Monday, October 22, 2007

The Looming Liquid Nitrogen Shortage

I went to the dermatologist today for my six-month checkup. As always, she came into the examination room with a container of liquid nitrogen in one hand and a cotton swab in the other and attacked my skin. Ow! Ow! I hate that stuff and the process involved - i.e., freezing off various growths before they can become dangerous - but it's the price I pay every six months for being red headed and fair skinned and for having tanned and roasted every summer as a kid and teenager. Most of that in Africa, to boot.

People are affected differently by the application of LN2 to them. Daniel once told me that it didn't bother him at all and felt just like a pin prick. For me, it's very painful. I can feel every cell screaming in agony, I tell you!

Okay, that's enough self-pity for one post. Now I await the blossoming of red splotches on my forehead, so that I'll look evilly diseased just in time for the local science fiction convention, Mile Hi Con, next weekend.

Oh, and if you go to a doctor and need something frozen off but are told that it will have to wait because of a nationwide shortage of liquid nitrogen, you'll know why.

Friday, October 19, 2007

David's Definitions for November 2007


(Appeared in the November 2007 issue of Community News)

To vilify someone is to say extremely nasty things about him. Those things may be true or false, just so long as they're really nasty. Its root is the Latin word vilis, meaning cheap. The English word vile comes from the same root. In both cases, the words acquired much stronger meanings in English. Vilify isn't commonly used in conversational English, but we can expect to see it in action a lot during the upcoming election season. The candidates will be vilifying each other. Vilification will fill the air.

(Oh, this is embarrassing! I copied the above from the e-mail I sent to the editor, and I noticed that I had typed it's root instead of its root. Aargh! And now it's too late to fix it. How could I have done that? Sheesh.)

I'm collecting all of these at:

Friday, October 12, 2007

Messy, Complex Ethnic Foods

This evening, Leonore and I went out for a light Vietnamese meal. We shared what the restaurant calls Fisher Man Soup - a hot and sour broth filled with mung bean sprouts and a medley of parts of creatures that once lived in water - and egg rolls.

This is an egg roll dish that comes with six shortish Vietnamese egg rolls and plates of lettuce leaves and rice threads and bean sprouts and mint leaves and cucumber slices and shredded carrots and other shredded stuff, plus bowls of fish sauce. You lay a lettuce leaf on a plate, then you put an egg roll and an assortment of the other stuff on the leaf, then you roll the leaf up, then you dip one end of the rolled-up conglomeration in fish sauce, then you stuff that end in your mouth and gnaw off a big bite, then you make grunting animal noises of delight while you chew and swallow. And of course, this not being your native cuisine, you make a mess.

Between bites, we were congratulating each other on making much less mess than in the past. After all these years of trying, we're finally getting the hang of it.

And then it struck me. What if the Vietnamese don't really eat this way at all! What if it's a huge con game, a setup, so that they can laugh at us as we spill sauce and stuff all over the table while thinking that we're really doing this ethnic thing well. All of those ethnic places where we have tried so hard over the years to master the art of eating complex, messy ethnic foods in a genuine, proper, ethnic way - what if it's all a trick designed to make us look stupid? Successfully, at that. What if they're all in cahoots?

I expressed this fear to Leonore around mouthfuls of scrumptious, if messy and complex, Vietnamese egg roll assemblages. She pointed out that we've seen Vietnamese at adjoining tables eating the same dish in the same way. Much more neatly, too, which implies that they've had much more practice, starting at an earlier age, which implies that they really do eat that dish that way. I said that that just shows what a carefully thought out conspiracy it is and how long it's been going on.

You see, just can't trust foreigners. Immigrants are devious by their very nature. The only people you can depend on to be straight with you, whom you can trust not to make up ridiculous stories, are native-born Americans!


Thursday, October 11, 2007

The German Salute

In Nazi Germany, what we think of the Heil Hitler gesture was officially called The German Salute. The Nazis wanted Germans to think that greeting their friends by holding their hands up palm out and saying "Heil Hitler!" wasn't Nazi but typically German. A common joke among Germans at the time was that the real German salute was the surreptitious look from side to side to make sure no stranger was listening before speaking frankly with a friend.

I read about that while researching my novel Budspy, and I recognized it instantly. To me, it was The South African Salute, and I had seen it while growing up in Apartheid* South Africa.

I remember once watching my father and a neighbor circling around each other verbally at the beginning of a conversation. It turned out that they both wanted to attack the government, but they couldn't just come right out and do it. Instead, they had to sound each other out, make sure the other guy wasn't a government supporter who might inform the government about treasonous talk. Eventually, they each decided the other guy was safe, and then they launched into anti-government vitriol. As I remember, the starting point was that the postman was late that day, but complaints about the postal service quickly moved on to passionate agreement that the government was generally worthless.

That was in a police state. Remarkably, South Africa in those days still had a fairly independent press and judiciary. Well, how about us? We're not a police state at all, right? We're free, a great democracy, the light unto the world, the shining city on the hill. But people in our broadcast media have said that they won't even criticize Bush family members because that could look "unpatriotic". Fourth Estate? Hmph. They're an adjunct of the White House Office Of Propaganda. Our courts have become a stronghold of vile rightwing undermining of democracy. They don't defend us against oppression, they rationalize and uphold it.

This is what we've become. The German Salute and The South African Salute have become The American Salute.

* That's pronounced apart-hate**, not apart-hite.

** Because the suffix is Afrikaans, not German, and in Afrikaans the ei dipthong has a long a sound***, not a long i sound.

*** Because it does, that's why.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's Not Rocket Science

Because nothing is. Because there ain't no such thing.

I don't know when people starting saying It's not rocket science to indicate that something isn't very difficult. I'm sure I never heard that back when I was an aerospace engineer* - or, as some people would say, a rocket scientist.

But there's never been any such thing as rocket science. Even when the field was being pioneered by Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, or for that matter by unknown Chinese experimenters many centuries earlier, what they were doing was a branch of engineering, not science. The cutting-edge work is not trivial. The people who do it aren't dummies. But they're also not scientists; by any reasonable definition of the two terms, they're engineers.

Maybe I'd be willing to go along with the silly usage if I thought it was just an acknowledgement of the complexity of the work involved. What keeps me from doing so is the figure of the rocket scientist in popular entertainment. The latest and most bizarre example is the character Henry on the TV show Eureka.

I loved the first season of the show (the second season approached dangerously close to suckitude), and Henry is an interesting character and the actor who plays him is outstanding and should be far better known. However, Henry, who told the hero, Jack Carter, that he used to be an engineer and worked on the space shuttle, knows everything about everything. He's the generic TV/movie scientist - the guy who knows every science the plot requires him to know and who can do all the hands-on stuff brilliantly, while solving monstrously difficult scientific problems in one hour. But of course he can! He worked on the space shuttle! He's a rocket scientist!

Why, Henry even understands quantum mechanics. Hmph. Let me tell you, despite having played a part in sending man to the moon and the Viking lander to Mars, I still think that quantum mechanics is smoke and mirrors and electrons are little gray ball-bearinglike things that have a definite position and velocity vector.*****

* Yes, I mentioned that as a way of pulling professional or maybe rhetorical rank. I didn't endure seven years in the aerospace biz for nothing.** If nothing else, it gives me the appearance of authority when I have this argument with people

** Okay, I also got a draft deferment*** out of it during the Viet Nam war, which is certainly far from nothing.

*** Until they changed the rules because they were getting so desperate for bodies to send into the quagmire, but by that time I was a daddy, just like Richard "The Dick" Cheney, but in my case it was a happy circumstance, not something we'd cynically planned solely (and soullessly) for that reason.****

**** But that's another story.

***** Oh, probably not. What do I know? I'm just a rocket scientist.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Of course things will get worse before they get better

And they will also get better before they get worse. If things are not completely flat and stable, then they are presumably rising and falling. So, unless we're already at a trough, things will continue to get worse until they reach the trough, and then they'll start to get better. And similarly, unless we're already at a crest, things will continue to get better until they reach the crest, and then they'll start to get worse. Unless, of course, there is no trough ahead, and things will continue to get worse forever and ever. But history doesn't look like that. Human events as a sine wave!

I've heard people say for years that things will get worse before they get better. They say that as if it were a great, serious, somber insight. But it's pretty silly, really.

Here's another one: "I searched everywhere, and then I finally found it in the last place I looked!" Well, duh. That's because, once you found it, you stopped looking.

Occasionally I hear other standard lines that strike me as just as silly and obvious as those two, but those are the only ones I remember right now.

In the comments, chris mentioned this old cliché: "It's always darkest before the dawn." Does anyone really believe that? That would be as likely as it always being darkest right after sunset. Surely, if the only light in question is from the sun, then it's darkest at the midway point between sunset and sunrise. In practice, that would be complicated by moonlight and manmade light. Maybe at certain times of the lunar cycle, and if all the manmade light gets switched off in the wee hours, then on a given night it might just happen to be darkest before the dawn. But that would be a rare night.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

I hate

writing query letters.

Update: Daniel likes the book, Gary likes the book, Leonore doesn't know when she'll be able to read it, draft of query letter done. So the query will go out soon, and then I'll put the whole matter entirely out of my mind and not think about it again until someone, preferably an agent, mentions it to me. Book? What book? Oh, that one! Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten all about it.

Friday, October 05, 2007

How not to query an agent

One of the many ways, anyway. This example is on agent Kristin Nelson's excellent blog.

Darn. Now I have to revise that query letter I was working on!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

One Done Book

And one author whose brain has turned to mush and is off traveling somewhere in time.

On their blogs, various agents mention that they prefer that science fiction novels submitted to them not be longer than 120,000 words. (Subtext: unless you're already well established, in which case no rules apply to you.) At one point, Time and the Soldier was over 130,000 words. That was when I started trimming, trimming, trimming the fat while also filling in the remaining gaps. I think the result was an improvement, but for all I know, it made the book too terse. In any case, the ms. as it now stands is at about 119,850 words. Under the wire!

So now it's off to three beta readers. Gary, who comments here occasionally, is reading it for continuity. Daniel will read it for continuity and military details (there aren't many, but I want them to be correct, of course), if he's able to. He'll have to choose whether working on his PhD is more important than helping out his aged dad who used to drive him all over the city so that he could see if other public library branches had books he hadn't devoured yet, but I'd never put any kind of unfair emotional pressure on him. Leonore will read it at the level of individual scenes and prose but not for plot because time-travel stories drive her nuts.

As a longterm captive, I mean inhabitant, of the software biz, I find the term "beta readers" very amusing. Just thought I'd add that.

So after I get their comments back and make any adjustments (and of course I'm hoping they will be just adjustments, not major surgery because someone discovered a monstrous plot hole), I'll have to face the really hard part: the AAAIIIIEEEE! agent search AAAAIIIIEEEE!