Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dried Up Tuner

I bought a Korg tuner today, mainly because I have trouble keeping the bass strings on my guitar in tune.

It's a good metronome and a fair enough tuner. I proceeded to tune my guitar and my son's bass. I discovered a strange effect on my low E string. The open string E is in tune, but the first fret F is almost 50 cents sharp. The tuning gets better as I go up the fretboard. I always thought that string sounded a bit strange, but that F is darn close to an F#. The other strings don't have that problem.

Anybody have an idea why this might happen?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hard SF

Let's continue yesterday's discussion. Just what is hard SF?

Hard science fiction is a story where some aspect of science or technology, usually speculative, is so critical that the story collapses when it is removed. Imagine Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama without Rama. No story. (Side note: the linked Wikipedia article claims Morgan Freeman is planning to make a movie of this story, to be released in 2009.)

Clarke's novel is also a good example of a mileau story. I won't summarize it here because the Wiki article does a fair job. The story is about Rama.

Hard science fiction is not for everyone, but those who like it really eat it up. I believe most readers who would enjoy hard science fiction are reading its close cousin, the techno-thriller. The techno-thriller reader thrives on information and wants to know about all the details. They want to know how the submarine works. They want to know how the missile was launched.

Hard science fiction has a lot in common with the techno-thrillser. Hard science fiction readers want to know how the spacecraft propulsion works. They want to know about the orbital mechanics of that trinary star system.

If hard SF has so much in common with the techno-thriller, why is hard SF a dying art? I've heard the arguement that science is getting too complicated for not only the readers, but also the writers. Balderdash. There are plenty of writers who understand what's happening in research today because some hard SF writers participate in that research as their day job.

No, I think the reason is more superficial. Sci-Fi, which I consider a derogatory term for most Hollywood productions that pretend to be science fiction. (In some circles, it's considered an insult to refer to serious science fiction as "sci-fi." Much preferred is SF, though the bookstore employees might not understand what you mean. Sad.)

Hollywood "sci-fi" is generally not considered serious unless you refer to how much they take to the bank. There are exceptions. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind, as does A Clockwork Orange. The vast majority are either dreary bores or simply flashing lights (to borrow a term from Harlan Ellison).

Most of the techno-thriller readers I know are the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead watching Battlestar Galactica, especially the original. Put a copy of Ben Bova's Mars in their hands and I think they will discover they really enjoy the sub-genre of hard SF. I've seen it happen before. The problem is, these readers think of R2-D2 and spaceships that roar in a vacuum, and that turns them off when you recommend a good hard SF book to them. If they can get past the stigma of sci-fi, most would really enjoy hard SF.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What is Science Fiction

I managed 890 words on Rigel Kentaurus today, which brings to mind the comment I made yesterday about discussiing hard SF today. Just what is science fiction?

Most people picture movies like Star Wars or the television show Star Trek when they think about science fiction. Wrong. What, you say? Star Wars isn't science fiction?

Part of the problem facing true science fiction today is the misconception of what is embodied in the genre. In order to discuss that, we need to define exactly what science fiction is. That's not necessarily an easy task, but I do have a definition to throw out. I'd better have one if I write the stuff. You'll find much disagreement, and as many definitions as there are writers, but this is the one I work by.

Science fiction, quite simply, is an extrapolation of today into tomorrow by posing the question 'what if?'. That definition is extremely broad, and encompasses hard SF of the type Arthur C. Clarke wrote. It also encompasses dystopian socio-fiction of the type Philip K. Dick wrote. It also contains pseudo-fantasy like Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey.

There is one other aspect to my defintion. Almost every science fiction story has a bit of what Larry Niven calls bolognium. Simply, the writer needs to break a rule of science to make the story work. That's okay provided it's kept in perspective. In his book Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold says the typical writer can get away with one major bit of bolognium without raising any red flags with readers. A good writer can get away with two. It takes a grand master to get away with more than two. For the rest of us, by passing two, you leave the realm of science fiction and enter that of science fantasy.

People will argue over the definition of science fantasy also, but my defintion excludes anything that involves magic. Preposterous technology, yes. Magic, no. So are you getting the picture? Where does Star Trek fall on this spectrum? Warp Drive, subspace radio, transporters, the Vulcan Mind Meld, shape-changing creatures, tachyons, parallel universes. Shall I go on? Clearly, Star Trek is, by my definition, science fantasy. Where does that leave Star Wars?

Star Wars walks a narrow tightrope between techno-fantasy and future fantasy--where technology and magic are mixed liberally. It really depends on your interpretation of "The Force," but to me it's just another name for magic.

Tomorrow, I'll go into more detail about what makes a story hard science fiction.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A New Idea

Believe it or not, I recently had the kernel of a fantasy novel jump into my head. Anybody who knows my writing also knows that I rarely write fantasy. I tend toward the hard SF* side of the spectrum. Part of the problem with me and fantasy is the same reason I don't really care for superhero stories. I'm not interested in extrordinary people doing extrordinary things. I much prefer a story where an ordinary person does something extrordinary.

So why a fantasy novel? Several reasons come to mind.
+ It sells better than SF (alas).
+ All novels are fantasies at some level--I mean, it ain't real.
+ To show I can write fantasy.
+ A story about people can be set anywhere.

This last reason has influenced my decision on settings in the past. In my story The Great Basikisk Race (appearing this summer in Tales of the Talisman) is a good example. It's a people story. The magic is incidental, more for flavor than critical to the story. The basilisks in the story could easily have been dinosaurs, alien creatures, or even elephants. In fact, one could argue that it isn't really fantasy because the magical aspect isn't critical to the story.

The novel I have in mind is a little different in that magic will be integral to the story. Also, the main character will be ordinary, non-magical, and quite out of his league.

The story is still fermenting in my mind, and I still intend to finish Rigel Kentaurus first.

* I should blog about this term and throw out my definition. Might make a good topic for tomorrow.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Results are in

Today was make-up day for the Arizona Study Program piano evaluation and theory test for kids with a school-related absence during the main event last weekend. Audrey was on the school band trip to San Diego last weekend, so we drove into central Phoenix for her turn.

With the added pressure of knowing her sister scored a 98 on the level 5 exam, Audrey went into her level 6 exam with some nerves. They served her well, she scored an 84. Anything above 70 is passing. She played her pieces well, and only fumbled once on a cadence. She earned a purple ribbon for superior with honors, same as Reanna.

All this was after the post-500-mile oil change on the truck. On the way back from the evaluation, I stopped at the scout shop and spent far too much money. I spent more money at Leslies on parts for the baracuda.

First, I found a crack or cut in the flexible tubing that fits on the end of the cylinder on the upper right. Replaced it, and the thing still wasn't moving like it should.

If you unscrew the white ring on the cylinder, you can lift out the diaphragm, which is the only moving part. The diaphragm has a venturi that sits at the end of what looks like a handle, maybe a little lower. It has a tendency to crack after use, too. It was the first thing I checked and I didn't see the cut. In fact, I checked it four times before I saw the damage.

They changed the color of it again. Now the diaphragm is yellow and supposedly more robust. We'll see. After I replace the old white diaphragm with the new yellow one, everything worked fine. Stupid piece of hard rubber that costs $40. It can't cost more than a quarter to make the thing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Crossing the Finish Line

It happened sitting in traffic moving 5 MPH, about 0.15 miles from the Thomas Road bridge over northbound Loop 101. I crossed the 500 mile mark on my new cylinder heads. My restriction to 55 MPH is finished once I change the oil.

Let me tell you, driving 55 while people are blowing past you at 75 or more (yes, even in the ramp lanes) is not fun.

Tomorrow should be fun. I have to change the oil on the truck first thing in the morning, then Audrey has her make-up piano evaluation and music theory test. After that, I have so much yard work I might just have to carpet bomb back there. Wonder if the Air Force might be interested in some target practice--namely the rogue Bermuda grass.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Still in the Funk

I don't know whether it's residual work stress from November to March events, or if it's just from the difficulties of geriatric care simultaneous with child care, but it manifests itself as a sort of mental malaise. I've written 4422 words so far in April, but that includes 11 days of writing nothing. I don't really know what the problem is, but I suspect it's just trying to tolerate all the stress.

I'm still driving 55, but the new cylinder heads will cross the 500-mile mark tomorrow. Change the oil on saturday morning and I can drive faster, though I plan to ease it up--60, 65, and of course I never drive faster than 65. Yup.

The single mother of one of my son's friends got in an accident this evening while the boys and I were at scouts. I got a third-hand request to take him home. On the way back, the road was blocked and we saw the car. Front end all smashed in, airbag deployed, the whole 9 yards. After a round-about way to get across the street, we dropped hom off. Fortunately, his mother walked away from the accident.

Didn't touch the guitar today and it's too late now. Have a conference call in the morning. Another one of those things that never end.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wreck of the Ella Fitzgerald

I picked up a Gordon Lightfoot guitar book, mainly for the purpose of practicing chord changes. After goofing around with some of the songs, I discovered that The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald isn't particularly difficult to play. I'm not sure if that's because it's one of the few pieces where Lightfoot uses an electric guitar with overdrive turned on, or if it just doesn't need to be any harder to play. Regardless of the reason, I'm delighted because I can actually work on this song with some hope of learning it this year. I even get to use my capo for something other than goofing around. Fret #2 if you are interested.

While I'm linking Wikipedia articles, Codex Writers Group has a new Wiki page. Check it out.

Now if I can only get back to writing.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I had to wake up at 4:30 this morning in order to get Reanna to her school early. She left on her field trip this morning. This, less than 12 hours after Audrey returned from her band field trip to San Diego. I'm still dragging along.

Audrey had her piano lesson this evening and I managed to get a few hundred words written on Rigel Kentaurus. Not a lot, but even a couple hundred is better than leaving the project stagnant for a week. That's what happened last week.

Seems I've been writing stream-of-consciousness blogs lately, and today is no exception. Managed to practice guitar for about 30 minutes after the piano lesson. I must be getting the hang of it, because my hand can snap right to the first position G chord. While cleaning the other day, I ran across the copy of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (K622) that I had forgotten about. I tried to play it (albiet slowly) on my guitar, but I found the full octave runs of 16th notes to be a bit much for me, especially slurred. Maybe it would work better with a slide, but I doubt it. I put it back into the closet. One day I'll strap a reed back on my clarient.

I've got heavy eyelids, so rather than sleep here and post soemthing like this: ddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd, I'll just go to bed.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

One (of each) Down

Reanna took her piano evaluation yesterday. It includes 4 memorized pieces, one from each major period--baroque, classical, romantic, and modern. It also involves a theory test. Reanna is on level 5. We heard the results today, she passed the theory test with a 98%. She received superior on her performance.

Audrey returned from San Diego about an hour ago. The band field trip sounds like it was a great success, especially the visit to Sea World. Less than 12-hours later, Reanna leaves for her 6th grade field trip to Space Camp in California. Audrey takes here make-up evaluation next saturday.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Through the Drudgery

I finally finished it. That book cover that has graced my web site home page can finally move along. I finished the last 30 pages of History of the Goths this afternoon. Only 7 months; talk about efficient reading. I do confess to reading a couple other books during that time, including David Gerrold's When Harlie was One.

I started reading Dragon's Egg and want to finish it, but I can't right now. I lost the book. So, I'm not sure what I'll read next. I picked up a book on studio recording last night at Half Price Books. I may read that one next.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Random Musings

Not anything in particular to blog about tonight. Audrey is away on the band field trip to San Diego. Reanna has her piano performance and music theory evaluation tomorrow. I'm still driving 55.

I've been listening a lot to a song off Pink Floyd's Animals album. It really speaks to me, particularly the song Dogs. It hits far too close to home, especially the last verse.

On the topic of Pink Floyd, I picked up a guitar book with Astronomy Domine, a song written by Syd Barret off Floyd's first album. My ability hasn't progressed far enough to really play the piece, but it's fun to goof around with.

I have picked up the guitar almost every day for the past two or three weeks and I can see progress. For a guy used to an instrument that plays only one note at a time, getting used to chords is a challenge I'm getting there. I still have to look and most chords take me too long to get into position for, but they are coming.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New Heads

No, I'm not talking about noggins. I got my pickup truck back from the mechanic yesterday with a new pair of cylinder heads, a new radiator, and a nice restriction for the first 500 miles--speed limit 55. Today was my first commute in the right lane, all 22 miles each way. Now, understand that Loop 101 is a fast road. About two weeks ago all the traffic was moving at 75, with quite a few cars going considerably faster. Only near the speed cameras in Scottsdale did it slow down, and then, only to about 70. The cameras trigger at 76MPH. Usually drivers slow down to 55. I didn't have to.

55 max. I'm finding it incredibly difficult to drive 55 in a 65 zone. (Page down if you follow the link.)

Speaking of driving, the best song for the urban nightmare was written by the late Warren Zevon. The song? Gridlock.

Lyrics | Gridlock lyrics

Anyway, it's nice to be out of the Pepsi Can and back into my truck.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I, along with plenty of other Scottsdale parents, had a scare today. My wife called at noon to tell me she heard on the radio part of a news story about "a shooting at a Scottsdale middle school." As the parent of a middle school child, all sorts of thoughts raced through my mind.

I was in the lab at work when she called. I immediately went to my office and jumped on AZCentral. The brief story there told me the middle school under lockdown was Cocopah, and the suspect was last seen on a baseball field. Not my child's school, but uncomfortably close--about .707 miles (estimated using the Pythagorean Theorem from distances taken from a Google map, further details would bore you to tears).

I called my daughter's school to find out if they locked down also. No.

Much later, I learned the "shots fired" were probably a slamming car door heard by a student. So a couple of thoughts come to mind. Was Cocopah overcautious? Did the school take the appropriate action? Should other nearby schools have been locked down?

To me, the school and police took the right actions. We've seen too many examples of kids in a classroom used for target practice. Kids in a classroom are defenseless, and the school administration has the responsibility to protect the kids in their care. It's a fact of life after Columbine that kids can get shot at school. I would much rather have the school locked down as a precaution than be sorry after a tragedy.

Crossposted from my AZCentral Blog, This Space Intentionally Left Blank.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Perpetual Motion

April is getting into full swing. It's the time of year when the schools all have their major field trips, the music programs have recitals and evaluations, and the scouts start preparing for the upcoming summer camp.

It starts next week with my eldest daughter, Audrey. The middle school bands are heading to San Diego for three days of workshops and master classes. She gets back on late on sunday evening and the middle kid, my younger daughter Reanna, heads off to her school field trip at 5:00am the next morning.

At the same time, we shuffle piano lessons and make-up lessons. The annual piano performance and music theory evaluation is next weekend and we have a make-up for the kid on the band trip the following weekend.

The only kid staying put, my son Russell, will be going to scout camp in May. Right now, he's working on learning electric bass (aka bass guitar). He has a black Greg Bennet jazz bass that is apparently tough to play after jamming a finger playing basketball (friday's emergency). He doesn't normally play bass with a pick, but the jammed finger made him decide to go that way today.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

How Much Borrowing is Okay?

Sometimes when you're trying to start a new project, especially a long project like a novel, the brain can get into a condition where the wheels spin but there's no forward progress. It's like getting stuck in the snow.

My tires got stuck in the snow when I started Rigel Kentaurus, my novel-in-progress. The novel is part of a large story-arc involving multiple alien races and a many-sided conflict. Think of it as part one of my opus magnum. The problem? I didn't know the alien race that plays a major role in this story. Not knowing this alien race was a show-stopper.

I needed fuel for the old brain, so from the shelf I pulled a book on Gothic history. This was in November of last year. It did the trick, and I know the aliens a lot better now, but it got me to thinking. How much reality is okay to lift? I'm borrowing Gothic words, Ancient European place names, and a mish-mash of Gothic, Hunnic, and Roman history. But now much of this is okay? How much can a writer use without changing names, words, and culture?

It's pretty clear that World War II had considerable influence on George Lucas and Star Wars. Stormtroopers--say no more.

So, it's something that a writer must consider. There will be readers who know where you got the information. Does it matter?

And by the way, if you've been to my web site, you probably noticed that Gothic history book still listed as "currently reading." I haven't forgotten to update the page, I've still got about 75 pages left.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Thrice Around the Earth

You can now read my story Thrice Around the Earth and then Home, James in The Martian Wave.