Monday, December 26, 2016

Have a stellar New Year

Blockbuster astronomy stories of 2016 include:

1.  Confirmation that invisible gravity waves exist, as predicted by Al Einstein a century ago.  Two complex detectors, one in Louisiana and the other in Washington State, both picked up waves caused by the merger of two black holes far out in the universe, and the findings became official in 2016. Scientists across the globe hailed it as the discovery of the generation.

2.  The confirmed discovery of a planet in the habitable zone around the closest star to us (other than our own sun), Proxima Centauri, which floats just 4.2 light years away.

3.  The spectacular successes of reusable rockets from two energetic and innovative private space companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX.  The technology will save millions of dollars in space exploration and satellite launching and servicing.

4.  The ambitious Juno flight, the fastest spacecraft ever launched (165,000 mph), arrived at Jupiter to begin its deep studies of that giant planet.

5.  Startling indications that there is a huge mysterious and yet-to-be-seen Planet Nine circling our sun in a strange orbit.

And 2017 promises to be no less fascinating.  The Quadrantid meteor shower will usher in the year, peaking January third with an amazing 120 meteors per hour.  But the big story will be a rare solar eclipse, the sight of a lifetime.  As the moon moves in front of the sun, precisely covering its disc and cutting off all its direct light, the whole sky will darken dramatically, revealing stars in daytime.  It’s a wondrous, magical, deeply moving event.  On August 21 the dense shadow band of totality will carve a 70-mile-wide curved swath from the far northwestern U.S., diagonally across the entire country and exiting through South Carolina.  Anywhere along that route the viewing will be perfect.  You’ll need eye protection, though, and if you travel to that shadow band, you’d better reserve accommodations early.  You can get details online.  Do not miss it.*

I hope you enjoy a stellar New Year in every way.

* The moon can cover the sun because, although it is 400 times smaller than the sun, it is also 400 times closer to us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Book promotion

     If you’re a self-published author and have exhausted the usual options for promotion—the Amazon free trial and timed discounts, announcements on social media, requesting plugs from online reviewers and bloggers, e-mailing family and friends, and doing talks and signings for stores and civic groups—all of which can be productive, here are three additional sales boosters you might also try:

     1.   Libraries can be a great market for you.  There are roughly 120,000 of them in America.  My local regional facility has thirteen of my books in circulation, for example.  To mine at least some of that buying power and large readership, I mailed 100 six-by-nine glossy postcards to library networks all over my state (one regional library may have half a dozen branches).  I designed the card myself, using photos of the book covers, brief descriptions of each book, and a paragraph addressed to the librarian noting how well the books have been reviewed, and that the stories take place within the state.  I had them printed at Staples for minimal cost.  You might also offer to speak to a group at any library within reasonable reach.

     2.   Some motels, such as Country Inns and Suites, have their own lending libraries.  I sent 100 signed copies of my short story collection—which contains a good plug for my website and novels—to such hotels, concentrating on those near vacation spots and beaches, where vacationers are especially looking for leisure reads.

     3.   One of the things I do is move yachts for their owners.  Every marina has a small library where boaters can pick up a used book and drop one off in exchange, so I’ve left my signed debut novel in marinas from Key West to Newport, RI, but you can easily do a mailing of signed books to a list of marinas you find online.  My hope, of course, is that readers will try my donated books and thus be motivated to buy the rest of the books in the series.

     In each of these three cases, I’m targeting avid readers and making single books do the work of many in attracting new fans.

     Good fortune with your own promotions.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Facts or dangerous fiction?

As I’ve said before, there was a time when the bulk of news reporting was an honorable profession.  My mother was a reporter for The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Massachusetts, and she was bound by tradition and strict editors to objectively report the facts, verifying everything in her stories as much as possible by checking with more than one source.  The idea was to report honestly and in depth and let the people make up their own minds about the implications.  Media back then were under a measure of control because they were the only news organizations available to the public, and those organizations wanted to protect their honorable images.  When I was young there were newspapers, magazines, newsreels at movie theaters, and radio.  No TV.  No computers.

Over recent decades news reporting has gradually become the domain of attractive news celebrities.  And individual giant news networks have taken on agendas, with the result that much so-called news is unabashedly slanted this way or that.  Today it’s obvious which political or social views a network favors and heavily promotes.  We watch the selected ones we like.  The ones that tell us what we want to hear.

The frenzied media scramble to be first with scoops has led incompetent and often unprincipled reporters to air or print information that is simply not accurate and is ever more shallow at best.  My local news anchors routinely make reporting errors that once would not have been tolerated by their superiors.

With the advent and global proliferation of social media, anyone and everyone routinely passes on those news items they favor.  And all restraints are off.

It has been only a short, inevitable transition to individuals stretching the truth and then, lately, to making up their own malicious news entirely.  Fake news.

In consequence, more and more of us are becoming mistrustful of any news, even from once-respected major networks.

And in some cases fake news is having far worse consequences.

Even deadly.


Monday, December 5, 2016

Seven things kids aren’t learning

1.  How to interpret a map.
With GPS built into cars and tablets and smartphones, map-reading skills have declined, and young people will no longer know the satisfaction of winning a lively debate with a friend or family member about the fastest or most scenic route selection, or being nimble-minded enough to plausibly excuse winding up out of gas at a crossroads named Nowhere, Utah.

2.  How to write cursive.
These days young folk communicate through texts in lazy lower-case, with liberal use of cyber-shorthand contractions, exclamation points, and emoticons.  The closest they ever come to cursive writing is dashing off a totally illegible squiggle on those stupid electronic signature lines in Walmart checkouts.

3.  How to drive a stick shift vehicle.
My first car had a stick shift (and the starter button) mounted on the floor.  Driving was an adventure back then, especially with bald or recapped tires and no air bags or seat belts, on New England winter roads.

4.  How to fix things.
I could fix anything short of an engine overhaul by myself on that first car, and I learned from both my grandfather and father that if you put your mind to it, you can fix most anything, from a misfiring distributor to a leaky pipe to a tin roof.  Today, I fear most young people have no idea what’s under their car hoods, much less how to fix anything in there.  Shop class used to be part of high school studies for the guys, at least to learn basic tool use, and home economics taught the girls how to cook and care for children and home.  Today such gender-focused studies would be considered sexist and thus evil by liberals.  So now few youngsters of either gender can cook or fix anything.

5.  How to balance a check book, or make change.
I learned early on the value of a dollar, by going to work in tobacco fields at age fourteen, by watching my frugal parents manage a budget, and from school classes.  I ran a two-pump country gas station part time by myself starting at age sixteen, washing every windshield and checking every customer’s oil, pumping their gas, doing all kinds of service from fixing flats to installing snow chains, and quickly figuring change for transactions without a calculator.  For example, change for a sale of $8.40 out of a twenty dollar bill would be ten dollars plus one dollar plus half a dollar plus a dime, or $11.60.  Simple, really.

6.  How to dance.
My parents sent me to ballroom dancing classes at twelve years old to learn a modicum of grace, and politeness toward girls.  Today it’s hard to tell if a youngster is dancing or having an epileptic fit.

7.  How to carry on a conversation without using the words like and awesome.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

When donkeys climb trees

Donkeys in trees is the Georgian equivalent to pigs flying, as in: “When are you going to vote Democrat.”(Or Republican, depending on the person you’re questioning.)  And the reply you get is, “When pigs fly.”  Or sometimes, “When hell freezes over.”

Other equivalent expressions from around the world:

South Africa: When horses grow horns.
The Netherlands: When cows dance on ice.
Israel: When hair grows on the palm of my hand.
India: When crows fly upside down.
Latvia: When an owl’s tail blossoms.
Portugal: When it rains knives.
Turkey: When fish climb poplar trees.
Thailand: One afternoon in your reincarnation.
Russia: When crayfish whistle on the mountain.

And my favorite, from Germany: On St. Nevers Day.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Honoring Hubble

     The Hubble Space Telescope is arguably one of the most influential achievements of science.  During the more than 25 years of its, ah, stellar performance it has let astronomers scrutinize 40,000 objects in the universe, taken a million stunning images, spawned 10,000 scientific papers, been used for an average of 40 doctoral research papers each year, helped earn a Nobel Prize, and has enthralled the world by displaying the mysterious, beautiful universe to us all. 

     It has inspired musical compositions and a variety of art.  Its images adorn T-shirts and murals and everything from album covers to postage stamps.  The single Eagle Nebula image titled “The Pillars of Creation”—as much a work of gorgeous universal art as a revealing study of how stars are born—has been posted in uncounted classrooms to inspire students and has been viewed with awe by billions around the globe.

     Other Hubble images (it can image not only in visible light but also in penetrating ultraviolet and infrared) have given us invaluable new knowledge of our solar system’s eight planets and 182 moons, and of our whole universe.  The Hubble Deep Field image, for example, a long exposure taken of just a minuscule portion of sky equivalent to a grain of rice held at arm’s length—a portion of sky thought to be utterly empty—revealed 1,500 primitive galaxies that assembled when the universe was in its infancy.  Subsequent Ultra Deep Field images have amazed us even more.

     Its scientific leaps in astronomy and physics include proof that supermassive black holes exist, pegging the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, not only imaging the first planet ever actually seen that orbits a star other than our own but also analyzing its atmosphere (thousands of other exoplanets have been detected by scopes such as Kepler, but have yet to be actually seen), and showing us protoplanetary discs that are condensing into new planets around other stars in the same way our own solar system had to have formed.

     But maybe its greatest achievement is simply to vividly showcase what science can do for us.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Music of the Spheres

     There is a mysterious and beautiful correlation between music and mathematics.  There are rhythms in mathematics and there is much mathematical order in music, for example.  And either discipline can stimulate the other. Einstein, an accomplished violinist, credited music with providing the inspiration out of which blossomed his theory of relativity (no longer a theory, of course, but a well-established fact).  There are many more such examples.

     In fact the whole universe seems ultimately definable, and to a large extent explicable, through mathematics, from gravity to distances, to planetary orbits, to quantum mechanics.  The equations of Einstein, such as the simple E=mc², explain profoundly much.  Johannes Kepler, too (whose name graces the current exoplanet-discovering space telescope), keenly felt the symbiosis of music and math.  In his 1619 book Harmonices Mundi, he attempted to explain the harmonies of the world, and he described how music could be pleasingly paired with the kinetic geometry of the solar system.  Pythagoras taught that focusing on pure, mathematically precise tones could calm and illuminate the mind.

     There is also much magical math hidden in the almost musical rhythms of good writing.  The prime number three shows up over and over, for example.  A protagonist in a story tries twice to resolve some central conflict only to be somehow thwarted, but on a third supreme attempt, wins through.  Three also creates an effective and interesting character grouping.  As in The Three Musketeers by Dumas. Or a love triangle in almost any romance story.  Or a sweeping saga told as a trilogy.  Or the standard three-act play (the Setup, the Conflict, and the Resolution). 


Monday, November 7, 2016

Techno evolution

     Hard to believe how rapidly computers and cell phones have become globally indispensable.

     When I first started writing, things were much different.  Research was a major chore, checking out an armload of books from the library, searching through them at home while taking longhand notes, returning them and checking out more volumes, or waiting until the books I needed came back from being loaned out elsewhere.

     I did the first draft or two of an article or short story in barely legible longhand on lined yellow legal pads.  Then I typed subsequent drafts with an electric typewriter.  (At least I had that.  In my Mom’s newspaper reporting days she had to bang out copy on a hulking noisy mechanical monster.  She was so fast and accurate, though, she could actually take dictation while typing. She sounded like a machine gun.)  If I wanted to move a paragraph or fix typos or change a character’s name it meant laborious re-typing, over and over.  It was a hell of a lot of work.

     These days I research, compose, and type on a late-model computer.  I have access to a whole planet-full of information on the Net, and can zoom in on any place in the world through Google Earth to study locations for my fiction.  Making copy corrections or changes is stupid simple.  I can even submit a short story to a contest or a magazine article to an editor, or publish an entire novel online without ever leaving my office chair. 

     Taking photos to illustrate my magazine articles was also laborious.  Carrying enough color film in several speeds along with black-and-white rolls, having to stop to rewind and reload each roll, bracketing critical shots, guessing at exposures, never knowing if I had the shots I needed until the prints came back from the lab, processing my own black-and-white prints in my darkroom, selecting and packaging color slides to submit to an editor.

     Now my Canon camera is much smarter than I am.  I can take several hundred high-resolution shots for a magazine piece, immediately see each shot, and simply delete the ones I don’t want at no cost, e-mail selected ones to an editor on the spot, shoot high-quality video, even do slow-motion.  The camera recognizes faces and I can trigger a selfie with a wink.  I can choose depth of field after I’ve taken a shot.  Auto focus.  Auto exposure.

     I can’t imagine having to return to those old ways.

     You young ’uns have no idea how good you’ve got it.



Monday, October 31, 2016

The book burners

     One of the first things the Nazis did when they seized power in Germany was to burn the books.

     Radical Islam has a similar aversion to books, along with anything else they believe remotely threatens their twisted fundamentalist view of spiritualism and morality. 

     In January, 2013, fifteen jihadists stormed into the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government library in Mali, carried 4,200 centuries-old manuscripts—on physics, math, medicine, logic, and chemistry—into the tiled courtyard and contemptuously threw them onto a pile, doused them with gasoline, and burned them to holy ashes, destroying in minutes the laborious works of Timbuktu’s greatest scientists.

     Months earlier scholar Abdel Haidara, who had helped establish 45 libraries across Timbuktu, had seen the outrage coming and taken steps to at least mitigate it.  He’d raised a million dollars from sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation and the Dutch National Lottery organization and Kickstarter, and had recruited a quiet secret army of his own.  Their dangerous sole mission was to save thousands upon thousands of books from the determined al-Qaeda destroyers.

     Haidara had secreted 377,000 precious volumes in safe houses around Timbuktu in 700 purchased footlockers, chests, and even steel barrels, but he no longer felt that was enough.  He decided his covert army would smuggle them all to the better protected capital of Bamako.  Using cunning and stealth and bribery, and working often by night, Haidara and his army set out to transport as many volumes as possible south, by river boat and truck and even taxi, past hostile jihadists and venal military patrols and marauding bandits.  Some of the couriers, many of them teenagers, were detained and interrogated and threatened at checkpoints, but in the end they managed to carry out the mission.  They lost not a single manuscript.

     Much knowledge has these days been stored away electronically, of course.  But that in no way diminishes the incalculable treasure that includes the finest works of mankind still stored away as books on every aspect of human endeavor and achievement in repositories around the planet. 

     And in many countries, outside the grim reach of the jihadists—who themselves can boast of no enduring achievements whatsoever to benefit humankind—that treasure remains accessible free to anyone through our network of libraries.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Those clever casinos

     In the 1970s Vegas and Atlantic City were the only two gambling Meccas in the U.S.  Today there are 1,400 casinos scattered over 40 states, many of these money-rakers located on native-American lands.  Their reported income in ’14 was $66 billion from 101 million visitors.  (It’s a cash business, notorious for skimming, book-cooking, and for grossly under-reporting.)

     The allure for visitors is simple: Potential riches with no work involved.  And it’s all cleverly promoted with glittery tinsel and euphemisms.  They’re called resorts, for example, and what they offer is only innocent gaming, not gambling. 

     The psychology is far more complex.  If you’re winning you don’t want to quit.  If you’re losing you’ll keep gambling trying to win back the losses.  People who come away having lost money are reluctant to admit it to family and friends, which works to the casinos’ advantage.  Inside the casinos there are no clocks and no windows.  Players are comfortably insulated against the outside world.  There are enticing photos of a relative few big winners on the wall.  Each time a slot pays off, no matter how little the amount, bells sound and lights flash and coins clatter loudly into trays, creating the illusion that players are winning much of the time.  Players are made to feel welcome with everything from inexpensive food and drink and accommodations to pleasant lighting and comfy seating and live entertainment.

     But the reality is that the odds always heavily favor the casinos.  So they’re not really gambling at all, and the more a player tries to win—the longer a person plays—the more that player is likely to lose.  The overwhelmingly vast majority do lose.

     Few visitors ever question where the billions must come from to create and sustain such lavish surroundings.  That money can only come from those thousands upon thousands of losers, of course.

     And the casinos prey not only on pampered high rollers, but more often also on those least able to afford the losses.  So rents and car payments and other bills go unpaid in order to feed that ephemeral dazzling atmosphere and those insatiable tables and those glitzy machines—and the anonymous wealthy people in the shadows behind them.

     I don’t treat casinos kindly in my fiction.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Ten noted writers on money (and success):

“Fortune sides with him who dares.”—Virgil

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”—Henry David Thoreau

“Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.”—Benjamin Franklin

“Empty pockets never held anyone back.  Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
Noman Vincent Peale

“Many people take no care of their money till they come nearly to the end of it, and others do just the same with their time.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.  Don’t make money your goal.”—Maya Angelou

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Thomas Edison

“Money often costs too much.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do.  When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.”—Julia Cameron

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”—Yogi Berra


Monday, October 3, 2016

BIG data 

A bit is a basic unit of binary information, having one of only two values.  Could be yes or no, on or off, plus or minus.  In digital computing, communication, and storage, it’s either 0 or 1.  One byte is 8 bits.  A kilobyte is about a thousand bytes.  A megabyte is about a million bytes—the length of an average novel.  A gigabyte is roughly a billion bytes.  My computer has 10 gigs of storage capacity, which I have not come close to using in the four years since I bought it.  A common smartphone, of course, processes that much data a month easily.

A terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes, or about the same information stored in a large public library or on 1,600 regular CDs.

A petabyte is 1,024 terabytes.  Put that much content on CDs and it would create a stack 878 feet tall (223,000 discs).  It is 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes.

There’s a telescope under construction near La Serena in Chile (been there), called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will automatically collect fifteen terabytes of data PER NIGHT.  During its first decade it will amass 54,750 terabytes, or 53.5 petabytes.  That’s enough to fill stacked Blue-ray discs to a height of 15,750 feet.  An incredibly rich tower of data.  In that time its instruments will capture 40 billion objects in fine detail (its camera alone has 3.2 billion pixels), map the structure and evolution of our Milky Way Galaxy, count asteroids, explore transient events like supernovae, and create a stop-motion movie of much of the celestial sphere.  It will vastly increase our knowledge of this universe we live in.

We have other telescopes around the planet and in space that are constantly gathering ever more refined data, as well.

In astronomy, as increasingly in other scientific disciplines, the task has rapidly evolved from collecting enough data to draw meaningful conclusions, to being able to efficiently mine the fantastic avalanche of raw data now streaming in for the priceless knowledge certainly veined therein.

The years ahead will be exciting.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Fiction or non

     Whenever I’m selling books at some venue or other, I always ask each person who comes by my table, “Do you like to read suspense?”  They’re either going to answer yes or no.  If it’s yes, I launch into a brief spiel about my series novels.  I hand them a book so they can read the blurb on the back, and then I shut up while they do.  A gratifying percentage of the time they’ll buy.

     If the answer is no, I ask them what they do like to read, then chat with them a moment or two and thank them for stopping by.

     A certain number will say they only read non-fiction, and I automatically give up right then, because I’ve found people most often read one or the other, hardly ever both.  Although for some reason non-fiction readers who will never read a novel will go to a (fictional) movie in a heartbeat.  I guess that’s because we all tend to more readily believe what we see and hear, even if we know down deep it’s all an act.

     Then you always have that person who says, “Nope.  Don’t read no fiction.  I just read the Bible.”


Monday, September 19, 2016

Artful hooking

     Early in my lifelong writing side-career, when I was cranking out articles and short stories for magazines, I learned that you must hook a reader somehow to make the person stop casually flipping through the magazine pages, and read your offering.  This can be done with an arresting photo, or an unusual, intriguing title that maybe uses quirky alliteration, or that hints at some major conflict, or that provokes a grin.  Or it can be done with an irresistible opening sentence that absolutely demands further reading.  I often like to start with a bit of dialog, for example, because it invariably grabs interest, the way a whisper from a dark alley is bound to rivet you as you walk past.

     Here are a few effective introductory hooks from some masters:

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth and the retreating fog revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”  The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”  The Gunslinger by Stephen King

“It was a bitter cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  1984 by George Orwell

“They shoot the white girl first.”  Paradise by Toni Morrison

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”  The Color Purple by Alice Walker

“A screaming comes across the sky.”  Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

     In each of these cases, the author in effect poses a startling unusual question, and we’re drawn in to read further in search of an answer.

     In successful writing, at least, hooking can be elevated to an art form.


Monday, September 5, 2016

The Right to Bear Arms

     In medieval times, heralds had the dicey job of running messages between rival warlords across a tense battlefield under a flag of truce.  Between bloody wars they had the much safer job of colorfully announcing the contestants in entertaining tournaments and jousts.  The only problem was the contestants were anonymously clad head to toe in body armor.  So each considerately carried some sort of identifying symbolism on his shield.  A bear and a ragged staff meant the Earl of Warwick was tucked away inside all that clanking, creaking metal.

     So the heralds became experts and eventually even the respected arbiters of who was who among the elite, judging who had the right to claim membership in any particular bloodline.  Often this involved the bestowing of great wealth upon whomever a herald decreed was the rightful heir among sometimes many rival legitimate and illegitimate claimants.  Each of the great clans evolved a unique coat of arms incorporating symbols depicting that particular ancestry.

     In 1484 King Richard III set up the College of Arms in London.  It’s still one of the few heraldic authorities in the world, consulting on ceremonial matters, researching bloodlines, keeping meticulous records.  Still deciding who has “the right to bear arms.”

     Nothing whatever to do with weaponry.

     Interesting how certain such phrases in our complex language have morphed into entirely different meanings over time.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Creating consequences

     The greatest satisfaction to me as a writer is touching other souls out there with a bit of knowledge new to them, or with some emotion that warms them or moves them to think a little more deeply about some aspect of life.  Or simply provides them with a vicarious escape into adventure or intrigue for a few hours.  I keep a nice thick file of e-mails and notes from readers who’ve liked my work.

     I sincerely hope my writing will never incite anyone to violence or cause anyone undue distress.

     Sadly, I don’t think our modern media has any such reservations, and I wonder if they take any responsibility at all for so often severely slanting the news that violence or despair or depression among many is the tragic result.

     When, for example, the beautiful TV talking heads in recent times have harped on single inflammatory phrases such as “unarmed black teenager” over and over and over, without ever telling the whole story, it is little wonder that riots have followed and that police have come under violent attack.  Equally dangerous are those TV stories that expose some weakness in our system that could be exploited by terrorists.  And the media will jump all over any story about terror incidents, granting the terrorists vast publicity—exactly what they were seeking.  Yet the media seem to admit no culpability whatsoever in any of this.

     Our words in fiction or in the media have tremendous power to help people.  Or to goad them to do wrong.

     Those of us who write fictional stories or report on real ones have an unwritten obligation to always take most seriously the potential consequences of our words.


Monday, August 22, 2016


     When I first began selling my debut novel in stores, I couldn’t believe anyone would want my autograph, and I still can’t quite believe it five books later.

     A few famous autographs and what they’ve sold for:

The last autograph John Kennedy signed, on a Dallas newspaper copy.   $39,000.
A Jesse James signed photo.   $52,000
An Albert Einstein signed photo.   $75,000 in ‘09
A baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.   $191,200 in ‘06
A baseball signed by Babe Ruth.   $388,375
A signed John Lennon/Yoko LP, owned by John’s murderer.   Perversely, $525,000
Lincoln’s signed Emancipation Proclamation.   $3.7 million
George Washington’s signed Acts of Congress.   $9.8 million

     Before Neil Armstrong blasted off for the moon in July, 1969, he and crewmates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins wanted life insurance, but it was way too expensive, considering their uniquely risky occupation, so they autographed hundreds of commemorative envelopes their families could sell if they didn’t make it back.  The envelopes have become collectibles, and one sold in 2013 for $50,788.

     So buy any one of my suspense novels, available on Amazon and also easily through my website, and I’ll gladly autograph it for you.  And some day . . . who knows what it might be worth?


Monday, August 15, 2016

Impossible fictional things

     The enduring Star Trek TV stories that began in the mid-sixties featured a flip-open communicator.  In 1973, that idea inspired engineer Martin Cooper to invent the first hand-held cell phone.  (Yet, if you have a flipper today you’re considered dinosaurian.)

     In an 1898 short story, the beloved Mark Twain presented the “limitless-distance telephone.”  With this gadget persons could see and hear daily happenings around the globe and discuss them with anybody else separated “by any number of leagues.”  Today we’ve got the World Wide Web.  And it’s accessible on every smart phone.

     A 1911 Tom Swift novel by Victor Appleton had “electric rifle bullets” that were similar to the discharges of lightning.  Many years later Jack Cover invented a stun gun he called Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, or the TASER.  Other highly popular Tom Swift novels of that period included Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone ... Wizard Camera ... Aerial Warship ... Electric Runabout ... Giant Telescope.  All of which have come to pass.

     In Ray Bradbury’s epic 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 he envisioned tiny ear buds like “little seashells” that could produce “an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk.”  Headphones of the time were large, heavy, and cumbersome.

     In Philip K. Dick’s children’s novel, Nick and the Glimmung, an alien could reproduce from itself any valued object it touched.  A prediction of today’s 3-D printing?

     And in Arthur C. Clarke’s haunting classic 1968 novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, he described a digital “Newspad” on which “A postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand till it nearly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort.”  An uncanny description of today’s iPad.

     Happily, many times instead of fiction mirroring fact, fact can be born from good fiction.


Monday, August 8, 2016

Reporting lesson Number One    

     When my mother, Edith, was hired on at a Massachusetts daily newspaper as a rookie reporter, her first assignment was to write her own obituary to be filed away just in case.  It turned out to be a tougher assignment than she thought.

     It was a deliberate lesson in humility by her editor.  And in empathy.

     She never forgot it when she was writing news reports about the unfortunate, the troubled, the oppressed, the misguided, or the people out there on the fringes of society.  All those ordinary un-famous souls who still deserve a compassionate and objective appraisal of their lives.


Monday, August 1, 2016

On being different

     For a time I taught creative writing at a community college, and I was struck by the attitudes some students had as they approached the craft.

     Somewhat understandably, many seemed to believe the goal is to be as different as possible in order to make their writing stand out above all the rest.  So they would choose to write in first person present tense.  Or employ every big word they knew in an attempt to impress the reader.  Or stretch the flowery, arty use of metaphors to the breaking point.  I had one student write a short-short story as one long paragraph, all in lower case.

     But with only a little thought, it becomes clear that the goal of a writer, especially in the early stages of learning, is not to be different. 

     Quite the opposite.  The shining goal is to be the same.

     If you wanted to become a fine cabinetmaker, for example, you could do no better than to study how a long-time respected expert does it, and then try to copy every technique, every secret.  Take advantage of all that accumulated knowledge and proven experience.  Try to become that expert cabinetmaker.

     If you want to be a great writer, you can do no better than try your best to emulate those great writers you admire and enjoy and who work within the genre you wish to write.  Try to make your writing as good as theirs in every possible way.  Take full advantage of their years of proven success.  Blatantly copy their every technique.  Try to be one of them.

     Many a great writer has done the same.  Sherlock and sidekick Watson were one of the first super successful fiction teams.  Think about how many writers have boldly copied that idea alone to help achieve success.  Author John D. MacDonald invented Travis McGee and Meyer.  Rex Stout had Nero Wolfe and sidekick Archie Godwin, Robert Crais has Elvis Cole and Pike.  Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum and cop Joe Morelli.  Emulating the master Arthur Conan Doyle sure worked out well for them and a host of others who’ve climbed to the literary summit.

     I guarantee this approach of trying your best to follow the examples of the masters will prove to be a shortcut in your own struggle up the literary mountain.  As you do this, your own unique voice and style will begin to emerge automatically, with no conscious effort, simply because you’re you.

     And you’ll wind up being nicely different, anyway. 


Monday, July 25, 2016

Media Mindlessness

     As the Juno spacecraft was nearing its objective on 4 July after a five-year flight, the USA Today online headline was, “Humanity’s First Look at Jupiter and its moons.”

     As is so sadly common in the shallow media these days, that headline was wildly inaccurate.  There have been many missions to Jupiter before this.  Galileo orbited the huge gas giant from 1995 through 2003, for example.  Pioneer 10 and 11 flew by in 1973 and 1974, as did Voyagers 1 and 2 in 1979.  Ulysses took a look in 1992.  New Horizons probed its long “magnetotail” in 2007.  We have of course analyzed the behemoth and its moons in some detail with powerful scopes like Hubble and Chandra.  So we already have a huge library of Jupiter photos, video, and data.

     Juno does own some firsts, however.  It’s the fastest thing man has ever sent into space, doing 165,000 mph as it approached, and requiring a 30-minute main engine burn to slow down to orbit velocity.  It’s the first to take up a polar 107-day orbit where it will see spectacular auroras in detail, and it’s the first to build a global map of the planet’s gigantic gravitational and magnetic fields.  Its trio of 29-foot-long solar arrays that provide electrical power for its nine different instruments are the first to be used in such a way so far from our star, where sunlight is only four percent as bright as on Earth.  It’s built to withstand the intense radiation of a magnetosphere thousands of times more powerful than ours for as long as possible—an environment so harsh the visible light camera onboard is expected to fail within only eight orbits, and its radiometer will be fried within 11 orbits.  Juno will look for water and liquid metallic hydrogen, and study its fierce winds and the distribution of its mass and its high-energy hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and sulphur.

     Fifth planet from the sun at 484 million miles out (we’re 94 million miles out), this one was named after the god Jupiter, king of the Roman pantheon, a notorious seducer of mortal mistresses, who often cloaked himself in clouds to hide his indiscretions from his wife, Juno.

     But now Juno will have her way.  At the end of her 20-month mission of intense scrutiny, she will dive deep into his raging storms, crushing pressures, and furious temperatures, seeking to detect the true heart of this by far most muscular planet in our solar system, and perhaps even learn how he came to be.


Monday, July 11, 2016

The new Noah’s Ark

     A $100 million replica of Noah’s Ark (510’ long x 85’ wide x 51’ high) is the centerpiece of a new Kentucky religious theme park.  It’s sure to please creationists who insist the earth is no more than 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs co-existed with mankind, despite an overwhelming mountain of hard, irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

     I have a few questions for those folks:

     Where did all the water to coat the entire earth more than five miles deep come from?  More to the point, where did all that incredible mass of water go?  Weren’t the normal oceans already full?

     It took huge cranes and flatbed trucks, modern saws and other tools, and a numerous work force to cut the tall trees and mill the huge beams and transport them from the forests and lift them into place and sheath them for this replica ark.  How could Noah have done the same job alone with only comparatively primitive tools?  How long would it have taken him to cut down and dress and transport even a single tree to his work site, let alone the thousands he would have needed?

     There are some 5,400 species of mammals, 8,200 species of reptiles, and 10,000 species of birds (most of these land based) on our planet.  How could Noah have cataloged and caught and transported a pair of each of these animal species from all over the globe?  Most of them were wild and many were lethally dangerous--lions, tigers, hippos, poisonous snakes--not to mention about 950,000 species of insects that would have gone extinct if not given a ride on the ark.

     Presumably the holy rain was fresh water (rain, having been condensed from vapor, is fresh).  How, then, could the many thousands of salt-water species have survived the flood?

     An elephant eats 300 pounds of food a day.  So just the two elephants would have needed 45 tons of fresh food for the 150 days the ark is supposed to have been afloat on an endless ocean, according to the Bible.  The total tonnage of special foods for all species would have been astronomical.  How was this accomplished?  How could all the various foods have been kept from spoiling?  Were thousands upon thousands of live prey animals kept aboard to feed the carnivores?

     In those 150 days of the voyage, every crop, every tree, every blade of grass--some 300,000 species of vital carbon dioxide-absorbing, oxygen-producing plants--would have been wiped out worldwide.  So what were the herbivores supposed to eat when they were finally released from the ark?  What were the carnivores supposed to eat?  Each other?  How could all of the individual species have been transported back to their natural climates and habitats?

     During the voyage, how could Noah and his family have fed and watered the thousands upon thousands of species aboard the ark, and mucked out their waste, and keep them from attacking one another, and kept them all healthy?  Would that not have been a virtually impossible task?

     Finally--and to me by far most importantly--what about those many thousands upon thousands of humans—including pregnant women, the elderly, absolutely innocent infants and toddlers—who had no boat ride?   They would have drowned most horribly, scrabbling for higher ground as the waters rose, crying out in bewildered despair, trying to stay afloat, watching helplessly as their families and friends died choking in God’s holy ocean.  What about them?  Would that not have been an atrocity on an unimaginable scale?  Would that horrific act have been perpetrated by a benevolent, forgiving God?  By the infallible deity Himself who supposedly created all these creatures?  Or could this darkest of all deeds only have been committed by some kind of monster?

     Two million people are expected to visit the ark attraction in the first year alone.