Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Next 25 Years of Spaceflight.







The next twenty-five years in spaceflight will be fascinating.

At time of writing, Chris Hadfield circles the Earth in the International Space Station.

The next period of microgravity experiments in physics and chemistry, medicine and botany, microbiology, entomology, (yes, ants in space!) crystallography, will bring results we can’t foresee, for many of the most important discoveries in history were accidental. But there will be results.

More powerful motors needed

With Hubble finding new exoplanets almost weekly, there is more of an incentive to do the research into interstellar drives. The power units we have now make for slow trips within our solar system. They’re simply not suitable for interstellar flight. While a Moon base is often bandied about as an alternative to Mars, it looks mostly like a military proposition. For that reason it is more likely to happen than an immediate Mars expedition. Mars doesn’t command the high ground of a terrestrial battlefield. The Moon does. The Moon offers certain advantages for surface-based telescopes of any wavelength. Mars has none of these advantages, its only attraction is for long-term colonization. It has an atmosphere,  the Moon does not.

Here’s the thing with Mars colonization. It’s completely unnecessary assuming we learn to manage and conserve our terrestrial resources of air, water and topsoil. As a backup to Earth, maybe there is some logic in it. Looking for life on Mars does not require colonization, only probes of increasing sophistication.

A colony on Mars

A colony on Mars would in some ways be a lot easier than a Moon colony. While there must be ice or water somewhere under the Moon’s surface, the fact is that the Martian atmosphere has small quantities of water vapour, surely an easier proposition in terms of harvesting it. Mars has tons of water in a hundred cubic kilometres of the Martian air. All you need is an air pump. You would need to process hundreds of tons of Moon rock or soil to extract one litre of water. The difference is a technical challenge—the Moon is a lot easier to get to. It’s quicker, two days as opposed to two or three years.

We already have the technology, which is part of the attraction.

Several companies have been formed for the commercial exploration of space, more specifically the asteroids. At an economical Delta-V, an accessible asteroid might take four years round trip for a sample to be returned to Earth.

433 Eros
The elements we take for granted in modern industrial processes, platinum, gold, antimony, and others, will possibly run out in the next sixty years. Mining the asteroids, processing the materials in space, and then shipping the refined product to the Moon or to Earth could be profitable for the firms involved. With modern industrial growth, even at one hundred percent efficiency of recycling, stocks will eventually run out. Totally robotic ships could be designed to mine and refine the ore. I recall an Isaac Asimov story with Martian colonists engaged in ice-mining and asteroid-finding. What was once science fiction is now within the realm of possibility, if not immediate probability.

The space elevator

A space elevator might be feasible within a few years. The cost per ton of getting materials into low orbit would be phenomenally low compared to chemical launch vehicles. Building it might be like trying to build a spider’s web—a lot harder than it looks. The first filament makes all things possible. Initially, we would either have to unroll a filament on launch from the pad, and keep it intact until orbit is achieved, or anchor one end somehow in space and then descend to Earth, again keeping the filament intact. Once one filament is in place, it must be strong enough to haul up one that is twice as thick, the full length required to be properly anchored or counterbalanced on the ends.

Yet ultimately, I think that’s how it will be done. Much like a cable-laying ship of the nineteenth century, with no need to join short lengths. It will all be one piece. I see something like a tungsten leader—just like on the end of a fishing line. This will take the heat of the rocket exhaust, and the actual filament, likely of nano-carbon tubes or something similar, will be attached to the end of it. The actual cable will be on a motor driven reel, unwinding as the rocket climbs out so as to reduce drag and directional input from the towed filament.

The only other way to do it would be to build the full structure from the ground up, stabilizing the top with gyros, or even drive units holding it in place against the winds, which would be variable at different altitudes. It would take a lot of computer power, super instrumentation and a flexible control system just to keep the thing upright. If the cable is 38,000 miles long, the problems seem insuperable. Different types of flying machines, including high-altitude helicopters and airships need to be developed for construction of this type.

New kinds of flying machines

Part of the weight initially could be borne by tethered balloons, with drive units of their own to help maneuver and steady the structure on the way to completion. My big idea, which seems more practical than hot chemical rockets, is to use a machine shaped much like a jumping-jack to get that first filament into space. The central spindle has the cable or filament attached at the bottom end. The central spindle is the working body of the ship with propellant tanks and small reaction motors for later use in space. Once the cable is up and self-sustaining due to centrifugal force, the ship itself is useful on its own. On the arms of the jumping-jack are a minimum of four laser targets. The ship is propelled by a ground-based array of laser machine guns of great power.

They must go through the charge and discharge very quickly and the pulses would be controlled by computer software. The people of North America might be willing to give up electricity for a day or so to get the thing up to its destination. And that first filament makes all other things possible…we need to avoid heat transfer from the targets to the body of the ship. Here’s the interesting thing mathematically. Once you push your package to the halfway point, the power required, which was increasing at an exponential rate, begins to taper off in terms of increasing power requirements. It originally went up due to the increasing weight of the cable.

But gravity varies inversely with the square of the distance. One end of the cable is weightless, but it still has mass. What that means, at the halfway point, centrifugal/centripetal force begins to tug some portion of the cable away from the earth, like a ball on a string swung at arm’s length. At that point you are away to the races. By doubling the size of the cable, each one strong enough to pull up its replacement, you eventually end up with cables not unlike those used to suspend the Golden Gate Bridge, and by having an array of launchers, all using a common laser array, you can build a structure that looks ultimately like an Eiffel Tower made of carbon cables, one that doesn’t stop with an antenna and a flag on top, but one that just keeps going up and up and up…until it gets all the way out into space.


Photos: Wiki Commons, NASA.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Malpractice Guys.

(Staff Writers.)








Mambutu got back to his own hut and hung up his things on the pegs by the door. He sat in front of the hearth, reaching for his bundle of scrap yarns, with every colour under the rainbow represented there.

Mwali’s string was on top of his work tray.

Selecting a blue yarn, he tied it first into a sheep-shank. That was for the Oedipus complex. Then he tied a bit of yellow string, very thin, next on the record for the inferiority complex. Then came a red leather thong, for the irrational fears. His patient had a lot of phobias, which Mambutu thought related to being over-indulged as a child.

This was indicated by the yellow and green bits tied on last week after a particularly tough dance and drums session. For some reason, Mwali wasn’t responding well to the disassociation therapy, nor to the dream guidance. He must keep trying, otherwise he would never successfully reintegrate into the village social structure after his unsuccessful bid to become deputy chief and the resulting puncture wounds which, taken on their own, were healing nicely.

As for the incipient anemia, famine stalked the village this season every year and it was nothing new medically. It was troubling that the incense and herbs weren’t doing much good. He resolved to keep him on that regimen for another month or so and then gradually wean him off of them.

Mwali had eaten enough magic clay to choke a horse, but that wasn’t working either.

He sat, lost in his thoughts. There was still the smoke-up-the-ass treatments, that and the hot-sulphur and molasses enemas.

He would keep that on hold for a while, as it was expensive and required a lot of prep time, especially in terms of magic and spell-casting for maximum efficacy. Mwali was a strong man. He should have been doing better than this, and he wondered if his own mental purity was the fault. What he needed was a little shot of strawberry extract, which was not only good for an ague, a fit or a quinsy, but humours of the brain.

It was also an excellent laxative and had some beneficial spiritual side effects. He tied on a thin black string and Mwali’s record was all up to date. It was important to keep accurate records in this business or the malpractice guys would be all over him.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Under Your Skin.


by Elmer Fudge




Paul threw the virtual ball aside in disgust. It bounced and then disappeared into a holographic display of tennis rackets artfully disarrayed, interspersed with cans of fluorescent balls and wrist-bands, head-bands, and other accessories.

Extraneous thoughts went through Reggie’s head as he patiently awaited the outcome.

“I don’t know.” Reg was the sporting goods manager.

He shrugged in sympathy. In his grey cavalry-twill pants, and his white, short-sleeved shirt with the tie stuffed inside about the level of the third button, he was always up for a game of virtual one-on-one, twenty-one, or just shooting hoops for a buck each. He had a preppie look, with the patented Michael J. Fox runners. In a pinch, he could be relied on to set up a putting practice competition at the annual summer picnic, and was known to party pretty hearty at the conventions which department managers attended once or twice a year. If he was smart, he would lose this game by a hair and upgrade, up-sell and up-smart Mister Pauly, as he called him privately. Paul’s parents had died in a plane crash, leaving their precious one a half a mil or so in trust, with a big monthly cheque from the annuity fund. Lately he was insufferable around the store.

Now that he was all over the grief part.

“Yeah. Maybe we should try another one.” The tournament was three days away and Paul, who worked the stockroom, didn’t really need the best equipment, but he wanted something half decent.

He was floating around inside of these shoes. Nice shoes and everything, they made a statement of conscious self-worth and aspiration, but they just weren’t him. It was one of those office things. His pop, a lackluster nonentity by all accounts, had warned him about office politics, which extended to the adult industrial leagues which dotted this fair land. They had their allure, and their dangers for well-meaning and cautiously-ambitious entry-level management trainees who otherwise didn’t have much going for them.

“Shaq isn’t for you,” admitted Reg, standing with hand on hip, the hip flung out like a florist sensing the kill as he looked at their options.

“Ah! An old standby. We’ll try the Dennis Rodman…no?”

He trailed off at Paul’s vehement head-shake.

“I have to be able to sleep at night, and look myself in the eye when I shave.” Reg grinned amiably, although he didn’t think Rodman was so bad.

“Ah, let’s see here…”

“What about a real old classic?”

“What do you mean?”

“I want to try the Wilt Chamberlain.” Reggie’s eyebrows lifted in an encouraging display of objectivity.

He wasn’t ruling it out just yet.

“All right, then.” He went back into the warehouse and grabbed another product off the shelf.

***

That one was no good either, and the pair of them went through a few more options. Paul was on lunch and they were having a slow day anyhow. While spring usually brought in a surge of wannabe instant athletes, all looking for the very latest in high-tech, professional sporting goods at the lowest possible discount store prices, today was sunny and warm and business was slow. Reg had always marveled at how Paul took the slightest and most trivial challenge so deadly seriously when he was such a useless twit at the best of times. Reggie was the tolerant sort. He didn’t have to hang with Paul in his off-hours, thankfully. If you looked up self-absorbed in the dictionary, Paul’s picture would be there. He was always talking about mountain climbing. It was one of those things that was always in the planning stages. So far, quite a few expedition prospects had dropped out on one pretext or another. It didn’t take too much time or much listening to see what you were dealing with here.

They finally settled on the Larry Bird, although in Reggie’s opinion Paul was just too short to make it work. He struggled with the fasteners. With a little luck, he might still have time to grab a sandwich, if Pauly didn’t obsess too much. At five-foot four, even in his uplift shoes, with that pasty skin and pudgy face, the beady little eyes and the buck teeth, the fading hairline (at 26,) and the receding chin, which was not a function of age, he would always be an insignificant little man trying desperately hard to play basketball while wearing another man’s skin. The name on the box, the picture on the front, meant everything to Pauly, never mind the fact that he looked like he was running around inside of a potato sack.

He wouldn’t be a bad player if he wasn’t so busy trying to be somebody else. The only other thing they had was a rather shop-worn Jeremy Lin display model, and Pauly had baulked at Rodman. There simply wasn’t time enough to order anything and get it here on time. Reggie wondered if deep down inside Paul hated himself, but the man’s entire family tree probably didn’t have that much grace. Someday the NBA would breed a short, clumsy, pudgy-faced white superstar, and then maybe they could find a Sports Skin to really suit someone like Pauly. Most likely, it would never happen.

You never know, though.

It was a nice thought.

The real problem with Pauly was that one way or another, regardless of cost or utility, he was going to buy something here today. That much was a given. Reg knew he would never be satisfied with it. Not in a million years. It went with the territory.

END

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Excerpt from Time Storm.





Edgar Conti couldn’t believe his luck, or what his eyes beheld.

Soenen Panjara, exquisitely revealed, tied to the bed in Marjorie Puddy’s bedroom, gasping in fear and sordid sexuality.

“Ah! Little Miss Goodie Two-Shoes has come around.” He spoke in dulcet tones, his instant erection, throbbing in repressed angst, making itself known in no uncertain terms.

“You owe me ten thousand dollars.” Marj reminded him, as Soenen sobbed in anguish.

“Of course.” Edgar didn’t have too many pockets tonight. “But later, if you don’t mind.”

He rapidly opened up his sports bag and began to set up the equipment, including lights, cameras, microphones, and a few other handy accessories of a more personal nature. He set a red plastic construction helmet on his head, and a string of white pearls on his neck. He pinched his nipples to arouse himself.

“Please, don’t.” Soenen begged through her tears. “Please don’t.”

“The more you beg, the more you cry, the better we like it.” Marj strapped on a harness to which was mounted a long black plastic dildo fully a third of a metre in length.

“Oh, God. How can you do this.” She sobbed in pure misery. “How can you do this?”

Edgar Conti seated himself, after stripping down to his G-string and green plastic flip-flops, zooming in to check the fine focus and the lighting. He took a moment to oil his body and preen in front of the mirror.

“More light!”

Soenen gasped and moaned, while Marj settled in behind her on the bed. “Oh, God, oh, Jesus.”

Soenen writhed in desperation at her bonds. What a nightmare had overtaken her, what evil Marj had perpetrated upon her.

“Not Edgar.” Soenen pleaded for mercy. “Please, no, Edgar.”

He sipped at the Courvoisier Brandy that Marj had thoughtfully provided for him, then stroked his member to keep it hard.

“I would be foolish to take that risk.”

“Edgar’s a clean freak.” Marj explained for Soenen’s benefit. “This little party is just for us.”

“Oh, Jesus.” Soenen gasped as the thirty-five millimetre diameter head of the dildo poked and prodded at her labia.

“The thrill of the chase is nothing to the thrill of the capture.” Edgar narrated for the camera.

He had a surprisingly good voice, Soenen noted with a corner of her violated persona.

“I promise not to tell your mother.” Marj’s comment brought forth fresh bursts of tears and hyperventilation.

She slid the dildo in further and Soenen began to gasp in response to this new stimulation. Edgar zoomed in on the plastic cock, entering Soenen from behind, and saw he would have to raise the camera up on its tripod. He fiddled with the lights and his penis. In the lurid glare, Soenen saw that more than anything he was focused on her bottom. Marj held up a wine glass for her, and she drank fitfully but gratefully. For a violation such as she was experiencing, to be drunk was the most merciful thing.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Soenen shuddered in orgasm after orgasm, as Edgar watched in fascination, never having experienced such a thing in company with another human soul or body.

“Is it good?” Edgar wished someone could explain the human fascination with sex.

Wild-eyed in frenzy, Soenen couldn’t give a coherent answer even if she had wanted to. She moaned and groaned through multiple orgasms in spite of herself. What a night! It was like an out-of-body experience, where you hover above the bed you are dying in.

END

Photo: tiefschwarz2 Wiki Commons. Model Jenni Lee demonstating bondage techniques.

Time Storm is available from Amazon and other fine retailers.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Future Shock and the decline of Rome.

Caesar's heir, Augustus, 'Octavian.'
“Future shock is a condition of distress and disorientation brought on by the inability to cope with rapid societal and technological change.”

In the general sense it applies more to groups of people.

Individuals may exhibit symptoms of future shock in varying degrees. The older person, who never owned a computer in their life and has no idea of what a social network is, may be simply overwhelmed by a request for something as simple as an e-mail address. They may not want to bother with online banking, preferring instead to dress, get in the car, drive uptown and stand in a line rather than cope with the relatively simple task of going online and paying a bill.

My father saw no need to own a computer and had no idea of what people do on the internet. And yet everyone who reads this article is reading it online.

He could no longer comprehend the world around him.

Everyone knows that the Roman Empire declined and fell. As for why that happened, the generally accepted version is that Rome could no longer throw back the barbarian hordes from the surrounding areas.

I've never read anything that gave a clear explanation of how the Roman economy worked. But then, I’ve never read anything that gave a clear and undisputed explanation of how our own economy works. The assumption is that the Roman economy must have worked because the Roman state, republic or Empire, existed. Our economy is based on a lot of disputed theories—we have right-wing and left-wing economists, after all, but something must have worked!

Somehow it must have worked, and somehow everything must have been paid for, and perhaps when the state could no longer meet its obligations, a natural decline occurred.

But a study by soil agronomists might argue that the Romans depleted their topsoil and could no longer raise enough tax revenues for that reason. There was no longer a big enough surplus.

Military men might argue that the barbarians who conquered Rome had learned much by experience, and upgraded their own military tactics and strategy.

Moralists would argue that Roman society became morally lax, and I suppose some would argue that when the state ceased to exist for the benefit of the individual, and began to exist for the benefit of a plutocracy, or aristocracy, there was less incentive for non-empowered individuals to support it with their own blood and treasure in the name of collective security among equals.

One of the basic theses of Gibbon’s classic, ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ is that Christianity was a major cause of the fall of Rome. The Church was a state within a state. It disputed for power and influence within the state. With the rise of monasticism and celibacy, vast numbers of able-bodied men and women were simply unavailable to engage in politics and business. The number of men who could be recruited into the Imperial armies fell drastically. And they didn’t pay taxes, either.

Individually, these are all necessarily theories, and flawed ones at that. Collectively they represent a dialogue on the fall of Rome that continues to this day and it will go on far into the future.

But here’s something to think about.

Julius Caesar knew the Republic was finished. And he saw no hope, no solution for its woes. Whether he overthrew the Republic in order to save it or to establish a hereditary monarchy, I suppose we’ll never know. Caesar had an ego, this much is self-evident. It is also possible that history may have misjudged his motives. None of that is really important. What is important is the questions that we ask.

What was the problem that he perceived?

Political deadlock. Politics was totally corrupt. The triumph of the special interest groups over the common weal, the good of all, (something which will always be under dispute anyway.) There were two groups with political power in the state. The first group was the senatorial class, who owned vast holdings of land. The other group was politically astute, educated, but had no nobility, i.e., no land and no great wealth. In order to obtain the highest honours of the land, in order to wield power and therefore acquire wealth, they had to come up with policies to persuade the voters to vote them into office, give them power, and trust to the outcome.

The lobbyists controlled the purse strings. They even supported upstarts, those of a sort who told them what they wanted to hear. Caesar owed millions to Crassus. There was only one way he could repay Crassus, and that was to support Crassus’ own ambitions. Crassus didn’t give a shit for the common man, while Caesar at least saw their usefulness, however cynically he may have applied that. Caesar might have had more noble aspirations, but Crassus was a completely corrupt individual.

Both groups feared and courted that most ephemeral of things, the Roman populace, who had no political power, had no representation in the traditional system, and yet represented a potent force. Caesar was a genius at propaganda, controlled an army and was popular across class boundaries.

The mob held the Capitol and the Senate hostage by their very unpredictability, but also the fact that they could be manipulated. The mob, the rabble, was feared, to the extent that they were bought off with ‘bread and circuses.’

Because they were feared, they were courted. They were consulted, and their prejudices respected, even inflamed.

Because a riot is an ugly thing to see, however useful if applied in the right time and place, and for the right purposes. The trick was not to let your opponents get control of the mob.

Over the course of time, small landowners inevitably ran into trouble, quickly being bought out by more fortunate neighbours.

Over the course of time, the senatorial class and their political supporters ‘engrossed’ all of the available resources and political power. I think Caesar was aware of this trend and its implications for the future.

Nothing useful would be done unless it was of some direct and fairly short-term profit to the aristocracy. He saw that the continuing aggrandizement and gratification of that class was no longer in the best interest of the state, no matter whether it was a republic or a monarchy.

Rome was founded by a small band of equals, who were also equally poor. Rome’s prosperity was initially based on conquest, but the circle of conquest eventually became unprofitable to the Roman state and therefore its citizens. At that point, the only thing that could keep it going and give it direction was arbitrary power, wielded by one man with no need to consult the wishes of others. And compared to the Greeks, the Romans were morally upright. That moral laxness came with increasing prosperity. If power corrupts, then wealth must also, for the two go hand in hand.

Because the Roman state had evolved both politically and technologically, arguably in terms of its economy as well as socially, over the course of its existence, Caesar had to confront and deal with what was essentially a kind of ‘future shock.’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Decline_of_the_West















Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Alien Mind and what it might be like.




by the Evil Dr. Schmitt-Rottluff, staff writer.





What would an alien mind be like?

Would it share any commonality with the human mind, our human way of thinking? Of necessity, an alien mind would be social. It would be hierarchical in that it would be built up in layers of more simple building blocks, but also because social environments are hierarchical.

Society is a contract between individuals, none of whom are obviously superior to one or another in a quantifiable fashion across a number of different criteria of physical or mental attributes.

It is difficult to conceive of a solitary creature, roaming a home environment in small numbers, at the top of its food chain, achieving even rudimentary reasoning skills, especially math and physics, well enough to contemplate a flush toilet, let alone something as complex and requiring as much long-term investment of surplus blood and treasure as interstellar flight.

While aliens at an early stone age or ‘early-hominid’ stage of development can’t be ruled out, even aliens only recently uplifted from the animal stage would have recognizable features of thought and behaviour in common with ourselves. While they might be merely analogous, they would easily be ‘anthropomorphosized’ into recognizable pattterns of behaviour. We might see something that resembled politics, and economics, if we looked close enough. A large group of them would have to be organized and they would have to develop systems to feed large numbers.

Looking at life on Earth, fairly intelligent creatures such as whales, dolphins and orcas are probably at the limit of what can be achieved in terms of brain and mental development in a natural environment, because they are perfectly evolved for the environment they live in, unlike humans. We are less perfectly evolved to live in a pristinely wild environment considering our weak teeth and puny muscles. Compared to a cat one-tenth our size, it is not just white men that can’t jump.

A current theory is that when climate change caused our maternal-primordial forest to shrink and die back, man left the trees and went out onto the plain, where we were forced to cooperate in hunting and gathering, forced to communicate and walk upright by the challenges of a new environment and more complex tasks. Whales and dolphins might become extinct, because there is no possibility of a new environment for them. I think a successful alien species with anything like our own level of innate intelligence would be an unspecialized creature. One that is not perfectly evolved for its present or past environments. They must have been forced into adaptation at exactly the right point in the development of certain skills, certain cognitive characteristics.

They would have to be social, and physically they must be capable of communicating and cooperative endeavours. They must have had the right balance of aggression and submission. They may have already been inclined to some sort of species-altruism, where un-mated sisters for example help in raising a brood not their own. This is not uncommon, even ducks and geese do this. But this is in fact where behaviour, and surely behaviour stems from the mind as well as the instincts, resembles our own. We can identify in some anthropomorphic fashion with the mothering instincts of, for want of a better term, ‘lower life-forms.’ How the aliens conceive and rear their young will have a great deal of impact in terms of the ‘recognizability’ of their behaviours and therefore their minds.

If they lay eggs in vast numbers in water and then abandon them, the sort of bonding humans are capable of may be quite alien to them. No matter how social and hierarchical the rest of their lives are, even if they hatch out, crawl up on land and then get put by some benevolent authority into ‘alien-lizard kindergarten,’ the relationship between mother and child is simply non-existent. Our behaviour would no doubt appear irrational in their eyes.

Conceivably such creatures might have a lot less empathy than we would expect to be normal in a properly socialized human individual. “A sentient being may be defined as one which is capable of irrational behaviour.” That’s a pretty loaded statement and not without its pithy humour. But a perfectly adapted animal, has only as much intelligence as it needs and no more—it may be a creature of almost pure emotion, such as a cat or a dog. Maybe a horse can count to ten, crows almost certainly. But it needs no higher reasoning skills and so it doesn’t develop them. In nature, such things are a luxury quickly dispensed with.

Thinking takes calories—energy, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Such is Nature’s attitude. A lion or tiger cannot become ‘insane’ unless it is stressed due to some physical injury or changes in the environment. The mass beaching of whales and dolphins can be attributed in most cases to physical causes. I don’t believe that it is mass insanity, no do I believe that a whole group would follow a leader into hazard. Physical causes probably include sonar and other detection and communication gear from submarines, frigates and undersea arrays as well as pollution or even simple silting of the water. The animals may be confused—and confusion of perception may be akin to insanity—but a perfectly evolved creature is extremely unlikely to develop neuroses in its natural environment. Take it out of that natural environment, and it’s another story.

Captive zoo animals exhibit all sorts of ‘irrational’ behaviours, neuroses, which are caused by the constriction and artificiality of the environment. The same is true of humans. We are not perfectly adapted to our surroundings, natural or artificial, and yet neither have we successfully adapted our environment to our needs, not completely.

Not everyone gets what they need from this environment. We have ‘status-deficits,’ with too many qualified to be chiefs; there is just no way everyone can have all the power and status that they feel they deserve. This leads to conflict.

In an alien species, one would assume they can communicate, they have individuality, and they would recognize each other as individuals. They would have to, because of the need for specialization and division of labour in otherwise not-perfectly-adapted creatures, in a complex relationship of a cooperative nature. This specialization and division of labour is a requirement in the building of some higher culture that uses symbols and has arbitrary power structures to serve not the needs so much of the individual, but the culture as a whole; what we call ‘society.’

“Thinking is sometimes described as a ‘higher’ cognitive function and the analysis of thinking processes is a part of cognitive psychology. It is also deeply connected with our capacity to make and use tools, to understand cause and effect, to recognize patterns of significance; to comprehend and disclose unique contexts of experience or activity; and to respond to the world in a meaningful way.” –Wikipedia

Any sentient creature must at least pay homage in some way to this definition.

The Mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind
Photo: Gaetan Lee, Wiki Commons. The chimpanzee's brain is extremely similar to our own, which supports the hypothesis that we had all the prerequisites to adapt to a different environment millions of years ago.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My new literary style.





My new literary style, and the resulting format, evolved over some time. It eliminates dialogue tags, adverbs, and things like semi-colons. Scattered through this blog are bits of short fiction. Some of them are in the older style.

“Run!” John shouted suddenly.

“Why?” she asked. “What’s up?”

She looked wildly around but could see nothing.

That’s the older style, and we can still find plenty of it out there. There are brand-new books being released by highly-regarded authors using this style every day. The books come from respectable mass-market publishers.

The new style, which I did not invent, looks more like this:

“Run!” John grabbed her arm.

“Why? What’s up?” Mary looked wildly around, but saw nothing.

Basically it just saves a lot of words. I never have to use ‘he said, she said’ again. Any number of other authors advise against adverbs, like ‘suddenly,’ especially in dialogue tags. I still use adverbs in the exposition. I used to use too many semi-colons; not that I haven’t found semi-colons in the work of mainstream authors living and dead. I’m not contradicting anybody, but I have a certain goal in mind.

I don’t care if I’m better than a bunch of not very good authors. I would prefer not to be ‘just as good’ as a whole bunch of mediocre or unremarkable authors. I want my work to stand up in comparison to the very best authors, no matter what style they may write in. It has nothing to do with overall sales numbers, but the work itself. This must hold true not just at the sentence and paragraph level, where I’m actually pretty good, not just the ability to write a good chapter that looks all right on its own, but the overall story. Have I put in enough to link it all together into one coherent whole?

This is where I stand right now—I’m just on the brink of a higher level and I don’t really know the answers to certain things. That’s one reason why I don’t rush the thing so much these days. It has to be right above all else. Let’s assume a person could conceivably write in Impressionistic style, or Surrealist style, or ‘write like Michelangelo.’ It still has to be complete—saying you’re a Fauvist writer isn’t going to get you too far if there are holes in the plot, flaws or contradictions in the logic, and at the end of the story the reader just doesn’t get it. Assuming they even got that far.

I’m reading a book now, and it’s not my favourite genre. It’s not particularly well written. Yet I can’t help thinking that the average reader wouldn’t care anyway. I haven’t abandoned the thing yet. I’m still reading it. But most readers simply wouldn’t notice the style or the writing. In that sense, the author did succeed in that the writing would be invisible to the majority of the readers. But I’m not there as a fan, I’m a writer with an analytical eye.

I want my work to adhere to the highest international literary standards. The work stands a better chance of meeting the test of time. It can be read and understood by the greatest number of people. It still makes sense fifty or a hundred years later. It's not an instant antique.

The considerations, I think, are artistic. The notion that writers should ‘just learn to tell a story’ and ignore style is ludicrous. You must have a basic level of competence. I don’t care how many major authors couldn’t spell. Some of them couldn’t even write—they hired ghost writers. I don’t have that luxury. Neither do I have that level of vanity. If I couldn't do it, then it's just a lie and we're all better off if I quit.

***

In the fine arts there are three types or levels of content. There is the actual content of the picture—whether it’s a still life of flowers, or a naked lady, or a guy on a horse with a big sword. Then there is the meaning of a picture. The artist had the intention of conveying some theme or message. The third level of content is what it meant to the viewer—how it made them feel or what they thought upon viewing the work.

The same is true for literature. In terms of editing for content, I do the very best I can in telling a good story. Content is not just what I put into it, but what the reader gets out of it. What that means is that style really doesn’t matter as long as it remains unobtrusive and gets the story across.

With the new style, the challenge the author faces is attribution. Who said what?

“This is conveyed by the format as much as anything else.” John looked up at the reader. “If you don’t get it, you’re not paying attention.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Here’s something you will never find in a Shalako book—although you might still see it in ‘mainstream’ books put out by major publishers even today.

“Run!” John grabbed Jane’s arm. Together they took off running. Jane’s shoe came off. Bill and what he said yesterday still dominated her thoughts. Dale wasn't there that day, as he'd called in sick. Larry’s breathing was harsh and loud in his chest. Ed was so frightened he couldn’t speak. Virginia, unfortunately, for reasons unknown, wasn’t there to share the terror of her creation run amok. “That thing’s fast!”

There is a reason for everything I do. Sometimes it’s a reaction to something I saw that I didn’t like. The above (fictitious) example was done for one reason and one reason only. The designer of the book preferred big, square blocks of text. It saves paper, and this used to be, (and might still be,) a mass-market industry. Saving one page of paper per book did in fact add up to significant cost savings over a large print run. It’s just that simple. (Funny thing is, I've probably achieved the same thing.)

But we are no longer bound by these considerations.

We are within our rights as writers to experiment with something new, even if it steps on the toes of the old, the shopworn, the outmoded, or the obsolete.


Photo: Franz Marc, 'Deer in the Woods.' A coherent whole.





Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Alien Invasion.

They looked like four-legged brains with kitty-cat faces and claws. No one ever did figure out where they came from. Not for sure. Proxima is just a guess.

When their ship crashed—purely coincidentally in the Tunguska region of Russia, where the big explosion occurred in 1908, authorities not unnaturally approached the artifact with caution.

The justification was there, for the alien starship was massive. It had been extensively documented in its slow trajectory as it nosed over and took a dive into Earth’s atmosphere, yet still restrained by some form of gravimetric system. It landed safely, with only minor damage. The sheer bulk and our gravity caused the ship to sag after landing, and ultimately to crack, and settle to less than half its former diameter. The inference was that Earth wasn't the ship's original destination. With the hull compromised, the cargo was unloaded for safety reasons by authorities. The site was quarantined for a 100-kilometre radius, due to unknown hazards from its operating systems, motors, and other possible contaminants. Scientific investigation continued under tight wraps.

There was much self-congratulation among world governments on the new spirit of cooperation and the notion that the ship was a trust, to be used for the benefit of all humanity. It justified their own claims, perhaps.

The windfall technology was one thing. The cargo was another, especially when it was found that independent systems were still keeping the bulk of the occupants alive in the less damaged inner sections.

For the first time humans had encountered proof that they were not alone in the universe. The basic theory was that it was a commercial shipment—possibly livestock, or even pets for some vast and distant consumer society not unlike our own.

One theory even went so far as to suggest the animals were part of a planet-forming process that corresponded to terra-forming. That might account for the sheer size of the cargo. It was meant to be a huge gene pool, or so the idea went. Other species would no doubt have been dispatched on their own millennial journeys. The alien planet-builders would have started small, using microorganisms and simpler forms at first, making the atmosphere and water necessary to larger creatures, then built up to a higher, more complex ecology that mirrored the home world.

When the first one hatched, no one thought very much about it, although the media were rife with stories that left viewers literally in awe.

People said that.

“Aw.” That was the universal reaction.

The alien invaders from Proxima Centauri were just so darned cute…

They also ate a lot, pooped a lot and tore the upholstery off a couch faster than creatures of a more mundane origin could ever dream of.

Once it was determined that they didn’t carry exotic parasites or disease, it was only a matter of time before DNA samples of one or more were smuggled out of the lab.

It was like everybody wanted one and weren’t exactly shy about asking. Sooner or later someone cracked under the pressure of just a whole pile of money and brought one out.

If only the Proxies hadn’t been so darned cute. The fate of the world might have been a lot different.



Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Island.

Doctor Malcolm stood in the hallway, pausing for a long moment while the group shuffled in closer.

“The story of Mister Walter Lee is a strange one indeed. In my case book, perhaps the only incident of true insanity, although we should learn to hate that word, which was brought on by trauma followed by isolation. Incidents of this type are quite rare. It was undoubtedly the long-term isolation that did it. Lots of victims of the recent tsunami on the southern and eastern coasts of Thailand and other nations survived loss, shock, trauma, heartache; the loss of everything that people hold dear. But they still had other survivors around them, and once the initial cycle of wave action was over, the rescue and relief efforts began.”

The students paid rapt attention.

“Walter’s story is different. Walter Lee was swept out to sea by the first big wave, and he is extremely fortunate to have survived the tsunami. It seems he held on to a tree, and only let go, completely exhausted, when the surge was receding rapidly off the shore again. He fell into the water, and was sucked out to sea. How he survived amongst the maelstrom of debris, broken tree-trunks, shattered building materials, dead bodies and smashed boats, is beyond speculation. Survive he did. He found himself clinging onto a large log, which had a bit of other detritus, flotsam and jetsam, tangled up in some wire caught in the roots. Mister Lee was on vacation, and lost his wife and young family, three small children, in the flood and tidal wave that day.”

There were gasps of sympathy and dismay.

“Understandably, he was traumatized by all of this, as he was conscious, although dazed and disoriented. He did not actually see what happened to them. He didn’t know they were dead, or it seems unlikely that he would have survived. He seems to have hallucinated quite freely. Their images were the only thing that sustained him…for over six months,” explained the doctor. “He believed that they must have survived, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. He still believes, in some ways…this is what we call, delusional.”

A small buzz of mutterings and whispers, half-heard and half articulated, went through the small group.

“What is extremely unusual about Mister Lee’s case is that he somehow managed to survive something like thirty-one days, floating on a log at sea. His recollection is hazy. The man collected dew on a plastic tarp, drank rain water collected in a cutaway plastic bleach bottle. Ultimately, he drank his own urine, and ate flying fish snagged in the net-like contraption that he built, or even just batted them out of the air in sheer reflex. Unbelievable; a real triumph of human fortitude and dogged stubbornness, in that he wasn’t even rescued by a ship or a plane, as a number of extremely fortunate individuals somehow managed. At last count, quite a number of them have been accounted for in this way. They were mostly picked up in the first few days of the aftermath.”

There was nothing to be said about all this on the part of the assorted students. They peered in through the hallway window, de rigeur on every ward of this award-winning mental institution.

“Walter is about thirty-four years old. He was born an American, but had become a naturalized Canadian citizen, and was a successful sales manager in Hamilton at a well-known steel supplier. The family went to Southeast Asia on a two-week holiday vacation.”

Doctor Malcolm studied the semi-circle of faces around him. Although he never would have admitted it, his students were objects of study to him. It was a habit he couldn’t shake.

The group of students had absorbed all this without comment.

“Mister Lee is the only known survivor to have drifted to an uninhabited island in the Nicobar chain. And then he managed to live off the land for over five months. He apparently ate crabs, coconuts, seaweed and all the mosquitoes and biting flies he could get. I admire him in many ways, to be honest with you. How many of us would have survived a similar ordeal? Mister Lee just sits there staring at the window, not even really seeing out through it. He’s quite lucky to be here, but then he purchased health insurance coverage for himself and his family prior to going away.”

He thought for a moment.

“It seems to me that if he had been reunited with his family upon his return, he probably would have made a full recovery, and he would have gone on with his life,” said the doctor. “But Mister Lee simply doesn’t want to recover. He would in fact, prefer to die. But it’s just not that easy, is it?”

There was a stark silence in the room while they all digested this.

“That’s not exactly my job, is it? To choose for Mister Lee, who is temporarily incompetent to choose for himself. He’s simply too healthy. After five months on the island, his physical condition was quite extraordinary. The diet, fresh air, and exercise seemed to quite agree with him, although he’s softening up here in the hospital.”

“So he’s depressed and delusional?” This was a fellow on the left end of the group.

This individual seemed to think they already knew everything, and merely had to put in a stipulated amount of time in order to get his degree automatically.

“Something like that.” Doctor Malcolm nodded thoughtfully.

The doctor paused for a minute with his hand on the doorknob.

“Now ladies and gentlemen, if you promise to be quiet, and observe objectively, you can take some notes and study this case further, a little later on.”

The teaching doctor looked at the students and saw a lot of bright, chipper, blank looks. Some of them looked a little hung over or very tired. Rumour had it there had been a big party at Ursula Mason’s place last night. That was their problem. Mister Lee was his.

He opened the door and led them in, going to the far end and taking a moment to fully pull the curtains wide. The students clustered round as he dragged a smooth, fake-leather covered chair around and sat beside Mister Lee, who was sitting in a chair at bedside. An unopened book lay on the table by the bed, along with a glass of water, and a pair of reading glasses.

“Hello, Mister Lee. How are you today?”

“How do I look?” The question was not asked in hostility, or menace.

Walter just didn’t seem to care anymore.

Clearly this wasn’t going too far.

“Can you tell us about the island?” The doctor was aware of the intent concentration of most of those students in the room.

“Why?”

“It’s just that it sounds like an interesting place.” The doctor projected calm, placid friendliness. “These are my students. I’ve told them all about your amazing story. But they would just like to hear more from you.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“Well, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s amazing that you survived your ordeal.”

Walter looked up at all the gleaming eyes, and lowered his head. His chin began to come out, and he looked like he was going to be stubborn.

“Tell us about them, Walter. We want to hear about the ghosts, Walter!”

The doctor suddenly slapped Walter on the shoulder and giggled insanely, which acted instantly with its intended effect.

Walter’s almost catatonic calm was broken.

“You don’t believe the ghosts.” He hissed at the doctor, only fully seeming to see the students for the first time. “He doesn’t believe about the ghosts. But I saw them, I talked to them. I heard them. I watched them, and I followed them. They’re real.”

Walter sat there, glowering at the ring of faces, all with their mouths slightly open in some breathless state of suspended animation. Suddenly there was a little giggle, and Walter clammed up again; glaring fixedly at an suddenly embarrassed young woman, taller than most, with a florid complexion and long dark hair, standing at the back.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” His eyes fell back to the floor.

“What about the others, Walter? Believe me, we’re very interested in what happened to you. We’d like to help you if we could. If we may? Please, Walter?”

“Who were the others, Mister Lee?” A patient voice came from one of the students in the front row, a small, buck-toothed blonde girl, about five feet tall and wearing thick glasses.

The doctor was about to shush her when Walter spoke up.

“I don’t know. Sailors, soldiers, people like that, native boys, old people, dead people; women in long skirts.” Walter spoke in a sudden rush. “No one believes me, and so they won’t let me go home.”

“Where do you want to go, Walter?”

“I want to go home."

“No, Walter, you want to go back to the island, don’t you?”
“My wife…my little girls…they’re there.” Suddenly Walter was weeping inconsolably. “They saved me. They were with me every minute, every second. I could see them…they were there with me…all the time…Oh, God.”

Walter wept, as the doctor looked at the ashen faces of the students, eyeing them one by one.

Some would crack. Some would transfer, perhaps to other fields or to other branches of medicine. Some would become quacks, pill-pushing charlatans. Some…one or two might succeed.

“What about the others?” Someone asked, but Walter was in no shape to continue. “Sailors, and soldiers? What’s that about?” the voice continued peevishly.

“The man’s obviously delusional.” Malcolm's remark brought gasps and muttering in the back of the group.

The beginnings of some kind of revolutionary movement, back there, he thought. Someone pushed forward and the group parted.

“I believe about the ghosts, Walter.” A slender young man of medium height stood there, with dark sideburns and longish hair hanging over the wide, pointed collar of his paisley shirt.

The young man glared at the doctor. He stood there blinking back a moist sheen of tears in his eyes, then he pushed his way forward, and standing close at Mister Lee’s side, awkwardly patted him on the shoulder.

Yes, that one. Victor. The revolutionary. That one might succeed.