Category Archives: Blog
My wife and I have taken our kids to Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine (middle of the DFW metroplex) more times than I can count. Enough that goodie buckets of chips, candies, and fruit waited for us in the room. We’ve gone a lot less often in the past couple of years, for reasons you can probably understand. But we went back recently, before the kids returned to school.
In addition to the indoor/outdoor waterpark, Great Wolf Lodge has several live-action role-playing-ish games, starting with MagiQuest. The gist of these games is, buy the kids a magic wand that they can wave at various locations around the hotel to be assigned a quest, pick up magic items, interact with good guys, battle monsters, etc. Not quite a genre I’ve written in to date–A River Through Earth is the closest I’ve gotten–but still a lot of fun, even though our oldest completed all the games a couple of years ago.
This most recent trip, our youngest completed ShadowQuest. This is the second tier of games in terms of difficulty. While we ran around the hotel this time, I took notes of where various items, etc. are found. As a public service, I’ll provide the list here, for anyone running around the hotel trying to remember where things are. It’s up to you to figure out from the guidebook or the start-of-quest video which ones you need and in which order.
1: pirate ship cove, stars; snowshoes, med white, med yellow;
2: slow green, spyglass; slow red, city; swamp, slow yellow, lady in leaves
3: slow white, campfire of ice; slow blue,
4: fast blue; forest mana falls; fast white, fast red, fast yellow, fast green
5: ice crystals, key; med green, top hat
6: boss battle
7: hammer and pick; mountain, owl
8: med blue, lady in wall
Let me know if anything’s incorrect. You can email me through the Contact page (see menu bar), or post a comment here.
Following up on “Riddlepigs and the Cryla” (originally published in Analog Jan/Feb 2021, and in ebook and print singles editions by CV-2 Books), I’m pleased to announce the second title in the Portia Oakeshott, Dinosaur Veterinarian series is now available. Both ebook and print editions. Click here to learn more.
About the series:
As a girl, Portia Oakeshott dreamed of caring for the reconstructed dinosaurs roaming the preserve near the south pole of her hot home planet, New New South Wales.
As a graduate from the planet’s top veterinary school and a recent hire by the dinosaur company, caring for dinosaurs brings Portia into conflict with ranchers, spoiled children, villainous millionaires, religious fanatics, and politicians. Her adventures take her from the “big smoke” to the “back of Bourke”—from the bustling city of Port Bounty, across a continent of vast fields where farmers raise pigs containing cloned human organs, to the lush Cretaceous forests at the bottom of a world.
These five short fictions include “Riddlepigs and the Cryla” and “Minnie and the Trekker,” previously published in Analog.
My second Portia Oakeshott, Dinosaur Veterinarian short story, “Minnie and the Trekker,” is in the July/August 2021 issue of Analog. Despite the title, neither a cartoon female mouse or a fan of a long-running science fiction media franchise are involved. Just Portia Oakeshott and a colleague, trying to help an ill dinosaur, and discovering something bigger than that. Look for the issue at a newsstand or magazine rack near you.
I was a Chiefs fan as a kid and have greatly enjoyed the Mahomes era. This year, despite their league-best regular season record, they weren’t dominating on offense they way they have. Culminating in their defeat in Super Bowl LV on Sunday to the Buccaneers, by the largest margin (22 points) of any defeat in Mahomes’ professional career.
Why did they lose? Brady is the greatest quarterback ever, yes, but Mahomes has beaten him before. The main reason why the Chiefs lost is summed up in this graph, tweeted by stats prof Michael Lopez @StatsbyLopez
Each line is the distance run by Mahomes (top) and Brady (bottom) on each shotgun snap. Red lines are completions, white lines incompletions. If you watched the game, you might remember Mahomes running halfway across the field on multiple occasions to get away from Tampa’s defensive linemen and forcing throws at the last minute. Tampa Bay’s pass rush was dominant all game.
Why was Tampa’s pass rush so dominant?
The Chiefs’ offensive line was missing multiple starters.
Guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif took a leave of absence this season to fight covid back home in Quebec. Because he’s a doctor. Who earned his MD during NFL off-seasons. Tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz missed the Super Bowl with injuries. The Chiefs shuffled linemen around and threw a backup in to start. As soon as I heard that in the pregame show, I had thin hopes for a Chiefs win.
(It didn’t help that, with Tyreek Hill shut down by Tampa’s two high safeties, Travis Kelce was a needed option in KC’s passing game, which meant he went out to catch much more than he stayed in to pass-block.)
I repeatedly tell people that offensive lines win football games. The guys no one knows by name are the key to the whole thing. Only they allow the glory boys like Brady and Mahomes to shine in the spotlight.
Super Bowl LV was a prime example why.
This principle applies to much more than sports.
The history books continually say that “Lee won Chancellorsville” or “Grant won Spotsylvania Courthouse” when the victories were won by thousands of men forgotten by the history books who were doing their jobs the best they could. Ferdinand de Lesseps gets the credit for building the Suez Canal when thousands of engineers and laborers are glossed over.
To translate a passage from Bertolt Brecht’s poem Fragen einen Lesenden Arbeiters (Questions of an Educated Workingman):
‘Alexander conquered India.’
Remember the men and women who do thankless jobs. If you’re one of them, rest assured, I know what you do. I grew up with you. I see you behind the wheels of tractor-trailers, on construction sites, at the refineries lining state highway 225 in Pasadena, Texas, and in factories and farms across the USA and around the world. I have the utmost respect for you.
If you’re quarterback, the general, the CEO, the star of the show, remember this: Contrary to the potted history Brecht quoted, Alexander didn’t conquer India. He barely entered the country before his soldiers refused to march further. Without them, he could do nothing. Without people like them, neither can you.
I have a Q&A about my new story in Analog, and related topics, online now. Check it out at The Astounding Analog Companion.
I have a story in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Analog. “Riddlepigs and the Cryla” is my first appearance there and the first story in the Portia Oakeshott, Dinosaur Veterinarian series. On newsstands now.
This is a really cool experience for me. Analog helped form my interest in reading and writing science fiction when I discovered it on the magazine rack at the supermarket in my home town back in the summer of ’84. It feels a little like coming full circle to have a story there.
And it won’t be the last one. Be on the lookout for more of my published works in Analog throughout 2021. Or check back here.
I wrote my earliest stories using a range of tools, from my dad’s old manual typewriter to Bank Street Writer on the Commodore 64. After I got a real job and disposable income, I bought a PC and used Microsoft Word, because every writer used a word processor, right?
After a decade of that, when I switched to Linux in 2011, I stayed in the word processor paradigm, using LibreOffice Writer as my main writing tool for years, well into my independent publishing career.
But word processors are not built for generating electronic books or PDFs for upload to print-on-demand publishers, like IngramSpark or Kindle Direct Publishing. Sure, most word processors have an “export to epub” button, but if you inspect the raw HTML inside that epub, there’s a whole lot of conversion cruft that bloats file sizes. Plus, a formatting fix doable with one edit in a CSS stylesheet is practically impossible if you have to do it for every paragraph of an epub.
“Print to PDF” is worse. It’s a pain in the a$$ to manually add page breaks at the end of page 1 of a chapter and tweak heights of blank lines to get text to line up from a left page to a right.
On top of that, word processors have a million settings, almost none of which a writer needs. A book is 99% plain text, with markup usually only required for italics and, very rarely, bold.
If word processors are overkill for composing and ill-designed for publishing, what’s solution did I arrive at?
I write stories in the Markdown markup language. Plain text, italics, bold, HTML headings that can become chapter titles, and a few other tricks I haven’t had call for yet but would love to use someday.
To generate publishable formats, I run my Markdown file through Pandoc to generate epub and LaTeX files. Multiple tools can convert ebooks from epub to mobi format for Amazon’s ecosystem (I use Amazon’s kindlegen command line tool). LaTeX is a complex beast, but I concatenate my LaTeX manuscript with boilerplate front matter and back matter and make a few edits to get to a print-interior PDF. No tweaking blank line heights or manually adding page breaks.
Pandoc can also convert Markdown to ODT, a word processor format, if I’m working with an editor who wants to receive manuscripts as .doc or .rtf files. LibreOffice Writer gets me the last mile on that conversion.
Since Markdown is basically plain text with a little markup, any text editor will do. After using Kate (the text editor shipped with the KDE Desktop Enviornment), I took the plunge into Vim. My advice if you’re switching to Vim: use Vimtutor. A great way to climb Vim’s notoriously steep learning curve.
Information management is the only other thing I need. I’ve used Zim, a personal wiki for your desktop. In my quest to vimify my workflow, I’ve tried various wiki plugins for vim. Lervag’s wiki.vim is my current choice. I’m manfully resisting the urge to fire up Emacs to see if org-mode is as great an information manager as people say.
Some of you might have seen that my short story collection Constitution 2050 was mentioned at Instapundit.com. If you didn’t, you can read the article here.
I’ve been reading nonfic about politics, government, and socio-political cycles lately. Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, Oren Litwin’s Beyond Kings and Princesses: Government for Worldbuilders. Good stuff. If you read between the lines, the former is a good anecdote to the Whig history every American is exposed to by government schools.
These books and their concepts have been pinging off things that have been in my mind for a while, like Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy (“all complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they are when started, eventually develop into [rule by an inner party of elites]”) and Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy (“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely”).
Which leads me to propose an Iron Law of Iron Laws. I’ll gladly claim credit for it, but it won’t surprise me if someone beat me to it.
If a purported iron law isn’t the most cynical and pessimistic interpretation of a process or system, it isn’t an Iron Law.
In the first three posts in this blog series, I’ve pointed out that, if high tech civilization collapsed and we reverted to the technology of the year 1750, you wouldn’t like it.
- There’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death.
- If you were among the 10% of survivors, you’d have a 90% chance of being a farmer on the edge of starvation.
- If you made it into the 1%, in many ways, you’d still live worse than most poor Americans live today.
I can see only one thing that might make a normal person think all those negatives would be worthwhile. If one truly believed a hard reset to 1750 technology is the only way to save the world from global cooling, global warming, ocean acidification, tropical deforestation, desertification, habitat loss, mass extinction, or whatever other environmental or societal apocalypse might be brewing, then I can understand the belief that the hard reset to 1750 is worth it. (I don’t agree with that belief, but that’s beside the point).
There’s only one problem: you can reset society to 1750, but society won’t stay there.
Think about it. In 1750, western Europe and its North American colonies had 1750 technology. Why didn’t they stick with it instead of burning coal and petroleum, generating electricity, inventing chemical fertilizers, and everything else we see in the world of 2020?
- Malthus. Population growth essentially always bumps up against maximum food production. People in that situation will follow anyone who promises to avert famine for themselves and their children with new agricultural technqiues.
- International conflict. What did Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, the French Revolutionaries, the Non-French anti-Revolutionaries, and Napoleon all have in common? They wanted wealth and power by conquering foreign territories and harvesting their economic and technological production. All else being equal, when you want to conquer a foreign territory, bigger armies are better than smaller ones. Hence, rulers want to push back the Malthusian limit as much as their hungry subjects do.
- Mercantilism. The dominant ideology of the age called for countries to be as self-sufficient as possible, then export as much as they could to keep other countries from being self-sufficient. This promoted the Industrial Revolution, because the first country to industrialize can satisfy more of its wants and flood foreign markets with cheap goods. That explains Britain’s 19th century global dominance.
- Public health. Up until about 1900, cities were net killers of people. Only a constant flow of young people from the countryside replenished the people who died from crowded and unsanitary conditions. In addition to pushing back the Malthusian limits on their subject populations, rulers also want to keep their soldier-age men alive to fight today’s wars, and their young women alive to be mothers of the soldiers in the wars of tomorrow. Mercantilist factory owners want healthy workforces.
All of those reasons worked together, to goad western Europe and its daughter colonies into increasing agricultural productivity, industrial productivity, military prowess, and medical advances. Which then led to an upward spiral to the world of automobiles, computers, and telecommunications.
“In Europe,” you might protest. “Other societies live in harmony with nature—”
No. Just no. Maybe your sociology prof said Rousseau proved non-Westerners were noble savages, or Frantz Fanon proved non-whites were superior to Europeans. But if he did, he was either stupid or lying. Why did the rulers of the Mayan city-states order their peasants to clear-cut the Yucatan peninsula hundreds of years before the Spanish conquest? How did almost 500 Native Americans end up in a mass grave 150 years before Columbus landed? Why did the Manchu Dynasty buy artillery from Imperial Germany? Why did western African rulers sell their criminals, foreign POWs, and already-enslaved Africans to European slave traders? That’s easy: the western African rulers needed money to buy European guns and gunpowder..
Even if the hard reset to 1750 magically got rid of all the white people on Earth, the social forces encouraging technological development would remain.
The resources needed for technological development would remain, too. The world has about 900 billion tons of coal reserves. If world population plummeted by 90% and per-capita coal consumption by 90%, those 900 billion tons would last up to about 10,000 years. More than enough time for technological growth to start back up again and get us back to the energy-intensive world of 2020. With even more coal burning and less use of cleaner fossil fuels like methane than we have today.
Does that mean whatever disaster you wanted to avert by a hard reset to 1750 would inevitably occur? No. Let’s tackle them in turn.
climate change and ocean acidification
If we don’t burn fossil fuels to provide most of our energy, where can we get it?
Wind power? The wind farm on I-35 in southern Oklahoma is an impressive engineering project. The photo doesn’t do it justice. (That gray, treeless area on the ground between the center and right turbines is I-35). However, wind fluctuations mean you can’t rely on it, and you need a lot of very large turbines.
Solar power? Enough sunlight falls on the Earth that, if you could convert 0.001% of it to electricity, you would get about 1.7 TW of power. For the whole world to use electricity at US consumption levels, we would need about six times that. Possible? Yes. Something we can roll out in the next decade? No.
Now, there is an energy source that can provide a steady, predictable amount of power, even on cloudy and windless days, without emitting CO₂. Not only is it possible, some civilized entities with competent engineers—you might have heard of “the U.S. Navy” and “France”—have safely generated electricity with this technology for decades. And in the long term, we can generate enough fuel for it to provide current US per-capita consumption levels of electricity to the entire world for 5 billion years.
tropical deforestation, habitat loss, and mass extinction
These are problems only because of Malthus. If we want to feed 8 billion people, we need a lot of farmland. How much?
At US levels of agricultural productivity, it takes about 3 acres to feed 1 person a US diet of grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and varied proteins. To feed 8 billion people, we’d need about 100 million square kilometers. Earth’s land area is about 150 million square kilometers, of which today about 50 million is devoted to agriculture.
Does that mean we need to clearcut the Amazon to double Earth’s land used for agriculture? Though I don’t consider myself a green, I wouldn’t want that. How else can we feed all the people on Earth?
Don’t eat like Americans? Mainly, cut way back on meat, especially lamb and beef. That’s a tough sell. Not just to white American men who think meat three times a day is their birthright. Every non-white immigrant I know wants that option, which suggests their ancestors would have eaten like us if they could. Yes, Hindu-Americans might eat only chicken and fish, but they want a rich and varied diet that’s not too different from the rest of us. Market forces suggest that the more demand for food from land, the price of inefficient ways of getting food from that land, i.e., raising meat, will rise until people by less of it.
Feed fewer people? I assume you mean encouraging small families of less than 2.0 children so that population declines naturally, and not the deliberate murder of billions. Most countries have already made this transition. Problem is, the poorest haven’t. If they adopt high-tech, US-style agriculture, the incentive to have many children goes away, because kids then become extra mouths to feed instead of farm laborers who raise more food than they consume. But even then, it would take decades for their populations to decline from their peaks, let alone to levels below where they are today.
Get more food per acre? This is my preference. It’s something human beings have been doing for 10,000 years. Societies with lots of energy at their disposal (see above) can convert some of that energy into food and use some of it to power research. More efficient irrigation (or more plentiful fresh water supplies, with surplus energy, distilling fresh water from the oceans is trivial) would improve the food/acre ratio for deserts and the like. Nitrogen fixing crops could reduce the need for chemical fertilizers while giving comparable yields. Yes, this latter would require genetic engineering.
But which is worse, a world and its 8 billion people saved by genetic engineering and nuclear power, or a world where you have a 90% chance of dying before you get there and, if you do get there, a 90% of working in low-tech agriculture for the rest of your life, which your sacrifice hasn’t even saved?