Saturday, December 31, 2011

The patient year in music

Music was somewhat more mild and introspective for me this past, which probably comes as no great surprise given that this was largely a year of waiting.  Namely the long wait for employment while hunting for a post graduation job. A wait which gradually gave way to a busy self-employment schedule as any sort of a normal job failed to materialize, but more and more copywrite and paid literary gigs came in through the door.

As laid back and philosophical as the music was, it still tended to stay on the brighter of the emotional spectrum.

The seasonally migrating Portland, Oregon and Marfa, Texas based YACHT turned out one of my favorite albums for this orbit around the sun with Shangri-la.

Meanwhile the more ambient and chill strains of electronica have continued to fill up a larger and larger part of my playlists.

The discovery of musician Jan Jelinek thought the release of the now famous video of International Space Station footage defenitely helped with that move further into realm of ethereal sounds with some faint, bop-era jazz sensibilities.

All of which has been an enormous professional boon. Spending eight to twelve hours per day behind the keyboard writing has meant that I've needed to find some healthy stimulants to help maintain focus and task-concentration for extended periods of time. Ambient music with a steady, low-grade kind of intensity and no distracting lyrics has filled that need perfectly.  Well that and a lot of espresso and tea. 

Meanwhile, attention-grabbing and distracting music has generally stayed on the brighter side of sound as well. In that vein, The King is Dead by Portland-area band the Decemberists introduced several good tracks.

Some of which do a fantastic job of evoking atmosphere and sensory impressions.

Friday, December 30, 2011

A placeholder for the music post!

A good friend just reminded me that I haven't done a yearly musical post, which is something I normally post on this blog during the holiday season. So consider yourselves forewarned that one is on the way. It wasn't a peak year for great music, but there were still a number of good tunes that made it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Home again

After a two-day holiday celebration that turned into a wonderful five-day mini-vacation, it's time to put the headphones on and get back to writing.

In that vein, a fantastic YouTube video that combines the brilliant French science fiction film Immortel (Ad Vitam) and Massive Attack's equally lovely song "Dissolved Girl".

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Nature mourns' N Korea leader"

BBC News - Kim Jong-il death: 'Nature mourns' N Korea leader:

'via Blog this'

What's truly scary in life? Living in a place where mourning for national leaders is mandatory.

Personally, I'm happy to see the 'Dear Leader' exit stage left much the same way I feel that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot leaving this life helped to improve the world. The year I spent not far from the Intra-Korean DMZ came at the tail end of the great famine on the other side of the border. Conditions in the North were so dire that during those twelve months some 400+ North Korean citizens defected across one of the most heavily mined military frontiers on the planet.

For all of those fortunates who made the crossing there were many who died along the way. Some were killed by mines or natural hazards; others shot by their own nation's military. Then there was those who fled into north China where they faced uncertain futures hunted by the Chinese police and haunted by the prospect of forcible repatriation to their homeland and interment in one of their country's many gulags.

A terrifying possibility that hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees continue to face.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The future of air combat vehicles

Defense has an article up about the the Navy taking delivery of two of Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned aerial combat drones to assess their capability for making carrier-style landings and take offs.

Image via

The X-47B represents a line of fighter evolution that we should have been pursuing this past decade instead of dumping billions into the badly overpriced Raptor and F-35 Lightning programs. However, rather than look at aircraft designed to counter a specific threat or drones capable of outmaneuvering and out-loitering any manned vehicle, the Air Force went on a frenzied, capability-driven spending spree seemingly set up to produce a gold-plate combat vehicle.

All of which helped to drive an out-of-control price-spiral that killed the Raptor well before its production run was complete and may still tank the Lightning. The icing on the cake is that these aircraft could also be obsolete in less than a decade faced rapidly increasing capabilities of drones.

Are drones capable of going head to head against manned planes in air combat at this time? No. But their capability to maneuver and identify and engage targets has been advancing at Moore's-Law rate in recent years. The DARPA Grand Challenge provides an instructive example of this  rate of increase. In 2004 none of the competing, land-based vehicles succeeded in navigating the dessert course and completing the race. In 2005 nearly all of the entrants surpassed the old course's requirements, and since 2007 subsequent non-DARPA unmanned vehicle races have seen new generation of vehicles mastering far more difficult courses in increasingly complex environments.

Not that I think humans will be out of the air-to-air business completely in the foreseeable future. One thing that has had me concerned for sometime is that the US' unchallenged dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum cannot last forever. At some point, and likely not all that far off, someone will be able to contest control and interfere with communications between land based operators and unmanned aircraft. So air-to-air UCAVs will have to possess a capacity for autonomous air-combat maneuvering, and it will be a good idea to have a manned, high-performance platform capable of following the drones into the battlespace to exercise direct human command and control via line-of-sight communications.

But first, we need drones, or at least to maintain a fleet of manned aircraft. With a gaping Raptor-sized hole blown open in its future inventory and its current fleet rapidly aging, I'm very surprised that the Air Force hasn't started its own UCAV program.  Or at least begun purchasing reasonably priced, improved versions of proven platforms like Boeing's stealthy F-15SE Silent Eagle to fill in the near-term shortfall of manned fighters as many already stressed, high-performance air frames move into their third decade of service.

Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle, Boeing Press Release Kit via Wikipedia

Monday, December 19, 2011

Serial Experiment Lain

Yes it feels a little 90s at times, but Serial Lain remains an interesting and in places non-linear tale of a young girl's uneven and rough cybernetic ascension to godhood--or something close to it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Still busily cranking away on my various writing gigs...

But in the meanwhile, a bizarre video mash up of Calvin and Hobbes snowmen and Akira Kurosawa from some folks in North Dakota. For all you cinephiles out there.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

BBC News - Undersea mountains march into the abyss

I'd always thought that underseas mountains plunging ever so slowly into subduction zones would act as sticking points and make subduction zone earthquakes worse. Apparently the opposite is true.

BBC News - Undersea mountains march into the abyss:

'via Blog this'

Sad lonely blog

Here it sits, neglected for these few weeks while I write and write elsewhere. But that's OK, because my daily fiction word count is on a roll. I've had a few 10,000 word weeks, not counting freelancing work

In the meanwhile, some science fiction writing music with a heroic bent: Genre Playlist.

I used to avoid listening to music while writing, but given how much time I spend in front of the computer these days its become something of a necessary stimulant at times alongside tea or espresso drinks. Music without lyrics generally works the best, as it provides the highest ratio of motivation vs distraction.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Beautiful HD time lapses of Oregon's skies

Some lovely time lapse feeds of the skies over Oregon's deserts, coastline, and volcanoes.

By Uncage the Soul Productions.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Neanderthal Neuroscience

An article on Savante Paabo's updated gene- and fossil-based model for the spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa and across Eurasia.

Neanderthal Neuroscience | The Loom | Discover Magazine:

'via Blog this'

I love reading about cosmology, quantum mechanics, and geology, but out of all the branches of science the interestection of genetics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, primate studies, and anthropology that we call evolutionary psychology is by far the most fascinating.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The publishing singularity has arrived

Borders is gone. Meanwhile Barns and Noble is apparently closing its flagship Seattle store and beginning the process of selling fewer books in favor of more book-related merchandise in its surviving outlets. A shelf-space reduction of 50% by according to some reports. At the same time Target and Walmart are also slashing book-selling shelf space in their stores.

Back at the ranch, indie book stores are seeing increased Post-Borders sales.

In cyberspace ebook sales continue to climb. Amazon has unveiled its $79 Kindle, and the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machines network has just gotten access to the backlist of a major publisher. We seem to have hit a tipping point towards...

Towards hard to say.

We're certainly in new territory here, and despite futurism being a mug's game, I'll take a stab it predicting where we're headed. Because, you know, science fiction writer.


Paperback sales will continue their slide as e-ink ebook readers continue to come down in price. Multi-day battery lifespans and easy-on-the-eyes e-ink will remain the biggest determiners of which e-readers swim and which ones sink.  Also, at some point quality color e-ink will allow tablets to became the primary venue that most of the global middle class reads magazines and possibly even books on. In fact, I'll be surprised if tablets don't eventually replace dedicated e-readers entirely in another two decades if not sooner.

In the nearer term, once we see $20 e-readers I'll be surprised if paperbacks survive outside of nostalgia-targeted novelty runs and print-on-demand services.

The surviving shelf space in major book retail chains (if there are any) will increasingly go to pricey ($20-$30) mass market hardbacks from established best selling authors. A niche market in hardbacks for critically acclaimed works or books with cult-hit status may eventually thrive on the margins, just as hip record stores peddling vinyl do.

Actually, I kind of like the idea of hardbacks as the new vinyl. However, that niche only model will probably only happen if the major physical retailers go under in a worst-case scenario for traditional printing. That seems less likely than a hybrid future ink / ebook future to me.

Indiebook stores will continue to stay afloat through a combination of used book sales as well as in-house print-on-demand kiosks like Espresso Book Machine. Or at least if I were an independent I'd be putting serious skull sweat into figuring how to make print on demand work for me at a profitable enough margin.

Indie stores seem to offer a kind of book buying experience that a significant segment of the book-buying public enjoys. Particularly in rural America. Here in the Pacific Northwest it never ceases to amaze me how each small town supports at least one bookstore, several of which seem to sell both new and used.

It's also possible that indie book stores will become social spaces where people go to mingle, peruse, and download ebooks at. I know, it sounds strange, but even in the present day in which the lion's share of PC videogames are downloaded with gamers never owning a physical copy of their purchases, some brick and mortar locations have become destinations for younger gamers to socialize and download games purchased online while at home.

Amazon will of course be the titan that dominates the book selling world primarily with ebooks, hardbacks, manuals, and some paperbacks. Barns and Noble will likely continue on in the role of on-line little sister, though she may eventually be overtaken or even eaten by tech-savvy Google or Apple.

Overall I expect to a constellation of online book retailers like Google and Apple to orbit Amazon for sometime to come. Smaller indie ebook outlets like Smashwords will likely go under.

Why.  Because the larger outlets will have to tackle the major challenge of ebook buying: Separating out promising literary gems from the mass of  poorly written, badly edited works that make up the present bulk of ebooks. Amazon already appears to have begun this with it's indie books page that showcases books by independent ebook authors. Review blogs and online magazines will likely play a major role in this process.

In fact, I'm surprised that Amazon doesn't already have an online magazine that highlights promising self-published authors on its site...

They totally had me at "ghost mountains"

BBC News - Gamburtsev 'ghost mountains mystery solved':

'via Blog this'

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stumptown with fall leaves

A pleasant Sunday morning spent hiking along the east bank of the Willamette at the height of fall.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Marvin Black

The older I get, the more I think of my paternal grandfather on 11/11. Marvin Black served as an Army 1st Cavalry Division scout on some of the horrific battlefields of the WWII South Pacific theater. He then came home to live a life as one of the most fundamentally decent human beings whom I've known.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Ashfall Yellowstone novel

Well. In a wry chain of coincidences someone else has just published a novel about an eruption of the Yellowstone volcano. It's titled Ashfall.  The protagonist's name is Alex.

It look's like it's an impressive work. The author, Mike Mullin, has drawn a lot of five-star reviews over at Amazon.

It's a let down for me, of course. I'd been hoping to be the first writer to put out a novel about a cataclysmic Yellowstone eruption, and I've been using the short-and-punchy title "Ashfall" since writing a short story version back in 2009, not long after winning in Writers of the Future.

Still, this could ultimately be a very good thing for my novel, now under the working title Ashlands: 2040. It's entirely possible that it will be help spark an interest in works about Yellowstone.

I'm very much looking forward to picking up a copy of Mullin's Ashfall. His take on a Yellowstone event is certainly different from mine. Rather than an adult military science fiction treatment centered on an expedition and the long-term aftermath, he's gone for a young adult approach with a teenage boy who lives through the event and is struggling to survive in the days and weeks following the catastrophe.

Currently I've got one-and-half chapters to write and then three more to revise before Ashlands is finished.


Amendment 29 to the US Constitution

1. The designated National Volcanic Emergency Evacuation Area shall be administered as Unorganized Incorporated Territories of the United States under the terms set in the National Emergency Reorganization Organic Act of 2032. The Great Plains, Rocky Mountain, and Upwind Territories shall be Organized at such time as at least 5,000 persons shall have inhabited a Territory for two consecutive years.

2. The Congress and the President shall recognize the suspension of State Government within the National Volcanic Emergency Evacuation Area only upon the Application of the Legislatures of the affected State, or should the Decennial Census find that the population of that State has fallen below 60,000 fulltime residents during the evacuation period.

3. The President shall direct the Armed Forces and Federal Law Enforcement Officers to administer law and to ensure the public safety within the Jurisdiction of a State within the National Volcanic Evacuation Area only after a recognized Suspension of State Government has taken place.

4. Congress shall make no New States or reapportion the boundaries of Suspended States within the National Volcanic Emergency Evacuation Area during the duration of the emergency.

5. At such time as the population within the former Jurisdiction of any Suspended State within the National Volcanic Emergency Evacuation Area reaches 60,000 inhabitants the Congress, the Courts, the President, and Fellow States shall recognize the sovereignty of that State and the validity of that State’s Constitution as written at the time of suspension. Elections under that State Constitution shall be carried out immediately.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Putting on my tech blogger / copywriter hat for a bit...

I've been fortunate that I've been able to get in some good quality, paid research time recently as freelance technology and business writer for a series of articles on technology startup funding.

While I could happily (even gleefully) throw up dozens of links to interesting information sources on tech startups and the chaotically evolving world of startup financing, the two links below to Y Combinator founder Paul Graham's essays on running a startup and the current state of venture capital in IT are the best written summary essays that I've come across, if you have an interest in these topics.

"How to Start a Startup"

"The New Funding Landscape"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One my favorite "we are living in the future" web comic moments

Questionable Content: New comics every Monday through Friday:

'via Blog this'

Hipsters, hipsters everywhere

OK, so there's not as many of them in Portland as popular opinion would have you believe. Still, they do have a presence here in the city. But where do they come from?


I actually do like a lot of the music that they listen to. I suspect that being a hipster will end up being a lot like being a goth back in the day. A phase that you grow out of, but one that leaves you with an appreciation for good music and books. Or lets say, books and music that are more complex than mainstream tastes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Our finite perception, for the time being

Our brains have evolved to deal with issues at our own scales: mates, rivers, apples, rabbits, and so on. Our brains simply weren't built to understand the fabric of reality at the very small scales (quantum mechnics) or the very large (the cosmos). As Blaise Pascal put it, “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

~David Eagleman via Boing Boig

I'll add a short caveat to Pascal's observation about our lack of ability to see the quantum void of raw potential or the scope of the universe on the cosmological scale. We are equally incapable of seeing these realities, at this time.

The brains we have today are the augmented apparatuses that our children and their descendants will have tomorrow. Even as we learn about how the minds our brains generate are limited by the constraints of biology and our evolutionary history, we are developing the knowledge base and the technologies to push back the organic boundaries that constrain our comprehension.

Not that I'm working on publishing a military science fiction novel about this or anything...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Technology Is One Path Toward Sustainability | Orion Magazine

An interesting look at the very real environmental crises confronting us and why First World environmentalists have been unable to successfully fix these problems over the past past few decades.

Technology Is One Path Toward Sustainability | Orion Magazine:

'via Blog this'

I don't agree with the authors' characterization of current environmental beliefs as an "ecotheology." Most adherents are demonstrably secular in their outlook. I do, however, agree that an almost puritanical anti-technology zeal on the part of environmentalists whose lives embrace technology and all-too-often negative attitudes towards their fellow human beings have contributed the ongoing failures to tackle problems like global warming. That and a willingness to destroy the livelihoods of indigenous people or blue collar workers without creating effective alternative forms of employment, as was the case with much of the timber industry here in the Pacific Northwest during the spotted owl debate of the 1990s.

All of which is a great tragedy. Even as global climate change is helping to drive numerous local crises around the world and threatens to inflict much greater misery on the lives of billions, the issues have become highly politicized here in the US. Sadly, much of the working class and many in the developing world have come to see environmentalists as a threat to their ability to feed themselves and their children.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of super volcanoes and the Old West

"It is odd, to watch with which feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity, and how they are ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get to it.

Americans cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet are in such a rush to snatch any that comes within their reach, as if expecting to stop living before they have relished them. They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.
Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.

At first there is something astonishing in this spectacle of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance. But it is a spectacle as old as the world; all that is new is to see a whole people performing it."

~Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835 

Public domain image via Wikipedia

To create a future I've been on a trip through the 1800s. Not a deep immersion in books and film, but more of a refresher survey to look up interesting events and concepts to help with generating a sense of place and atmosphere for the Post-Yellowstone super volcano novella I'm writing. Or more accurately, to create the feel of a unique time period in which the circumstance of human life and behavior differ from our own in strange and exotic ways.

It's a pioneer story on one level, crossing the wastes of snow and silicate volcanic ash in the Midwest and Great Plains towards a distant goal, so I've been going back to stories of the westward migration. And since I'm looking for tension, drama, and a tragedy to triumph over, I'm revisiting the history of the Donner Party.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

In some ways all of this is about creating an underlying matrix of tensions to generate an atmosphere of unspoken impressions. For example creating the feeling of a lawless environment in which there are human predators and there are people who have banded together around common ideals or necessities to create a community. Then there is the sense of isolation. A feeling of a frontier and beyond that a vast wilderness that is a setting for both hopes and nightmares. Also, a sense of vast physical space, remoteness, and threat of natural hazards from an austere environment that is both beautiful and deadly.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Idoru: The disconnect between fiction and reality

I first came across the virtual idoru concept in the William Gibson novel of the same name. It turns actual software idoru's are a lot less sexy and a lot more bubbly than I had realized.


Oh well. One day we will get the frighteningly attractive robotic overlords that we deserve, rather than schoolgirl A.I.s singing about their famous love of vegetable juice.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Kill Your Fears"

Been listening to track 10, "Kill Your Fears," for much of the day, and I'm still not sick of it. The song falls somewhere between Chill and Trip Hop. OK, so it's more Trip Hop than Chill, as embarrassing as it is to fess up to that. Still, really good groove music. We'll see if the rest of the album grows on me. Give it a listen and see what you think.

Public readings

I need to go to more book readings. I never realized before last night how much fun they could be.

Yesteday it was reading by Steampunk / urban fantasy author Cherie Priest and two of her friends--authors Mark Henry and Richardson--at the gorgeous Mcmenamin's Kennedy school. The event was moderated by the award-winning Mary Robinette Kowal, and laughter filled the venue during Priest's reading--a section from her most recent urban fantasy work which was essentially twenty minutes of dick jokes, all deftly executed in the context of her character's snarky conversation.

I know, dick jokes. Really.

Well, yes, but as previously mentioned, well-execute and totally appropriate to the characters.

Unfortunately I've never been able to get into Priest's Clockwork Century steampunk novels, despite trying. It's a shame as obviously a lot of readers have, so we'll call that a personal failing on my part.

The Red Report series, however, is one I will be picking up.

 I know, I am a weak person, but I can certainly use a good literary-driven laugh now and then.

Monday, September 12, 2011

World Trade Center photojournalism essay

9/11: how the twin towers were built

I was going to skip writing anything about the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The attacks that day had a tremendous negative impact on my life, despite being an ocean away at the time. In many ways, the fallout from that Tuesday is still too raw, even after a decade.

Then I came across a beautifully put together BBC photo essay on the construction of the original World Trade Center towers and their Post-9/11 replacements. Examining how things are made, or their history, sometimes serves as a restrained emotional point of entry into difficult topics. It's an approach that encourages a philosophical view towards the implications of events, rather than a recall of immediate emotions and first impressions.

Emotions and reactions are of course messy things, and often hard to capture in words.

Because of my circumstances on that tragic day in September, I don't really have a definitive moment in which I learned of the towers' destruction. Instead there were a series of clues that something had gone disastrously wrong.

My then girl friend and I had spent the day at the modern art museum Louisiana, roughly an hour north of Copenhagen in Denmark. I had left the military thirteen months earlier, after three fantastic years spent living in Germany and short stint in the Balkans. At the time I was looking forward to spending much of the rest of my life in Sweden with someone I loved.

Sadly, it wasn't to be after that day.

The awareness that something had happened first set in while walking across downtown Copenhagen in late afternoon, on our way back to Malmö, Sweden. The day was beautiful, and earlier we had taken advantage of the sunshine to lie outdoors on the grass at the museum and enjoy the view of the shimmering blue Öresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden. I can't recall the content of the conversation we had on the lawn, but I most certainly remember the tone: We were both young and very much in love and happy to be drawing near the full summer of adulthood in our late twenties.

As we walked across bustling downtown Copenhagen, bubbles of English floated up on the surface of the sea of nasal twangs and partially swallowed vowels that is spoken Danish. The most common phrase, complete with distinctive, flat American r's was "World Trade Center."

At first I thought it was one of those pattern recognition things. A friend mentions the word blue, and after that you notice blue things for the rest of the day as your brain hons in on them amid the chaos of your surroundings. Then two American teenagers walked past in the opposite directions, one of them saying "well if you build something like that, then it's only a matter of time until someone hits it." The words were delivered with all the certitude available at that stage in life, when we believe ourselves to be experts on all things.

My first thought was that something like the 1993 February truck bombing had taken place, which had damaged one of the towers' parking structures and killed a handful of people. Just over a month earlier, while on my way to Sweden, I had sat in a Lufthansa jetliner on the tarmac at Newark, looked at the twin towers across the Hudson River, and felt grateful that neither structure had toppled six years before.

It wasn't until we arrived back in Sweden from Denmark that I had my first hint of just how bad things were on the far side of the Atlantic. In place of the normal handful of customs officers for the entire train station there were six or seven lined up outside our train, watching all of us who disembarked with fear on their faces.

On a city bus, my girlfriend listened to the news on the radio and explained that it sounded like something major had happened in New York. We arrived back at our tiny 1930s brick flat in one of the city's predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and the first image on our gigantic 1970s television was that of the first tower's collapse.

My initial thought was the horrified realization that someone might be nuked in retaliation for this. At the height of the workday those towers held around 50,000 souls.

Fortunately the attacks had taken place before most of the workers had arrived, and even ravaged by fire, the wounded skyscrapers stood long enough for everyone to evacuate the levels below the impact sites. Whatever their aesthetic shortcomings, the twin towers were marvels of engineering, and worth every penny of their construction costs. If the death toll had been in the tens of thousands--comparable to an attack with a weapon of mass destruction--the long-term consequences could have been far worse for everyone involved. Perhaps one of the most important act of leadership during those days afterward was Mayor Giuliani's refusal to speculate about the final casualty count.

For about two weeks after September 11th there was a great deal of sympathy in Sweden. Many friends and even acquaintances reached out. It felt good to know that in the face of inhuman evil that decent people would seek to make a very human connection. Then, after two weeks it was like someone flipped a switch and plunged us all into darkness.

When going out with friends, I started to hear them describe in frighteningly gleeful tones how many Afghan civilians had been reported killed by American bombs. This rendered the United States every bit as criminal as the Taliban or al-Qaeda in their eyes. The bombings, according to my hosts, were driving the Afghans closer to Bin Laden, and anyways the US was only there to drill for oil or to build that still famously absent pipeline across Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

It was a quick descent into what I normally describe to friends in the States as the acid bath of petty hatred, an environment which characterized much of the next three years I spent in Sweden. It took me almost a year to realize what I had stumbled into. Below the the innocent and friendly surface of 1990s Europe lurked a cultural reservoir of Vietnam-era memes. A perspective that many Western Europeans born after World War II use to define the US as the opposite of their own societies in all things.

Needless to say, it was not a healthy environment for young love.

Ten years on now, and it feels like a lot of history has flowed by under the bridge that is life. One of the wars that came about in 9/11's aftermath is quickly winding down, the other looks like to do so as well, though if it's for good or for ill it's far too early to say. Personally, I have deep worries about leaving Afghanistan during this stage of the conflict.

Here at home, the prospects for the immediate future look bleak given the damage done to our economy and the number of unwise structural changes that we made to it over the past twelve years. Still, it does feel like the chapter of life most directly influenced by the events of September 11th is drawing to a close, as other historic forces take center stage. We are no longer dealing with the event that ended the Post-Cold War period, but rather cascading secondary effects that have taken on lives of their own. And there is the continuation of other forces, like the emergence of China as a global power.

Part of what gives me this sense of closing up one stage and even a feeling of hope for the next are the photos of the new World Trade Center buildings going up in New York. They look gorgeous, the business plan behind them seems practical, and the memorial for the fallen is the kind of tranquil public space for remembrance that memorials should be.

All of this, this design that integrates so many elements, came out of a process that was divisive and contentious.

While the past decade split the country and produced divisions on a scale we haven't seen since the late 1800s, there is still hope that we may be able to similarly salvage some good from it. I've spent much of the past past few weeks working on a project about the American Declaration of Independence for a client. It's involved a lot of reading about Continental Congress where that Declaration was written, as well as the constitutional convention that followed over a decade later. Both provoked fierce arguments and left wounded feelings at the time, but both undertakings also produced documents that despite their flaws have provided us with a wealth of good over a span measured in centuries.

So here's hoping the new towers are similarly successful, and that in the coming decade we can reclaim unity from division and reinvention from destruction.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Love letters

Historians spend a lot of time reading through dry and humorless documents. Many of the most reliable sources we have available to us to reconstruct the past do not make for light reading. Tax records, the tedious minutes of long, boring meetings, accounting files, journal entries written by influential people obsessed with recording the the minutia of the weather or plant life rather than the major historic events that they were enmeshed in, and so on.

But there are most definitely times when the opposite holds true, and we find ourselves with a wealth of material that takes us into the hearts and emotions of people lived long before us but loved in much the same way we do. In US history the collected letters of John and Abigail Adams (the second president and second first lady who were deeply involved in American Revolution and subsequent events) are one of the most valuable and pleasurable bodies of primary source documents to read through.

Forty years of abiding affection, insights, wry commentary, teasing, references to classical culture, art, philosophy, and religion, as well as much talk about the leading figures and the events of the day.

By way of example, John writing to Abigail not long before their wedding:

Oh, my dear girl, I thank heaven that another fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and my body have both been thrown into disorder by your absence, and a month or two more would make me the most insufferable cynic in the world. I see nothing but faults, follies, frailties, and defects in anybody lately. People have lost all their good properties or I my justice or discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my heart,shall restore my benevolence as well as my health and tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of life and manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured particles in my composition, and form me to that happy temper that can reconcile a quick discernment with a perfect candor.

Believe me, now and ever 

your faithful Lysander

BBC News - Japan six months after tsunami

An excellent narrated photo essay on a tsunami-devastated farming community on Japan's northeast cast, and the struggle of the people there to rebuild their community as well as its way of life. Wonderfully well done.

BBC News - Japan six months after tsunami

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Post-911 Soldier | Kit Up!

An interesting look at the Post-9/11 evolution of the infantryman's loadout over at

The Post-911 Soldier | Kit Up!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A monkey named Schadenfreude

In hindsight, I wish that I had named a monkey Schadenfreude. The various species of monkeys and varieties of rhesus have a spectrum of personalities much as humans do, and there were a few for whom Schadenfreude would have been a perfect fit.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BBC News - Magnetic mysteries of Earth's Core

Crystals that are kilometers in length! Nested realms of elemental purity. Epochal storms of world-altering consequence!

Who needs fantasy! The extremes of physics generate environments and material behaviors bizarre enough to rival any system of fantastical magic or metaphysics.

BBC News - Magnetic mysteries of Earth's Core

Yeah, yeah. I know. Fantasy is fun because you can apply the fantastic and sublimely bizarre to the human world. And that certainly works better for storytelling purposes than applying the kind of heat and pressure to people that generate the wonderfully odd realms that exist beneath our feet.

So maybe it's not so odd that science articles like this always leave me wanting to write fantasy that draws on the fantastic behaviors and strange realms that science articles and journals describe.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tim Powers via Cory Doctorow off William Gibson's twitter feed

‎"Literature is hostile to ideology. It doesn't have answers, but gives rise to inadvertent questions"

~Tim Powers

I love that statement. I've loved it ever since I first heard Mr. Powers utter it at the Writers of the Future 26 workshop in LA a year ago.

Photo courtesy of Author Services 

I love it despite the fact that it's probably more an ideal than a reality.

Obviously people do and have used literature to advance ideological agendas for several hundred years now, and the same is definitely true today. Even a fast glance at current day literature quickly reveals that "literature" itself has become a genre that for better or worse is dominated by the left. One in which sub-par individuals struggle and fail, and then fail again, and end the book in an enhanced state of despair.

The same polarization is true in much of genre fiction, with science fiction has slid sharply to the left since the early 1990s.

I suspect that the present marriage of literature and ideology is one of the ultimate factors that has helped drive a wedge between literature and the general public. At a time when reading already faces stiff competition from a variety of stimulating alternatives like the internet, picking up a novel is like being clubbed over the head with the big stick of humorless indoctrination. Much of science fiction these days oozes progressivism to the point of that I often feel that I'm drowning in cynicism and self-analyzing irony and post-colonialist anti-imperialism.

The remaining fraction of science fiction--for me--has becoming increasingly militarist and intolerant over the past decade. It often seems as though there is precious little literary space left over for the moderate majority who value science, empiricism, and issues that transcend the limited scope of ideologies.

No wonder the largely ideology-free genres of fantasy and young adult speculative fiction have continued to grow and thrive even as science fiction has seen its sales stagnate. Though that is likely to change as more and more established writers make the switch to young adult in order to cash in on its popularity.

Ideology will likely choke off YA just as it's helped to smother science fiction.

Aside from its soul-killing lack of humor and warm human passions, the short-lived appeal of ideologically driven writing can block a book from becoming a classic. Oh, it might be called a classic by like-minded critics or members of an establishment invested in the same side of the ideological spectrum, but it will not be a great story that ordinary readers pull off the shelf again and again to reread.

Go back and look the famous books associated with the ideological movements of the 20th century from social realism to left-leaning post modernism. You may find that a surprising amount of the 'great novels' and the politics they advocate feel very dated and rather silly. And they are rarely ever read by anyone aside from lit majors enrolled in university courses.

My favorite example of ideological silliness is from a few years back when I came across a series of 1950s right-wing tracts and novels in a used bookstore. These works painted a picture of the US Army of the time as dominated by the Soviet Union, and its generals and colonels being fully prepared to aid in launching a communist coupe in the United States.

Yes, for real. Apparently nearly two decades of working for the FDR and Truman administrations was enough to make the military suspect in the eyes of a segment of the American right.

Prior to that, my favorite example of dated ideological zaniness in writing was a set of papers, plays, and novel excerpts from a college class that looked at the 1960s. In that collection, several authors during the period railed against the impending execution of a plan to transport millions of black Americans and leftist dissidents to concentration camps that were even then being built in the countryside.


Future generations will think much the same of our present day, politically polarized novels and written political works.

Ideologies are at best black-and-white photos of a complex, colorful and evolving world. They may be useful in generating a common understanding withing a disparate collection of human beings and to instill the motivation necessary to act as a group, but they carry a heavy, heavy cost in simplification and erroneous suppositions.

It's often amazing to look back in time through the printed word and see the glaring failures of reasoning and the appallingly bad predictions that tens of millions of human beings embraced as truths because of an acceptance of ideologies. Especially when looking at the horrific consequences of totalitarian ideology on the fascist right and the communist left.

We should question our ideologies. We should question them often, be they left wing or right.

Looking back over the last century as both a historian and a reader, it's  clear that far more often than not writers do not have the answers the world needs. The solutions to the major dilemmas of history since the industrial revolution have arisen as a matrix of competing forces from activists, soldiers, statesmen, scientists, and engineers. Our present day world simply does not appear in works of literature from past decades. Even in science fiction we've come up amazingly short on predicting the shape of our current reality and technology base. As a profession and even much more broadly as a species we writers and humans lack the faculties needed to track trends more than a couple of years into the future.

But what we can do is ask those "inadvertent questions" that Tim pointed out.  If we can't deliver an accurate model of tomorrow, we can at least look at the trends and issues of today and say "what if?" to our readers through our characters and the plot dilemmas they face. We can take timeless human problems and try to show them in the new context of the near future, even if we dress up the setting as a far future. We can also attempt to depict worlds with competing ideals and ideologies that have strengths and weaknesses.

If we can not do a good job of telling people what to think, we can at least get them to start thinking and maybe even provoke them into building a better tomorrow through our what-if-ing. We can ask questions that will help inspire today's and tomorrow's activists, soldiers, engineers, scientists, and statesmen.

Literature that provokes people to answer such questions cannot be friendly to any ideology that explains the world in simple terms. Literature that is hostile to ideology is empirical in nature or at least Socratic on a level accessible to its readers.

Maybe Tim's quote ought to read "Literature should be hostile to ideology." Maybe it's an ideal to aspire to. An urgent ideal in this myopic, polarized age of ours.

Looking over my collection of books from the past thirty years, my favorites are the ones in which the characters and the choices they make do not fit neatly into dogmatic categories. These are books that continue to be good reads years after their publication precisely because they are hostile to ideology. They refuse to embrace any creed of the ideal. Instead they show people armed with flawed memes and incomplete bodies of concepts doing their best to make their way through one crisis point after another in an imperfect world.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The dancer and the artist at the end of the age of beauty, on the edge of the age of war

An interesting article via Arts and Letters Daily about the dancer Jane Arvil (Jeanne Richepin) and the painter Toulouse-Lautrec at Moulin Rouge during the close of the late 1800s. It captures the roles of two visual artists in depicting the stresses of a historic transition point -- a time when the tensions of the Industrial Age began to boil over into armed conflict. A time when social mores rooted in rural agricultural traditions and the restraints of poverty were corroding in an urban environment with a rising middle class and elites interested in the stimulation of the exotic, the disturbing, and the complexities of stylization over realistic representation.

Being a visual species with highly developed visual cortices in our brains, much of our historical development often ends up captured in images or expressive motion.

Public domain photo via Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Building a continent

So, the East Coast shook today, from the Carolinas to Boston and all the way up into Canada. For someone like me who grew up in the American West, that's quite an impressive and worrying reach for an earthquake to display.

Typically, quakes on this side of the Rockies rarely spread destructive effects more than a few dozen miles away from the epicenter. A fact that reflects the composite, fused-together nature of the American West.

USGS image via Wikipedia

Believe it or not, about a-third of our continent is a fairly recent assemblage -- a jammed together, welded collection of ancient arcs of volcanic island chains, micro-continents, long-dead mid-ocean mountain ranges, and uplifted sea floors. All of these swept up and fused by the westward drift of North America and the halted suduction process of shards of oceanic plates.

The heart of our continent is a vastly old shield of thick basement rock -- sometimes referred to as Laurentia -- that roughly stretches from Greenland to Texas and from Eastern Nevada to the eastern slopes of the Appalachians. Overlaying it are patches of accreted sedimentry rock and layers of sediment

Aside from its stressed and distorted border regions, this stone cap is for the most part continuous. Hence the far reach of earthquakes inside this geologic province, with few West-Coast-type faults to redistribute the energy among.

Which is not to say that the area is completely free of major earthquake-producing faults.

USGS image via Wikipedia

Around 750 million years ago, tectonic strain wounded Laurentia as the forces involved in the breakup of the Rodinia supercontinent tore at the North American cranton.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone

USGS image via Wikipedia

The resulting rift has been the source of a truly far-reaching and powerful (7.0 to 8.1) chain of historic earthquakes. Earthquakes strong enough to damage buildings in Washington, DC and ring church bells in New England. That, and to generate destructive waves on the Mississippi large enough to leave some witnesses with the impression that the river had reversed course for a brief period of time.

Along with those historically documented quakes are prehistoric seismic events that have left plenty of geological evidence throughout the region. These signs  hint at eventual events that will impact as us as society here in the US, and perhaps leave a lasting impression in our culture at some future date.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The daily volcano cam

One of the first things I check when on the net in the mornings. Just 'cause, you know, the mountain could have moved closer to the city over night.

USGS image, public domain 

Well, truth be told it's more for the sense of infinite that comes from looking at mountains in the early morning. That and a reminder that there are forces and priorities that dwarf and will outlast the concerns, conflicts, and petty worries of day-to-day life.

One of those small concerns that has been worrying at me is a sense of disappointment from not being able to attend Worldcon in Reno this year. I'd really been looking forward to attending the premier convention for genre writers in my hometown for some time. Alas, trying to make a freelance living in an economy where college graduates are enduring a level of unemployment on par with that of the Great Depression did not allow for it.

What really sucks is seeing picture of my hometown posted on blogs by my neo-pro peers as well as by established writers in the genre whom I've met. I was looking forward to seeing many of them again for the first time in a year, and I was certainly looking forward to hanging out with the Portland contingent.

That said, this is definitely one of those disappointments that falls under the heading of petty sorrows that fall by the wayside when looking at the mountains. It's also a petty concern when looking at the plight of other graduates who either haven't had any kind of an income since 2007 or are stuck working part time minimum wage jobs with heavy student loans hanging over their heads. Going to school on the GI Bill allowed me avoid accumulating any significant debts, which was no small trick in a time in which we have shifted the burden of financing higher education from the states to students and their parents.

It's also small because I do have work. I'm slowly accumulating clients and creeping back up towards being able to pay the monthly bills. And I'm doing so through writing, which is a reward in and of itself.

Speaking of, I really should be doing paid work that I have qued up for today rather than blogging...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bizarre videos

Sadly, because of the many demands of post-graduation survival in the current economy, spending time on the internet reading interesting articles and hunting for good music and bizarre videos has taken a hit. Especially since it's a challenge just to get in good writing time. Still, there are moments here and there in which I still manage to stumble across entertaining bits of strangeness.

Strangeness like feudal Japanese rap videos.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

This'd make a completely kick ass science fiction sound track

You might be able to tell from the state of this lonely blog that I've been on a writing binge this summer. A lot of hours immersed in SF and techno thriller territory. At the same time I've been spending a lot of time parked in front of the computer doing freelance business writing work on commission. So, it's been productive couple of months, thought not much of a summer in any traditional sense. But such are the necessities of survival in the Great Depression II.

At any rate, aside from caffeine, I use music as a stimulus to maintain my focus and motivation during long stints behind the keyboard. The above track has been one of the summer's best songs for me, so I thought I'd share it. That and like the title says, it would make for an awesome addition to a soundtrack for a slick genre film.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ah ebook formatting

Sigh. We authors should be transform doc files into digital book files the wave of a hand.

Yeah. Like anything is ever that simple.

The past twenty-four hours have felt like I've spent it beating my head against the brick wall of file conversion. This is still very much a field of cobbled together hacks, lesser-of-two-evil choices, and arcane html tricks that are furtively bartered among practitioners like spells of black magic between bloody-handed necromancers.

And it's all served up on a steep learning curve for non-coders.

That said, it's also kind of fun in a puzzle-solving / research kind of way. Like any other software issue there is a lot of time spent trawling message boards looking for solutions and comments, as well as half-baked guesses, moments of intuition, and rigorous experimenting designed to isolate variables.

I haven't had this much fun applying rules of thumb and coming up with alternative lines of problem-solving investigation since I was a shade tree mechanic working on my first car, a 1967 Ford Mustang.

The skinned knuckles and grease under the nails are always worth the gnoetic "ah ha!" moment of hitting on a promising idea and the exultation of success when it actually works.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


“Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations.”

~Ronald Regan

When I was child during the 1980s, many of the science fiction novels that I enjoyed were premised on a catastrophe sometime in the decades around the year 2000 destroying or radically changing society as we knew it. It was pretty much an accepted trope or genre convention at the time, one that William Gibson helped to break with in Neuromancer.

I am often struck by the sensation of "we are living in the future" when I think back to the speculative fiction novels of my childhood. Sometimes because the future is much more futuristic that we could have foreseen. Sometimes because aspects of our our present reality match those foreseen or or guessed at by authors who lived and wrote decades ago.

It would be a shame though, if the catastrophe trope actually came to pass. While I enjoyed the thought of society rising from its ruins or a setback with a clean slate, of a culture or a nation being reborn in a more rationalized form, the evolutionary approach to change is much kinder, and in my view, realistic. The accumulation of gradual innovations resulting in a moment of profound developmental change more often than not leaves a lasting legacy of goodness. Catastrophe on the other hand--what ever its opportunities--often results in as much scaring as improvement. Those scars are frequently a burden left for following generations to unravel.

Mt Hood photos

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Photos of a sunset in the Columbia Gorge country

Bizarre videos and the ever-evolving Republic of Korea

It's been fourteen years now since my twelve months in the ROK, and it's fascinating to watch that country change bit by bit each year via the internet. Especially when something like this video comes along.

I won't say that a girl could have been stoned to death then for wearing a short skirt or shorts like in this video, but the repercussions would have been ugly. When I was there in 1997, the sexual revolution was only just kicking off.

How do I know this? More than one younger Korean in his or her early twenties used exactly that turn--"sexual revolution"--to describe what was happening in their country. They quite consciously evaluated those event in comparison with the sexual revolution of the 1960s that had played out in the West.

At any rate, a young woman showing as much flesh as these ladies would have been in for a whole lot of public scorn back then. That and if their families did not cut them off, they would have still had a difficult time finding anyone to marry them.

Or maybe not. Individual allowances must always be made of course, and changes were already underway then.

It's also amazing for me how much more media- and culture-centered South Korea is now. Back in '97 it was still very much a place where things were made. It was a country focused much more on industry and farming. However, South Korea very deliberately set out to catch the IT wave of the 1990s as well as create a world-class entertainment sector.

The story--as I understand--was that the president of the ROK was floored after watching Jurassic Park back in 1994. He asked a minister how much the film grossed, and upon hearing the figure, promptly ordered the creation of a Hollywood style film industry.

I wonder what it's like these days be a young American visiting the Land of the Morning Calm. It must be entirely different with the threat of imminent war gone and the people of South Korea experimenting with the possibilities and pitfalls that an economy of affluence offers rather than struggling to make a living in a rough industrial economy.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Fourth!

I seem to be on blog hiatus this summer. Mostly due to the push to put a package of a short story, novella, and novel up on Amazon and other digital publication sites. That and simultaneously launching a career as a freelance writer for hire. Regular updates with original written articles should resume next month.

In the meanwhile, happy 4th!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A changing world

The first gray whale in the Atlantic since that species was hunted to extinction there. One more sign of changes to come as the Arctic begins to spend its summers almost entirely free of ice.

Whale's odyssey sheds light on climate change - World news - World environment -

Friday, June 24, 2011

A house of living rooms

Fellows Writers of the Future 26er Laurie Tom has put her Grand Prize-winning novelette Living Rooms up on Amazon as a $0.99 ebook. It's a story of magicians and rooms with a life of their own, in which a woman fights to make a house a home on an emotional and metaphysical level while fending off her father's murderous rival. Buy it and see why a panel of famous science fiction authors including Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Mike Resnick made this their unanimous pick for the Golden Quill.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Back from the country...

That and working hard on completing the post-apocalyptic Yellowstone techno thriller novella. I'm planning on doing a series of interesting supporting articles that will discuss topics like the whys and hows of supervolcanoes, as well as biotechnology and specific neurobiological aspects of augmenting human intelligence once I've released the ebook versions of "Lisa with Child" later this summer in.

In the meanwhile, recent photos of the Gorge:

Also in the meanwhile, the Mountain Goats will be playing a small club a few blocks down the street from where I live. I need to figure out how to get some cash to see that show :)