Monday, July 27, 2015

SETI support

     There was an article in the Charlotte Observer  about a controversy concerning the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  Should we keep on just passively listening to the universe for some signal from another intelligent life form, or should we actively beam our own signals hoping to get somebody’s attention out there?  Do we seek wisdom from those more advanced?  Do we risk alerting the vicious Klingons to our presence?  The debate is lively.

     Are we alone in the universe?   is certainly among the Top Ten Ultimate Questions.  Many think we cannot possibly be alone, based on sheer overwhelming statistical probability, and given the obvious universal similarities of the solar system formation processes, which inevitably create uncountable systems much like our own, wheeling around other stars.

     But what good would incoming radio signals have been to us over well more than 99 percent of humankind’s radio-receiver-less history on this planet?  Incoming messages would have also gone utterly unnoticed over the millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the earth before us.  So any of our signals that happen to reach other planets inhabited by similar primitive creatures will also go unnoticed.

     To either listen or transmit with any practicality, we’ll have to target planets that lie within reasonable reach of radio waves, which travel at light speed.  The vast majority of stars   are thousands, millions, and billions of light years distant. (A single light year is six trillion miles.)  Our earth will be long gone, or at least long-since uninhabitable by the time any signals we send can even reach most of those stars.  Our sun only has a life expectancy of some four billion more years, so systems lying any more than half that distance away (two billion light years) have no chance of receiving our signals and responding in time for anybody left on earth to hear them.  And our signals must reach an alien civilization at a moment in their likely equally lengthy history when they’ve developed the ability to not only receive but also to interpret those signals.  The odds are long.

     But the unarguable, dead-certain fact remains that if we don’t find a young habitable planet circling a young star that we can reach one day, even if each colonizing voyage spans generations*, then everything we’ve worked and suffered to achieve, all our myriad accomplishments—our books and paintings and philosophies and inventions and self-knowledge—will be utterly lost to the rest of the inhabited universe.  In that case it will be highly probable nobody out there will ever know we even existed.

     Viewed in that light, what more important effort could there be to help ensure the far future of mankind than a vigorous fledgling space program in all its aspects, including SETI?

     As writers, we can speak for and encourage that effort.

     Many decry the cost of venturing into space.

     I submit that the cost is a pittance compared with what we spend—and what we waste—in so many other areas.  The news recently mentioned, sort of in passing, that the Pentagon in its ponderous wisdom has apparently misplaced a half-billion dollars in advanced weaponry in, of all places, Yemen, that hotbed of terrorism.  To put that in perspective, a half-billion dollars in $100 bills would weigh five tons, a pretty good load for a common dump truck, but only another line item in the massive Federal budget.

     If we can afford that kind of cavalier (not to mention dangerous) waste, surly we can afford to fund a program that at least has the glimmer of a chance to elevate and perhaps even to ultimately perpetuate our species.

     But wait, even as I write this, there’s good news that the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has just donated $100 million to UC Berkeley to fund SETI for a decade, broadening the search over much more of the sky and over a wider swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, looking for life among the closest stars to us under a new breakthrough initiative that will be open to the public.  Any of us will be able to track the data via a screen saver called SETI@home.  SETI has more than six million followers already.

     Some ten percent of the suns in our own Milky Way galaxy are now thought to have earth-like planets, of similar size to our sphere and in an orbit where water is liquid, so the odds of finding other life out there are looking better than ever before.

     Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking was on hand to take part in the generous funding announcement.  He said of the revitalized search, “We are life.  We are intelligent.  We must know.”


*I saw an excellent IMAX documentary about the almost impossibly long and dangerous annual migratory journey of the fragile monarch butterfly, which spans thousands of miles and three of their butterfly generations.  Maybe we’ll take a lesson from this tiny creature when we finally launch some courageous pioneers to the stars.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Handwriting implements

     Believe it or not, a guy named Brad Dowdy runs a popular podcast called The Pen Addict, which is all about pens.

     How, you ask, can there possibly be enough about pedestrian pens to plump out a podcast?

     Apparently there’s a great deal.

     For much of my long and rocky early writing career, I wrote rough drafts longhand using yellow Number 2 Ticonderoga pencils on yellow lined legal pads.  You could tell how stressful the writing was by how many indents I bit into the pencils.  As time went on I took magazine-article field notes on small shirt-pocket spiral flip pads and wrote more frequently with un-bitable ballpoints, but all too often the ballpoints leaked, skipped, or simply quit altogether, usually when I needed them most.  Computer composing has only been a fairly recently-learned skill for me.  And today I still have probably a hundred pens in all categories from useless to quite good.  I do treasure those good ones, at least when I haven’t misplaced them, which seems to be always.

     According to podcaster Dowdy there are basically three kinds of regular pens.  There’s the ubiquitous cheap oil-based ballpoint, the smoother liquid-based rollerball, and the smoother-still gel pen, which uses rich pigment in a gel suspension.  The popular Pilot G2 is a gel model that Dowdy sanctions.

     Dowdy also says everybody should own a relatively inexpensive yet good quality and readily available Uni-ball Jetstream, which delivers smooth, clean, smudge-free writing.  I imagine this would be a perfect model for those lefties who, because of their hand position, can’t help rubbing the heel of their hand over what they’ve just jotted.

     For signing checks and legal documents, Dowdy prefers a fountain pen, and one of his favorites is the Japanese Sakura Pigma Micron, available in hobby stores.  He also likes the Taiwanese TWSBI fountain pens.

     Governmental signing ceremonies carried over from the Royal Monarchs in England.  It has become something of a tradition for U.S. Presidents to sign legislation using multiple expensive pens, often engraved, as presents to important supporters.  JFK would sometimes sign each letter of his name with a different ceremonial gift pen.  LBJ used 75 such pens to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  George W. Bush used only one A.T. Cross pen at all ceremonies, but still gave out unused gift pens.  President Obama used 22 Cross pens to sign the $938 billion health care bill.  If you want to buy one similar to what the Chief used, that would be a Townsend model, for about $150 plus engraving.

     For those like me who miss those pencils from back when they used to have actual erasers on their other ends (today’s pencil erasers are little more than smudgers) there’s even a good erasable ink pen called the Pilot FriXion, which has a little nub on its top end.  It erases by generating heat as you nub-rub, thus making the heat-sensitive ink disappear.  If you leave a penned document in a hot car, the writing could vanish.  However, you need merely place the blank paper in a freezer and the writing will magically reappear.  I want to use this somehow in a story.

     I’ll keep on searching for a pen that puts out the best possible phrasing, stunning metaphors, engaging dialog, and clever plot twists.


Monday, July 13, 2015

TV as tutor

     For most of us, TV is largely a time-wasting soporific.

     I offer a simple test to prove this is true:
What did you watch last night, or over the past week, that you can remember with any meaningful or influential memories?

     Most folks are hard pressed to answer that question.

     Yet, for writers at least, the TV can serve as an excellent tutor.

     I’ve studied Sherlock (Cumberbatch version) and The Wire for fine plotting, Justified for lean and riveting Elmore-Leonard-style dialog, and a lot of older movies filmed back in the days before over-the-top special effects took the place of good scripting.  True Detective, The Mentalist, and Bluebloods are also among my favorites for their instructive characterization examples.

     And I’ve learned a heck of a lot, not just from the story lines but also from the cinematography, which can help with creating well-crafted and vivid word pictures.

     I keep a yellow legal pad on my end table to take notes, which I always then misplace, but the simple act of writing ideas down seems to thread them usefully into the gnarled tangle of synapses that passes for my brain.

     So, struggling writer or not, you may want to look a little deeper into the picture window of your own TV.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised what lessons are waiting in there for you.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Cultural Cousins

     Many years ago when I was a rookie freelance writer working on pure speculation, I discovered magazine article editors were much more receptive to a complete package—a well-written article plus a generous selection of good accompanying photos—and in my naiveté I thought How hard can taking pictures be?

     It turned out, of course, that becoming a competent photographer is every bit as involved and difficult as learning how to write well.  But, mostly through trying often and failing not quite so often, and taking hundreds of shots just to capture a dozen really good ones, I learned enough to start selling article packages regularly, even to some top magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Harper’s, and Yankee as my skills in both the visual and written arts improved.

     I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at just how well the two crafts dovetailed.  Learning how to compose technically-competent, interesting photos, for example, meant I had to start scrutinizing the world around me as never before.  The subtle play of different kinds of light on people and things.  Selecting that part of a scene that was most arresting.  Composing and cropping to enhance a desired effect.  This, in turn, soon began to influence my writing for the better.  I found I could create more vivid scenes with words to give my readers impactful imaginary pictures.  I was also finding that I enjoyed taking pictures as much as I did writing about people and places and events.

     Who is better at capturing a characterization?  A portrait painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a film maker, or a writer?  All are capable of presenting emotionally moving characters in their own ways.  You can easily think of excellent examples in all those disciplines.  The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the arresting faces of Geographic shooter Steve McCurry.  Or any number of absorbing written or filmed biographies of the famous.  All those forms can do it quite well.

     Music, as in the backgrounding of any good movie, of course contributes emotionally.

     In fact, two or more of the disciplines are often combined to powerful effect.

     Over the years my enjoyment of and appreciation for just how exquisitely and inextricably woven all the artistic crafts can be has only deepened.