Friday, October 23, 2009

Orwell Would Be Proud

Congressional Democrats have apparently figured out that they've got a better chance of passing a "public option" health plan if they re-brand it as "Medicare Part E," where the E is supposed to stand for "Everybody." And, predictably, right-wing commentators are up in arms about this attempt to deceive the public by changing the program's name.

Of course, all concerned doth protest a bit much, because such manipulation of language has been a standard part of politics for years. See the PBS "Frontline" documentary, "The Persuaders" (which you can watch online here). Part 6 of the broadcast describes the Republicans' successful effort to gain public support for a repeal of the inheritance tax--through re-branding it as the "death tax." Consultants found that while voters had a generally positive response to the term "inheritance tax," seeing it as justly taking some of the ill-gotten gains that the filthy rich were passing on to their worthless and lazy offspring, the term "death tax" summoned up visions of poor Uncle Fred being unable to give Aunt Martha a proper burial because the government had taxed her demise. In truth, of course, the inheritance tax already had something like a million-dollar exemption, so if Uncle Fred was having trouble burying Aunt Martha, he must have been planning one lavish funeral. But this is politics, where truth matters much less than perception.

And manipulation of language for political gain wasn't new when the Republicans pulled the "death tax" thing. When I was but a young sprout, borrowing government money to pay for my college education, I received what was called a "National Defense Student Loan." President Kennedy had launched this program in the 1960s, in the belief that we needed lots of college graduates (especially in science and engineering) to defeat the Red Menace and win the Cold War. But by the early '70s, with "detente" the word of the day and the public pressuring Congress to cut the defense budget and increase spending on domestic priorities like education, Tricky Dick Nixon figured out he could pull of some re-branding sleight-of-hand: the student-loan program moved from the Department of Defense to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and its name changed to "National Direct Student Loan." Yep, Nixon didn't even change the acronym! Nor did he change the amount of money spent on student loans, or the amount spent on bombs. All that changed was one word in the name.

You can go back further, of course: in 1947, under Harry Truman, the former War Department was re-branded as the Defense Department. Doesn't that sound a lot more peaceful? "War Department" sounds like a bunch of military badasses looking to start a fight; "Defense Department" sounds like the John Wayne character who never throws the first punch. Oddly enough, the US seems to have gotten into more wars of choice in the sixty years since the re-branding than it did in the previous 150 years.

All of this, of course, goes back to what Orwell said in his classic 1984: that language matters. If you can control the words people use to debate an issue, then you control the debate, and ultimately the issue itself.

Which brings us back to the First Law of Science Fiction: the more things change... (the rest is left as an exercise for the reader)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Cosmic Coke Bottle

I just finished the "Muse Online Writers' Conference," including a session about keeping the science part of science fiction reasonably accurate. By coincidence, a friend passed me a link to this story at Jupiter's Moon Europa Has Enough Oxygen For Life. According to the article, scientists have estimated that the frozen surface of Europa turns over and remakes itself rapidly enough that oxygen, produced by cosmic radiation striking the surface, would make it down through the ice to the 100-kilometer-deep ocean believed to exist between the surface and the rocky core. Given abundant oxygen, or so the thinking goes, Europa should be able to support complex and interesting life, things equivalent to the fish found in our oceans.

I'm not so sure. Europa apparently has a steady supply of oxygen, but does it also have a mechanism for recycling the oxides (primarily carbon dioxide) produced by living creatures? On earth, we don't have simply water, oxygen and carbon; we've got a system of unstable equilibrium in which life constantly cycles the components around: CO2 plus water plus sunlight plus plants creates carbohydrates (like sugar) and free oxygen; carbohydrates plus oxygen plus animals (and plants at night) returns us to CO2, water, and waste heat. So while energy passes through the system, downgrading from light to heat in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, mass cycles endlessly around within the system. Oxygen, water and carbon dioxide levels remain approximately the same, in a wonderful unstable equilibrium.

But what of Europa? Here, if the scientists are right, we have a constant influx of oxygen, courtesy of cosmic rays interacting with something on the surface. The article doesn't say what, but I assume it's water (since Europa's surface is ice). The oxygen dissolves in the moon's abundant water, while the hydrogen most likely leaks off into space. So, over time, the concentration of oxygen in Europa's ocean increases--unless that oxygen reacts with something.

That something would be carbon and other reactive elements being released from Europa's core, which is supposedly made of rock, much like Earth. Okay... so, with or without life (oxygen doesn't need life in order to react with carbon; it's just doin' what comes naturally), as carbon-containing materials are brought up from Europa's core (the core is heated by tidal forces as Europa orbits Jupiter), they react with oxygen to form CO2, which goes... where?

Well, CO2 dissolves in water, forming a weak acid solution. As far as I can tell, there's no mechanism described for turning that CO2 back into carbon and oxygen, so the dissolved CO2 will just pile up, rendering Europa's ocean more and more acidic, and consuming carbon from the planet's core until either the carbon's all gone (at which point any life starves) or the water's too acidic to support life (in which case any life expires). Either way, the situation doesn't look good for Arthur Clarke's Europan creatures.

Of course, how quickly this happens and how far it goes depends on a number of factors. How much water is in Europa's ocean? How quickly do the oxygen (introduced at the surface) and carbon compounds (introduced by hydrothermal events at the sea floor) mix--is it slow diffusion in a largely stagnant ocean, vigorous circulation due to a warm core, some form of stratification, or what? Bodies of water on earth display all of these behaviors--which one characterizes Europa? And just how much carbon dioxide can be dissolved in an ocean of that size? Is there enough carbon in Europa's rocks to reach this limit? How acidic will the water eventually get? I suppose there is a window--which, if life is lucky, is several billion years in length--between the start of these processes and their eventual end in carbon exhaustion or acidification.

And one more thing to think about: after enough CO2 builds up, Europa would have an ocean of carbonated water, making it the solar system's Coke bottle...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Instrument of War?

The "sonic weapon"--a musical instrument that's also a machine of war--plays a minor role in The Last Protector, and a much larger role in my current work-in-progress, The End of the Song. So I've been doing research into the whole idea of instruments as weapons, and made some interesting and surprising discoveries.

The most famous "instrument of war" (there's even a video series with that title) is the bagpipe. It has quite a reputation--there are stories of pipers leading the Scots into battle, only to have the enemy turn tail and run at the first sound of the pipes. To my disappointment (since I play the pipes myself), these yarns seem to be little more than legend. In truth, the Scots fought mostly among themselves and against the English, both of whom were already familiar with the sound of the pipes and therefore not very likely to find it frightening. Worse, the pipes suffer from the "inverse-square-law" problem: because the sound radiates in all directions, its intensity drops off very rapidly with distance. What's deafening at ten feet is pleasantly melodious at twenty and almost lost in the background noise at a hundred.

So where did the legend of the pipes as psychological weapon come from? Part of it could be association. The Scots had earned a reputation as formidable warriors, and the sound of the pipes meant the Scottish fighters were close behind. It's not the sound itself that's terrifying; it's what the enemy knew was coming along with the pipers. It's also possible that on one or two occasions during the imperial period, some native peoples (who'd never before heard the pipes) actually were startled by this unfamiliar shriek and fled. By the time the people learned that the sound of the pipes couldn't hurt them, they'd also learned to fear the bullets and cannon that came with the pipes. Thus are legends born.

While the bagpipe's reputation as a terrifying sonic weapon seems largely myth, modern technology is creating real sound weapons. The US military has this thing called an "LRAD" (Long Range Acoustic Device, which strikes me as one of the most unimaginative names ever), which they've supposedly used in Iraq. It's supposed to be a non-lethal crowd-control device, making a sound that drives potential rioters to disperse. The Pittsburgh police used one of these during the G20 protests last month, though the results were mixed (Jon Stewart quipped that the anarchists are probably using the LRAD's sound as their ring tone by now).

While the LRAD appears pretty crude (it just emits a loud and unpleasant noise that seems to make people move away), it does display some important advances over the bagpipe. It's a lot louder, and it focuses its sound in a narrow beam, so it should have a much greater range than the bagpipe.

So, as I work on The End of the Song, in which both bagpipes and a more advanced "sonic weapon" play important roles, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about where this kind of technology might go, what might happen if it fell into the wrong hands, and how it might be countered. Stay tuned...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Takin' Care of Business

In celebration of its tenth anniversary, Twilight Times Books, publishers of The Last Protector (and many other fine volumes) is running a sale from now through November 15th. Print editions of The Last Protector and other books are available for 30 to 50 percent off cover price. So, if you've been thinking about stocking up and giving a copy to all your friends, now is the time! Just follow this link to the TTB website.