Little Galileo

I bought my daughter a telescope for Christmas. It’s a 70mm refraction telescope with a 9x and 25x eyepieces. I confess I’d been hankering for something bigger, maybe in the 4-6 inch reflecting range, but they were much pricier, and all the reviews pointed to this as an excellent starter telescope. I also knew it was powerful enough to see Saturn’s rings.

So, we put it together, confirmed that the red-dot viewfinder was properly aligned, and waited for a clear night. And waited. And waited. That last week of December was pretty cloudy here in central Texas, but it did clear eventually, so we grabbed the telescope and headed out into the frigid night — well, at least as cold as it gets in this part of Texas, i.e. about 25F.

I had not done any preparation or research. I had no plan of observation. I had no star charts. Even the little star-map app on my phone was a bust since my phone is pretty poor at detecting its own orientation. But I figured we could just go out, point the telescope at some light in the night sky, and see what it was, a bit like those astronomers of the early 1600’s. Even with me living somewhat out in the country, they probably had much less light pollution than I did, but the quality of my optics were vastly better than theirs.

First of all, with 70mm of light-gathering aperture, the moon is way too bright to look at. Seriously. It wasn’t quite “do not look at moon with remaining eye, but I could see the moonlight blasting out of the eyepiece, illuminating dust particles. So, I gave up on any direct moon observations until we could add some kind of dark moonlight-filter to the setup.

Then I pointed it at some bright light about 20 degrees above the horizon. I used the viewfinder to line it up, then peered through the eyepiece only to find it empty. I looked through the viewfinder again to see that I was off target. I figured I must have bumped it, so I lined it up again, went to look, and damn, still nothing there. By the time I went to line it up again, I could actually see the thing moving. It was an airplane.

By this point, my nine-year-old daughter’s excitement is turning to impatience. It was literally — yes, literally — freezing out there, and all she had gotten for her troubles so far was to watch me play with her Christmas present.

I looked up at the sky, trying to find something interesting. I saw the constellation of Orion, and remembered something vague about how one of the stars in Orion’s belt was actually a nebula, or maybe a galaxy. Or was that in the sword hanging down from the belt? My daughter started pacing to stay warm.

A little bit up north from Orion, however, was a particularly bright light. I knew my compass directions well enough to know it wasn’t Polaris, so I figured there was a decent chance it was a planet. Given how far it was from the now-set sun, I knew it couldn’t be Mercury or Venus, and its color did not make me think of the red Martial soil at all. I didn’t think Uranus or Neptune could be seen with the naked eye, so I figured it was Jupiter or Saturn. Either one should make for an interesting peek.

So I pointed the telescope up, got down on the concrete of the driveway and peered through the viewfinder. I got the red-dot lined up on the bright light and took a look through the eyepiece.

For the first time, I was rewarded with not a blank field or some blinding moon. It wasn’t even a point anymore. It was a circle. It wasn’t a giant disk with swirling clouds and a big red dot, but it was clearly a circle. There were no rings, either, but this was clearly a planet, not some distant star.

I fine-tuned the position controls to center it, and handed it over to my daughter. “I think that’s Jupiter,” I told her.

Jupiter4moonsShe looked through it and waved her arms in excitement. I told her to be careful not to bump the telescope, and she calmed down and peered some more. Eventually she stood, looked back up at the point in the sky and asked, “What are those dots next to it?”

I looked up and only saw a scattering of other stars. “What dots?”

“In the telescope,” she said. “There are dots next to Jupiter.”

So I sat down on the ground and looked in the eyepiece again. Sure enough, there were four dots around Jupiter, two on each side, evenly spaced. I realized I had noticed them before but dismissed them as some optical artifact between the telescope lenses and my contact lenses. The spacing and arrangement was just too regular to be anything else. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many lens flare effects in recent Sci-Fi movies.

But no matter how much I blinked, the dots did not go away. Eventually they started drifting up out of the view as the Earth rotated, so I used the fine-tuning controls to bring them back into view. They were still there. I angled my head one way and another, but no matter what I did, they remained persistently visible and kept themselves aligned the same way.

That’s when it hit me. These were not optical artifacts. These were the four big moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

“They’re moons,” I told her. “Those are four of Jupiter’s moons.”

“Jupiter has moons?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I told her all proud of passing on this knowledge, but then I realized that she was the one who had spotted them, not me. I had dismissed them as tricks of the light, but she had noticed them and wanted to know what they were. “They’re the four biggest moons of Jupiter, and you just discovered them.

She looked back through the telescope again solemnly. “Moons… cool.”

GalileoSince then, we’ve talked about how Galileo first saw them through his telescope just over 400 years ago. We’ve gone looking since, and seen them with different spacing, including seeing only three, figuring that one was either in front of or behind Jupiter. I’m trying to explain to her how you can discern that these different observations allowed Galileo to discern that they were circling Jupiter. The theological and political implications of that in what was then still officially an Earth-centered universe will have to wait until she’s a little older.

It’s easy for us to think of those early astronomers like Galileo as epic figures, locked in a struggle against the stratified philosophies of the universe. Yet, at the heart of it, he was just a curious fellow who asked the same question my little girl just asked. “Just what are those dots next to Jupiter?”

Sci-Fi as Progressive Propaganda

KirkUhuraKissScience fiction has a long history of presenting us with new and progressive ideas, from free love in Stranger in a Strange Land to some commanding women characters in the recent Battlestar Galacitca, but probably the most famous progressive moment in SF was when midway through Star Trek’s third season, Lieutenant Uhura kissed Captain Kirk in America’s first televised mixed-race kiss.

But it almost wasn’t didn’t happen.

At the end of the first season, actress Nichelle Nichols was about to return to her roots of singing on stage. Her appearance in Star Trek had significantly raised her visibility, and she was ready to start on Broadway, her greatest aspiration as a singer. This was her big break.

So one Friday afternoon after production had wrapped for the season, she went to Gene Roddenberry’s office, explained the situation, and handed him her resignation. He told her she couldn’t possibly leave, that he desperately needed her to stay on the show. “Don’t you understand what I’m trying to do here?”

She was not swayed, but she agreed to think about it over the weekend.

The very next night, she was on stage for an NAACP fundraiser. Afterwards, one of the organizers asked her if she would be willing to meet a fan. She agree, expecting the typical Trekkie of the era, but much to her surprise, it was Martin Luther King. “I’m the fan,” he said. “I’m your best fan. I am your biggest fan.”

Ms. Nichols was flabbergasted, amazed that such an important figure as Dr. King even knew who she was, let alone watched the show, but he was clearly not faking it. He went on about what an important role model she was, since she was one of the first black women to appear on screen as anything other than a servant or entertainer. Eventually, she managed to find her voice, thanked him, and mentioned that she was going to miss it since she was going back to her singing career in the next year.

MLKbiopicShocked, Dr. King would not allow this. “STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!

“Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!

“As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”

Clearly, Dr. King was more persuasive than Gene Roddenberry had been, and she decided to stay. On Monday, she went back to Gene’s office as asked if the part was still available. Of course, it was. He had already torn up her letter of resignation.

Relieved, she told him what Dr. King had said to her. He listened quietly, and finally replied, “Thank God someone understands what I am trying to achieve.”

And apparently it made a difference. Numerous African-Americans at NASA point to Lt. Uhura as their reason for getting involved in space exploration. Even Whoopi Goldberg credits the Uhura character for her wanting to be on Star Trek:TNG.

We’re still a long way from the ideals of Dr. King’s dream or Roddenberry’s federation, but since today we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, I thought I would point out that every little bit helps.

Alien Timekeeping

funkycalendarI ran into this question in an SF/F group: How do you create an alternate timekeeping and calendar system? I found it interesting because it’s not so much about comparing some local calendar to the one we use here on Earth, but about creating one from scratch. How do we do that?

I figure it goes back to the most basic observable phenomena. The sun rises and sets. Seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. Everything else is just invented units for bookkeeping. So how do we invent that bookkeeping?

Let’s look at the two most important units to primitive time keepers: days and years. These are almost certain to exist in any timekeeping or calendar system. If the people are in anyway diurnal (or their prey or predators are), then they’re going to keep track of days at least to the extent of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If there is any travel, you are almost certain to make plans to pack provisions for five days rather than merely two days.

Likewise, the coming and going of seasons will affect the migration of game, the availability of certain plants, and the need to hunker down and stay warm vs. escaping the heat of summer, so years will also be tracked in some form, at least to the point of talking about a previous year’s seasons or next year’s season. You might not talk about years specifically, though, since times could be discussed as “three summers ago” or “I have lived through nineteen winters.”

sundialBut what about dividing up the day? The easiest division is day vs. night, but dividing that up into smaller units is somewhat arbitrary. We got out 24-hour clock by an early sundial method of dividing up the day into ten hours of sunlight, plus an hour of twilight at each end. This was mirrored over to night through the tracking of certain stars.

Alas, depending on the time of year, these daylight hours varied in length, with long hours in the summer and short ones in the winter. This variation is fine in more primitive cultures, but once you start developing physics, you need a constant time measurement for talking about things like velocity and acceleration. So, sooner or later, that evolving society is going to have to nail down those hours into something rigid.

But ultimately the number of hours per day or the number of minutes/seconds/etc. is completely arbitrary. A metric division of time would be swell, but I’d have to question whether your timekeepers were that logical early enough to make it stick, rather than having sixteen hours a day because the gods willed it. The actual divisions could come from mythology to something as simple as counting the appendages on your alien or fantastical species.

As for the year, it is already naturally divided into days, but we seem to be primed to group them up into intermediate divisions like weeks and months. Certainly some of this is astronomical, and some of it is mythological, but a larger issue is that we have a hard time grasping bigger numbers at an emotional level. At some point, the distinction between 153 vs. 212 is lost on us while we can feel the difference between May and July in our guts. It’s hard to say for sure what an alien or truly fantastical brain is going to handle, but if their sense of time evolved along with spears and rocks, then it’s not going to have a lot of abstract math. And so we probably need at least some divisions.

moon_phases_diagramThe origin of our month comes from the more primitive cultures that tracked the passage time by the phases of the moon. This is believed to go back to stone age, but depending on how you want to observe it, there are several different ways to measure the moon’s orbit. Do you go by the phases, or do you see when it returns to the constellation of the squid? And what if you have two moons? Does one take precedence over the other? Or do you derive some time unit based on when the closer one eclipses the outer one? If there are three or more, do you look for some kind of regular alignment in their orbital rhythms? If there is no moon, there will probably be at least some demarcations of the seasons via the solstices and equinoxes.

Our seven day week is somewhat arbitrary and has as diverse origins as the Jewish creation story in Genesis and the astronomical observation of seven bodies that move through the sky (the sun, the moon, and five visible planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Various cultures have run on weeks ranging from three to ten days, and it’s probably as much the luck of history as it could be some seven-favoring internal wiring that caused us to end up with a seven day week.

But if you really want to go wild, consider some much stranger settings. Think about a species that lives entirely underground in caverns. There is no sky, so there is no day and night, no lunar months, not even solstices to mark the passing of the seasons and years. What do you have then? Is there an underground river that floods based on the seasons above? Is there a consistent geyser like Yellowstone’s “Old Faithful”.

Or think about a small ringworld, but instead of spanning an entire orbit like Niven’s Ringworld, make it only several thousand kilometers across and spinning around for gravity as it makes its ways around the local star. If its plane of rotation is tilted out of its orbital plane, it will still have seasons, but instead of the seasonal cycle taking the entire orbit as it does for Earth, they’ll have two sets of seasons per orbit. Consider a calendar with a first and second summers.

But, and this is a big one, I don’t like it when writers mess around with the calendar in a lame attempt to remind that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Certainly, I don’t require every epic fantasy to use the Gregorian calendar, but I remember the disaster of the original Battlestar Galactica’s use of “yarons” and “centons” for time keeping. It was overdone yet added nothing to the story. So if you’re going to mess around with the calendar, please have a good reason for it, please keep it in the background as much as possible.

The Apocalypse Ends Today, Almost

MayanCalendarNothing is going to happen today. Except, of course, that something is going to happen today, and that is why all this Mayan calendar insanity will regrettably soldier on.

If you’ve been blissfully unaware that the world is supposed to end today due to some old Mayan calendar having the equivalent of the Y2K event, then skip this and go on with your merrily unharried life. Even if you do know, I’m not going to try to convince you that it’s not going to happen. There are plenty of debunking sites out there that will tell you 1) how ridiculous it all is, and 2) how they actually have the date wrong anyway.  On the other hand, if you actually believe this nonsense, why are you wasting your last day on Earth reading my blog?

And while part of me is looking forward to laughing at the true believers of the Mayan apocalypse, I’m also dreading what tomorrow will bring. Why? It’s not that I dread the world’s existence. It’s that I dread all the various things that will happen today being pointed to tomorrow as what the whole Mayan calendar was really predicting.

You see, not all of the true believers are predicting an end to the world. Some of them are interpreting this Mayan math as a signal to some other world-altering event. We’ll be contacted by the ancient astronauts, or perhaps we’ll all ascend to some higher plane of existence, or even more far-fetched… Paris Hilton will join Hugh Hefner in a vow of chastity. While that might be the end of the world for Hugh Hefner, these kinds of predictions leave the rest of us still standing. And since there will be hundreds of thousands of newsworthy events today, there is plenty of material to work with.

First, let’s talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. I fully expect that somewhere today, someone is going to blow something up. We might also see another mass-suicide doomsday cult. We’re also probably due for some kind of threat, perhaps some kind of attack on infrastructure or public places. Oh, and I imagine there a few thousand press releases queued up to be unleashed today. None of these have anything to do with what the Mayans were thinking about, if they were even thinking about anything other than, “We’ll all have upgraded calendars by then.” No, these events will all be about someone being stupid and/or evil and picking this date to do it, just to cash in the hype.

Closely related will be some staged events. The great prophet of New Maya will ascend today, or something like that. Far more likely is that he’s slipping away to Peru with embezzled church funds, leaving behind disappointed followers and an IRS investigation.

Random occurrences are harder to dispute. We might see a major melt event on this first day of Antarctica’s summer. There might be the start of a large forest fire somewhere. A world leader might keel over with a heart attack. A lot of random things happen every day. Today will be no different, so there will be no shortage of things for a true believer to point to and say, “That’s what it’s all about – don’t you see?” I can’t do much more than shake my head and point to the sheer randomness of it.

But the most annoying will be those small events that we cannot yet see their significance. These could be tiny things like some newsworthy birth or the discovery of yet another exoplanet. Even worse, these could be things that are so trivial as to have escaped the news altogether, with the faithful clinging to the notion that all will reveal itself in time. And to them, I say fine, believe what you want to believe. Just don’t expect me to get all excited about it.

So, stuff is going to happen today, but about the only thing I can tell you for certain is that we won’t be done with this Mayan calendar insanity in the morning.

Except… I Didn’t Say Fudge

curse_symbols In the classic film “A Christmas Story”, little Ralphie accidently sends the lug nuts flying while helping his father change a flat tire, he cries out an exasperated “FUUUUUDGE!!” Except, as the voiceover narration informs us, “I didn’t say fudge. I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word!”

An article on curse words by Jo Eberhardt reminded me of the angst I put myself through when I dropped the F-bomb in the opening chapter of my novel “Beneath the Sky”. It’s not that I’ve never said the word. In my twenties, it was my favorite expletive… and noun… and verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, and on occasion preposition. Or was that proprosition? Whatever – I just mean to say that I’m familiar with its usage.

bar_of_lava_soapBut after a similar incident to Ralphie’s as a child – and one bar of Lava-brand soap later – I found myself freezing up over the word. I mean, really… what would my mother think if she ever saw this? It’s not like she’s never heard the word – note the incident with the Lava soap – and I’m sure she’s run into in any number of books she’s read. And it’s not like I used it gratuitously. I put it in early to draw a distinction between the worldly captain of the merchant ship and the overtly devout passengers of God’s Chariot. But still. “Did you have to use that word?”

I got over it, of course, and plowed ahead with the f-ing f-word for f-‘s sake. But my anxiety over it got me to thinking about when we curse, when we don’t, and why.

I used to curse up a storm, but I don’t so much anymore. You see, I have kids now, and I find I censor myself around them. I also censor myself in front of my extended family, business contacts, school teachers, employers, police officers, and judges in their Texas courtrooms. “My apologies, your honor, but when I called you a cockwaffle, what I really meant was…” I’m sure you do the same.

But get me in front of some of my rowdier friends, and we’re stretching the limits of polite discussion like a distended, gaping… um, blog entry. Yeah. But we’d never say those things in front of family, teachers, etc. Least of all, our mothers.

But what about fictional characters? How much do they curse, and who do they censor themselves in front of?

Consider that coarse forklift operator at the loading docks. He can make a bartender faint with his language, but he doesn’t dare say those things in front of his mother, or his childhood priest, or that sweet lady who runs the coffee shop near his apartment.

Or maybe that upper crust socialite? She would never use the f-bomb with her husband or bridge partners, but she gets shockingly explicit with her hairdresser.

It would be easy to say it’s all about respect, that you censor yourself around people you respect and curse at those you don’t, but it’s not at all that simple. Soldiers curse with each other all the time amongst equal or lower ranks, but they would be quick to tell you how much they respect each other. The same is true for any tight group coworkers. Yet they don’t curse at their bosses or officers.

There’s definitely an element of intimacy to it, but it’s not sexual intimacy – more like cultural intimacy. We often curse when surrounded by other people who are… I suppose, in our club. It doesn’t have to have a building and a membership list. It merely has to be recognizably separate from the outside world. We’re in the locker room, the cigar lounge, the fishing boat, or the salon. As long as “it’s just us”, we are willing to share that side of us.

But that’s still not all of it. Specific people in my life, who might curse up a storm of their own somewhere else, are still off-limits. If they showed up as a full-fledged member of whatever cursing club I was in, I suspect we would both clam up. Surely, you’ve run into this yourself and that awkward pause as you suddenly shift gears on your vernacular.

So anyway, I don’t have a hard and fast rule for knowing who I’m comfortable cursing in front of vs. who forces me back to darn and fiddlesticks, but I always seem to know it instantly without any conscious analysis. Somehow, this speaks volumes about each of those particular relationships, but I don’t know precisely what it says.

So, who do you curse in front of? Who do you censor yourself in front of? And when you see a fictional character shift language, what does it tell you about him?

Giving Books

We’re heading into Christmas, and everyone’s wondering what to give Aunt Clara. While there’s no shortage of fruitcakes, perfumes, and bad sweaters, I like to give books. They’re essentially consumables, so it’s hard to have too many. They’re fairly cheap, at least compared to fruitcakes and sweaters. And finally, they give several hours of enjoyment that will remind them of you, months or years after the gift was received.

But which books to give? That’s the tricky part.

If it’s someone I know well, particularly if I know they’re a big reader, I will usually have access to some kind of wish list for books. That way, I am able to give them precisely the book they are eager to read. That’s fulfilling, but it’s also a little impersonal. They’ve made their selections, narrowing it down to their particular tastes, and all I’m doing is clicking on the right button. It’s not quite down to the level of “run down to the store and pick up some milk”, but it’s in that direction.

The next thing to try is to select a book that I think will interest them but that they don’t have on their wish list. This can have a great payoff in that if I’m lucky, I’ll find some new author or new take on a subject/genre that they love, and it will open whole new worlds of books to them.

But there are two easy ways for this to go wrong. First, if it’s in their favorite sub-genre or about their favorite technical subject, they may already own this book, but I suppose that’s no worse than giving them that second toaster oven. They can return it, re-gift it, or even hoard it as a spare. But the second downfall of this approach is that I can get something that they are quite familiar with but hate. After all, it’s their favorite subject/genre, and they’ll have strong tastes. Imagine buying the Twilight series for an Anne Rice vampire purist.

Finally, there’s my personal favorite. I like to give people books that I like. Yes, these books are selected according to my taste and interests, not theirs, but in giving them that book on atomic history, I’m telling them something about me. “Hey, I like science history. It’s cool. If you can understand that, we’ll have even more to talk about.”

Plus, since I believe I have decent taste, the stuff I really like will be the best of that particular subject/genre, so if the recipient can have an open mind, they just might enjoy something totally new and unexpected. I give them the chance to discover that after all these years of staying away, they really do like cyborg thriller mysteries.

But do exercise caution on this last approach, because while Aunt Clara has always been “the fun aunt”, she might not be ready for Fifty Shades of Grey. Maybe I should send her some Sookie Stackhouse first.

On the Death of My Kindle

My Kindle died yesterday. Technically, it’s still on life support, but as soon as I pull my data off, I’m going to pull the plug and let the battery fade out to oblivion.

It was a tragic little accident, the kind you wouldn’t think much of, but it was enough. It slipped from my hand with the cover open, tumbling as it went, and it came down screen-first on the corner of a wastebasket. The electronic components behind the scenes are still functional, but the e-ink display is ruined. The vast majority of the screen is a jumble of vertical and horizontal lines, making the text not merely unreadable but virtually invisible.

I called Amazon right away, but I am now one month past my one-year warranty. They gave me a credit for what amounts to its “trade-in” value and offered me a discount on some quick replacements. I had already been considering upgrading to the new Kindle Paperwhite, so that’s what I opted for. Alas, given the high demand, my order won’t be filled until mid-December. I might hunt around for some in retail stores, but I’m not optimistic about finding any.

So, that brings me to an economics question about the cost of e-books. I’m not going to argue their price point between 99-cents and $14.99. Instead, I want to talk about the burdened cost of the reader. I paid about $160 for my Kindle, and in some ways, that should be considered part of the cost of those e-books I read. But how many books was that?

Here’s where my situation turns away from that of my friends. While I consider myself an avid reader, I realize compared to many, I am a slow reader. Part of this is the actual speed of my eyes passing over the words, and part is the amount of time per day that I devote to putting those words in front of my eyes.

I’ll point to my well-read wife as an example of a fast reader. Just watching her turn pages, I’d say she scans the text at least twice as fast as I do, possibly even pushing three times as fast. She may be an extreme example, but she’s hardly unique. Now, before you point me towards your favorite speed-reading development program, I should point out that my hearing problems are related to dyslexia. It’s possible that may be placing some kind of upper limit on my actual reading speed.

Furthermore, my wife spends more hours of the day reading than I do. Between bedtime reading and little moments through the day, I probably spend an average of 60-90 minutes a day reading books. Again, she’s easily double that, possibly even triple that. Add it all up, and in years that I’ve been hard-pressed to read more than 20 books, she has pushed through 200, ravaging whole shelves of our home library.

How many of those were e-books? For me, it’s been running about 2 out of 3. I’d have to ask my wife to be sure for her, but I’d ballpark hers at a much lower 1 out of 4. It’s not she dislikes her Kindle, but rather that she has a vast backlog of paper books in her in-pile. Seriously, we own a lot of books. My last reliable count was in the 4500 range, but that number is now a decade old. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re well north of 5000 now, possibly even approaching 6000.

So, at our traditional reading rates, I might find myself amortizing that $160 over a mere 14 or 15 books, i.e. over $10 a book. My wife’s per-book cost would be a lot lower, at perhaps $3 per book, though with her Kindle hopefully lasting another year or two, that will drive down the per-book cost to about a buck. And if her e-book percentage increases, it could fall into the pennies per book.

But a funny thing happened last year. I suddenly started reading more. Some of this was the fact that the larger fonts on the Kindle allowed me to consume text at a faster pace, and some was the fact that the Kindle’s size allowed me to haul it around more places that I would not have previously taken a book. In the thirteen months I owned a Kindle, I did not merely read my usual 20-25 books. I read 36 books, an jump of over 50%.

So, at 22 e-books over those 13 months, the amortized cost per book comes down to $7.30. Alas, that’s still too pricy. That’s as much or more than I paid for many of those books. Now, if it had last 2-3 years, that would have dropped into the $2-$3 range, similar to my wife’s. That’s still a little pricey, but that’s not the only issue here.

Because my sudden jump in reading speed raises a different economic question: How much is it worth to me to be able to read 50% more books than before?

We’ve all heard that saying: So many books, so little time. It’s a mantra for the kind of book-junkies I hang with. Our great lament is not that the books cost so much. It’s that they take so long to read, and they just keep showing up. I was telling my daughter recently that there are more books published each year than she will be able to read in her entire life. Even cutting it down to the types of books I like (speculative fiction and niche non-fiction), there are still several thousand published each year, once again pushing that year of published books out to a lifetime of reading for a slow reader like myself.

But to somehow buy the ability to read faster? At that point, I stop thinking of it as a per-book cost. Instead, I start thinking of it as a per-time cost. Boosting my reading speed like that is like buying more time to read, and at those rates, it’s like buying time at 50 cents an hour. And that’s assuming the next one lasts just a year. Stretch it to two or three, and we’re really buying time cheap.

What about the rest of you? What’s your view on the amortized cost of e-readers?

If I Had Bought Star Wars…

Unless you’ve been hiding out in the desert canyons of Tatooine, you’ve heard the news that Disney bought out Lucasfilm for $4 billion and change. In addition to running Vader all over Disneyworld, they’re promising a new Star Wars film (Episode VII) in 2015. Every fanboy in the world is taking his turn as backseat driver, and I’m no exception. So, grant me a few moments to be R2 and tell Luke what I would do if I had bought Star Wars.

The very first thing I would do is to rerelease the original trilogy on Blu-Ray in its completely unaltered form. I would take the best scan of the films (probably already existing at 4K as source material for the special editions), make sure they were clean, and put them out on Blu-Ray. No special edition. No Greedo shooting first. No Hayden Christensen on Endor.

Every fanboy of my generation has been lusting for precisely this since before Blu-Ray even existed, and is ready to shell out hard cash for this. Doing this simple act would generate $2-$3 billion right off the bat. My math? 50 million fan boys (world-wide) at $50 for the trilogy comes out to $2.5 billion. Play around with the pricing, add more fan boys, start talking net instead of retail… the numbers move around. But clearly, this one simple act that Lucas has blocked for years would repay a decent chunk of the purchase price.

I would follow that up with a Blu-Ray release that was a mix of original and special edition. This would be for the true aficionados, who insist that Han shot first but liked some of the cleaner special effects that came with the special editions and might like some of the deleted scenes as in-line bonus material. Fine-tuning this would be a fan-by-fan project, but the options available on modern Blu-Rays should allow viewers to pick and choose. This would sell far fewer copies, but you could easily charge more. It won’t finish paying off the Lucasfilm mortgage, but it will shave off a few more points.

Mind you, this is money George could have had himself but chose to thwart the fans. I don’t expect Disney will leave that money on the table.

Then we have to start talking about the other movies. I can see the commercial logic of Disney wanting to start afresh with the later chapters, but if I were running the show, I would start with the prequels. Yes, they’ve already been done, but they were done wrong. I don’t expect much disagreement on that.

I don’t fault the general arc of the story. Specifically, I’m fine with finding Anakin as a kid (though I’d start him post-puberty), seeing him grow to be an undisciplined Jedi, and all the while seeing Palpatine manipulate events to build his power. That stuff is okay. Where it failed was in other areas:

  • It was meant for kids, not the adults who had grown up on Star Wars.
  • Anakins’ motivations were lame, both surrounding his mother and Padme.
  • Anakin was too much of a whiner, hardly the precursor for Darth Vader in the original trilogy.

How would I have fixed all that? There are the obvious choices of removing Jar-Jar entirely and making Anakin older when we first meet him, but beyond that, I would make Anakin’s character much deeper and thoughtful. Instead of him becoming a victim of his own emotional immaturity, he would make rational choices based on enlightened self-interest. He would act for himself, for the Jedi, and ultimately for the good of the galaxy.

And that is the biggest disappointment I had with the prequels and how I would have done them differently. I want to see Anakin make a rational choice to turn to the dark side. I want to see him split from the rest of the Jedi over a matter where it was possible to take two sides. I want to see him take Palpatine’s side on this issue because he believes in it. And finally, I want to see him take up the dark side because he needs its power to carry out his vision for the galaxy. He might still be Palpatine’s chess piece, but he would be elevated from pawn to knight.

That is the kind of back story that lets Vader be the man he was in the original trilogy: dedicated, ruthless, and willing to turn on his master when the time came.

And then I would turn to the follow-up movies, and just like my reboot of the prequels, I would make these for adults, not for the kids. It doesn’t have to be rated R, but it needs a serious, adult theme. And for that, I would choose the deliberate genocide of the Jedi and Sith.

What? That’s right. The Jedi and Sith must be exterminated.

At least, that will be the position of the newly restored Republic. It was their faith in the Jedi that allowed their downfall. It was the rise of powerful Sith lords that crushed them. Without them, the Republic would have continued. Its politics might have been corrupt, but at least they had a political voice rather than the force choke of Palpatine and Vader. Wouldn’t they be better off with these mutants out of the picture?

But doesn’t that make our heroes from the original trilogy (especially Luke and Leia) the bad guys? No, in a search for scapegoats and revenge, the Republic has become insane and evil. The Republic is now the enemy, casting out or heroes and hunting them down along with their children. Even if we throw midichlorians out the window, it is well known from the first films that the Force runs strong in Luke’s family. Throw in the children, siblings, and cousins of the old Jedi order, and you have a genetic pool of would-be Force-users who will be on the run.

Thus, our heroes are thrown back into the role of the underdog. They are stripped of many of their allies. They have to survive, form their own resistance for mutual support, and train a new generation of Jedi in secret. Then, by the time the third film comes along, a new danger will threaten the Republic, and these Jedi, old and new, will have to step up and become the guardians of the Republic once again.

It is a tale of revenge vs. redemption.

Anyway, that’s what I would have done if I had bought Star Wars. What would you have done?

So I Skipped Comic-Con

The travelling version of Comic-Con came to Austin over the weekend, and I had planned on going, or at least stopping by on Saturday. I’d never been to a Comic-Con, and I’ve heard so much hype about them, I figured I should see at least one to check it off my bucket list. And this one promised something pretty spectacular, a gathering of the Star Trek Next Generation cast for a 25th Anniversary panel.

But in the end, I blew it off.

So, the obvious question is why, and I’m afraid I don’t have some flashy answer. I like cons. I like some of the shows and actors that were going to be represented there. And I have nostalgia for ST:TNG, given that I met my wife the year that show started. In theory, this was a good show for me to attend. But ultimately, I think what killed it was that this is a media con, not a literary con. It’s about the show and the actors, not about the writers.

I’ve met actors at other cons, and these were actors from shows I really admired. I met Ellen Muth from Dead Like Me. I met Richard Hatch from both the old and the new Battlestar Galactica. I’ve met Michael Dorn from Star Trek, the Next Generation. Plus, because Austin is one of those odd little off-Hollywood towns, I’ve run into folks like Sandra Bullock and Quentin Tarantino just wandering around the city minding my own business. These are all great actors, but when I’ve seen them I haven’t had anything to say more than, “I like your work.”

And that’s been about it.

But a writer? Oh, man… I went totally fanboy over Jack McDevitt when I met him. I’ve almost managed to keep my cool when talking to Elizabeth Moon, but only because I’ve seen her a dozen times. And C. J. Cherryh? Larry Niven? Neil Gaiman? I’ve seen them, but I was so tongue-tied I couldn’t do much more than say hello as ten thousand questions raced around my brain. God help me if I ever come face to face with Jim Butcher, Aaron Sorkin, or Ronald Moore.

And it’s not just because I’m also a writer, or at least, it’s not directly that. I get excited about meeting writers because I want to hear more about the stories. I want to know the back-story that never made it into the book, the little detail that made my favorite character more real, and even some hints about what might be coming next. It’s the story that grabs me, even in the movies and the TV shows. Yes, I appreciate that there is good and bad in the actors’ execution, and good is definitely desired, but what really turns my crank is the story, the lines, the writing. Maybe that comes from being a writer myself, but more likely, it was my love of story that got me interested in writing.

Strangely, my one real regret of not going was missing another chance to meet Wil Wheaton. You may recall him as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek or know him from more recent appearances on The Big Bang Theory, but that’s not why I wanted to meet him.

You see, I remember him mostly as Gordie Lachance, the story-telling kid from Stand By Me. But it’s not that I wanted to talk to him about that film. Rather, I wanted to talk to him because he ultimately followed the path that his character did. He went on to become a writer. And that’s why I wanted to meet him.

(But alas, the only thing on the program where I was sure to see him was too late on Saturday for me to go to, and it was likely to be swamped as well.)

So, maybe some other time. I just hope that when it happens, I’ll have more to say than, “Um, uh, poker… I like your poker. Writing stories, yeah.”

Birthdays and Colony Calendars

We celebrated my wife’s 101100th birthday over the weekend. No, she’s not into her 101st millennium. She’s simply been denoting them in binary since her 101000th birthday or so. But it got me to thinking about birthdays on colony worlds and how those will be calculated.

Take Mars as a simple example. The Martian year is 687 Earth days, and with a day a little longer than 24 hours, it’s only 668 Martian days. So, if you were born on the first day of the new Martian year, when are you one year old? When do you get to celebrate your birthday?

It really comes down to which calendar you keep, but even then, you may not keep the same calendar for everything. New Years really only comes to Mars once per Martian year, but maybe Christmas comes twice. Martian months may not make much sense with Phobos and Deimos, but they were always a little arbitrary on Earth as well. Martian Independence Day is certainly celebrated every Carter 4th, but when do you have Thanksgiving?

There’s certainly a temptation to go full in one direction or another, i.e. stick with the Earth calendar or go native with the local calendar, but if there’s enough interaction between Earth and the colony, there’s some value in going halfway. Any joint schedule between the two worlds (or if we go interstellar, dozens of worlds) should be on a shared calendar, and since the Earthers had theirs first, this standard calendar should be based on the Earth year.

Another reason for using a standard reference calendar is a bit closer to this question of your birthday. When do your six-year molars come in on Mars? What about on Ganyemede? When will you go through puberty? Who is older, you or your cousin from Europa? There are plenty of biological reasons to keep track of our age in a standardized fashion. Even if we get our tetanus booster shot every five years on Mars, we do it because it was every ten years on Earth.

But still, when do you have that birthday party?

Are you on Mars all the time, or are you rocketing off to Jupiter or Saturn on a regular basis? It’s tempting to say that if you stay in one place all the time, you may as well celebrate it according to the local calendar. Then again, 668 days is a long time to wait for a celebration on Mars. Even worse is the poor kid growing up on Titan, orbiting around Saturn. He’ll be married with kids of his own before his first birthday. Hmm, maybe the local calendars aren’t such a good idea after all. But in some other solar system, on an Earth-like world with seasons of its own, following some arbitrary “standard calendar” for your birthday sounds silly.

I suspect that the real answer is that you’ll celebrate your birthday whenever it makes sense. If your local calendar’s year is only ninety-four days – and short ones at that – then the local custom might evolve to have quadrennial celebrations for your birthday. If you’re dragging yourself around that local star every fourteen hundred days, the local custom might be to celebrate your spring birthday followed by your summer birthday and so on, four celebrations each year. Only those folks skimming through the universe on ships will celebrate birthdays on the standard year.

Or maybe the whole concept of birthdays will fade away as one of those old Earth customs that seem silly to the post-human immortals who live amongst the stars.

What do you think?