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:

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Magic in the World of Atria

Most of my fantasy writings are set in what I call the World of Atria.  Atria happens to be the country in which my earliest (1978) creations (characters, stories) resided.  Those who have read my Tower books will know it as the Atosian Empire from 2300 years ago.

Magic in that world is repeatable, observable and consistant; therefore it is analyzable and open to scientific understanding. Also, it is consistant with standard forms of science like physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc. It does, however, require generalizations and extensions to what we think of as conventional laws of science.  Magic consists of a number of fields and forces that link to everything, including abstract thoughts and emotions.   Consequently, unlike in some universes, it never runs out, never vanishes and has no moral good-bad connotations.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Strange Floor

I just have to share this:   Apparently it's actually a flat floor, but the mind can play some amazing tricks when given deceptive information.  Reminds me of those photos from the moon landings that people claim are fake because they don't look real.  This sure doesn't look real to me;  I think I'd fall over just trying to walk over that floor.

Evening with Frozen

Yesterday evening, Susanna and I had dinner, ice-wine and a movie: Frozen.   It was our first time seeing that movie.  All in all we liked it.  For one thing we both like musicals.
Charles (who arrived home just after we finished wacthing the movie) and I also think it is a much better movie than Tangled. The characters have more depth, actually grow as people (well Kristoff doesn't, but he's just window-dressing), and the story's theme is more universal and more worth paying attention to.

Before I get to the spoilers, I have one question.  How old are Elsa and Anna during the main body of the movie?  I don't believe the ages Disney has given.  Those ages feel wrong, and I suspect Disney stated those for political/legal reasons.  More about that below.

Spoiler warning:

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Toller Cranston Dies

I remember watching Toller Cranston every year on television.  Of course in those days many TVs were black and white, and we could watch all of 3 channels.  However, CBC always ran the Canadian and the World Figure Skating Championships, and I was 9 when he won the Canadian Championships the first time.  And now, today while the 2015 Canadian Championships were going on, we learn that he has died in Mexico at age 65.  Since I ejoyed skating, taking lessons every week, he was an inspiration.  His artistry, his skill and he was one of us...  Even when he stopped competing, he coached and choreographed programs for yet more inspirational skaters, some of which I had the chance to see skating, live rather than on the TV.   He was an individual and chose his own path with his style, his art.  While I didn't like the graphic art, I still had to admire that he didn't seem to live to others expectations, but to his own.  I'm not saying anything unique, but he was a part of our Canadian heritage, and I will remember his contribution to the sport, our country and his artistry.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Magic and Technology (and Science)

Most of us are familiar with Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

I have just run across the reversed version: Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science

which makes a lot of sense.

This leads straight into my forward to my trilogy, asking what is magic?  If the magic can be analyzed, then is it scientific?  Since science is emminantly practical: being about what theories and methods work, and not about an externally imposed "correctness", this begs the whole question yet again: what is magic?   If you can answer the question, then you have analyzed the magic, so it isn't magic any more but belongs to scientific understanding.  So, this means that being "magical" is not a property of the phenomonon, but a property of the observer.  Something is magical because I don't understand it, rather than from an intrinsic property of the phenonomon.    No one can say that an object or event is magical.  Like beauty and the beholder of it, the "magicness" of the object or event properly belongs to the person making the statement.

There are those that might say that magic cannot be analyzed, that there are just some things in the world that are intrinsically inscrutable.  In that case, we can never know what magic is, by definition.  That means again that claims of magic can always be refuted, because the lack of understanding can always be due to insufficient study.  Why have we never found the elephant in the cherry tree?  We just haven't looked hard enough.

It is possible that there are things in the world that are inscrutable, or perhaps humans just don't have the brain-power to understand everything.  Personally, I suspect the latter is more likely to be true. So where does that leave magic?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Now that's acting, and good story-telling

Just saw Roman Holiday, the original version with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  I've seen it before, more than once, but not since I started writing.   By modern movie standards it is considered cheesy and dated, and the story idea has been used so much since that it has become a cliche.  However, you can't blame the movie that started the idea for that.

I still like the movie, even though I wasn't even alive when it was made in 1953.  This time I watched the movie from the prespective of the acting and the script-writing.  Sure, it's slow by modern standards, with very little action, the guy doesn't get the girl in the end, and is indeed in significant financial trouble.  After all he turned down a $5,000 story and took on $600 debt (to his friend and to his boss).  In modern terms that's more like $100,000 and $12,000.   However, without many words, without hysterics or over-bold actions (okay, the music is corny by today's standards) the actors portray strong inner emotions while at the same time the script and acting creates characters that are honest to themselves and to the world around them.   At the end of the "holiday" they talk about what might be, lying outwardly while knowing full well that they are deceiving no-one.   The plot might be a little campy but the chemistry between the two actors and that inner honesty is very refreshing compared the run of the mill action-adventure characters that we see so much these days. 

Even the supporting cast's acting is the same.  When Princess Anna says "Your Excellency, I trust you will not find it necessary to use that word again. Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and to my country, I would not have come back tonight... or indeed ever again!"  she doesn't shout, she doesn't cry, she doesn't break down.  She is calm, collected and firm, but we can see from her face not only how hard it was for her to say that, but how much she means it.  And then, the Embassador and the Countess say absolutely nothing, hardly move, don't lift a hand at all, yet we can see that they understand the strength of those words.

I have also seen the remake that came out in 1987.  Garbage.   I am not surprised that TV companies prefer to run the original.  However, this movie, and the fact that we do still see it run on TV, is proof that even these days story-telling doesn't have to be about violence, special effects, action, action and more special effects and more violence.