In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


SOPA and PIPA are Against EVERYONE’s Interests

Isn’t it “fair use” if I don’t sell it?

We often hear this claim made by those sturggling aginst what they see as legal tyranny by corporate media giants attempting to pray on the little guy. The answer is “No”, it’s still infringement — but can we really blame anyone for feeling this way?

There is a difference between what is legally practical and what is morally right. That’s exactly why industry keeps pushing for laws like SOPA and PIPA (and DCMA before it). They want to make it more practical to enforce their (legitimate) right to earn a return on their investment in time and talent. That’s fine, in theory. The problem is that any law that makes enforcement easy enough to stop individual acts of infringement CANNOT HELP but open the door to rampant abuse and coercive intrusion into the free market.

Let’s be clear on this: When an artist (or a media distribution company) says it is illegal even for one person to make one copy of a protected work for their own use with no redistribution, they are right. It IS illegal AND immoral for to copy other people’s work without paying their asking price, even for only your own use (except for parody, commentary etc.). It took effort and/or talent to create the work, and if you use it without paying, you are a cheat.

However. The reality is, people have done so and are going to continue to do so, and to a great extent, that is just the cost of doing business in a free society. Attempts to lock down technology to make infringement impossible cannot succeed, because by succeeding, they would destroy the very free society that makes the production of IP economically valuable in the first place.

There is, of course, truth to the claim of materiality, that one person copying a few songs is not doing any MATERIAL harm. True. The challenge is that digital technology makes it so easy to copy that even casual, ostensibly benign infringement can erode a significant slice of the market. This is a legitimate problem, one that legitimately needs to be addressed. For my part, I think it could be better addressed through marketing and education than through legal machination.

The thing is, legal remedies to ubiquitous access always have unintended consequences. I know one fellow who acquired illegal copies of a whole slew of technical books because he needed to use them on an e-reader that did not support the digital lock placed on them by the publishers. He BOUGHT all these books, but in the process of hunting down copies he could actually use, he ran across a repository of hundreds of unsecured copies he had not previously known about. These turned out to be from a publisher who makes such books freely available to encourage people to turn to their newer releases for updates, but it also supported the very piracy sites that laws like PIPA are meant to destroy.

The reality is, no law can ever stop a free people from infringing occasionally upon one another, and society itself has mechanisms for keeping such infringement in check. Typically, people are much less likely to do what they see as being “wrong” or “uncool” according to their peer group, than what an outside aggressor prohibits by force.

By attempting to make all copying impossible, or so easily prosecutable that a police state results, the media conglomerates make insurgents of their own customers. How can that be good business?

Colonnade Win

I was just notified that my short story “Frame Zero” won 1st place in the Colonnade Writing Contest. Short stories are harder, in a way, than novels, because they require so much of the world to remain outside the narrative. This one was interesting because it all revolves around a boy at the crossroads of two different kinds of revolution, and his backstory, future, and familial relations are only hinted at. It was a lot of fun.

“Frame Zero”, is about a brilliant boy who learns that his father has been arrested after studying a signal from space that he thinks is a message from God. On the eave of a great religious war, the boy goes over his father’s notes and realizes the signal can only be from a spacecraft launched twelve thousand years ago from earth–from before the accepted creation.

Well if you already knew…

Stephen Covey once said “constructive criticism is the greatest gift one ca hope for”, and he was right. Participating in a critique group is a tricky enterprise. You want to be encouraging, but you want to give constructive criticism–that’s why we’re all here.

It is surprising, then, how frequently a writer will argue with the critique, and even more so, how frequently his argument breaks down — one way or another — to some version of “Yeah, I already knew that was a problem.”

I shouldn’t be surprised of course. This is the natural human desire to save face–even if only in our own eyes, and we ALL are guilty of it at one time or another.

Literary critique, fellow space travelers, should not be that time. You asked for my critique, I give it. I try very, very hard to be constructive (even if the POV shifts eight times in the first paragraph and you mis-spell your own main character’s name in the second) and the only response I need from you is “thanks.” It is, after all, only my opinion; you are free to disagree, or agree, or agree and ignore me anyway for reasons that satisfy only you. It’s your writing after all, and I will think no more or less of you for not writing what I would have written (in fact, I’d just as soon you didn’t!).

But please, please don’t agree with me and tell me “yeah, I knew that was a problem”, because from my end of the transaction, that translates as “yeah, I don’t mind wasting other people’s time and effort.”


A Bolt From Her Quiver

It is said that early experiments in electromagnetism were inspired by hikes in the Austrian countryside, where rough terrain made the magnetic compass indispensable, and where sudden thundershowers are common. Soon it was noticed that when lightning flashed nearby, the compass needle would jump, which led naturally the experiments that changed our world forever.

I once had a similar experience. I was walking across the open campus of my university when the persistent mist that had besieged our weekend suddenly resolved into rain. The campus was large and sudden storms not uncommon, and though I had brought along my faithful umbrella, I could not take much pride in the provision as the electrical ferocity of the storm blossomed overhead. Within a minute, the afternoon glow still warming the dripping foliage around me was transformed by stroboscopic lashes from above. I hurried, but before I could reach the stairs leading down to the street and the safety of the nearest building, I felt a jolt through my hand and was shaken, bodily, by a massive concussion of palpable thunder.

“This is it,” I thought as the giant plate glass windows rattled in the nearby natatorium, “I have stepped into a charge leader and am about to be struck by lightning.”

As a dedicated geek, you see, I was well aware of research, recent at that time, of the stroke-counterstroke nature of the lightning strike–which begins with an invisible trace of airborne current snaking between the cloud and ground. I reckoned the metal rod of the umbrella had contacted such a current, conducting a high-voltage pulse through the plastic handle and into my hand.

“But,” I thought next, “I should already be dead.”

I knew, after all, that any conscious realization forms in the brain much more slowly than a lightning bolt. My heart raced ahead of my feet as I hurried under cover, but I soon realized my mistake. The bolt had never come near the ground. It, like all of the impressive discharges around me that afternoon, had been from one cloud to the next. What I had felt was but a tiny side current, an eddy, induced into the metal rod of the umbrella by the enormous MAGNETIC FIELD moving perpendicular to the bolt.

As far as I know, not a single bolt struck the ground that day, so it would be fatuous to say I was lucky to survive. I was lucky though, just a bit, to catch nature flexing her muscle.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I finally got around to watching the latest incarnation of this venerable franchise, and my take is “good in a way”.

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I have long worshiped at the literary altar of Rod Serling, and that I see in his contributions to the original Planet of the Apes screenplay the keys to its longevity. His was a cold war theme, of course, and while religious extremism was the main evil confronting Taylor, it was cold war ideology that had wrought his hell on earth, and that led him to damn his fellow men “all to hell”.

This latest movie does one thing I like very much–it makes every major character act with virtue and character within his own little slice of the world–even the apes on rampage. No evil Dr. No here. No mad Dr Moreau. The trouble though, is that they pull it off too well.

Sure, the guys running the primate house are a tad petty, and the next door neighbor a bit of a jerk, and the head honcho at the lab a little too obsessed with making money and the researcher a little too worried about saving his dear old dad. In short, everyone is guilty of being human–appropriately enough given that they are about to be exterminated and replaced by apes who will have a little more of exactly the same defect.

So who’s the protagonist here? You watch this and find yourself rooting for the flight computer on the irrelevantly mentioned Mars shot. Perhaps it will come back, kill EVERYONE and make the world safe for visiting aliens—or perhaps the microbes who, duplicitous in the mayhem though they might be, are at least incapable of suffering over their own weaknesses.

So, it’s a good movie, well made and well written. And yet…
There is no one and nothing to root for. There is no real villain and no real protagonist. And sorry, that is not “highly evolved modern literature”, it’s cheap and shallow. Take a stand. Make the characters noble in their own eyes, but make someone right and someone wrong in MINE (even if it’s up to me to choose up sides), or their is no point in my attending the party.

Shifting Perspective

Much is made today about “head hopping”, the confusing tendency of some authors to hop omnisciently from one character’s perspective to another, even within the same scene. This is seldom, if ever, effective, but that doesn’t mean that perspective should never shift–even within a scene.

Often, I will begin a scene with sweeping omniscience, and then narrow down to one character’s head:

The taut gray fabric of the lift kite snapped and crackled in the sunlight, three turbines whirring below as they stole power from the wind and sent it down a ribbon to the approaching LCUI. Three kilometers below, Lieutenant Calvin McCaffrey stood at parade rest, boot heels buried in the white sand, hands clasped stiffly behind his back, and waited as the flat nose of the landing ship plowed through the lagoon directly towards him, one outrigger displacing sheets of water in defiance of the kite’s starboard tug.

High on a nearby ridge, Dylan wondered aloud what the hell the man was doing.

Why do I do this? Because it lets me set the scene in a very cinematic way. It creates in the mind a world larger than the characters, and then the sense of panning down into their lives. Here, I start by describing a wider scene, information that all the characters might know because they live in this world while we are only visiting. I then zoom in on a conversation, and in the following lines, I will zoom into one character’s head–and stay there until the end of the scene.

Think of it like the opening pan in cinematography.Used judiciously, it is a very effective tool, and like any tool, it can be used to craft or to butcher.

Goodbye Hitch

Christopher Hitchens has “shuffled off this mortal coil” and we are saddened and impoverished at the news. I had the great good fortune of attending one of his last public appearances, and was as moved by his humility and kindness as by his resolve and wit.

He is gone, but has gone nowhere, and lives on in the only form of immortality that any of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can confidently aspire to, his works and ideas.

His contributions to reason, philosophy, and English literature will remain with us for generations, and as a writer myself, I delight that owing to the human ingenuity he cherished so much, his words will linger in inspiration forever.

Deep Space Radar?

An old Internet story is making the rounds again, that the Aricebo antenna picked up 47 year old TV broadcasts bouncing back from some mystery object “or more likely, field of objects” some 25 light years away.


Some versions of the story are well written, others make absurd claims such as that the BBC has recovered lost Dr. Who episodes (not a chance in hell, for a number of reasons).

But the idea is intriguing. Could we not, in fact, create a deep space radar system to map the Oort cloud and once and for all detect every object within the solar system that might one day come to call?

Now this would be a very odd radar. It might, for example, be fixed to point always out away from the sun (or at least rotate very, very slowly), because it is looking for objects hundreds and thousands of light minutes away.

Further, might there be some value in some sort of deep space radar as an exploration tool? Well, it would require patience on a scale of which, frankly, I lack the patience to contemplate. And it might require an inconveniently star-sized power plant to power the thing. So maybe not. But then. . .

Does Atheism Cause Slaughter?

Steve Pinker, in “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, has done a great deal of research about violence throughout history. Recently, he posted this on his website in answer to the common theistic assertion that atheism is the cause of the atrocities committed during the 20th century.

“This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.
First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.
Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia. See p. 677 for discussion and references.
Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.
Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from thehirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe (p. 142).
When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between thesistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. On pp. 337–338 I present data from Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.”

What more can be said, except that the argument was irrelevant to begin with. The question is not whether religion makes people behave nicely, but whether it constitutes an accurate view of the world. If it does, then there ought to be some way to demonstrate this fact. If it doesn’t, then since we invented religion, we can invent whatever we need to replace it.
I’m not taking sides here guys, it’s just a simple matter of logic, and if God exists, he he gave us brains. If your argument stinks, don’t expect anyone to accept it.

The Very First Dungeon Master’s Guide

If you have played Dungeons and Dragons, you probably know what a Dungeon Master’s Guide is. And if you have looked at one of these, you likely know the name Gary Gygax.

Gary was the principle force behind the creation of D&D, and my college room mate played with a group of friends of his–some years after he had moved on into the corporate gaming world.

These guys played D&D using a photocopy of Gary’s original Dungeon Master’s guide, and he showed it to me one day. On the last page (or maybe it was in the front where it belonged–it was a long time ago) in plain, irregular, typewritten text, Gygax thanked the members of his gaming group who had helped, and added this conclusion:

“If you find any omissions or mistakes in this manual, please keep them to yourself. I have no intention of ever doing this again.”

Of course he did, writing many versions of that and derivative guides until his death in 2008.

Hal, if you’re out there, find that guide and put it on Ebay. Better yet, track down the original.