- Have you ever wondered what the analemma looks like on other planets? There’s an app for that.
- If you want to cover screwheads or other elements of a laptop that would be disturbed by tampering, use glitter nail polish, the less common the better. The tampering may still happen, but glitter nail polish isn’t easy to fake, and at least you’ll know that it occurred.
- More evidence that the better part of our modern diet consists of…lies. (Thanks to neil Rest for the link.)
- The Atlantic reminds us of the 40-year war waged on coffee by Mr. C. W. Post of Post cereals, who was trying to build the market for his caffeine-free dirt-flavored cereal beverage Postum.
- Speaking of the devil, Lileks did his signature treatment on Mr. Coffee Nerves some time back. People drank a lot of coffee in the 50s to counteract all the booze that was going down the hatch to keep them from killing one another wholesale. That decade was not Arcadia. It was psychotic.
- Why did good always trounce evil in Middle Earth? It may have been the bad guys’ vitamin D deficiency.
- The government of El Salvador has released a boggling video of Salvadorian volcano Chaparrastique, just before and after its recent explosion.
- Michaelangelo’s grocery list…with illustrations, natch. (And does this remind anybody else of the handscript style used in the Voynich Manuscript?)
- A collection of science fiction postage stamps. (Thanks to Ernie Marek for the link.)
- These semi-fossilized English words escaped total fossilization by hiding inside popular idioms. The list lacks “ilk,” which sounds like it should an obscure human organ, or even a breed of horse. (Thanks to Gwen Henson for the link.)
- Both MIT and ETH Zurich have made some cool cubical robots that move and balance using flywheels. Ha! I did this in the first chapter of The Cunning Blood: I had gas-turbine powered mechanical dinosaurs that moved (twitchily) by pinching several internal flywheels under the control of a fluidic computer.
- Ceramic squirrels don’t injure people. Crazy people holding ceramic squirrels injure people. No one evidently cared what happened to the ceramic squirrel. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- $10,000. Software written in Pascal. Windowing interface remarkably like the Xerox Star’s, on which I’d been trained the year before. I spent a wistful hour putting it through its paces at a nearby computer store in Rochester, NY. I’d just spent $4000 on a CP/M system three years earlier, and didn’t have another $10K lying around. Nice retrospective on poor Lisa, who never got the respect she deserved. Market niches matter, and it’s not always possible to create your own from the quantum vacuum.
- Solar Cycle 24 is definitely double-humped, and its second peak could well be peakier than the first. This doesn’t make it a strong cycle, by any means, but we thought the whole deal was over after the first peak in 2011. Not so.
- An amateur telescope maker in Utah bought a 70″ spy satellite mirror at a scratch-and-dent auction and built the world’s largest amateur telescope.
- I haven’t written aliens into my SF much, at least since I first thought deeply about the subject in college. This is part of the reason. I had planned out a story in which Earth contacts an alien race with so old and rich a culture that their language consists of context-sensitive metaphors within similes within puns within knock-knock jokes. I never wrote the story because I could never figure out how to crack the problem.
- Your graphics card is getting faster, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll even notice. I think this is what the term “diminishing returns” was coined to describe.
- From the Major WTF File: One of my readers sent me this link, and I’m still trying to figure out what these creeps are up to. I’ll post a separate entry on it when I have a little more time to research it. But look yourself up: I’d like to hear about it if you’re on there too.
- Little by little, people are starting to figure it out: Fat will make you lose weight and keep you healthy. Sugar will f*(&ing kill you.
- I was told by a cardiologist 20-odd years ago that gum disease was related to heart disease. It seemed like a stretch at the time, but since then I’ve seen a number of studies indicating that it’s true. Floss, don’t infarct!
- Slate has a short piece explaining what makes a continental breakfast continental. What made me laugh was an embedded Key & Peele bit in which Peele delights in discovering Fruit Loops at his hotel breakfast counter, as though they were rare treats. Bartholomew Stypek does the same thing in Ten Gentle Opportunities: “Carolyn had gifted him with sacks of delicacies that any nobleman in the realm of Ttryngg would kill for: Doritos, Cheetos, Pringles, Ruffles, and sweets baked by elves.”
- The Marines are about to begin hunting Somali pirates. If I were a Somali pirate, I would be thinking about early retirement.
- Cities, like ogres and onions, have layers. The deepest and oldest of those layers can be forgotten by all but a few. Here’s a marvelous quick tour of the some of New York’s less visible layers. No ogres. We hope. (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
- Blasting away on a book project that I’ll tell you about when the publisher announces it. One thing fersure, it’s certainly reminding me what I’d forgotten.
- Your brain takes out the toxic trash while you sleep. Short your brain on sleep, and the trash piles up. Let it pile up enough (particularly beta amyloids) and you could put yourself on the fast track for Alzheimer’s. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
- I described a coffee-station sized version of this, controlled by a hipster AI, in Ten Gentle Opportunities.
- Oh…and a blood-powered computer. Reminds me of another book I wrote once. Ok. It’s not blood. It’s “blood.” But still… (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.)
- Apple’s iCloud system has been cracked. It’s true that anything can be cracked. But I’m still convinced that it’s harder to crack stuff located down here than it is for stuff up there.
- Intel now has a competitor to the Raspberry Pi, the Galileo. It’s compatible with most Arduino shields and the Arduino software development environment. The board is based on the Quark microarchitecture, which is somewhere south of Atom and aimed squarely at the mobile device market. The board will be generally available to hobbyists by the end of November, for about $60. More on Ars. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for poking me about this; I knew but have been too busy to mention it here.)
- Very nice site on Earth’s cryosphere, which shows sea ice extent and much else. Antarctic ice is in good shape and growing. Arctic ice is a tougher call. It’s down from the 70s but looks to be coming back.
- There is a hoarder house so full of vinyl records that the collector ended up sleeping in his car. Hey, is there an undiscovered hoarder house full of variable capacitors somewhere?
- There are a number of reasons I don’t read Time Magazine. This may be most of them.
- Maybe it’s a triple-humped solar max. Or maybe Old Sol is just having some fun with us.
- Here’s why the Russians didn’t beat us to the Moon.
- If you f&$!*!ing love science, you should f&$!*!ing hate how we do it in this country.
One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.
Or is it?
Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.
Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.
In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.
It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.
To do that, you need ideas.
For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)
When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.
This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.
I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.
I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?
As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.
That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.
- Yes, I’ve been away from Contra for longer than I’d like, and the Odd Lots have been piling up. Some of that away was necessary for my sanity, and was spent by the pool at a resort in Phoenix, where Carol and I discussed things like the wonder of a single-celled organism that is 10 cm long. The secret appears to be evolving superior organelles. Bandersnatchi, anyone?
- While I was gone, someone released a new OS for the Raspberry Pi: The Pidora Remix. It’s basically Fedora for the Pi. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll flip another SD card out of the drawer soonest and burn an image. Man, you have to run like hell just to stay in one place in this business.
- The Raspberry Pi’s main competition, the BeagleBone, now has a 1 GHz ARM Cortex A8 version that ships with a Linux 3.8 kernel. BeagleBone Black supports the Linux Device Tree, which does a lot to decouple hardware details from the kernel. Looks terrific–now all it needs is an installed base.
- I noticed a system resource draw-down when I had iTunes installed on my old and now electrocuted quadcore. The software took a lot of cycles and memory, even when it didn’t appear to be doing anything. The discussion has come up on Slashdot. (The poster also mentioned Rainmeter, which I tried once and found…ok.) I try to run a lean system here, and I frown on things that want services, tray icons, and 15% of my cycles all the damned time. (The Dell Dock does precisely that. For showing a row of icons. Sheesh.)
- Amazon is setting up a new markeplace for short fiction, with a twist: It offers to share revenues on fan fiction with the authors of the original items. It’s unclear how many authors will accept that, but I would, like a shot. (I guess all I’d need are some fans.) In truth, Jim Strickland and I talked in detail some years back about opening up the Drumlins World to all authors who’d care to tell a story there, without even asking for money.
- Clinical depression may be linked to sleep cycles, which appear to have a genetic basis. How to fix this is unclear, but I’ll testify that depression in the wake of losing Coriolis laid waste to my sleep habits for a couple of years. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
- The Man Who Ploughed the Sea may soon be mining it…for uranium. I’d cut to the chase and just mine it for gold, so I can buy more ytterbium for my Hilbert Drive. Alas, there’s less gold in the oceans than we thought (1 part per trillion) and not much more ytterbium (1.5 parts per trillion) so maybe I should just extract the uranium (3 parts per billion) and make yellow pigments to sell on Etsy.
- I’m not sure I buy this, but it’s an interesting speculation: That the Younger Dryas cold snap was triggered by a smallish asteroid that crashed…in Lake Michigan. Click through for the maps if nothing else. My favorite Great Lake is deeper and more complex than I thought.
- Save the apostrophe’s! (From a fate worse than dearth…)
- And save us, furthermore, from new Microsoft technology that counts people in the room watching your TV. Because having more than one person watching a TV show or movie rental is…is…stealing!
- 3-D printing is still in the stone age (and the Old Stone Age at that) but if we don’t allow berserk patent law to strangle the kid in its crib, wonderful things will happen once 3-D printers are no longer CNC glue guns. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- I’m starting to think that 3-D printers like that will soon make one-off repro of small plastic parts like the ones at the center of kites practical. I guess the challenge is somehow getting the precise shape of the part into a file. If I weren’t trying so hard to be a novelist I would probably have a 3-D printer already. For the moment I’m glad I didn’t jump as soon as I otherwise might have.
- Speaking of CNC…and guns: Plastic guns are dumb, dangerous, ineffective, and basically a stunt that seems designed (probably in Autocad) to make politicians say stupid things and make enemies. The real issue is cheap, portable CNC machines capable of cutting metal. That horse is out of the barn and beyond the horizon.
- I don’t think I’ve announced it broadly yet, but I am now agented, for both fiction and nonfiction. Either is a first for me, and it may make any number of things better on the writing side.
- This isn’t glaciation, obviously, but having been researching the coming Ice Age for a year or so now in the service of a Neanderthals novel, I was riveted: A calf-deep wave of ice fragments advances across the land like a cross between Jack Frost and The Blob.
- One way to solve the Raspberry Pi stuttering keyboard problem is to use a wireless keyboard/mouse set. The one I have (the Logitech MK520) works beautifully. Stutter gone. (The high road, of course, is to power everything, including the RPi itself, from a wireless hub.)
- Microsoft has offered B&N $1B for the entire Nook business, including the readers and all facets of the B&N store. This says a lot less about Microsoft than it says about B&N–none of it good.
- Here’s an inside look at a dedicated bitcoin mining machine. Now, could the same box mount a brute force attack against password hashes?
- A bunch of do-it-yourself Muppets present ten reasons why time travel is no good.
- I’ve discovered a spectacular new cheese: Uniekaas Black Label 3-year-old gouda. (Scroll down.) Bears about as much resemblance to the gouda I knew as a Porsche does to a Trabant. Pair it with any dry red; I’ve had it with Middle Sister Rebel Red and Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel. Actually, it pairs well with Real Sangria. Or, for that matter, whole milk. Sheesh, even dead air. We get it at Whole Foods. Try it.
- Still another voice calling for an end to team sports in schools. Team sports are how we teach high schoolers that alpha males can do whatever they want to the people below them on their ill-begotten ladders.
- Want another reason? The most highly paid state employees in nearly all states are…college sports coaches. And we all know how “college” college sports are.
- Watch out, Colorado. Here come the pot machines.
- Yes, I am now writing a Raspberry Pi programming book. Details to come.
- While I do, I’ll be scoping out my next novel. Hard SF, oboy yes. One possibility is something I call Fire Drill, about what happens when you’re mining the moon for nickel-iron and you hit gold. The other, hmmm, let me give you a hint: “Well, hello, Mr. Sangruse! How nice of you to drop in. Please stay awhile. My name is Oscar, and I am a…beautiful…thing.”
- This is why I am very careful about “liking” things on Facebook, particularly memes and idiotic quizzes like “What word for ‘moron’ has two ‘o’s?” It’s all about helping somebody else make money. No thanks. (But yes thanks to Marty Coady for the link.)
- And here’s another item about “like farming.” If I don’t share that photo you’ve posted, it’s not just because I think that Facebook memes make you look like an idiot. (Most of them do.) It’s because you’ve basically sold yourself to someone you don’t even know. (Thanks to Julian Bucknall for the link.)
- From the Governments-Are-Idiots-Squared Department: The city of Provo Utah is going to sell its fiber-to-the-home network to Google…except that nobody kept any records of where the fiber is buried.
- Cripes, guys. I don’t want to run out of energy, and neither do you. If you’re going to crap on nuclear power, you’re gonna be stuck with hydrocarbons. And they won’t run out anywhere near as soon as you think. Live with it.
- From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: churnalism, the practice of publishing press releases verbatim.
- Steampunk short ribs, all the way around! (Thanks to Bill Cherepy for the link.)
- From the same site: Like Mr. Bigweld said, see a need, fill a need!
- Multiple long-term studies seem to indicate that the way to live a long life is to be conscientious and organized. Well, one of out two ain’t bad.
- Southerners may be no fatter than northerners. They just don’t seem as inclined to lie about it.
- Some dads build their kids playhouses. Some of these playhouses look like spaceships. Shades of the Silvercup Rocket. The bigger kids dream, the better their smaller dreams will come true. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
- Yet another reason that Woodrow Wilson was the most evil president the Republic has ever had.
I’ve been selling my writing professionally since I was an undergrad, now literally forty years ago. I’ve had to do remarkably little selling. My first story and first article both sold to the first places I sent them. I’ve never had a publisher turn down a computer book proposal. (Granted that selling books to a publisher you co-own is rarely a challenge.) My fiction has been a mixed bag, but in general a story either sells quickly or not at all.
All changed. This is the toughest market for novel-length SFF since, well, forever. I’ve just spent two years writing Ten Gentle Opportunities, and now the selling begins. This is a new thing for me. I’ve historically considered tireless self-promoters to be tiresome self-promoters, and now I are one. I hate to go that way, and if there were another way I’d already be taking it.
It begins this weekend, when I have a chance to pitch to a major SF publisher at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The pitch happens in a time slot literally eight minutes long. I have eight minutes to make a bleary editor hungry to read my book. No pressure.
The primary challenge is to summarize the novel in synopses of various sizes, from 5,000 words down to…140 characters. Various markets and agents prefer synopses of various sizes, so they’d all better be right there on the shelf, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
This is harder than it looks; nay, it’s diabolical. The story itself is insanely complicated to begin with: One of my beta testers described it as “a Marx Brothers movie with twice as many Marx Brothers.” That’s just how I write, as anyone who’s read The Cunning Blood will understand. I have a mortal fear of not giving my readers their money’s worth, and a venial fear of being boring.
The way to write synopses of five different lengths is to start with the longest one, and write each one from scratch. In other words, don’t write the longest one and then try to cut it down to the next smaller size. This is like trying to turn hexacontane into propane by pulling carbon atoms randomly out of the middle; sooner or later the molecule has too many holes and falls apart.
It’s work, but it works. I finished the 300-word synopsis earlier this morning, and then set my hand to the gnarliest task of all: the “elevator pitch,” AKA logline. I get to summarize a manic 94,200 word story into 140 characters. I’ve actually been trying and failing to nail this for literally six months, since I finished the first draft. I first thought it would be easy, as I used to write cover copy for early Coriolis books. Heh.
The solution, as I said, is to start from the beginning. Each time I wrote a synopsis from scratch, I was forced to take two more steps up the ladder, and look down at the story from a little more height. You literally tell it again, each time with half the words you had last time. In the process, you get a clearer sense for what the story is about, and what the major themes are. Finally you end up with something you can say in an elevator between two adjacent floors:
A spellbender flees to our world with ten stolen nuggets of magic, and a crew of AIs helps him battle a repo spirit sent to retrieve him.
Will this work? Dunno. I guess I’ll find out this weekend.
- Egad. No, egad squared: A major literary agency has asked to see the full manuscript of Ten Gentle Opportunities. The novel is done, but I still have to format it for submission and write the synopsis and logline. I’m going to be busy for a few days, that is fersure.
- IBM is taking a new slant on fluidic computers, one that operates via charged fluids. The hope is that this will allow better modeling of human brain operation. I’m skeptical, but hey, it’s a species of nanocomputer, and I’m certainly bullish on those. (Thanks to Mike Reith for the link.)
- If anybody reading this has a 3D printer, I’d like to ask: Does the extruded plastic stick to clean copper-clad PCB stock? The obvious idea is to lay down a single-slice pattern in the form of PC pads and then etch the board with the plastic as resist. I don’t see much about this online.
- From Chris Gerrib: How American radio stations got their call signs. One minor refinement: US callsigns beginning with AAA-ALZ and NAA to NZZ are not exclusively military. Amateur radio callsigns have used those prefixes for at least 35 years. (An OTA friend of mine outside Chicago got his Extra and selected AA9J as his call in, I think, 1976.)
- People always seem to be recording meteors on dash cameras. I now have a dash camera. If I put it on my dash, will I see a meteor? Or will I get my money back? (Whoops. Found it in the bushes. All finds final. No refunds.)
- Speaking of dash cameras: The manufacturer of the little sports camera I found in my bushes issued a DMCA takedown notice to a reviewer, on trademark grounds. (The DMCA has nothing to do with trademark abuse.) Hey, GoPro, Barbra is singing. Backtracking about the blunder will not help you. (Thanks to Tom Roderick for alerting me to this.)
- Salads are way more dangerous than hamburgers. Alas, you can’t grill salad until it’s done to the center.
- From Michael Covington comes a link to a story about how a Medieval copyist’s cat peed on his manuscript. The scribe drew a peeing cat on the damaged section, with an appropriate curse in Latin.
- And we think we have a junk DNA problem: Amoeba proteus has 290 billion (yes, billion) base pairs in its genome, as compared to homo sap’s piddling 2.9 billion.
- The reason all of us baby boomers didn’t die as grade schoolers may be that none of us lived in rich-guy gonzo-modern homes like these. (Why did I think that these houses were designed to ernhance estate tax revenues?)
- I just finished writing an SF novel (now in the final polishing stage) that postulates robots who throw things so precisely that there is no longer a need for assembly lines. Everything the factory deals with (parts, subsystems, finished items) are thrown from one place on the floor to another. The well-known Big Dog robot recently learned how to throw cinder blocks thirty feet. Once two can play catch with cinder blocks, I’ll call it a score.
- March Madness, Pope-style. In my unfinished (still) novel Old Catholics, Benedict’s successor is a reactionary Brazilian. Following the Brazilian is Chicago’s Cardinal Peter Paul Luchetti, born in Rome, New York…making him Malachy’s Peter the Roman. Now Benedict has gone and messed up the sequence by resigning before I could get that story into print.
- More pope-related tinfoil-hat stuff: There was no Pope John XX. Could Pope John XX have been Pope Joan? We later made up for the John shortage by having two Pope John XXIIIs. Alas, the first one was a pirate and a highwayman, and had committed every sin we knew about at the time. We call him an antipope, but the papacy was such a mess in 1410 that he had as good a claim as anybody. Fortunately, the second Pope John XXIII was arguably the best pope who ever lived. Funny how that works.
- This may not pass, but a law limiting the ability of non-practicing patent trolls to extort risk-free would be a damned fine first step in patent reform.
- Finally, a useful infographic: How long food lasts at room temps, in the fridge, or in the freezer. I didn’t know you’re not supposed to freeze potatoes.
- I used to think I was nuts for seeing faces in random patterns on our textured walls. Maybe not. We’re good at recognizing faces, which suggests that if a pattern can be turned into a face by our mental machinery, it will. Here’s even more.
- In the spring of 1970, I bought a novelty gas discharge bulb at a headshop (Sunny’s, at Harlem & Foster in Chicago) and built a little lamp around it for Carol. The bulb was an Aerolux bulb, and here’s a site giving the product history and some examples. The sixth image (purple swallow amidst green foliage) is the exact bulb I used.
- While looking around at other uses of the word “drumlin,” I ran across a current pop song from Two-Door Cinema Club. I’m willing to guess that it’s the only Billboard-charted song containing the word, but I’d love to be proven wrong.