Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Welcome to 1984 (again)

One of the most memorable parts of George Orwell's 1984 was the use of language, in particular the way words were warped and tormented till they meant the exact opposite of what they said. For instance, if the Ministry of Truth said the sun came up in the east, you'd know the world had reversed its direction of spin, because nothing the Ministry ever said was accurate. You could count on them that way.

Well, I've been following the coverage of the "tax cut" legislation, and it seems to me I'm seeing exactly the same thing: words being used in such a way that their meaning is for all practical purposes reversed. The very phrase "tax cuts" is a lie: if the bill passes, nobody's taxes are going to go down. Got that? What this bill does is continues the tax rates that were put in place way back in 2001. The politicians are not cutting taxes; they're simply agreeing not to raise them (as would happen if the "sunset clause" of the '01 legislation were to take effect).

Why does this matter? Because people are making claims that this "tax cut" legislation is in some way an economic stimulus. Which it's not, which it can't be, because it's not actually changing anything. Jon Stewart's been having a field day on this subject, observing that the plan seems to be to stimulate the economy by doing nothing. It meets the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. The economy's been staggering for the last few years. Keeping the tax rates the same is unlikely to change that. You may argue that raising taxes would make things worse, but you can't even bring up that argument as long as you cling to the faulty belief that the bill is a tax cut.

I've seen this kind of "we're cutting by not raising" nonsense before. Several years ago, the Ill-Annoy Tollway installed its "I-Pass" system, and announced that henceforth people who insisted on paying as they go, in cash, would have to pay twice as much. People who paid in advance and bought a transponder would not see an increase. The Tollway Authority described this as a "discount" for I-Pass users rather than calling it what it obviously was: a doubling of the price for people who didn't want to hand over a year's supply of toll money in advance. To my surprise, they pulled it off--even the Chicago Tribune went along and reported that I-Pass users receive a "discount." (We now see why they removed Colonel McCormick's phrase The World's Greatest Newspaper from their masthead some years back.)

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but as far as I'm concerned keeping the tax rates the same is not a tax cut, and offering your customer the same price instead of a higher one is not giving a discount. Unless, of course, you're part of the Ministry of Truth...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Naughty Jane!

So I'm reading the funny (web) pages, and I happen to look at yesterday's "Tarzan" strip, when I notice something a bit... umm... unexpected.

This strip takes place when Tarz is in his "secret identity" of Lord Greystoke (well, it's not technically a secret identity, as everybody knows that Tarzan and Greystoke are one and the same, but the comics world doesn't seem to have a word for non-secret alternate identity). He and Jane are enjoying a Day At The Races, which means they're dressed for civilization: Tarzan is wearing a business suit instead of his usual leopard-skin Speedo, and Jane's wearing a classic trench coat over...

umm, over...

apparently over her birthday suit! It would appear that even the Lord and Lady of the Jungle need a little something to spice up their love life from time to time, eh?

Okay, it's probably just a coloring error. I think these are "classic" strips, not new ones, and as such may have been initially published in black and white. Or, if they were originally color, maybe they've had to be re-colored for the modern world of digital typesetting. In any case, it seems that somebody (or perhaps some piece of software) neglected to notice Jane's rather daring neckline...

Or maybe, just maybe, Jane's a little more naughty than we thought.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Asymptotic Quest

I have an idea for a story. Well, maybe not so much an idea, but a seed... just a scene, or maybe not even a complete scene, just a setup and a line. I think that maybe I'll drop it into the Cesspool of Knowledge for this year's National Novel Writing Month, and see what sticks to it.

The scene involves a Protagonist--I can't say Hero or Heroine, because I don't yet know whether this person is male or female. It could be a Soldier, a Sorcerer, a Secretary, a Servant... no idea yet. Don't know if the genre is Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Historical or maybe just Here and Now. What I have is a few lines of dialog:

The Protagonist marched into the presence (tent, office, cave, throne room, whatever) of the Mentor (commander, CEO, high mage, king, whatever) and yelled, "You son of a bitch!"

The Mentor looked up, unperturbed by this outburst, and said, "Yes? Is something the matter?"

"I'll say," the Protagonist roared. "You bastard, you sent me on a stinkin' Asymptotic Quest!"

The Asymptotic Quest is something I first recognized over the weekend, when a friend handed me a huge door-stop of a fantasy book and asked if I'd read it. The cover proclaimed it had been written by a New York Times Bestselling Author, and while I hadn't read this book I had (unfortunately) seen the truly awful TV series it supposedly inspired. I read the back-cover synopsis, which described how the Protagonist was sent on a Quest that would ultimately save the world (or something like it); I read the page facing the title, which listed the dozen or so volumes (so far) in the series; I flipped to the end and found (after several hundred pages of small type and narrow margins) that the Protagonist had achieved a Small Victory over the Forces Of Evil, but in the next volume would have to move on to another Strange Land controlled by the Bad Guy.

And at that point, it hit me: this series is never going to end. The Protagonist is never going to slay the dragon, rescue the princess, defuse the bomb, relieve the curse, or whatever the hell was the point of the original Quest. Nope. Each book (and each episode of the TV series, no doubt) will move the Protagonist a little bit further along, but as long as people are buying the books and tuning in to the show, the Quest will not be resolved. It can't be, since resolving the Quest would mean the series is then over and the money train would stop running. But if people stop buying books or watching the show, the author and publisher (for whom time and paper equal money) will have no reason to finish a series that nobody cares about anymore.

The Asymptotic Quest is fundamentally different from the Multi-Volume Quest (for instance, "Lord of the Rings"), in which the story plays out over some number of books and then ends. It's also different from the Open Ended Series (think "The Dick van Dyke Show"), in which the same characters, settings and situations go through a number of pretty much complete and independent stories (think about it--if you watched the episodes of "Star Trek" in random order, most of the time it wouldn't matter. Each story has its own beginning, middle and end).

It seems to me that it must really suck to be a character in an Asymptotic Quest, especially once that character realizes the situation. So I'm now thinking, what would a character do after discovering he/she's stuck in a Quest that can't end? Especially if he/she can identify the author (or the author's agents) inside the story?

Well, NaNoWriMo is almost two months away. Maybe I'll have some ideas by then...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

FLOOOOOOM, Revisited (Poetically)

The opening panel of today's Dick Tracy strip contained one of those bizarre alliterations that left me in a poetic mood. Tracy, musing over the current case, asks "Who would want David Dierdorf D'Buckworth dead?" Somehow, the phrase "David Dierdorf D'Buckworth Dead" made me think of Shel Silverstein's old bit about Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Who Would Not Take the Garbage Out), and next thing I knew I was waxing poetic:
David Dierdorf D’Buckworth Dead
Had millions of dollars stashed under his bed.
He had lots of people he wanted to thank,
So he withdrew many millions more from the bank.
Then he sat on the corner and gave them away
To any small child who wanted to play.
But the children had parents who all screamed “EEEP!
This David D’Buckworth is some kind of CREEP!”
They called up the cops, and in a short while
Dave was arrested as a pedophile!
He screamed, “I’m D’Buckworth, a very rich man!
You can’t arrest me!” They said, “Yes we can!
And we’ll take out our nightsticks and clobber your head,
Dick Tracy has proved that D’Buckworth is DEAD!
So if you’re D’Buckworth, the thing we must do
Is kill you and cut off that girlie tattoo!
(for we cops all wonder what kind of a guy
would put on his shoulder a big butterfly)”
So they took him away and they smashed in his face
In the hope that Dick Tracy could now solve the case.
So the cops could go home to the friends they held dear
If not by Thanksgiving, at least by New Year.

It was probably just that I couldn't resist trying to find something that rhymes with "pedophile."

Anyway, an hour or so later I was again seized by the muse, this time by the ghost of Dr. Seuss...
I do not like D’Buckworth Dead
I do not like his hands or head.
I do not like him in the room,
I do not like him with a FLOOOOOOOM!!!!
I do not like him drinking Tab,
I do not like him on the slab.
I do not like his corpse of goo,
I do not like his lame tattoo.
I do not like his ugly crone,
I do not like her funky phone.
I do not like him, though I still
Would take his thousand-dollar bill.

I think I need to find something more useful to do with my time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Read An E-Book Week

Yep, March 7-13 is officially Read An E-Book Week, so declared by... well, by whoever declares such things. It's been recorded in Chase's Calendar of Events since 2004, and that's good enough for me.

Anyway, what makes it important is discounts and freebies. Twilight Times books, including my own opus The Last Protector, are available with some serious discounts at the Barnes & Noble E-book store. (Click HERE to see what a pittance B&N is asking for a book that took me nine years to write. Oh, the humanity...) Furthermore, TTB is giving away free downloads of several titles this week (not including my book). Click HERE to check out the freebies. The specific freebies vary from day to day, so visit early and often... just pretend the TTB website is a Chicago polling place...

If you're new to e-books, know that you don't need to buy an expensive, special-purpose reading device. Barnes & Noble's e-book software is free, and runs on the iPhone, iPod Touch, various species of Blackberry, and of course PCs and Macs. The freebie downloads from TTB are available in HTML and PDF, which can be viewed on anything. Well, just about anything, anyway. I just downloaded today's TTB freebie (Behold the Eyes of Light by Geoff Geauterre) in HTML format, and opened it up on my NEC MobilePro 900 "saddlebag computer." This is a little handheld PC running Windows CE, a machine that hasn't seen a software update since about 2004. If an e-book will work on that antique, it'll work on anything.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Physics Problem of the Week

So... I'm reading the current Dick Tracy comic strip (online, of course), and lo and behold, a physics problem comes up. The current story line, which has been running since Thanksgiving, involves a Stradivarius violin that's been loaded with plastic explosive, rigged to go off when the violinist hits a high C (most likely a C-4), and sent to a fancy reception at a foreign embassy. We don't yet know why somebody's going to such great lengths, or such a roundabout plot, to assassinate the ambassador (perhaps that will be revealed later), but we do know that as of last Saturday, Tracy had grabbed the Strad and chucked it into the swimming pool seconds before it went off with (and I quote) an enormous "FLOOOOM!"

In the wake of the blast, several questions came up:
  • Why would someone pay two million bucks for a Stradivarius, when a cheap high-school orchestra violin would have exploded just as well?
  • Why is there and embassy in Naperville?
  • What are those two big hand-like things sticking out of the pool during the "FLOOOOM!"? (Could the explosion have aroused the Ancient Slime Monster foretold by Mayan prophecy?)
  • Why is there a swimming pool in the embassy's formal dining room?
Of course, these are questions that can't be answered by physics (or any science, for that matter). But two other questions came up, questions that are amenable to science, and they center around what happened to the water:
  • Since the water seems to have simply disappeared in later strips, did the explosion vaporize it?
  • Or, if the explosive lacked the ooomph (that's the technical term) to vaporize the water, could it at least actually blow the water out of the pool.
These questions we can answer with a little chemistry and physics.

A quick trip to the internet divulged two important bits of information: C4 plastic explosive is mostly something called RDX, with a chemical formula of C3H6N6O6. It's a pretty interesting molecule, with a structure kind of like a snowflake--an inner hexagonal ring of alternating carbon and nitrogen atoms, and branches off that ring. Each carbon binds to two hydrogen atoms (that's pretty standard, like gasoline), and each of the three nitrogens is hooked up to an NO2 group, which is sort of a molecular menage a trois, in which the two oxygen atoms are hooked up with the nitrogen for now, but would happily take a better offer if one came along. The RDX molecule is energetic and only kind of stable, and when it breaks down into N2, H2O, CO2 and some loose carbon soot, it gives off a lot of energy. How much? Well, according to a paper I found on the internet, where the author analyzed those complicated "resonance" bonds in the NO2 groups, RDX liberates 10 million joules of energy per mole when it goes off.

According to another website on military stuff, the "standard" brick of C4 explosive is half a kilogram, and is about 90 percent RDX (the rest is binders and stuff). So, given the molar mass of RDX is 222g, that brick is just about exactly two moles... so when the Stradivarius goes off, 20 million joules get released.

Is that enough to vaporize the water in the pool? Not even close. It takes a lot of energy to boil water--something over 2 million joules per kilogram, so the 20 million joules released by the explosive in the Strad would only boil away about ten liters. Barely enough energy to boil the champagne.

But is it enough to empty the pool? Well, let's look at the pool and make some estimates. Looks to be about ten meters in diameter, and let's assume it's about two meters deep. That gives a volume of 25 times pi times 2, or 157 cubic meters. A cubic meter is 1000 liters, or 1000 kilograms, so the mass of water in the pool is 157,000 kilograms. So, when the Strad goes "FLOOOOM!", we've got 20 million joules acting on 157,000 kilograms. From these numbers, and the formulas for kinetic and gravitational energy, we can figure out how fast the water will be flung out of the pool, and how high it will splash.

First, how fast: the formula is Ek=0.5mV**2 (sorry, but Blogger won't typeset exponents). Rearranging the terms to solve for velocity, we get V=sqrt(2Ek/m), and if we plug in the numbers that's V=sqrt(2*20,000,000/157,000)=sqrt(255)=16 meters per second, which is about 35 miles an hour.

Second, how high: the formula is Eg=mgh, where g=the acceleration of gravity, 9.8 m/sec**2. Rearranging the terms to solve for height, we get h=Eg/(mg), and plugging in the numbers gives us h=20,000,000/(9.8*157,000)=20,000,000/1,530,000=13.1 meters, or about 43 feet. That's a pretty good lift, but... it's been three days since the Strad went off, and the water still hasn't come back down. Time must work differently in the Dick Tracy universe... but that's relativity, and that's a problem for another day.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Medieval Underwear, and Other Topics of Research

I spent the better part of an hour yesterday wandering about the internet in search of information about what forms of underwear were worn in various periods of history. No, I'm not a pervert; it was research for a book I'm working on.

My approach to research, at least in my first novel The Last Protector (available for purchase; just click one of those links to the right) is a simple one: I just make stuff up. It's an approach that works pretty well in fantasy and SF (not so well in historical fiction, of course, which is why I avoid that genre). I'll recommend it without reservation to any aspiring authors who might be reading this.

Alas, I don't always take my own advice. I'm currently working on a story set in a place that the inhabitants at least believe is Camelot. Which means I have to do some research. Not a lot, since the first thing you discover when researching the "historical Camelot" is that there is no such thing. Or there are dozens of them, which is the same as saying there aren't any. Nobody really knows if there was a King Arthur, let alone when or where he might have reigned. So researching in that area was pretty easy; I listed a dozen or so popular options and then picked the one that best fit the rest of my story (which, in this case, meant the one where the supposed ruins of Camelot were such a minor archaeological site that the Ministry of Transport built a four-lane motorway right over them).

Other research was a bit more daunting. At one point, I found myself wondering if there was any chance that a set of bagpipes that had been put away for twenty-five (in a cool, dark, dry place, with the reeds sealed in a baby-food jar) could still be revived and played. Luckily, there's a huge group of experts out on the Bob Dunsdire piping forum. Not only did they tell me just how the pipes would have to be stored (and whether the bag seasoning would survive that long); they also gave me loads of insight into how pipes changed over that twenty-five years (mid 1970s to the beginning of the new millennium). It was a most profitable, and most enjoyable discussion.

Sometimes, research results just dropped into my lap, courtesy of Mother Nature and Global Climate Change (tm Al Gore Enterprises): while we may argue about the precise location of Camelot in both space and time, we do tend to agree it was somewhere in England. And I needed to know a bit about winter weather in England--how cold does it get, for how long, and how much snow might be expected. In particular, do they have anything as brutal as a Chicago winter? Fortunately, Mother Nature obliged with a once-in-a-lifetime cold snap and winter storm, so I was able to get my characterization of "extreme winter weather" from the BBC's daily reports (and no, it's not up to Chicago standards--ten centimeters of snow, about four inches, brought things to a halt; and there were warnings of severe cold, which meant sustained temperatures below zero degrees C). Thanks, Ma Nature... and to those of you in England who suffered through the storms, sorry 'bout that. We do apologize for any inconvenience.

And then there's the matter of those Arthurian undies. Suffice it to say that I found about as much reliable information about what Guinivere wore under her royal gowns as I did about when, where and whether Camelot actually existed. In other words, a lot of speculation, a lot of inference, and very little actual historical fact. It appears they didn't publish the Victoria's Secret catalog in pre-Victorian times. Sigh... a lot of work for what will probably end up being all of two or three paragraphs. I think I'll just go back to my primary research technique and just make something up.

Or I could just put everybody in kilts. That would solve the underwear problem, right?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We're Done. Who's Next?

Last week the Obama administration announced the official end of the US manned space program. The "Constellation" project, which had just barely gotten off the ground with a fairly pointless four-fifths-stage rocket test last month, is now dead. When the last shuttle flight comes back down, sometime late this year, the United States is officially ending its career as a space-faring nation. Americans may still travel to the space station, but they'll do so as paying passengers aboard Russian Soyuz craft. More ambitious stuff, like returning to the moon or going on to Mars... forget it. We're done.

So, since the US has abandoned space, who might pick it up? Who's going to press on to the next lunar landing, the trip to Mars, the journeys to find out if anything lives in the vast ocean under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus? If it ain't us, then who?

Will the Private Sector pick up the slack? That's the administration's claim, but it strikes me that somebody's been overdosing on the Hopium(tm). Going into space, particularly going further than low earth orbit, is a long-term, costly, risky, and technically complex project that actually involves building stuff. Back in the days when Visionaries ran the big publicly-held companies, something of that magnitude might have been possible. But these days, most of the decision-making power in a publicly-held company resides with the Wall Street Herd, who are looking only for whatever creates a short-term spike in share prices (most typically the announcement of layoffs). And privately-held companies, while they're more immune to the Herd's influence, just aren't big enough to tackle much beyond low orbit. Elon Musk's SpaceX is doing some cool stuff, but his fortune is what, four or five billion. Nowhere near enough for a moon mission.

So what about the Russians? While they've been by far the most steady space-faring nation, having had the ability to put people in orbit continuously since about 1966, they've said they have no interest in the moon.

Which leaves the Chinese, who've also put a couple people into orbit. But China's historically not been an outward-looking country. There's the tale of the Chinese emperor who built a big fleet and sent it off to explore. When the admiral returned and reported there was nothing out there as magnificent as China, the emperor ordered the fleet sunk. Unless the moon turns out to be inhabited by aliens who'll produce export goods for even less than the Chinese workers do, it's unlikely that China will spend the money to land there.

So, in answer to the question "who will be the next to send people to the moon?" the most likely answer seems to be "nobody." Perhaps the moon race of the 1960s was just a Cold War aberration, something never to be repeated. Could be that a million years from now, when our species is long gone, replaced by either something we constructed as an obedient servant (oops) or perhaps by a More Perfect Cockroach, aliens will land on the moon. There, they'll find the names of four human beings, all that remains to mark our time on this planet.

One of those names, of course, will belong to Tricky Dick Nixon.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Best Facebook Page Ever?

So this morning I fired up the ol' web browser and went over to Facebook to see if anyone had anything of great cosmic interest to say, and this is what popped up as the "Top Stories" in the "News Feed" view:

Hmm. No posts to display. No news out there at all. Cool... "Use the Publisher above to add your own." Or, perhaps, close the Facebook window and get on with your life... Sounds like a plan to me...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What They've Been Doing In Area 51

Well, the cat's out of the bag: the US Air Force is traveling to other planets on a routine basis. All that stuff NASA's doing with the shuttle, space station and plans to go back to the moon someday, are just a smoke screen to keep us from knowing what's really going on.

I submit as evidence this frame, snapped from a USAF recruiting ad that's been getting a lot of TV and internet play. You can see the whole ad here. The helicopter comes in, drops off a couple paratroopers, and as we see clearly in the screen snap, they float down into the jungle, silhouetted against a pair of large moons. Which, of course, means it's not taking place on Planet Earth, which has only one moon (if you don't believe me on this, go out and check tonight).

So, it's a bit of sci-fi, a bit of artistic license, perhaps? Nope--a few seconds later, the ad explicitly states that "IT'S NOT SCIENCE FICTION. IT'S WHAT WE DO EVERY DAY."

Which, of course, leaves us with only two possibilities: first, that the ad is lying to us. We can dismiss this, of course, as we know the government never lies. That leaves only the second option: that the Air Force does in fact conduct everyday operations on another planet, one that's apparently covered in jungles and equipped with two moons.

Somehow, this makes me feel better about the military budget. When you read the news stories about Pentagon projects going massively over budget while delivering bombers that can't be flown in the rain, or the infamous $600 toilet seat, or the latest over-runs on airplanes the military doesn't even want anymore, it's easy to get depressed about where our tax dollars are going. But, thanks to this ad, we know that the money's really been going into the development of technology that's now routinely visiting other planets (and rather cool-looking ones at that).

I can't wait for the next revelation: that all that stuff in "Avatar" isn't CGI after all, but another of the planets where the Air Force is operating every day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I Must Confess I Missed Something

We bought a new computer the other day. First new one in something like five years. Yesterday, I migrated all our stuff from the old machine to the new one. And in the process, I realized I'd made an awful, terrible omission from my novel The Last Protector.

They say confession is good for the soul, so here's the oversight: all through the book, we see Ranger Jape routinely using a "softscroll," a sort of roll-up personal computer. And yet, at no point in the story does he ever have to do a backup, software upgrade, virus scan, or other piece of administration. At no point does the softscroll pop up a dialog box saying, "Please Enter An Administrator's Password," or "You Must Restart Your Computer After Finishing This Installation," or "New Software Is Available..." (this last one's particularly amusing: the computer's brand new, just back from the Apple Store, and it needs some 760 megabytes of updated software, including a half-gigabyte update to the operating system itself? Talk about inspiring confidence...)

Well, The Last Protector is science fiction, right? Maybe someday software really will get settled to the point where it doesn't require a steady stream of updates. Or maybe the update process really will become transparent and foolproof. It's only a matter of time and the relentless advance of technology.

Nah. That's more than science fiction; it's fantasy...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Born At the Not-Quite-Right Time

Every now and then, one of my students will look at me and ask, "Were you a hippie?" And then I have to explain that I'm not quite old enough for that. During the great Summer of Love (1967), I was all of thirteen years old, hardly up to the journey from the Chicago suburbs to San Francisco. And during the Summer of Unrest (1968), when war protesters put an end to Lyndon Johnson's presidency, I was still a wee sprout of fourteen (I have since learned that some of the protesters at the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago were as young as 14, but they were a small minority--most were of draftable age, 18 or over). Sorry, but I was born just a couple years too late for the Great Adventures of the Sixties (sigh).

I seem to have been born just a bit too late for a lot of things, some good, some bad. On the one hand, people point at my wide variety of interests and say, "You're a real Renaissance man" (to which I reply, "Could be, but the Renaissance was 400 years ago"). On the other hand, I was born exactly seven days too late to have to worry about being drafted for the Vietnam war. Win some, lose some...

But my big "born too late" was around the space program. I was a fanatic follower of the moon program during the '60s, getting up early in the morning to sit through unending holds and delays, in the hopes of seeing somebody actually rocketing into orbit. I dreamed of a career in the field, not necessarily as an astronaut (that dream ended when I got my first pair of glasses), but at least as an engineer or scientist. Alas, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, I was all of fifteen years old, and by the time I had to select my college major in 1971, the space program was obviously winding down. When I graduated with my degree in Computer Science, in 1975, people had stopped dreaming of walking on Mars. And so, I went into the telecom field, where I had an interesting enough career. But it was never the same as what I'd dreamed of. I'd been born, oh, about ten years too late for that.

Most of us, I suspect, can point to some way in which we were, with apologies to the Paul Simon song, not quite "Born At the Right Time." And there's not a whole lot we can do about it--unless we happen to be authors. Then, we can at least let a character work through the whole matter. Maybe have the character born at the right time. Or perhaps have the character be, like most of us are, born at the not-quite-right time, and then give him a chance to live out the dream anyway. It's not quite the same as having been born at the right time ourselves, but it's at least a chance to imagine what might have happened. And, perhaps, a chance to find out that maybe the Right Time wasn't so right after all...