Tag Archives: science

680. Life is Fragile

I’ve been using this cocoon time to do a lot of things I don’t normally have time for. One of those is going through back posts to remember all of those things I said. In doing so, I ran across a post from three years ago that needs repeating.

This is no time to be taking classes on anything, even CPR, but that won’t last forever, and this is a time for serious reflections on the fragility of life. So just read this old post, and mark your calendar for some time after covid passes on to learn some life saving techniques.

Now Im going back into hiatus for a while longer.

I once saved a little girl’s life. True, but not as exciting as it sounds. I’ll tell you about it further down in the post.

In 1976 a whole bunch of things came together. I was back in California with a master’s degree and had started writing novels. My wife’s parents lived in the same small city. Her father was a life long Red Cross volunteer, so when help was needed in the Swine Flu clinics that the Red Cross organized that year, all three of us volunteered. I had spent four years as a surgical tech in a Naval Hospital, so it was natural that I continued to volunteer for medical things after everybody had had their shots and the Swine Flue had not appeared.

(Cynics called the Swine Flu shots the cure for which there was no disease, but no one knew that at the time. Hindsight is always accurate, but sometimes cruel.)

About that time, the Red Cross was given the responsibility of teaching the then-new technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. My wife, my father-in-law, and i took the county’s first CPR class one week, then took the first CPR teacher training the following week. After that we taught as a team.

At that time there were no EMTs. We taught the local ambulance drivers to do CPR, then my father-in-law taught the park rangers at the local lake. We taught civilian classes every week or so and after a few years we had trained several hundred.

In those days CPR training included the Heimlich maneuver and many other things I won’t even tell you about. Year by year, the training contained less and less. Dumbed down, in my non-medical opinion. Eventually I could no longer stand telling people who came for retraining, “What I taught you last year, we can’t teach that any more.” So I backed off  and let newer teachers take over.

To be fair, we weren’t teaching doctors and nurses. The amount that you can expect a civilian to learn in a short class, and remember in an emergency a year later, has to be fairly well restricted.

When I wrote my second published novel, I had the hero save a life using CPR, and in the front pages, placed a statement about CPR with a call for the reader to get training.

I never had to actually use CPR. That just means that nobody ever dropped temporarily dead in my presence, and I’m glad they didn’t.

However . . .

About twenty years later I was teaching middle school. It was the end of the day. The bell had just rung and my students had started getting into their back packs to file out, when one of them yelled, “Suzy’s in trouble!” and another student yelled, “She’s choking.”

The girl (not named Suzy) had slipped a hard candy about the size and shape of a marble into her mouth. She wasn’t supposed to do that until she was outside the classroom, so she was being sneaky instead of careful, and it lodged in her windpipe.

I slipped into the mode teachers use for bleeding, fainting, and fist fights. I went to her at a walk that resembled a run. Her face was desperate. I spun her around and stripped off her backpack while calmly saying, “Let’s get this off you. Let’s get you turned around so I can get that out, so you can breathe.” I put my hands in the right position and jerked up sharply — but carefully, since I was three times her size. The candy shot across the room.

That was it. It was over. She was shaken, but unhurt.

Humility would have me say that she would probably have been all right anyway, but I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.

So, what is the takeaway — that I’m a hero? Not likely. People’s lives are saved every day by the Heimlich maneuver. I have a friend, another teacher, who used it successfully twice during her career.

The takeaway is that CPR, rescue breathing, and the Heimlich maneuver are easy to learn, and if you ever have the chance to save the life of a loved one, or even a stranger, and you don’t know how, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Make a note on your calendar for after covid has passed. End of sermon.

645. Lassiter Triumphant

Sometime in the eighties as part of Cyan, I wrote the story of Lassiter, discoverer of Lassiter’s anomaly, destroyer of the final vestiges of Einstein’s version of the universe, and inventor of the space drive that powered all the starships in the novel. He was quite a character, and soooo not a hero that he was fun to write about.

Unfortunately Lassiter’s story took up too much space in a novel that was already verging on excessively complex, so I reduced the explanation of his space drive to 236 words on pages 64 and 65, and left the man himself out altogether.

I had already made this cut long before I retired from teaching and used OCR to get the half-completed paper Cyan manuscript into the computer. Somewhere in the dozens of boxes from the pre-computer half of my career, Lassiter remains. It would be nearly impossible to find him this late in the game.

There are a lot of paragraphs, pages, and chapters like that, irretrievable in the outer world, but still resident in the dust bin of my mind. I enjoy rummaging around there and experiencing them again, even though you can’t see them.

Now that I am writing Dreamsinger, I have a chance to resurrect Lassiter from memory, and this is the attempt. If things go well, I will finally be able to commit him to print within the novel. If not, at least you get to meet him here.


Lassiter was a funny looking guy who loved women, and had more success with them than you would have thought possible. He had a big nose, big ears and a receding hairline. He was five feet eight and skinny, but he had a big personality.

His pursuit of women was not predatory, but he always wanted more. As soon as he had enticed one woman into his bed, he was ready to look for another.

Lassiter was also a fine engineer, and in his work he was as steady as he was unsteady with women.

If he had been less of an engineer, he would never have been able to develop a whole new way of looking at the universe. If he had been less horny, he would never have worked as hard at chasing fame.

#          #          #

Lassiter collaborated with an established ghost writer to produce his biography, which they called A Man of Gravity. It was not humility that kept him from writing it himself. Lassiter had no humility. It’s just easier to get away with bragging if you say “He did this . . .” instead of saying “I did this . . .”. For example:

Lassiter was fuming when he barged into Linda Volstone’s office. She was the vice-administrator of the Lunaire Pile, the Morris reactor which provided power for the entire Lunar colony. Lassiter was the senior engineer at the project, and he was a frustrated man.

“Lin,” he said, “you’ve got to do something about Dahlgreth.”

Volstone was slender with night-black hair. She had shared Lassiter’s bed two — no three — women ago, and she still had a weakness for him. She said, “What is Dogbreath up to now?”

Dahlgreth was not a popular administrator.

Lassiter said, “He still won’t let me publish.”

from A Man of Gravity, page 27

In fact, it is doubtful that this exchange ever took place. The real story was about a diligent engineer who discovered an overage in the power output of his reactor, and could not explain it. It was only a fraction of a percent, but it haunted him. It was real; it should not have been there; there were no errors in his instruments nor in his calculations. Something was happening that Einstein’s equations could not account for.

After a much research, he concluded that reduced gravity was the reason. Nothing in any theory supported him, and he was all but laughed out of physics, but the fact remained that no reactor on Earth showed the overage, but Lunaire did and the Chinese reactor on the back side of the moon did.

He published his findings and ran into a wall of opposition. Einstein had been under siege for more than three decades — but by theoretical physicists, not by some upstart engineer who had a few facts and a theory, but did not have fifty pages of unreadable mathematics to back him up.

A lesser man would have crumbled. So would a greater man, but Lassiter was motivated by something normal physicists would not have understood. He wanted fame. More than that, he wanted to be so rich and famous (and the rich part was extremely important) that women all over the world would throw themselves at his feet.

His biography did not say this, but everyone who really knew him understood.

He made himself famous by casting himself as the little guy that the establishment was afraid of. He built a brash persona, and then grew into it. He became the relentless voice of simple reason.

He gave interviews. He wrote op-eds. He was a favorite guest on talk shows. Everywhere he appeared he had the same message: the overage is there, lesser gravity is the only thing different, let’s outfit a probe and settle the matter.

The probe Dirac settled the matter. As it moved outward from the Sun, the output of its mini-pile grew. Measurements were made, conclusions were reached. It turned out that a larger portion of the reactor’s fuel was being turned into energy the further the probe moved outward from the Sun’s gravity. Somewhere beyond Uranus, the probe’s reactor could no longer handle the overage and it exploded. The nuclear fireball continued until every atom of the probe was consumed.

Once the metaphorical smoke cleared, it became apparent that anyone who could initiate a reaction beyond thirty-seven light minutes from the Sun would have a self-sustaining nuclear torch that would eat ice, asteroids, cosmic dust — anything.

Gravity was the only thing holding matter together. No one could explain why, but there it was. Start a hot enough fire, far enough from the sun, and Lassiter’s anomaly would bring about the total annihilation of matter.

It would provide a stardrive; not FTL, but good enough to allow starships to visit nearby stars. That brought enough fame to satisfy even Lassiter. And enough money. And enough women.

For the rest of his life, Lassiter basked in his accomplishment. Money poured in. Women adored him, or at least adored his money and fame. By the time he was ninety-seven, and still hanging on to life with apparent gusto, he was the second most famous man on Earth and the second richest, both following Saloman Curran.

When the nukes came down, his story ended with billions of other stories, but during his lifetime he lived driven by his gonads and never paid a price for it.


When I was young, probably in high school, I ran across the following observation:

If a race of intelligent beings evolved at the bottom of a sea of mercury, they would be unable to discover electricity because every build-up of charge would be immediately dissipated.

I don’t remember who said that, or what book I found it in. Actually, I have mentioned this before, and asked if anyone knows where it came from. Do you know? I’m still listening.

That observation stuck with me and is the basis for Lassiter’s anomaly. What used to be called weightlessness and is now called micro-gravity is not the absence of gravity, but a balancing act within a gravity well. When we reach the empty spaces between the stars, what will we find there that has always been masked by the gravity that defines our perceptions?

Lassiter’s anomaly? I doubt it, but who knows?

641. The Synapse Emerges 2

This concludes the post begun Monday.

The Cyan sequel, unnamed, has remained in the upper left corner of my brain all the time that I’ve been writing Dreamsinger. Dreamsinger is not a sequel to Cyan; it is sideways, starting at the same point and diverging into an empty corner of the Cyan/Jandrax universe.

Today (I’m writing both parts of this post on October 5, 2019) everything fell together. Hang on, this get’s complicated.

Humans have colonized the space around Sirius. The main population center is Home Station, in orbit of Stormking, a basically uninhabitable planet. Directed dreaming is used to keep the population happy and easy to control. (See 621 and 622.)

Okay, good enough, but how does this directed dreaming work? How can you create and store a dream, then implant it into a living brain? What technologies are involved, and how much do I have to tell the reader? I will certainly tell less than I know, but I have to have it well in hand to tell the story effectively.

REM sleep was discovered in 1953 and sleep studies were in all the science magazines I was reading through high school. Consequently, I already know more than people who came onto the scene after it had faded from prominence. Still, research is a writer’s best friend so I went to the local library, sorted through the books on dreams and dreaming, and dumped the ones which were astrology, self-help and wishful thinking.

In one book there was reference to a researcher sending visual images to a dreaming colleague. (See Our Dreaming Mind by Robert Van de Castle, pp. xxii and xxiii.) It seemed legitimate, and not believing anything is as futile as believing everything. Besides, I don’t have a Ph.D. reputation to uphold, so I decided to go with it. Now I have to explain it. Here’s a bit from the (very) rough draft of Dreamsinger.

     In the misty olden days of the twentieth century, Van de Castle demonstrated that thought images could be projected into a dreaming mind. That tiny bit of knowledge did not fit into the world as it was then understood, and was forgotten for nearly a hundred years. When it was discovered again, it pointed toward revolutionary changes in our understanding of the brain.
     Basil Kendrick demonstrated that events similar to brain to brain transmission seemed to occur continuously within the brain. He theorized that transmissions of information took place not only by synapses, but also by means of what he called K-waves, which were so short as to be undetectable and, incidentally, travelled faster than light.

K-waves, are you kidding? That sounds like something E. E. Smith would have used. Hang with me a while. The idea of telepathy taking place at FTL speeds goes back to Heinlein, and I always liked it. I needed some entrée into FTL, and this seemed like a good way to get it. As for the term K-waves, Kendrick named them after himself in order to get his name into the history books.

The name Kendrick came out of the air, and I was prepared to keep changing names until I found one that didn’t have a (K or B or D or whatever)-wave connected with it in the real world. As it happened, I got lucky on the first try.

I Googled. There are real K-waves, but they refer to long cycles in economics. I could ignore them. However, there is also a K-complex, so I checked that out.

Without getting into things that are above my pay grade, the K-complex is an EEG waveform associated with memory consolidation, which occurs during a non-dreaming stage of sleep. K-waves (imaginary) and the K-complex (real) are unrelated, but they won’t be when I get through writing Dreamsinger.

Now picture an old writer jumping for joy, just not as high. Things are coming together, or at least close enough to use.

They used to say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”. I would add, “. . . and in writing science fiction”. It is fiction, after all, and you have to at least go beyond our present knowledge, probably in a direction future reality will not support. I work hard at world building, but I’m not obsessive about it. (Reading these two posts, you might disagree.)

My Kendrick, on Earth just before colonists departed for Cyan and for Sirius, stirred up controversy with his theories and then the nukes came down. All his studies were in the massive databanks of the computers that went to Sirius and to Cyan. Under Sirius, they led to directed dreaming. On Cyan . . .?

Suddenly, I have a way of connecting the unconnected all over the place.

I already know that Louis Dumezil, who will later write the Monomythos, and “Frank”, who will invent the FTL drive, have met while waiting to go on the new Darwin expedition. Now I simply add one conversation. In a bull session during training Dumezil will tell “Frank” about K-waves, and their purported FTL speed. He will know this because his father (the religious fanatic, remember?) was a nut on telepathy. Dumezil will also tell his life story, which includes the white powder on the blue berries that lead to a psychedelic experience. (I wrote all this a couple of months ago in a short piece called Children of the Hollow Hills, which you haven’t seen.)

When “Frank” gets washed out of the trip on the Darwin by Debra and Beryl’s new research, he sets out to study the supposed connection of telepathy with FTL, but there are no known telepaths on Cyan. However, he finds the remnant of the cult Dumezil escaped, who are still sucking fungus powdered berries and talking mind to mind.

“Frank’s” study of telepathy, using the cultists as subjects, proves the FTL nature of K-waves. He also discovers K-waves are the actual carriers of all information inside the brain, as Kendrick suggested. The previously measured energies of the synapses are only a side effect, a sort of down-cycle echo of the true energies. “Frank” renames the K-waves as Synapse waves, and goes on to invent the FTL drive I used in Jandrax, and which will allow him to go exploring after all, bad genes notwithstanding.

He names it The Synapse, which I knew he had to because that was what I called it back in 1976.

Don’t you  love it when everything falls together?

Was intuition at play here? Maybe. Foreknowledge? Don’t be ridiculous. I think it was pure, dumb luck, augmented by self-training in grabbing anything good as it floats by, and letting nothing escape that might further the cause.

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.


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.

626. Lucifer’s Cousin

In post 575. Textbook: The Rolling Stones, I mentioned the two interpretations of the asteroid belt that were current when I started reading science fiction. At that time, many believed that it was the result of the fourth planet being somehow blown up. There were plenty of science fiction stories about that lost planet’s civilization, including several which made it the source of humanity and the origin of the Atlantis myth.

The other interpretation was that the fourth planet was kept from forming by Jupiter’s gravity. A logical and prosaic theory and apparently the correct one. Occasionally, ignorance is bliss when writing science fiction. Does anyone else miss a swampy, dinosaur infested Venus?

Oh well, that’s okay. That’s what steampunk, fantasy, and alternate universes are for.

In Dreamsinger, I’ve managed to retrieve just a tiny touch of the old glory of an asteroid belt from an exploded planet, and it only came to me within the last few weeks. I had already tilted Stormking, way back when I was writing Cyan. The culprit was a rouge body passing through the Sirian system. I didn’t have to invent that; scientists believe that’s the way Uranus got tilted. I recently decided to make further use of it the rogue body by having it do major damage to planet number two.

I gave it a near miss. I may change my mind about that and give it a bullseye. I may even have my page-people discover that their scientists were wrong; that it wasn’t a near miss but a hit. Or maybe a so-near miss that the rogue was captured and is now part of the Swarm.

Here’s how it fell out in today’s (August 28th) rough draft.


Dreea was assigned to the cargo ship Typhoon. It seemed a silly name for a ship of space, especially one completely without streamlining. If it ever encountered a typhoon, it wouldn’t last thirty seconds.

Sirius was massive, and it’s system reflected the fact. The distance to the Goldilocks region was about five times as far as Sol to Earth, but it wasn’t a blown up model of the old Earth system. Having a second, shrunken star was enough to see to that, but it did have a hot planet close in and a more-or-less Earth sized planet in the third position. The planet which had held Venus’s position had been broken up by the same rogue body that had tilted Stormking.

That was important, and it was the reason that the Swarm was Typhoon‘s first destination.

The fourth planet in orbit of Sol had never coalesced because of perturbations from massive Jupiter. Consequently, all the asteroids in the belt were more or less uniform in composition. The beltmen of Sol had made a living there, but it had not been rich pickings.

The Venus-position planet circling Sirius had fully formed, with a core and tectonic plates. For billions of years gravity and convection has stirred the stuff of the second planet, and accumulated various minerals in their various places. Then the rogue body had passed so close that tidal stresses had shattered number two.

Pebble sized, and rock sized, and boulder sized, and mountain sized and continent sized chunks of the planet had been torn apart. The heat released had been tremendous. The outward force had been tremendous, but so was the combined gravity of all the pieces. Coalescence began at once, but gravity had to fight tidal forces, lateral velocities, and new heat energy when the pieces crashed together again.

After half a billion years, it had still not fully coalesced. It was still a mess, but it was a rich mess. It was as if someone had picked the Earth up, hit it with a giant hammer, and left all it’s mineral riches out in the open for easy exploitation.

Typhoon was to drop in, pick up a cargo of various minerals, and then proceed to Forge, the innermost planet where Sirius’s heat was abundant and open-air factories would turn Typhoon’s cargo into the goods needed throughout the system.

If you can call a factory open-air, on a planet whose atmosphere was long ago boiled away.

619. The Crash Heard Round the World

Two days ago on the news, a Tesla driver was caught on camera asleep at the wheel on a freeway. We all got to see him snooze, then eventually got to see him jerk awake. Chit-chat ensued. One talking head said, “Someday sleeping at the wheel will probably be legal and safe.” Another replied, “Not in my car!”

When I was ten years old, everybody knew that men would never walk on the moon. In the subsequent decades, the public’s default position on what science plans to do has switched from can’t to can. The public isn’t any smarter; they’ve just changed their prejudices.

Driverless cars have been around for a long time in science fiction. Here is page 2, paragraph 1 of Methuselah’s Children by Heinlein, first published in 1941.

Mary had no intention of letting anyone know where she was going. Outside her friend’s apartment she dropped down a bounce tube to the basement, claimed her car from the robopark, guided it up the ramp and set the controls for North Shore. The car waited for a break in the traffic, then dived into the high-speed stream and hurried north. Mary settled back for a nap.

Good fun in ’41, but no one would have expected to see it happen this soon. Even science fiction aficionados might have said 2119, or maybe 2219, yet here we are, on the brink.

In 1941, the world was very different. Heinlein might imagine driverless cars, but he never imagined something else that is now part of our world — computer hacking.

Hang on, folks, I’m going to make a prediction.

At a near future date every car on the highway will be driverless. The old curmudgeons like me who wouldn’t even trust cruise control will all be dead, mostly from auto crashes with drivers who did trust cruise control. The text-and-drive crew will have won the battle of the public consciousness. Science will have proved that humans are inferior to computers in driving, and science will be right because it will be comparing computers to the text-while-driving generation. Human drivers will be outlawed as unsafe — which they will be.

Driverless cars will talk to each other and to central control, adding another layer of safety to the whole enterprise. Central control will be heavily protected against hacking, for obvious reasons. Science will prove that central control is impenetrable.

Science always proves something like that, just before the cataclysm. See Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

All that was just set-up for the prediction.  Here is the prediction.

Sometime in August of 2035, a kid named Morrisey, who isn’t even born today, will hack the un-hackable central control. No one will notice. He will place a delayed command, and head for a hill overlooking an LA freeway.

On August 26th, 2035, at peak rush hour, central control will send out an order and every automobile in America will speed to 100 mph, then simultaneously make a ninety degree left turn.

Registering 4.6 on the Richter scale, it will be the Crash Heard Round the World.

St. Peter will have to put on extra staff.

618. Digging Up the Dead

I would love to show the excavations I took part in
but I have no such pictures.
This eyecatcher is an excavation of a
Roman site in London.

Last post I told about doing survey archaeology in Michigan in 1967, ending with the statement that suddenly, when the summer was almost over, everything changed . . .

We got a phone call from the University, and within hours we had packed up, left our base, and were heading half way across Michigan to Bay City.

The Sagnaw River runs through Saginaw, then northward about twenty miles to Bay City where it empties into Lake Huron. It is a major shipping channel which frequently silts up. In Bay City, a project was under way to dredge the shipping channel. An area along the river had been designated to receive what the dredges removed.

The dozers preparing to receive the outflow exposed human remains and everything came to a stop. The police came, but it was clearly not a crime scene. The remains were skeletons in what little remained of wooden coffins, surrounded by grave goods. It was an Indian burial ground.

Yes, Indian. That’s what they were called in 1968 and it was just a designation, like Dutch or French. It wasn’t an insult word. There were plenty of insult words, like redskin, but Indian was just a word. It still is.

Mr. Fletcher, who owned the site, gave permission to Michigan State to do salvage archaeology. We had two weeks to work before the bulldozers were scheduled to go back to work.

When we arrived on the site, we found a flat basin a hundred yards wide and a quarter of a mile long, of mostly pure sand. Those are “close enough” figures from memory. Bulldozers were impatiently poised to return to work.

The site was surrounded by dikes, perhaps twenty feet high. Once we were finished, the dredgers would pump a slurry of sand and water from the river bed into the basin, the water would make its way out through the sand dikes, and whatever remains we could not remove would be lost forever under twenty feet of fill.

There were four archaeology crews out that summer. Three of them had specific tasks that could not be abandoned. Our survey work could be done any time, so we were elected.

It was frantic work. The site, we learned eventually, dated from about 1750. The Indians were in contact with traders and settlers, both English and French, and the graves were full of trade goods. There were a lot of copper pots. Other than bone beads (well preserved) and furs which were barely recognizable, most of the grave goods were of European origin. That did not mean that these were westernized Indians, only that they had trading relationships.

We found a lovely silver cross, but that did not mean the deceased was a Christian. We found a flintlock pistol — or rather, a lump of rust that had once been a flintlock pistol. We found the remains of a musket, badly preserved; the wood was marginally better preserved than the iron.

One of the skeletons we found had a row of brass buttons down its sternum and scattered in the dirt in the belly area, along with tarnished epaulets above the points of the humeri. There was no fabric, but he had clearly been buried wearing a military great coat. That didn’t mean he was a scout for the French or the English (there wasn’t enough remaining to know which), although he might have been. He might also have traded for it, or have taken it off a dead European after combat.

Despite the hype about pyramids and Schliemann finding Troy, there is much that can be implied by an archaeology site, but much less that can be proved.

When I say skeletons, you should not picture the dead happy pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean. Bones do not last well in moist ground, and not all bones are created equal. Skulls and femurs last better than pelvi and ribs. The bones of the hands and feet don’t preserve even that well. Tiny bones hardly last at all. There were miniature coffins for infants, but they were pretty much empty, with maybe a few grave goods and a few flakes of skull.

I have to touch on the morality of all this. These were Indians buried by their own people. How would you like to have someone digging up the graveyard where your grandmother is buried? There are valid complaints to be made which I understand and have no intention in arguing against.

This particular case, however, was salvage. To me, it was no different than salvage of European bones. If during the construction of a modern building, a two hundred year old white folks cemetery was discovered in the basement excavation, the bones would be removed and reinterred. You may not realize it, but those bones would certainly pass through the hands of physical anthropologists who would study them for what they had to tell about the history of disease in early America, before being returned to the earth.

We were careful with everything we found because every piece had a story to tell. I spent hours drawing the remains in situ before they were removed, and hours with an alidade (described in post 586) making sure that the locations were well mapped.

We were careful with bones and copper pots, but we didn’t treat either as sacred objects. A pot is not a meal, and a bone is not a person. Everything went to the museum and the bones were, I believe, eventually reburied.

There are a few more personal bits to this story. My future wife was also on archaeology crews those two years, but not with me. She lived in Saginaw, and when she came home for the weekend during our salvage operation, she drove up to the site and volunteered to help.

When someone asks me where I met my wife, I say we met in a graveyard. Then I explain further. The following winter, she and I worked together upstairs in the MSU museum cataloging the results of the dig. Two years later, we were married.

The site was so rich that the land owner had it diked off. The dredging went on, but the fill went elsewhere, and the site was not lost. I spent the following summer there, this time accompanied by my college roommate. The site later became a field school, and my roommate wrote up the results as his Ph.D. dissertation. It is on line. The site ended up on the National Register of Historic Places, and has its own brief spot on Wikipedia.

Archaeology wasn’t an occupation I could continue, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

617. Raiders Before the Ark

Ground penetrating radar used in survey archaeology.
I’m jealous; in 1967, we just walked and looked.

Anthropology has been a major part of my life. I spent five years in pursuit of it, and it forms the backbone of everything I think and write, even though my dislike of field work was pushing me away at the same time that writing was drawing me away.

When I discovered the field during the sixties, forensic anthropology was nearly unheard of and the tools of modern physical anthropology were just being assembled. Social anthropology, my specialty, and archaeology were the two choices for students then, and we all took classes in both.

My first class in archaeology was in spring quarter of 1967. The professor was a lean, fit man in his late thirties with thin blonde hair and a beard. He had great tales to tell. The class was taught in the MSU museum and there was a stuffed moose standing in the corner of the room. How cool can you get?

My roommate and I immediately started growing beards. I still have mine. In a miracle of convergence, I had a full beard about the time I saw them growing on faces all over campus. I had become a hippie, when all I wanted to do was look like Dr. Cleland.

It was an Indiana Jones moment, fourteen years before the movie came out.

I had escaped Oklahoma and had no intention of going back to spend my summers working on the farm. There are no summer jobs in social anthropology, but you an sign on to an archaeology crew, and I did for two summers.

1967 and 1968. Keep those numbers in mind. I was nineteen, then twenty. Keep those numbers in mind, too. Feminism was on the horizon, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Political correctness, in those days, meant hating the Commies, supporting the Vietnam war, beating up hippies and draft dodgers, and voting Republican. I wasn’t politically correct.

The definition has changed since then, and I still am not.

Archaeology was an alpha male enterprise, in an alpha male era, and it was an alpha male time of my life. Sorry. Not bragging, not apologizing, just reporting.

Archaeology is hard, dirty work in the hot summer sun. It was much like what I left in Oklahoma, minus the manure but plus an intellectual content. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Like everything else in science, you spend a thousand hours of work for one tiny nugget of knowledge. The work didn’t bother me. Work is just work; I’ve always done it and I will as long as my body holds out. But there weren’t enough rewards.

My crew was doing survey archaeology all over northwestern lower Michigan. Our home base was Kalkaska just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a small town known for its giant fiberglass trout statue. The local young guys yelled insults at us when they saw us on the street. We were too cool (in our own minds) to be bothered. You know the drill. If there were any local young girls in town, they kept them well hidden.

We spent our days walking up and down the local rivers, looking for evidence of camp sites along the banks, or walking the shore of Lake Michigan for the same reason. Evidence of habitation meant chips of chert (the local low grade version of flint), pot sherds (broken pieces of pottery), or midden (trash heap) mounds. You had to learn to distinguish chips of worked stone from natural breakage while walking along at a normal pace.

If we found enough surface evidence, it was time to make a test pit. That meant a ten foot by ten foot square, taken down with flat bladed shovels in four inch lifts. All the dirt from each lift was tossed into a sieve — a wooden sided box with a 1/4 inch screen bottom. This was suspended from a sapling tripod and shaken. Dirt went through, chips, flakes, arrowheads, stone knives, or bits of pottery would be left behind.

Or, more often, nothing would be left behind and the test pit would be abandoned.

Sometimes we would be on public land, but most of the time we had to negotiate for permission to enter. The grad student who was leading our group spent more time making friends with local farmers — or trying to — than he did looking or digging.

So it went for most of two months and then everything changed for the better. It was about to get exciting. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.

610. Time and Time Again

I love my jobs, both writing novels and blogging. Every new blog I write opens me up to new knowledge, often arriving in replies from the people who have read them.

Blogger and regular reader Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value replied to last Monday’s post on decimal time. I gave him a quick answer and then went looking for information because he referred to  Swatch Internet Time, and I had never heard of it.

Swatch Internet Time turns out to be a top down system, while the one the colonists of Sirius use is bottom up. No, I’m not talking about oligarchs and the people. Swatch Internet Time took the day and divided it into 1000 parts called beats. The Sirian system takes a second and builds up a system of terms from there. It turns out SIT was all about erasing borders, including time zones, to turn the internet into one endless, borderless day. It was more political (and marketing) than scientific.  After all, no matter what you call a time system, it is still daylight in India when it is night time here in California, and vice versa. Still, it’s a fascinating idea that I had missed out on.

Fascinating, but . . . there was already a universal time called  UTC, or Zulu, or military time, wherein you simply convert your local time to Greenwich Time, while pretending that Greenwich is never on Daylight Savings Time.

Further research showed that decimal time is a notion that has been tried occasionally, starting with the French about the time they adopted the metric system. It has never worked out, probably because we already have a system that works, irrational though it is. Our system won’t work so well once we are on planets with different day lengths and year lengths. It certainly wouldn’t be optimum in non-planetary colonies.

When the issue of decimal time originally came up for me, Swatch Internet Time didn’t exist. The internet didn’t exist either. It was, as nearly as I can calculate, about 1980, as a follow-on to several other things that had occurred in the particular universe I was writing about at the time.

I invented the Standard Year in Jandrax in 1976 with absolutely no thought, and had to flesh it out later in Cyan. It depended on the notion that Muslim countries would eventually refuse to let a Christian calendar stand for all mankind, so goodbye to BC and AD. The solution to that problem, in Cyan, was to reset year zero to October 12, 1492, the day that began the age of discovery which would finally knit the world into a whole. See 25. Columbus, King of Explorers. As part of the restructuring, months and weeks were dropped, and days were identified by the number of days since the beginning of the year, as in the opening words of Cyan:

From the Log of the Starship Darwin, en route to the Procyon system, S.Y. 594, Day 167

Cyan itself had a very long day and year, and it had no seasons. A Cyanian year meant little to the colonists, so people measured their ages by Earth years. The term day came to mean from sunup to sunup, and the human daily cycle of sleep and waking became known as a sleep.

Even these people, born on Earth and newly arrived on Cyan, had to make changes in the terminology of time. The colonists around Sirius would be refugees, fleeing the breakup of Earth after the Cyanian colonists departure, and living in space colonies. They made bigger changes. See last Monday.

These things occur by accretion in the real world, and also in writing. After I wrote last Monday’s post, but before any of you saw it, I had already had to add one more term, det, because my people needed a time unit longer than a dae to use in their everydae (not a misspelling) conversations.

Since then I have also come to realize that I have to also have to be able to put events into a deep framework.

On Earth, we would say something like February 12, 2019. On Cyan they use standard years and days for that, as in the quotation above. I decided that the colonists around Sirius would follow the standard year practice and set a certain dae as zero dae, then count forward. You could say:

Antrim was born on dae 348,278.

That is certainly clumsy for humans, but it is entirely suitable for computers which would be keeping all the records that far into a future world of ships and space stations.

To choose the zero dae, I will have to know how far in the future this story takes place. I haven’t decided yet, but once I figure that out, I’ll know how many daes ago they began to count time in daes.

There you go, simple. Clear as sunshine on a cloudless dae. Except in space, all daes are cloudless.