Monday, January 20, 2020

Our Strange Visual Universe

    Last post, we thought about what a sound really is, requiring both a pressure transmitting source and a receiving ear assembly to satisfy the definition. Hearing is akin to reading, which requires both a written page and a person who can interpret those marks on the page. Writer and reader are inseparable, and each must trust the other in that symbiosis. Created scenes do not take place on the page but only in the imaginations of the partners. The page merely serves as a transmitter and preserver.

    Now let’s think about what sight really is and how it applies to our writing.

    We know from high school science there is a broad electromagnetic spectrum that includes a generous range of transmitted and reflected frequencies. We make extensive daily use of this phenomenon. From lowest frequencies to highest, there are radio waves (including TV, microwave, and radar), infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays. Sandwiched between infrared and ultraviolet there is a relatively narrow frequency band we call visible light. Within that band our retinas can receive frequency waves and our optic nerves can transmit them as electrochemical messages to our astonishing brains, which can instantly differentiate and interpret them as all the millions of things we “see” around us.

    It’s a wondrous evolved skill, although it exists not in surrounding nature at all but always and only within our brains and in the brains of many other species as well to varying degree. Eagles can see far better and farther than any human so they can spot prey from altitude. Bees can see in ultraviolet so they can find the flowers that make the best honey. Some creatures, including bats, hamsters, raccoons, and whales, can only see in shades of black and white because that’s all they need to survive and thrive.

     There is no color in the Universe. None at all. There are only different frequencies. A rainbow can always and only happen within our minds.

    If we could “see” the Universe as it really is, it would be a bewildering chaos of multiple transmitted and reflected electromagnetic frequencies. All the frequencies. We’d see the colors and things we normally do. But we’d also see cell towers and our smart phones bristling with waves. Transmissions beaming at lightspeed to and from passing jetliners. Radar waves bouncing off our vehicles and returning to highway patrol cars. Infrared waves emanating from vehicles and all the people around us and the dogs we’re walking. Gamma rays zooming in from far-off galaxies. Ultraviolet rays streaming from our own private star and attacking our exposed flesh. TV waves filling the air and being soaked up here and there by our rooftop antennas. Flowers in many more hues than we ever thought possible. It would be bizarre in the extreme. But it would be what’s really going on at this moment all around us—and even through our building walls and us.

    But thankfully, miraculously, evolution has endowed us with this brain skill we call sight. The ability to interpret just a skinny band of frequencies as colors and myriad shadings and shapes. We even have two eyes to provide critical three-dimensional sight so we can judge how far away things are, although an alien creature might never realize this from observing the daily mayhem on our highways.

    The scenes we writers create in our stories are largely visual, although we can and should also call on our other four senses to enhance realism.

    The more we visually study the world around us, the more we will perceive in it, and thus the more original and powerful our imagined scenes will become in the imaginations of our readers.

    As a delightful secondary benefit, we ourselves will increasingly experience the wonderful world of human-selected frequencies around us as never before.


Monday, January 13, 2020

The Impossible Question

    Surely, you’ve heard someone ask, “If a tree falls in the woods with nobody around, does it make a sound?”

    It’s an impossible question. One we’re not even allowed by logic to ask.

    Here’s why:

    If a tree falls in the woods, the impact it makes with the ground generates a pressure wave in the atmosphere, which—not unlike a ripple on the surface of a pond caused by a dropped pebble—expands in all directions at a speed of 767 mph. As it spreads it loses intensity until it eventually dissipates altogether. This happens whether anybody is around or not.

    If somebody does happen to be nearby, the pressure wave impinges on their eardrums and an impulse is transmitted through the inner ear connection to the brain, which has the ability not only to differentiate between thousands of other such impulses, but also, because of input from two spaced eardrums, determine the direction of the impulse origin and whether it is in motion or not. The variety of pressure waves we can instantly detect and analyze is amazing, everything from a passing ambulance siren to a country brook to complex music to a whispered endearment.

    In other words, and by definition, for a sound to occur, both a pressure generating source and a human receiver are necessary. One cannot exist without the other within this definition, and what we perceive as a sound takes place not in the woods or anywhere else in the world but rather always and only in our interpretive brains.

    The impossible sound-in-the-forest question is akin to asking, “If you leave an open book on a table in an empty room, is any reading going on?” Reading requires both a written or printed page and a viewer with the learned ability embedded in the brain to interpret those marks on the page. One cannot exist without the other within the definition of reading. Both page and viewer are required.

    And therein lies a crucial tip for us writers. We should always have our readers in mind and work considering their imaginations as well as using our own to its maximum potential in creating engaging stories. Neither readers nor writers can exist outside this necessary partnership.

    Next post we’ll think about another such symbiotic relationship as it applies to writing and reading.

p.s. Check out the recent interview author/editor Jaden Terrell kindly did on her CrimeReaders site:

Monday, January 6, 2020

The changing months

    Looking ahead to this new year, I began thinking about the months and how different each is. All their names were derived from early Roman culture.

    January was named for the two-faced god Janus, who could look into the past and the future simultaneously. February came from the Latin februa (to cleanse). The Februlia festival of purification and atonement lasted all month. March was devoted to the war god Mars. A time for renewing military campaigns that had been suspended over the winter. April came from the Latin aperio (to open or bud) for the plants coming alive again. May was named after the goddess Maia, in charge of plant growth. June was the Roman goddess Juno’s month. Her duties included sanctioning marriages and looking after women’s welfare. July honored dictator Julius Caesar, who with a little help developed the whole Julian calendar, which became the Gregorian calendar we still use. August was emperor Augustus Caesar’s turn for glory. September was from the Latin septem (seven), for the seventh month of the early Roman calendar. Likewise October, November, and December were simply named for their calendar order of eight, nine, and ten (octo, novem, and decem).

    All this worked fine throughout the Roman Empire and eventually in the whole northern hemisphere, but did not exactly fit the southern hemisphere, where they’re wintering while we’re summering, and while we’re budding they’re beginning to bundle up. But the whole world settled on the Roman system, nevertheless.

    It would be nice if we could agree on a few other things as well, since we’re all hitching a ride on this same big ball together.


Don't forget Killing Ground is out in e-book and print on Amazon. It's being well received. More info on my website:

Monday, December 30, 2019

A new decade dawns

    The first of January marks the beginning of not only a new year but also of a new decade, the two thousand and twenties. It’s a month named for the Roman God Janus, protector of portals, who had two faces, one looking into the past, the other into the unknowable future.

    It’s a time for renewals and resolutions and the making of fresh bright plans. Like Janus, the pundits are recounting, lamenting, and celebrating happenings of the old year and predicting what’s to come. Some will get a few things right. Many will not. There will be pleasant surprises and satisfactions ahead and severe disappointments and sad tragedies both natural and human-caused.

    Because this ought not to be a time of cynicism, I’m making my own hopeful predictions for what will happen reasonably soon:

    Federal legislators will address the epidemic of distracted driving mayhem, passing effective laws that stop cell phoning while driving, thus saving some 5,000 American lives annually and avoiding thousands more highway injuries. Technically, this will be accomplished by using the built-in GPS chips to disable phone use while moving more than 20 miles per hour. People will realize the wisdom of this and simply pull over to make or receive important calls and will just put off all those unnecessary inane ones, none of which are worth dying for.

    Blind partisan adherence to one entrenched camp or the other regarding issues like abortion and global warming and immigration and health care will fall away in favor of unarguable truths based on hard provable facts, and the American populace will come together in search of real solutions.

    World leaders will at long last realize the folly, horrendous expense, and needless tragic deaths and suffering caused by distrust, religious division, historical differences, and out-of-control militarism, and our planet will begin to know real peace in which human imagination, compassion, and understanding will flourish.

    We will save our young people from lives of ignorance and drug use and crime and despair.

    We will unite to halt the decline and ongoing extinctions of wild creatures for which, like us, Earth is their only home in the vastness of the Universe.

    We will solve all these problems and issues and more because we know there are ways to address or prevent almost any challenge we face, as we’ve proven to ourselves so many times in our long successful evolution.

    Each of us will resolve to do and be better and contribute what we can to our species, thus inevitably reaping a windfall of incidental benefits ourselves.

    I wish you a happy New Year and New Decade.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Seasonal memories

   I grew up in the Berkshires village of Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where spring is fragrant and verdant as the ground thaws, summer is balmy, fall is spectacular with the trees putting on their brief annual display, and winter is harsh but also filled with a cold beauty. I remember snowfalls haloing the streetlights and covering the countryside in softness and stillness. Sometimes a freezing rain would crust the snow thick enough to cautiously walk on and speed our improvised cardboard sliders down hillsides.
   My father was a deacon in the golden-domed Congregational Church that still dominates the village center, and my mother taught Sunday school to the kids there, often using a changeable felt board with homemade multicolored cutouts for illustrations. Mom baked for the Wednesday evening church suppers that were some of the finest meals I’ve ever had, because all the women brought only their best recipes for casseroles and salads and meatloaf and cakes and pies. After each convivial feast there would be entertainment—a world-traveling adventurer presenting a 35mm slide show of exotic places, or a magician, or a black-and-white comedy movie.

   When we knew there was going to be a full moon to bathe the brilliant snow and make the blue night clear as twilight, we’d spend a Saturday afternoon shoveling off a frozen pond deep in the woodswhich bore here and there the tracks of woodland creaturesclearing a place up on a bank amid the laden evergreens, and setting a bonfire with downed wood gathered from the surrounding forest. That night we’d hike through the snow back to the pond, light the fire, and skate as the moon and stars swung overhead, taking breaks to drink hot cocoa from thermoses. We’d drizzle maple syrup onto the snow to turn it into a chewy candy that fueled us with carbs against the chill.

   As Christmas drew near, volunteers would go out to village home yards and sing carols, their breath pluming the night air. Church members would drape the sanctuary balcony with garlands of aromatic balsam. On Christmas eve we’d attend the candlelight service and sing the old carols. On Christmas morning Mom would insist we attend services before returning home to share the tree and then enjoy her special dinner.

   I hope you, too, have good memories of seasonal holidays past, and I wish you memory-making celebrations as 2019 draws to a close.

   Have an exciting and rewarding New Year. Please join me here on occasion for more thoughts on life and writing.


Monday, December 16, 2019

Good Grief America

Naomi and I were watching "Good Morning America" the other day when one of the multi-million-dollar talking heads said in all his studied sincerity, "The teenage pilot was flying this ultralight above a lake when one of its propellers stopped moving." The screen was clearly showing the single-engine ultralight in flight. This is equivalent to reporting that "the accident happened as the driver was travelling on the Interstate and one of his steering wheels stopped moving." I'm glad that in my piloting years none of the propellers on my single-engine Cessna ever once mysteriously stopped moving. 

Our schools for some sad years now have been failing to educate the mass of people on even the simplest levels in an attempt to never leave even the slowest student behind, embracing brilliant ideas such as open book testing and question-by-question pre-coaching so a high majority will pass achievement exams and the schools will thus look competent. Consequences of this trend have recently surfaced in the news as arrogant, affluent parents have been caught bribing officials to wedge their over-privileged, under-educated, and lazy offspring into prestigious colleges. 

So I guess we should not be surprised to be burdened with a couple generations of idiots in even high well-paid places.


Monday, December 9, 2019

Kitty O’Neil

     In 1976, on pure speculation and little cash, I drove a tin-can Fiat from North Carolina to Bonneville, Utah, to cover attempts on the Word Land Speed Record in a hydrogen peroxide powered three-wheeled rocket vehicle on the vast salt flats, one for the men’s record, the other for the women’s. The drivers were Hollywood stunt man Hal Needham and beautiful part-Cherokee stunt woman Kitty O’Neil, who had been deaf since stricken by three childhood diseases at once. Kitty had already been an Olympic diver, had become the first woman member of Stunts Unlimited, providing stunts on demand to film makers, and had raced motorcycles in the grueling Baja 500. At only five feet two inches and 100 pounds she was small but nonetheless impressive with an infectious radiant smile. I interviewed and photographed her and sold my article to The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest reprinted it.

     Kitty battered down many barriers, overcoming cancer and meningitis. Consider her deafness alone; imagine never hearing another human voice, or music, or a breeze teasing through pine trees, or a rain shower, or a competitor’s racing motorcycle coming up on her from behind, or even her own voice. To converse she read lips and spoke in a monotone.

     She performed many daunting stunts, including a record 180-foot fall from a helicopter. Dressed as Wonder Woman, she leaped in a swan diver’s pose from the top of the Valley Hilton Hotel in Sherman Oaks, California, onto an air bag 127 feet below, the bag looking like a postage stamp from that height. She did stunts in Airport 77, The Blues Brothers, The Bionic Woman, and Smokey and the Bandit. She set 22 speed records on land and water, including water skiing at 104.85 mph, the water like concrete at that velocity. She drove the rocket car on dry lake Alvord in Oregon at an average two-way speed of 512.71 mph, hitting at one point 621 mph. No woman before or since has gone faster. Mattel put out an action figure of her and actress Stockard Channing played her in a movie called Silent Victory.

     She died at 72 of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota, in late 2018. I was privileged to have met her.

     It is no coincidence that the independent, beautiful, part-Cherokee, motorcycle-riding love interest in my suspense novel series is named Kitty.