Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Darwinism of the Wind

Update to this post: 12/07/07 - See added note at the end of the post for additional information.)
Well, the worst storm in at least 20 years here on the Oregon coast is gone. The power came back on last night, and we have phones again (though with limited service) and internet. It's really nice to be back in the 21st century. Really nice.

Here we got some rain, but the brunt of the damage came from wind. Gusts, depending on who you listen to, were either as high as 125 or 129MPH. I think 125 is the official number. We're the lucky ones. Just north of us they got the rain, often 10-12 inches in just a few hours. You can resist the wind, but when water is determined, there's no stopping it. Those people have been devastated.



I drove around town this morning with camera at hand. I was surprised to see how quickly repairs and clean-up were progressing. A destroyed billboard had already been cleaned up. As you can see in the pictures, the gaping hole in the side of the local Casino was already being patched. Chain-saws, bucket lifts, and service trucks were everywhere.



Another thing that surprised me, given the extreme winds, wash how little real damage I could find. There were plenty of trees down, many ripped up by the roots or snapped off at the base. But very few structures were significantly damaged. There were a few broken windows from flying debris, lots of damaged roofs, and a few freakish things like the damaged wall at the Casino (and in that case I have to wonder if it was already weakened somehow, possibly by water leaking inside the wall).



There was lots of damage to signs, of course. It seemed like half the business signs in town were down or seriously damaged. But for the most part, unless they happened to be in the path of a falling tree (none of the ones I saw were, but I did hear of this happening) there was very little visible structural damage.



In most any other town, winds like these would have flattened the place, but it didn't happen here. The reason, is the Darwinism of the wind. We have storms here every winter. Locals really don't even pay any notice to the wind if it's under 60MPH. Below that, it's more an annoyance (blown-away trash cans, flattened winter flowers in the garden, and a few power outages) than a real threat.

For the most part, things that could be flattened by the wind were long ago flattened. Anything that could be blown away is long gone. The exceptions are, as mentioned, trees and signs, both of which tend to grown and age until the right gust of wind catches them and snaps them off.

Roof's age too, so damage there is inevitable, but usually not serious. By necessity, things are built strong here. My house has been standing up to these winds, three blocks off the beach and on top of a hill, for over fifty years. With luck, it will stand fifty more.



Thing is, when things fail here, they tend to fail catastrophically, especially in a storm as strong as this one. The Casino wall seen in previous pictures is a classic example of that. Somehow the wind got under the outer wall, and peeled that big building like a grape.

A less spectacular example is our big loss to the storm, a storage shed we bought last year. Yes there is (or used to be) a shed in this picture. Mostly what is left is the floor, some of the heavier contents, and a couple corner panels that remain attached. It was one of those pre-fab plastic jobs. It was surprisingly strong. I've never seen it move in our strongest winds before, and I watched it closely to be sure. But it just wasn't ready for triple-digit speeds. About midnight Sunday I saw that one of the side panels had popped out.

Chris and I ran out in a lull and moved the most vulnerable contents inside. But it was too late for the shed itself, as the most powerful part of the storm was still to hit, and with a hole in its side the wind could get under the roof, turning it into a sail. I knew the roof would go, it was only a matter of when. When the big gusts came, one of them lifted the roof off in one piece and deposited it in our front yard. The rest of the shed walls started to rapidly self-disassemble.



We ran out in heavy rain and wind (probably 70-80 gusts instead of 100) to grab the roof and drag it into a sheltered alley between two houses, so it didn't blow into someone's house or car and do more damage. We were lucky it didn't turn into a parasail and take both of us away, but we were successful.

Not happy for us, but looking around at people who lost homes or cars or even roofs, we were pretty lucky. We even managed to salvage all the pieces of the shed. I'll have to examine the parts carefully for damage, but it might even be possible to rebuild it. If we do, I'll be modifying it with all sorts of reinforcing straps and bolts to make it stronger. Worth a try anyway.

Because this is the coast, where only the strong survive.

(Update to this post: 12/07/07 When I took the picture of the Grocery Outlet store seen in the second picture, I thought the damage was only superficial loss of roofing on the facade. Turns out I should have looked through the windows. Water built up on the roof and caused a large part of the store's ceiling to collapse. As I said, when things happen, they tend to be catastrophic. The store has never suffered any noticeable storm damage in all the years I've lived here. Anyway, the store is now closed for major repairs with no word on when it will reopen.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

storm warning

We've just weathered the worst storm we've ever seen here on the Oregon coast. 129mph gusts reported here in our little town. Our house is okay, but our storage shed self-disassembled. Damaged and downed trees all over town. Roads blocked. No power, phones, or internet. I drove 30 miles to a coffee-shop where I could blog this quickly. Here are some pictures of local damage and some downed power lines around the corner from the house. No word when we'll get power or phones yet. The main lines into the city are down, and we don't know for sure even where the breaks are.

Locals Dean Wesley Smith, Kris Rusch, Dan Duval, Jerry Wolfe are all well and accounted for. More later.



Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Buy me the Moon



(Earthrise photos taken by the Kaguya probe, credit: Japan Space Exploration Agency)
As I've said before, people constantly over-estimate the cost of the Apollo lunar program. Not that it was cheap. It was a huge undertaking. But compared to many of the things big economies (like we have here in the United States) do, it just wasn't that big.

Today, a report by congressional Democrats pegged the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far at 1.6 Trillion dollars. The report is controversial, and Republicans are already calling for a retraction, but consider how it compares to the Apollo program.

By comparing various estimates as to the program's cost and running through cost-of-living calculators to adjust for inflation, I come up with a number of about 143.5 billion in 2007 dollars. Just for safety and simplicity, round it up to 160 billion dollars.

Now, keep in mind that a trillion has three more zeros in it than a billion. So if the report is right, our adventures in the middle-east have cost us as much as ten Apollo programs, and if its predictions are near correct, it will cost us over twenty Apollo programs by 2009.

But as I said, the report is controversial. Let's say it's wrong. Let's say it's a wild lie that inflates the actual cost of the war by a factor of ten. Then our war-of-the-moment has only cost us one Apollo program, and by the end of the decade, shouldn't cost us more than one or two more. That's much better.

Oh, one other factoid to consider. The Apollo program ran for 14 years, 1961 through 1975. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and the second Gulf war started in 2003. The report's projections only go through 2009. The Apollo program not only cost far less money, it was spread over a much longer time.

By the way, if you're curious, according to a recent Washington Post article, the inflation-adjusted cost for the Vietnam War was 549 billion dollars. And that was money well-spent, wasn't it?

A lot of people like to say we can't afford to go to Mars, or back to the Moon. Maybe they're right. But if so, it's important to consider why we can't afford it.

Hey, I've got an idea! Let's just cancel our next war and just build a Moon-base instead. Or to put it another way...

For decades, it's always stuck in my craw when I'd hear somebody say, "if we can put a man on the Moon, why can't we do 'X.'" Well, I think it's time to finally put that one to rest. I propose this replacement:

"If we can put an army in Iraq, why can't we put a man on the Moon?"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Geeks bearing gifts


Forgive me. I have done a Geek thing. I installed Linux on one of my computers here last night, and I'm here to share the tale.

This is a big thing. I'm a writer, and computers are (following in importance perhaps only the English language, a tool I frequently and shamelessly abuse) one of my primary tools. I rely on them not only for word processing, but for business communication (email), project delivery (email again), research (very, very important), record keeping, promotion, tax preparation, almost everything to do with my web comic Minions at Work (except the Minions themselves) and that's just for starters.

There was a time that was pretty simple. Chris and I shared one computer back in the day (though that was before she started writing seriously), first CP/M (remember CP/M? No? I guess I am getting old...) then later MS-DOS, and then Windows. Everything, including the early Windows computers didn't require much upkeep. You installed software once (if it wasn't already installed on the machine when you got it) and forgot about it.

But upkeep has become and increasing burden. Software updates come weekly now, often whether you want them or not. Windows updates itself. So does the Norton security software. But there there's the browser, the media players, the browser plug-ins, all the Microsoft Office programs, all downloading, installing, hogging the computer's resources in the process, usually wanting to reboot when it's least convenient, and often causing other problems in the process. Each of these updates, we are assured is important, even vital. Most cover security issues, and we all know the threats are real. Despite all of this, my computer, probably the best-maintained machine in the place, still managed to get infected with adware a few weeks ago.

And it isn't just one machine. Oh, no. There are just two of us here in the house, Chris and I, but we have a bunch of computers. Four working desktops at the moment, and I think three laptops. There are computers in each office, a computer in the guest-room (which is also a backup), another desktop that may serve as a backup or a file server in the near future, a main laptop, and a couple of older machines as backup for that.

All of these are Win-boxes, all in need of constant care and feeding that some of them just don't get. I'm mostly the IT guy here, and I don't do nearly enough. Plus, all of them need security software, and that needs to be replaced, at considerable expense, annually. Worse, some of the older machines are still running Windows 98, which is no longer supported by Microsoft, and worse, by Norton, so there are suddenly these unsecured computers on my network, infrequently used, but still inviting trouble.

Something has to give. I'm tired of the update treadmill, and while lots of the old hardware we have here just keeps chugging along, its the software that wears out, and it matters not how little we use it. Turn on a computer you haven't used in six months, you still need six months worth of updates, if you can even get them.

"So," I can hear many of you saying, "you really need to get a Macintosh." Some of my best friends are Mac people, and I hear plenty of this in lunch and diner conversation.

Nope. I can tell you right now, I'm not going there. It isn't that I don't think Apple products are good. Most of them are. And they do solve a lot of problems in the short-term. Mainly it's that I'm of the unshakable opinion that Apple is an evil company. Now, sure, Microsoft is evil too. But everybody knows it, including all their customers and even their most loyal supporters. Microsoft doesn't even flat-out deny it, though they dance around the subject.

But my Apple friends are in blissful denial about the evil that is Apple. Apple is arrogant, monopolistic, anti-competitive, and most disturbing for me as a writer, seeking to establish a stranglehold over the distribution of intellectual property and then lock it into their hardware.

Making them, I guess, not much worse than any other large corporation. But what really disturbs me is the response of their average customer, which seems to be, "please, sir, may we have some more?" I'll consider putting a Mac on my desk the day I can buy a song from iTunes and put it on my Creative media player.

Which is not a blanket condemnation of Apple products or customers. Some of you know the devil you're dancing with, and that's fine. And there are plenty of people who, at this point, probably should never buy any computer other than a Macintosh. They're great for people with minimal technical aptitude and little time to fiddle, and who just need a smooth, easy, reliable computer experience at any price.

In fact, listening to my mom struggling (she lives diagonally across the country from me, with one phone line and a slow dial-up connection, so there isn't much I can do directly to help) to update to a new version of Norton, I found myself really wishing I'd told her to buy a Mac when she replaced her last PC. It would have required her to relearn a lot of things, but I think she could have managed it, and staying secure and stable using a dial-up connection would have been much less of an issue.

But there are unlikely to be any Macs in this house any time soon. We shall not speak of it again.

Up until recently I told myself that as long as I kept our primary hardware and software reasonably current, the problem would stay under control. The problems came only when we let things (like Windows 98) fall too far behind the technology curve. But due to a hardware failure, we recently replaced Chris' computer with a new Dell and Windows Vista.

You know Vista, the operating system that's supposed to be all stable and secure? Well, bloated and annoying seems to be more the case. I haven't been exposed to it much, and Chris' seems satisfied enough with her machine at the moment, but I've seen enough to suspect that it's just a continuation of the problem (and buying deeper into the Microsoft evil) rather than a solution, and it's no solution at all for our older machines. Even if they'd run Vista, it's just too damned expensive, difficult, and risky to update.

And one thing that has increasingly bothered me about both Apple and Microsoft is how much you no longer own the technology, it owns you. Look at the Apple customers who unlocked their iPhones (that probably never should have been locked in the first place) only to have them turned into "iBricks" at Apple's earliest convenience. Look at Microsoft's "Genuine Advantage," a bit of spyware that assumes your copy of Windows is pirated until proven otherwise, and then subjects your computer to a cavity search every time you want even the most minimal support, and which has already locked down the computers of countless owners of legal and legitimate Windows installations.

Ever notice how every new piece of software, and many of those countless updates, comes with a new terms-of-service agreement? Do you read them before clicking the accept button? Of course not. Nobody does. Would you understand them if you did? Unless you're a lawyer, no, and possibly not even then. These guys have their hooks into us, and they keep reeling in the line. It's not only infuriating and insulting, it's frightening, considering how much of our modern world depends on one of those two technology companies.



Which, along with other things, has had me thinking about Linux for a while. Based on internet and media chatter, it sounded appealing. A free, secure, stable operating system that operates on an open-source license that won't make you an indentured servant to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Plus, plenty of free software to choose from. In fact, it sounds almost too good to be true, which always makes me suspicious.

So, I keep hearing good buzz, but my last exposure to Unix-like operating systems was back in the command-line-driven days. I used command-line operating systems (MS-DOS, the afore-mentioned CP/M, and a variety of other early personal computer DOSes) for years, but I had no desire to learn another one.

Oh, sure, I knew there were graphical, windowing shells, but I was put off by the idea that there would be a technically complicated installation process. But more recently, the buzz has been that Linux is nearly ready for the mainstream, that there were versions that featured clean, automated installations and refined interfaces that hid most of the geeky stuff from the user. But (this is another thing I dislike about the Mac) all the geek stuff is still there. If you need to, or if you want to, you can "pop the hood" and poke around in the guts of the system at any time. I like that, even if I never have to use it.

Finally, the Linux guys had me intrigued enough to do something. The old Compaq in the guest-room hadn't been turned on in months, and its outdated Norton and Windows 98 operating system had turned it into a critical security issue if I ever did need to use it. It really didn't have any data on it that I was worried about losing, and if the installation failed, it really wasn't going to become much less useful than it already way. It was too old to bother with any significant hardware upgrades, and Chris' old Dell (running still-maintainable Windows XP) was probably going to replace it as soon as I got around to replacing a fried hard-drive.

Given that there wasn't a lot to lose, I really didn't sweat a lot over which of the zillion versions of Linux to download. My research mostly consisted of looking up Linux on the-often-unreliable-Wikipedia and looking for buzz-phrases like "stable" and "user-friendly installation." I finally decided to try Ubuntu, since it was based on Debian (which I'd heard of) only supposedly with more emphasis on usability. Also, you could supposedly try it without actually installing it by creating a bootable Ubuntu CD-ROM.

This wasn't very successful for me. First, I found the slowest server in the world (despite the fact that it's located only a few hundred miles from me) to download the 600+ megabyte disk image from. Then, when I tried to run it on the Compaq, it would grind on for a long time, display some pretty logos, then crash down to a command line where I was utterly lost.


To be fair, this is probably the fault of my old and eccentric hardware, and I never actually tried to install Ubuntu, just run it from the CD-ROM. Your experience may be much different. However, rather than dink with it, I decided to try another implementation. I decided to try Debian itself, as it had been praised by at least one Linux-user I'd talked directly to.

Debian didn't offer the "run from CD-ROM" option, but they did offer a "net installation" CD-ROM image that was much smaller (about 140 megs, I think). It required the target machine to have a high-speed Internet connection during the installation, but I had that covered. I downloaded the disk image file onto our primary laptop, along with a free disk-burning program the Debian folks recommended. This latter program allowed me to turn the disk image into a bootable installation CD-ROM, and it ran without a hitch.

I put the disk in the Compaq, turned it on, and watched it go. I was expecting problems, as I hadn't bothered to even investigate Linux drivers for the machine or any of its components (network card, graphics card, printer, sound-card, etc.).

The installer is text-based and pretty simple. If you're installing it as the only OS on a machine with no existing data on the hard disk you need to save, you shouldn't have to tell it much more than "go." I, however, wanted to try and preserve a Windows partition so I could keep that as a backup in the installation failed.

The installer included some pretty slick partitioning software, so I repartitioned the old 10 gig drive to allow a minimal 2 gigs for the Linux installation. I knew that Linux was supposed to be much more efficient than Windows, but this was only a blind guess. The installer automatically divided this up into two partitions, one for the installation, and a smaller one for swap files.

Let me stress that this is technical crap that you can avoid by just allowing Linux to completely take over the system, or at least a particular drive. I made things harder for myself than they needed to be.

The installation took quite a while, though it was no more long or troublesome than any of the many Windows installations I've been through. In fact, it was easier in that I never had to swap disks. Debian pulled everything it needed off the Internet.

Problem was, my first attempt at installation failed. It told me where it failed, in the process of installing application software, but it told me nothing at all about why. Now, it appears that at the point of failure, Linux itself had already installed just fine. I soft landed in a text menu of the install program, and it encouraged me to repeat the process manually, hopeful that it would somehow work the second time. But, it didn't, and neither did the following process, which was to set up the operating system to boot. Again, no information on why, not even a cryptic error code or number.

But I had a guess, which I suspect was probably right. I think it ran out of disk space. I restarted the process, partitioned the disk to give 3-gigs total to Linux, and tried again. It went through the process this time without a hitch. There were a couple of questions and prompts along the way that gave me pause, and might have sent a less technically savvy user into a panic. I had to come up with passwords (both an individual password, and an administrator password), an individual user name. I had to give the computer a name, and a domain name (not much of an issue unless, like me, you're trying to make it talk to an existing network of computers at your location).

But for the most part, it worked in an almost magical way. In any given Windows installation I've done, I've needed at some point to track down one (or more often many) hardware driver disks or track them down on web-sites. Here, it never happened. The installer seems to have recognized all my hardware and found the appropriate drivers on its own.

The moment of truth arrives. Following the prompts, I take out the CD-ROM and reboot the computer. It works! I have my first real look at Debian Linux!


In some ways, it's almost disappointingly familiar. It looks a lot like Windows, and most of the differences are pretty self-explanatory. I had no trouble finding and running applications, and navigating the files. It's slick, modern, and mouse driven. Oh, maybe the look isn't quite as sophisticated as a current version Windows or the Mac OS, but that's mostly window-dressing (no pun intended). If you've used either of those computers for a few years, you shouldn't have a bit of trouble here.

In terms of performance, it seemed fine, despite the old, slow, hardware and the minimal disk space I allowed it to have. (I'm sure that, like most operating systems, it would have run better with a faster processor, more memory, and more, faster, disk-space. On a even vaguely modern computer it seems to me that it would fairly scream, especially when compared to a resource-pig like Vista)

Did I say applications? Yes I did. One of the nifty things about these more user-friendly versions of Linux is that they give you the option of pre-installing software packages based on how you plan to use the computer. Debian gave me a lot of goodies to play with right out of the box. (Wait, there was no box! My bad!) First, there was an email program, several web-browers, and a BitTorrent-type file-sharing program. There was a whole list of mini-games of the sort that come with most Windows and Mac boxes (solitaire, blackjack, a mine game, a Tetris clone, and other time-wasters. There were video players, music players (for these latter two you'll probably need to download some decoders elsewhere, as these contain proprietary technology, and the Debian package includes only "open-source" software), picture viewers, and what is supposed to be a powerful PhotoShop clone.

Best of all, unlike most Windows computers you can buy, none of this is nag-ware, share-ware, spy-ware, ad-ware, cripple-ware, or any other flavor of no-ware. This is all full version, fully functional, no-strings-attached stuff.

And most importantly for the writer, it includes the open-source Microsoft Office clone, Open Office. I really haven't done much more than open this and poke around, but it looks fine for what most of us do. All the familiar formatting and editing tools seem to be there, and it reads and writes to all but maybe the very newest Microsoft Office formats (when submitting electronically, I always drop back to an older MS Office format anyway, as it avoids all sorts of potential compatibility problems). Moreover, it fully supports the "Open Office" formats which may better allow your documents to be used around the world.

It's really going to take a lot of use and transferring files back and forth with Microsoft systems to see if this is really ready for prime time as a professional writer's tool, but what I've seen so far is encouraging.

There's plenty of other Linux software out there too, much of it free and open-source. Are you going to be able to use your familiar applications on Linux? Quite likely not, but for the most common tasks, you'll probably find something similar, just about as good, and best of all, free.

This is an ongoing story. I doubt this is the last Linux installation I'll be doing here. One of the older laptops will probably be the next Guinea pig, and at some point, I might try to set up on one of the backup boxes as a file server for backups. For the foreseeable future, our two primary computers will probably still run some version of Windows. But I could at least imagine a day when the primary machines might at least be able to book Linux, and when maybe it might be just a backup computer running Windows, for those few instances when nothing else will do).

Is Linux ready for prime time? Should you consider it? My answer at this point is a definite "maybe." Installation still seems the greatest sticking point. Your installation could be great, and probably will be, but things will occasionally go wrong, and when they do, you could be on your own. Telephone or in-person access to an experienced Linux user is still probably a plus.

However, you can avoid this completely by buying a computer with Linux already installed. That's now an option, from major players like Dell, down to such mundane sources as Wal-Mart. As a bonus, you're likely to pay considerably less than for an equivalent Windows machine.

I still don't think this is for everybody, and I'll really have to pound on Open Office before I'm ready to sign-off on it. And like Mac users, Linux users are always going to find themselves facing programs they can't run, hardware they can't use, and things they can't do. It goes with the territory.

But it's at least now I see Linux as a viable option, if not for your primary computer, then maybe for your laptop or backup machine. It has many of the security advantages of a Mac, the openness (only better) of a Windows machine, and its cheap and friendly to any older hardware you may have laying around in the closet.

I'll continue to report our experiences, but if you're brave enough, and especially of you have a spare computer taking up storage space, go ahead, give it a try...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gone but Not Forgotten



One sad thing about writing, as I often have, media tie-in novels, is that they have a tendency to last only as long as a given licensing agreement. That means that most of them have a very short shelf-life. In a year or two or three, they're out of print, and with very rare exceptions, they never come back. They're owned by whoever licensed the particular property. You don't get the rights back, and in general, the license owner has little or no reason to reprint the book.

Sometimes, that's a blessing, but other times, when you're especially pleased with a project, it's a very sad thing. For me, the latter was true of the two novels I wrote based on the since-canceled Marvel comic book, "Generation-X." They were fun to write, I was pleased with how they turned out, and I would have loved to have written more if I'd had the chance. Alas, I didn't, and now I never will.

But books have an after-life of their own, drifting through garage sales, used book-stores, eBay and the occasional library. Tonight (thanks to a Google Alert I have set up to search for my name) I was surprised to discover a new web review of the second of my Generation-X novels, Genogoths. (Follow the link, and you'll also find my extended back-story there on the writing of the two Marvel tie-in novels I did.)

Now, the reviewer didn't declare it the classic of the ages, but they did read the book and seemingly enjoyed it. Even better, they decided to share the experience with others (and incidentally, me). I'm not sure how a writer can ask for more, especially this late in the game.

Thanks to those of you out there keeping our lost books alive.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A REALLY Cold War


Having just passed the depressing age of 50 does have a few advantages. It gives one some perspective on history. It's perhaps even more profound when one, as I did, starts out, a fan of science fiction and space exploration.

Even as a child I was living outside the day-to-day, anticipating a future which, for the most part, has never arrived. We never got our rocket packs or flying cars, we haven't been to Mars, and in fact have yet to get back to the Moon (though there's at least some hope that it will happen in my lifetime, even if it isn't as clear which country is going to get there first).

As a whole though, it's sometimes strange how much is the same. We still mostly get places cars on concrete and asphalt roads, or in subsonic jet airliners that are, in terms of comfort, if not technology, probably a step backwards from a 1966 Boeing 707. The plug of a 1945 radio still fits in a modern wall socket, and while the bulbs are slowly changing, Thomas Edison would still have recognized most of the light-sockets they fit into.

Yes, there are computers and the Internet, cell phones, iPods and other techno-toys, but in general, history seems to march along in the same rut. Our current misadventures in the middle-east wouldn't be unfamiliar to anyone who lived through the Vietnam war or the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

There are exceptions though. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union being the most profound I can think of, events that clearly mark some kind of transition, that clearly state: things will never be the same again.

But for the most part, profound change is hard to come by. Most of all, while borders may squiggle and names on the map may mutate and shaft, the globe itself has remained the same. In fact, in looking into the future as a child, that was probably the last thing I ever expected to change. They don't call it the firmament for nothing.

But now the globe is changing. It's started, and it isn't about to stop. Of course, I'm talking about Global Warming, and not in the most obvious way, with the rising of sea-levels, the radical changes in coastlines, and the erasing of islands (and maybe much of Florida) that is likely to follow.

No, I'm talking about something which is changing much faster, something we folks who live in temperate regions don't normally think of as permanent at all: ice. Scientists have known for years that the arctic ice sheet is shrinking, and for places where land is normally locked in by sea ice, this is a profound change indeed. The mythical Northwest Passage for which early explorers of the Americas searched now exists, at least part of the time, and too soon, all the time. Compare it to a the appearance of a new ocean, or Atlantis reappearing above the waves.

But for those of us in the United States, this change has, so far, been fairly easy to ignore. Yes, one can point to Hurricane Katrina, but there's just enough scientific uncertainty about it's direct connection to global warming to allow for an easy state of denial. Same for the record-hot summers we've been having lately. Weather is, by definition, an uncertain business.

But maps are hard to deny, and for those to the north of us with each passing season they look out on a new world, one full of peril, and just possibly, opportunity. In such a situation, it shouldn't be unexpected that the balance of world power and tensions would shift. Still, I didn't see this one coming, and it's only taken a few weeks.

It started when Russia announced their intention to plant a flag under the ice cap on a submarine ridge extending out into the Arctic. Their intent was to lay claim to a until-now hidden region which may have untapped oil, gas, and other mineral reserves, made suddenly accessible by the melting ice cap. Russia claims the ridge is a natural extension of their homeland, and therefore should belong to them.

Some would dismiss the whole idea as silly, but several countries appear to be taking it very seriously. First, Canada, with designs on the same ridge, has announced its intentions to build a new deep-water port to service arctic patrol craft, to build new ships to use the port, and to beef up an existing paramilitary force called the Rangers (currently staffed mostly by part-time reservists) to defend their claims to the arctic region.

Then Denmark has started its own mapping expedition of the ridge, prepared to make their own claims under UN treaties.

Finally, surprisingly late to the party considering the current administration's close energy ties, the US is dispatching an ice-breaker to do a little mapping of their own off the coast of Alaska.

And just to raise the ante, Russia is now suddenly holding extensive war-games in the Arctic this week. Sabers, they are a rattling, and we're hardly getting started. With stunning speed, this is turning into a literal cold-war, and the long-term outcome is impossible to to predict.

Welcome to the future. We have passed through one of those portals of history, and nothing will ever be the same again. If you don't believe me, just look at the globe.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Life Imitates Art


NASA has just released some exciting new images taken by the Cassini space probe of Saturn's moon Hyperion. As many fantastic moons as we've seen in the Jupiter and Saturn systems, they continue to offer visual surprises.

Hyperion, as it turns out, is an icy sponge of a moon blasted with craters and impact damage. But it's my understanding that the most striking visual feature comes not from impact, but from melting. Scientists believe that dark material on the surface of the moon is heated by the sun, thus causing it to melt its way into the surface. What makes this moon look so strange is that it's too small to be pulled into a spherical shape, and so "down" as defined by gravity isn't what our common sense tells it should be.

Our lifetime of experience on Earth tells us that "up" is usually at right angles from the ground. There are exceptions, of course, but then we're usually standing on a hill, mountain, or slope deviating from the surrounding terrain, and under sky, both of which usually allow us to define "flat," which is in turn 90 degrees from "up" and "down"

Not so on Hyperion, where "down" is going to point pretty much towards the center of mass. So dark objects melting into the ice near the ends of its oblong shape will travel "down" at a sharp angle to its surface. This is the first time I can think of that we've seen this so vividly illustrated.

You can think of Hyperion as two hills joined bottom to bottom. While those arches of flat planes at either end look to be relatively flat to the surface, I suspect to an astronaut standing on the surface they would appear to be steeply sloping upwards towards the ends of the moon, and from an observer out in space (like Cassini) the astronaut would appear to be standing at an angle.

Yet another example about how "common sense" may not serve us well once we move beyond the environment we evolved in.

But I was also struck with how the image reminded me of something more familiar, New York's famous Chrysler buildings (in my opinion, one of the most beautiful pieces of design in the 20th century).

It's impossible to know what architect William Van Alen was thinking when he designed the arches of that famous spire. Could some part of his mind been imaging how a building so massive, so magnificent, so lofty, would actually defy the Earth itself? Could he have have envisioned a building that, so attracted only by its own gravity, its upper reaches would be drawn towards the center of its own, mighty, mass?

Okay, that's probably not what he was thinking, but it's a nice dream. I think I'll keep it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

New Star Trek Cover



You see here (click on the image for a larger version) the just-approved "cover" art for our (a collaboration between my wife Chris and I) upcoming Star Trek the Next Generation ebook. It's part of a 5-book series that focuses on the "lost" year on the Enterprise-E between the end of the movie "Star Trek Generations" (where the Enterprise-D is destroyed) and "First Contact" (when the Big-E is just finishing its official shakedown period). Our book deals with the infiltration of E by a Changeling spy as they explore a dangerous planetary nebula, and features a lot of character development on Lt. Hawk, a helmsman who appeared in "Generations" and "First Contact," and who is one of the few established gay characters in the Trek universe.

If you're curious, the rest of the covers in the series can be on our editor Keith R.A. Decandido's blog here.


By the way, I don't know if I've already posted this cover, but another Trek project (previously released as an ebook) will finally hit print in trade-paperback later this, year. "Star Trek Corps of Engineers: Creative Couplings" includes our ebook "Spin." Spin is a harder-than-usual science-fiction first-contact story inspired in part by my love of the works of such old-school sf writers as Hal Clement and James White.

In the book, the SCE must deal with a derelict alien spacecraft on a collision-course with an alien planet. The ship is a rapidly spinning ring with very high artificial gravity at the rim, a bunch of very alien corpses on-board, and no inner hub or structure to provide logical access to or from the interior. And in this case, neither the ship, nor the planet it is endangering, are what they seem.

I'm pretty pleased with this one. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

1200 Days on Mars



There was exciting news from NASA yesterday as the Spirit Mars rover has accidentally discovered silica-rich soil, a mineral that likely could not have formed without the presence of water. It's a strong further clue that Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is today, and might (or might once have) supported some form of life.

Which is pretty cool stuff, but it isn't really what this post is about. What struck me was a quote from Steve Squyres of Cornell University, leader of the rover team in a TimesOnline Article. He says, "This is a remarkable discovery. And the fact that we found something this new and different after nearly 1,200 days on Mars makes it even more remarkable. It makes you wonder what else is still out there."

Indeed. We've been poking around the planet we live on for many thousands of years and it continues to surprise and mystify us. Which is why I'm always appalled at detractors who dismiss the idea of a return to the Moon because, "we've already done that."

What surprises me most is that I hear this not just from opponents of space exploration, but from space advocates as well. Many of them simply see the Moon as a nothing more than a distraction from their real goal of a manned expedition to Mars. "Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt and some rocks. Move along. Nothing to see here."

Bull.

Now, admittedly, the Moon is in many ways a far less interesting and complex place than Mars. But we still know so little about it. The assumption that the Apollo missions "saw everything there is to see" is simply absurd, and some people don't appreciate how short a time they were there, and how little they saw while they were there. First, let's look at the numbers:

Apollo 11

Time on Surface: 21 Hours, 36 Minutes
EVA Time (time spent outside the spacecraft actually doing something): 2 Hours, 32 Minutes

Apollo 12
Time: On Surface: 31 Hours, 31 Minutes
EVA Time: 7 hours 45 Minutes

Apollo 14 (Apollo 13, of course, suffered a crippling explosion on the way to the Moon and was unable to land)
Time on Surface: 33 Hours, 30 Minutes
EVA Time: 9 Hours, 22 Minutes


Apollo 15

Time on Surface: 66 Hours, 55 Minutes
EVA Time: 18 Hours, 33 Minutes


Apollo 16

Time on Surface: 71 Hours, 2 Minutes
EVA Time: 20 Hours, 14 Minutes


Apollo 17

Time on Surface: 75 Hours
EVA Time: 22 Hours, 4 Minutes

So that's it, a total of about (by my sometimes shaky math) about 80 and one half hours on the Moon. And a lot of that was spent climbing up and down ladders, opening and closing hatches, stowing and unstowing gear, figuring out how to walk and work (every flight was essentially a training flight). Three days and change. Almost seven man days, if you're generous.

Yeah, that's just the manned part, but it isn't like there's a huge body of unmanned exploration to back it up. The U.S. sent seven unmanned Surveyor landers in advance of the Apollo program. Five of these landed. The others crashed. These were frightfully primitive by current standards, comparing to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers about like a rusty skateboard compares to an SUV. They had a crude TV camera, a few simple instruments, and some had a simple arm that seemed to have been borrowed from a carnival claw-machine.

This is in no way intended to be dismissive of the accomplishments of the talented people who built this thing. It's simply a product of its time, relatively early in the TV era, and the dawn of the computer/microelectronics age. Compare it to then-contemporary dial phones, televisions with vacuum tubes, and room-sized mainframe computers with 8k (no gigs, not megs, kilobytes) of memory.

The Russians later two sent rather more sophisticated landers that included remotely operated rover vehicles. Technical wonders at the time, and a bit more comparable to Spirit and Opportunity, they're still primitive by modern standards.

Even ignoring the total time spent in exploration, keep in mind that in all cases, the landing sites were picked for safety first, and their scientific interest second. This is especially true of the early Apollo missions. And in any case, that's a handful of sites on a globe with about the same surface area as the United States, Russia and Canada combined. And the sites chosen aren't even a random sampling. Even ignoring the safety issue, none of the sites were on the lunar far-side, which has a surface completely (and perhaps a little mysteriously) different than the one we see in our sky every night. None of the landings took place near the poles, where frozen water may still exist.

What do we know about the Moon? How much have explored? Slightly more than none and zilch. We have barely been there. We have not done that. We don't even know where tee-shirts are sold. But we did get some rocks representative of fairly safe landing zones.

Okay, again, this has to be taken in perspective. The Apollo program was a monumental accomplishment, a wonder if its age or any other. But it ended too soon, and it should have been only the beginning.

I realize too that, although what I'm advocating is a manned return to the Moon, this could just as easily be used as an argument for unmanned exploration, something I'm certainly not against. Quite the contrary, I think any manned return to the Moon should happen in conjunction with a strong program of unmanned exploration. In fact, the Moon could be an ideal laboratory to study how to dovetail the use of man and machine in exploration of another world, lessons that could be invaluable in planning the much longer, dangerous, and yes, more expensive trip to Mars.

Yes, I think we should go to Mars, with robots, and eventually, with human explorers. But one thing I'm not sure the Mars advocates have considered is, "what next?" Going to Mars is going to be hugely expensive and dangerous, and while it is certainly worth doing, it seems doubtful that it will in any reasonable term become routine. In fact, it's possible it could be a one-shot deal. At most, it seems likely that a Mars program would consider of no more than a hand-full of manned expeditions before costs became prohibited.

Yes, there will still be much of Mars to explore, but does that matter if we can't afford to explore it? And as we have seen with the Moon, the presence of unexplored territory is no certainty that we will follow through once the novelty wears off. What if we "go there, do that?" Even if cost were no object, other than asteroids there are few obtainable targets for manned exploration in the solar system without great leaps in propulsion technology.

A stepping-stone approach to Mars via the Moon would allow us to establish a more permanent off-world foothold, one that might better prepare us for that great leap, and allow us to more affordably continue our off-world explorations afterwards. The Moon is not a distraction from Mars. It is both a testing and training ground for further off-world exploration, and a sustainable foothold off this fragile world of ours. A long-term manned presence on the Moon greatly increases the possibility that we will not only successfully go to Mars once, but that we will one day return again and again, perhaps eventually to stay, perhaps to map and explore all those, far, undiscovered lands.

And I wonder what unexpected secrets we will find, on our 1200th day on the Moon? Only 1196 and 2/3rds to go.

(All photos NASA/JPL)

Monday, April 30, 2007

Minions at Work video trailer


According to some on-line discussions I've been following, it seems to be the hot thing for authors (or publishers, or publicists) to create video trailers for their books and place them on the web. Here's one from my old-pal Virgina Baker, here's an author-produced on from P.R. Frost and here's one for a mystery anthology featuring my friend Kris Rusch. Here's a fancier professionally produced version for science fiction writer Greg Bear's novel Eon.

When publishers do these they're great, but apparently, some authors are spending many thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to have these things produced for them. What do I think of this? Well, like most extreme self-publicity efforts, I think it's usually at best futile, at worst, counter-productive.

My theory of author publicity is still that it should be free and take none of the author's time. Money should flow into an author's pockets, not the other way, and publicity time shouldn't cut into a writer's writing time. (Which means "no-time" makes it okay to post on a blog, if it's something you enjoy enough to consider recreation.)

Which is why I think author produced video trailers can be just fine. The tools to make them are pretty much free (both Macs and PCs have free video editing software that will do the job), and most of the materials for a basic trailer are generally already at hand (cover shots, cover art, cover copy, pull-quotes, author photos, etc.) Yes, you could get original music, professional voice talent, original art, fancy animation. Yes, you could actually hire actors and dramatize scenes from the book. But to my mind, that's the sort of stuff a publisher should do, only if they see it as being cost-effective. Authors should keep it simple. I believe that you can get most of the bang for very few of the bucks.

Given all this, I decided to put my toes in the water. Lacking a new release to promote, I instead did a video trailer for my weekly web comic, Minions at Work. To view the trailer directly in the blog, click on the linked image in the sidebar to your left.

This was produced using all free software. Video editing and effects were done using Microsoft Movie Maker. It's simple, but easy to use and it does the job. I did my own music (yeah, most people will NOT go this route) using a freeware Midi sequencer called Anvil Studio. Finally, I used an nifty open-source sound recorder/mixer/editor called Audacity (also available for Mac and Unix/Linux) to save my music as a MP3 file that Movie Maker could understand and to so some mixing and editing. (This is also a good tool for creating your own voice or narration tracks.)

So, we have tools - free, source material: all stuff existing on my hard disk, time - a few hours of (for me) fun-time. It could be slicker. It could be better. But it isn't bad, and when I do get around to doing a trailer for a book, it will be far better yet...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Silent Running Trailer

Doubtless the copyright police will find this sooner or later, but for the moment, here's the link to the Silent Running trailer that I discovered on YouTube. If you've never seen the film, keep in mind that that the trailer doesn't represent the movie very well. It tells too much, too little, and misrepresents the film at several points, but it does have some nifty clips from the film in it that will give you some sense of its unique look. Domes and drones. Gotta love it. Go check it out while you still can.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why I love "Silent Running" (and you should too)


There are movies you want to forget, movies that entertain purely in the moment and wash from your consciousness five minutes after you leave the theater, and then there are movies that keep creeping back into your consciousness years or decades later, demanding to be watched again to see if they've stood up to the sands of time.

For me, "Silent Running" is one of the latter category of films. I've watched it many times over the years, though not recently, but several months ago it came up in an on-line discussion, and I was compelled to rent the DVD from Netflix and watch it again.

Now, this is always a task approached with trepidation, because some films simply don't hold up, even films you've watched repeatedly and enjoyed. Eventually you, or the world you live in, simply passes them by. At best they become watchable as a relic of their time or an object of nostalgia. On surface, Silent Running seems particularly vulnerable to this, with its Joan Baez songs, cult actor Bruce Dern as star, and its vaguely counter-culture themes.

But I was pleased to find that not only did the film hold up, it's actually aging well. Yes, the once-thrilling special effects have gone from spectacular to merely serviceable for the most part, but there's never a point where they become embarrassing. The spaceship interior sets still look great, and for the most part would look right at home in any modern science fiction film or TV show. And the drones, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, are still among the best cinematic robots (and most endearing non-human characters) of all time.

The enjoyable soundtrack (by Peter Scheckele, better known as his alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach) gives the sometimes claustrophobic film grandeur and scope, and the songs, which at the time seemed to me a bit intrusive, now seem organic and essential to the film.

Moreover, the writing, direction, and performances (much of the movie is essentially a one-man-show, with Bruce Dern ably carrying the movie with only the drones and his artificial environment to play against).

But not only did the movie hold up, as I watched it, I became increasingly convinced that it was not merely a good movie, it was an important movie, a cinematic milestone that almost single handedly created the modern space science fiction film.

Without Silent Running there is no Star Wars, no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, no Star Trek films (or follow-on TV series), no Babylon 5 or Farscape or reimagined Galactica. In so many areas, from the most technical to the most artistic, Silent Running either radically changed or reinvented the genre in dozens of important ways.

Silent Running
should be recognized as one of the ground-breaking sf films of all time, on a list with Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Alien, Bladerunner, and a handful of other better-known films. But for the most part, it seems to languish in obscurity, existing in the shadow of Star Wars, a film that in many ways is made in its image, and in at least a few ways is probably inferior.

Why? Well, Silent Running wasn't a huge commercial success a the time. It was produced as part of an experimental program by Universal to produce five films on a budget of a million dollars (which sounds absurdly low-budget now, and was still pretty low even then) each (ironically, one of these five was George Lucas' break-out hit, American Graffiti). But also as part of the experiment, it was shoved into theaters with no real publicity campaign. Like many people, I think I first became aware of the film not from its initial release, but from seeing the soundtrack album (with its spectacular art from the poster seen above) in a record store. Likely, I first saw the movie on TV, though I later saw it in art-house and college film-class screenings.

People who have seen Silent Running usually remember it, but frankly, not that many people have seen it. The current DVD release lists for about $15, is packed with extras (several documentaries including a 45-minute "making of," and a commentary track by director Doug Trumbull and Bruce Dern) and is well worth seeking out.

So enough about it being good. Here are some of the reasons I think it's important...

1.The entire "Star Wars" era of special effects begins here.


Now, admittedly, Doug Trumbull cut his teeth on the ground-breaking effects of 2001, a Space Odyssey, but in many ways, that film would have a dead end without this film. Director Stanley Kubrick was notoriously secretive about some aspects of the effects, to the extent of destroying the models and most records of their creation after the film was finished. This may have had more to do with preventing a sequel than any real attempt to hide his methods, but while many "big iron" effects for the film (like the rotating Discovery centrifuge set) were well publicized and documented, the model work was relatively undocumented.

In addition, 2001 did little but verify the conventional wisdom of Hollywood: that good special effects could only be done in a huge-budget studio blockbuster. The idea that first rate effects could be done cheaply, and might even make the movie cheaper, that just was unimaginable.

So along comes Silent Running, done on a modest budget, which still managed to incorporate some of the most spectacular models and effects seen on screen until that time. It established the hyper-detailed "kitbashing" (using plastic model parts and other shapes to provide surface texture on spaceships) look that would soon be followed by Star Wars and countless other movies and TV series.


One of the people working under Trumbull on the effects was John Dykstra, who managed most of the model photography for the movie. Dykstra was the wizard who developed the computerized motion-control camera system that made possible the elaborate space-battles of the pre-CGI Star Wars movies (and pretty much every other effects film to follow). Though there is no motion-control on Silent Running, the long-exposure photography methods used on the models were similar, and there were then state-of-the-art robots on set. It isn't difficult to imagine Dykstra already putting the pieces together in his mind.

2. Silent Running brought industrial thinking into film-making

Prior to Silent Running, not only special effects, but many aspects of movie production, had long been static. Sets, props, and models were "old school," done with wood, plaster, fabric and more rarely, metal. Most physical aspects of the film, lights, photography, construction, used long-established methods, many of them rooted in the theater.

Silent Running seemed to take a fresh-look at almost everything. Trumbull came from an engineering background, and he brought new technologies, materials, and production methods into the film. Sets and props were produced using modern plastic molding techniques. Rather than simply using wooden props, many items on the Silent Running set were in some way functional: the small ATV vehicles driven around the ship, robotic arms, video monitors, electronic instrumentation, it didn't just sort of look right, it worked. It contributed to a feeling a realism and believability that holds up pretty well even today.

More importantly, though Star Wars had a larger budget, it simply couldn't have been done without the methods established by Silent Running. You see this all through the film in thousands of places, but it's most obvious in the stormtrooper armor. In old-school Hollywood, it would have required more than film's entire budget to individually produce each suit by hand. The use of plastics allowed them to be mass-produced affordably. The same goes for many of the droids, vehicles, and even Darth Vader himself.

3. Silent Running established the "grunge" look for science fiction films

Before Silent Running, the look for most science fiction spacecraft was clean, mechanical, and sterile. The Valley Forge was one-part well-used industrial and one part lived in. The floors were dirty. People decorated their living spaces, they played pool and poker to kill the boredom. Things showed wear-and-tear. People personalized their uniforms. The Valley Forge was a place where people lived and worked, and it showed it.

Star Wars took it a step farther, by creating even more grungy places (trash-masher, anyone?) and showing us whole, living, cities and worlds, but it starts with Silent Running, and you can trace the line on to the Alien movies and even Bladerunner.

4. Silent Running brought fully-realized characters into science fiction film

Before Silent Running, most future science fiction charters fell into the categories of a handful of stereotypes. There was the square-jawed hero/military man. There was the idealistic and detached (possibly even mad) scientist. There was the cold-blooded human robot. There was the lovely but helpless heroine. There was the slightly dim comic relief. The godly and arrogant (possibly with justification, probably not) alien. A few others.

Even superior films like 2001 and Forbidden Planet usually drew their characters from that pool (and to a lesser extent, so did the Star Wars films that followed).

But the hero of Silent Running wasn't all good, and it's villains weren't really bad. All of them had reasons for acting as they did, flaws, and a whole range of human quirks. Bruce Dern clearly gets a great deal of credit for bringing his character to life, and for picking a number of his Actor's Studio pals to fill out the rest of the Valley Forge crew. These characters wouldn't have been out of place on a contemporary commercial fishing boat, or an oil-platform, or a coal mine, and that was exactly the point. Silent Running brought to cinema the idea that while technology and circumstances may move on, people will remain very much the same. It suggested that science fiction could tell human, character-driven stories, and not just intellectual treatments of ideas, or scary tails of monsters, or square-jawed adventures.

The crew of the Valley Forge is the clear model for the crew of Alien's Nostromo, or the space marines that followed them in Aliens, or the space-cowboys of Serenity.

5. Its environmental themes are more timely than ever

Unfortunately, the idea that ecosystems might collapse, that forests would all be destroyed, and especially that most people would just sit around and let it happen, that all seems way more credible to me now than it did in 1972. Yes, from a strictly science-fictional standpoint, this works best taken as an eco-fable. (What do the people on this plant-deprived Earth eat, or even breath for that matter?) But it's way less over-the-top that I originally thought. (Actually, a whole range of 70s cautionary sf films, Soylent Green, the Omega Man, even Planet of the Apes, seems less fantastic than they once did, which is a pretty sad commentary on the state of modern life, actually.)

6. Best robots ever!

Okay, this is a stretch, especially as fond as I am of Robby the Robot, but Huey, Dewey and Louie broke all manner of ground for cinematic robots. With the exception of Robby, most movie robots to this point had been soulless monsters, just waiting (and often not very long) to run amok. Even Robby, as benign as he is, remains a frightening and potent symbol of technology beyond our understanding.

The drones were believably tools, simply serving as they were programmed to serve. Yet as sophisticated as they obviously are, they also have developed human-like quirks and surprising behaviors. It's hard not to think of them as innocent children caught in some tragedy beyond their understanding. Perhaps this is actually their nature, or perhaps it is merely something we as humans, trying to understand them, project on their boldly un-anthropomorphic shapes and methods of moving and communicating. Either way, it says as much as us as it does about them.

Many scenes with the drones remain the most moving and memorable in the movie. Trumbull's genius was in making them both the least anthropomorphic of film robots, and the most human. The drones were played by human actors, double-amputees, walking on their hands, and hidden inside clever, light-weight, plastic suits, allowing them to deliver a convincing performance without needing to resort to mechanical contrivances to hide their humanity. And of course, Bruce Dern's performance in playing to them also deserves some credit for the power their scenes carry.

And while some aspects of the on-screen methods used to program the drones haven't held up well (keying card-game rules by hand into a terminal or resoldering circuits under a microscope, all guided by a mimeographed service manual), overall their appearance and behaviors have only become more realistic as robots have advanced. I suspect that it's only a matter of time before some robotic scientist, influenced by the film at an early age, builds a functional drone modeled on the early version.

Even if George Lucas hadn't admitted the influence, it should be obvious that without the drones, there is no R2D2 as we know him. And while R2D2 is a pretty cool film robot, in most every measure besides public recognition, the drones just have him beat.


There are other points to be made, but I think the defense can rest here. Without Silent Running, it's doubtful that any of the modern classics of science fiction film and television would exist, or at least, if they'd exist in anything like the form we know them today. It's a landmark, ground-breaking film which had untold influence on the industry.

It's interesting to note too that all the film's influence can't be credited entirely to the film itself. While much of the production of 2001 went unseen, every aspect of Silent Running was unusually well documented. Not only was it the subject of a detailed 45 minute "making of" documentary (yes, the one on the DVD), but it was covered extensively in the industry press, most notably a massive series of articles in American Cinematographer magazine.

Thanks to this, Silent Running provided both inspiration for a whole generation of film makers hoping to make low-budget science fiction films, and a "how-to" guide to dozens of useful and innovative techniques that could be applied to make them.

It's a shame that Doug Trumbull was as interested in innovating the technology used to produce and display films as he was in the films themselves. As a result, he made only one other major theatrical feature, 1983's Brainstorm, a film better known for the death during production of star Natalie Wood than any virtue of the film itself.

Instead of making films, Trumbull became obsessed with a series of largely dead-end large-format projection systems that he hoped would bring greater realism and audience involvement to the masses. Some of these later did find some application in motion-ride systems, and Trumbull did direct several programs for these attractions.

But while this new technology could have revolutionized cinema, for various reasons it didn't, and now the digital world has largely passed it by. I'd trade it all for even one more film like Silent Running.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I Hate Destiny


There's a great scene in Mel Brook's classic parody film "Young Frankenstein." The young Doctor Frankenstein, as played by Gene Wilder, has traveled to his grandfather's castle in Transylvania and is gradually uncovering the secrets of his ancestor's experiments in reanimating the dead. Though he has tried to distance himself from his family history, he is strangely, almost mystically, drawn to it. He lays in his bead, and his slumber is interrupted by a fitful dream. "Destiny," he mumbles in his sleep. Then again. "Destiny!" Then he begin to rock from side to side, falling into to cadence of a cheerleader, "no escaping, that's for me! Destiny! Destiny! No escaping, that's for me!"

Even in 1974, Brooks (and Wilder, who wrote the screenplay as well as starred) knew that destiny was tired and cliched concept worthy primarily of parody. Yet it is the cockroach of story tropes. Not only has it refused to die, it seeming has grown in popularity of use, as I was reminded by episodes this week of two popular TV shows I generally like very much, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. (Spoilers for recent episodes of both shows follow, so if you haven't caught up your TiVo or live outside the U.S. where episodes are delayed, proceed with caution.)

In fiction, the concept of destiny (and the often closely related, often overlapping, trope of prophecy) takes on many forms, but the most common goes something like this. Our protagonist either learns of or comes to believe in some special destiny ahead of them. Often there are cryptic prophecies here (as I said, overlapping), or visions, or dreams, or perhaps an inscription on some ancient tablet or temple wall to point the way. Perhaps the destiny of the coming hero/leader is already known to our protagonist or others around him/her, and they only later beginning to suspect that he/she is The One.

At that point, our hero will either seek their destiny, or fight hopelessly against, it, but either way, they're headed there on rails. There will be much hand-wringing over what they cryptic-to-the-point-of-uselessness prophecy/inscription means, and the mysteries will be dragged out, often to tiresome lengths. Maybe the villain knows about the prophecy too, and tries to put the whack on our protagonist, but that trick never works. Sacrifices may be made along the way, there may be some twists and turns, a surprise or two, and it may not come out exactly the way you imagined, but destiny will be fulfilled because -- hey -- it's destiny!

And really, it's this most basic use of destiny that bugs me. It's certainly possible to write good stories using the concept, and to apply it in different ways, but there's a recursive, meta-element to the story use of destiny. Once a writer starts to apply it to the story, all too often it lazily falls into the above pattern.

I'm not sure where the concept of destiny first crept into literature, but it is certain that it is very, very old. It's used in the Bible, for instance (look at Moses) and it's the basis of Arthurian legend. Perhaps it's as old as literature itself, and quite possibly older.

My suspicion is that it is closely related to the concept of the divine right of kings, the idea that the had of God (or some similar supernatural force) reaches down on high and delivers greatness onto some individual. By this rule, great heroes and leaders aren't made, or even necessarily born. They are created, by powers beyond humanity.

It comes down, I suppose, to the fundamental question of free will. Free will, may be an illusion, but by golly it's a good illusion, and I like it. I like the idea that I have free will, and I like the idea that my heroes (and villains, for that matter) have it as well. I like them to make choices, and then see the consequences of those choices honestly played out in drama.

Destiny cheats all that. Ultimately it doesn't matter what choices the hero make. Ultimately destiny is going to use its big, intrusive hand to shove him back onto his preordained course. In fact, a convention of these stories is often that fighting destiny is bad. Destiny is a bitch, and it will often smite your girfriend, or your dad, or your favorite dog Carl if you don't immediately let her have her way.

Now that I think of it, there's another ancient story convention closely related to destiny, one that that has more completely condemned to the dust-bin of literary history: deus ex machina, "God out of the machine." It originates in the ancient Greek and Roman theater, where an actor playing a God would be lowered out of the rafters on a lift to extricate the hapless human characters from their hopeless situation.

In modern terms, it's any story where the characters are rescued from their situation by any intrusively external and unexpected device rather than by their own actions. It's seen as a cheat, and most writers are taught early on to avoid its use. But thinking about it, how is the typical destiny story anything by deus ex machina writ large? In a destiny story, the Gods don't even wait till the end of the play to hit the down button on their cosmic elevator. In a destiny story, they've the first ones on stage, yanking and shoving the other players around through the whole show.

Let's get back to those TV shows I was talking about. First, and to me most annoyingly, Battlestar Galactica. Okay, I really like this show, and I have to let a certain amount of destiny and prophecy slip by. It's really fundamental to the series itself, which is built on mythic and religious elements (as was, somewhat more ham-handedly, the original series).

So when a Galactica character says something like, "this has all happened before, and it will all happen again," I'm okay with that. It's all part of a larger mythic structure that, usually, isn't the story itself. It's simply a framework within which more human stories are told.

Sure, there are the ancient clues to Earth, and how we find them. But that isn't destiny, that's just the McGuffin of the week. And certain characters have had prophecies applied to them before, especially President Laura Roslin. But it's only really become intrusive in a plot line involving Kara "Starbuck" Thrace which (seemingly) reached its climax last week the the death of the character.

In this case, both prophecy (as delivered by "oracles") and visions (in the form of a pacticular "eye of God" design that Kara has felt compelled to paint and draw since childhood) come into play. We are told again and again, from by several widely dispersed characters, that Kara has a "great destiny." I'll even allow for some of this. Kara made a great flawed and reluctant hero, fighting destiny every step of the way. For a while, I thought she might even escape it. But no...

If this episode is to be taken at face value, her "great destiny" was to die a stupid, pointless, and self-inflicted death. It's been suggested by the show's creator, Ron Moore (who I greatly respect as a writer, even if I don't always agree with his decisions) that her death will ultimately have some greater meaning for the future of the colonists (and perhaps the Cylons as well, since they were even more interested in her "destiny" than the humans were). A suspicious mind might even suspect that while she may have "crossed over," perhaps she isn't as dead as she appears.

But ignoring all this, it was just an annoying story to watch. The prophecy elements had become intrusive and heavy-handed to the point of giving the character no real purpose other than self-destruction, and the resolution required a character defined by her willfulness and Independence, to blissfully surrender to her stupid end.

Hopefully it will all get better, and in the later context of the show, this will seem like no more than a speed-bump. Hopefully.

A much different (and in fact, more diverse) approach to destiny can be found in Heroes, where the concept takes on many form. First and most literally, there is Hiro's conviction that his has a "destiny" to use his powers over time and space to become a hero. Okay, he calls it destiny, but I call it conviction. I call it character. Hiro is trying to become a hero because he has chosen to do so. The powers don't make him a hero. Others on the show have powers, and have much different paths. Hiro has made a choice to follow his current path (wherever it leads him, and I hope it is to success). Free will applies. This is destiny in name only.

But the show also has several forms of prophecy, more or less supernatural. Artist Isaac Mendez has been shown to be able to paint the future (an ability also used on occasion by human-duplicator Peter Petrelli). A more science-fictional version of prophecy derives from Hiro's time-travel abilities. Twice (most recently in this week's episode) he's traveled forward to see the destruction of New York City by some kind of explosion. A future version of Hiro also returned to present day and delivered the cryptic message, "save the cheerleader, save the world."

From a story standpoint, not much of this bothers me. Why? Well, while both the paintings and the time travel episodes forecast the future, it is yet to be determined that they absolutely define it. In fact, it seems likely that they do not, since we can presume (if not with absolute certainty) that the destruction of New York will somehow be averted. I can also allow for the typically cryptic "prophecy" of "save the cheerleader, save the world," as Hiro explains he is trying not to cause a rift in time. Perhaps saying or doing anything too direct would cause a paradox. But it suggests also that, within limitations, Hiro knows that time can be changed.

Again, while the rules of the Heroes universe have yet to be completely defined, there's no suggestion that free will is violated. The characters have some clues as to what will, or could, happen in the future, but they apparently can change that future. Their action, and their choices, have consequences.

So, lets try to boil this down to a set of rules or guidelines for effective use of destiny/prophecy in fiction.

1. Free will must be preserved. Characters must have choices, and those choices must have honest results and consequences within the context of the story.

2. Prophecy should forecast, not predict. This is an important distinction, as one leaves your characters room to shape the future, and the other does not.

Of course, there is an entire category of story based on the idea of changing the future while maintaining the prophecy, "cheating destiny" so to speak. Perhaps our heroine sees a vision of her lover stabbed to death, but changes events so that it is actually the villain disguised as her lover who is killed. Its a small (but important) part of the movie "Back to the Future," where when Doc Brown learns that he will be shot in the future, wears a bullet-proof-vest to the meeting and thus survives without changing the events as witnessed.

These "cheating destiny" stories aren't inherently bad, but if that's all the story is about, then its just a puzzle or a trick. Entertaining, perhaps (except that you've seen it a hundred times before), but not good storytelling.

I also remind you that a lesser used but interesting device is the prophecy that is patently wrong or false. In particular, I love the tragic villain who, having latched onto such a false prophecy, follows it straight to their own ruin and destruction.

3. A character with a destiny is always less interesting than a hero with choices. Heroes (and villains) aren't born that way. They may have certain gifts and abilities, sure, but they must be able to choose how to use them (or have their choices taken from them by believable circumstances, not simply the blundering hand a fate). There is no greater villain than one who contains the seeds of his own corruption. There is no mightier hero than one forged by his own hand, guided by his own heart, and for whom a lesser (or darker) path is always an option.

4. Destiny is not required. Remember, even in fantasy, there's no law that says you need destiny or prophecy. In fact, I'd venture there are far more stories to tell without them than with them. In an (as yet unpublished) young adult fantasy novel I wrote, I had a kind-of-fortune-teller say to a young character when she asks if she's locked into the role of world-saver, "There is no destiny. There are only -- possibilities." Really, those are my words to live by.

Finally, I am reminded of my old friend, Conan. He lives in a world of magic, gods and seers. Yet he ultimately becomes a king not by divine right, but by his own hand, by living his life as he must and as he will. His god, Crom, almost never interferes or intervenes in the affairs of his followers. His only gift to them is the strength they are born with. The rest is up to them.

That Crom, he would have made a good writer.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Minions of their own Domain

I've gotten a domain for my "Minions at Work" weekly web cartoon. It's still hosted at Blogger, and the old URLs still work, but the new "official" address is:
www.MinionsAtWork.com. This makes it easier to remember. Handy, if you want to check in on a computer other than your regular one, or if you want to pass the address along to friends (which I certainly hope that you do).

Work continues on my "I Was a Teenaged Minon" young-adult novel, though I'll have to put it aside for at least a few weeks while I work on a Star Trek the Next Generation tie-in project with a tight deadline.

Chris just turned in a rewrite of a non-genre young-adult novel to our agent and is co-writing on the Trek project.

Oh, and we're about to remodel our only bathroom (if your definition of "remodeling" is bringing it out of the 70s). Demolition has already started, most of the new fixtures have been purchased, and phase one of the tile work is scheduled to happen in a couple weeks. Bathroom remodeling when you only have one bathroom is a tricky business. Fingers crossed that there are no major disasters.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Back after a Break


Obviously I haven't posted here in a while. All I can say is, life gets complicated sometimes. Life is still complicated. (Like for instance, this week I managed to hit a pot-hole and crack the oil pan of our car, "Herbie." $650 and three days of driving a really crappy rental later, we have a car again. Life's been like that lately.)

But in the great scheme of things, Chris and our kids and I are all fine, I'm working on some original novel projects I'm really excited about, my Minions at Work web-comic will post it's 44th edition this week, and so things could be a lot worse.

On the personal appearance front, Chris and I are (assuming the weather-Gods cooperate, which they haven't much this winter of freakish snow-storms and 92mph winds) scheduled to appear at Radcon, Feb. 16th-18th. We went to Radcon for the first time last year, and really enjoyed it. It's a relaxing, friendly fan convention with a huge gaming side (most of which we never see) and a small but writer-friendly science fiction/fantasy side.

One thing I loved last year was the the hotel has a large lobby area with an open coffee-shop in the middle, an arrangement that is ideal for informal socializing. Groups form "amoeba tables" in the coffee-shop, as friends old and new drift in and out for hours at a time. It's a casual party that never ends. It's what I loved about Portland's Orycon before they closed it's old facility on the Columbia River and moved to a down-town high-rise hotel.

Anyway, if you're in the Northwest, I recommend dropping buy.

As for the blog, I've got a backlog of things that I'd like to pontificate about: the neglected role of cell phones in public safety, how rural have-nots could be left out of the technological revolution, and why Silent Running is still one of my favorite movies. I'll get to them soon. Promise.