Archive for August, 2008

8/26/08: …and, done!

Word count: 4560 | Since last entry: 689

Finished up the story I started on Sunday (it’s titled “Galacic Stress,” and thanks again to Elise for that) at the coffee shop tonight, and sent it out for a real quick critique. It’ll go in the mail tomorrow.

Went to dinner afterwards with Jay, Karen, and Carole, where I managed to emit three witticisms in quick succession that literally left Jay speechless. He immediately blogged the first one, right there at the table, and the third one was “Did I make milk come out your nose? You aren’t even drinking milk, are you?”

None of us can remember what the second one was. But it was a good’un.

8/25/08: Big writing day

Word count: 3871 | Since last entry: 3299

Today started off at Rejuvenation, the lighting and house parts store, for lighting for the bathroom. (Me to Kate: “I want to go to Rejuv today.” Truly, we live in a science fiction world.) Demolition on the bathroom is currently scheduled to start on September 17 and we have to have all the lighting and other accessories in hand before then.

Shopping trips to Rejuv can easily take all day, but in this case we already knew pretty much what we wanted and we were back home, with lamps in hand, by lunch time. (All but one fixture, which will be shipped later this week.)

In the afternoon, while Kate went online in search of towel rods, toilet paper holder, and other such oddments, I sat down to work on a story inspired by something I’d learned at Launch Pad. This one really has to be in the mail this week, and although I started it yesterday, I only made about 500 words yesterday and I was concerned that I wouldn’t finish in time at that pace.

I needn’t have worried. I wrote almost 3300 words today (even with a trip to Rejuv and making dinner). That might conceivably be a personal record. I think this was possible largely because I’d already thought the story through quite thoroughly; also, it has a linear plot, only one real character, and is based on science stuff I already know pretty well (though I have a couple of web pages open for reference). As literary fiction it’s pretty thin, but I think it will work for the target market.

Now I need to come up with a plausible climax. I know what has to happen, but not exactly how. I don’t doubt I’ll finish tomorrow. The question is, should I even try to get a quick critique before I send it in? It would have to be 24-hour turnaround, and I don’t feel I can impose on my critique group as I haven’t been able to attend a meeting lately (nor will I, until October.)

To bed now. More writing tomorrow.

8/21/08: Hold harmless

Finished editing the magic lesbian plumber story and put it in the mail. Also finished putting the labels and stamps on the mailed copies of Bento #20. Also went to the gym, had lunch with a writer friend, and did some other errands.

I had a humungous list of to-do items when we got back from Denver. It’s now almost two weeks later and I’ve gotten most of the stuff in the “do today” and “do this week” sub-lists done, and part of the “do next week” list. I knew at the time the list was insanely ambitious, so this is reasonable progress. Still much to do before we leave for Farthing Party, a week from today.

One of those to-do list items is to blog about a contract issue. I mentioned this issue at lunch with some newer writers during the Worldcon, and they suggested that I ought to blog it as a public service announcement.

A while ago I got a contract from a market I’d never sold to before. It included the following clause:

Author hereby agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Publisher against any cost, loss, damage, expense and judgment resulting from any breach of Author’s warranties and representations herein, including, without limitation, any settlement payments and attorneys’ fees and expenses, costs and disbursements.

Can you spot the problem?

At first glance this seems harmless (you should pardon the expression) enough. It means that if I, the Author, mess up and violate the warranties set up earlier in the contract — that is, if the story is not original, or is not my own work, or has been published before, or contains slanderous or libelous material — it’s my fault and not the Publisher’s, and I have to pay the damages.

The problem here is that the clause is missing the magic words “action finally sustained.” As written, it enables the Publisher to respond to anyone who comes to them with an unsubstantiated claim like “this story of the Author’s sends out klystron radiation that sterilized my cat!” by saying “okay, here’s a million bucks” and it’s the Author, not the Publisher, who has to pay it (plus attorney’s fees and expenses).

Of course, you don’t expect the Publisher to actually do that. But one of the rules of contracts is that you have to assume that the moment the contract is signed, both you and the Publisher will be hit by a meteor and the Publisher will be replaced by your worst enemy in the world. The purpose of contracts is to protect both sides from anything like that.

So. Adding the magic words “action finally sustained” means that the Publisher can’t just settle any random claim using the Author’s money. It means that you only have to pay out if the claim stands up in court.

I responded to the contract above by suggesting the following new language:

Author hereby agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Publisher against any cost, loss, damage, expense, and judgment in any action finally sustained resulting from any breach of Author’s warranties and representations herein, including, without limitation, attorneys’ fees and expenses, costs and disbursements.

The Publisher accepted this change and thanked me for suggesting the new language.

The moral of this story is to read and understand your contract, look for the magic words “action finally sustained,” and don’t be afraid to negotiate.

At the Worldcon, Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor asked me to edit my blog posts about Launch Pad into an article for the website. I did so, and it’s just been posted here.

8/16/08: O hai

I still owe you a Worldcon report, but here’s a brief “I’m not dead” report consisting of several miscellaneous items.

I came home from Denver to a mile-long to-do list. I’ve been terribly busy and productive in the last week, but not so much with the writing. Lots of “writing-related program activities,” though, including galleys, submissions, self-promotion, and such.

I was on jury duty. As it happened, I was called down for one jury but not selected. But I have done my civic duty.

At a Worldcon panel, Tom Whitmore defined “famous” as “more people know you than you know people.” (This implies that anyone with a poor memory is “famous,” but never mind that.) Apparently, though, I am famous, because after I mentioned in the jury panel that I am a science fiction writer two people came up to me to talk with me about it. And when I deposited my most recent check at the bank, the teller looked at the check and said “what’s this about a Nebula award?” so I explained to him that the story hadn’t won but will be appearing in the annual Nebula anthology. I gave each of these three people a Space Magic promotional card. I feel so professional. (But see above about writing-related program activities vs. actual writing.)

Now that it’s been officially announced, I can reveal that I sold short story “Sun Magic, Earth Magic” to new webzine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The first draft of this story was written for a challenge from my Writers of the Future 2002 alumni group, which was to write a story in 24 hours on the topic of caving or cave diving. It was inspired by the story of caver Floyd Collins, who was trapped in Sand Cave in 1925. Another story written for the same challenge, “We Are the Cat” by Carl Fredrick, was published in Asimov’s.

As previously mentioned, I will be appearing in San Francisco on September 20, as part of the SF in SF reading series. The new news here is that my co-presenter will be Nick Mamatas.

8/5/08: Launch Pad, day 6

Okay, this time I really will be brief. We have to make an early start tomorrow.

We started off the day with a talk by Ruben Gamboa on computing in astronomy. Modern astronomy is all about computers — the days of staring through eyepieces and developing film in darkrooms are over. Computers are used for controlling equipment, automating repetitive tasks, organizing data, and building scientific models. Computers are very good at boring tasks like looking for comets and supernovas, so most comets these days are named after discoverers like NEAT (Near-Earth Astronomical Telescope) rather than Hamner-Brown. The next generation of survey telescopes will generate 30TB of data per night (that’s half a Library of Congress or 1/20 of YouTube). Google is working with LSST to build a system to manage all this data. And scientific models (usually systems of partial differential equations) are now being used more and more with brute-force computational techniques rather than by being solved in the conventional way (many useful models can’t easily be solved). In the future, scientific models will be computer programs rather than systems of equations.

Jerry Oltion then gave a loose, interactive talk on humans in space and astronomy in fiction. A few tidbits:

  • The human body does not explode in vacuum. One NASA volunteer was exposed to hard vacuum in a space suit test accident; he passed out after 14 seconds (his last conscious memory was of the water beginning to boil on his tongue) but they restored normal atmospheric pressure quickly and he survived just fine.
  • Space capsules and space stations tend to stink badly, and this is a serious problem.
  • Air in free fall does not convect, which means that everything that heats up has to be cooled by fans; the space shuttle is LOUD inside.
  • Sex in space has almost certainly happened, but Jerry thinks that the reason nobody has talked about it is that it’s not all that good. In space your nose stuffs up, you smell, perspiration doesn’t evaporate, your blood pressure goes down, and experiments on the Vomit Comit have shown that even hanging onto each other and achieving penetration is a hassle.
  • Stan Schmidt warns writers that it is extremly unlikely to have a habitable planet around a star with a name. (Named stars are all bright, and the bright stars tend to be too hot or too large for Earth-like life.)
  • There is an “extra” day in the sidereal year (vs. the solar year) because the Earth rotates once per year due to its orbit around the sun, in addition to its daily rotation. For every 365 times the sun rises, the stars rise 366 times.
  • If the moon is visible in the West, the tide is going out (generally speaking). Similarly, if it’s visible in the East, the tide is coming in.

Mike Brotherton’s grad student Rajib Gauguly then gave a talk on quasar absorption lines (“studying gas you can’t see using light that isn’t there”) which was highly technical, but after six days of this we had the background to understand it. Mostly. I’m not going to try to summarize it here.

We finished up with a brief talk on the search for exoplanets (there are 228 known exoplanets around nearby stars, some as small as 5 times the mass of the Earth), an open Q/A period, evaluations, and logistics for getting everyone home. We all went out to Laramie’s only Thai restaurant for dinner, then went back to the dorm and packed.

All done. Whew. What a week. I learned a lot, hung out with some great people, and ate way too much.

We head off to Denver for the Worldcon bright and early tomorrow. My program schedule:

  • Wed 11:30: Launch Pad: Astronomy for Writers
  • Wed 16:00: Reading: David Levine
  • Thur 10:00: Short Fiction: On its way out or a way to break into the market?
  • Thur 14:30: Have blogs and listservs replaced fanzines?
  • Fri 10:00: Clarion West Writers Workshop: How it Helped My Career
  • Fri 13:00: Signing (45 minutes)
  • Fri 14:30: Kaffeeklatch
  • Sat 11:30: Clarion West Student Readings, the 21st Century

I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d show up for my reading and Kaffeeklatch. I can promise fun conversation and silly noises.

8/4/08: Launch Pad, day 5

Woke up early enough today for breakfast in the dining hall (which is only open 7-8am, what were they thinking?) and conversation with about half the gang. The downside is that I got less sleep than usual and am now tired and headachey, so this entry will be shorter than yesterday’s (if I know what’s good for me).

Mike Brotherton started off with a lecture about galaxies and cosmology. Almost everything we can see with the naked eye at night is in our own Milky Way galaxy (this is, apparently, its actual name — I expected it to have an official scientific name like Galaxy Number One or something, but no). One exception is the Andromeda galaxy, which is barely visible as a hazy star near Casseiopeia.

Herschel tried to determine the shape of the galaxy (1785) but didn’t do very well because so much of it is obscured by interstellar dust and gas. The galactic plane, in fact, is well above the bright line we can see, but obscured by dust. We can use wavelengths that are not obscured by dust (e.g. infrared) and “standard candles” such as Cepheid variable stars, whose absolute brightness can be determined from their periods, to determine the galaxy’s actual shape.

Stars in the galactic disk have nearly circular orbits, while “halo” stars outside the disk have highly elliptical orbits. The orbits of stars in our galaxy and others show that most of the mass of the galaxy is distributed smoothly throughout the galaxy rather than concentrated in the center. The speeds of the orbits tell us that there is a LOT more of this mass than we can account for through visible objects such as stars. But what is it?

Could this dark matter be ordinary dust and gas? No. We know the abundancies of baryons (protons and neutrons) in the universe from studying the Big Bang, and there aren’t nearly enough to account for the invisible mass.

Could it be WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) such as neutrinos? No. Although neutrinos don’t affect normal matter much, they do affect it, and we have performed experiments (using large quantities of dry cleaning fluid) that show there aren’t enough of them either. A theoretical WIMP called the “axion” has been proposed but never observed.

Could it be MaCHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects) such as black holes and brown dwarfs? Maybe, but probably not. We can detect these objects through “gravitational lensing” (a distant object changing its brightness or apparent position as a MACHO passing in front of it warps its light) and we don’t see enough such events to account for the missing mass.

Could it be that we are simply wrong about gravity? No. MoND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) seemed plausible until 2006. The Bullet Cluster consists of two clusters of galaxies that have recently passed through each other. We can see the hot gas of these two clusters (which is normal matter) using X-ray telescopes, but we can also find their centers of mass using gravitational lensing of the galaxies behind the cluster. The two centers of mass are farther apart than the visible gas. This tells us that the majority of the mass in the two clusters does not interact with itself or with the matter of the clusters in the same way as normal matter. (This Scientific American article includes a very helpful video simulation.)

I must say that I was both confused and skeptical about the very weird stuff called “dark matter.” (Note: not to be confused with “dark energy,” which we talked about later.) I didn’t understand why this strange non-interacting stuff had to be invoked when it could just be, well, matter that was just dark. But the Bullet Cluster was for me, you should pardon the expression, the smoking gun.

Many galaxies have spiral arms. If you look at a picture of a spiral galaxy it looks just like water going down the drain, or a hurricane, and you think you can tell which way it is rotating. The actual rotational direction is the other way. Spiral arms are, in fact, standing waves in the interstellar medium. At the leading edge of these waves (the inside edge of each sickle-shaped arm), new stars are born as the interstellar medium impacts the shockwave. The bigger, hotter stars burn out first, so the leading edge is brightest, fading away to blackness as most of the newborn stars burn out or fade away.

We can measure the distance to other galaxies by using Cepheid variables and type Ia supernovas (these are white dwarfs in binary systems that collapse when they accrete too much matter from their companion — we know exactly how bright they are because they explode immediately when their mass rises to a certain value). These “standard candles” tell us that distant galaxies are moving away from us with a speed proportional to their distance.

The galaxies aren’t moving through space, as any fule kno… it’s space that’s expanding. This expansion is happening everywhere, but it’s only visible in intergalactic space because at smaller scales the force of gravity is greater than the expansive force. This is why the galaxies are getting farther apart instead of just bigger.

By studying the three degree Kelvin background radiation that is the echo of the Big Bang, we can determine the initial conditions of the universe and determine that the total mass of the universe is almost exactly what is needed to make the universe “flat”, meaning that it will neither expand forever nor contract in a Big Crunch: the expansion will slow down and stop at some point. But there isn’t enough matter, even including dark matter, to account for this flatness, and when we measured the rate of deceleration, we got a surprise: it wasn’t slowing down at all, it was speeding up!

Turns out there’s a “cosmological constant” in Einstein’s equations, which was thought to be zero, but if we set it to a negative value it explains both the accelerating expansion of the universe and the missing mass. The missing mass is the mass equivalent of this weird anti-gravitic energy. We don’t know what this “dark energy” is — it has never been observed directly — but it makes the equations balance.

It may be that the cosmological constant itself is increasing. If it stays the same, the universe expands so fast that all other galaxies will eventually fade from view. If it is increasing, it will eventually get big enough to overcome atomic forces and everything in the universe will be torn apart: the “big rip.” For now, though, it’s less powerful than gravity and other forces, meaning its effect is only visible at the very largest scales.

After that cheery reassurance we went to the computer imaging lab where we got a talk by Chip Kobulnicky on imaging in astronomy. Raw images from the Wide-Field Planetary Camera on the Hubble space telescope look awful. They consist of four rectangles (three large, one small) with big visible seams between them, speckles of noise, and cosmic ray streaks. Scientists and technicians have to do a lot of processing to make them look all pretty and colorful. We also got some hands-on experience using a program called ds9 to combine the R, G, and B images of the Ring Nebula that were taken at WIRO on our field trip the other day into a single color image. Here’s the result:

(It’s kind of grainy because the exposure was short.)

The day ended with a talk on SETI by scientist/philosopher Jeffrey Lockwood. This talk was a bit of a surprise as we spent the whole time talking and writing about what messages we, as writers, would send to aliens, ignoring questions of transmission mechanism and language. It was an interesting writing exercise, and thought-provoking, but was so different from the hard science focus of the rest of the week that some of us felt kind of whiplashed.

One of the things I wrote during this session was a message to express the importance of “pattern” to humans while simultaneously encoding the Fibonacci sequence:

Another instance.
It happens again.
Why does it happen again?
Can we predict what the next instance is?
By observing phenomena, we learn about the universe and learn to predict events.
We find patterns and recurrences in all kinds of physical phenomena, from molecules to stars, simple to complex, insert and alive.
Once we have discovered a pattern, we can build devices, craft new experiments, build more knowledge on top of what we have already learned, and even begin to make changes and improve our environment.

We finished the evening on the roof of the physics building, looking at binary stars, globular clusters, the planet Jupiter, and various satellites (including the International Space Station) with night-vision goggles, binoculars, and two very nice amateur telescopes.

Apparently I do not know what’s good for me. Night, all!