Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cameron Dives the Mariana Trench!

Filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, The Abyss) has become the third human in history to travel seven miles down into the deepest part of the ocean—the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench. He's the first to do it alone, as leader of the Deepsea Challenge mission.

I was eleven when the Trieste made the first, two-man, dive in 1960. I've often wondered why nobody ever went back (just as I've wondered why we haven't returned to the Moon). Well, now this team has done it, and it's the first of a planned series of dives. Whereas the Trieste got just twenty minutes of bottom time and never returned, Cameron and the submersible Deepsea Challenger spent a couple of hours there, gathering samples and shooting 3D video. Here's the first of many video clips about the National Geographic sponsored mission:

When I blogged, just days ago, about two separate planned expeditions, I had no idea that Cameron's dive was imminent. And I almost missed it when it happened. The story was buried in the Boston Globe, and it's too early for it to be in any of my science mags. In my previous forays to the Deepsea Challenge site, I'd failed to notice the prominent box where you can sign up for email updates. I've fixed that. But I can't help wondering: Why aren't stories like this front-page news? If I were running the world, they would be! Because, by God, this is exciting stuff. What a time to be alive!

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Larry Niven's "Draco Tavern"

These days I do a lot of my reading via audiobooks downloaded from the library. It's great; it lets me read while walking the dog, or doing housework. Lately I've been listening to a collection by master SF storyteller Larry Niven called, The Draco Tavern. I say master storyteller, but the pieces in this collection are largely not complete stories but brief vignettes, in which Niven tosses off ideas and visions of alien creatures like sparks from a sparkler. The Draco Tavern is a pub in Siberia, built to accommodate alien tourists from throughout the galaxy. Rick, the tavern owner, has myriad tales to tell of aliens he's served, starting with the Chirpsithra, who opened the galactic trade route.

I'd recommend this book to any aspiring SF writer—not as an example of great story structure (emphatically not; since they're mostly not complete stories), but as an example of how to imagine possibilities, and how to convey remarkable visions in remarkably few words. One of the hardest things for many new writers to master is how to get across futuristic or otherworldly or alien settings and characters, without getting bogged down in tedious detail. It's a skill that requires a lot of practice, and it's useful to study how others do it. Niven can toss off in a sentence a crystal picture that would take others a paragraph to tell, or a page. In his introduction to the collection, Niven remarks that one reason he wrote all these vignettes was for the practice, because he wanted to get better at it.

If writing is your thing, I'd take a look at this collection. I just bought an ebook copy myself. Here are just a few places you can pick it up for your collection:

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

80 MPH and Other Questions of the Mind

Apparently this video has gone viral, depicting a man asking his wife the question, "If you're traveling 80 miles per hour, how long would it take you to go 80 miles?" He poses the question while (apparently) driving down the highway, aiming a dashboard camera at himself and his wife, and frequently mugging his amusement for the camera as his wife flails hopelessly, trying to answer a ridiculously easy question. (Hint: It would take an hour.)

My first thought was, bullshit. He just happened to have a camera above the steering wheel, and he aimed it back and forth while posing for it and teasing his wife...while driving? Really? Jeez, I hope not. For one thing, I wouldn't want to be on the same highway with him. For another, what kind of jerk would humiliate his wife on camera, then put it on Youtube for the world to see? (On the other hand, if I see it as faked, then I find it very funny. How weird is that?) 

But...the husband and wife appeared on Good Morning America, and said this is just what happened. She was mad, but they've made up.

Does the story pass the bullshitometer test now? I don’t know. But my brother tells me a colleague of his asked the same question (about MPH) of a couple of acquaintances, and neither of them could answer it, either. (Which reminded me of an unrelated video shot at a Harvard commencement, in which a bunch of newly minted Harvard grads were asked to explain what causes summer and winter—and none of them could.)

So let's assume the story is true. I found myself wondering: Where does the understanding break down, when someone can't answer a question that most find ridiculously obvious. I got to speculating: If the brain fails to parse the phrase "miles per hour" for its literal meaning and just hears [noise] that gets translated as [familiar-sounding sciencey jargon], does it just never think to examine the [noise] to see if there's some hidden meaning? Or is there a linguistic deficit that gets in the way of parsing the phrase, sort of like dyslexia? And thus, left foundering, does the brain scramble to find something, anything to help answer the question?

I wonder what a psychologist would say about this? Maybe I should ask my brother.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Africa-themed Fantasy

Mary C. Aldridge is a writer you may not know, even though she was a Nebula finalist for one story, a Cauldron Award winner for another, and a winner of a Massachusetts Artists Foundation Fiction Fellowship for still another. The thing is, she hasn't written nearly enough stories. A while back, I noted that she'd put some of her stories up for sale at Amazon and elsewhere. Now she's gathered them into a collection that you can buy for a skinny $2.99 — a steal at the price.

If you like fantasy and African folklore, or just want to try something a little different, this could be just what you're looking for.

Pick it up at Kindle / Nook / Smashwords (all formats)

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

New Richard Bowker Novel!

Some years ago, novelist Richard Bowker was developing a reputation around the edges of the SF/paranormal/thriller/mystery world as a writer with a nifty gift for characterization, story, and style, and a certain uncategorizability. It was that last trait that tended to get him into trouble, as his publishers didn't always know where to place his books. Was his post-nuclear-war Boston private-eye novel SF, or was it mystery, or eccentric mainstream? For the readers plunging into the stories, it was great. But for the publishers and marketers, it was a challenge they did not always rise to.

Following Senator, Bowker disappeared for a number of years. (Well, he didn't really, but in book terms he did.) Now he's back, not just reissuing his backlist in ebook (a fine thing in itself), but publishing new work as well. You could do a lot worse than to check out Pontiff, just released in Kindle and Nook-format ebooks—a novel of religion, murder, and miracles from the author of Senator and Replica. [more

Pontiff on Kindle / Pontiff on Nook

Oh, I almost forgot to mention: It's DRM-free, so if you want to read it on another device--say, a Sony Reader, or in Aldiko on an Android--you should be fine buying the Nook version.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Bucky, Time, and Getting Older

This Sunday's Get Fuzzy comic reminded me of the song "Older," by They Might Be Giants.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

New Scientist and God

New Scientist is my favorite magazine, where science is concerned. They cover lots of cool science, and even have a science fictional streak I admire. But when they venture into questions of God, faith, and religion, they invariably leave me frustrated and disillusioned. The editors approach such questions with such programmatic atheism that any hope for fruitful and open discussion quickly dies. So it was with a certain reluctance that I opened the latest issue: The God Issue: The Surprising New Science of Religion.

Was I greeted by surprising new science? Not really. Did it live up to the promises on the cover? (The idea that launched a thousand civilizations / God's existence put to the test) Not even close.

The bias was pretty upfront, starting with the headline on the opening editorial:

Know your enemy
The new science of religion tells us where secularists are going wrong

They don't mean where secularists are going wrong in their evaluation of religious belief, but where they're going wrong in their efforts to eradicate it. "Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally — which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with." In other words, know your enemy. And in the opening page to the features section: "Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on." By move on, they seem to mean, discard religion for a more enlightened way of thinking.

So we know where they stand.

But what about the articles? They're a mixed bag. The first, by Justin L. Barrett, is a pretty interesting discussion of how babies and young children learn and develop mental models of "agents" that influence things in the world. There seems to be a built-in predilection for attributing events they see to an "agency," or a higher power. The thesis here is well summarized by the closing lines: "[Children] have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief. Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born." Not a bad article.

It's followed by several others, including one that discusses how religions may have helped create social structures that brought us out of the Stone Age. I'm not sure I learned much from it, but it wasn't a bad article, either. The collection hits its low point, however, with "The God Hypothesis," by Victor J. Stenger, which proposes to discuss the existence or nonexistence of God by reference to empirical evidence. No empirical evidence is offered, however.  What we get instead is a warmed-over collection of statements that this or that aspect of theology has been tested and found wanting. A feel-good piece for atheists: no actual information, no details about what studies have been done or how they were designed. Finally, there's a discussion of the position of Alain de Botton that atheists ought to seek out and adopt the "useful bits" of religion, such as ritual gatherings for the purpose of community building. Fine by me, but not exactly news. Haven't the Unitarians been doing this for quite a while now?

Personally, I'm agnostic on the question of whether God's existence can be proven or disproven by science, or by logic. Most people I know who believe in God do so because of personal experience, personal encounters that have little to do with abstract logical constructions. (Or in my own case, the logical questioning had to bring me to the point of saying, "Okay, this is possible." And then the experiential part began.) When you've had that kind of experience, the question of "proof" starts to seem tedious and irrelevant. But that doesn't mean I think science should stop looking. 

I think the real problem with this particular publication is that the editors, who so excel in other areas of science journalism, are blind to their own biases about the relationship between science and religion. They keep writing as though they've got the whole thing covered, yet seem clueless about what the actual religious experience is. If they could let go—just for once—of the notion that religion is their enemy, perhaps they could genuinely explore questions such as the role faith plays (or does not play) in mental health, or healing, or personal development, or community building, or intellectual inquiry. I'd even be happy if they could, without demonizing, examine why some religious movements (such as certain conservative Christian streams in the U.S.) so resolutely obstruct the input of science in public policy. I agree this is happening, and it's bad; I disagree with the assumption that religious belief per se is the problem. They might even spend some time talking to scientists who are also people of faith, and see what we can learn about how some pretty rational people integrate those two modes of thought.

Maybe these questions don't belong primarily in a science magazine, though I don't see why not. But I do wish the editors of New Scientist would recognize that what they're putting in the mag now isn't so much science as dogma pretending at science.

Maybe the true enemy isn't religion, but intellectual prejudice.


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Friday, March 16, 2012

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Would you go to the bottom of the sea in this craft?

Image: Virgin Oceanic

Only two humans have ever traveled to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, seven miles down in the Pacific Ocean off the Philippine Islands. That happened more than fifty years ago, when Lieutenant Don Walsh of the U. S. Navy and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard descended into the depths in the U.S. Navy bathyscaph Trieste, in 1960. (Nine years before the first humans set foot on the Moon.) I'm sure others have dreamed of it. (I have.)

Sometimes it takes a really rich person to pursue this kind of dream. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, is one such person. He's paying for the completion of Virgin Oceanic's one-man submersible, in which explorer Chris Welsh will attempt the first manned follow-up to the historic Trieste dive. It looks cool as hell. But can it survive the crushing depth of the Challenger Deep? Read about it here.

And if they don't make it, maybe James Cameron and his Deepsea Challenger will. (See their very cool website.)

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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Read an Ebook Week 2012

It's time again for Read an Ebook Week. Lots of publishers and authors are participating, and you can find some great deals. In fact, in Canada, it's Read an Ebook Month. Check the REBW website!

As usual, I'm offering some specials: Eternity's End and Dragon Space: A Star Rigger Omnibus are half price at Smashwords from March 4 through March 13. Just apply the coupon code REW50 at checkout for the discount. Neptune Crossing remains free, in all stores.

Remember, when you buy a book at Smashwords, you get access to all formats: Kindle, Nook all other Epub readers, PDF, etc., without any of those annoying DRM restrictions on where you can read your book.

If you haven't tried ebooks yet, or if you have a shiny new device and need to load it up with books, Read an Ebook Week is a great place to start!


Smashwords to Offer Library Distribution

For writers like me who are self-repubbing our backlist books as ebooks—and for that matter, for indie writers of all stripes—one tough if not impossible sell has been libraries. There simply hasn't been a reasonable way for individual authors to get their ebooks into a system where libraries could buy them. Most library ebook (and audiobook) lending is handled through Overdrive, a distribution system you've probably dealt with if you've ever borrowed an ebook or audiobook from a library. (I myself download a lot of audiobooks, which I listen to on my Zune while walking Captain Jack or doing housework. They all come through Overdrive.) Well, Overdrive is not a friendly system to get your books into if you're an individual author-publisher. Some of my colleagues have been trying and trying, and still don't have their books in there.

Today Smashwords announced a distribution deal with Baker & Taylor, which has been around forever as a print book distributor, and one that many libraries order from. B&T now has an ebook distribution network called Axis360, which offers ebooks to public libraries. And books published through Smashwords will now be eligible for distribution through Axis360. This is great news for writers, and for libraries and library patrons (I hope).

The news from Smashwords also includes distribution to the Blio ebookstore and app. You can read the press release from Smashwords for more info.