In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Have Proper Noun, Will Capitalize

Thou Shalt Capitalize Proper Nouns.

I don’t make the rules folks, but we all benefit from them, and my fellow writers, well criminy—look them up will you?

Earlier, I ran across a thread in a writer’s forum — a well-respected writer’s forum mind you–that went on through page after page and month after month of ignorant prattle about whether to capitalize “bible” or “the Bible” or “God” or “gods”. Every single post, it seems, missed the point utterly. You capitalize proper nouns: God, Zeus, Elvira Mistress of the Night, Scoobie Doo, what have you. It has nothing to do with whether you believe in God or whether you want to pay respect or reflect the importance of a figure.

We don’t capitalize God out of deference to God. We don’t do it because we believe and fear his wrath. This is not a question of style or belief or fashion. We do it out of deference to our reader, because we believe and fear his scorn. Even Christopher Hitchens would write, “God is not  great”. We don’t capitalize Charles Manson because he is so influential (well, I certainly hope not!) but because that’s his name. Piss off Charlie you git.

We also generally capitalize adjectives derived from proper nouns, such as Malthusian or Reaganesque. Oddly enough, notable exceptions to this rule include “biblical” (generally not capitalized anywhere in the English speaking world except the editorial department of the local Baptist church), or vedic or talmadic. For the record, neither theist or atheist are capitalized, but Baptist is. The latter is a religion, a proper noun and derived from a proper noun, the former are  states of being (adjectives), like “agnostic” or “fed up with people who can’t be bothered with an Internet search before stating an opinion on the Internet”. Oh, and “Internet” is capitalized because American dictionarists are under the collective misapprehension that it’s a proper noun instead of a noun meaning “a network connecting computers in two or more installations”, as opposed to “intranet”.

So atheists, you still have to capitalize God and the Bible. Theists, you still have to capitalize Wiccan and Galilean, and Darwinian. Anything else just wouldn’t be cricket, Cricket.

The Certain Fool

It is a peculiar form of arrogance that leads from “I don’t know” to “those who claim to know are liars, conspirators, and scoundrels.” I once knew a fellow who believed that the transistor was (and could only be) the product of alien intervention. It’s unclear why he found this explanation more reasonable than simple human inventiveness, but I suspect it’s because in some primordial way, he placed aliens in the metaphysical realm of myths and Gods with dominion over the unknown (and suspiciously complex). God couldn’t have done it because transistors brought rock & roll to America and millionaires to silicon valley, and there is nothing less godly (apparently) than a machine that gets people tapping their toes and buying things, so it must have been the aliens.
Miraculous as its impact has been, though, the origin of the transistor is quite down to earth. It was the product of a very human team of scientists (led by William Shockley at Belledisoneffect Labs) who set out to find a faster, more reliable alternative to the triode tube used in war-time radar sets. The triode (and other tubes) had evolved from attempts during the 1880’s to extend the operating life of Edison’s new light bulb. Edison, in turn, was building on earlier work by Humphrey Davy, Warren De la Rue, and James Bowman Lindsay, whose own efforts derived from simple experiments with electricity and magnetism, including the observation that lightning strikes cause a magnetic compass needle to jump (God did it after all, he just takes his sweet time). All of this is known and well documented. But none of it mattered to my acquaintance. He seemed to believe that what he didn’t understand couldn’t be understood, and that attempts to explain it could only be the work of tricksters, out to conceal the real and simple truth: the government is conspiring to hide little green men! One wonders what he would think of the idea that God (or at least the author of the bible) is necessarily in on the ruse? A healthy skepticism is vital, but the key to skepticism is diligent, objective study, not paranoia and infantile rationalization.
Everything we humans do develops in this way, step by step, one generation building on the shoulders of the last. It has taken millennia to build the modern world, and it is natural that we sometimes find it as overwhelming and inexplicable, as our ancestors must have found the elements of nature. But we have more than technology: we have the way of thinking that swept us, wave after wave and revolution after revolution, from beast to astronaut in less time than it took wolves to become pekingese.
Our problem, of course, is that we are all doomed to live and die within Plato’s allegorical cave. We know of the world only by the shadows on the walls—that is, through our imperfect senses. Empirical study may not reveal all that we would like, but it provides the only answers in which we can justify any confidence. Science cannot tell us why the earth exists, but it can tell us how it formed and how long it has been here. We are free to believe as we like, but only within the constraints set by what we can see and test. When we speculate (or accept the speculation of others) in the absence of evidence, we are literally “taking leave of our senses.” When we accept it in the presence of contradictory evidence, we are mad.
Of course, we can’t investigate everything for ourselves, so we are forced to rely on the testimony of experts. This presents a problem. How can we evaluate the expertise of someone who knows what we don’t? More to the point, what do we believe when our doctors, priests, administrators and scientists are at odds? Sadly, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, is not something any of us will ever have access to. We have facts, but we can only measure them against the ruler of reality, and since we must measure the ruler as well, we must accept a degree of uncertainty.
Not all possibilities are equally likely, though. We can approximate truth like an archer zeroing in on the bullseye. By testing what we can test, we can sort our beliefs until we develop confidence as to which are closest to the truth. This is the key insight behind the scientific method, and it is the key to assessing the claims that clutter our modern world. If science is a game of archery, our individual quest is more like pyramid building, where facts form a broad and shifting base, people who make claims about fact hold up the middle, and the truth, distant and precarious, balances somewhere at the apex. This is a difficult and imperfect way to understand our world, but it works.
Millions of Americans believe that the Apollo program was a hoax. They are all wrong, and I am about as confident of that as I am that those millions of people (most of whom I have not personally met) exist. This is possible because I know enough about science and engineering and human fallibility to recognize the veracity of the evidence supporting the landings, and at the same time, the laughable ignorance behind “moon hoax” arguments. When a “hoaxer” shows a flag waving as it could only wave in a vacuum and then claims this as evidence for a breezy sound stage, I naturally grow suspicious. When his arguments reveal ignorance of how dust falls in a vacuum, of optical photographic artifacts, and of basic physics; when he reveals omissions, flaws, and shortcuts in his reasoning and research and then responds to correction with anger and appeals to authority instead of gratitude and reconsideration, I can hurl his bricks away with confidence.
Consider claims that the earth is only six thousand years old and that its surface was once covered in a single flood event. Many accept these claims based on their understanding of Christian scripture. But in fact, neither claim is explicitly made in the Bible, and neither can be true based on dozens of overlapping lines of evidence and thousands of physical observations. Some of these observations are simple for even the layman to understand. Dendrochronology (tens of thousands of overlapping living and fossil tree rings) and geo-stratigraphy (millions of layers of sedimentary rock) have complex names, but are easy to understand and to see. If we assert (as some do) that God simply popped everything into existence just as it is, with the ancient sediments, the tree rings, and photons sailing in from the spaces between the stars—just to test our faith—then we are in philosophically deep water indeed. If we can’t accept basic measurements of parallax collected through telescopes, then neither can we accept anything else gleaned by our senses, including the stories in the bible. This sort of solipsism leads nowhere, which is why even the Catholic Church, having burned itself before, has acknowledged the antiquity of the earth. Besides, if the entire universe is a fraud, what does that make its creator?
Anyone can sell magazines and books making bold claims. Here are a just a few that are bouncing around our world right now: 1) Conspirators tell us the World Trade Center towers were brought down in a controlled demolition because “no building could ever fall into its own footprint on its own” They do, of course, as happened in January of this year, when one did exactly that in Rio de Janeiro after a structural failure. 2) “Psychics” offer “readings” on late night radio, even though precognition violates the laws of physics as we know them, and anyway would presumably have given the cold war to the Soviet Union (which invested heavily and consistently in occult research). If for three dollars, a gypsy woman with a pack of cards and a creepy disposition can foresee the woman you are destined to marry, surely for a Château on the Baltic she will give you a schedule of spy-plane overflights so you can disguise your missile launchers as a Cuban bazaar! 3) The local pharmacy has an extensive selection of pricey Homeopathic remedies, even though these are just highly distilled waterxi—often with real medicine added as “inactive ingredients”. Homeopathic medicine would also violate the laws of physics (or at least everything we know about chemistry and life—which is quite a lot). 4) A casino paid $28,000 for a partially eaten cheese sandwich bearing an image claimed to resemble the Virgin Mary, (though in fact, no one knows what she looked like and for a short time afterward, the Internet was abuzz with images of foods and nature scenes depicting (with sufficient credulity) various rude acts and anatomical parts).
We are all entitled to our opinions, but none of these claims is worthy of serious contemplation by anyone with a command of our shared facts. Not everything can be observed directly, but we must never be too sure of anything that can’t. When forget this, we can fall for anything—literally. One consequence is religious fanaticism; it is just that sort of certainty that leads people to strap explosives to their bodies before visiting the local market. But such misplaced certainty does more than justify extremist violence; it subverts the ability of people and cultures to manage the resources upon which their survival depends. Children can learn much from the beautiful story of Genesis, but combat disease, they need genetics, and with it, the knowledge that our last common male and female ancestors lived at least 60,000 years apart.
History shows us to be an adaptable and clever race. In an age in which we alone among God’s creation have ventured beyond our world, we must add nuclear war, pandemic, overpopulation, climate change, genocide and eugenics to an already long list of known challenges. If ever a being had the tools to face these challenges, that being is man. But how will we face our future? One possibility is to throw up our hands in prayer and hope we are delivered from this world before it comes crashing down around us. A more intelligent, and frankly, a more spiritually responsible approach, is to learn to govern ourselves as our ancient advisers could not, and use our greatest gift—reasoning—to its fullest.
We don’t have to choose between faith and science; we can reconcile the one to the other. We don’t need to seek the fantastic; the real world is fantastic enough. We don’t need to pretend to certainty, a well-founded approximation of truth is more valuable. Thomas Painex warned us ‘The word of God is the creation we behold, and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaks universally to man.” More than ever before, perhaps, we are assaulted today by claims (counterfeit and otherwise) from those who would manipulate us or lighten our purse. We don’t have to give in to these claims, but neither should we see conspiracy and alien intervention in every unknown. Our nation is the fruit of the age of reason. It will survive only so long as science and clever human investigation are permitted to outstrip the darkness that came before it. Empirical thinking, if we will but trust it, will sweep us yet to new heights, whatever those may be.

Dear Moon Hoax Conspiracy Nuts

Dear Moon Hoax Conspiracy Nuts:

Here is how you know when a moon landing is faked: In “Transformers: Dark of the Moon, they didn’t properly account for lunar gravity or for the vacuum and so they animated all the dust wrong. In every single image recorded by NASA on the moon, the dust behaves as it only could on the moon.

The spaceship impact at the beginning of the movie is WRONG. First, a ship traveling at that speed would have rebounded in the weak lunar gravity, and would almost certainly have cartwheeled as it plowed through the lunar soil.

Second, dust CAN NOT BILLOW in a vacuum. On Earth, dust billows (that is, roils out in overlapping spherical clouds) because it is running into and dragging against the air. Likewise, dust lingers in the air because there IS air to linger in. On the moon, every dropped object, from a spaceship to a mote of talcum power, travels along a ballistic trajectory with zero resistance. (This is actually one of the classic arguments through which conspiracy advocates shoot themselves in the foot. The Apollo lander didn’t create a dust cloud BECAUSE IT WAS ON THE MOON, WHERE DUST CLOUDS ARE IMPOSSIBLE!)

When a ship plows up dust in a vacuum, the dust grains travel out in flattened arcs and are gone. A dust cloud cannot rise, because there is no air to push against and suspend the particles. Dust clouds CAN NOT HAPPEN in a vacuum (except in orbit, where there is no gravity, but that’s a very different type of cloud). In the Apollo landing footage, ejecta from the engine can clearly be seen through the window flying out in rays, just as it should, and leaving no cloud.

When an astronaut kicks up dust on the moon, the dust DOES NOT linger around his foot as it does in the movie—it immediately falls to the ground as it does in all the NASA footage of the Apollo landings. There are only two ways this footage could have been produced in 1969: 1) on the moon, 2) on a sound stage built into a cargo plane that can simulate lunar gravity during a dive.

Finally, when the astronauts in the movie investigate the lunr crash site, they disturb dust which falls down through openings producing a slick reveal. Trouble is, it was shot on a sound stage and the dust accelerates under normal Earth gravity.

So there you go. NASA: Real deal. Transformers:Phony baloney. If you still can’t tell the difference, go back to third grade and spend more time in science class, In the meantime DON’T VOTE, because if you aren’t scientifically literate, your aren’t any kind of literate.

The Eye

She was the old one once. I buried her long ago, and now another runs and wags the bushy tuft of tail and stares demonic—the eye.

I drag my bones and stoop and lift. She dodges and shakes and will not relent. I wait and lift and throw (a ball or stick) and burn down her candle a bit until, the pastime secured from view, she finds a twig or pine cone or frog and pesters for a while, and comes and lies across the deck and probes the breeze for hinted wonders while I write or read or swing.

She does not wonder, will I will rise or stoop again? I wonder though–I know–the anguish she will feel one day when the demon eye is cast once more and with expectant glee, on some new toy that still has voice: not me, but in a stranger’s hand.

Dog Eat Dog

I killed a mouse today. He made the mistake of letting me see him run into the garage, so I left a trap baited with peanut butter and he couldn’t resist. I use a live trap because it’s much more reliable and can’t flip over into attic insulation.

So he was alive; more tired than frightened. I killed him. A drop in the grand ocean of life’s ill winds. I don’t regret it. He and his kind spread disease and damage my roof, my siding, and my insulation. Nothing can restrain them, not machine cloth, not flashing, not properly trimmed foliage, not cats, dogs, nor owls. Still they come from flowerbeds dripping with irrigation, along fencelines and through pipes. They chew through ventilators and squeeze between boards. They creep through the attic and sometimes the walls.

He had to go. I am glad to be rid of him, and I’ll kill his relatives if they show their mousy feet ’round here. But I don’t hate him. He was only a beast, doing what nature has shaped him to do. He didn’t mean to be a pest. He had no manifesto, no agenda. He would not have gotten drunk and slashed my tires or my throat with a broken bottle. His kind will never bomb my cities to take my provisions or worse, to silence my voice.

He was beautiful.

The Descent of Man’s Diet

I was reading Mark Oppenheimer’s “Daddy Eats Dead Cows” on Slate, and he’s right about one thing. Teaching children to be vegetarian on ethical grounds just gives them a distorted view of ethics that may come back to haunt you. I’m sorry, animals are not people and I am evolved to eat them and, while I’d like the process to be as humane as practical, I’m just not going to lose any sleep over whether livestock finds its time on this earth fulfilling.

Nor is health a very good reason to eschew the beef, for although we eat way, way, way more meat than is good for us in the West, we need some meat and have a hard time getting a balanced diet without it. Do some research and find out how many kidney beans you need to replace the digestible iron you get from a single ground beef taco.

But there are very good reasons to be vegetarian, or at least to curtail meat consumption to a healthy level. Factory farms are major polluters, disease incubators, and energy hogs. Meat takes a dozen times the energy to produce, harvest, and store than the equivalent veg, and that’s the only reason I need. Besides, I never had a steak that could compare with a nice red curry with tofu.

Wrong is Wrong

I am currently enrolled in a graduate certificate program which involves a formal study of grammar and mechanics. In this endeavor, I am reminded of a story my wife tells about her first week in school after moving from California to Louisiana. In her old school, students were expected to diagram sentences of ever increasing complexity. After a week in Louisiana, my wife had figured out that the material was not on her level, so she stayed after class one day to ask the teacher when they would start diagramming. He told her they would not be doing so, and when she protested, he cut her off. “These students can’t handle diagramming.” he said. The truth, of course, is that the students very well could have—should have—handled it and more, but they would have complained to their parents who would have complained to the principal who…well you get the idea.
I think of this now because I was one of those kids who should have diagrammed sentences but was never taught how. I have since found the exercise instructive and helpful, and as I study advanced grammar, I sometimes regret that I was not afforded the opportunity to master this skill as a child. More to the point, I regret that I was never correctly taught grammar, punctuation, mechanics and a host of related subjects. Oh, we had the lessons—every year for twelve years—and I made A‘s and B‘s. I also read so widely that I was able to get by quite well until I started preparing manuscripts and book proposals. But the fact is, the grammar I learned in school was superficial and, in many key respects, simply wrong. It was wrong because somewhere in the educational system in this country, it was decided that school children can only be taught lessons so watered down as to lose all meaning.
I am reminded of another story, one told by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman about his experience serving on a text book adoption committee. He was asked to serve and was happy to do so, and so he received a few elementary grade science texts to review. In each, in the first chapter, he found the same words: “Energy is the ability to do work”. “No!” argued Feynman, “It isn’t”. They all had it wrong, and so, being a good citizen, he called them up to explain the three or four ways in which this apparently universal statement was mistaken. The reply was unanimous. “Calm down Mr. Feynman. You can’t expect elementary children to understand college physics. We give them explanations they can understand.” His answer was direct: “How can they understand anything if what you teach them is WRONG.”
Perhaps not everyone need understand physics, but everyone ought to be able to use his own language correctly. Children do, of course, have to be taught at their level, but Feynman had a point. English grammar isn’t quantum mechanics. Diana Hacker managed to cover it pretty well in only five chapters out of her 540 page “Writer’s Reference”. On reading it and similar texts, it quickly becomes clear that most of the sticking points that English speaking adults stumble over—indeed, have come to see as intractable—have less to do with the subject matter, and more to do with the quality of education.
You cannot punctuate a sentence correctly unless you know a subordinate clause when you see one, understand why a preposition is called a preposition, and know the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives. When you know that “who” is a subject and “whom” is an object, you don’t need silly rules about prepositions, or to remember lines from Hemingway. There are exceptions, but most of it makes pretty good sense once you understand all the detail and terminology that, in school, was replaced with rote memorization, rules that aren’t really rules, and alternative terms designed to keep us from having to learn the Latin and Greek roots upon which our language is built.
My recollection of college is of discovering that we could easily cover in one quarter the material presented over an entire year of high school. We had twelve years in which to master our language, but wasted much of it wading through twelve repetitions of the same coddling. In life, the only things I really regret are squandered learning opportunities. The only things that really anger me are those ruined through ineffective instruction. I can’t get too riled through, for my schooling taught me one thing very well—something that has served me faithfully and that every child should learn as early as possible: no one is responsible for your education, ultimately, but you.

Bumper Stickers

He drove an ancient Nissan, evidently chosen for the boxy rear end; it had little else to recommend it and no bumper could contain his collection of stickers and decals. In spots, the adhesive had bubbled the paint. One loss had exposed bare metal, and where it wasn’t supporting the new Libertarian ticket, the rust had washed down and painted a green iconographic tree with sunset–or perhaps apocalypse.
The car mirrored its owner. He bathed in Old Spice, and infrequently. It smelled of rancid marijuana (blamed on a previous owner) and engine oil, (all his). The car was bleeding: a red, viscous fluid, and on the rear floorboard, a plastic bag of magnetic sharks stood ready to devour the occasional Jesus-fish. He, when he walked alone, could be seen gesticulating heatedly as if in uncomfortable debate—and he spit. People tended to keep their distance.
I crouched and looked past the faded college parking permit: Carnegie Mellon. No one had followed and the last echoes left the garage. I eased down and sat, making plans. The dust burned my nose and the cement grew uncomfortable and cold, but before long, the door clanged and slammed and his heavy boots scuffed nearer—I had never noticed the asymmetric gait. It wasn’t until a voice called out to him and he rounded into view that I realized my mistake. The inquiry was courteous; they had lost the scent. But Dan just looked at me, ignored my warning gestures and spoke, haltingly, but in the only voice he knew how to summon.
“Ca…Carl? What are you doing on the floor?”
The word “floor” echoed, a nasal, Jersey gunshot in a canyon of cement, and the heels were in motion again, running.


RegEx for the Writer

As an IT professional, I use regular expressions every day. Regular expression (or RegEx) is a syntax employed by modern programming and web tools to provide sophisticated pattern-matching capabilities. They scare me a little, because I maintain that all non-trivial regular expressions are what John Dykstra used to call “miracle programs”, programs that are wrong and only appear to work because they have not yet met the right input data that will cause them to stumble, embarrassingly, disastrously, into ruin.

Still, they are handy, and let us go way beyond the simple wildcard matches of yesteryear. So it is not surprising that OpenOffice/LibreOffice, the open source replacements for Microsoft Office written by a global community of uber-geeks, support RegEx. As and author, I use this capability quite a lot. When writing a novel, it is not uncommon to realize (or worry) that you have been systematically making some grammatical or mechanical mistake—it happens to the best of us—or simply to decide to make some global change. Simple search-and-replace is a boon, but RegEx takes us further. For example, “^And” will find lines beginning with a conjunction, “ to [:alpha:]*[\.\!\?]” will find sentences ending with (one particular) preposition.

I have also used RegEx when preparing text for on-line submission, where in-line text needs to be readable on a wide variety of clients. I use an online tool ( to insert linefeeds enough to format my pasted text to the proper width for submission, then past it back into Libre and use a global replace to transform the end of each line (“$”) into a pair of linefeeds (“\n\n”) and so produce text that remains double spaced even when divorced from the text styles of th word processor.

Recently, I noticed a particular sentence in which I had used three “em” dashes. I wanted to come back to it later, but had forgotten where it was. Rather than search through all 300 dashes in my manuscript, I save the file as text and used the following command line to find my quarry:

grep -o -e "[^\.\!?]*—[^\.\!?]*—[^\.\!?]*—[^\.\!?]*[\.\!?\"]" "Doomsday's Wake.txt"

This searches for any string of letters containing three dashes and preceding a sentence-ending punctuation mark. (If you know RegEx, you know that a repetition operator can simplify this, but for some reason, the version of grep I am running won’t accept it).

That solved, I used this to count the total number of sentences in my document:

grep -o -e "[^\.\!?]*[\.\!?\"]" "Doomsday's Wake.txt"

and this to display all those using a pair of dashes for review:

grep -o -n -e "[^\.\!?]*—[^\.\!?]*[\.\!?\"]" "Doomsday's Wake.txt" | more

Powertools: they’re not just for motor-heads.


I’m left handed. This is not a choice.

Like many lefties, I am actually mixed-dominant, which means that I bat and eat with the left, but fast-pitch and shoot with my right. These are not choices. Although I can train myself to perform adequately with the wrong hand, it requires constant, exhausting effort. Unlike you strong dominants, I have had to stop for a moment before beginning each and every manual task I have ever learned and ask myself “okay, which side does this?”

For a long time, lefties were tormented, forced to write with the wrong hand, even killed by people who saw us as an abomination. I watched my naturally left-handed friends at school trying to write with their right hands hooked into an unnatural position. My mother’s teachers would smack the left hand with a ruler until the child was forced to relent. However well intentioned, this was abusive; in fact, it was torture.

I live in a world in which certain people think that certain other people have chosen a sinful path simply for seeing the world as they see it. They tell themselves that these sinners could walk the righteous path if only they would accept the will of God. I have no dog in this fight, but it occurs to me that when a man says a lifestyle is a choice, he must see it as so. I wouldn’t know about that, for I could no more choose to be gay than I can choose not to perceive the bands of the rainbow. But wherever you fall on the spectrum, ask yourself for a moment, what if the leader of some foreign church declared that you could be gay if only you accepted the loving will of his God into your heart. Imagine if you lived in fear that your tricolor vision would be discovered, and the ignorant color-blind bastards around you, convinced of your demon wickedness, would deny you employment, human dignity, even life? Imagine if you feared having a left handed child, lest he be denied opportunity.

If God made me at all, he made me left handed. If he made you, he made you with your sexual orientation. If this is so, then HOW DARE YOU PRESUME TO PLACE YOUR VIEWS ABOVE THE WORKS OF GOD? How dare anyone rationalize the ignorant notions of iron age men into the justification for prejudice and discrimination in the name of God? We ate from the tree of knowledge and knew shame for our nakedness. Now, as we pick apart the very tree of life, we should understand the shame of ignorance, and that we will never again see the garden unless we build it ourselves, together.