Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Made in China

Tonight in a fit of green-ness (and a tech junkie's curiosity), I bought one of those LED flashlights that you recharge by shaking. Now, I understand how the technology works -- just pass a magnet through coiled wires and you'll generate electricity -- though I don't believe the flashlight will last forever, as it's advertisement claims. It's still got to store the energy generated by shaking the flashlight, either in a rechargeable battery (it claims that one of its advantages is that it doesn't lose its storage capacity over time like a rechargeable) or perhaps in a capacitor. I only paid five bucks for the thing, so I'm sorely tempted to satisfy my curiosity on this last question and take the thing apart. That might annoy the wife, though...

What I find tragic about this flashlight is that the people who made it didn't bother to get someone who speaks English to write the instructions on the box. Check this out:

1. Only shake it forward and back while use. So as to make it generating to light up.
2. Its switch system is based on advanced magnetic induction technologies. So it's long in service life and reliable in performance."

But wait, it gets better:

1. A torch is used for emergency lighting purpose. However, the traditional battery-supplied torch may cause you a big trouble because the batteries become ineffective and produce pollution if the torch is left idle for a long time. The chargeable torch also has the problem of power leakage; or it will help you remember to charge only at the time you need. This innovative torch is the breakthrough in solution to waste and inconvenience.
2. Being self-supplying, it will serve you long and well."

A sticker on the box reports that it was "made in China," which judging form the ad copy isn't a big surprise. But come on folks, how hard is it to get someone who speaks English to write a quick instruction list for the box? "Shake it up and it lights up" isn't really all that hard. I don't really have a problem with imported goods (although I do understand how trade deficits are killing us), but hey, I'm sure there are a lot of freelance writers who would be happy to write you some decent ad copy at a very reasonable rate!

It's been a long time since I've seen a commercial product with language that bad. I think they would have been better served by just leaving it in the original Chinese. No, I wouldn't be able to read it, but do we really need instructions for a shake-up flashlight? They really didn't inspire a lot of confidence in their "advanced technologies" with that copy...

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Ambivalent Writer

The Forest For the Trees has some specific advice for the different "types" of writers that the author has encountered during her years as an editor (and now as an agent). The first type she deals with is the "ambivalent writer." I think the title is a bit misleading. The ambivalent writer is not the writer who can't decide whether or not he should write at all. Instead, he is the writer with far too many ideas and never completes (or sometimes even starts) any of them. My son soundly falls into this category. He has a number of really outstanding starts to a story, but to my knowledge, he's never actually completed an entire tale. I haven't finished reading the entire chapter, so it's probably premature to pass on any advice at this point, but one solid piece of advice is to choose one form (novel, memoir, non-fiction, etc.) and stick to it. While there are some famous exceptions (James Joyce is mentioned), there are very, very few writers who excel in more than one form. It's reasonable to argue that even if you have the talent to master more than one form, you probably shouldn't try to master them all at the same time. Choose one, stick with it, and truly master it, then if you really feel the drive to expand your horizons, go for the second form.

I'll be interested to see what advice she gives for finishing what you begin, though. I think my son could profit for that...

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Journal

I've been evaluating "The Journal" for Windows (http://www.davidrm.com/thejournal/), and so far I've been very impressed with it. Sufficiently impressed with it, in fact, that I went ahead and bought it before the 45-day trial is up. Just the ability to type up blog entries off-line (and have them spellchecked -- I can see all you readers breathing a sigh of relief) is worth the price of admission right there. I was also able to (relatively) easily copy the entire contents of this blog into the program's database so that I have it for reference off-line as well. I did figure out how to set up multiple journals, so I have my "personal" journal along with the one that contains my blog entries. Uploading the day's blog entry doesn't upload the personal entry, so that's a goodly thing.

In addition, though, the program also has a "loose-leaf notebook" that is perfect for storing the ideas that I come up with and log in the little notebook I carry around with me. Because I can organize them under headings, I've got a much easier time of finding things later. Overall, it's an excellent tool for writers, whether or not you decide to use the blog tools. The fact that it has strong encryption (and you can get even stronger security for an extra $10) is a big plus, too. While I don't really think there's anything so interesting in my personal journal that I would really care if it came out, still, a personal journal should be, well, personal. If you don't have that guarantee of privacy, you might not be as open with yourself as you would otherwise. And writers, of all people, need to be able to plum their very depths, as this is where the true emotion in print comes from.

My only complaint is that there isn't an automated way to give your blog posts a title. I'm trying using a Blogger API trick, but I'm afraid it won't work unless I upload the entry as plain text (losing all my italics and such). I'll continue to experiment. This has been a much-requested feature, and the author has acknowledged it's utility, so I think there's hope it will be included in a future release.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


I hate spam.

Don't we all? Yeah, yeah I know, but the reason I hate spam is not the reason you may think. Up until recently (more on that in a sec) my spam filter has done a pretty good job of filing into a special folder the literally hundreds of spam messages a day that I get through email. At least once a day, I quickly scan through the folder, "unjunk" anything that isn't spam, and delete the entire contents of the folder in a couple of keystrokes. It's somewhat annoying that I should have to do this, but the process really isn't that bad. At the very least, it's much easier when I had no filter and check each message individually or risk deleting an important message by mistake.

The reason that spam just grates on my nerves to the point of insanity is that virtually every message insults me in some way. Yeah, I'm inundated with the "enlarge your manhood" message (more humorously, so is my wife), but what really offends me is that these people must think I'm a complete and total idiot. Do they really believe I would trust my mortgage to a company who can't even spell "refinance"? Do they really think I'm dumb enough to send my bank account info so that I can launder money for someone in Africa (or South America or Iraq or ...)? Or that I would buy medicine from someone who isn't educated enough to put together a complete sentence in English? Come on folks! In truth, I vastly prefer spam to telemarketers. After all, they haven't yet come up with a way I can simply delete the person on the other end of the phone line (yet -- though there is a very cool science fiction short story on just that subject). But to see the number of transparent scams and illiterate advertisements just saddens me. I like to believe that no one is dumb enough to respond to these things, but if that were really the case, companies wouldn't use them. Which means, of course, that there really are people dumb enough to respond to these things. Sigh. And I think what grates all the more is that as I understand it, a lot of these are written by people in our profession: freelance writers.

Lord, if ever I fall to that level, please just push me over and call me home. I'm already dead anyway.

At any rate, the number of spam messages getting through my filter is on the rise. And it's getting hard to find the non-spam messages that get accidentally filtered (messages for my students get routed there a lot). So, real soon now I'm going to have to change my email address again. That is a huge pain in the afterburners, and I deeply resent the spammers who are forcing me to do it. I guarded my current email pretty carefully, and for a long time no one but my friends knew of it -- so no spam. Somehow the word has gotten out, so it's time to start again. Ah well...

Friday, January 27, 2006


My wife and I both have been substituting for another astronomy professor all week, so between us we've been teaching a double load. It's been exhausting, but the extra money will be appreciated. As a result, I haven't gotten much farther than the introduction to The Forest For the Trees at this point. One thing I found interesting, though, is that the author says that one of the main reasons she wrote the book is to provide advice to aspiring writers who are sabotaging their own careers. Now, while she does address how they might do that through their dealings with publishers and agents, what she's really talking about is how these authors sabotage themselves through neurotic writing habits that actually get in the way of writing. I think that's a worthwhile topic, since it's not something you really think about, and it's certainly not something I've seen anyone else write a book about. I'll be interested to see how she handles the topic. Do a significant number of writers have writing habits that kill their ability to write? Somehow I guess that possibility has never occurred to me, though (for that reason), I certainly might be susceptible. I'll be curious to see just exactly what habits she's seen as an editor...

Thursday, January 26, 2006


We are nearing the end of the first full week of classes that I've been teaching this semester. It looks like I've got a really good group in all four of my classes. The physics class I'm teaching is the first class I've taught for science/technical majors -- people for whom this is the first step towards their career goals (as opposed to the students who just need a science credit to graduate). Having a motivated student makes all the difference in the world. Some of the students in my astronomy classes have had the attitude, "I don't want to be here, so it's up to you to make me learn something. You're the teacher, after all." Unfortunately, short of brainwashing and torture, there's not much way to force anyone to do anything. I do my very best to make the course interesting, to show them why this is something they should want to learn, but ultimately, if the student isn't willing to put in the effort, then there is absolutely no way they are going to learn a thing. My physics students are all there because they're interested in the subject. As a result, even though they have roughly the same ability as my astronomy students, they will ultimately learn a lot more.

This speaks to one of the fallacies of the current system of "teacher accountability." The laws that hold teachers accountable for their students' learning are flawed from the outset. There's no way these teachers can force a child to learn. Either they have the support structure in their home and community that makes them want to learn or they don't. I see these schools with signs patting themselves on the back saying, "We are 'highly performing'" (the new top-level school rating), but all that really means is that the parents who make up their community value education and have instilled that into their kids. It really has very little to do with the school or with the teachers. Some parents blame the schools for "not making my kid learn" but seem to forget that the onus is really on the parent, not the school. Until we make that fundamental shift in thinking, no system of accountability has a chance of working. The current system is going to do nothing more than make the teacher shortage worse. Who would willingly volunteer to be abused like that?

Since I teach college, I'm not directly affected by these things, though. I find that when I'm teaching and the kids are responding (and I have a rather off the wall sense of humor in class), it's fun. I feel good about myself. I come home jazzed about how class went. I'm not sure I'd want to ever do it full time, but as a part time job, I have to say that it rocks. What more can you ask for?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Editors and Editing

I have begun (again, I was sidetracked by reading Talyn) reading The Forest For the Trees, a book written by an editor at Simon and Schuster with advice for writers. Interestingly, it's not a book about learning to write, as the author makes clear from the beginning. The book is more about how a good editor can motivate a writer to write as well as about the editorial process itself. So far, it's been fairly interesting, but I'll provide specific insights later on.

What I've found especially interesting is that apparently the woman who wrote the book has had much success as an editor at a major publishing house, but has not found success (nor has she really attempted to find success) as a writer. You would think that in order to recognize good writing -- or make good writing better -- you'd have to be a very skilled writer yourself. Yet, off hand, I can't really think of any big-name editor who is also a big-name writer. When you think about it, writing and editing are really two separate skills. Writing requires a great deal of creativity -- you are creating something from nothing, after all. Editing, on the other hand, requires the ability to see all the different ways in which a given piece could be presented, and choose the way that will make the piece the strongest it can be. The editor does not do anything original at any point in the process. She does, however, have to "see the forest for the trees." Editing is the art of seeing a multitude of paths simultaneously, something most writers never have to do. The author of this book discovered early in her career that she had the talent for making the writing of others better, so that's where she directed her career. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Editors, then, are not magical demigods who are looking for people who can write as well as they can. I think in the back of my mind I've always thought of editors as "master writers," the next step up once you have proven that you have mastered the craft of writing. That's really a misconception. Editors have an entirely different skill set from writers, and recognizing that fact will go a long a way in improving your relationship with that breed!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Journaling Software

I'm trying out something new with this entry, a piece of journaling software for Windows called (appropriately enough) "The Journal." It's not free ($39.95), and it doesn't do much more than the freeware program "Advanced Diary" (which is itself not much more than Wordpad tied to a calendar program), but it does have a few features that make it attractive to a writer. First and foremost, of course, is the ability to publish entries to an online blog. I've had problems with Blogger running extremely slowly in my web browser lately, and the problem has been getting worse the more entries I've added to the blog. I don't really understand this, as there are blogs out there with far more entries than mine. I'm more inclined to point a finger at our cable company. More and more people in our neighborhood have signed up for Cox Cable, so there are more and more people sharing the same cable feed. For a while, we couldn't stay connected more than a few minutes at a time. The network would always come back up on its own, but for several seconds (to hours) it would simply drop out. While it's a bit better now, I think there may still be enough delays to be causing Blogger to have fits. I have been using Blogger for Word, sometimes writing the entry on my Alphasmart Neo and uploading later, but it's just not as well organized as I would like. The whole purpose of a journal (or a blog) is to organize your thoughts, so this is a rather serious drawback. If this software works out, I will be able to write entries offline and have the software upload them while I'm doing other things. It supposedly will also let you have entries that are not uploaded, which would be handy since not all of my thoughts are really worth reading by strangers. I think it only allows one entry per day, though, so -- because I generally post every day -- that doesn't help a whole lot. I'll have to check it out.

The demo version of this program is good for 45 days, so I'll make a decision after that. Advanced Diary, as I said, is free, so that is certainly a contender. It would just require me to cut and paste into a browser, though, which is a royal pain. We'll see if this works out better.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Talyn Complete

I finished reading Holly Lisle's Talyn a few minutes ago. It really is a great story, so my hat's off to Holly. Once it got going (and once I gave up trying to pronounce the foreign words "correctly") the story kept me involved and interested in the characters and the plot. Unlike a lot of fantasy stories, the goal was not to go on some long trek to recover the Sacred Amulet of Whatnot, it was more of an exploration of what happens when three cultures collide. I thought the final victory was just a little too straight-forward (I won't say easy -- the characters had a devil of a time getting to that point), but overall I didn't mind much. It just seemed like the book wound itself up a bit too quickly in the end. There wasn't anything wrong with the pace of the ending, it was just such a different pace from the rest of the book that it was a bit jarring. I did appreciate the irony of the heroes coming up with weapons to fight the villain, only to end up supplying the villain with those weapons for his own use. Very clever, and a very entertaining tale. I highly recommend it, even if you don't particularly care for fantasy. You won't be disappointed!

Sunday, January 22, 2006


My son had his debut performance today. He has been practicing a duet with our church's choir director for a couple of months now, and this morning was his first time to sing -- more or less by himself -- in front of an audience. He did a really good job! It was outstanding, the crowd was cheering, something that doesn't happen often in a church. He was very nervous, but came through it with flying colors.

Even more than a demonstration of my son's talent, though, it was a conquering of his fears. He gets stage fright in the extreme. Even as a small child, he never liked new situations or even anything even marginally outside of his comfort zone. That he was able to do this was a huge step for him. Everyone has phobias. Surprisingly enough, I have rather acute acrophobia. Yep, a pilot who's afraid of heights, go figure. In truth, heights themselves don't bother me, it's the insecure feeling that you might fall. If I'm in enclosed in an airplane, I have no problems at all. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon on an incredibly windy day (and there are a lot of those up there), was a different story entirely. I did it solely because I refuse to let my phobias get the better of me. As a character in a story I read once said, "There's no such thing as an irrational fear." Just because a fear may be illogical doesn't mean that you don't feel it just as strongly. The only real definition of courage that has any meaning is the ability to do something in spite of your fear. The soldier who knows no fear and charges bravely into battle isn't really showing courage. It doesn't frighten him, so it took no real effort for him to be able to do it. The guy who is scared witless and charges into battle anyway -- that's real courage!

The lesson here is that your protagonist doesn't have to be fearless. In fact, if he is truly fearless, then he can't be truly courageous. Give your characters bone-shaking fears and then put them in situations that forces them to confront those fears. Let them show their real courage!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hardware and Software

Today my two-year-old daughter started wearing "big girl panties" for the first time in our continuing -- and largely unsuccessful -- efforts to potty train her. Physically, she's fully capable of being potty trained. This stubborn child can hold it for hours and will refuse to use the potty. The instant you put a diaper on her, she cuts loose. The hardware is in place and ready, but the software just isn't there yet.

Interestingly, the same thing happens with the developing human brain, and it's been fascinating to watch it happen with our daughter. Almost no one can remember anything before the age of two or three, and yet our memory systems are fully functional during that time. We easily remember things from twenty or more years ago, so why can't we remember being an infant or even a toddler? This was brought home to me when my daughter noticed a picture of her and her mother on the wall. This was one of the art nudes we did last year, and it's a picture of her breastfeeding with her mom. You could see she was puzzled by it, so I explained that she used to drink milk from her mother's breast. She gave me the most incredulous look I've ever seen on the face of a two year old. She was like, "No way, stop kidding, Dad." Even though it's been less than a year since she stopped breastfeeding, she has no memory of it whatsoever. It's like it didn't happen.

As it turns out, the memories are likely still there, but since she stopped breastfeeding, she's learned language. Her brain has changed to support the new paradigm, and it now literally can't access those memories that are stored in the old format. It's like trying to run an old Amiga program on a new Windows computer. The software is still there, but the hardware has changed to the point that it can no longer run it. It's amazing to see it happen in real time. What if we could build an "emulator" for those earlier memories? This would allow you to run your old stored memories and literally experience what it is like to be an infant. I can see a lot of potential for science fiction stories here. I might just write that one myself...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Classes Begin

Today ended the first week of college classes that I teach this semester. I'm teaching two physics and two astronomy classes this time, so it's going to keep me pretty busy. I think I've got a good group this semester. They were all awake and involved and seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing. The problem with astronomy is that a lot of people take it thinking that it's an easy way to get the science credit they need to graduate. Astronomy is actually one of the more difficult classes you can take -- it's all applied physics, after all. This means that I tend to get a lot of students who would really rather skate than put in any effort. I'm a tough teacher, but by the end of my class most of them say they've never had a better one -- and never worked harder in a class. I count that a victory.

But today they were all laughing at my jokes, which is always a good sign. I got lots of nods of comprehension and the understanding checks that I did in class all seemed to show they were getting what I was saying. I don't need them to know anything about astronomy, or even science in general. What I do need is for them to be willing to put in the effort. Like writing, the only way to learn astronomy is to do astronomy. Learning is an active process. I hope people maybe learn something from my observations here, but you won't really learn it until you get out and try it for yourself. I know that's certainly been my experience on this journey!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The World Wide Web

What did we do for research before the Web came along? While it's (very) true that a non-trivial percentage of the information on the Web is complete bunk, even it's detractors can't deny the usefulness of being able to search for the information you need right from your desktop. My Civil Air Patrol squadron has a big inspection coming up in a couple of weeks and like an idiot, I volunteered to take over a position in the squadron that's been vacant for years. I needed to re-create a full set of training records on each member of the squadron. Normally that would mean calling CAP Headquarters on the phone, having someone track the relevant records down for me, mail them to me, and then I would frantically try to get everything typed up= and organized the day before the inspection.

Ah, but the CAP has joined the 21st Century and most of the personnel records are available on-line, if you have the proper authorizations -- and because of my new appointment, I do. The records aren't complete, and some entries don't make sense (such as the guy who qualified as a Misison Pilot -- the highest qualification -- before he qualified as a Pilot, the lowest qualification), but probably 70% of everything I need is there. I was able to cut and paste the info form the Web into a Word version of the training record (also downloaded form the national site). I'll email it out to each member of the squadron tomorrow and let them fill in what few blanks remain. If push comes to shove, though, what I have will match national's records, so we should pass that part of the inspection even with what I have now.

I distinctly remember teaching a course to a bunch of teachers that included use of the Internet -- FTP, Gopher, telnet, etc. There was this new thing called "Mosaic" (the term World Wide Web hadn't been invented yet), but it wasn't much more than a front end for FTP. There were very, very few sites. I told the group then that I wasn't impressed with it, and that I couldn't see it replacing the search tools like Gopher that we'd been using for years.

Called that one a bit wrong, didn't I? :)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

First Draft

Today I finished the first complete draft of the educational curriculum I've been working on for the Phoenix mission to Mars that will launch in 2007. This draft came in at 21 pages, but it will probably go up a little once the graphic artist adds the illustrations and such. Still, it's a good-sized curriculum. It's designed to teach students the properties of soil that studied by both Earth-bound and Martian soil scientists, as well as what those properties mean for the possiblity of Mars regolith (the technical term for Mars dirt) to support life -- Martian or Earth-born.

I sent the draft off to the rest of the education department to start the process of getting comments. It will take several weeks of revisions before we get to a final product, but still, there's something about having that first draft complete and in your hand. In all the time I've been writing, that feeling hasn't really changed. It's very special, and it's actually one of the things I look forward to as I get closer to finishing the first draft. I can't wait to get there with the novel I'm working on!

It's these little milestones that keep us writing, I think. Cherish them!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

eBook Reader

A while back I was bemoaning the fact that none of the eBook readers currently on the market are really viable options. They are too large, too heavy, too hard to read, too hard to hold, and just in general don't give the same experience as reading a book.

That may change very soon.

Sony will soon be introducing an eBook reader called (appropriately enough) the Sony Reader. You can find the details at http://products.sel.sony.com/pa/PRS/reader_features.html. What's impressive about this reader is the technology in the screen. There is literally no flicker because the screen is only written to once for each page. Black and white "beads" in the screen change state and require no current to keep them in that state. The result is that it literally prints a page for you on the screen. I read one report of a guy who picked up an early model and asked the demo technician when a working model would be out. The tech said, "That is a working model." The screen was apparently so paper-like, the guy thought that it was a mock-up.

The size is about right (6.9” by 4.9” by .5”), and I can't imagine it gets very hot since the screen is not actively redrawing. It only weighs about 9 ounces, which is very close to paperback weight as well. It can hold 80 books internally, but has a memory card slot that will hold more. Best of all, Sony has gotten rid of their elaborate copy protection scheme. The reader will view eBooks, HTML, PDF, and a few other formats as well. This may be it folks. I would very much like to carry my library around with me. This reader may actually make that possible...

Monday, January 16, 2006


Since our daughter was a newborn, we have had a photo taken of her and my wife for my birthday. Now, these aren't portrait-type photos. What we wanted was artwork, the kind of art you might see in a gallery, we just wanted it to feature our family. It doesn't even have to show their faces, but we wanted to chronicle the growth of our family in art. We found a photographer who normally does landscape photography, but she agreed to do a photo shoot of us. She suggested that we do the pictures nude, so we figured, "why not?" Nudity has never been an issue around our house, so it wasn't a big deal. The photographer is really good. The picture we got from the first session were simply outstanding. Some of the best artwork I've ever seen; it's hard to believe it's us in the pictures.

This past year, however, she just didn't seem to get the magic shot. She works in large-format film and does effects in Photoshop, but she still needs the raw material to start with. Our daughter was good, but she wasn't quite as cooperative as when she was only a year old, so we had a harder time of it. I'm not really happy with what we were sent to look over, though I realize there is only so much she can do.

Sometimes writing is like that. Like all artists, we need the raw material to start with. If the raw material is good, we can use our art to turn it into something outstanding. That ability is what separates the craftsmen from the mere technicians. Virtually anyone can write a passable story. The concepts aren't all that difficult to master. But there is an intangible talent -- an art -- that can turn that same passable story into something inspires us, frightens us, uplifts us, or just makes us see the world in a slightly different way. This is what it means to be a writer. Sometimes our brains give us the raw material we need to start our craft. Sometimes they don't. This is why I think some stories work, while others just ... don't. Part of our maturity as writers comes from knowing when we've got something we can work with and when something just needs to be recycled for later. It's not something that can be taught, and it's something that changes as our skill changes. The master can work with more difficult clay than the apprentice, after all. Sometimes it's hard, though, to see what is worth shaping and what isn't. I think this is one of the most critical and difficult skills for an aspiring professional writer to develop, and yet I can't recall seeing it mentioned in any of the books I've read on the subject. But I can't really say that I blame them.

How do you teach that which is unteachable, after all?

Sunday, January 15, 2006


As most readers of this blog know, I'm a pilot. Flying, however, is rather expensive right now, mostly because of rising gas and insurance costs. A new Cessna 172 will cost $140,000 -- about as much as our house cost (obviously, I don't live in California). While having our own plane would make it much easier for me for me to stay current (if you can stay in practice, don't fly at all) and would also make it easier to visit our friends in Los Angeles -- an easy two-hour flight away. Trips to Las Vegas for the day or night become a possiblity. Basically, having a plane is just like having a car, but it greatly expands the range of places you can visit as a day trip. But the thought of making essentially a second house payment -- not to mention the maintenance costs, tie-down fees, etc. -- is not something that is even close to being in the realm of the possible for someone who has just quit their job to become a full-time writer. If I had stayed at NASA we could have afforded a plane easily. That was something I thought about and was a conscious choice I made when I quit.

King Schools, however, offers another way. King, along with Sporty's Pilot Shop, is one of the best producers of flying curriculum around. They use a combination of video and computer software along with flights with your local instructor to take you all the way through the training. It's a good system. Every two years they get a new plane to use for filming their instructional videos. The old one is then raffled off. Everytime you buy something from King Schools, you get one entry into the contest. The published odds of winning are about 200,000 to 1, which is better than lottery odds, but not much better.

Ah, but every contest is required to have a "no purchase necessary" option. For King, all you have to do is send a postcard with your name, address, and e-mail. You're limited to one entry, per person, per day. So, my wife and I have each sent a postcard every day for the last year and a bit more (we missed maybe 10 days in that time). To work in round figures, that means that we sent a total of about 700 postcards! I did buy quite a few things from King Schools, but since you only get one entry per day, those didn't help us. If you assume no one else had this idea (which is unlikely, but who knows), then the odds of winning have improved to about 285 to 1. Still door prize odds, but way better than lottery odds. The investment was just a 23-cent stamp and a penny's worth of paper and ink per card, or about $170 over a year or so. Since the aircraft they are giving away is worth $140,000, that represents a 82,300% return on the investment -- if we win. The drawing is today, which is why it's on my mind. We won't know who won for a couple of weeks regardless, though.

The key here is to compare the potential return on the investment with the odds of getting that return. If you spent $100 on lottery tickets, your potential return (assuming you win $10 million), is a million percent. Your odds of winning, however, are only about 1 in 2 million (at best). Even though the return is huge, the odds of obtaining that return dwarf it -- it's not worth the money. Buying only a single lottery ticket increases your potential return by a factor of a hundred, but the odds similarly get worse by a factor of a hundred -- you can't win. This, in a nutshell is why I don't play the lottery.

What does this have to do with science fiction? Just this: The amount of money we spend on the space program is miniscule compared to essentially anything else in the budget. You could give all of the space program's budget to social services, and they wouldn't evne know the money was there. You can't solve the world's problems by gutting the space program. There are no guarantees that the space program will produce new technologies that will pay dividends in the long run -- but the odds aren't bad. What you (and our lawmakers) need to ask yourself is this: Does the potential return on the investment exceed the odds of getting that investment. The space program currently gets about 0.75% of the federal budget. With technologies form the space program we have medical imaging, the laptop computer I'm writing this on, weather satellites, safer aircraft, and a host of other things. It's not just Tang and Velcro. It really bugs me when people say, "What has the space program ever done for me?" -- as they are chatting on their PCS cell phone.

It's a small investment with a huge potential return -- and good odds of getting that return. Show me a missile system or a bomber program that can say the same thing.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


I started Talyn last night, and so far I'm enjoying the book. It hasn't totally drawn me in quite yet, but I think that's mostly because I'm as yet unfamiliar with the world of the story, so I'm still trying to figure out how everything ticks. I'm not that far into it, so it's understandable. It does, however, highlight one of the biggest problems faced by those who want to tell a science fiction or fantasy story. With mainstream fiction, the only real question the reader asks when picking up the book is, "Why should I care?" The reader wants to know why this character and this set of conflicts is important. The wise author will answer those particular questions right away. On the other hand, the first question a science fiction or fantasy reader will ask is, "Where am I?" Particularly in fantasy, while there are rules (or, at least, there had better be...), the reader knows that he can't take any rules for granted until they are laid out in the story.

So, while you've probably heard that your opening has to grab the reader's attention, in genre fiction it has to do much, much more. The challenge of writing a good opening for a genre novel is the challenge of getting your reader oriented and at least headed off in the right direction without driving him to close the book in frustration or boredom. It's no easy task.

So far, Holly Lisle has done an okay job with it. I think that her use of an invented language -- particularly when she includes a pronunciation guide in the beginning of the book -- is a big mistake. I've posted earlier about made-up languages, so I won't repeat that here. In this case, however, I think the pronunciation guide works against her. Instead of just pronouncing the words the way they seem to be spelled and moving on with the story, I find myself constantly breaking out of the narrative to figure out how a particular word is "supposed" to be pronounced. Unless there is a key plot reason why a mispronunciation might drive events, why risk dragging your reader out of the story? Inventing languages is fun and cool, but we're writers not linguists. If it doesn't drive the tale, it shouldn't be there. That said, Holly's writing itself is excellent as always, so there's no danger of my dropping the book. I like the protagonist already, and I'm curious to learn more about her. That's always a good sign!

Friday, January 13, 2006


I finally managed to get a copy of Holly Lisle's Talyn. This book is devilishly hard to get! I imagine that's very good news for Holly. I'm very anxious to read it. As those who have been following this blog will recall, Holly feels this is her best work yet, and manages to get both well-developed characters and a well-developed plot in the same story (some of her earlier books excelled in one or the other, but not both, in my opinion). I don't know anything about the story, really, other than the fact that it is fantasy. That's okay with me, though. I don't generally get into fantasy, so I don't want to bias my reading of it. Not that I have anything against fantasy, it's just too many of them rely on the plot device of the Foolish Villain who puts all his power into a single artifact (which he then loses), or the Quest for the Item of Something or Another that must be found to save the world as we know it. About the only original fantasy storyline I've seen is Anne McCaffery's Dragonriders of Pern series. But I've got high hopes for this book. I've got a lot of respect for Holly as a writer, so I don't really think she'll let me down. On the other hand, as I commented to my son the other day, the one disadvantage of being a writer is that you can no longer read books just to read them -- you're always trying to figure out how they pulled off a particular effect! :)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sci-Fi Channel

For those that didn't know, Battlestar: Galactica started it's third season this week. This is a great show, and not just because it shares elements from one of my favorite shows as a teenager. In fact, other than the superficial elements (names, the overall situation), the show really bears very little resemblance to the original series. That's okay though -- the show stands on it's own merits. And it really is one of the best pure science ficition shows I've seen on TV in a long time.

Which means, of course, that Sci-Fi Channel will probably kill it. Farscape was also a great show, and one could argue that it put Sci-Fi Channel on the map. Since getting bought out, though, the new owners of the channel seem to be systematically eliminating all traces of science fiction from the lineup and replacing it with (for the most part) horror shows. I don't know if that is an inherent bias of the owners or what, but until BG started up, I had pretty much boycotted the channel. Like Farscape, Battlestar: Galactica has been phenomenally popular, much more popular than the pundits predicted. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a signal to Sci-Fi Channel that Americans are ready for more science fiction on television. One can only hope.

It's gotta be better than the crap that reality shows have become, but don't get me started on that...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Experts Teaching Novices

As part of the research I'm doing for my Ph.D. dissertation, I'm reading some research on training methods intended to bring about long-term retention of skills and transfer of those skills into new contexts. It turns out that some of the training techniques that give you high marks during the training will cause you to forget your training more quickly later. The converse is also true: When techniques that have been shown to improve long-term retention are used during training, the trainees actually perform more poorly while the training is taking place. The research also shows that intensive programs are much more likely to lead to loss of skill than programs that spread the same training over a longer period of time (but you knew that, didn't you?).

There were some other interesting findings, but one of the things that struck me was the section on expert modeling of a skill. The idea is that the expert shows the novice how to perform the task (be it repairing a computer or finding the roots of an equation), and the novice is supposed to learn from this demonstration. The problem is that almost by definition, most experts have internalized the task to the point that they aren't consciously aware of all of their thought processes while they are performing it. As such, they can't convey all the procedures needed to do the task to the novice. This is the root of the observation that many college instructors are very good at what they do, but they can't teach it worth a darn.

Teaching is an art, quite apart from knowledge of the content area. In order to teach, you have to not only understand your own thought processes, you have to create a mental model of your own thought that can be transferred to the student. You also have to keep a model of your estimation of the student's understanding in your head as well. Finally, you have to come up with an efficient way of modifying (or helping the student to modify) the student's mental model until it matches your own. No easy task! I'm amazed they let college professors even try it without explicit training in education...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hard-Workin' Teen

Tonight was my son's first night to work at Wendy's, so -- naturally -- my wife and daughter and I decided to go have dinner there so we could harass him. I have to tell you, this turned out to be one of those turning points in a parent's life that sort of sneaks up on you and surprises the heck of you. It was his first day on the job, and had a pretty stern trainer. She wasn't taking any nonsense, and my son was scrambling -- really scrambling -- to learn, understand, and perform under pressure for I believe the first time in his life.

And he was working hard to do it.

You spend 16 or 17 years hoping you can teach your kids the attitudes and life skills they will need to succeed. But deep down, every parent is terrified that the child hasn't learned it. You never know how they'll do until they do it for real -- and by that time, it's too late to change much. Seeing him working hard and really trying to do well was like passing the midterm exam for parenting. I am inordinately proud of my boy, let me tell you. I was grinning from the time we walked in until now. If I do half as well with our daughter, she'll be in pretty good shape.

If our kids are warped, at least theyre warped in our own image!

Monday, January 09, 2006


... according to my wife, that's what I have tatooed on my forehead. :)

We had a Civil Air Patrol squadron meeting tonight, the only meeting I'll get to attend this semester (I'll be teaching physics on Monday nights starting week). We have our "subordinate unit inspection" on 4 February, so tonight was spent planning what we needed to do to get ready for it. We've just had a change of command and there are a lot of new people in the squadron, so things are a bit chaotic. We haven't had all the staff positions filled, so a lot of them got assigned last night. I'm already the communications officer, the information services officer, and assistant emergency services officer. They needed someone to serve as personnel development officer as well. I'm fairly new in the squadron, and since we didn't have a PDO, I'm not shy about digging until I find out what I need to know myself. As a result, I'm pretty much the only one in the squadron who knows the regs on the various qualifications. So, I'm a sucker. I took on the job.

Now I have to figure out where everyone's personnel records are and get the organized up to standards. And then I'll stand inspection by the Arizona Wing inspector general in just three weeks!

Some day I'm going to learn to keep my mouth shut... :)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Magazine Formats

What's your preference for reading fiction magazines? Two-column text or single column text? "Digest" (5" x 7") or "glossy" ("8" x 10")? E-book or print? Lately I've been reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I have to say, I really love its format. I find it's a joy to read (completely apart from the content). I don't really like the large-format magazines because they aren't easily transported. I can fold it in half and stick it in my back pocket, but it's still long enough that it pokes me when I sit down. It also gets in pretty bad shape pretty quickly. I would dearly like for e-books to work, but so far I haven't seen a reader I could live with. An e-book reader can't weigh any more than a paperback book, but needs to have a screen that is as easily read and contains the same number of characters per page as a paperback (at least). It also can't get hot, needs to be comfortable to hold, and the batteries have to last a long time. In short, it has to be a paperback book that can hold thousands of stories. We're getting closer, but we aren't there yet.

So I like the digest format, but it wasn't until I picked up Fantasy and Science Fiction recently that I realized how much I prefer the single-column format. The problem with Asimov's and Analog (apart form the fact that they are longer) is that you can't fit even close to a full phrase on a single two-column line. I am a very visual person. Part of the reading experience for me is the white space on the page -- I actually use it in my own stories to help tell the tale. With two-column text, you simply don't have that luxury. The stories are just as enjoyable, of course, but the overall reading experience is just slightly better with F&SF.

So, if you'll excuse me, I've got a magazine to curl up with...

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Starship Design

I've been working on the deck plans for the various spacecraft that will appear in my novel. As I've mentioned before, I think a scene comes across as much more realistic when you have all the details down on paper in the form of a map (for figuring out travel times, etc.). The ship I'm currently working on is streamlined so that it could enter an atmosphere, although it never does. In this, it is very much like most of the ships we see in science fiction.

And why is that? What is the need for humans to create streamlined, aesthetically-pleasing spacecraft? They aren't airplanes, after all. Unless you plan to enter an atmosphere -- and darn few planets have a thick enough atmosphere to worry about -- there's no inherent reason to build an interplanetary or interstellar ship to be streamlined. NASA certainly doesn't. I can think of only one good reason, and it's the reason I'm using for justification -- but even I admit it's a little weak. This particular ship requires a crew of four, but is currently being crewed by a single individual. It's important to the story that this person be an isolated, rugged individualist. I see him cutting profit margins to the bone, always staying out in the "Big Black" as long as he can. For that reason, it's conceivable he'd rig his ship to be able to skim hydrogen from a gas giant. The hydrogen could be made into a fusion fuel with some effort. In this way he gets essentially free refueling -- and he doesn't have to come back to civilization as often.

I may or may not actually mention the hydrogen skimming in the book, but because the plot requires that he stay out by himself for long periods of time, I need a plausible means for him to do so. By designing the ship in this way, i've figured out how he can do just that. As I said, it's a bit weak (the easiest fusion requires helium-3, which is going to be a vanishingly small percentage of any hydrogen he scoops -- but who says he's using the easiest variety?), but it serves for my purposes. As Loren Wiseman once said, "I don't have to build it, I just have to decribe it."


Friday, January 06, 2006

Entering the World of Work

My son got his first "real" job today (at Wendy's, like a lot of teenagers). I'm really proud of him. He's been putting off getting a job for a long time, even though most of his friends work (he will be 17 in February). To a certain extent, I can see where he's coming from. Once you start working, you'll never have another summer to sit around and do (essentially) nothing again. I distinctly remember that sensation when I got my first job. On the other hand, I also don't think he really understands just how much money he's going to be making with this job. He's never had an allowance. I've always felt that the world isn't going to give you anything for free, so there's no reason not to start teaching basic economics early. He's always had the opportunity to earn money by working around the house, babysitting his little sister, etc. I realize that many people who give their kids allowances also require them to do chores, or else they lose their allowance. While that may work out to be the same thing monitarily, the association of work=money isn't quite as strong. So far he's been happy with the piddling he makes from us, so he hasn't really wanted to get a job.

Ah, but college is coming soon, and we won't be paying for it. As a college teacher myself (and my wife agrees with this observation), it's always very obvious who has parents paying for their school. The kids don't show up for class and really don't care if they fail it -- after all, they can always take the class again. On the other hand, when it is your money that is going down the toilet, that $300 per class starts to really mean something. i don't know many 18-22 year olds who are willing to simply flush that kind of money away -- if it is their own. Same thing with driving. My son has to pay for his own car insurance and gas -- that's part of the cost of operating a vehicle. He hasn't had a job to pay for it, so he hasn't driven since getting his license. I think it's odd that it wasn't a bigger motivator, but hopefully the lesson will pay off when he learns how convenient it is to be able to drive yourself places.

Wendy's isn't the world's greatest place to work, but it's a good start for a teen. He's done a good job!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Search's End

Well, the long Civil Air Patrol search and rescue operation is over. We found the aircraft late yesterday afternoon. Unfortunately, the pilot didn't survive. It looked like he was following a GPS course and thought he was descending into a valley, but was actually about a mile or so off course. Sadly, this meant he descended right into the mountains. GPS is pretty darn accurate, but at 10,000 feet it's not 100% accurate. Considering the fact that he probably wasn't exactly on the center line of his course, a mile's error isn't unreasonable. But descending into an unlit and unfamiliar valley at night isn't very smart. Without lights, the mountains are absolutely invisible. There are no cities in that area to give you a reference, either. The lesson to be learned -- and I can see a good science fiction story written around this -- is that too much faith in technology can fatal. The pilot trusted the GPS display to keep him out of trouble, but he didn't really understand that no technology is 100% accurate or reliable. And it cost him dearly.

All in all, the Civil Air Patrol flew 14 aircraft on 26 sorties (searches), for a total of nearly 80 hours of flight time. 86 people were involved in the search. The search cost about $10,000. If we had found the pilot alive, there's no question it would have been worth every penny, and even now it's probably worth it to provide closure for the family. Still, a lot of people don't realize what goes into saving a single person -- or the fact that none of the crews get paid to do it. We're all volunteers and wouldn't have it any other way. Nevertheless, one always wishes search and rescue was never necessary...


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Character Sketches

A while back I mentioned that I was going to use Poser, a 3D figure modeling program, to create pictures of all of the main characters in my novel. I really think that seeing your character's face goes a long way towards visualizing her in your mind. Of course, you have a pre-existing (though likely incomplete) mental picture to begin with, so part of the process is making the photo match your image while still giving you new information. I like to think of it as bringing her out of the shadows.

I tried a number of different possiblities, but none of them really seemed "right." Oddly enough, I accidentally applied a wrong morph to the figure, and all of the sudden it hit me: That's her! I recognized her right away. It was totally shocking. I'm not sure I could duplicate what led to the character, but the beauty of computers is that I don't have to -- I just saved the file. For the curious, I've attached a couple of renders below. The protagonist is a late-teen miner who eventually becomes a revolutionary leader. I think her face is one that shows her as-yet unrealized potential, while still maintaining her natural innocence. I'm pleased!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Two for Two

It just occurred to me that today is the day the latest issue of the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society comes out, so I dashed over there to check out the latest issue -- hoping, of course, to see my name as one of the authors.

Much rejoicing! They bought another of my articles!

They are printing it in two parts, so the next half will come out in two weeks, but I'm more than okay with that. This was the scond article I sent them, so I'm batting a thousand so far -- two for two! Woo-hoo!

Neeedless to say, I'm psyched. I'm definitely starting to think I've got a shot at success here. Admittedly, these are non-fiction articles, and I've been writing non-fiction for years now. Fiction is a whole 'nother ballgame, and that's what I really want to break into. On the other hand, pick up any copy of The Writer or Writer's Digest and well over half the articles are about non-ficiton authors. I don't really feel non-fiction is inferior to fiction, nor do I think it's necessarily easier to write (or sell). But I've been doing non-fiction for a long time, so the real challenge for me is in fiction writing. Nevertheless, as I've mentioned in previous posts, freelance non-ficiton is a different beast from the non-ficiton I was writing as salaried work. As I said then, with freelancing your skill as a writer is evaluated on every single piece -- there are no chances to say, "Well, it wasn't my best work, but it was okay." Having "passed" two of those evaluations in a row -- and my first two attempts, at that -- is something to get excited about, I think.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Real Life: Search and Rescue

I got a call this morning from my Civil Air Patrol squadron's operations officer. A plane was due to arrive in at one of the outlying Phoenix airports on New Year's Eve, but he never arrived. We launched about 8:00 this morning to join the search operations. The pilot had called his friend in Phoenix on his cell phone about 8:00 PM, and disappeared from radar shortly thereafter. One of our CAP planes flew the route, and he also disappeared from radar about the same time, so likely what happened was the plane simply fell in the radar shadow of the mountains (and this is extremely rugged country). The pilot of the missing plane had reported strong headwinds and was descending. Now, he was a "low-time pilot," which is a nice way of saying he was a rookie. The odds are he was not very familiar with Arizona's mountain country ("Isn't it all desert?") -- even experienced pilots don't fly through there at night. There are no lights to give you a horizon, and it is very easy to simply fly into a mountain -- they are virtually invisible in the dark. Few people in our modern age appreciate just how dark it gets without city lights everywhere. No emergency locator transmitter signal was detected, so either a) the batteries on the ELT were dead (unlikely, but possible), or b) he hit so hard that the impact destroyed the ELT along with the plane (which happens). If the latter, then what we are looking for is a body to give closure to his family. Still, people have survived stranger things, and we don't know that was what happened, so there's still hope.

I flew two very long, very grueling missions. Search and rescue is not as simple as watching out the window while you fly. It's actually very difficult to force yourself to focus your attention on specific areas on the ground (I use a four-spot, four-second repeating pattern). There were a lot of forests and gullies that could hide an airplane, and we were about 1000 feet above the ground. If your attention wanders, you could overlook a huge area without even realizing it. It's exhausting to maintain that level of concentration for four solid hours, all the while you're bouncing up and down from the turbulence that always occurs in the mountains.

If I saw an area that looked suspicious, we'd circle around it until we could identify it. There were a number of those, but none of them panned out. Still, it was better to be sure than to get home and wonder if maybe you missed something. And that's the real dichotomy here. You know that the odds of the polane being in your grid are low. You know that the odds of your finding him even if he is there are even lower. Yet if you let your mind wander from the task at hand, someone may literally die. You know that at the end of the day, you're probably going to go home tired and frustrated and worried. The guy's chance of survival goes down with each hour he is missing. There's a huge sense of responsibility when you are workingn as emergency services personnel.

And, of course, you want to be the one to find him. Who wouldn't want to be the hero? You don't want to let ego get in the way of the important thing -- finding the pilot -- so you're constantly at war with your already-frayed emotions: I want the other crews to find him quickly, but I want to find him first. Given your already stressed psychological state, it can be an issue that's difficult to put aside.

I'm home now and I'm exhausted. I have 24 hours of crew rest before I can be called up again, and that's a good thing. You must be fresh and sharp to do this job, because your effectiveness goes down as your fatigue goes up. You owe it to the guy to have the best crews in the air. They may call off the search by Wednesday, but I hope they find him tomorrow.

Sometimes we never find them.

Sunday, January 01, 2006



Here's wishing you and yours a fun, safe, healthy, and prosperous new year. May 2006 outshine the best of years past!