Thursday, February 28, 2013

Manipulating Netflix

I've been on Netflix for going on eleven years.  Yes, I apparently like it.  But over the years I've learned some things.  Netflix will "throttle" you if you send back too many discs in a period of time that is undefined (so is "too many").  What this does is keeps you from getting new releases.  It costs, I've read, Netflix $1 to send out a disc and have it come back (I assume postage both ways, the package, handling).  So they want to minimize that expense and "throttling" (not their term) is the way to do it.

So here's what you do.  You limit how many movies you watch.  When I was on the three-disc at home plan, I never watched more than two movies a week.  When (because of their price hike, mostly) I switched to two discs at home plan, I only sent back three discs every two weeks.  I alternate: one disc one week, two discs the next.

Now, we all want new releases, right?  Unfortunately, Netflix due to a content deal (to get more streaming content) told studios that they won't release new releases until four weeks after they go on sale.  Yes, it sucks.  For instance, I am hoping to get Skyfall on the 12th of March, four weeks after it was available in stores to buy (and probably rent elsewhere).  New releases usually come out on Tuesday.  What you want to do is get a disc to them on Monday before the new release.  For me, that means sending Saturday (until mail stops on Saturday in August, then it'll probably be Friday).

This is very important: if there's only one new release, send only one disc to arrive Monday.  If you need to send a second disc back, send it so it arrives Tuesday at the earliest.  If there's two (or more) new releases, you can send two discs to arrive Monday.  This probably won't get you throttled if you've been judicious in your disc returning.

Now this means my discs sit around a lot.  This is a "two movie week" (as I call them) so we needed to watch two discs to send back this weekend.  But we watched them last Saturday and last Tuesday.  So one is going to sit around for a week after being watched, the other for at least 5 days.  But this keeps you from being throttled.  Yes, I know Netflix is manipulating me.  But I like having a queue with the movies I want to watch and having them delivered to my house.

So, that's all I know about Netflix.  I've heard rumors of streaming throttling (slowing down the download or lowering the quality) but I don't stream enough to notice.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writing Lessons: Show and Tell

This part three of a continuing series of writing lessons.  Parts one and two were earlier on this blog.

They always tell beginning writers to "show, not tell."  I'm slower than most and it took me a long time to figure out what that meant.  At the risk of sounding stupid, it means: show your reader things don't tell them things.

For example, read the following passage.

A man walked into the bar.  He was tall and slim with broad shoulders, dark wavy hair and intelligent blue eyes.  He was dressed well in a business suit and a red power tie. 

Okay, that's not too bad.  You should have a picture of this man in your head.  But compare and contrast that to the following:
The man strode on long legs into the bar.  His quick blue eyes surveyed the scene as he looked for his friend.  He carried his tall frame confidently toward the bartender, adjusting his red power tie and pulling on the single cuffs of his starched dress shirt.  His shoulders filled out his expensive dark suit which complimented his dark wavy hair.

See the difference?  This accomplishes two things: one, the story doesn't come to a dead stop to describe the man.  The narration can continue (he walked to the bartender, he looked for his friend) while you are describing him.  (If I were writing a longer passage I would leak out these details more slowly than I did here).  And two, you can add more detail without getting boring (e.g., single cuff, starched shirt, confidently).

Here's an excerpt form a novel I haven't finished (barely started):

"What are you doing home," Marilyn asked Mike as she came in, her backpack over her shoulder making her shirt ride up more, exposing more of her bare, flat tummy over her low rise jeans.
"How was school?" Mike asked from the couch where he was watching the apartment's T.V.
Marilyn fixed him with her green eyes, her long dirty blonde hair hanging down her back to almost the end of her shirt.  "Don't change the subject, mister."
Mike turned off the T.V. with the remote and looked at her.  "I got fired."
"What?" . . .  She sat at the end of the couch and curled one long leg underneath her. 
Okay, what have we learned about Marilyn while the story was proceeding: she's probably a student (who else carries a backpack?), she's tall (long leg), thin (flat tummy), with green eyes and long dirty blond hair.  And we didn't have to read a paragragh of description to learn it and didn't stop the narrative dead cold with that paragraph.

"Show, don't tell" works with things other than descriptions of people.  For example, you can tell your reader "Joe died" or you can show your reader: "Joe slowly crumpled to the ground, a questioning look on his visage with his eyes going dark as he dies." 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Future of Books

For 500 years the book reigned supreme as the way to store, keep, move, and learn stuff.  Books did two things: they made memory permanent and information democratic.  You could find a book and learn.  You didn't have to find an old person whose memory might be faulty.  And it made knowledge democratic, not the sole domain of the cabal of the lucky few (call them the knowledge 1%) who could afford manuscripts.  Books became cheap and plentiful thanks to Gutenberg.  And people became knowledgeable.  It broke the back of feudalism and the Catholic Church's monopoly on God, both of which ended the dark ages and led to the Renaissance.  This led to the Enlightenment and finally to the liberties those of us in the West enjoy.  It is telling that one of the first thing tyrants want to control is books.

Gutenberg invented his movable-type press around 1439.  Yes, there continued to be plays, dances, singing minstrels (although the news-carrying minstrel was put out of business by the book and newspapers; good thing they didn't exist today or some government would subsidize them).  But the book was the key to learning and entertainment for five centuries.  Around 1900, movies began to be made for the purpose of entertainment.  In the 1950s television emerged.  Both of these "visual arts" competed with books.  But still books, paper books, were read by millions.

Now we live in interesting times (sort of like the old Chinese curse).  Two technologies are colliding: the ebook and print-on-demand.  Also, I can turn on my television and "stream" many movies and televisions shows on demand.  This will only get more comprehensive (I am convinced that in the future people won't buy DVDs or Blu-Rays or whatever, they will simply stream what they want to see for a subscription price or a few bucks per stream).

Print on demand technology has made it very cheap to publish a book.  Rather than having to do a full offset print run of, oh, 5,000 books at $5 a book (you do the math), you can set up a book electronically, and print one to a million copies.  This has cause a surge in "independent" authors publishing their own work (I plead guilty, I did that before I found a publisher).

And then there's ebooks.  You can "publish" your book on the Kindle for free if you do all the formatting work.  And places will do that for you for the pittance of $50 to $100.  Again, this has caused a huge surge in ebooks.

So now the problem is, how do you get noticed in the crowd.  But that's not what this post is about.

As with movies and other visual content, I think in the future people will own very few books.  Amazon already does this with Amazon Prime.  Prime members can "borrow" some Kindle books (including two of mine) for free and have them on their Kindle for a period of time.  Amazon pays the author or publisher (who is often the same person) a small amount for each book "borrowed."

Who knows where books are going (some of my thoughts here)?  The Kindle/ereader may be obsolete in 10 or 20 years.  Maybe the direct download into your brain.  But then it won't be a book, it will be a memory.  But two phenomena I think are going to happen: the virtual extinction of the printed book, and no one will own any content, they will just rent it.

It's gonna be interesting.  There's going to be a "shake out" in technology where some things will survive and some will go the way of Betamax.  And VHS.  And there might be a shake out of content providers, those who can supply the content the people will demand.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Doing Research

When I write my Adept Series novels (such as Hammer of Thor) that are set in the past, I do a lot of research in order to get them as historically accurate as possible (and then I make Pearl Harbor Day December 6th just to tell the reader "this is not our world").  I enjoy the research, usually.  I love learning new things.  I encourage all writers to do as much research as they can.  Unless you lived it, you can't do too much research.

But . . . what you can do is show off how much research you did by throwing in extraneous details not germane to the story.

Movie makers will make this mistake with sets or special effects.  They want to show off how much work they put into their elaborate sets or special effects they will spend a lot of time (or so it seems) showing them off (see Star Trek: The Motion Picture).  This has become less of a problem with CGI since they are easier and cheaper to do than traditional miniatures/matte SFX.

To give you an example in my own writing.  There's a scene in Hammer of Thor (this scene, in fact) where I did many hours of research.  It is set in 1943 San Francisco on a foggy day.  I wanted the fog to be at a level where buildings would peek out of the top and being the writer, I could set the fog at pretty much any elevation I choose (maybe I should have researched how high and low fog gets in San Francisco, but I didn't).  But, what buildings would poke out of the fog, which ones would be just under it, and what else would protrude into clear sky?

This turned out to be a multiple problem problem.  One: what buildings existed in 1943 San Francisco? Two: how tall were those buildings?  And three: what was the elevation of the ground they were built one?  Because their absolute height would depend on Two and Three.  And San Francisco is a hilly city so the base of buildings could be anything from sea level to 407 feet (the elevation of Castro Hill).

The internet to the rescue! (When I think about how hard this would have been before the internet, I shudder.)  There was a website called  They listed every tall building in most larger cities around the world.  They listed when they were built, their address, and how high they were (and other stuff I didn't care about).  Through that I was able to make a list of tall buildings that existed in San Francisco in 1943 and their height (since then, the website has put all that info behind a pay wall).  Microsoft used to have a map online (still might) that was a terrain map.  Using one online map to figure out the address, I would then use the terrain map to estimate the altitude of the base of the building.  I set up an Excel spreadsheet (I still have it) and I listed each building, the height above ground, the elevation of its base, and added those together to get its absolute height over sea level.  I then subtracted the height of the fog (450 feet) to get how far above or below the fog the building was.  And I used that information in writing the scene.

Go listen to (or read) that scene.  Is it obvious I did that much work?  I hope not. But I wanted that scene accurate as possible.  And that's what, as a writer, you should do. Make sure you do enough research to be accurate, but don't show off how much you did.

Except maybe on your blog.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Six: Violence

Today's Sunday Six comes from Chapter Eight of Rock Killer:

"The problem with democracy," he said, "is compromise.  There will always be those that oppose what is correct.  In a democracy you have to compromise with those fools.  And there can be no compromise in the protection of the Earth.  We're talking about mankind's survival.  Only in revolution there is no compromise and only in violence there is revolution."

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Future of Novels

I envision in the future novels will not be quite so . . . linear.  Now days you read a novel from beginning to the end.  But with technology and the probably demise of the paper book, this is no longer necessary or even desirable.

For example, novels could contain links to more information.  You read a line such as (from Book of Death) "Walter Cronkite looked especially serious on the color screen," and if you click the link you get a picture. Or a Wikipedia article on Walter Cronkite.

Or there's a link on a character's name, you click it, and you read their back story or maybe a side adventure they had.  And maybe a list of all the other novels they appear in.  Or reading a science fiction novel set on another planet, you could click the name of the planet and get a (fictional) encyclopedia entry for that planet, star system, etc.  You could have maps of your fantasy world (or the real world) that relate to your novel.  The choices are only limited by the author's imagination (and when I say "click" I probably mean "touch").

The possibilities are endless for text books, I would think.

This will mean the writer will have to come up with a lot more information and be careful what he shares in the links.  In my novel Agent of Artifice, I purposely left the background of the character Maria vague.  If I wrote a whole back story for her, some of the mystery of her as Vaughan's lover would have been missing.  But it would have been interesting.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Diet . . .

If you've been following me on Twitter or Facebook you probably know I'm on a diet.  And today was my first weigh-on and I've lost a good amount of weight.  But I have a lot to go.

The interesting thing is how much mental energy it takes to not eat.  Just last night I was in the kitchen and I opened the fridge (why? habit?) and saw something I would have loved to eat.  But I couldn't so I didn't.  But that took effort.  Or maybe will power.  And all the mental energy I'm expending on NOT EATING is not mental power I have for writing or other tasks.  No wonder I feel exhausted at the end of the day.

This is a special diet done under a doctor's supervision and you don't eat much.  And what you do eat tends to be fruits, vegetables, and bland meats like chicken (although my wife is pretty good at spicing them up).  I've been on this diet for two weeks and other than two days I was out of town for RadCon and had to eat in restaurants, I have followed it nearly to the letter (I cheated a couple of times by eating about 10 calories worth of cherry tomatoes).  I'm drinking between 1/2 and one gallon of water a day (and wearing a trail to the bathroom in the carpet).  That sort of keeps me glued to home or places with public bathrooms.

I know, reading about some one's diet is boring.  So I'll stop now.  But you may get a few more of these.  The doctor projects I'll be on this diet for about 8 months to get to my weight goal.  That's a long time to fight eating.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I Don't Do Horror

My friend, Sare, often does this "Sunday Stealing" meme on her blog.  I don't because often the questions are too personal.  One this week was about horror movies and I thought, no, I don't do horror.

It's not that I mind gore or frights (Aliens is one of my favorite movies, for instance and I had no problem with Saving Private Ryan, probably the goriest movie I've ever seen).  What I hate is the anticipation that something awful is going to happen.  This is what I cannot stand.  I call it the "Lassie syndrome."

You see, "Lassie" was a television show that was on when I was a kid (I always envision it in black and white so it must have been before we got a color TV in 1967).  The basic plot of every Lassie episode was (it seemed) Timmy and Lassie go out to play (happy music), heavy foreshadowing of something bad happening (scary music), something bad happens to Timmy (falls down a well).  Lassie runs back to Timmy's ranger father and barks a lot, and the father figures out that Timmy is in trouble and goes saves him.  But the problem cam from the foreshadowing of something bad.  When I watch a movie (or in life) anticipating something bad going to happen is to me is worse than it happening.  And horror movies always build up this anticipation so that they can scare the bejeesus out of you.

For instance, in the movie Walk the Line (about Johnny Cash), at the beginning his older brother is sawing wood with a huge circular saw and you just know that something bad is going to happen.  And I hated it.  I nearly turned off the movie at that point.  But I didn't.

So that's why I don't do horror.

Monday, February 18, 2013

RadCon After Action Report

So, I spent Friday and Saturday at RadCon science fiction and fantasy convention in Pasco, Washington.  I've never been to one before and this was pretty close to what I expected.  There were a lot of people in costume and some cosplay cuties but there were also just normal folk (and some women who desperately needed to wear more).  There was a lot of people wearing furry tails.  I asked one the significance (he was also wearing an Umbrella Corporation T-shirt) and he said the tail was just because it was cool.

I found it funny when the "Code of Conduct" started with "Don't be a pinhead" and then stated, "RadCon recommends that everyone follow the 3-2-1 rule. Everyday, aim to get three hours of sleep, 2 solid meals and 1 shower."

I also saw the biggest dog I've ever seen (an Irish Wolfhound that was probably almost four feet at the shoulders).  My childhood fear of large dogs was barely held in check.

I did a reading and was disappointed that only one person I didn't know (and my wife had recruited her) showed up.  That was Friday.  Saturday I was on three panels.  Now I assumed the people doing the panels were like me, a "Pro" (a writer who convinced the con organizers that he was worth letting in free and being on panels).  So I show up for my second panel about asteroid mining (since I wrote the book) and the two other panelists are scientists who actually know what the heck they are talking about (so glad I studied for that panel).  I think I may have had a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.  But I think I held my own.

Then I go to my next panel on mixing genres.  Thought the other three panelists would be writers like me.  Well, one didn't show up, but the other two were best-selling fantasy author Tanya Huff and best-selling science fiction writer John Dalmas.  Talk about deer in the headlights!  Again, I think I held my own and Ms. Huff was very gracious to me and allowed me to promote and talk about my books.

I also handed out maybe a hundred bookmarks with my website on them.

All in all it was an amazing experience and I'm going back next year!  Ms. Huff said this is one of the biggest "cons" she goes to.  Also seems to be the easiest one locally to con into letting you be a pro.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Six: Constant Acceleration

Today's Sunday Six comes from Chapter Seven of Rock Killer:

The Kyushu was an old ship.  It was roughly bullet shaped, a hundred meters in diameter and 200 meters long.  About seven years before, she'd been one of the first ships with the constant acceleration drives.  The power source was a tokamak fusion reactor, cooled by vaporizing lithium.  The lithium plasma was used by an MHD generator to produce electricity that the Masuka drives turned into thrust.  Before the diminutive Dr. Masuka invented his drive, ships had to get around the solar system via painfully slow Hohmann "low energy" orbits.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Things That Would Make Life Easier

(This is my 100th post on this blog!)

My friend Sare occasionally does "Thursday Thirteen" on her blog.  So I thought I'd do "Thirteen things that would make life easier and better" in no particular order (or the order I think of them).

1) When I'm using the stopwatch on my iPhone, I don't want it to autolock after three minutes because often I'm timing things that last longer than three minutes.

2) There ought to be a way to wirelessly recharge your cell phone automatically. You walk into your house and even though the phone is still in your pocket, it recharges. Radio waves are energy so this energy could be used. I think Tesla had something like that for transmitting electricity. Of course you'd want to have it so it only recharged the phones in the house, not some random visitor (or a guy sitting at the curb in his car). So it could be secure like WiFi.

3) All cars should have solar panels on the roof to run a fan/cooling device so when you get in the car in the summer it's not a million degrees inside.  A thermostat can make sure this doesn't happen when temps are below, say 45 degrees F. (Although my old Camaro heats up even in cool weather if the sun is shining.)

4) Police cars engaged in speed/traffic enforcement should all be that ugly green color some fire departments paint their trucks.  Oh, and have a big flag on the top with a flashing light at the end.  This is, of course, for their own safety.

5) All speed limits should be about 10 mph faster than they are now, except residential streets and school zones and maybe that road in Texas that's now at 80 mph.

6) DVRs should have a "catch up" feature where they play back the program at about 1.25 times normal speed, with sound, so you can catch up to live TV.  This would be helpful if you come in late to a sporting event.

7) Movie theaters should offer a "trailer-less" showing at least once a day.  Charge an extra buck for it.  (Last movie I went to they had 20 minutes of trailers and ads!)

8) Movie theaters should charge more for opening nights of big films.  This would reduce the number of people who want to see it on opening night and mean you don't have to wait in line for two hours to see a two hour movie.  (That two hour wait in is a cost the buyer pays but the seller doesn't recover.  It is an inefficiency in the economy.)

9) Amusement Parks should sell "Golden" passes that allow you to take a shorter line for the popular rides.  They can charge more for this than regular admission.  Some people would pay for this (I probably would).  (Disney's free "Fast Pass" system is pretty good, maybe they could sell a "Always Fast Pass" admission.)

10) Restaurants that are popular yet don't take reservations (like many casual dining restaurants) should institute a policy that if the waiting time is more than 10 minutes, customers have to pay $1 per minute of wait time.  This would increase the costs of waiting, perhaps making some people go somewhere else and thus reducing wait times ( doubt many people would shell out $40 to eat at Outback).  It would also make a little money for the restaurant (see #8).

11) Airlines should auction off empty first-class seats to coach customers.  They could set the minimum bid at the extra cost of serving a first-class customer.  An empty first-class seat is revenue lost and selling it for even $20 (on top of the price of a coach ticket) might be better than having it empty.  (Do you notice most of these are economic?)

12) We desperately need diet and exercise in a pill.  The wealth the inventor would earn would make Bill Gates look poor.

13) Speaking of pills, why can't our pills come in liquid form, so they are easily swallowed.  Might takes awful, but you could at least get them down without them dissolving on your tongue (and tasking awful in the process).

UPDATE: And 14) because I just thought of this: take a picture with your cell phone's camera of a written down or printed number (like on a business card) and then be able dial it, put it in contacts, etc. And addresses, be able to put in contacts or map/get directions to.

UPDATE 2: And emails on #14!

UPDATE 3: (I'm full of good ideas) The state should sell the right to park in handicap parking for, oh, $1,000 a year.  Some people would pay it and it would be revenue for the state.  The downside is, they might then require more handicap spaces to be empty in parking lots (because, usually most of them are).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Writing Lessons: Word Repetition

A while back we talked about using "power words and phrases" and adding adverbs and adjectives to nouns in order to paint a picture and/or to punch up your writing.

Today we're going to talk about a common mistake beginning writers often make: word repetition. 

Read the following not very interesting passage that I just made up:
Tom got on his horse and rode the horse out of the town toward the sunset.  The horse was a strong horse and would take Tom to his next adventure in the next town where his horse would remain his faithful horse.

At this point you should be throwing things at the computer screen that passage is so poorly written.  So what's wrong with it (other than it's just dumb)?  Well, the word "horse" appears six times in forty-two words.  That's 14.2% of the words are "horse."  (Admittedly, I wrote that passage trying to put in references to the horse as often as I could.)

What you want to avoid is "word repetition" in your writing.  And that's where having a good vocabulary comes in.  So let's rewrite that passage and see if we can avoid word repetition as much as possible:

Tom got on his horse and rode the animal out of the town toward the sunset.  The horse was a strong beast and would take Tom to his next adventure in the next settlement where his pinto would remain his faithful steed.

Okay, we're down to two uses of "horse" and, in my opinion, both of them are needed.  The first one, you could say "Tom got on his pinto/steed/equine" (as long as the word referred to "horse") but I believe start from the simple "horse" and move to the more complex "steed".   But try to never have the same noun in one sentence.  (You could say "Tom got on his animal" if you were writing science fiction or fantasy and the animal was something other than a horse and you were stringing your reader along before revealing that Tom was indeed riding a thoat.)

Also, the second use of "horse" is the second sentence could be changed, perhaps to "mount" giving us only one use of the word "horse."

And, notice that "pinto" gives us more information about the horse.  Avoiding word repetition is a good chance to supply your reader with more detail.  And of course once you call it a "pinto" you can't later call it a "mustang."

One of the hardest scenes to write was in my novel Rock Killer where there was a shoot-out between the heroin and the bad guys at the same time a house was burning.  So I had the burning fire and guns firing.  It was a challenge.  I loved writing that scene.

Use your thesaurus (the one that comes with Word is fairly good) and your vocabulary to avoid word repetition.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Movie Review: Hit and Run

I rented Hit and Run from Netflix (is it really "renting" when it's from Netflix?) despite it's low Rotten Tomatoes score because, well, it had a Corvette in it.  (I thought it was a Z06 but it was a Grand Sport.)  It also had a very cool Cadillac CTS-V stationwagon.

And had I realized that one of the stars was also the writer, director, and editor, I might have backed off.  But I didn't discover that until the end credits rolled.

Hit and Run was sometimes funny, occasionally had a cool car chase, but overall was just too dumb to be believed.  The main romantic relationship was completely unbelievable.  The girl was a hyper-politically correct liberal with a doctorate in "non-violent conflict resolution" and drove a Prius.  The guy was a criminal in the witness protection program who had a 700 horsepower 1967 Lincoln Continental (Apparently the actor owns the car in real life) that was very cool (except for the really big wheels and low low profile tires)(when will this stupid fad for obnoxiously big wheels end?).  Tom Arnold (who I like for some reason) plays a bumbling federal marshal (is there such a thing?).  The only believable character was the villain who liked dogs (and drove the CTS-V).

If the movie had concentrated on car chases with these amazing vehicles it probably would have been better.  But instead it had to go for cheap laughs (twice people walk in on an old and fat people orgy) and try to have character development the actor/writer just couldn't handle.  And there is far far too much discussion about a guy getting raped in jail.  So, it's kinda fun, but I don't think the fun is worth the bad parts.

Monday, February 11, 2013

RadCon Schedule

This weekend is RadCon science fiction and fantasy convention in Tri-Cities, Washington.  It will be at the Red Lion Inn by the Pasco Airport (across the street from the community college).  I am a "visiting professional" and will be doing a reading and appearing on three panels, including one about asteroid mining (viz, Rock Killer).

Here is my schedule of events:

Friday the 15th, 4:30 P.M. to 5:00 P.M., Small Press room: I'll be reading from my urban fantasy, Adept Series novels Hammer of Thor and Book of Death.  I'll also be handing out swag.

Saturday the 16th: 1:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M., Small Press room: "Working with a Small Press Publisher" panel.

Also Saturday: 2:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M., Sage room: "What can we do with an asteroid?" panel.

And finally Saturday: 4:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M., Room 2205, "Mixing Genres" panel.

I hope to see you there.  Come up and say "Hi!"

UPDATE: I'll have swag and books!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Six: The Towel

Today's Sunday Six from Chapter Six of Rock Killer:

"Anxious about going back into space?" she asked, sitting at the small breakfast table in a sunny atrium just off the kitchen. 

Her towel almost fell off but she caught it and adjusted its tension.

He shrugged. "I guess." He dried his hands on a dishtowel and joined her at the table.   She’s damn sexy like this, he thought.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Another Earth Right Next Door

New research based on data from the Kepler space telescope's observations indicates that an Earth-like planet maybe right on our doorstep . . . astronomically speaking.

Keep in mind, the galaxy is huge.  It's 100,000 light years across.  And a light year is 5,878,499,814,276 miles.  So that's . . . a very big number.  Just call it 5.88 x 10^17 miles across the galaxy.  That's absolutely unfathomably huge.

So when scientist say an Earth-like planet could as close as 13 light years away, that's, well, right on our doorstep.  Only problem is getting there.  If you could (you can't) go the speed of light, it'd take 13 years to get there.  If you could fly a 737 there (you can't), it would take about 17.5 million years.  That's a long time in a coach seat.  If you could build a spaceship capable of going a million miles per hour it would take about 8,700 years.

Still, 13 light years away is, on the scale of the galaxy, right next door.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Learn how doing research (and finding out I was wrong) improved my novel Book of Death at the Ask David blog.  And while you're there, leave your own review!

Movie Review: Flight

Last night I watched Flight.  The movie stars Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who miraculously (and skillfully) lands a crippled aircraft saving most everyone on board.  The plane was in a dive that would have killed everyone but he managed to crash land it with only six out of 102 people on board killed.  However, this starts a chain of events that lead to his life falling apart.

I thought this was going to be a conspiracy thriller, the big evil corporation or the big evil government intelligence service set him up somehow and it would devolve into car chases and shoot-outs.  But no.  This movie is a character study of a man whose life is crumbling around him.  I don't want to give too much away but Washington gives an amazing performance and the entire film is just shot with simplistic beauty.  I thought the ending was a little unbelievable but up until then it was a first rate character study and as a writer I appreciated that.

Flight is rated "R" for "drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence" so it's not for kids.  But adults should enjoy it.

There is one glaring error aviation buffs/pilots will catch.  I'll leave that up to the student to find.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Zen and the Art of Driving Fast

(Editor's note: I wrote this in 2007 in response to someone saying my driving fast-even on a racetrack-was irresponsible.)


The ears are overworked with wind noise, road noise, engine and exhaust noise.  Only the wind can be ignored.  The road noise tells you that the car is stable.  When you hear a whine is when you worry.  Engine and exhaust noise tell you the engine is healthy and when it's time to shift.  There's no time to watch the tachometer so you must rely on your ears and experience.

The eyes are sweeping.  The pavement coming at them at over 100 miles per hour is ignored.  You know this sheet of asphalt like you would know a lover's body.  The eyes are looking for visual cues to turn-in, apex, and exit of each corner.  Here it's the blue part of the stands, there it's a wooden structure called a "turn station" and there it's a telephone pole.  Being a class there are cones demarking these things but due to hills and weeds, they are not always visible.  But the eyes are also watching the other cars.  While looking through them to find the corner markers, it is watching them for sudden unexpected moves and slowdowns.  Here as nowhere else do you  dare be this close to another car at highway speeds.

The inner ear, felt in the ass, tells you the car is tacking straight and the  tires are not sliding over the asphalt.

The right foot is planted against the firewall, the left hovering over the clutch.  Both hands are on the steering wheel, probably at "nine and three."

Your brain is processing all this information.  The baud rate is enormous and the limited bandwidth of your brain becomes selective.  The itch of your nose, the discomfort of the helmet, the cold of the wind coming in the window all fade away.  Your mind is completely and utterly concentrating on its task, on piloting a powerful car at speeds over one hundred miles per hour around a track that twists and turns seemingly at random.

Your mind has reached "speed nirvana."  Gone is everything other than driving, other than moving your body to make the car move as you wish, observing, listening . . .


Not commuting, not "operating a motor vehicle," but DRIVING.  The skills were acquired in years of back-roads speeding and days of track training.  Talent plays a role, the ability to process the information coming in fast enough to react.  To hear the screech of tires and know you need to look for a car sideways in the road.  To smell brakes and know you need to slow down and give your over-heated pads a break.  To run your eyes over the instrument gages on straight aways to make sure the beast under the hood is not suffering.

This is driving.  This is speed nirvana.  Gone are the worries of work, relationships, money, whatever.  It is you, the car, and the pavement coming at you at 220 feet every second.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Six: The Mugging

Today's Sunday Six from Chapter Five of Rock Killer:

Charlie took the bag from her shoulder and held it out for him.  He reached for it.  Once he had his hand around the strap, she pulled back hard.  The boy was pulled off balance and Charlie grabbed the wrist of his knife-wielding hand and twisted hard. 

She was rewarded with a dull, moist pop as she broke the joint. 

He howled in pain and dropped the knife. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Close Shave

Because my novel Rock Killer is about asteroid mining (sort of like Gone With the Wind is about the Civil War), anything in the news about asteroids tends to grab my attention.

It seems that on February 15th a small asteroid (that probably looks nothing like the one pictured here) will make a record close pass by Earth.  As Fox News reports:

“This is a record-setting close approach,” Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at JPL said in a video released by NASA this week. Yeomans, however, emphasized that the asteroid, designated 2012DA14, won’t hit Earth.

“It will come interestingly close, closer than many man-made satellites,” he said.
How close is "interestingly close"? About 17,500 miles above the surface at closest approach.  This is within the orbit of communication and GPS satellites.

 The rock is 50 meter wide (165 feet about) and if it hit Earth would most likely leave a crater like Meteor Crater in Arizona.  Not a catastrophic impact unless you're in the vicinity.

As scientist look we're going to find more of these Near Earth Objects (NEO).  NASA has a project to find as many as possible with the goal of, partly, give us some warning of an impact.  As we find more NEOs, we'll become aware of more close approaches to Earth that in the past we never knew happened.