Wednesday, April 23, 2014

All of the Empirical Data

It's raining today.

So what? you say.  You live in Washington State and it rains a lot.  Well, yes and no.  The western side of the state (west of the Cascade Mountain range) it rains a lot.  But I happen to live in the rain shadow of those mountains and we average 8 inches of rain per year.  Seattle got more than that last month!

So it's raining today and my thoughts hearken back to my 9th grade "Earth Science" class.  The teacher (who was a PE major in college) decided to demonstrate the scientific method using rain as an example.  He ask the class to pretend we didn't know rain came from and what facts could we observe to form a theory of where rain comes from.  One student said, "It gets cloudy."  Another offered, "It gets cooler."  Now this is empirical data, i.e., data that is observed.

So I said, very seriously, "It falls out of the sky."  And everyone laughed.  No, this is not about childhood trauma.  I am very used to, and was even then, being laughed at or ridiculed when I know I'm right.  Even in the face of authoritative opposition because the PE major laughed, too.

But here's the thing.  If it got cloudy and cooler and the water came out of the ground, you'd need a different theory than you'd have if it came from the sky.  That was an important empirical datum.  But to everyone else in that classroom, rain fell from the sky by definition.

This is why science is difficult.  You have to look at all the data.  And there might be data you're not aware of that you're not seeing because you're assuming rain always falls from the sky.  People often miss what is right in front of their eyes because it doesn't fit their pattern of thinking.  Or they see patterns where they aren't because of prejudice.

For instance, if you think people with green eyes are all idiots, anytime you see a person with green eyes being an idiot, it reinforces your prejudice.  If you see a green-eyed person acting smart, you dismiss it and often forget about it because it doesn't fit the patterns of your prejudice.  This is why scientists have developed many tools to eliminate prejudice and preconception and other facts of human nature.

So when you're looking at a phenomena, try to gather all the empirical data, even that you don't agree with.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Supersonic Molten Sulfur

Io with a volcano on the left side of the picture.
For the Work in Progress (WIP) I'm just finishing up (I'm waiting on two more beta reads) I decided to describe the moon of Jupiter, Io, in greater detail than I had.  In The Treasure of the Black Hole my main character is talking about learning to pilot a spaceship around Jupiter and how difficult landing on Io was.

Io (pronounced eye-oh) is the inner-most Galilean moon, that is, one of the four moons discovered by Galileo in 1610.  Due to its proximity with Jupiter, tidal forces keep the moon's core molten and there are numerous volcanoes on the moon spewing molten sulfur.  Some of the volcanoes shoot the sulfur 200 miles above the surface.

So I decided I wanted to say in my WIP how fast that sulfur was moving.  This is an easy calculations and according to my college physics book (yes, I still have it), the formula is:


Where v0 is the initial velocity as it leaves the surface, h = the height it reaches, and g is the acceleration of gravity.  In computerese we write that: v0=sqrt(2hg)

For example, if you throw a ball straight up (ignoring air resistance) and it went up 5 meters (about 17 feet) you would have to throw it with an initial velocity of 10 meters per second (about 22 mph).  That's because the acceleration of gravity on Earth's surface is about 9.8 meters per second per second so plugging those number is v0=sqrt(2*5*9.8) = 9.9 meters per second.

So let's do this math for the molten sulfur on Io.  Again, ignoring air resistance (because there is no air).  In this calculation h = 200 miles = 322,000 meters and the acceleration of gravity at Io's surface is (at the equator) is 1.796 meters per second per second.  Now, everything is in the units of meters and seconds (don't try to multiply miles by meters, it doesn't work) so you plug those numbers in and v0=sqrt(2*322,000*1.796) = 1,075 meters per second.  Which is 2,405 mph.  Wow!  That just doesn't seem possible.  The speed of sound is 767 mph.  So that molten sulfur is going three times the speed of sound or Mach 3. (Yes, I know there's no air on Io and thus on sound.)

Anyone out there see a math error, let me know!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Write, then Edit, then Edit Some More . . .

I'm getting beta reads back on a science fiction novel I wrote called The Treasure of the Black Hole.  Getting the beta reads done is the last step (almost) before submitting or publishing a novel.  At least, that's my opinion.

This is April.  That novel was a NaNoWriMo project.  That's five months almost since I finished the first draft to it being almost done.  I say "almost" because I want to read through it one last time.

Why haven't I stuck a fork in it and called it done?  Well, I'm about to, but, to paraphrase Orson Wells: I will submit nor publish no novel before its time.

In this blog I once said: "Your first draft will suck.  Get over it and write the damn thing."  And I stick by that.  Write your first draft either as a NaNoWriMo project or just sit down and write.  Just keep writing.

But when the first draft is finished, there is still a lot of work to do: months of work.  The manuscript needs to be edited by you at least twice, three times is better.  But before you edit it, you have to let it sit and the longer the better.  I call this process "festering."  The errors and bad writing become more blatant the longer it sits.  I have a writer friend who says she won't go back to a manuscript until she's started working on something else.  "I have to fall in love with something else so I can see it objectively."  I'm not that extreme but I do wait a minimum of a week but, as I said, the longer the better.

Then I have my wife and (if she's willing) a friend proofread it.  Proofreading is a different function from editing.  If I were doing a venn diagram, proofreading would be inside of editing.  But proofreading is more concentrating on typos, spelling errors, and punctuation while not looking at sentence structure or writing.  Proofreading has its place in the editing process.

Then I have someone read it out loud to me.  When I hear it and don't see it I pick up on things I don't when reading.  I hear word repetitions, clunky construction, stilted dialogue, and writing that just isn't up to my standards.  It works very well.

Then I let it sit again, and edit it again.  Then I do beta reads with as many people as I can get (this is where your writers' group comes in handy; you are part of a writers' group, aren't you?).  You want to get all the feedback you can because people see things you don't see.  Or they have questions that make you realize you didn't explain something well enough.

Then, read though it one last time, and stick a fork in.  There's a balance there.  You don't want to tweak a manuscript for ten years.  You have to, at some point, realize that it's good enough.  Or great enough.  You need to publish or submit it as is.  Will there be a typo in it?  Probably.  Will there be a sentence that isn't absolutely beautifully written. Very likely.  But you need, now, to submit or publish it.

Then start writing that next first draft (which I actually hope you started sometime during the editing process of the last manuscript).  Because you need to just keep writing.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Trailer: The Adept Series

The book trailer for the Adept Series is now live:


Learn more about the magical Adept Series on my webpage.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

I watched 12 Years a Slave last week and have spent the time since thinking about this powerful movie.  There is probably no one in what is commonly referred to as "The West" (i.e., Western Europe, Canada, and the U.S.) who needs to be convinced that slavery is a very very bad thing.  But, not 300 years ago, it was ubiquitous and the victims weren't all from Africa (the word "slave" comes from "Slavic" as in the peoples of south-eastern Europe, where for a long time Europeans got a lot of their slaves).  For about the last 100 years that there was slavery in the West, it coincided with a building consensus that it was very wrong.  The barbarity of slavery collided with the idea that "all men are created equal."

The movie, 12 Years a Slave, is based on an autobiographical novel about a free black man who was sold into slavery unjustly and accused of being a run-away slave.  In his twelve years as a slave he had owners who were reasonably good to their slaves.  But his last owner was a man who took out his insecurities on his slaves, including one beautiful female slave he regularly raped.

Like owners, overseers (the white plantation employees who supervised the slaves) were both good to the slaves or cruel.  Imagine all the bad bosses you had having the power of life and death over you.

The movie is bookmarked by a brutal beginning when Solomon Northup, the free black man, is punished for being a run-away, and an even more brutal climax.  This movie is well made, has many fine actors and performances, and shows that, in the words of Roy Batty from Blade Runner, "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."  You can see the fear every slave feels: fear of saying or doing the wrong thing which will bring them a flogging, whipping, or lynching.

12 Years a Slave does a better job than any other movie I've seen about what it was like to be a slave in the antebellum South.  And when you realize you need to look away from the screen at the reality of it, you realize just how bad slavery was.  And is, as there are still places where it is practiced, ironically, mostly in Africa.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Depression: An Insider's Perspective.

I am type-2 bipolar with dysthymia.  I don't make a secret about it and I am not ashamed of it (I'll get into reasons why in a bit).  I am on three medications to control both the bi-polar and the dysthymia (because lithium didn't work for me; or rather, it worked too well).

Dysthymia a type of depression defined as depression that lasts two or more years.  It can be slightly depressed with episodes of major depression, or very depressed.  With my bipolar my dysthymia was major depression occasionally interrupted by mania.

Today I want to talk about depression because I think it is very misunderstood by a lot of people.  And if you are a writer and your character is depressed, you'll want to understand that character.  So today I shall bare my soul.  Well, sort of.

Everyone get's a little "blue" every now and then.  Your girlfriend breaks up with you.  Your job sucks.  But it passes after a few weeks or even a couple of months.  This is "situational depression" where you are depressed for some good reason.  There is a slight risk of it turning into major depression, especially if it lasts longer than two months.  But mostly people get over it and get on with their lives.  It's a natural response to a sad situation.

Then there are people such as me.  I'm depressed nearly all the time (without meds).  I called it "floating depression" because it seemed there was this dark cloud hovering over me ready to rain on my parade at any time.   I could be in a happy, joyous occasion and feel sad.  This is not due to a character fault, a personality weakness.  It's due to the chemistry in my brain.  I probably inherited this chemistry judging by the mental illness in my family history.

This is like being type-I diabetic or having epilepsy.  It is nothing to be ashamed of.  It is not the fault of the person that they are depressed.  Telling them not to be depressed is like telling a diabetic to not be diabetic.  It won't happen.  Like the diabetic needs treatment, so does the person who is depressed.  Someone once asked me with horror in their voice, "Aren't you dependent on your drugs?" and I said "Yes, very much so, just like a diabetic is dependent on insulin."  Should the diabetic feel guilty about taking insulin?  They why should I feel shame for being "dependent" or my psychotropic drugs?

But what does depression feel like?  It ranges from feeling "blue" constantly to feeling life is completely not worth it and you might as well end it.  I used to wake up every morning contemplating killing myself.  And the side benefit was, I wouldn't have to go to work.  I'm not sure this is because I was depressed, but I would cry at movies.  Forrest Gump made me ball like a baby at the end.

I guess to know how depression feels, imagine being your saddest for not minutes, hours, or even days, but years.  No matter what nice or wonderful things happen to you, you are still sad underneath.  It's as if you live in the sunshine but shadowy hands are constantly dragging you down into a river of sadness.  And there seems to be no escape.

Depression is a serious mental disorder that you need to treat if you experience it for more than a couple of weeks.  I'm not a doctor nor a psychiatrist, just a guy who knows what it likes to be depressed constantly.  I am so happy I got the meds that keep me from being depressed and keep me from having manic episodes.  Maybe later I'll write about what being manic is like.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Clean Cars

Years ago I was in Anchorage Alaska.  It was a beautiful July day with blue sky and nary a cloud.  You could see the amazing mountains that surround this city almost as if they were close enough to touch.  And every single car I saw was filthy dirty.  Not a little dusty, not a few bugs on it, but filthy.  And I thought, "I should introduce these people to the concept of the car wash."  Then, as we drove through the streets, I saw a car wash.  It looked new and modern.  Well, except for the weeds growing between the crack in the concrete and that the building was empty.  It was obviously out of business.

So I asked my Alaska-born cousin, "Don't people wash their cars around here?"  And she said with a laugh, "Alaskans don't care about clean cars."  This much was obvious.

I do care about clean cars.  I like to keep my cars clean.  But where I live this is nearly impossible.  In the winter there's mud from the dirt on the road mixing with snow mixing with the sand the county dumps to improve traction.  Then the state sprays this brown goo deicer on the interstate.  It's supposed to be better for the environment than road salt.  I consider car washing to be part of car maintenance because you don't want those deicing chemicals eating your vehicle's skin.  So I try to wash the car on a semi-regular basis in the winter.

In the summer we have bugs and dust.  I tend to buy light-colored cars so the dust isn't immediately prevalent.  But I did own a dark blue Camaro.  I would wash it, drive it, wash it, drive it, etc.

But the biggest issue we have around here in the summer is bugs.  For instance, on Wednesday I drove
my car about 110 miles from Spokane to my house.  When I left Spokane the car was pristine.  There wasn't a speck of dirt on it.  When I got home, the front was covered in bugs.  And that's not the worst.  Look at the picture at right.  This was taken in August a few years ago.  I left home with a clean car and drove 140 miles (round trip) and when I got home this is what the front of my car looked like.  And most of those bugs were in the last 50 miles or so.  The bugs were so thick at first I thought it was raining.

So, you wash your car, drive it a bit, wash it, drive it a bit, etc.  You can't keep a car clean here in central Washington State.

But I try.  And for the three minutes it's clean and beautiful, it's worth it.