In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


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.

Another Earth?

The team supporting the Kepler Space Telescope has announced confirmation of a planet only twice the size of Earth and smack in the middle of the local habitable zone. It is entirely possible that this planet could harbor life or even a civilization. Of course, it could also be as barren as the moon.

The new planet is 600 light years away, close enough to be the planet in my novel. Too bad we don’t actually have jump transport.

Seriously though, this is close enough to make a long range probe feasible, at least in principle, with current technology. I would have to be able to operate for a century of more, but it might not be a bad idea. Kepler is currently studying 2,326 other possible planets in similarly favorable orbits. Many are closer and will eventually pan out.

The universe is getting smaller.

Leverage My World

It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are, in this Internet age, to step right in and demonstrate their ignorance when they might just as easily, and with the same exact tool, correct it.

I was called to task a little while ago for using “Leverage” as a verb. Now, I have an MBA, so I honestly never really thought about it–we used it that way all the time in finance. A quick visit to Google found many many posts making the same claim: “Leverage is not a verb you fool! It’s a neologism of the worst sort and a sure sign of a poor education!”

Well, no.

First, language evolves, and English as we know it would not exist without neologisms and other mechanisms of change. But more to the point, leverage is, in fact, a perfectly “acceptable” transitive verb. From Merriam Webster:

Leverage (verb):
1: to provide (as a corporation) or supplement (as money) with leverage; also : to enhance as if by supplying with financial leverage
2: to use for gain : exploit

But even if this were not the case, I would argue in favor of the verb form. I agree with Bill Brohaugh of

“And I hear some of you saying . . . you blast conversate when converse is available, yet you defend leverage when lever is available?” I do indeed. Conversate fills no need. It is duplicative, a bizarre “synonym” of converse. On the other hand, leverage is not a precise synonym of lever, neither in noun nor in verb form. It fills a need.”

So there you have it, and on we shall go, leveraging the technology at our fingertips to more clearly converse with our fellow miscreant.

Biology Students “Boycotting” Darwin???

I read an article today about the growing number of Muslim biology students in the UK who try to “boycott” lessons on “Darwinism” because they think it contradicts the Quran. And here I thought only Americans were dumb enough to pay for an education and then try not to get it.

I am quite prepared to respect people with diverse beliefs. My mother, after all, was a Methodist who believed in reincarnation and Edger Caysey, and I have broken the Ramadan fast with Muslim friends on more than one occasion,

But let us be clear. You are a great ape. You evolved from a population of apes that lived about 6 millions years ago. This is not a matter of opinion. It’s not “only a theory”, or (as science puts it) “merely a hypothesis”. It’s not up for debate. It’s a fact, based not only on scientific inference bout the past, but on direct empirical observation in the present. There will always be scientific debate over the particulars of how evolution works in general and how it proceeded in any particular detail, but there is no controversy at all about the fact that it happened–and continues to happen.

If you don’t accept evolution you are wrong, or perhaps your understanding of evolution is wrong. If evolution contradicts your scripture, then your scripture is wrong—or perhaps your understanding of scripture is wrong.

There is no shame in being wrong, but there could hardly be more shame than remaining wrong when the truth is laid before you, you have PAID for the privilege, and then refuse to learn.

I have no idea if evolution truly contradicts Islam. My Muslim friends don’t think so, and are as devout as anyone I know. Perhaps they just posses a tad more courage than some others of their faith.