Monday, 1 August 2016

New Enigma Front Anthology and short story: Slayer's Revenge

Coming soon the 2nd of the Enigma Front anthologies - it's already listed on Amazon but not available yet (the launch is on the 12th of August 2016) - with short stories from 21 authors including a Hugo and Nebula winner.  It contains my 2nd published short story, "Slayer's Revenge", about a dragon hunter looking for payback. If you are going to When Words Collide 2016, it will be available in paperback, or as an ebook or print copy from Amazon.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Specialists and Experts

"...the rash of home renovation or cooking or talent shows has empowered a whole generation to truly believe that, if the put their mind to it they can appear as gifted as any so-called specialist."

(Globe and Mail, Sat 16, Jul 2016, Songs in the key of life). While true, something about the statement bugged me, so I mulled it over while walked to stampede breakfast. I came to the conclusion that the phrase "so-called specialist" was the problem. The relationship we have with the notion of expertise and specialists is skewed. Some specialists aren't.  However, others most certainly are skilled experts.  The former doesn't (shouldn't) subtract from the latter.  Some would say that if you aren't a specialist, you can't do that task. That is wrong. Others say that anyone (almost) can do that task, so specialism is useless or even elitist. That is wrong. The truth is in the middle.

The book reviewed was about human limitations - in particular amusia - but the quoted sentence highlights our relationship with experts and specialists. Ignoring the very real limitations of our own bodies that the review and book focussed on, it's not that we can't do anything. But we haven't. Specialists can do what they do because they have paid their dues - not in money, but in time, in practice. Sure, I can tile my bathroom floor, sing a song, shoot a basketball, and if I enjoy those activities then I will. But make no mistake, I can't do those as well as the specialist can, nor as quickly. I can become a specialist interior decorator, if I want to, but I haven't paid my dues yet - in practice. I haven't made the sacrifices needed to spend the 10,000 hours, or whatever other measure you wish to use. I've spent my time on physics (a decade+ of study and research), dance (ballroom and other styles) (most of my adult and teenage life), software (20+ years), writing (1.3+ million words) and a raft of hobbies. That's not to say I can't lay a tiled floor - I can - but I won't be as fast or as good as the expert. I would do my research, practice first, and even then, take the extra time to do a good job.

At a motivational speech given by a very successful local business owner (he started and owns a pizza chain) a few years ago, he pointed out that no one can be an expert in everything. His message was: choose your skills, focus on those, and find others with other skills to help each other.

We are all experts about something. 

Don't deny your skills, but don't deny others theirs either.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

My Fantasy in Light of a Speech About Fantasy at Pembroke College

An excellent speech about fantasy - and esp. faerie-tale based fantasy - by Terri Windling.  It's rather long, but well worth listening to.

As the speech progressed, I found myself thinking of my own writings in her terms, and they match well.  I've long maintained that the setting, natural and social, is one of my characters.  Indeed a friend said half a year ago that she thought I was a milieu writer, and others have since agreed. And that seems to me to be the heart of her message - the mystery of place, the ability to find oneself in the quest into the unknown lands.

Now, unlike her stated preference, I build no mystery into magic. I'm a scientist at heart and the magic in my worlds is as rationalistic as any science.  However, that being said, the consequences of that magic can be strange and bizarre, as mysterious as any other.  I see beauty and mystery, even the sublime, in Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, in theoretical quantum mechanics, the shimmering northern lights, and yes, even in the understanding of how they come to entice.

Moreover, in all my stories I try to use the mystery of place, of the forest, of the ancient ruins, the vanishing mountain valley, even of the decaying concrete city.  Indeed, all my longer works are about people who are questing for a place in the world - their small haven, literal, spiritual or emotional, in the wide world of the unknown.

Ms. Windling also spoke of preferring the intimate fantasy - not the world-saving epic.  I concur on that basis also.  I also prefer to cast a bright light leaving shadows in the corners, and enjoy reading that type of story. 

Having many dark shadows (either exciting or terrifying, or both) is easy in a short story that focusses on only one person for a few hours or days at most.  However in my first multi-novel sequence, David and Fiona - and yes, I much prefer the ensemble cast no matter how unpopular it might be today - are confined to one (admittedly large) island while they struggle to return home and journey to discover what home and life means to each.

Some writers giving advice to new writers say that the larger, the grander, is better.  I don't agree.  One of my goals was to create the sense that they are two dots in the much larger, and to them, unknown world.  They are insignificant except to themselves and their personal friends and foes.

On the other hand, my Tower stories start rather like Orwell's 1984, the brutality, the invasive technology augmented with mind-stripping magic.  However, during the arc of the stories, the world itself undertakes the quest back to towards the unspoiled rivers and large forests that Terri Windling spoke of desiring.  In each successive story, the focus narrows, either in place or in character while the mysterious dark margins grow and the remaining technology decays away.  So, that sense of loss she spoke of in LotR is there too (I hope), a longing for the old world. In this case the old world is the global pre-apocalyptic civilization, so it's a yearning that dark-ages Europe might have had for Rome.  Indeed, the Carolingian empire was one of my inspirations.

I hope my stories speak to modern life and our issues the way Terry Windling calls for us to create.  Among other things I write them to be about finding oneself, the power of community (for good and ill), depression, the need to belong, the need to be true to oneself, religious freedom, sexual identity, bigotry and racism, the dangers of the modern world (yes even in a fantasy setting), and the fear of death and insignificance.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Magical Effects of Lightness and Flight

I was reviewing one of my stories the other day and reflecting on the behaviour of some drugs (potions).  It doesn't matter whether they are potions, spells, or other magical mechanisms, the effects would be the same.  The first was a drug that caused a person to weigh less.  Now, to be clear, the potion doesn't cause the person to lose mass, just weight.  This has many applications, for performers, dancers, acrobats, swimmers (it would be better than a life-jacket), medical evac, climbers (rope and mountain) and recreational uses (nudge, nudge).

However, such effects, when presented on screen (TV or movie) always seem fake.  I have realized why: landing speed and momentum.  Certainly a person jumping from a fixed height (say off a 15 ft wall) would hit the ground at a lower speed.  If we supposed that the spell reduced weight by 50% (which is substantial), then the impact speed would be reduced by 29%.   Only 29%.  The fall time would be increased by 41%, but that 29% is not much.

More importantly, if a person jumped and then landed on the same surface (like a figure skater, an gymnast, a dancer), the magic makes no difference to how hard they land.   Certainly, they rise further (about double - exactly double if one ignores the offset strength required to just stand) and can perform more spins, flips etc in the "hang-time" (41% increase) but, ignoring air resistance which is negligible for 50% weight reduction, they will land at the same speed they took off.  That means that if a dancer misses a landing from a leap, they will bruise just as badly with or without the drug.

The other effect is flight.  This is a staple of many a fantasy story (or game). Now, in a novel or short story, I don't want to see all (or any of) the following answered.  However, anyone who uses a flight spell will need to know the answers or suffer nasty consequences.  How does it work?  That is crucial.  Is that propelling you against the air or against the ground?  How long does it last?  How stable is the flight at top speed?  What about hitting birds insects, dust?  How do you protect your eyes?  Breathe? How fast (or soon) can the spell be recast?  What about take-off and landing angles?  Highest altitude?  Altitude sickness? What about climb rates? Stable descent rates? Accidents?  Running into trees? 

Remember that even a 20 ft fall onto hard ground will kill most people most of the time (and that's not high enough to avoid running into trees).  Does your hero have special toughness to deal with that?  And I mean something magical because no Schwarzenegger-like toughness will save your hero from this kind of damage (nor will conventional armour).  This rips muscles, tears tendons, breaks bones from the deceleration and distortion, not from the surface "hit".  Sure, he's mentally tough, but flesh has a breaking point regardless of whether he is a book-worm or is Conan.

In a world that doesn't have trains, planes and cars, 15 mph is fast !  Not for us, but for them a galloping horse is the highest easily imagined speed and that tops out around 30 mhp.  Most birds can fly faster than that, but most generally don't.  Wind speeds over tall mountains can frequently reach 100 mph (and that's not storm conditions).  Even on the flat ground, storms of any significant strength reach 20 mph or even 30 mph (and that doesn't include gusts). Any wind capable of lifting a flag is 10 mph or more.  So what is the benefit of even a 30 mph flight spell?

Supposing 30 mph air-speed on a calm day for 10 minutes (that's a long and game-changing spell in most systems), that's only 5 miles.


Thursday, 20 August 2015

Filler words and useless phrases in writing

Having just been to When Words Collide, I have been editing my novel The Tower of the Ancients, cutting unnecessary words, phrases and sentences.   Adverbs are, these days, considered a sign of bad writing.  Same for adjectives, although not to the same degree.  I, however, defend the value of adjectives in particular and even adverbs.  Some are actually (!) useful. Sure "very tall" is weak, but "gloriously sunny" tells a lot, not just about the weather, but the character's mood and relationship to her surroundings.  And just try to say that something is blue in one or two words without using "blue", and that is an adjective.  You could be poetical and liken the object to the sky, an ocean or the eyes of a character that has already been established as having blue eyes.  But since the objective is to have efficient tight writing, that's not possible.  Furthermore if a character would use adverbs, then so should his voice.  That includes all speech and even any 1st person narrative. The upshot is that there are limits to how rigourously any rule should be applied.   Here is the list of what I searched for:
  • very              Watch out for constructs like: "The lie wasn’t very big".   That "very" is important.  Also, "I was also very, very hungry."
  • really            Like "very", this one is insidious.  It has proper uses, but for emphasis outside of speech:  yech!
  • there is         Get rid of them, but watch out for constructs like "That chair there is green."  The noun is "chair" and the "there" is pointing it out.
  • there was/were
  • knew that      This is a bad one for me.
  • saw that        Hardly any for me.
  • I saw             Depending on emphasis this could be useful, but not usually, except for the accusation "I saw that."
  • so                  Some characters might use it to mean very, but there also good uses for this word.  Don't use it for "very" in prose.
  • that/then        It's a judgement call on this one. If the sentence has any complexity, then use it.  If not, don't.
  • and then        Cut it. With prejudice.  Sometimes it's the "and" that needs to go, sometimes the "then".
  • of                   "off of", "outside of" Sentences ending in "of".  Bleh!!!!  Don't need to hunt for this one.  It's so horrible that I know I don't use it.
  • seemed         It's useful when a character can't connect the dots, but otherwise it's distancing.
  • quite              It's useful esp. when you have a character that is used to understating issues, but easy to over-use.
  • just                Also has it's valid uses, like "only", but in other places it can be removed.
  • perhaps/maybe    Those are worth looking for.  They suggest weakness, indecision, but sometimes that is what a character has.  Sometimes a character is guessing, or speculating about the future.
  • amazing         It has its uses but usually a more specific word can be found
  • literally           Unless you are saying something that could be a joke or metaphorical, and you are emphasizing that it isn't, get rid of this word.
  • stuff               Meaningless.  However I don't use it except in strange circumstances or as a verb "stuff the chicken into the oven".
  • thing              Generic.  When generic is needed: "for one thing, that is the wrong screw-driver."  that is fine.   When the antecedent is just before it, fine.  Otherwise, get rid of it.
  • got                 This is a very (!) feeble word, and should be removed, usually (adv).  However, once in a while it the best word available.
  • constructed verb tenses   These are the continuous verb tenses ("I am eating") or the perfect tenses ("I had eaten").  Simple tenses are more immediate and connect better to the reader, but I strenuously disagree with the current philosophy that constructed tenses are generally bad.   Try changing these into simple tenses without changing the meanings:  "I was working on my essay when you arrived."   "I had been working on my essay until you interrupted me."   "I have finished the essay."
  • gerunds          "ing" verb forms "After walking to the store, he took a taxi home."  So long as you are careful to not create causal, temporal or logical inconsistancies, I defend them.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Character Genders

I was recently given a URL for an interesting web site: Hacker Factor Gender Guesser.  It purports to use text to determine the gender of the author, and while I have no idea what the general validity of the method or how independent it is of things like education levels, socio-economic classes, religious points of view, cultural backgrounds, etc. the results of playing with it are interesting.  I put in text from a bunch of my novels, starting with Thinking Outside the Tower.  It has a two character first-person POV: Allison and Sean.  I did the same for first-person sections of The Tower of the Ancients for Paul, Simon, Stephanie and Jenna.   For all those I used the formal results, since it is a book. I then put in spoken dialog from characters David, Fiona, Jirina and Klara, but I used the informal results since that was dialog.  These are the results I get:
  • Allison - female
  • Sean - male
  • Paul - male
  • Simon - female
  • Jenna - female (strongly)
  • Stephanie - female (strongly)
  • David - male
  • Fiona - female (just)
  • Klara - female
  • Jirina - female (strongly)
Now, many of those are described as weak, but the web site points out that European patterns tend to be weakly identified.  Since David, Klara, Allison and Sean have European-like patterns, that is perfect.  While Paul is a highly trained military officer, he is also fairly empathic and good with people.  Jirina is very strongly secure in her gender role and identity, so that also makes sense   Fiona is a heavily conflicted character who is ascerbic and judgemental, so I'm not surprised her patterns came out very close to the line. Simon did not surprise me: he's a highly educated historian, a sensitive character who's very conscious of his (poorly understood) emotions and not confident nor comfortable within himself. Actually, the surprise was Stephanie.  She's a street smart and hardened, tough-minded witch that calls a spade a spade, contemplates eating her pet when she is starving, curses as swears like the best of them, considers many emotions to be a weakness and will be in your face if it suites her.  Sure, she understands loyalty, familial love and team-work, but when the cards go down, she's a survivor.  When she is attacked, she's more worried about her chickens (food supply) than the humans she might kill when defending herself.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Flying Cars For Everyone? Not A Chance

A standard cliche we often see in film, and on the page, is the flying car, not just for science fiction but even for futurists.  A film that was commonly shown to early grade school children in the early 70s predicted that the average family would have a flying car by the end of the 20th century.  Despite not being presented as fiction, that film was more fiction than reality.  Why do we continue to dream of flying?

Flight represents freedom; freedom from gravity, freedom from the ground, freedom from traffic jams, freedom from rules, freedom of the spirit.  The ability to emulate the birds is a long-held dream, even for Icarus.

However, it's not going to happen.  Sure, the very wealthy might have private airports, and the middle classes can learn to fly and buy small aircraft even now.  However, the flying commuter car?  No.

But why not?

There are a multitude of reasons, each one good enough to stop us from having a flying-car in every garage.  There might be solutions to many of them, but most of those solutions would be expensive, probably very expensive.

  1. Engineering/Physics:  The flight-generating mechanism, be it wings, rotors, etc, requires space and protection.  Certainly, some inventors have built cars that have fold-up wings, but every one that I have seen pictures of is unwieldy and/or impractical for most people.   What happens if a hail-storm or wind-storm strikes?  There goes your car to the trash-heap.  A rock-chip picked up from the wash of the car in front of you?  Non-optional expensive repairs.  A bit of rust, just a bit, or your neighbour's kid hits it with a baseball?  You need new wings---or rotors or whatever.  If you want to postulate some anti-grav unit or internal jet pack, then fine, but those might be just as vulnerable, and require just as much maintenance, and that means money.  Don't pretend that a twice-a-year checkup and oil change will suffice.  You will need monthly if not weekly tune-ups done by professionals.
  2. Take off and landing space:  The most practical solution, wings, require a fast take-off and gradual climb-out and the same for landing.  This means that the road had better be clear of traffic. Also, the sky above needs to be free of bridges, trees, overhead wires, traffic lights and street lights.  This is going to happen?  Ha!  The other flight mechanisms don't have the same restrictions, but where are they going to land?  On a busy road full of traffic going 50 kph?  Not likely.   On a quiet residential street?  What about that bicyclist or those kids playing street hockey that you can't see because they are directly below you, or that recycling bin on the side of the road?
  3. Side effects:  Everything except possibly anti-grav (and don't hold your breath waiting for that) has serious side-effects including noise and wind-vortexes.  Few people like living under the approach to a runway even now. Even with better quieter technology, just imagine someone trying to land on the street in front of your house (perhaps 20 ft away). There go your windows from flying rocks.  There go your dog's eyes from blown dust.   Even ground-based cars are noisy enough, so there goes your sleep when the neighbour arrives home from the bar at 2 in the morning, and then again when the other neighbour's teenager returns from a tryst with his girlfriend at 3 in the morning.   Then the person who has to leave at 5 to get to an early shift takes off.  Sleep?  Who needs sleep?
Points 2 and 3 mean that dedicated landing and take-off places (ie an airport) will have to be the only allowed take-off and landing places.  So much for taking off to avoid a traffic jam or landing in front of your house.
  1. Scale:  Large airplanes are stable from transient gusts, turbulence and other effects because of their sheer size, mass, engine-power and the fact that they fly at 20000 feet and usually more.  A flying car would have none of those advantages. The turbulence that the 747 completely ignores and that bumps the Cessna around could turn a flying commuter car upside down.  Then the car driver has perhaps 3 to 5 seconds, if he is lucky, to recover before the car slams into the ground (or another car) at a fatal speed. The vortexes generated by urban jungles would make things even worse.

  2.   Weather: Blizzards, thunderstorms, micro-bursts, tornadoes, hurricanes are only the tip of the iceberg.  Fog, snow, ice, even just rain makes low level flight dangerous, and doubly so when flying by visual flight rules.  So either cars would need complicated (expensive) instrumentation or flight would have to be restricted to calm clear weather.  See also the previous point.

  3.   Energy:  Flight is seriously energy expensive.  If we have a limitless, pollution-less compact and light source of energy, great.  However, if that is true, then that changes so much in society that who knows what civilization would look like. Until then, does spending ten times the money of your ground-based commute make financial sense? Instead of filling your tank twice a month, consider the cost of doing that every third day! And with high performance fuel to boot! Expensive is the word.

  4.   Traffic: if everyone (or a large fraction of the population) has a flying car, then the air traffic control systems would have to be very, very complex and strict.  Air traffic controllers, whether they be computers or people would have to be in charge, and the fines and penalties for not obeying them would have to be very serious. Does this mean freedom?

  5.   Id:  Many people object to having licence plates on their car.  Every week, I see licence plates that someone has defaced to make it harder to read. If cars could fly, the traffic control requirements would make identifying transponders absolutely mandatory. Moreover, some sort of black-box flight-recorder would probably be necessary to solve insurance and liability issues when accidents occur (and they will).

  6.   Accidents: You think the carnage on the roads is bad now?  Fender-benders become fatal accidents and may even kill people on the ground. Even the slightest collision that even temporarily disables the flight mechanism kills everyone in the car since they probably wouldn't be flying at several thousand feet. This has two immediate effects. Firstly, flying over residential and other densely populated areas would have to be severely restricted.  That means no take-offs and landings in those areas. Secondly, impatient driving, tail-gating, road rage, "lane" weaving and just failing to follow the rules would all have to become criminal offenses, not just traffic offenses.  This danger can be reduced (but not eliminated) by having computer-controlled flight, but there goes the freedom; you are just a passenger. Don't forget that if thousands of cars are in the air, then the chances of collisions go up quadratically.

  7.   Training:  even if the cars are computer controlled, the human "driver" will need to know how to fly because computers can fail. That means training equal to or perhaps even more thorough and difficult than what modern pilots go through. With all that traffic in the air, having the skills, knowing the rules, knowing how to avoid even near misses, etc will become even more important than when driving on a road, not less.  Anyone who is even remotely as bad as those considered for "Canada's Worst Driver" (or any other similar TV show) would have to be disqualified from driving flying cars.

  8.   Health:  we've all heard about the Germanwings co-pilot, Malasia flight 370, heart-attacks, road-rage shootings, etc, etc, etc. Commercial pilots are supposed to undergo medical exams and psych-evals on a routine basis.  Flying cars would be very dangerous weapons in the hands of anyone who has a violent ax to grind. Even silent incapacitation and distractions (cell phones, eating, day-dreaming, ...) would become a daily killer, so these rules would have to be applied to anyone who wanted to drive a flying car and the tests would have to be repeated every few years. We can't assume that a person's health or mental state won't change. Firstly, that would prevent a large fraction of the population from driving those cars. Then also, just think of the costs that that would create when half the population has to get a thorough medical check-up and psych-eval every two or three years.
So there are 11 reasons, each one good enough, for why we will never have flying cars in even a majority of garages.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Living with Nature

Urban treehouse apartments in Turin Italy

Normally, I ignore the very entertainment-oriented news surrounding many commercial web sites.  It's too trivial to bother with, and is usually irritating more than anything else.  However, I saw this image and it captured my interest.   It just seems to prove that we can live with quality and different options even in the urban jungle. It also reminds me of the elven architcture in Edhelbar in my Thinking Outside the Tower. I didn't specify that the trees grew in veranda tubs, and the vines were interior to the building, but it goes to show that reality can be as strange as fiction.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Nova: The Bible's Buried Secrets

Just watched Nova (25 March 2015), The Bible's Buried Secrets.   It was a fascinating look at the archeological evidence for the writing of the Old Testiment and Torah, and the development of the idea of monotheism.  I haven't seen a documentary of this subject that was that interesting before.   It was a documentary of the best kind, one that acknowledges other theories, and served to educate, rather than entertain.  Rather than relying on CGI, it used CGI to explain and augment the on-site photography and cinamatography.   I can recommend this one heartily.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Saw Jupiter Ascending last night. As expected, it is a sci-fi action adventure, and as such it delivers a smooth, fast-paced and gripping conflict.   I went to the movie expecting nothing else, and I wasn't dissappointed on that score.  The action and the special effects (CG) are seamless and impressive.  Moreover, the characters are interesting and the galactic world and technologies they postulate are fascinating.  As someone said last night, that's a world in which all sorts of interesting stories could be set.  It's a pity that the plot doesn't match the quality.   Also, at times it was confusing and many times the dialog was hard to understand.  I'm not talking about the Russian (I assume), but the English.  Whether it was the theatre's speakers being poor, or the background noise, or the explosions, I had to whisper to my partner "What did they say?" several times and so did she.

I won't critisize the physical improbabilities.  (How Jupiter's shoulders weren't dislocated during the fight in Chicago, for example.) This is a modern action movie.  That means that such improbabilities are par for the course, and in this case were well integrated into the action.  Unlike in many other movies, they did not stand out and wreck the experience.

One more kudo I have to give the story.  The writer resisted the temptation to make Jupiter a kick-ass fighter.   She has no training, no hardness, no technical (weapons, human vulnerablities, etc) knowledge.  So while she becomes a player, her characterization is honest and never becomes ridiculous.  For that, I applaud.

It is interesting however, to note how many times Jupiter falls and has to be saved by Caine.  That's one trope that got a little tedious.

Spoilers below: