Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year Special: Get "My Social Calendar" for Kindle for 99¢

The ebook My Social Calendar 2014-2015 may start with October 2014, but all 12 months of 2015 are included, now for just 99¢ *  

At least three quotations are provided for each day. Over a thousand quotes for 2015 were selected from over 600 sources. 

Some are humorous, some philosophical, some whimsical, some topical—but all are thoughtful or thought-provoking, or both. 

The book includes a chapter on how to share your thoughts online to social media like Facebook, Twitter and Google+. 

Quotations are linked to author source pages online, and a substantial index of sources lets you search the calendar for more quotes from a source you enjoy.

I have selected only the high-grade ore from the reading I have done for the last dozen years or more, to share with you both quotes I agree with and quotes I would argue with. 

Shining nuggets, they wait for you... Happy New Year!

* (US pricing, other locations may vary, but are also reduced in proportion.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Smoking Actors in Smoking Movies

Ernie Kovacs rarely appeared without a cigar.
Time was, an elegant woman or dashing man was portrayed on-screen with a lit cigarette in hand. Wealth could be indicated by a long cigar, poverty or desperation by a short stub clenched in the teeth. Anxiety was telegraphed by a nervous flick of ashes from a tightly-clutched cigarette.
Everyone smoked.
This reflected a society in which many people smoked. I recall watching movies from a balcony seat, since my parents smoked, and that was where smokers were seated in the theater. 
In one of the first smoking restrictions, smoking was prohibited for the patrons in movie theaters - but on-screen, cigarettes were still a frequent accessory to glamor and the good life.
As societal norms have changed, though, have the movies kept pace? That was the question addressed by a study done in 2005 by Dr. Karan Omidvari and others at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, NJ. They recorded the smoking habits of five main characters in each of 447 movies made during the 1990s, including hits like Independence Day (with its celebratory cigars), and There’s Something About Mary.
The researchers excluded animated features and science fiction with settings other than Earth, because they aren't typically intended to represent reality. They also didn’t count as a smoker any character whose smoking was only depicted in a flashback or another scene that didn't occur “in the present, in the sense of the film.”

What they found about smoking in movies from that decade may surprise you. Only 21 percent of “good-guy” characters smoked, while 36 percent of their adversaries did. Omidvari reflected that it is good news that Hollywood tends to depict smokers as unsympathetic characters.

Overall, 48 percent of the movie smokers were portrayed as from a lower socioeconomic class, while 23 percent appeared middle-class. Only 11 percent of smokers could be identified as upper-class. (The remaining characters could not be assigned to any particular class.)
The study revealed that smokers in US movies are more likely to be villainous and poor than heroic or wealthy. Omidvari did note that in R-rated and independent films, main characters were more likely to smoke than they were in studio releases. In fact, in these films, smoking was more prevalant than it is in the US population as a whole.
I wonder how they would have counted Jim Carrey's manic character in The Mask? To quote Stanley Ipkiss, “SMO-kin’!”

Monday, December 29, 2014

Two Conspiracies: Benghazi and Britain

Two non-fiction novelizations of conspiracies wound up in my "Need to Read" list this year. These two conspiracies, widely separated in time, share a common theme: The conspirators, utterly convinced of the right of their actions, would see their conspiracies deliver the exact opposite result from what they intended.

One account was easier to read than the other, but it had little to do with the quality of the writing. I had to abandon and restart 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi several times. The account of events at the American consular compound in Benghazi, Libya, written by Mitchell Zuckoff "with the Annex Security Team", was just a little too close in time to enjoy in the conventional sense.

The Annex Security Team were a group of six CIA operatives located in an annex building of the US State Department Special Mission compound in Benghazi. These men were the sole responders to the attack on the compound on September 11, 2012, that ended in the brutal death of the ambassador, Christopher Stevens. A second team of eight responders from Tripoli attempted to rescue the survivors who had been evacuated to a safe house.

Stevens had notified the State Department just before the attack of his fears that the security of the compound had been compromised, and the local security team was threatening to withdraw. The attack by Libyan Al-Queda on the night of 9-11 showed that his fears were justified: the general security setup of the compound and the locations of safe houses were known to the attackers. In the subsequent military-style attack on the safe house, two ex-Navy SEALs on the second rescue team were killed.

The truth that needed to be told was why Stevens' report of compromised security was apparently ignored; why there were not additional American security forces added to the compound defenses in the days leading up to 9-11, when an attack might be expected even without the compromised security; and why no military response was made to the attack until after the ambassador's death. Most important: Why did the Obama Administration find it necessary to present the attack as a protest against an anti-Muslim video posted online?

The conspiracy involved people in the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton's State Department dismissing the Benghazi attackers as protesters, not terrorists. This claim eventually led to the jailing of the video-maker, but could not long survive publication of details of the event. For one thing, the "Muslim protesters" brought RPGs and machine guns, and knew exactly where defensive emplacements were most vulnerable. 

Mitchell Zuckoff makes an extreme effort in this account to balance the direct knowledge of the Annex Security Team, the initial false statements from Obama Administration officials, and other documentation, and ends by diluting the impact of the event he is chronicling. I was left with the feeling that more remains to be told.

Although this is certainly an inside account of the events in Benghazi, it fails to tell the wider truth. I wanted to know what happened in Libya, yes, but also what went wrong in Washington, DC, that made the Benghazi event more than a terrorist attack. If you are looking for clues to the conspiracy, you will not find them here.

To contrast, Winston's War by Michael Dobbs was enjoyable from start to finish. The sense of injustice, done by the conspirators to a well-loved icon of history, was equally invoked as with the Benghazi account, but because the participants in the conspiracy have been fully exposed as failures, the reader can revel in the knowledge that history has judged them.

The conspiracy here is the effort of the Chamberlain Ministry to exclude the "war-monger" Winston Churchill from the councils of government in the events between Neville Chamberlain's Munich Pact with Adolf Hitler for "peace in our time" and the German invasion of Poland less than a year later.

In reading this account, one gets the sense of discovering enjoyable details: Churchill's uneasy finances and the advantage taken by the conspirators of his need for a loan, his encounter with Guy Burgess that opens the story; the eventual defection of Burgess to the Soviet Union; the growing knowledge in the Ministry that appeasement is failing, and their efforts to keep that knowledge from the British populace. 

Because I read Winston's War at the same time as reading 13 Hours, the similarities of the two conspiracies were borne in on me: in both cases, one realizes public officials deciding to be less than honest or less than forthcoming is perhaps the result of a belief that a greater purpose is served by the conspiracy. For Chamberlain and the proponents of appeasement, the lack of readiness in Britain for war made peace at all costs the only choice.

Fortunately for us all, Chamberlain's policy was destroyed when Germany abrogated the pact, and it was Winston Churchill's leadership that guided Britain through its involvement in WWII.

History has yet to reveal the conclusion, fortunate or otherwise, to the conspiracy involving the US State Department, the Obama Administration, and the events of 9-11, 2012, Beghazi. 

Time Travel in a Fever Sweat

Perhaps because I had recently reread Amitav Ghosh's wonderful The Calcutta Chromosome, I was primed to accept the premise of William M. Dean's The Space Between Thought. What if, as other philosophers have speculated, all time exists at once, and it is only our perception that imposes a linear order upon it? If that is true, then maybe mind-altering (and thus perception-altering) drugs would allow us to change, even reverse, its flow.

Simon Sykes is a fortunate man. He owns a business he loves, has a girlfriend, Celeste, who loves him and completes him, and he also has a gift for attracting women into one-night stands and brief affairs. Everything is going very well for him, until his girlfriend commits suicide, and Simon's life falls apart.

Everyone around Simon accepts the death as suicide, even though Celeste left no note. But Simon arrived home just after Celeste's death and saw a ghostly figure near the window, so he isn't buying suicide. He thinks he knows who killed his girlfriend, but can't tell the police because that would reveal his own cowardice.

Now things really begin to spin out of control for him. By chance, he discovers that, in a certain frame of mind, he can slow time to a crawl. Nothing else slows down, though. Simon almost suffocates in the space of a few minutes because he can't get enough air into his lungs. If he can slow the flow of time, could he reverse it and go back to change his actions that led to the disastrous night of Celeste's suicide?

Dean has made a bold choice to open the novel with the pre-climactic scene depicted on the cover: a cocktail of drugs, some of them poisonous, is infused into tea which Simon drinks before he realizes its contents. Despite this information, and all the other foreshadowing action in the novel, the first climax comes as a surprise, and the final twist is totally unanticipated.

I almost set the book aside at first, because Simon at the beginning is a total fool. He has so much to envy, and values none of it highly. Celeste's death seems almost a punishment for his indifference. Then I was drawn into his struggle to make things right, despite his pathetic focus on incidentals such as which person he had been unfaithful to Celeste with. 

In the end, I was glad I had not given up on Simon or his struggle. Because in this concept of the passage of time, all ends are possible. A happy ending is not only possible, but inevitable, where we can amend time.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

An Alien Perspective

A writer must see the world through the eyes of his characters in order to succeed in revealing them to his readers. This simple fact underlies the basic humanity of the most alien creatures in science fiction; we can only write about that which we know.
This being so, Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, must spring from Haddon’s own experience with the very alien perspective of his main character, Christopher Boone, a “high-functioning” autistic teenager living with his widower father, who sets out to solve a neighborhood crime.
Unable to make sense of the adult world of emotions, social fictions, outright lies and gentle evasions, Christopher falls back on his love of pattern and logic. He ascribes a magical ability to harm or bless to mundane occurances and sensations: seeing four red cars in a row on the way to school means he will have a very good day. Brown and yellow are bad, so he doesn’t touch yellow things or eat yellow food. When too much data is coming in, Christopher’s only recourse is to moan and block it out.
He starts with the “murder” of Wellington, the standard poodle across the street. Christopher does not understand why he is arrested when he is found covered in blood, cradling the dead pet in his arms. He is baffled by the hostility of the dog’s owner, a former family friend who stepped in to help Christopher and his father cope after the loss of his mother. And he carefully steps around the letter of his father’s injunction to stop playing detective, persisting in his search for the cause of Wellington’s death.His experience of the world is chaotic, overwhelming, so he tries to impose order on it in any way he can. Taking a leaf from a favorite fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, the teen resolves to approach everything logically, systematically using his own eidetic memory and keen observational skills to discern patterns in the quicksand-shifting adult world.
The boy’s desire to solve this mystery leads him to step out of his comfortable childhood life, and make a journey as daunting to Christopher as any African explorer’s. What he discovers during his sleuthing is a surprise to all in the story (including Christopher himself), and also to the reader.
There is no doubt that Curious Incident is a well-written mystery. Its brilliance, though, lies in the way Haddon has exposed us to the truly alien in our midst. The novel deserves every bit of the praise and promotion it has garnered.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vision Across a Crowded Room (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)


Something like this happened when we first met. Truly, across a crowded room, I saw for the first time the one person with whom I could live for the rest of my life. It must have been a true vision, because here we are, the two of us, in the backwaters of strife, having been married almost half a century.

I have altered the story somewhat to put the POV on the other hand, so to speak, but that's within the parameters of this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge:

December 24, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a vision. You can write your own personal vision and “fictionalize” it in the sense that you write it as if it already has come to pass or is unfolding right now. Or you can write the vision of a character. Dream big. dream bold.


Vision Across a Crowded Room

Crowded room, tangled with people and conversations; she sees him at the far side, gesturing with a sandwich as he talks.

Him! Love of her life, man at her side through all the long years. The one who matters most to her, who answered all her youthful dreams. He who loves her despite graying hair and increasing waist, with all her faults.

She smiles and turns back to the party tray, builds her own sandwich. The host taps her shoulder. "Gwen, I don't believe you've met Robert..."

She turns. It is Him. "I am so pleased to meet you!"

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Up and Down With the Bukito 3D Printer

Printing from a 3D printer like the Deezmaker Bukito can be an exercise in creative fun, or it can be a frustrating experience. A lot depends on the settings you choose for a wealth of parameters before you turn the printer on, and how you care for the printer between prints.

There are essentially three steps in the software to get a 3D shape to the printer: 
  1. Create the 3D model (usually as an STL or stereo-lithographic file), 
  2. Slice the model into multiple very thin layers parallel to the print bed
  3. Describe the path the print head must follow to generate each layer in terms the printer will understand (the gcode, which also includes other slicer settings that are communicated to the printer, such as extrusion temperature, speed of travel, etc.)
Step 1 involves some kind of CAD program, and may mean reaching a certain point on the learning curve to generate your own 3D model. If you want, you can jump straight past that learning process, and simply download an STL file from Thingiverse, YouMagine, or SketchUp's 3D Warehouse

While this is simple and quick, it does have two downsides: You can only print what you can find. And you don't learn the ins and outs of 3D Model design, so what you choose because it looks good may not print well.

Step 2, the slicing, is the main place that choice of parameters can really affect how well your printer operates. Depending on the slicing program you use, you need to set speed of filament feed (in mm/sec), and heat of extruder as the most basic settings. Next, you choose whether or not to print supports, use a brim or raft (horizontal extensions of the print base that help stabilize a vertical shape), and whether to fill the inside of the shape completely, or to leave some fraction of the space inside as air pockets. The slicer we use, Cura, does not allow us to chose various pocket shapes, but others let you choose between grid, hexagonal, and other shapes for partial fills.

There are dozens of other different parameters that can be set in the slicer, which means thousands of combinations, even when you've eliminated the combos that don't make sense. (For example, you likely wouldn't turn on supports for a predominantly-horizontal shape with a flat bottom, and you probably wouldn't need a raft or brim with it either.) Here is where frustration can set in, because there is no short-cut around playing with the different settings and choices, and accepting that some of them will make your print go south.
Some of the slicer choices you make will cause your print to fail. 
I find it is useful to figure out what the cost of the plastic is for such a failed print. The perspective that comes when you realize that less than 25 cents is being thrown away on a failed print helps to relieve the frustration.

Changing Filament Changes Response

Not only different types of plastic, but different reels of the same type of plastic, can change the way your print will come out (or not come out, as sometimes happens). There are several ways in which plastics can differ, even good quality filaments:

  1. Content, of course: ABS and Nylon will usually require a higher extrusion temperature than PLA, so the gcode file for a PLA print will not work well with Nylon filament.
  2. Consistency and size of diameter: Invest in an inexpensive digital or mechanical calipers so you can check the diameter of the filament (and its consistency along a length of it) before you begin using it. (Harbor Freight has digital calipers that read in either inches or mm for less than $20; often on coupon at less than $12.) If a filament is consistently 1.8 mm in diameter, for example, consider resetting the slicer settings for that higher volume of plastic.
  3. Moisture content: plastic absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. If nylon, for example, isn't stored with a desiccant, or if it's out being used in the printer on a very humid day, changing moisture content can change the plastic's responsiveness to being melted in the extruder.
  4. Other materials or contaminants: "Contaminants" are non-plastic materials that you don't want in the filament, but sometimes you do want something other than the plastic. Consider dyes and colorants. Even at the same base plastic content, same filament diameter, a gold-colored filament will often respond differently than a clear or white (non-colored) plastic.
  5. Beginning of the reel vs. End of the reel: Everything ages. Unless you print an entire reel in a few days, chances are very good the responsiveness of your plastic will change over time. You may need to adjust the slicer settings to accommodate this change.
Bottom line: Filament changes will often require changes to slicer settings in order to get the best quality print.
If your print is failing, it is more likely to be the filament and/or slicer settings than a printer-mechanism problem.
Because there are so many choices possible, however, it can be simpler to assume that a problem is generated by a mechanical failure instead. The benefit is that once you eliminate mechanical problems as a cause, you know the solution lies in making different choices in the slicer.

Don't Forget Machine Maintenance

The thing that has cost us the most in time and parts replacement is build-up in the extruder. A coating of burnt or melted plastic causes the filament to extrude more and more slowly, and the backup pressure on the feeder mechanism can pop loose the Bowden Tube press-fitting. (When this happens, you need to replace that part.)

The excellent cold-pull technique described on the Deezmaker site is the solution to this problem. Simple blockage can be resolved by a fine wire inserted into the extruder nozzle from below. (A single wire pulled from a standard wire brush like those sold for cleaning BBQ grills will serve this purpose.) Once this blockage is cleared, however, chances are very good that a coating of burned/melted plastic remains. The cold-pull can be used to remove the remaining material from the extruder.
Build-up in the extruder can be removed easily, but if left in place it will gradually degrade print quality, and damage the feed mechanisms.

Noodles of plastic that drool out of the extruder (over the edge of the print bed) at the "home" position should be removed when the machine is turned off. We have had our Bukito less than six months, and when it was tipped upside down recently (to demonstrate its portability during a print session at Chick-fil-A), to our surprise six or seven chunks of plastic string dropped out of the base plate around the control board. 

This was despite removing any such noodles that we observed at the beginning of each print; somehow we had missed that many.

And Now, The Weather...

Cold and moisture both can affect the print quality. If you've tried everything else, as we found recently, a change in the thermostat setting for your work area (or a change in the weather outside) can set things right.

When in doubt, just remember that a failed print is only pennies of plastic. As for your time, well, you were going to spend that time printing anyway, right?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Alternate-History Time-Travel Warfare Classic

Robert Adams is probably best known for his post-apocalyptic Horseclans novels, but in keeping with what has turned into a December Marathon of Time-Travel Fiction, I re-read his Castaways in Time

Unfortunately, the Kindle version of this classic is full of OCR typos, which lost it a star, but the story is a good one. A mixed group of travelers battling an epic flood on the East Coast of the United States in present-day is suddenly (in a manner never explained) transported through time, space, and a "lateral" time dimension to a "world of alternate probability". They seem to be in 1640 England, landed into the middle of a Roman Church-supported war between the Scots and various Crusaders, against the heretical English king. Not Henry VIII. Arthur III.

The displaced persons immediately set about using the goods that were transported with them—a truck-load of high-nitrogen fertilizer, a cabinet of modern and older firearms, along with various other goodies (such as bottles of Jim Beam, penicillin and vitamin tablets)—to carve themselves names and reputations in the new world, supporting good King Arthur against a Roman Church that controls the world through its monopoly of the known component of gunpowder, niter.

The action is wholly devoted to the ways in which advanced knowledge of warfare and its technology is used within the medieval armies to alter the balance of power. In that, it reminds me of similar "time travel" novels such as H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (sadly not available on Kindle, Lord Kalvan launched the "alternate history" and "time police" concepts for such works), and Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which primarily used the contrast of modern and ancient technology to poke fun at current-day society.

Adam's purpose is not so lofty as Twain's, nor as well-envisioned as Piper's, but the way he presents warfare of the time with all its "mud and blood", and the masterful way he describes the problems of a feudal society coping with the deprivations of war and weather, makes this a worthwhile read.

Just put your patience on high if you are disturbed by typos. Combined with their plenitude is a liberal sprinkling of Gaelic and German phrases that make reading the novel on Kindle a little more difficult than it should be. Better yet, buy one of the many used paperback versions, and enjoy it in its original well-edited text.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Grass and Moral Responsibility

Sheri Tepper's Grass is a rabbit-hole entry into rich moral questions: Do good people have a moral responsibility to act to prevent evil actions by others? And even deeper: Can that action include killing the evil actor to prevent the evil action? Deeper still: Is there an objective measure for good and evil? 

By the time you know who (or what) characters the protagonist in Grass finds good, you're already well into Wonderland. 

As with all of Tepper's novels, there is also a frontal attack on a recurring question (in case you don't have philosophical indigestion already): What is a worthwhile life? Can it be deferred for "heaven"? Can it be lived without the non-human other? 

Marjorie Westriding is a "small being" faced with these questions on the planet Grass, where every plant is a variant of grass, and an evil intelligence lurks in the forest of blades. Her Catholic family and the prevalent humanist religion are both under attack by a widespread plague that has struck mankind everywhere—except on Grass. The monoculture of grass echoes the monoculture of humankind, which has reduced most other species of animals to a sterile gene-sample library. Will Marjorie solve the problem and find the answer to the deeper questions? Will she choose to act? 

I always feel as if this is the first Tepper novel I read (actually it was After Long Silence, sadly, not available for Kindle), because it was the first that resonated with my life. The day I opened the book the first time, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Marjorie's dilemma was being played out on the Gulf sands. When the US decided to go into Afghanistan, I reread Grass, and the resonance was still there. 

And as we choose today how we will deal with enemies foreign and domestic, the core questions Tepper raises in this novel continue to resonate. We must oppose evil in the world, and we must do it without embracing evil. Otherwise...

Well, all flesh is grass, and there will come a reaping.

Time Travel Loopiness: Nazi Cruise Liner

Nazi cruise-ship time travel. Need I say more?

Perhaps not, but I will. The Last Passenger by Manel Loureiro, translated from the original Spanish by Andrés Alfaro, is less a time-travel science fiction novel with elements of horror than it is a horror novel that uses a time travel loop as a gimmick to allow an ultimate horror to live again.

The concept is breath-taking: In 1939, on the eve of the declaration of war for WWII, a luxury cruise ship is found drifting in the North Atlantic. Empty of its swastika-bedecked passengers, it is nevertheless not completely abandoned. One last passenger, an infant, is found on board by the salvage crew who explore her.

Switch to present-day, as a crew of scientists is being gathered to take the refurbished ship back out to sea, to a location that they hope will reproduce the original conditions under which the ship was lost in 1939. 

The purpose of this new cruise may be scientific, but the ship (or something aboard it) has an agenda of its own. It wants to return that last passenger to the origin-point. In aid of this time loop, it will resurrect its former Nazi passengers, infecting the minds of the current-day crew.

The delivery is suffocating, as in: you hold your breath from chapter to chapter. Loureiro deftly foreshadows the horror to come. Suspense and horror climb together as you read. And if you can't quite care about the main characters, who are a little flat and crudely-drawn, you can care about finding out just what the devil is going on.

Some of the plot points are telegraphed and easy to foresee. For example, the current-day identity of the "last passenger" is easy to spot in the first pages of the current-day narration. It doesn't matter, because the story is powerful (and horrifying) enough to carry you past the sense that you know what is going on.

Unlike other reviewers, I was pleased with the way the author wrapped up the story. Closure is important in a horror novelunless the author plans a sequel!

And there is a truly terrifying thought. The Return of the Nazi Cruise Liner. In 3D, perhaps...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Return to Origin (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Diamonds are a rare gem indeed. Even though they can now be man-made, there is evidence that they are far more abundant in the Earth's mantle. They may be original star-stuff, existing unchanged from the coalescence of the planet.

In the 1970s, I worked in a diamond lab in South Africa. Here industrial diamond was made, and its quality tested. In the small lab off the main lab, where I worked, diamond was also tested for the parameters that made it excel as a heat-sink in electronic equipment.

Diamond heat-sinks were essential components in satellites. The product of this smaller lab, carefully tested, tumbled to a perfectly-spherical shape, and then ground to have two perfectly-parallel faces, was not man-made. It was gem diamond, selected from the stream of crystals that were otherwise shipped to Antwerp.

In these days of apartheid, our product was shipped to Dublin, where, marked "Product of Ireland", it could be sold past the embargo on goods from South Africa. From there, it went into satellites launched into orbit.

So you can see the reason behind Return to Origin, my response to this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge:

In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about rare gems. It can be treasure, rough or twinkling, an object, place or person. Go on an adventure, let your imagination fly and kick perfectionism to the curb. You are in pursuit of something greater!

Return to Origin

Star-stuff, deep within the mantle, immeasurable pressures keep it liquid. One crystal among billions, it rises. 

One crystal among millions, it breaks through almost to the surface. Others re-submerge, re-liquify, but this one endures millenia of weathering.

A lucky pick breaks the surface. Kimberlite is eagerly sought, but one crystal in thousands is pure, gem. This one survives the gleaning to arrive in a lab.

One crystal in hundreds has the right composition for the electronics. This one joins its brothers to be ground. Afterward, only one meets specifications for a satellite heat-sink.

Installed, it rises to orbit, star-stuff.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It Kills Dinosaurs, Changes Climate, and Eventually Drowns Us

Dust is all-pervasive in our lives. It permeates our atmosphere and even fills the void between stars. In The Secret Life of Dust, Hannah Holmes has breathed life into this dusty topic, with a narrative by turns terrifying and fascinating.

Holmes' dust is not the motes you see floating in a beam of sunlight, but invisibly tiny flecks of dead and once-living stuff. The author wraps the dusty path of everything in these well-written essays: Build stars from it. Water earth and entomb dinosaurs with it. Start and end ice ages in its flight. Share it worldwide. Kill each other and ourselves with it. Nourish tiny grazers and predators—and the Amazon Basin, and the entire world of grain eaters—on it. Smoke it, eat it, drink it, breathe it, and wear a thin sheath of it all our lives. Return to it at life's end.

It is fitting that this tale of dust begins with the birth of the universe, our sun and the Earth; and ends with death, our own transition to dust, and that of our solar system and of the universe. Holmes makes a good case for the triumph of dust.

She also accuses it of all sorts of villainy. Dust is implicated in the creation of a field of amazing dinosaur fossils in China's Gobi Desert. The best theory is that all these animals were overtaken in the midst of their everyday activities by a massive dry mud-slide as a dune of dusty loess soil suddenly collapsed over them.

Dust is also the root cause of plenty of human misery, from black lung and mesothelioma to asthma and heart disease. Airborne dust has been lofting off the Earth's surface long before there were animals, including humans, around to breathe it in. In fact, humans have evolved to be highly efficient at ridding our bodies of most kinds of dust particles. Eventually, however, the "mucus elevator" fails, and we drown in the dust we've inhaled.

From the personal fight against dust, to the global, Holmes points out that increased clouds of dust may have resulted from the cool air and entrapped water of the Ice Ages, and that dust may then have brought about the death of the glaciers. 

Iron-rich dust promotes blooms of carbon-dioxide-spewing phytoplankton (warming), and dust is required to create reflective cloud masses (cooling). She quotes Columbia University's Pierre Biscayne, who works to identify the ancient sources of dust trapped in ice cores from Greenland and Antartica:
"Climate modelers know dust is important, but it's the least well-known parameter in the Earth's thermal balance. Right now, they don't even know its sign."  [Emphasis in original]
This is not a book for the squeamish. If you have not been able to eat sausage since the time you read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, you may now find the idea of taking deep breaths of sea or woodland air horrifying. Reading this may kindle a desire to remove the carpets, toss your candles in the trash, and convert your fireplace into a cold, clean bed for your pets. You might even hesitate before taking a book down from a dusty shelf.

I recommend reading this excellent book on the Kindle, where it can gather no dust.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fever, Delirium and Discovery

Sadly, unavailable on Kindle.
In The Calcutta Chromosome, author Amitav Ghosh has written a fever-bright mystery story about an event that is a matter of history. In 1898 in Calcutta, Sir Ronald Ross solved a riddle: how is malaria transmitted?
"Malaria was the cold fusion of his day, the Sunday papers were scrambling to get it on the covers. And it figures: malaria's probably the all-time killer among diseases. Next to the common cold it's just about the most prevalent disease on the planet..."
In the historical tale that traces the intense competition between Pasteur in Paris, Ambrose Laveran in Algeria, and Ronald Ross in India, Ghosh introduces the mystery: a LifeWatch worker named L. Murugan investigating (in 1995) how Ross came up with his idea.

Half-stunned I look around
And see a land of death—
Dead bones that walk the ground
And dead bones underneath...
  —Ronald Ross, In Exile
Murugan's desire to learn how Ross was inspired gradually moves from simple curiosity to fever intensity. In the process, he stumbles on something he terms "anti-science." He conceives of this as a conspiracy, in which communication of ideas cannot take place by the normal methods of transmission. In effect, ideas are infections transmitted by an as-yet-undiscovered vector.
Seeking His secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death! Where is thy sting?
Thy victory O grave?
  —Ronald Ross, In Exile
Now Ghosh moves us even deeper, into the enigma of what happens when this fever takes hold. By the time the story begins, Murugan has been missing for decades. His LifeWatch ID shows up as a catalogued artifact on ADA, an archaeological sorting system run by Antar, a programmer in New York City. Antar's recognition of Murugan's ID card may be his first bite from the data-Anopheles.

Will Antar discover what happened to Murugan? Or will he, too, catch the fever, be infected by the meme—and disappear like Murugan? Ghosh has given us a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Don't expect a clear-cut revelation. It may be, after all, only a fever dream.

The Calcutta Chromosome is not available for Kindle. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time Cops and Sharpshooters

Rickshaw, New Mexico, by Jon de Silva is a satisfying tale that incorporates elements of Hollywood Westerns and cop thrillers into a well-told story of time displacement. 

Continuing on my recent theme of time travel, this is a curious story of a Marine sniper scout, George Foster, who wakes up after a disastrous bender (Jack Daniels and a pyramid of empty beer cans were involved) to find himself in just-post-Civil War New Mexico, hung over in a jail cell.

Before I get too enthused, however, let me point out that the writing could have used a few more tenses. de Silva uses only present and simple past to spin his yarn of changing times. 

Used only to tell the tale of the time traveler's movements, or the time police who brought him to this distant place and time, it might have been effective. Used without exception, even to tell what is done, was done and had been done, this lack of additional tenses makes the writing slightly flat. 

Fortunately, the story soon overcomes the mono-tense presentation.

Rickshaw reminded me of the Cross-Time Engineer series by Leo Frankowski. Like Conrad Stargard, George Foster is transported against his desire to a past time, by an organization that is revealed, but never explained. Like Stargard, Foster overcomes the lack of technology to become a leading light in his community. 

Unlike Stargard, however, Foster is not conveniently given all kinds of useful stuff to take back in time with him. He doesn't have much with him at all, just his clothes and wallet, thanks to the aforementioned bender. 

Oh, and his sniper skills, which translate well to a Sharps dual-trigger rifle. (Remember the Sharps rifle carried by Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under? That's the one.)

If you like Clint Eastwood movies about cops or cowboys, if you loved The Magnificent Seven, forget the time-travel aspect. You'll enjoy this novel just as a Western with a steely-eyed man at its center. I did.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Maybe Not a New Genre, But Brilliant Nonetheless

John Yeoman touts his anthology of stories about The Cunning Man (an apothecary/detective named Hippocrates Yeoman set in Elizabethan London) as a "new genre" of fiction that includes a tutorial for would-be writers. He cites the invention of the novel by Miguel Cervantes, and places his fictorial as the next leap forward.

Tall order.

To meet it, his stories must be well-written to begin, his tutorials must provide lessons that are necessary and useful to the writer, and these lessons must not detract from the stories themselves.

I went into the reading of The Cunning Man, then, with a chip or five on my shoulder. Cervantes is a giant—is this author David? (Or is he Vizzini? Anybody got a peanut?)

There are some issues with punctuation, to start. Yeoman uses hyphens (and touts their use) where an en- or em-dash would be appropriate. He doesn't seem to use commas inside the closing quote of a quoted phrase in a sentence. Normally, these are the kind of faults that grate on DrPat like wet chalk on a slate.

But as I "turned pages", a funny thing happened. I began to ignore the punctuation peccadilloes, because the stories are good, truly good. I was reminded of other historical novels that took on a less-known London, such as Neil Stephenson's Quicksilver, or perhaps a mystery set in a medieval society, like Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Next, the tutorials. These are cogent, and play on the examples of techniques the author has used to tell the story. They are useful, if you have not encountered them before (and many beginners will not have). You can ignore them if you find them detracting from the story. 

And it is cool the way the tutorials open a window over the text rather than jumping to a footnote page. These footnotes reminded me of the major way my reading has changed since I began using a Kindle: I look things up—not just words from the dictionary, but entries from Wikipedia and iMDb and Goodreads. As I'm reading, I'm reading deeper and broader.

Is it a new, bold step in fiction? The equivalent of the birth of the novel? No. In my opinion, no. He has used a capability of the eBook that other writers have not.

Has the author put his whole craft into the open for the reader? No. In my opinion, no. Although he has made some choices and tricks explicit, which is helpful.

But is it a cool new way to read more into a story than ever before? Yes. Decidedly, yes. 

Zero Time, Infinite Chaos

There are various ways in which classical and quantum physics deals with the possibility of paradox in time travel, encapsulated in the question, "What would happen if I went back into my past and killed my grandfather?" The ways in which authors deal with the possibility of paradox are just as varied.

Connie Willis tells the tales of a series of academic chrononauts from a university in England, traveling to the Black Death (Doomsday Book), the WWII bombing of London (Fire Watch and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and the defense of Britain (Blackout and All Clear).

Initially, Willis' time-transiting historians are firmly convinced of the Penrose cosmic censorship principle: travelers can only arrive at times in which no change to the past is possible. 

Contrast this with the premise presented in the Ray Bradbury short story A Sound of Thunder: Tiny changes in initial conditions (the death of a butterfly in the Jurassic) can wreak immense shifts in present-day society. This Chaos Theory, also called "the butterfly effect", means that time travelers can completely remake their worlds.

Then consider the Novikov self-consistency principle, from quantum theory and the thought experiment popularly known as Schrödinger's Cat. If every possible event has a certain statistical probability to occur, opening the box does not change the cat's status. It is what it is, alive or dead. Likewise, killing your grandfather has no effect on your life, because what happened, happened whether you traveled in time or not. If it would change the future, you would not be permitted to perform the act. This is sometimes restated as "time's self-correction capability". No paradox can be created.

One way to get around the creation of a paradox is to create a new universe: in one, Schrödinger's Cat is alive, in another, it is dead. In such a "multi-verse", every act that can change the future spawns a new universe.

I must admit when I first began reading Zero Time by Kenneth D. Reimer, I thought it was going to be a multi-verse story. As I read onward, I began to wonder if he meant to travel Bradbury's path. Chaos abounds in the story, a direct consequence of his main characters traveling through time and arriving "back in the present" out of sequence with each other. 

Then Reimer explicitly brought up Schrödinger's Cat, and I began to see implications of quantum corrections occurring. More and more, the story began to challenge causality and our perspective of linear time.

In the end, the author has done something really clever and disturbing: He has woven a web of time transit with a malevolent entity sitting in its center, waiting for the souls of time travelers to be caught in its strands—with causality paradoxes and butterfly effects, a clockwork monkey of evil appearance, time-crossed lovers, and a soupçon of physics and philosophy to flavor it nicely.

What emerges when you reach the end (but not until then) is a thoroughly twisted and enjoyable novel that succeeds in challenging the usual either-or choices of time travel.

I'm glad it's fiction. And I'm glad I read it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Make Today Count! (12-13-14)

From +Cheryl Cooper on Google+.
We all love those "special" dates. Never mind that unless you configure your calendar date the same way I do, the significance is lost. "13-December-2014" is nothing special, after all.

But 12-13-14? That's a day that should count for something!


Wikipedia is running their annual request for funds. If you are one of the 12 people in the world who don't use Wikipedia, ignore the request. But if you do, consider popping a few bucks in their Christmas stocking.

Or think about sending some crowd-funding along the wire. Kickstarter has a wealth of artists and small businesses waiting for your input to get going or to expand; Tilt is a place to fund wanna-be contenders like the Jamaican Bobsled Team; Kiva Microfunds loans small amounts to needy people in developing countries at 0% interest.

Give Time or Goods Locally

This is the season for local food drives, coat drives, gift drives and other opportunities to help those around you in your own area.

So drop a dollar or a fiver in the red kettle, and make a Salvation Army bell-ringer happy. Pick up an extra can of pumpkin pie filling or a spare box of stuffing mix and leave it at the local food bank. Go by the St. Vincent dePaul house or the Mission downtown, and see if they need a hand. 

You can also check at your favorite restaurants and local shops. Often they will run a toy drive or coat donation for the holidays, with rewards that range from a small discount on goods purchased to (my favorite) a free Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. You get to feel good and save at the same time!

Don't Forget Your Loved Ones

Christmas can be a hard time for the lonely. And no one is more lonely than someone from a large family, whose siblings live scattered across the country. Or whose children grew up and went off to live their own lives elsewhere. This is a good time to forgive old hurts and get in touch with those estranged from your life.

And while you spread holiday cheer, think of the elderly in rest homes, whose children may or may not be near to celebrate with them. You can bring joy to them with an hour or so of your time spent listening to their stories of Christmas long ago.

Whatever You Do Today

Make it count! Then go and do the same tomorrow, even though the date tomorrow is not significant. What makes the day special is what you do with it.

Make it count!