - by the time I was in my teens, an x-ray of my left hip joint looked like the last stages of arthritic decay. Which is a topic for yet another of my blogs.

I have no first-hand experience of what life is like on a military base.

I'm certainly not going to trust the sort of impressions I picked up, going to college in America during the seventies and eighties. That was a colorful and strange era in our history - which I strongly suspect will appear in articles on abnormal psychology in centuries to come.

Which is yet again another topic.

So, very little of my own, personal, experience is useful in my research.

Analysis of a phone directory won't give me much of an emotional picture of what it's 'like' to live on an American naval base in the 21st century - but it will, I think, help me build a structure that I can hang more touchy feely information on.

Why Bother?

I've spent about five hours, so far, on this 'phone directory' project. I think it's worth the trouble.

I now know that at least one large American naval base really is like a small town in many ways, with its own 'downtown,' and even a movie theater of sorts.

Nobody would mistake it for a 'real' small town, of course. For example, the analogues to civilian functions seem to be on a smaller scale than what I'd expect in a town of that size that grew naturally.

I also learned that there may be a certain amount of humor in - of all things - the numbers assigned to buildings. This particular base's marina/summer equipment rental facilities are in Building 13.

All This - For Galaxy Cadet?!

I'm doing the research now, because I've been developing background and settings for a story or five about Galaxy Cadet. (March 28, 2010)

I wrote, earlier this year, that I should probably "loosen up" by writing a distinctly non-epic, lightweight story. Being the sort of person I am, my notion of 'loosening up' has now involved analysis of a telephone directory.

It's not as crazy as it sounds: I'll probably be able to use the same research for at least one other setting that's 'back burnered' right now.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: Claytronics

One of my daughters is 'way ahead of me. I've started to write quite a few stories, she's finished so many that I've lost count.

Which is fine by me: her example may get me fired up to actually finish one of my bright ideas.

Years ago, I jotted down a few notes about a nifty far-future technology: material that could form itself into many different shapes. It's not a particularly new idea. The heavy in one of the Terminator was 'living metal.' Extremely mutable creatures and devices are an old gimmick in science fiction - including a sort of assassin robot that disguises itself as a section of floor to let an unsuspecting guard walk over it. Just like in Terminator 2: where the scene is such a close match to the old story that I have to assume that it's a tribute.

I'd give title and author of the story - but, despite cudgeling my mind: I can't recall. Mars is involved, as I recall - but that doesn't narrow the field by much.

With my luck, I'll remember at 3:00 a.m. and get jerked awake by the part of my brain that was in 'search' mode.

Wrenching myself back on-topic.

My contribution to the notion of mutable technology, if I'd gotten past the note-making stage, would have been using it for control interfaces. The idea was to have a slab of material that could be, as needed, a keyboard, a control yoke, tuning knobs, whatever.

Which I assumed - this was around the turn of the century - would be a hundred or so years out.

So, Tuesday, I read about claytronics:Among the applications for this still-in-the-concept-stage technology: control systems.

I really doubt that it'll take a century to get claytronics ready for consumer tech.

A decade, maybe.

This is hardly an original thought: but one of the challenges for creators of speculative fiction is to imagine 'future technology' that won't be available in department stores in a year or two.

Well, That's Interesting: Synthetic Signaling Cascades and Living Spaceships

"Living spaceships" is something out of science fiction.

It's also something that's appeared on the horizon of materials technology:
"Synthetic Signals Could Foster Unprecedented Life Forms"
Tech News, Discovery News (July 1, 2010)

"A rush of adrenaline or pain of a burn seem simple enough, but both are the result of complex chemical interactions known as signaling cascades.

"Vital to all life on Earth, scientists are taking the first steps towards a synthetic signaling cascades. The research has powerful implications for how life on Earth could have developed, what life on other planets could look like and lead to stronger materials that can respond to their environmental intelligently.

" 'The machines that we use to travel in space and go to the bottom of the ocean -- to go places where biological organisms can't go -- are complex but also rather simple in that they are dumb pieces of metal stuck together with rivets and glue,' said Jonathan Nitschke, a scientist at the University of Cambridge and the co-author of a recent paper in the journal Nature Chemistry...."

"...The European scientists created a simple mimic of these complex systems with a molecule shaped like DNA. Instead of nucleotides at their center, however, the new molecules had a core made from copper.

"By studying these new, DNA-like molecules, scientists could learn about how life on Earth or other planets might have began or evolved. It could also lead to the creation of new, intelligent materials, which could become stronger or weaker depending on their surroundings with no input from a human controller...."
Don't get too excited about machines adjusting themselves "with no input from a human controller."

Centrifugal governors have managed power output of steam engines since 1788, when James Watt applied a windmill control technology to a steam engine. ("James Watt Biography," World of Physics Biography, via Bookrags) Good thing, too: because human beings aren't particularly good at keeping machines running exactly at a given rate. Centrifugal governors are.

Granted, DNA-like molecules with a copper core instead of nucleotides are a few steps removed from James Watt's day: but the principle of using technology to maintain desired conditions in a system is nothing particularly new.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

State-of-the-Art Neuroscience, About Two Dozen Centuries Back

When it comes to how the universe works, what we know, what we don't know, and what we think we know that just ain't so, has changed quite a lot since information technology made it possible to 'freeze' our thoughts in somewhat permanent form. That's a span of around 5,000 years now. (August 3, 2009, January 4, 2010)

Not that everybody wrote down what they thought. Take Aristotle, son of Nichomachus, for example. He lived almost two dozen centuries ago: from about 384 to 322 BC. These days someone in his position probably specialize by studying some narrow topic. Aristotle's interests included aesthetics, biology, ethics, government, logic, morality, physics, and poetry. ("Aristotole," The Literature Network) Think Leonardo DaVinci in a chlamys.

At least some of Aristotle's books are thought to have been written by his students, from lecture notes. He wouldn't be the first professor who, although brilliant, wasn't quite up to speed on the latest information technology.

On the other hand, I've run into enough sources with phrases like "Aristotle's writings" to think that the ancient genius wrote at least some of his thoughts down, himself.

What We Know, What We Think We Know

It's a little late to have Aristotle take a standardized intelligent test, but there doesn't seem to be much doubt that he was a very smart man. He's credited with getting quite a bit of Western civilization's intellectual life started.

And he seems to have had the good sense to find out what things looked and felt like, before deciding how they worked.

Maybe you've heard that Aristotle thought the brain was a sort of radiator. That's so - sort of - although his analysis of that 'marrow' we keep in our heads was a little more complicated than that.

Considering what he had to work with, I think Aristotle did a pretty good job of analyzing the brain's function. He was wrong, but at least his model was internally consistent.

One of the facts he got right was that the brain has no sense of touch - something that makes in possible for neurosurgeons to operate on the brain of a conscious patient. On the other hand, Aristotle used that fact as a proof of what turned out to be a really wrong idea. Here's part of what Aristotle had to say about the brain:
"...That it has no continuity with the organs of sense is plain from simple inspection, and is still more clearly shown by the fact, that, when it is touched, no sensation is produced; in which respect it resembles the blood of animals and their excrement...."
Don't laugh. Aristotle wasn't stupid - but he was working near the start of Western civilization's efforts to sort out how the universe works.

Two dozen centuries from now, some of what's in your high school science textbook, and what's coming out of CERN, may look a trifle daft, too.

Science and the Speculative Fiction Writer

There's a broad range of approaches to incorporating 'real' science into speculative fiction - from 'science? what science?' to old-school 'hard' science fiction, where the authors seemed more interested in practical applications of what was in the latest science quarterly, than delving into empires of the mind.

I'd just as soon write stories with more-or-less 'real' science: but I like full-bore fantasy, too. As far as I'm concerned, it's 'author's choice,' an aesthetic preference.

That said, the example of Aristotle may give me a lot more wiggle room for my 'real' science, than you might think.

There's an excerpt from one of Aristotle's books at the end of this post, a sort of introduction to his discussion of the brain. His analysis was wrong - but quite a few of his supporting facts were spot-on.

The lesson here, I think, is that someone who's making up 'future science' has a lot of room for the imagination to roam. Me? I'm going to make an effort to see to it that the 'future science' doesn't depend on what we can observe being different. In other words, if rocks fall up in the 36th century: there better be a really good explanation for why they don't now.

Back to Aristotle. His analysis was wrong - but not as much as it may seem. The brain looks like marrow, it feels cold, and it really doesn't have a sense of touch - it so it won't respond when prodded. At least, not in a way that Aristotle - or whoever supplied him with his data - could have observed.

Here's that excerpt:
"Parts of Animals Book II – (Brain)"
Aristotle (English translation), via Alexandra Cuffel (Medieval History), Macalester College

"From the marrow we pass on in natural sequence to the brain. For there are many who think that the brain itself consists of marrow, and that it forms the commencement of that substance, because they see that the spinal marrow is continuous with it. In reality the two may be said to be utterly opposite to each other in character. For of all the parts of the parts of the body there is none so cold as the brain;whereas the marrow is of a hot nature, as is plainly shown by its fat and greasy character. Indeed this is the very reason why the brain and spinal marrow are continuous with each other. For, wherever the action of any part is in excess nature so contrives as to set by it another part with an excess of contrary action, so that the excesses of the two may counterbalance each other. Now that the marrow is hot is clearly shown by many indications The coldness of the brain is also manifest enough even to the touch; and, secondly, of all the fluid parts of the body it is the driest and the one that has the least blood; for in fact it gas no blood at all in its proper substance. Thus brain is not residual matter, nor yet is it one of the parts which are continuous with each but it has a character peculiar to itself, as might indeed be expected. That it has no continuity with the organs of sense is plain from simple inspection, and is still more clearly shown by the fact, that, when it is touched, no sensation is produced; in which respect it resembles the blood of animals and their excrement. The purpose of its presence in animals is no less than the preservation of the whole body. For some writers assert that the soul is fire or some such force. This, however, is but a crude assertion; and it would perhaps be better to say that the soul is incorporate in some substance of a fiery character. The reason for this being so is that of all substances there is none so suitable for ministering to the operations of the soul as that which is possessed of heat. For nutrition and the imparting of motion are offices of the soul, and it is by heat that these are most readily a acted. To say then that the soul is fire is much the same thing as to confound the auger or the saw with the carpenter or his craft, simply because the work is done when the two are near one another...."

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Aliens are Coming! The Aliens are Coming!

Anybody remember "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" (1966)? Now you know where I got the title for this post.

Remember the Klaatu aliens? ("The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951)) Or Star Trek's Organians? Non-corporeal beings - so you just know they're so much nicer than us. More evolved, you know.

Or the aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). The people who had been committing wholesale kidnappings and property crimes up to and including grand theft-ocean liner? For generations? Reprogrammed some average Joe so that he abandoned his family and trekked across country to the landing site?

Then, when these aliens show up - and bodies that look like the kidnap victims shamble out of the ship - well, the aliens are such cute little guys with big eyes that NOBODY SEEMS TO SEE A PROBLEM. In it's own way, "Close Encounters" is scarier than anything in the Alien cycle.

Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956): except that small town doctor Dr. Miles Bennell and romantic interest Becky Driscoll, instead of being disturbed when they notice that people are being replaced by pod people - are very excited about this wonderful discovery, and set up a clinic for the pod people. I don't think the 1978 remake picked up on that idea. Maybe we'll see it in another remake: one that's more sensitive to the feelings of pod people. Or would be, if they had any.

I had Something In Mind for This Post: What was It?

I started out with aliens, then mentioned Russians, and then rambled on about space aliens for a while. Right. I think I've got it.


It's nothing new: space aliens that are highly evolved - and still act a whole lot like people we don't like. "Independence Day" (1996, for example. Or "Mars Attacks!" (1996 - again).

Those movies were getting back to the well-established (well-worn?) sort of film we saw in the fifties: "The Angry Red Planet" (1959) and "War of the Worlds" (1953).

Moving on.

Looks like today's serious thinkers are moving away from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and drawing toward "Angry Red Planet" and "Mars Attacks!" I know: "Mars Attacks!" is a comedy. Or one of the most unintentionally-funny 'serious' movies I've ever seen.

For example:
"Do Aliens Exist? If So, Will They Kill Us?"
Space News, Discovery News (April 26, 2010)

"We're an inquisitive lot, we humans. But could our inquisitiveness ultimately kill us?

In a new Discovery Channel documentary "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking," the world's most recognized physicist speculates about different forms of alien life and explores efforts under way to search and communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations. However, he cautions that perhaps we shouldn't be advertising our location; perhaps we should just sit back and listen instead....

"...Mankind is all about resources; imagine if a more advanced civilization sees Earth as a bountiful supply of sustenance and sees our civilization as nothing more than ants crawling over a big juicy apple. Wouldn't they just wash us off?..."
Maybe. At least Hawking and company show evidence of having read H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds."

The article's assumption - that our SETI attempts at communication are what aliens would notice - has a point. On the other hand, Earth has been very noisy on radio frequencies for decades. That only started slacking off - maybe - when we started working more with cable and optic fiber networks.

That invasion fleet? They might not be after our resources. The commander might have orders to try reasoning with that party planet first: but do whatever it takes to stop their noise.

That's an idea that probably has been used: but I can't remember running into it.

Space Aliens and the Cold War

Every hear about fears of the Cold War inspiring movies like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and the interminable 'serious' ancestors of "Mars Attacks?"

So have I

What If the Aliens are Friendly?

I suppose frail(?) humanity could be overrun by pillaging hordes of technologically advanced strip-miners.

On the other hand, what if the frontier of a civilization that's been around for a million years washed over the Solar system? And they weren't out to plunder our planet? They might even work out a deal where we got something in trade for not fussing when they swept up the asteroid belt.

Nice people. Really.

With nth-generation analogs of video games and soft drinks and designer jeans and things we haven't invented yet. All for sale at the local trade center.

That's a tired scenario, too, in a way. Technologically and economically powerful cultures - I'm over-simplifying horribly here - merged during the 19th and 20th century. And are overwhelming the last pockets of cultures that left the mainstream millennia ago.

We've been through this before, in a way. One reason so many European composers were busily writing pieces that incorporated folk tunes of their part of the world was that robust national cultures were overwhelming the smaller, more isolated little 'mini-cultures' within their borders.

Well, it's 'good enough for a story.'

I see I've written about this sort of thing before, sort of: Check out the first of the "Related posts."

Related posts:
I use IMDB as a resource for films - but with War of the Worlds (1953) they goofed. Big time.

Some of the photos associated with that Oscar-winning movie seem to be poster art for the movie. Or maybe CD covers.

The black-and-white photos of girls in silver makeup, with springs on their heads? I've no clue what they're from: but it wasn't the Byron Haskin movie.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day, 2010; Change; Opposable Thumbs and Responsibility

It's the 40th Earth Day.

I remember the first one, back in 1970. My take on the 40-year anniversary is summed up in a couple of posts:

Those were heady times: in several senses of the word. Quite a bit has changed in the four decades since that first Earth Day. Which is why I wrote so much about lint, this time around.

Change Happens

I've gotten the impression, now and then, that some of the more ardent environmentalists desperately want to keep Earth's ecosystem just the way it is. Or, rather, was: in about 1800.

That would take a lot of doing, I think. We live on a planet that may be coming out of a major period of continental glaciation. Or Earth may be in one of those brief interglacial periods, with more glaciers on the way: The last I heard, the jury was still out on that.

This planet orbits a star that's just a bit variable.

And Earth is covered with that sticky wet stuff we call "life." One of the things that's stayed the same during the last several hundred million years is that life changes.

For example: one of the reasons that recently-discovered Loricifera are important to scientists is that they live in an environment that's similar to this planet's oceans: about 600,000,000 years ago.

Locifera? They're animals. That don't use oxygen. And don't have mitochondria. At all.

Like I said: change happens.

With Opposable Thumbs Comes Great Responsibility

The fellow in the picture there might stick out in a crowd today, even with a haircut and contemporary clothes. On the other hand, we haven't changed all that much in the last 1,600,000 years. Like us, he lived in a house with a kitchen. The family didn't have Frigidaire appliances, and espresso wouldn't be developed for over a million years: But the more we find out about Homo Erectus, the more they start 'looking like' us.

Sure: his expression isn't what you see in newspapers, other than supermarket tabloids. But think of him saying something like "whaddaya mean, they only come in green or gray?!" or "you want three rocks, you carry one!"

What's the point?

Those folks were using fire to process their food.

That's a dangerous technology. I've written about this before. (December 9, 2009)

We learned how to use fire without setting fire to our surroundings - or ourselves. Accidents still happen, but we've learned how to deal with them.

Sure, we're changing the environment on Earth. We've been doing that for a long time. Now, we're doing it faster than we did a million years ago: but we're also learning faster. (Partly because we've got slightly bigger brains than the gentleman pictured above - partly, I think, because we've developed fairly robust information storage and retrieval technologies.)

And we're learning to use our power responsibly. We have to: for the same reason that our forebears had to learn how to use fire without killing themselves.

The Future Will Be Just Like Today: Except Where It's Different

Over the last few decades, I've watched a lake near Interstate 94 turn into ponds surrounded by marsh. I'm pretty sure the marsh is becoming meadow, but haven't gotten close enough to check. Minnesota's lakes are leftovers from the last continental glacier to cover this area. Given time, they'll all fill in.

Rivers and streams run fast enough to keep sediments in suspension while water passes through them. In lakes and ponds, the water slows down: giving particles time to settle to the bottom.

That's the way things work.

I miss that lake: it was one of the nice views on a route I often drove. We could still have it: if someone had decided to dredge it regularly. But that would have taken a great deal of effort: and I'm not at all sure it would be worth it. Or even a good idea.

I'm not at all surprised that temperatures on Earth are fluctuating. I'd be shocked if that wasn't happening.

But get upset about it? I've seen too many contradictory 'end of the world' best-sellers come and go for the latest crop to spark much interest. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (April 16, 2010), for starters)

As far as speculative fiction goes, I don't see me writing yet another apocalyptic vision of a dying Earth, victim of humanity's vile selfishness. There's been quite enough of that done already.

So, I want a World of the Future that looks just like 1950s America? Hardly.

A utopia? That's been done, too. Besides, I'd have a time writing that with a straight face.

A world with cities that are in effect artificial mountain ranges along most continental margins: miles high, with vast arrays that look like today's wind farms: except they're blowing air upslope, to maintain desirable weather patterns? (March 5, 2010)

Now you're talking.

Notice: desirable weather patterns. Not "normal" ones.

Would I feel at home in that world? Maybe, maybe not. For that matter, I don't think Daniel Boone would feel all that 'at home' in Manhattan's lower east side these days. But quite a few people don't mind living in New York City.

I think it depends on what a person gets used to, growing up.

That 'world of tomorrow' I sketched out? Parts of it would probably look quite 'normal' to us. Provided you didn't look at the sky, or the horizon.

Ever notice in the old Westerns, how you sometimes saw a radio tower or contrail in 'the wild west?'

Which is drifting into another topic.

Then there's the Gill Theory of Human Evolution.

Time to stop.

Related posts:More:

Friday, April 16, 2010

[Information] Power to the People!


Science fiction/speculative fiction writers often write about how they think science and/or technology will affect the human condition. Their expectations have run from overly-optimistic Utopias to the more currently-fashionable variations of 'and we're all gonna die.'

Generally, writers seem to realize that when technology changes, society changes. Sometimes it changes a lot.

We're going through a period where information technology is upsetting the status quo I've been familiar with. Personally, I like that - for reasons you'll probably see as you read this post.

If you read this post. It's a whole lot easier to go somewhere else on the Internet, than it was to find another article in a magazine.

Like I said, things are changing.
I've discussed the effect of technology - particularly information technology - on culture and society fairly often in another blog. Let's remember that "information technology" can, in principle, include quite a few data storage-and-retrieval methods:
"...I think there may have been something to the notion that people who live in small towns are, well, clueless commoners. In England, it would have been folks who didn't live within walking distance of London - were isolated, ignorant villiens, with an awareness that extended as far as the village church and manor house and no farther.

"Then Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg introduced that dangerous, divisive technology we call movable type: and the world changed. Documents could be mass-produced and distributed as fast as a mounted courier could travel. Reading changed from a professional specialty to a basic skill. And those villiens had a source of information about the rest of the world.
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (April 12, 2010))
Quite a few printing technologies had been in use before Gutenberg put movable type on the map. What set the new technology apart was the speed and (relative) ease with which written information could be taken from a manuscript, mass-produced, and distributed.

And, intellectual property laws being what they were then (practically non-existent), if one copy of a printed work arrived in a town with a printer - and the printer thought people would buy more copies - there would soon be as many copies of that work as there were people willing to pay the printer.

'Going viral' is a new phrase - but documents have been 'going viral' for centuries.

Technology and Freedom

"...America is a free country. When I was growing up, I learned that individual freedom was important. Since then, I've learned that one of the remarkable freedoms that Americans enjoy is the right to own and operate dangerous technologies and substances. These include
  • Guns
  • Substances like
    • LP gas
    • Ammonium nitrate1
    • Anhydrous ammonia1
  • Printing presses
  • Fax machines
  • Computers
What all these have in common is that they give whoever possesses them, and knows how to use them, considerable individual power....

Computers, Dangerous?

I put the printing press and the fax machine in my list, because they are, in their own way, at least as dangerous as any gun.
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but the Printing Press is Deadly
Martin Luther's 95 Theses might have have been discussed in Wittenberg, and maybe surrounding towns, and stopped there: if some incendiarist hadn't gotten his hands on them, printed copies, and distributed the things. The wars that followed would probably have happened anyway....
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 27, 2008))

Technology, Freedom and Economics

There was an economic side to movable type, too. Before Gutenberg and company, every book was a hand-crafted item, made by specialized craftsmen and skilled professionals. Last year I made some wildly optimistic estimates about how fast a scribe could work, together with some other information, and made the educated guess that the value of a pre-Gutenberg Bible in Europe would have been around $3,725 USD. (A Catholic Citizen in America (January 27, 2009))

Feudal Europe didn't have American dollars, of course: but that's the sort of material and labor that would have been involved. These days, the sort of Bible I use sells for around $9.00 USD. ($8.20, plus shipping and handling).

That's around 0.25% of $3,725, by the way.

Technology, Freedom, Economics and Culture

Maybe you've heard about how 'those people' locked up Bibles - to keep people from reading them, of course. Actually, there was security around almost any book: those things were as expensive as computers are now.

And less accessible. A few specialists knew how to read and write, but most folks were illiterate - because they needed to know how to read about as much as most people today need to know how to use ZPL.

After movable type made written material available to people who weren't major landholders, an increasing number of people learned to read.

By now, the ability to read and write is pretty close to being a basic and necessary a skill in many parts of the world. Maybe 'most parts of the world.'

Which means that people - all over - are much more likely to know about what's going on in other parts of the world.

Upsetting the Applecart

Change can be hard on people who don't like it - or don't understand it. Particularly if they won't learn to adjust.

I think part of what we're seeing in American culture now is vaguely parallel to what happened in Europe a few centuries back.

Around the end of Europe's feudal period, landholders had gotten used to a politico-economic system that depended on a network of personal obligations. Feudalism had worked for centuries. We might have a sort of 'feudalism 2.0' now, if the knights, barons, and kings had understood this newfangled idea called "money" a bit better.

Oversimplifying - a lot - the old landholders of Europe failed to get involved with new, money-based, commercial enterprises. It took generations, and several major revolutions, but eventually the aristocracy of Europe changed from a driving force in European civilization to a colorful tourist attraction.

Remember, I said that's an oversimplification.

That was then. This is now.

America doesn't have barons or knights - it's illegal, or was up until a few years ago. We do, however, have traditional information gatekeepers.
"Information Gatekeepers?" What's That?
The way I use the term, "an 'information gatekeeper' is someone who controls access to information." (Another War-on-Terror Blog (August 14, 2009))

Pretty obvious, huh?

America's traditional information gatekeepers include:
  • Newspaper editors
  • Teachers and organizations of teachers
  • Leaders of colleges and universities
  • Entertainment industry executives
  • Publishers of books and magazines
That's a 'short list,' of course.

Those folks were in a relatively comfortable position for much of the 20th century.

Although schools and colleges were spread across America, the 'important' ones like Harvard and Yale were in the northeast. Not far from many of America's more prestigious publishing houses and the city where America's 'newspaper of record' had its home.

The entertainment industry was a bit less centralized. New York City retained its position as the premier center for stage productions, but Los Angeles emerged as a center for newer media like motion pictures and television.

The result, I think, was that back in the days where ABC, CBS, NBC, and - a bit later - PBS were it as far as television was concerned, a relatively small number of people had a great deal of control over what the rest of us saw, heard and read. I don't think it was planned, exactly. And that's definitely another topic.

Then along came cable television. That was terribly 'divisive,' we were warned. Americans wouldn't all be watching shows from the same manageable selection of networks.

Then along came the Internet. And the Web. And blogs, like the one you're reading.

By now, published authors aren't limited to those persons deemed worthy by America's 'better' sort.

Just about any crazy son of an Irishman can get published.

Like me.

Can't say that I'm sorry about that.

Vaguely-related posts:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Problem With Nice, Orderly Societies

I've written about stories with A Message before. You've run into them: Several generations ago they might even have, "and the moral of this story is..." at the end; These days, it's more along the lines of Humanity has Killed Mother Nature and We're All Gonna Die! Or maybe the big, bad computers will take over.

Don't get me wrong: I liked the special effects in "Avatar," and "The Matrix" is on my to-be-viewed list. I'd have watched "The Matrix" start-to-finish before, but until this year, the excerpts I'd dropped into had been on late-night television. Apparently the 1999 movie's setting actually makes sense. Sort of. Good enough for 'willing suspension of disbelief,' anyway.

I'm getting off-topic. In the second paragraph. That's fast work, even for me.

Where was I? "...and the moral of this story is...:" right.

I don't particularly like stories that apply The Meaning with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, or drop The Moral on the reader like an anvil. Even if - make that particularly if I started out agreeing to some extent with what the author had to say.

So, I intend to write nice, bland, meaningless drivel with no discernible purpose beyond entertainment? Not likely.
Bear with me, please: the rest of this post is about Utopias and good intentions. Sort of.
Take nice, orderly societies for example. Sounds - nice - doesn't it?

A Nice, Orderly, Society Where Everybody's Protected: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Just imagine a wonderful world of the future: all the people walking around with a dreamy smile on their faces, completely and totally secure in the knowledge that they're safe from natural disasters, muggers, and unfamiliar ideas.

A reasonable desire for the security implied in the first two points is, I think, part of the reason we started cooking meat and living in groups of more than a dozen or so. I don't have a problem with preventing natural disasters. Or at least dealing with things like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and blizzards with minimal or no injury and death.

I even think it'd be a good idea if we could find a way to make muggers a footnote in history. Although in that case, I'm a little concerned about some of the methods suggested during the 20th century.

Lobotomies are coming back, by the way.

I don't take the conventionally-dim view of humanity that's part of some contemporary intellectual fads - and a number of post-Gutenberg branches of Christianity. I have, on the other hand, been surrounded by human beings for over a half century: and I think the fellow was right:
"For mischief comes not out of the earth, nor does trouble spring out of the ground; 2But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward."
(Job 5:6,7)
I've written about that before, too.

I also don't see humanity as a cancer on delicate little Mother Nature's face, or as a totally corrupt mess. But let's face it: People make mistakes. Some want to do harm.

I think that even a well-intentioned altruist can mess things up: if he or she gets enough power.

The desire to protect the weak from harm is, I think, a good idea. But I also thing we can be 'protected' too much. I've touched on that before, too:
" '...Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law....'
" 'Locksley Hall,' Alfred, Lord Tennyson"
" 'Happily, some of us got off the planet in time.' "
" 'Notes of a Traveler,' Otha Sisk"
(" '...Into the Future...' - Excerpt; Attitude; Comment and Theme" (July 3, 2009))
I'd Love to be In Charge?
I'll admit that there have been times when I thought I couldn't possibly do a worse job than national and world leaders. That's not the same as thinking that I'd do a good job.

The sort of broad control achieved by totalitarian regimes is - I think - a really, really bad idea.
It Can Happen Here
There may be Americans who imagine that 'totalitarian' governments are 'over there.'

Others feel that America's federal government is "totalitarian."

For that matter, there are a few folks around the world who seem convinced that shape-shifting space-alien lizard people really run things.

I don't agree - with any of the above. Which 'proves' that I'm part of the conspiracy.

Getting off-topic. Again.

If you've run into some of my other blogs, or met me in online communities, you may know that I'm a Catholic. Yeah: one of those people.

You might expect me to be appalled at the rampant pornography sullying our fair land. That's near the mark, but I'm also concerned about some efforts to 'protect' us from smut.

I don't think porn is a good idea. For starters, it arguably doesn't show much respect for people - women, quite often. But I don't think that books, magazines, photos and videos with prurient interest are the only problem we've got.

Several years back, it looked like the American public was going to be 'protected' from the Wicked, Wicked Web by our benevolent leaders. I'm fairly convinced that the folks who were pushing for a federal agency to control what Americans saw, heard, and read had good intentions. They said they were worried about porn and 'hate speech.'
"...Fair enough. I don't approve of pornography or hateful screeds either.

"But when some socially conservative Christian organizations joined forces with liberal political action groups, I got concerned. They both wanted the government to do something about about people putting bad things on the Web. One of the odd couples was the Christian Coalition and the Feminist Majority.1

"We didn't (quite) get a federal agency in charge of deciding who could put information on the Internet, and who could view it, thank God. But it could have happened. A great many people were very upset.

"So upset that, in my opinion, they weren't thinking about the consequences of what they wanted."
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (March 9, 2008))
That odd couple of worried people was, I think, a demonstration that emotions and reason don't play well together. ("Emotions, the Frontal Cortex, The War on Terror, Anarchists, and the Illuminati," Another War-on-Terror Blog (December 23, 2008))

I don't have any problem with parents - or schools - using blocking software to keep kids from seeing stuff that the parents or school board don't think is 'proper.' Families and local school boards have an obligation to look after children - and are small enough so that the crazy ones can't do widespread damage.

But a federal agency deciding what well upwards of 300,000,000 people should be allowed to see? With an option to make the plan global?

I wasn't concerned that a federal agency couldn't manage something like that: I was concerned that one could.

Managing the Masses For Their Own Good? Been There, Tried That

I'm pretty sure that some folks really believe that Stalin's Soviet Union was a golden age for Russia. Others may feel that McCarthyism was a good idea.

The world wasn't made up exclusively of freedom-loving Americans and oppressive commies - or wise leaders of the people's struggle and oppressive Yankee imperialists back in the 'good old days.' And it certainly isn't now.

But I think we still have 'intelligent, caring' people who honestly feel that everything would be wonderful: if only everybody could be made to act just the way the 'right sort' think they should.

Since I also think that well-meaning do-gooders like that will be around for the foreseeable future: speculative fiction writers have no shortage of material to play with.

Related posts:

Monday, April 12, 2010

Alien Life will Most Likely be - Alien

"Alien Life on Titan Would Stink" (April 10, 2010)

"If life does exist on Saturn's intriguing moon Titan, it probably stinks.

"The icy moon has long been seen as a potential spot for extraterrestrial life, but so far, there's no evidence of any living things there.

"And if there were life on Titan, it would likely involve chemicals that are noxious and disgusting to humans, scientists say...."

"...'This idea that you can walk up to the alien ambassador and shake their hand is very unlikely,' said biochemist William Bains of MIT and the Cambridge, England-based Rufus Scientific. He explained that these other worldly life forms would probably be so foreign to us that it might be difficult to recognize them as life, and coming into contact with them could prove hazardous.

"For example, Titan life's metabolism might involve chemical compounds such as phosphine and hydrogen sulfide, which are both foul-smelling gases that are toxic to humans...."

"...Instead of relying on water as a primary ingredient for life, as Earthlings do, Titan's life might have blood based on liquid methane, Bains said. Such a creature couldn't survive on Earth, where methane is a gas at our warmer temperatures.

" 'Their blood would instantly boil then release this great cloud of chemicals, quite a number of which are quite poisonous,' Bains said.

"And instead of using the element carbon to build many of the molecules that make up life, these creatures' chemistry might be based on silicon. While this element is relatively flexible and able to bond with a wide variety of other elements, many of these bonds would be unstable. For example, some compounds that could be present in Titan life would spontaneously burst into flames if exposed to Earth's air...."
I'm not sure that I quite buy the "so foreign to us that it might be difficult to recognize them as life" part of the article. What's described - phosphine, hydrogen sulfide and other substances in liquid methane - would likely enough involve microscopic bags of liquid grouped in larger sacks - like the plants and animals we're familiar with. And fungi and bacteria, for that matter. And yes, I know that plant cells tend to have rather hard walls.

Aliens with different life chemistries most likely wouldn't look like the creatures we're familiar with: but then, neither do the critters found in the Burgess Shale. But we don't have trouble identifying the Burgess Shale menagerie as animals - or maybe plants - but whatever, something living.

Okay: maybe we'll find 'living crystals' or something like Hoyle's Black Cloud: but that's not what the article was discussing.

'Life as We Know It,' Class M Planets and All That

I think there will always be room for stories involving beautiful space princesses and exotic-looking aliens who think 9.8 m/s2 acceleration is 'normal' gravity. And are perfectly comfortable in a 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038% carbon dioxide mix at 21 degrees Celsius.

I also think there is room for stories where the alien ambassador needs a portable habitat to survive on Earth. And, likely enough, thinks Earth's air is thin and incredibly toxic: but likes the low gravity. ("Earth May Not Be a "Class M" Planet," Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 5, 2009))

Looks like 'serious' scientists are starting to get their heads around the idea that "life" may not always be quite exactly what we've been studying here for the last few thousand years. That's not entirely fair: a competent biochemist worked out a plausible range of possible 'life chemistries' for a wide range of temperatures quite a few years ago:
"...Actually, the idea that life didn't necessarily need water isn't particularly new. A former professor (of chemistry, apparently) at Boston University put together a pretty good argument for a half-dozen life chemistries that might plausibly work in temperatures ranging from near red-hot to near absolute zero:
  1. "Fluorosilicone in fluorosilicone
  2. "Fluorocarbon in sulfur
  3. "Nucleic acid/protein (O) in water
  4. "Nucleic acid/protein (N) in ammonia
  5. "Lipid in methane
  6. "Lipid in hydrogen
    " 'View from a Height' Isaac Asimov (1963), Lancer Books (p. 63)
"Isaac Asimov might be shaky on the sciences of ecology and physics - at least in his fiction - but that was in his professional field: chemistry. I'm inclined to take his view seriously, that life-as-we-know-it isn't necessarily the only sort. We're #3 on that list, by the way...."
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 24, 2010)
Then there are the scenarios where the 'aliens' are the descendants of people who left Earth back when humanity first reached the stars: and who have been away from home for a long time.

But this post is getting rather long. Goodnight.

Related posts:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Getting Serious by Getting Silly: Meet Galaxy Cadet Aster Alpha

I've decided to get serious about the graphics side of story-telling this weekend: so I played with DAZ Productions Bryce. I've found that I learn more, faster, when I've got a picture of what sort of result I want in my mind and the excellence or lack thereof of the result is relatively unimportant.

In this case, I wanted a cityscape, seen from the air, with vast acreages of big buildings and other structures in the middle distance: and 'good grief, how big are they' buildings behind them.

Here's what I got:

The 'foreground' structures are from the Rigel Orionis Megalopolis product. Those weird airships are the Bryce Flying Steamer. My oldest daughter tells me that they're done in the 'steam punk' style. I created what's on the horizon in Bryce.

That picture isn't related to any story or setting I'm working on. The flying steamers are - sort of - but that's still pretty vague.

So, why bother? I need to re-learn how to use Bryce - and how to make more effective use of it - if I'm going to make quite a few of my projects work. Putting that picture together helped. Quite a bit.

Getting Serious About Being Silly

Galaxy Cadet (Heroics and Hairspray in the 27th century) is a project that's been on the back burner for years.

Baum Media Productions is a fictional company - part of Loonfoot Falls' world. (Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette features a 250-word column from the equally fictional town paper each week.)

I don't have the resources to do what BMP did - create feature-length animated Galaxy Cadet movies - but I think I can have a shot at writing stories about Galaxy Cadet. Her name's Aster Alpha, by the way, and after a brief but spectacular mission on the Stellar Guard carrier Wotan, she's been assigned to the fringe patrol ship Albatross.

That was the most remote, obscure, isolated, dead-end spot they could find. And yes: there's a story behind that.

That's Aster Alpha again. I have no idea where that picture was taken. Some sort of planetside port facility, apparently.

If those names don't sound like the sort of terribly serious stuff I've been talking about - you're right. I think I need to loosen up a bit: and following Galaxy Cadet's career may be a good way to do that.

Related posts:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

You'd Think the IRS Would Give Writers and Artists a Break?

Taxes are due April 15 here in America. Yesterday afternoon I learned that I've got two days to get everything ready, instead of the nine I thought I had. ("Lemming Tracks: Tax Time Surprise ," Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 20, 2010))

I don't buy into the idea that artists, other creative people, and those with intellectual interests (and - occasionally - intelligence to match) are a breed apart, whose talents entitle them to special consideration. And, for some, 'beyond good and evil.' (I've quoted Nietzsche's one-liners from time to time, but I don't buy his philosophy. ((A Catholic Citizen in America (June 15, 2009))

I've played the idea for laughs, though, in Narcissus-X. That terribly earnest and ingrown artist's rants are a little too easy to write, but that's another topic.

There, I've done my shameless plugs for the day.

Like I said, I don't accept the idea that creative people and intellectuals are better than everybody else. Except in the sense that I think athletes are "better" than other people: in the sense that they were born with the potential to excel in athletics, and made an effort to develop that potential.

It's a good thing, too, since I'm a writer and artist. I'd call myself an intellectual, too: but that term implies a sort of elitism that I really don't like.

I've put just about everything else I do on hold for the weekend. I expect to be done by 8:00 a.m. Monday morning. I also expect to be exhausted by then, with about as much creative energy as a sleeping gerbil.

Maybe I'll let Narcissus-X do a rant. That could be fun.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'm Blaming Daylight Saving Time: or, Not

I suppose I could see Daylight Saving Time as the Federal Government enabling me to enjoy jet lag, even though I seldom travel.

But I don't.

I suppose it could be worse: in addition to reducing consumption of electricity by moving our clocks back an hour in the fall and ahead an hour in the spring, we could reduce water consumption by having the months of May through August shortened by two days each, with the days re-assigned to October through January.

Hey, it makes sense: America is in the northern hemisphere, where May through August are the warmest months. Warm people sweat more: so they take more and longer showers. Obviously, if we reduce the number of days in those months, people won't be exposed to warm weather so much, and will use less water, showering.

Can't argue with logic like that.

My guess is that Daylight Saving Time made sense, over 90 years ago. Either that, or American and European leaders wanted to give the impression that they were really 'doing something' to save energy.

A few things have changed since then.

Oh, never mind.

For one reason or another, I didn't get to bed until about 5:30 Sunday morning. I'd fallen asleep downstairs earlier. Not one of my shining moments.

I was in a fog for the rest of the day, but got to bed - and sleep - at a less rational hour. Slept fine, woke up: and the fog outside was matched by banks of the stuff wafting through my head.

I got the absolutely-have-to tasks for the day done: not well, but done.

The creative work I'd scheduled? Forget it. If I believed that the Muses were real, I'd have assumed that the flight was canceled due to inclement weather.

So today I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Ha. The good news is that the fog seems to be lifting.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Interstellar Empires, Imagination, and an Occasionally-Sozzled Detective

I suspect that there's a bit of megalomania in many writers of science fiction/speculative fiction. Or should be.

Think about it: your typical detective novel writer writes about people who live in the contemporary culture. If the story is set in, say, Chicago, the author may want to do a little research. It'd be embarrassing to write a story that takes place in Chicago's Rockefeller Center. There's a Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, but the place with the skating rink is in the Big Apple.

Any story written in a contemporary setting, though, involves at most elaborating on, or re-imagining, an existing locale: and then providing characters whose job descriptions are in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

It's not that stories set in a close analog to the world we all live in aren't imaginative. On the other hand, their settings are largely off-the-shelf material.

Which may be why the settings of so many science fiction/fantasy/whatever stories are so - familiar. Sometimes there's good reason for having the action of a speculative fiction setting take place in a world where people go to shopping malls, get stuck in rush hour traffic, and watch television.

For example, the animated series, "Ghost in the Shell," is set in the 'day after tomorrow.' Well, not quite: but we're very close to having quite a bit of the technology. Cultures haven't changed all that much by the time of "Ghost in the Shell." Which shouldn't be much of a surprise: thing's have changed a bit in the last, say, 50 years. On the other hand, styles notwithstanding, we're wearing pretty much the same sort of clothing: and even using many of the same buildings.

While I'm thinking of it, related posts in another blog:

Tales of the Far Future and Galactic Exploration

I started out with megalomania. That's "a psychological state characterized by delusions of grandeur". (Princeton's WordNet)

Maybe not exactly the idea I had in mind - but that term's close. Someone who's serious about writing speculative fiction/science fiction somewhere past 'the day after tomorrow' and this Earth of ours is making the tacit assumption that he, she, or they have what it takes to imagine a complex, internally-consistent universe. That'll probably involve at least a few items from this list:
  • Humans who aren't quite like us
  • People who aren't human at all
  • Jobs that don't exist today
  • Ditto economic and political systems
  • Worlds with life
    • As we know it
    • As we don't know it
    • As we don't recognize it
      • Until we start messing with something it's interested in
"Delusions of grandeur?" Maybe.

But that's what I'm having a shot at doing.

It may help, if I don't take myself - or what I'm writing - too seriously. Two gifted (my opinion) cartoonists wrote - and have re-issued - a series of comic books about an alcoholic detective who's down on his luck: in the early stories, anyway.

Sound almost drearily familiar? It's a sequence of detective stories - pretty much - set in a vast interstellar civilization with weird-looking aliens by the bushel.

I don't think the Foglios intended Buck Godot - zap gun for hire to be taken very seriously.

On the other hand, they put more thought into their setting than I suspect many dreadfully earnest authors did. Two excerpts from a sequence of text sections of the Buck Godot cycle:
"...Even so, one of the real reasons races stay is the realization that there are wonderful things to be learned from those other races, even those annoying fellows with entirely too many ears. Things that, once explained, one can do ones self for free. To be sure, this annoys some of the races that have brought some of these wonderful ideas to the Galaxy's notice; such as the Choaten, who tried and failed to patent the concept of blue as a source of nutrition. Happily, most races realize that since there are more of 'Them' throwing ideas around than there are of 'Us', you tend to get more out of it than you brought into it. This is a universal concept that appeals to everybody...."
Buck Godot - zap gun for hire (January 3, 2008)
Hats off: There's a certain appreciation for the long-term benefits of trade here. In some settings, freely sharing the knowledge your ancestors collected and developed over generations is not being altruistic. Not if other people are doing the same thing.

Getting a meeting ground like that started might be a challenge. Once started, though, I think it'd be so mutually rewarding that most members would pitch in to keep the intellectual 'free lunch' coming.

That business of "blue as a source of nutrition"? Maybe it's just silliness. On the other hand, blue is one of the wavelengths that plants absorb to feed themselves. "Plants" have stayed put and photosynthesized while "animals" moved around and ate plants - and other animals - for the last few hundred million years here on Earth.

But I don't see why that has to be the way to run life. For that matter, I photosynthesize a small but important chemical component in my biochemistry. If you're human, you do too: vitamin D.

Odds are very good that's why my ancestors were so melanin-deficient. They lived in a part of the world where for months at a stretch they'd do well to get sunlight on their face for a few minutes each day.

I'm getting off-topic again.

Writing about these 'trade' centers:
"...these are primarily organizations dedicated to promoting communications, and the vast majority of sentients cannot directly communicate with each other. Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large or, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us. So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lines is in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between the two may be close to impossible...."
Buck Godot - zap gun for hire (March 19, 2009)
Hats off again. Again, I'm not so sure how serious the Foglios were: but they were thinking about what forms people might have - and be 'people' in a reasonable sense of the word.

Good grief. I've set a comic book about an inebriate detective as my standard of excellence.

Vaguely-related posts:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: Brooklyn and the Names of Things

I touched base at Google Translate and discovered that "Brooklyn" is 布鲁克林 (Bùlǔkè lín) in simplified Chinese.

That's actually closer to the original than the English take on at least one city in India. I speak American English, so as I grew up I knew the place as "Bombay." "Bombay" may have come from an Englishman trying to pronounce "bom bahia": Portuguese for "good bay". Which the place is.

Folks who lived there, and weren't Europeans, apparently called it Mumbai.
"...The city was called Bombay for much of the last four hundred years. The origin of the name is obscure, but is often said to come from the Portuguese phrase bom bahia meaning 'good bay'. The name Mumbai has been used in the main local languages for as long, and is ascribed to the local goddess, Mumba (ai means mother in Marathi). The name of the city was changed to Mumbai by an act of the parliament in 1997...."
(The Mumbai Pages, "By any other name" - More in their FAQ)

Things Change

I wrote a little about names, language, and history before. (February 26, 2010)

We might be calling that big city on a river in Britannia Londinium to this day, if the Caesars had managed to hold their empire together. But that's not how it happened. Romans founded the city, began developing that outpost of their empire, and retreated: leaving ruins and legends; and a shaken Roman's description of a huge, red-haired and very scary woman. They really could have handled Queen Boudicca with more finesse. But that's another topic.

Centuries after the Romans had retreated, leaving memories of a day when roads were built and order maintained, boatloads of French-speaking Vikings landed and picked up where the Romans had left off. Which is yet another topic.

Today, those Vikings are speaking the language that emerged from a sort of philological Cuisinart that imposed quite a lot of French and Latin on a Germanic language. We call it English. Which is yet again another topic.

Where was I? Londinium. Right.

That name hasn't changed all that much. From the sounds of it, a syllable or two dropped out - and I'm pretty sure the vowels aren't quite what the Romans used. There's a whole lot more going on: but I don't know as much about linguistics as I'd like to.

16 Centuries is a Long Time

Quite a lot can happen in 1,600 years. It's been that long, about, since Alaric succeeded in capturing Rome, but failed to hold the city.

Alaric's conquest wasn't an isolated incident. Germanic tribes and Huns were making life so hazardous, that some - but not all - Roman citizens were abandoning their cities. There's pretty good reason to think that quite a few Romans from Padua, Aquileia, Altino and Concordia, for example, fled into a (relatively) nearby marsh.

It looks like those Romans set up a sort of refugee camp. A thousand years later that camp was Venice: a sort of Mediterranean analog to New York City. Today, it's a city that looks quite a big like it did in its heyday: which is a good thing for its tourist trade.

It's possible to use Alaric's sack of Rome as a milestone, marking the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. But not Rome's influence.

For a very long time, north of the Mediterranean, the only language you could be fairly certain that someone in the town you were in was Latin. The language of the Caesars was still taught when I was in school: but by then English was the language you were most likely to find in spoken somewhere. (More: "Why isn't there More Mandarin on the Web?," Apathetic Lemming of the North (April 4, 2008)) Those Britishers were everywhere.

Another 1,600 years, and things will have changed. Again. Still.

A 'good enough for a story' educated guess is that China will have finally sorted itself out, and be a major player on the world's stage. My take on what's coming is that they'll have emperors again - and that what we're seeing today is one of the messier inter-dynastic 'warlord' periods. With some moderately weird foreign ideologies mixed in.

Yeah: my guess is that people who are serious about putting the Middle Kingdom (中国, or Zhōngguó) back on the map will not want to keep reminders of colonial days around. Not even the time when they were trying to adapt the foreign ideas to their ways.

I've written about what I think is likely - possible, at least - with urban developments on the east coast of North America. ("Daniel Boone and the Megalopolis" (March 5, 2010))

I'm not assuming that the Boston-Washington D.C. corridor will still be heavily built up because I'm a red-white-and-blue-blooded American. The cities there have a reason for being there - mostly as break-in-bulk points for trans-oceanic trade. I don't see that changing.

Look at it this way: Rome is on an important river crossing, and more-or-less centrally located. And, after a rough patch after the awkward transition from Empire to recovery, an economically important part of - we're calling that part of the world "Italy."

So, why was I looking up what simplified Chinese is for "Brooklyn?"

Today, Brooklyn is a place sitcoms and comics can use as a locale for ditsy, amusing not-rich people. It's also a major seaport with industrial potential.

New York City is the "Big Apple" of course. And probably will be for quite a while. It makes a pretty good place to put financial enterprises and the upper end of other economic interests. And it's got that name: "New York City" still has a bit of panache.

It still may, 1,600 years from now. Or, not so much. I'm willing to guess that Brooklyn / 布鲁克林 / Bùlǔkè lín won't be just like it is today, either. I'm guessing that Bùlǔkè lín could be pronounced "Bulookeh Lin" and still be recognizable. Or, not. It's got a nifty exotic/familiar look to it, though.

Welcome to the Bustling Metropolis of Bulookeh Lin

Having visited the quaint Antiquities Preservation District of Niooyueh Shì, come see the hub of Greater Nyok, Bulookeh Lin.

Okay: I'm running out of time, but briefly: I see no reason why Brooklyn couldn't become a more central part of the New York City area. For starters, it's got what Manhattan doesn't have: square footage. upwards of 71 square miles.

Those names? I'm still thinking about that.

Related posts:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dinosaurs, Ancient Astronauts, and All That

Mix dinosaurs, ancient astronauts, a dash of paleontology and a handful of imagination. Shake well. It's been done before, but the K-T boundary has been in the news again.

Besides, I haven't got much else to write about today: and I'm scheduled to post something on this blog today.

The Chicxulub Consensus May Not Last Long

First, the news and background, all from background:Excerpt:
"A mysterious basin off the coast of India could be the largest, multi-ringed impact crater the world has ever seen. And if a new study is right, it may have been responsible for killing the dinosaurs off 65 million years ago.

"Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University and a team of researchers took a close look at the massive Shiva basin, a submerged depression west of India that is intensely mined for its oil and gas resources. Some complex craters are among the most productive hydrocarbon sites on the planet. Chatterjee will present his research at this month's Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

" 'If we are right, this is the largest crater known on our planet,' Chatterjee said. 'A bolide of this size, perhaps 40 kilometers (25 miles) in diameter creates its own tectonics.'

"By contrast, the object that struck the Yucatan Peninsula, and is commonly thought to have killed the dinosaurs was between 8 and 10 kilometers (5 and 6.2 miles) wide...."
(Geology Times (October 17, 2009))
It's early days, but my guess is that that international consensus reported in (March 4, 2010) is already starting to fray around the edges. That's not a criticism: We've known about the Chicxulub event for decades, and this Shiva crater seems to be a relatively new find.

What jumped out at me was the apparent coincidence: Two major impact events happening almost simultaneously (maybe), on the geologic time scale.

Let's say that the a five-mile wide hunk of rock, and another one 25 miles across hit Earth at almost the same time - on a historic time scale.

When All Else Fails, Throw Rocks

Dinosaurs and the other big critters on Earth, 65,000,000-plus years ago, don't seem to have been as consistently dim-witted as we once imagined them: But I think it'd snap the willing suspension of disbelief to write a story where they were as smart as we are. Not if the story was supposed to be even vaguely serious.

I'm about as certain as I can be that whatever long shot may have happened when the K-T boundary was created was a natural event.

On the other hand, what if it wasn't.

I know: It's been done. In a Dr. Who two-parter, "Earthshock" (1982), for example. That time the blast was caused by a spaceship hitting Earth.

There are many other options, of course.

Let's try this on for size:

The war had begun long before. Neither side was willing - or able - to surrender. And neither side had a significant advantage over the other: hardly surprising, as they were both descended from the same people. Not that either side's leaders would admit that this was the case.

They had established rules of conduct for the conflict. Both had found that people - intelligent races - were a rare phenomenon. Both believed that intelligence was important, although they differed on how it should be applied.

And so they agreed that their war would not be a threat to any people they might find.

Each side were, in their own way, quite ethical.

Which made the current situation so revolting.

A warm, damp planet had recently been found. It was virtually useless to both sides: The climate was not within their comfort range, and lacked the aesthetic appeal they demanded of their homes.

Besides, even if they had wanted to do so, neither side could settle there. An exploration team had found - not people, but creatures which showed great promise of developing intelligence.

So the planet was declared off limits.

The star this planet circled, however, was ideally positioned for one side to use as a - let's call it a "listening post." Such an installation could easily be placed in orbit around any of the star's planets, or in orbit around the star itself.

Instead, they built installations on a planet. The warm, damp one. Two installations, actually, near the equator but on opposite sides of the planet.

This was a brazen violation of a long-standing agreement: but the installations remained. They had been made self-sufficient, and so blockade was out of the question. They had defenses which were more than adequate to repel the largest force that their enemy could mount.

And the installations were gathering valuable information, which could easily break the long stalemate.

Something had to be done.

Finally, in desperation, the side which was now losing assembled a vast fleet and took control of the space around the damp planet's star. Then diverted two asteroids toward the damp planet, after mounting a formidable defense system on both.

The two installations could have destroyed any missiles directed against them, and were effectively protected from directed-energy weapons by the damp planet's atmosphere, and their own shielding.

The designers of the installations had even built adaptive intelligence into their defenses, so that as the enemy developed more sophisticated weapon systems, the installations could develop more sophisticated defenses.

The designers had not foreseen that the enemy would throw large rocks.

The larger of the two projectiles was already blasting a crater in the planet's surface while its remaining defenses, on the 'upper' side, were neutralizing a formation of missiles directed on its smaller companion.

Both installations were destroyed, of course.

The war ended not long after.

A few research teams returned to the damp planet. Most of the species which their predecessors had cataloged were gone. The researchers studied what was left, made their reports, and moved on to other tasks.

After a while the researchers stopped coming. Some life remained on the planet, small scurrying things which had somehow survived the twin cataclysms: but the species which had shown so much promise was gone, along with - as far as the researchers could tell - all similar creatures.

New creatures emerged, and changed as the damp planet turned cold. Several species of strange animals which could grasp branches with all four feet developed. One of these moved out of the forest, walking on its rear hands: which had lost most of their grasping function.

In time the descendants of this species chipped Troodon fossils out of rocks which had been sand and mud when incandescent waves of rock engulfed lands around the now-forgotten installations.

Okay: It's Not Shakespeare

Troodons were smart, sort of: probably about as bright as an ostrich. And they had hands. Again, sort of.

No, I do not think they were people. But there could be people built along the same general lines. We might find that we're the oddballs among this galaxy's races.

Assuming that there are any besides us, of course.

Which is another topic.

Privacy Policy

Nothing spooky here.

These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

I do not collect information on individuals visiting this blog. If you leave a comment, I'll read what you wrote: but I don't keep a record of comments, apart from what Blogger displays. (In other words, the only record of what you write or who you are will be what people see at the bottom of the post.)

I do collect information about how many hits this blog gets, where they come from, and some technical information. I use the WebSTAT service for this purpose - and all that shows is which ISP you use, and where it's located.

You can stop most of Webstat's data gathering by disabling cookies in your browser. I don't know why you would, but some folks do.

I'm also an AdSense affiliate, so Google collects information on what I've written in each post: but that's mostly my problem.

I'm also considering starting an affiliate relationship with DAZ Productions. You should be able to keep DAZ and Commission Junction, their provider of affiliate services, from collecting information by - again - disabling cookies in your browser.

And you can keep DAZ Productions from finding out anything about you, by not buying any of their products.

Again, I don't know why you would: but some folks do.

Or, rather, don't.