Monthly Archives: October 2011

Happy Halloween

First off, before I get into a rather lengthy rant about Halloween that transforms into a bit of a rant of political correctness, I want to wish you all a safe and happy Halloween! Be safe, don’t eat already-opened candy, and egg any houses that give you pennies instead of delicious sweet treats. 😉

Halloween has long been one of my favorite holidays. One of my first truly vivid memories is of a Halloween party when I was three or four where my parents dressed me up as Dracula. It was a wonderfully fun time and in the years since (and I’ve dressed up almost every year, save the last couple) I’ve come to appreciate it more and more as a holiday. Not once have I ever seen it as a pagan or satanic type thing. In fact I genuinely feel sorry for kids who have parents that are so hypersensitive about religion as to treat Halloween like some evil, horrible, devil worshiping holiday and thus forbid their children from engaging in the fun.

I don’t really care about the history attached to Halloween (though I’m well aware of it, you can read more about it here), in modern usage Halloween is a time to let your imagination run wild and dress up as the scariest, funniest, craziest, and in some cases raunchiest thing you can imagine. The kids go around and get candy from the rest of the neighborhood (if for no other reason than to foster a sense of community within a neighborhood, I think Halloween trick’or’treating should be encouraged rather than dying out as it seems to be around here), the adults go have drinks with each other while dressed up, etc. The vast majority of people don’t in any serious way link Halloween to Satan as a lot of hardcore Christians try to, it seems.

Not to say I don’t think they have every right to feel uncomfortable with their children participating. They’re the parents, the decision should be theirs. If they’d rather their child attend a (very poorly named) Jesusween event or any of a myriad of “fall festivals” in lieu of celebrating Halloween, more power to them. But don’t attack others as godless heathens because they disagree with you. The free and open exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of this nation, and one I believe in very strongly as a writer. The marketplace of ideas is where I want to make my living, and if that marketplace is choked off by bigotry, incivility, and general hatred then we are all the poorer for it.

Political correctness is, to me, just as dangerous as hate speech. If we’re not allowed to refer to things in any manner but euphemism, we can’t ever really deal with those problems. It genuinely angered me, for example, when there was talk of removing “nigger” from Mark Twain’s works, replacing it with the more innocuous “slave.” Not because I have anything against African-Americans, quite the contrary. If we decide to (forgive the term) whitewash our history and go back and sanitize older works (particularly Twain’s, which were in large part meant to skewer the racist attitudes of the reconstruction-era south), how in the hell are we ever going to learn from our mistakes or see just how far we’ve progressed?

150 years ago black people were considered property in much of the nation and today we have a half-black man as president. That is a wonderful thing, whether you agree with his politics or not. Should we just ignore all the struggles in between that made his rise possible? I don’t think so. Our nation has a pretty ugly history with regard race relations; trying to go back and pretend that never happened by revising classic literature dealing with the issue is, in my opinion, far more offensive to African Americans than the usage of “nigger” in the text of his work. Of course I say this as a white man, so take the statement with a grain of salt I suppose.

And don’t think I’m simply fixating on African Americans. We treated the Native Americans horribly as well, we interred the Japanese during WWII (Jamie Ford can tell you all about that in his wonderful novel), we distrust Hispanics and even go as far as calling them invaders simply because some come here seeking a better life for themselves, and as far as I’m concerned being gay in America today is pretty close to being black in America in the 1950s: tacit acceptance in places, but with a heap of bigotry and intolerance being spewed all over the place. I can’t help but think we NEED those old, “non-PC” texts, even disregarding their vast literary merit, simply as a reminder of our own screwed up past.

But the reason I come back to racism/slavery specifically with regard to African Americans is because of an article making the rounds about hockey player Raffi Torres going to a Halloween party as Jay-Z. There are people calling him intolerant and bigoted. In the article linked a blogger named Thomas Drance went so far as to say such a costume is entirely off-limits. I hate to break it to Mr. Drance, but nothing should be off-limits. When you start making things off-limits, you degrade society and choke off the marketplace of ideas.

For the record, here is a picture of the “offending” costume:

I’m sorry, but I don’t see that as anything approaching the Vaudevillian “black face” that triggered such hubbub and stands as a throwback example of racism. If you want to see REAL “black face” in a Halloween costume, take a look at this picture of my own family from 39 Halloweens ago. It was Savannah, GA and a different time so I can’t take them to task too harshly for it, though I did tell my mother–who isn’t one of the two children in black face here and, indeed, based on her facial expression it looks like she wasn’t having the best of times (she’s the tallest one in the picture)–how terribly inappropriate that costume was when I found the picture.

That is inappropriate. That is offensive. That is in bad taste. But even that shouldn’t be OFF-LIMITS. If someone chooses to do something like that, they should simply face the consequences of their action. Scorn them, tell them they’re ignorant, but don’t try to deny them their right of free choice. Because as soon as you tell one person it is illegal to have a certain opinion or dress up a certain way, you open up a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.

And ultimately as a writer, I think the most important thing we have is the ability to express ourselves freely without worry of legal backlash. We can be sued for the things we write, sure, but we should never be censored or banned (the fact that book bans are still so prevalent in our supposedly free nation drives me up a wall, but that is a topic for another day). The good and righteous ideas will rise to the top, the hate-filled and ignorant ones will fall to the bottom.

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Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

all background images copyright their respective owners

Hello and welcome to the first installment of Science Saturday! This week’s stories range from amateur mapping of dark matter  to smartphone integrated prosthetic limbs (and also go back a little beyond the last week since this is my first entry). Along with a link to each article I’ll provide a little “reaction” blurb describing my thoughts on it.

How a Team of Enthusiasts Are Mapping Dark Matter
Dark matter and dark energy combined are estimated to account for over 95% of the mass-energy of the universe (dark matter ~23%, dark energy ~72%), so obviously any attempt to truly understand the structure of our universe must include the mapping of dark matter and dark energy. The fact that scientists from a variety of fields are already working on ways to do so is quite exciting, and this contest was an amazing move by JPL, but even more exciting to me is the methodology used by the winning entry.

While mapping the universe’s mass-energy distribution is fascinating, the near-term usefulness to us here on Earth is questionable. The methodology Kirkby and Margala used, however, is quite interesting in its novelty. Combined with the July news of an artificial neural network created out of DNA, it isn’t a huge leap to imagine truly intuitive artificial neural networks mapping out vast swaths of our universe in the not-too-distant future

Astrophile: Undead stars rise again as supernovae
No, this isn’t an article about a zombified Noel Gallagher. Rather it discusses one possible progenitor of type 1a supernovae, the brightest and most violent explosions we know of in the universe. A single type 1a supernova can outshine an entire galaxy. If the hypothesis of these scientists is correct, observing one in progress would be huge step forward in our understanding of dark energy and, paired with the above article, could really help us begin to understand the true make-up of our universe.

Things were so much simpler when we thought the universe was only made up of things we could actually observe directly, huh? Now in order to solve one mystery we must solve a dozen others, with no guarantee that solving those will lead to a solution to the original mystery.

New Measurements Size Up Distant Dwarf Planet Eris As Pluto’s Twin
Sorry “Pluto is a planet” crowd but I’m on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s side of that argument. The measurements taken last year reveal Eris to be approximately 1,445 miles in diameter (compared to Pluto’s 1,432), making it Pluto’s virtual twin in many respects. Eris is also one of the brightest objects in the solar system, much brighter than scientists initially thought. While all of that is interesting, most interesting about the article to me is the way they took these measurements. As the quality of our telescopes continues to improve, I’m excited to see what else we can learn about the planetary and sub-planetary bodies in our solar system via stellar occultation and other methods.

Shaken, Not Stirred: Scientists Spy Molecular Maneuvers
I’ll be honest: this article is mostly over my head. However I’m truly fascinated by the emerging field of nanotechnology and these peptoid sheets seem like they could be a real step forward in developing workable nanotechnologies. My first real exposure to nanotechnology as an eventual “next step” in personal computing came with the neural nanonics of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, and I can’t help but think that is one area where he got our future absolutely right. If these peptoid sheets are the first step toward that, they are a truly exciting development.

Programming Cells to Home in On Specific Tissues May Enable More Effective Cell-Based Therapies
This article fascinates me primarily in relation to the one immediately preceding it here. Assuming that the peptoid sheets above are the first step toward viable, large scale use of nanotechnology, then the ability to program “homing beacons” into these nanotechnologies will allow for direct targeting of injured tissue for repair or, in the case of the neural nanonics mentioned above, graft onto existing tissue to improve their function. We truly could be on the verge of one of those science fiction “holy grails” that seemed impossible only a few decades ago: nano-bots repairing and reordering our cell structures in order to combat aging, illness, and a host of other things.

Planet search finds lots of little guys
I remember reading the news of the first exo-planet to be discovered orbiting a main sequence star with breathless excitement. It didn’t matter that it orbited far too close to the star to support “earth-like” life, it was beyond exciting to my ten year old imagination.

Reading this article brought back that same prickle of excitement. Long ago I made the assumption in my head that other relatively earth-like worlds MUST exist, it’s just a mathematical eventually. With this study’s suggestion that more than 50% of sun-like stars have planets around them, coupled with their findings that lower mass planets are apparently far more common than Jupiter-mass worlds, I can’t help but imagine some (if not most) of those worlds harbor life. Is there really any question that we aren’t alone in the universe? Mathematically, I don’t see how there could be.

UK Man Gets Prosthetic Limb With A Smartphone Dock Built In
So, Robocop or Bionic Barry he ain’t, but Mr. Prideaux is nonetheless on the cutting edge of prosthetic technology and, as the article says, one can’t help but imagine the possibilities for advancement upon such technology. This article struck me particularly due to my own disability (quite a few of the nerves suffered full avulsion in my case), because I have to be honest in saying there are times during my childhood where I wondered if I’d have been better off just having my arm lopped off and replaced with a prosthetic.

Even though a surgery in 2000 gave me a bit of use of my arm, if this technology advances to the point of true cybernetic limbs in my lifetime I may be forced to reconsider at some point in the future. We could be only a few short leaps away from that technology, especially if some of the technology in the articles above ends up panning out.

Enforcing a schedule

I was talking to my best friend this afternoon, trying to help him work through some self-esteem issues and generally get him back on his feet, when a piece of advice I threw out to him actually resonated quite well with me. Sometimes I surprise myself with such things; I pull things out of seemingly nowhere that actually make sense and are helpful. The collective subconscious? Something I’d heard once, filed away, and forgotten about until I need it? Who knows, I’m just glad that I can impart kernels of wisdom every now and then (at least I think they’re wisdom, could just be a bunch of drivel I suppose).

My advice to him today was that he needs to set a schedule for himself and stick to it. He’s been working on creating daily task lists for himself but hasn’t really been putting himself into a position to complete those task lists. Time management is his biggest issue and mine as well, so it was a subject that hit pretty close to home in our conversation. So I told him that, rather than simply give himself a task like “look for a job on Monster,” he should add a timeframe for that. Either a certain number of hours spent doing that, or a certain SET of hours within the day (i.e., “look for a job on Monster from 2pm to 4pm”). No matter what he does or doesn’t find in that timeframe, at least he spent it doing a task on his list.

Partition off every task like that, and before you know it you’ve got a full day where you’re actually DOING something rather than just sitting around wondering what to do next or how long the next task on your list will take you. Even as I write this blog I think I’m beginning to coalesce in my mind where the advice was pulled from:  I’ve been hearing for years now that in order to write successfully one must actually dedicate time to writing. Some people set specific wordcount goals for a day, other people simply set a specific amount of time aside to write, and yet others do some kind of mixture.

I’ve tried to apply that to my own writing habits with varying degrees of success. I will say that I definitely agree with the sentiment, as I said in my earlier blog on procrastination if I don’t write every day (or nearly every day) I tend to lose touch with the story I’m working on and find myself having trouble maintaining a consistent voice throughout. Having realized this, I’ve gone on to endeavor to write 1,500 words a day or for two hours, whichever comes LAST (i.e., if I hit 1,500 words in an hour I keep going until I get to two hours, or if I’ve  hit two hours and only have 800 words I soldier on until I hit 1,500).

In that same spirit of time management I’ve decided to enforce a schedule for myself on this blog too. A month into it now and, as you can see looking over the calendar to the right, I’ve been admittedly a bit scattered in my blog updates. As I try to move from “writer,” aka guy who likes writing stories, to “author,” aka guy who likes writing stories then makes a business of selling them, I’ve been reading tips on building a social network. One of the things I’ve seen over and over regarding blogging is that a consistent posting schedule, combined with worthwhile content of course, is a major key to having success in this vast and varied blogosphere.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to enforce a posting schedule for myself. With the exception of any spectacular news I just can’t wait to share with you, dear readers, from now on I’ll be posting four times a week.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will be my weekday posting schedule. These blogs will be on a fairly wide variety of subjects, though primarily writing, food, or hockey related (go Stars!), or some combination thereof. Starting tomorrow I’ll be using Saturdays to post up Science Saturday: a weekly compiling of links to various science/science fiction articles I’ve read and found interesting during the preceding week. Some Saturdays it will only be one or two things, others it might be a dozen or more; it all depends on what happens in science during that particular week.

An added benefit of this Science Saturday concept is the fact that it will force me to keep up with scientific knowledge. Given that my desire is to write more or less hard sci-fi, I think it will be a good use of my time even though some of it may not be directly related to writing.

I look forward to pushing forward with this blog in a more consistent and interesting fashion, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride as well.

My Writing Space

A lot of writers seem to have dedicated offices that they toil away in. I’ve read about how several writers pin rejection letters to their desk/wall above their monitors to encourage them to work that much harder. Negative reinforcement and the such. I’ve got to imagine that with the rise in laptops, netbooks, tablets, and the like, the number of writers toiling away in a dark room separated off from everyone else has decreased over the last decade or so. And with so much of the communication going electronic, do they now pin rejection notices to their computer’s desktop instead?

I do my writing out in the open on my ~5 year old HP laptop with my feet propped up on the ottoman. It’s comfortable. Sure I can be distracted more easily than if I locked myself away, but it just forces me to focus in on my work even more. Typically speaking I just throw in some headphones, plop down, and get to writing. I’m accessible but distant, because I’ve made it clear that when I’m in writing mode not to distract me unless it is genuinely important. I know I’m in a groove when the girlfriend takes a shower, walks the dog, and cooks dinner without me even being aware she’s moved off the couch.

My writing space

Maybe someday when I’m a rich and famous writer I’ll have a dedicated writing studio off my house or something, I don’t know. As it is right now my arrangement is as much necessity as choice unless I wanted to turn the closet or bathroom into an office. Studio apartments don’t really leave much room for segmentation and isolation. I’m just glad I can work in such conditions.

Optimistic Cynicism

Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m definitely a cynic. I don’t really see it as a personality flaw, after all there is plenty in this world to be cynical about. Politicians lie to us as a matter of course, lawyers are suing like crazy over more and more idiotic stuff, and the whole of America seems to be heading the way of ancient Rome. It’s become a hulking mass of failures propped up by other failures.

Joseph Schumpeter talked about the winds of creative destruction; a theory that basically says when something important (say, a major “too big to fail” bank) is destroyed, it opens space for others to step in and provide what that failed entity provided previously. Many of these new entities will be better run with stronger, more creative ideas than the entity they replace. It is a natural course of industry that some companies will fail and be replaced by others. Too big to fail does not exist, because if something is too big to fail then when it fails others will step in immediately to take up the slack and (this is important) the money that people were happily giving to the failing entity.

Where there is a demand, there will be a supply.

I say all of this to explain what feels at first blush, even in my own mind, like an internal contradiction. I expect the worst from man. We are a brutish, hateful, destructive species. We kill our fellow animals (human and otherwise) nigh indiscriminately. We visit evils worse than death on some, torturing members of the animal kingdom in the name of science or (even more disturbingly) in the name of “looking pretty” or “feeling good.”

It’s getting a bit off topic, but Adam Reed is one of my favorite TV writers (even though he totally stole my “acid in the face” bit that I’ve written into every long work … I don’t care if he came up with it first, I’d been writing it into things for years and have only been aware of him for about eight months, but I digress) and he had a great exchange in Sealab 2021 about animal testing:

“You can’t test drugs on humans! There are rules! Procedures! It has to be tested on animals first!”

“Why? Why does all the crap we consume have to be tested on animals first?”

“Because that’s–”

“–A rat doesn’t wear lipstick, okay? A rabbit doesn’t use hairspray! A monkey doesn’t need pills to get ramped up for hot monkey sex! It’s people, man! We’re miserable! So why SHOULDN’T we try it all first?”

“…Well, you’ve got a point there, actually.”

Getting back on topic, despite all that I can’t help but hope for the best even though I anticipate the worst. Despite our massive capacity for evil, there is real good in mankind too. I hope for the best, expect the worst, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised and get something in between.

(I had gone on a bit, but ye ole blog site ate the rest of the post and I don’t feel up to recreating it. Mostly it was reiteration of the above. Also: I got a new job today!)

The Final Goodbye

I’m a bit of an insomniac sometimes. Case in point: it’s almost 7am on Saturday but I refuse to accept that it is Saturday because I haven’t been to bed yet. Until I sleep it is still Friday, damnit!

But while I was sitting here, unable to write anymore for the evening as my brain hit that cut off point where it was too tired to do anything but  not tired enough to sleep, I was reading back through a few short stories I’d written over the last couple of years. I came across one I remember particularly enjoying writing (though until I stumbled across it buried seven levels deep in my writing folder I’d forgotten about it entirely), so I thought I’d share it (especially since it has a bit of a Halloweenesque slant to it, and it is that time of year).

Now I would note that according to my computer (hooray file created/last modified dates) I wrote this about three years ago. But I still like it, even if it is a little rough in places.

The Final Goodbye

by J.S. Joyner

The blanket rose and fell slightly with each breath. I watched it for a long time that night, softly backlit by the streetlamp’s fluorescent glow seeping in between the cracks in the blinds. I knew that it should have brought me comfort and eased me off to sleep, yet I lay wide awake staring at the rhythmic movement for hours. In hindsight I wish I had appreciated that evening; I wish I had understood the significance of that life force pulsing next to me. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have relished that evening more, but as it was I simply cursed my brain’s inability to shut itself off.

We had been married for three years, long enough for the honeymoon phase to be long dead but still too early for the monotony of married life to siphon off the romance completely. I still brought her flowers on occasion, not as often as I should have, and there was still passion in our lovemaking. Our marriage was no different than that of any number of other young couples, and yet it was destined to end abruptly.

The morning of the eighth day of May began like any other. I rose from bed shortly before dawn, cursing what little sleep I had gotten the previous night. Stumbling through my morning routine half asleep, I shaved, showered, and dressed for work. Had I known it would be our last day together, I would have done more than simply look in on her. I would have taken her up in my arms and lavished love upon her and held her. But instead I simply smiled in the doorway at her sleeping form, the blanket still rising and falling in a slow, gentle rhythm. Then I was gone, out the door and in my car sipping the morning coffee from my travel mug as the sun broke over the horizon.

It was a beautiful sunrise, the sky exploding into shades of purples, reds, and oranges as the sun made its fiery presence known in a nearly clear sky. Looking back on it now, it must have been the type of sunrise that has inspired painters and poets for centuries. But at the time all I could do was grimace and grope in my center console for sunglasses as I squinted into the fireball rising ahead of me, there was no time to enjoy its inherent beauty and awe inspiring power. There never was.

Even now I am unable to fully explain what happened next, there are some moments in our lives so unbearable that even the healing power of time cannot allow our minds to make sense of them. It began with an all-too-familiar screeching sound and I felt my body tense instinctively. The collision itself has been blocked from my memory, all I have is a snapshot of the moment that the other vehicle rode up over the top of my car’s hood, blotting out the sun that had been burning itself into my eyes a moment earlier. Then there was darkness, an inky black that enveloped me completely. Rather than hearing the carnage happening around me, I could hear nothing but the low, almost electric hum of my own body that we hear only in those moments of the most abject and total quiet.

I couldn’t say how long this state persisted, there was no sense of time passing as I was surrounded by this complete sensory depravation. It could have been seconds or hours, I had absolutely no way of knowing. It was an indescribable sensation, the best approximation I can offer is that it was like sensing that you can sense nothing. I am well aware that statement is itself a contradiction, and I can offer no clarification for it. I was simply existing in a state of nonexistence, I knew only that I existed because I thought that I must exist. Descartes would have been proud.

Eventually, or perhaps instantly since as I said before I had no concept of time, the veil of darkness lifted and I was standing at the foot of our bed. My wife lay before me, still fast asleep, looking exactly as she had when I left her that morning. For a few moments I simply stood there, trying to reason away what had happened as a dream. But deep down I knew that this was no dream, and I wouldn’t be able to stay for long. I stood there a moment longer, just looking at her, then spoke softly.

“Sweetheart?”

She didn’t stir at first, but after a moment she turned over and mumbled something. I moved to my side of the bed and slipped gently down next to her. With tears in my eyes I reached out and wiped the hair out of her face, causing her to stir again.

“You’re going to be late for work,” she mumbled without opening her eyes.

I smiled slightly and curled up next to her. After a moment I spoke again in a soft voice, “I don’t think that will be a problem. I want you to know that I love you, I always will.”

I put my head down on the pillow and looked at her face. I felt tired, more tired than I had ever felt in my life. My eyes traced her form and came to rest on the blanket, rising and falling exactly as it had been the night before, backlit now by the morning sun rather than the streetlamp. I mustered all the energy I could and whispered quietly, “I just wanted to say goodbye, sweetheart.”

Just then I felt myself receding away, leaving the bed empty save for her as I floated upwards.

“What the hell are you…” she trailed off as she opened her eyes and found herself alone in the bedroom. As I receded further she rolled over and sat up, reaching for her cell phone to call me.

But I was already gone.

Come at me bro

Didn’t really get any writing done today thanks to a busy day. Started this morning when a girl my girlfriend had been working for decided she wanted her money back despite the fact that the work was completed as far as she could take it without said girl’s further direction. Since we’re sharing one phone at the moment, that was a fun way to spend the morning arguing with this insane woman.

Things got better though as in the middle of the day I had a wonderful conversation with a potential employer that culminated in an appointment to interview on Monday. Not a job I could see myself loving, really, but the pay is good and I need the income. It will take a lot of stress off if I get it, and that could help my writing I think as I find I have a hard time writing when I’m stressed out.

Then a little bleed over from the morning insanity this evening culminated in the aforementioned girl’s boyfriend calling and threatening to “beat my ass.” That ended in a long chat with a police officer and the knowledge that if he shows his face around here he’ll most likely be arrested for assault by threat and criminal trespass. Why do I know people like this? I’m half hoping he does show up just because I will thoroughly enjoy watching the police drag his ass off to jail. A completely unacceptable escalation of complete stupidity on the part of his girlfriend. Hooray.

So I’m pretty exhausted, but I’ll try to do a little writing tonight. We’ll see if I can manage anything but right now I’m a weird mixture of excited (about the job) and pissed off (about the redneck). Something tells me good writing isn’t going to come out of me in this state of mind. Meh.