Author Archives: sydlogsdon

633. Good Books for Kids

When I was a child, I read as a child,
I thought as a child, I understood as a child:
but when I became thirteen,
I switched to Clarke and Heinlein.

That pretty much screws up 1 Corinthians 13:11. And it isn’t exactly true. When I was a child, i.e. about twelve, plus or minus, I read what was available, and it wasn’t always great. It was primarily science fiction and mysteries, by which I mean Tom Swift, Jr. and the Hardy Boys. You could buy them in a toy and hobby store on the main street of Coffeeville, Kansas, one of the towns we shopped in. There were no bookstores; there were libraries, but I didn’t know that yet.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which ground out novels for kids like Hershey’s grinds out chocolate bars, was actually the best thing that ever happened to rural American youth for most of the twentieth century. I read them, my grandfather read them, and kids were still reading them when the millennium rolled over. They weren’t very good. In fact, a lot of them were terrible, but they were there. For a kid out in the sticks who liked science fiction, the choice wasn’t Tom Swift or something from Arthur C. Clarke. It was Tom Swift or nothing.

When I started going to libraries a couple of years later, my possibilities were expanded, but it was still a small library. I read a lot of things that I would never have touched if more had been available. I read a lot of books meant for adults, but that’s the goal anyway. I also read books way below my level, because they were there.

I recently remembered a book I hadn’t thought about since those days, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Elanor Cameron. I was too old for it when I read it, but I still loved it, so much that I tried to find it again. No luck, but I did get a copy of the sequel.

I couldn’t read it. I could barely read it when I was thirteen, but if I had gotten to it when I was eight, I would have been in love.

That got me to thinking about what makes book a juvenile, as they were called then. The Mushroom Planet books would not have qualified. They were for children. Juveniles were for boys who were anxious to become men.

Of course there were juveniles for girls, but girls and boys were separate species in the fifties, so I can’t report on their books.

Heinlein did a lot of juveniles which I’ve already talked about. (See posts 311 and 513) My real favorite juvenile writer was Andre Norton, and I’ve done a few reviews on her as well. (For science fiction see posts 262 and 263, or others see posts 260 and 261.)

What Heinlein, Norton, and many other juveniles authors had in common was that their characters were not yet adults but were given adult roles by the author. The Heinlein characters were often learning a futuristic trade under an adult. Norton’s characters were often being stranded on an alien planet. Outdoors and with no other kids in sight — she was channelling my childhood.

Today’s young adult books seem to be quite different from yesterday’s juveniles. First, they are targeted for slightly older audience, and second, 2019 isn’t 1959. The audience itself is different.

I can’t imagine a modern kid reading the early Nortons I loved so much. With only slight exaggeration, those Nortons were about a young person alone in a wasteland, trying to survive the dangers of nature, and modern kids live in crowded cities trying to survive the dangers inflicted by the adults around them.

I wouldn’t want to be a modern kid, and I understand why the books of my childhood probably wouldn’t mean much to them.

I taught middle school for twenty-seven years and I tried to keep abreast of what was available for my students, but I’ve been out of that loop for a while. I used to go to every Scholastic book sale to see what was new and good. The answer — damn near nothing. The few good books the kids had to choose from were mostly reprints from way back when.

Those book sales were where I found Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. It’s a wonderful book but it was published in 1943. Later I found A Storm Without Rain by Jan Adkins published in 1983. That’s still almost four decades old. Both were time travel stories of the old style; that is, without a time machine. The kids just went back in time and never understood how it happened.

I also stumbled across a fine steampunk novel, before I really knew anything about steampunk. That would be Airborne by Kenneth Oppel, published 2004. At least we are getting into the right millennium.

Harry Potter? Tried it, couldn’t read it. Twilight and the Hunger Games? Don’t want to, and if you don’t know why, I could never convince you.

Good books for kids are rare. Fortunately they stay around forever.

Why didn’t I mention A Wizard of Earthsea? You can’t pigeonhole it as a juvenile or a young adult book. It’s literature. Buy it for your kids and read it yourself.

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More Power

Hi, folks, I’m back. It’s five o’clock here on the west coast and I’m just getting home from helping a friend. I see that my power is restored. It went off 3:30 PM Wednesday and came back 1:30 PM Friday. That’s forty-six hours of no light, no computer, and spoiled food in the refrigerator, all of which was no fun. It was also forty-six hours without news of natural disasters or the liar-in-chief. My friends tell me it’s been a rough two days, so I have to go now and see how bad things got. Vacation is over.

632. Dam Gravity

M. Rehemtulla for QUOI Media Group

Tuesday morning. When I wrote these posts about two weeks ago, I mentioned PG&E. Guess what? They just announced that tomorrow my county is slated for a possible shutoff of power because of projected high winds. Even if that doesn’t happen, a regular power outage is likely. While you are reading this, there is a good chance I will be reading a book by sunlight through the window, because I won’t have any electricity to power my computer. I would find that ironically amusing, except my stove and refrigerator also won’t be working. At this moment I might be eating cold beans out of a can.

Additional, 6 hours later, it is now almost certain that we will be blacked out, and that it might well last up to five days. Posts come to you from WordPress, not directly from my computer, and I have a month of posts in the can so, see you later. Now back to what I already wrote.

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This is a continuation of last post. What does a kid with a toboggan have to do with solar energy storage, you ask? You’ll find out by the end of the post.

If you have any science background at all, please forgive the next few paragraphs as I set things up for something you may not know.

A battery does not hold electricity like a can holds Coke. The electrons which are present inside the battery do not go into your device. They travel from the (-) pole to the (+) pole, and essentially the same electrons are there in a discharged battery as are in a charged one.

It is the flow itself which powers your device. The flow is caused by chemicals inside the battery changing from a high energy configuration to a low energy one. This is true of the lithium ion battery that just burned up your hoover board, and equally true of the car battery in your great-grandad’s 1950 Nash Rambler. Such batteries are recharged by running electricity back through them to return the low energy chemicals to a higher energy state.

In other words, batteries don’t store electricity, they store energy. Chemical energy, and there are many other ways to store energy besides batteries. Let’s look at one.

===================

Last post I invited you to take a trip with me from the California foothills toward the coast. Now we have dropped down out of the brown hills, have crossed the hot, flat, agriculturally green Central Valley, and suddenly our car turns its nose upward because we have reached the Coast Range which stands between us and the ocean. We are on Highway 152 and to our left is the imposing dam of San Luis Reservoir.

Everyone knows the story of rainfall on mountains. California lives on it. Sunlight on the Pacific raises moisture which gets an uplift first by the low Coast Range and then by the High Sierra. The west side of the Coast range and the western Sierra foothills get winter rain in moderate quantities, and west side of the high Sierras gets a big dump of snow which melts in spring to fill reservoirs all over the western foothills, providing irrigation and electricity to California.

The eastern side of the Coast Range and of the Sierras get squat.

Where San Luis Reservoir is located, there isn’t enough local rain or snow to fill it. Water is brought to it by a system of canals, accumulated in the forebay and pumped up into the reservoir.

Sounds goofy, right? The dam exists to harvest in spring and store for summer, water that has already passed thorough the other reservoirs and would otherwise go to the ocean. Of course it’s controversial; everything related to water in California is controversial.

So what does this have to do with solar cells on the roof? San Luis Reservoir not only stores water, it is essentially a giant storage battery for electricity.

When the water arrives at the forebay, it is pumped, by electricity, up about 320 feet into the reservoir. When it exits the dam to be used, it passes through a hydroelectric generator, recouping much of the energy originally used to lift it. It isn’t 100% efficient system, but nothing is.

Batteries store energy by chemical change. There are innumerable other ways to store energy, many of them new, complicated, expensive, and with unknown dangers. Carrying a load uphill to store gravitational energy, and getting that energy back when the load comes down is old, simple, and well known. Kids have been doing it with toboggans ever since there have been snow, toboggans, and kids. (See, I told you I’d explain that photo.)

In California, people have been doing the same thing for a hundred years or more in tankhouses, water tanks attached to houses which allow gravity flow so you don’t need to turn the well pump on every time you open a faucet. The one shown here even used wind power to get the water out of the well and up into the tank.

This was done for the sake of the water, but it could as easily be done for the sake of storing energy. With twin tanks, one high and one low, there would be no reason to “use up” the water. It could even be structured in tandem with the house’s normal water usage.

I submit that a good engineer could turn this into a cheap, simple, and easy way to harvest solar power all day and use it all night, without frightening Mother Nature. You would simply use excess solar electricity to pump water upward all day, and drain it back through a turbine and generator that night.

How much water, how high would we have to pump it, how much would the raised tank cost? Would it be practical? Would it make money for the ones who provide the system? Who knows; that’s for some young engineer is search of a project to determine. Will it be you?

Since I didn’t invent this technique, I can’t ask for royalties once you perfect it. I will, however, expect a finder’s fee.

And if any of you out there know of someone who is already doing this, I would love to take my tongue out of my cheek and hear about it.

631. To Grid or Not To Grid

Although I fully believe in it, I normally steer clear of talking about global warming, wind and solar power, and the impending end of civilization. There are plenty of sources for that, and I don’t want to get caught channeling PBS.

However, speaking of PBS, there was a bit about the problems of energy storage as part of the solar solution yesterday (Sept. 27) that made me realize I knew a few odd things from a few odd sources that were worth sharing.

I live in California, in the foothills of the Sierras. PG&E provides my electricity, but every time it rains more than a tenth of an inch, my power goes out for six hours. This has been true for decades, not just since PG&E went bankrupt for its role in recent fires and told us all that it was going to shut our power off every time the wind comes up.

It’s enough to make you want to go off the grid.

We’ve all grown up with the grid — even me. The first house I remember, about 1950, had no plumbing, no running water, and an outhouse out back, but it had electricity coming in from elsewhere through the wires. Consequently, I can’t honestly tell Lincolnesque tales of reading by a coal oil light (except when tornadoes took the wires down).

The history of the grid goes back to Tesla and Edison fighting the battle of AC vs DC, and continues through the REA. (That’s the Rural Electrification Administration which brought electricity to isolated farms throughout America in the thirties.)

The grid is wonderful; it has given us our present level of civilization.

The grid is terrible. It is a dinosaur, completely out of date and tying us to the mistakes of the past.

As is so often the case, both of those statements are true. No one decided to choose centralized production of electricity with a massive distribution system. Its alternative, dispersed production, was simply not an option in the past.

That is no longer the case. A system of solar power through electrovoltaic cells can now be built one roof at a time. (There are other alternative sources of electricity, but I’m only going to talk about one in this post.)

There is a big problem, though. Solar cells only generate sufficient power during reasonably sunny days. There is also a solution, but it is only going to work for a few years.

In today’s installation of rooftop solar cells, homes mostly draw on the grid at night and “turn the meter back” during the day. Quite clever, for now. It amounts to using the grid like a giant storage battery. But if enough rooftop solar installations try this trick, daytime generated electricity will become essentially a waste product from the viewpoint of the owners of the grid.

Of course you could have a mega-array of solar cells in America lighting up India at night, and a similar array in India lighting up America at night, but that’s turning the grid into a GRID. It’s good science fiction, but not very practical.

If you want off the grid — and eventually the grid will want you off, if you are a daytime energy generator — you will have to find a way to store your daytime energy for night time use.

Storage batteries are heavy and expensive, not only in the owner’s dollars but also in terms of world resources. They also blow up. I’m not just talking about lithium ion batteries; car batteries blow up too from time to time.

If you could invent the perfect battery — light, safe, cheap, environmentally friendly, capacious — it would make you more money than cold fusion.

If you could invent both, you would solve all the world’s problems except overpopulation and religious strife. You could run for God and probably win.

Heinlein invented the perfect battery, the Shipstone, and built a whole universe around it, but it’s harder to do in the real world.

Coming back down to the individual home owner, what is needed is a non-battery source of energy storage to make those solar cells practical.

I have an idea! Actually it isn’t mine; it already exists, and I can point to it.

Hop in the car with me and let’s take off for the coast. I drive by something every time the foothills get too hot and I need a Monterey fix down by the ocean. I’ll show it to you.

We’ll go there Wednesday.

630. Sequel

I spent most of the summer trying out possibilities before settling on Dreamsinger as my next novel. One thing I considered was a sequel to A Fond Farewell to Dying. FFTD was set in a post nuclear war/post rising of the waters world. I wrote it before global warming became obvious, and my main character thought the flooding was due to the nukes that opened up the San Andreas fault. I don’t feel obligated to agree with him if I write another novel.

There would be several advantages in this sequel. I wasn’t done with my characters, even though FFTD had a proper closure. I had several bits and pieces of story that needed telling, but not enough to make a novel. I had a dandy idea for a third novel, if I could find a good second one to sew everything together.

In FFTD, the protagonist starts out in Ozarka, the island chain that lives in the middle of a much expanded Gulf of Mexico, but this is told as a flashback. The shattered, inundated remains of NorAm are not explored, and I felt there was a lot to see there. I wanted my old characters to fade into the background, letting me tell the next story through new eyes.

On a practical note, I’ve lived fifty years in California but only two of my novels are set there, and neither is science fiction. I know a lot of stuff that is going to waste.

So I decided to bring in a new character. He (I don’t know his name yet) is not so driven as David Singer was, but he is still a backwoods kid who has a lot to learn. That’s always useful; it lets us learn along with our character. I decided to let him grow up on an island off the coast of what is left of California, make his way across the now flooded Central Valley, spend some times in the former gold rush towns which will become seaports by his time, then head north walking along the crest of the Sierra/Cascade ranges. Up north he will come in contact with the characters from FFTD and his story will meld with theirs, but I don’t have that completely figured out yet.

I could tell you more, but at this point everything is still malleable. In fact, it is probably too soon to write this story; it needs to ferment a few more years.

Just to get a feel for this new novel, I wrote a few hundred opening words. You can have a peek at what may be coming, if you want.

==============

1.

The town I reached was a haphazard scattering of buildings up the dense green slopes of what was once the Coast Range, mostly built from sawn driftwood. At sea level were shacks and several small piers for fishermen, as well as a longer one for oceangoing vessels.

As for me, I was an invading army of one. Maybe I should say navy, since I was coming in from downcoast in the middle of a sealskin and driftwood kayak of my own making. I had left my birthtown two weeks ago, heading north to find a bigger life. Here and there I slept on islets, and cooked fish over driftwood fires, but mostly I just paddled all day with the sunrise on my right and the sunset on my left, and slept on the waters each night.

This place was not going to give me the life I wanted, but that long pier meant ships would come eventually. I beached the kayak on the open shore and dragged it into the brush, out of sight.

First things first. There were hundreds of streamlets coming down the steep, west facing slope. I picked one, walked up until I reached a waterfall, and let it sluice two weeks of grime and stench off my body. I swilled my fill of fresh water that had not spent days in a stoppered gourd. Then I walked on up the beach.

The first man I saw was a fisherman. So were the next dozen.

You could read the history and the future of the town in its architecture. There were a dozen huts on stilts paralleling the beach. The first actual houses were three hundred yards up a steep zigzag, and a hundred feet above the water.

Conclusion: from time to time a storm would wipe out everything below those houses. Prediction: someday, tomorrow maybe, or maybe ten years from now, a larger storm would wash the headland clean and this town would become a memory — if anyone survived to remember.

The first man I met looked me over and snarled, “Where did you come from?”

“Pirling. Two weeks south, out on one of the islands.”

“How’d you get here?”

“Kayak.”

His eyes ran down the beach behind me, looking, but he didn’t ask where I had hidden it. He said, “We all work here. No handouts. What can you do?”

“Anything you can do.”

#             #             #

For two weeks I worked, harder than anyone in the town. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody. It’s just that I had no friends or family, and nothing to keep me occupied but work. I slept on the beach. The sand was comfortable enough, and my boudoir was swept clean twice a day by the tide.

My body was comfortable, my belly was full, and the surly bastards I worked with never asked any questions. But my mind was trying to crawl out my ears to find something interesting to think about. Fat chance in that town.

Then a ship came. She was called Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly, a twenty-five meter schooner with a ferrocrete hull. I went aboard and looked for the skipper.

==============

His next stop will be the shattered remains of nuked San Francisco, with only Nob Hill still above the water. Maybe. Someday. If I get that far down the list of books-to-write.

629. Lord Darcy

First a note for those who got here following the tag steampunk
this isn’t exactly steampunk, but it tastes a lot like it.

It was in the Jokake room, Westercon 70, in Tempe, Arizona. Science and Technology vs. Magic was the name of the panel, and it seemed to falter from the beginning. Some panels are like that. They look good on paper, but in real life they are too cute to live.

I was a panelist, and I was puzzled by what I wasn’t hearing, so I asked, “Doesn’t anybody remember Lord Darcy?”

Some did, and said, “Oh, yeah, I read those.” Most of the audience had never heard of him.

Although the Lord Darcy series was somewhat successful — it got a Hugo nomination — it was too unique, too “in-between”, and it fell into the crack between the sub-genres. It was exactly what the panel planners had in mind, a set of stories based on magic as something that was studied, understood, and put to work by magicians who were trained in its laws — laws which had been meticulously discovered by scientific study.

The Darcy stories were also gloriously filled with in-jokes, with references to popular literature, and most of all they were great fun.

The series is set in modern times (the 60s and 70s, actually) in an alternate universe where King Richard did not die, John did not gain the throne of England, and magic took the place of science. I could say more, but I’m trying to avoid running this up to novella length.

Randall Garrett, the author, was a supreme practitioner of the punster’s art. If he had been writing about a magical object lost at a circus, he would certainly have called it The Adventure of the Rube’s Cube. He didn’t (sadly) write that, but I will dissect one of his real titles below.

Lord Darcy and his colleague Master Sean O’Lochlainn are often described as a kind of Holmes and Watson. That’s relatively fair, but it only scratches the surface. Darcy was of the aristocracy, tall, lean but strong, able with sword and pistol, brilliant of mind, lovely of body — the pluperfect hero. If that sound like Superman in need of a little kryptonite, forget it. You can be that heroic if the stories have an strong undercurrent of humor. Call him James Bond with a brain.

Master Sean, on the other hand, is no Watson. He is as competent in his own realm as Darcy is in his.

Darcy is chief investigator for Normandy, although he is sometimes called to England itself; he finds things out if they depend on actions, motives, and deception. Master Sean is a forensic sorcerer; he finds things out if they depend on magic. They work together seamlessly to solve murders and political crises for (modern day) Prince Richard and occasionally, King John IV.

There is a pattern to the stories. Typically, everybody is running around, wringing their hands and calling the latest crime an act of black magic. Darcy and Sean arrive on the scene; Sean investigates the magic at hand and passes the actual facts on to Darcy; Darcy sees the connections that no one else saw and shows how the murder was committed by purely physical means.

Master Sean explains Darcy’s technique like this:

“Like all great detectives, my lord, you have the ability to leap from an unjustified assumption to a foregone conclusion without passing through the distance between. Then you back up and fill in.”
                    from A Matter of Gravity,
                   but also repeated in several other stories

The only novel, Too Many Magicians, is particularly full of pop culture references of the day, including appearances by Nero Wolfe and Archie disguised as the Marquis de London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe.

My favorite story title is The Muddle of the Woad. If it doesn’t strike you funny at first, say it fast three times. Woad is the blue dye used by the Picts when they went into battle. A double agent for the King, investigating a cult seemingly devoted to regicide, is found dead in another man’s coffin, stark naked and dyed blue. A warning from the cult? Everybody thinks so but Darcy.

The only thing wrong with these stories is that there are not enough of them. I first read them in the paperback collections Lord Darcy Investigates (which contains A Matter of Gravity, The Ipswich Phial, The Sixteen Keys, and The Napoli Express) and Murder and Magic (which contains The Eyes Have It, A Case of Identity, The Muddle of the Woad, and A Stretch of the Imagination). I read the only novel Too Many Magicians in the Gregg Press version with the excellent preface by Sandra Meisel.

If I had to replace my copies, I would opt for the 2002 edition of Lord Darcy, edited by Eric Flint, because it also contains the two otherwise uncollected stories The Bitter End and The Spell of War.

All these are out of print, but that is what used bookstores and — dare I say it? — Amazon are for.

As it was with Holmes, there were further adventures after Garrett’s death, written by Michael Kurland. They are on my to-read list.

628. It Isn’t Working

Please note that today’s eyecatcher
is a busted clock. Thanks wikihow.

“Comp,” he said, “if I don’t cancel this order within one del, notify Yorki 00247 of everything that has happened in the last dur.”

Yikes, this isn’t working. I’ve really had fun with the idea of decimal time, and I think it is something that these people would actually use. If someone on Home Station were reading what I’ve written so far, they would understand it completely, but I can’t seem to make it work for readers who live on Earth.

It isn’t for lack of trying. There are a dozen little tricks, like saying “later” or “earlier” or using a vague time like “in a while” to avoid the decimal time terms. I made sure that Antrim spends his off hours reading old Earth novels so he is constantly translating into hours and minutes, even though the people around him don’t use our time terms any more. It still doesn’t work. I never realized until this experiment how many times in one novel a time phrase like “wait a minute” is used. My best guess now is about a million.

The other thing from the example at the top, computer names, is working out fine. The reader, just like the people of Home Station, keys in on the first name and ignores the number completely. I could screw this up for myself by using both Lafel 18273 and Lafel 19581, but I’m not masochistic. I don’t even try to remember the numbers. They have a logic — the lower the number the older the person — but I simply have everybody listed on a separate file. Most of the time I just use the first name, and if I need the number, I cut and paste.

It’s not that easy with time terms. Just five minutes ago I had Antrim checking out the computer records on some people he was about to interact with and I needed to make note of their ages. I couldn’t just say “she was a year younger than Antrim and the other two were about two years older.” I could say —

She was about a third of a kilo-det younger than Antrim and the others were nearly a kilo-det older, which told Antrim that she was a year younger and the other two were about two years older.

Arf, snarf, and boogles! That doesn’t even work once, and I seem to need something like that twice a page.

What I actually said when I got to that point was — “I give up”.

From now on, I’ll do what I do in fantasy fiction. In Menhir, Tidac and Cinnabar speak the language of the Inner Kingdom, but I write it in English.

I might make a note in passing that Home Station uses decimal time, but I’m going to write the novel in English. I’m going back to hours and minutes and years.

Ahhhhhhh! Man, that feels better.

I just went back to the paragraph preceding the age snarl and changed it to read, “It was a five minute walk to his destination.”  It didn’t take me twenty minutes (1.2 durs) to figure out how to say three dins (five minutes, more or less) is a way that a reader on Earth would understand.

Much better — but the experiment was still fun.