Friday, May 31, 2013

What's Up With Star Trek?

There have been quite a few Star Trek movies. The last two constitute a "reboot" of the franchise.

I haven't thought through what should and should not be done in a franchise "reboot," but I have some specific observations about the two movies of its reboot.

When you consider a fictional universe with as much that's been developed for Star Trek, there's a huge amount of backstory that's known. And where trekkers are fiends for trivia. So, the Star Trek reboot started out by demolishing all of it to build on a fresh foundation. Vulcan got trashed and the story got started before the start-point of the original show. This cleared the decks for the movies to tell all new stories in the reboot movies.

I hated it for many reasons, but trashing a Corvette Stingray in the opening scene was unforgivable.

When the second movie came around, all I knew was that Benedict Cumberbatch was the villain. And that was a huge source of interest to me. He's the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes on the BBC adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Any actor who can play Sherlock would do sociopath well.

At this point, I shall begin to disclose spoilers from the Star Trek movie "Into Darkness."

Tune out if...





Benedict Cumberbatch plays a villain who is delightfully evil. He is marvelously competent at villainy as he starts blowing stuff up and killing Star Fleet personnel wholesale.

One of my hobby-horses is how the writer finds suitable motivation for the villain.

If you watched Star Trek the original show, and the second Star Trek movie, the motivation of Khan Noonien Singh changed with time. In the backstory of "Space Seed," there was this thing called the Eugenics Wars wherein Khan conquered a significant portion of Central Asia, and before he was defeated, he skipped out on a space-ship called the Botany Bay.

In this chapter of his life, Khan's motive was mere power. He was in the warlord business and he was motivated to gain power and rule. This is a very easy motivation to understand and to depict.

Khan's motivation is unchanged in "Space Seed" as he goes about taking over the Enterprise. All he wants is power. That's cool. And when he's dropped off at a nearby planet he's cool with reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven.

When "The Wrath of Khan" comes around, we discover the nice planet he was dropped off at has become hellish, his wife is dead, and he blames Kirk for these unhappy events. Now, Khan is angry with Kirk and he is consumed with wrath. Grumpy villains intent upon revenge is also a good motivation for villainy.

With this in mind, let's consider "Into Darkness." Benedict Cumberbatch is doing all the mayhem but it is not clear to me why. In the movie, we learn that Peter Weller is worried about Klingons so he thaws out Khan and puts him to work dreaming up weapons to fight Klingons with.

However, it's not completely clear to me why Khan decides to start blowing stuff up. Sure, he could be mad at Peter Weller, but why?

After things start getting blowed up and Kirk's friend Captain Pike gets killed, the movie is clearly misnamed. It should have been "The Wrath of Kirk."

And that's what doesn't quite work in the movie. It's a neat concept. Take a movie that everyone knows, "The Wrath of Khan" and then swap all the roles: Instead of Khan being wrathful, it's Kirk. Instead of Spock sacrificing himself and getting a deadly dose of radiation, and dying while Kirk looks on, "Into Darkness" swaps Kirk and Spock. And instead of Spock getting resurrected by some plot device, Kirk gets resurrected.

It's a fun concept, but you can't get the joke unless you're a long-time fanboy.

This works today, but I don't think it'll hold up with time. I've said before that Han Solo shooting first worked because the viewers in the 1970s were familiar with Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" wherein Angel Eyes showed he was a bad man. It quit working when George Lucas became a bigger filmmaker than Sergio Leone and nobody except film buffs and old guys understood how Han shot first because Lee Van Cleef shot first. By that same logic, everyone today interprets "Into Darkness" in the context of "Wrath of Khan," but they won't thirty years hence.

Does Benedict Cumberbatch work as Khan? Oh yeah. Anyone who plays Sherlock must speak arrogant as his native tongue. The best line in the movie is when Khan tells Kirk he's "better." Kirk asks, "at what?" And Khan says, "Everything." He carries off Khan's superhuman competence and aggressiveness marvelously. I really believed this was a genetically-engineered superman.

His only weakness from a story-telling perspective was his motivation. The writers needed to show a link between Khan's murderous campaign at the outset of the movie and some specific betrayal by Peter Weller or injury at his hand.

It would be trivial to do. The Botany Bay set off with 84 souls aboard, only 72 survived--including Khan (in "Space Seed's" time-line). In "Into Darkness's" time-line at least 73 survive--72 inside photon torpedoes plus Khan.

Perhaps Peter Weller got to the Botany Bay with all 84 cryogenic chambers intact, but he killed nine of Khan's crew by experimenting on them before he thawed out Khan. And when Khan finds out, he gets the motivation to launch his campaign of terror.

More likely, Khan's plan was to manipulate Star Fleet into launching the photon torpedoes at Kronos and somehow they don't blow up and somehow he thaws out his buddies and somehow he takes over the Klingon Empire? Yeah, that's what Khan had in mind.

The unclear motivation is what prevents me from saying Khan is the best villain ever.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Planning And The Plan

I just read this from one of the writers I follow, Melissa Foster. And felt a need to rebut it.

Yesterday ... I stood at my easel with a purple pen, and scribbled a sorta-kinda outline for my new manuscript. I was so proud of myself for having tried to prepare before writing (a huge feat for a pantser like me!). I then took a red pen and added the next layer to each point. Twenty minutes later I stood before my computer on my treadmill desk, music on, easel before me, and...I wrote 9200 words. None of which followed the sorta-kinda outline. What this taught me is that I am not you. You are not me. We all march to a different beat, and we need to do what works for us as individuals. So, please do not judge my inability to outline. My creativity flows wild and free, and I shall not judge your ability to prepare (which I am in awe of on a daily basis) and follow your own creative path.

Though I am more of a "plotter" than I am a "pantser," I understand that others work differently and my primary concern is pragmatic: Did doing what you did make successful completion of your writing task easier, or harder?

Clearly, if cannot produce an outline, you ought not produce an outline before you write your novel. If you wait, you'll never write! You should write instead. I just hope you don't get blocked 1/3rd of the way through your project.

In the paragraph above, Melissa cites the fact that she wrote 9200 words without consulting her outline as evidence that she cannot outline. Yet, she had already created an outline in purple and red. She proved capable of creating an outline, she just didn't bother following it.

And that's cool.

No, that's better than cool, that's awesome. She dashed off 9200 words of prose!

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, said this:
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
An outline is not a contract. It is not a covenant signed in blood. For the writer of fiction, the outline should be no more than a plan. It should capture your thinking about your work and what you intend to do. The outline should bring to mind the problems a work will have to solve. (I'm sending Mycroft Holmes to Kashmir? OK, maybe I should research a bit of Indian culture, or the topography of the region.) The outline should give the writer an idea of where the story is going. (Where am I going after Kashmir?) It helps you identify scaffolding.

An outline is just your thoughts written down. It's a deliverable of thinking. When you are planning a work you are thinking about it. And when you are planning a work, you don't know some vitally important facts. An accurate plan can only be made after the work is done and you've learned all you need to know. And that's why it's worthless, because everyone makes plans at the point of maximum ignorance.

As you get into the work you learn, and that learning needs to be integrated with your up-front thinking about the work. Yes, you could stop writing and update your outline, but you ought not turn off the writing part of your brain for busy work. Remember, the plan is useless. Don't stop for it. And planning is indispensable. Don't skip it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Mosquito In The Bedroom

You're dead tired. It's a summer night and you're sleeping with just a sheet over you. And that's too hot. You've just flipped off the light. The house is quiet. And then you hear it--the whine of a single mosquito in the bedroom with you.

Do you turn the light on again and hunt the blighter? Do you pull the sheet over your head and hope she can't bite through it? (It is a she. All biting mosquitoes are female.) Or do you just lie back and think of England?

I can think of few things more irritating.

Mimi on The Drew Carey Show was pretty irritating. She was everything I could hate in a character. She's unpleasant, unattractive, and just plain irritating. She was there by design. And in this design she plays a very specific role: She's an irritant.

Once I started looking for "irritants" I started finding them in different variations in a lot of stories. And I realized that I'd been suggesting them without knowing why.

In the case of Mimi, her job was to keep Drew from ever having a peaceful, happy day at work. The mutual animosity was intended to keep a ready reservoir of conflict at the ready.

And more than conflict, the irritant provides distraction.

Suppose you have some heavy exposition. Perhaps you've got an infodump you need to get out of the way. Your readers need to know a whole lot of stuff that'll make your next plot point make sense. Or that'll provide the several missing puzzle pieces your protagonist must fit together. Sure, you could have your hero attend a lecture and all the things s/he needs to know about whodunnit would be laid out in straightforward prose. But lectures are often boring. Just ask Ferris Bueller.

Just add a mosquito to the infodump. The mosquito will irritate one or both of the characters giving/receiving the info and they'll take breaks from lecturing or listening to try to swat the mosquito. Or try to avoid getting bitten by it.

Keep in mind that the mosquito is not a central part of the story, it is an accessory intended to provide narrative distraction. S/he cannot take over the story, and cannot side-track the narrative, but must merely provide some speed-bumps on the way.

Think through some of your scenes where you've heard there's not enough conflict, or that this scene is boring (but you know it's necessary to set up something else). Consider adding an irritant to the scene--an annoying, pestering distraction. Maybe a potentially violent boyfriend of the girl your protagonist is chatting up. Or an angry customer vying for the attention of the sales clerk from which your detective is coaxing some privileged information.

What you want to do is multiplex the various interactions. Just take the straight Q and A ping-pong match, and insert various Mosquito to A and Q to Mosquito interruptions. Don't divert your original course of Q and A, just add a lot of swatting and buzzing.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Your Reality Check Just Bounced

A friend showed me this video of an art student being criticized.

Apparently, something wasn't perfect with her project and her peers had some less-than-flattering comments about her picture.

This story reminds me of a paradigm shift I had about 10 years ago. I write software for a living. And I write subversive fiction when I can. The paradigm shift was that I quit thinking the QA tester dude was my enemy, but a colleague offering a valued service.

In the case of software, it's easy to hand it over to someone to test, and they can tell you which requirements it failed to meet. Or which behaviors it did not do, and which malfunctions were observed. In the case of fiction, things get far more subjective.

But in both cases, you get feedback. It's lovely to find out you've exceeded expectations, performed everything asked of you flawlessly, and have created an exemplar of perfection for the generations to admire.

And although it is lovely, IT NEVER HAPPENS.

Everyone starts out knowing nothing. Those of us who are lucky learn. And learning works via positive and negative feedback. Do something a little right, you should get a little positive feedback. Do something wrong and you should get some negative feedback. You need both to learn.

We can argue about injuring someone's self-esteem, and how negative feedback should be directed toward fixing what's wrong with the piece.

Yet even when you get abuse from a mean teacher, you learn something you've done is wrong and you know you must do something different to make it right. You need to know what works and what doesn't work. You need someone to see what you don't see.

I fail to see what I don't want to see: my own imperfections. When I'm working on a bit of software, I don't want to hear that I'm not finished. I don't want to know that the task is more difficult and I've got to put more, better thought into it. I don't want to learn that tests that worked last week have broken just now, because of something I did wrong.

I don't want to face into the negative truth that I'm not perfect. One of the surprising things about being perfect is that you can't learn anything when you're perfect.

And that's what a fool does, s/he stuffs cotton in the ears when the critique comes in that s/he does not want to hear. (In this case, Henry Cloud says you have to change the conversation to "why aren't you listening?") But I hope you're not a fool, and I hope you want to know when your painting is more like some kids' refrigerator art than it is like Rembrandt. I hope you want to know when your prose is so wooden it is an insult to furniture. I hope you want to know when your software does not meet spec.

Because only when you want to know these things can you want to learn. And only when you learn can you improve. And when you want to know the negative facts about your work, then you can sincerely ask your friends to tell you what they see that's wrong. And you can seek out those with more refined perceptions who can tell you the harder things that are wrong.

Of course, then it's up to you to do something with that feedback. Sure, you can tear up your canvases, burn your manuscripts, or format your hard drive, but none of those things are constructive. It's up to you to seek out what you can do differently that'll enable you to do better next time.

So, here's your hunting license: If you see anything in my prose that's wrong, feel free to tell me about it. I may not heed your critique, but if I don't it's on my own head.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ockham's Penknife

I have a friend who is in my local writers' group. He had a story that he'd started, but got bogged down and quit. Since he'd read part of it in group, I knew where he was, but didn't know where he was going.

So, I started asking questions about his vampire story: where did the central McGuffin of the story came from and how did it work. Dave didn't know, so I started making stuff up and asking Dave if my handwavium was consistent with his vision for the story.

I got wild and crazy and started making connections, of the McGuffin to the Holy Grail, and then to Prester John who guards it in Shangri La. And if you have some two-thousand-year-old warrior dude, he'll have to have a foil that a contemporary reader would relate to this could be a brash apprentice I termed "Star Wars" John.

This put several sticks of dynamite under the creative logjam.

While Dave and I were discussing all this at lunch my son was listening on. He has a better grasp on myth than I do, afterwards I asked him what he thought of our brainstorming session. His answer was typically laconic, "too many moving parts."

And that's the lesson for today. Ockham's Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Extending this notion to design, given multiple designs for the same device, favor the one with the fewest moving parts.

When you are telling a story a lot of interesting backstory will either come to mind or be required to motivate your characters' actions. You want to be very stingy about disclosing that backstory.

Some of it should never see the light of day and should forever remain "scaffolding." Some has to go into the narrative to make the current scene make sense. And some will make for a delightful springboard to another story.

Nevertheless, all of it is tangential to this story you are telling now. If your story must be Teflon, you can't disclose any of it. And if your story can be Velcro, you can disclose lots of it. You need to maintain a balance between these opposites.

Don't be afraid of feeling some tension while you decide this. The tension makes things interesting.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

R100 vs R101

My work in progress is a novel, Steamship to Kashmir. It has an airship with Mycroft Holmes as a passenger.

When I conceptualized the airship, I looked at the Hindenburg for inspiration. Since I did not want to see the airship end in a fire-ball, I opted for a non-hydrogen lifting gas--steam. The US zeppelin program lasted several years longer, but the highest-profiles zeppelins operated by the US Navy were lost in storms.

Sadly, I gave short shrift to the British airship programs. This is unforgivable when researching a novel featuring a British airship. The Akron and the Macon as well as the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg all get prominent mention in the articles I've read, but less so the R100 and R101. It's probably the flashy names.

I had heard of how the disastrous crash of the R101 on its maiden flight doomed British airship development. But I had not heard the story behind the story of the R101 disaster until I read this chestnut. It seems the R100 and the R101 were built by a company named Vickers and by the British civil service, respectively.

One of my surprises upon visiting the UK was seeing private-owned infrastructure where I didn't expect it. If you wait at a bus stop in my home town of Grand Rapids, the bus which pulls up will be owned by GRATA, an entity of the city government that loses money and is propped up by taxes. If you ride a train in the US, it is owned by AmTrak, an entity of the Federal government that loses money and is propped up by taxes.

Thus it makes sense to me that Britain would run two airship programs side-by-side in a competitive fashion. I may be mistaken, but it sounds like running two Apollo programs operated by Boeing and NASA, respectively.

The R101 is a good example of what can happen when political rather than economic or engineering considerations drive a project. The government does not want to be embarrassed and it will use whatever means necessary to avoid embarrassment and shift blame away from itself. Conversely, corporations do not want to lose money and it will use whatever means necessary to minimize loss and shift risks away from itself.

NASA was pushing for faster turn around time and more launches per year, and so they overrode the warnings and launched the Space Shuttle Challenger while icicles were hanging from it. The cold temperatures made the o-rings inflexible and the inflexible o-rings failed catastrophically. Apparently, the same kind of thinking was in play when the R101 took off for India. It got as far as France.

The R100 had already successfully flown to Canada and back. To minimize further embarrassment the UK government grounded it and broke it up for scrap.

To be fair, the state of mathematics and computations at the time made strength-of-materials calculations difficult and time consuming. Thus both ships were probably too weak to handle extreme weather and the UK government's decision to fly in deteriorating weather doomed the R101.

It is simplistic to say Capitalism good, Socialism bad. There are different relative advantages to each approach. If you want to get maximum performance for least expense, you want Capitalism. If you are willing to sacrifice these things for the good of the collective, you want Socialism. Even if the good of the collective requires grounding and breaking up the R100.

Just a few years after this the US Navy's airship  USS Akron would be lost in a storm, and a few years after that the USS Macon would be lost in another storm. Given the available materials and the inability of the engineers to accurately gauge loads, the R100 would have probably been lost in a storm--eventually.

Though the Germans-built airships Graf Zeppelin and Graf Zeppelin II were not lost to storms, they could not survive Herman Goring's order that they be dismantled. Perhaps the Germans knew a little bit more about structural engineering or meteorology than the UK and US.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Apples to Eat vs Apples to Sell

This post is a sort of "why I am not writing" apology.

Some years ago a friend at a company I was working for related a conversation he'd had with the Vice President of Sales. The guy said, "You're worrying about 'apples to eat,' not 'apples to sell."

When my friend told me a bit later, he was in high dudgeon. He regarded this as sleazy--a sort of cheat. Like the software my friend was building didn't have to work, it just had to look good. I thought the same until recently.

My grandmother's house passed to my father when she died, and it was part of his estate when he died. And for reasons it would be tedious to read about, I have to manage this property.

Previous tenants left the house in something of a wreck and I've been spending every available hour there effecting repairs, cleaning, painting, and replacing trim. Among the many problems this property has is its drain field.

If you don't live in the country, you may not know what a drain field is. When your house is not attached to the city sewer, you need a means of getting rid of dirty water. I'm most familiar with disposing of dirty water with a drain field.

Water flushed from the toilet goes into a septic tank and from there it goes into a drain field. The drain field consists of a layers of sand, gravel and/or crushed stone with some means of supplying waste water to it. Septic waste water soaks into the ground, percolates through the soil, and is purified in the process.

This is centuries-old technology and the county health department manages inspections and issues permits for everything. This is the proper role of government.

The house can not be occupied, and it certainly cannot be rented out without a properly functioning drain field.

This project is a big deal because it entails a huge number of discrete tasks in addition to fixing the drain field. We've gotten a lot of things done and quite a few things remain undone.

The secret of managing residential rental property is getting good tenants. And good tenants need to be actively sought out. The goodness of a tenant has nothing to do with skin color, race, creed, or sexual proclivities. It has to do with taking care of things, living like a civilized human being, and paying rent on time. Good tenants generally have no urgent need to move. If someone is urgently seeking immediate housing, you definitely want to know why before you rent to them.

This translates into lead-time. To rent a house on June 1st, you want to be advertising in the middle of May. And to be advertising the house, you'll need pictures. Thus, last night I was putting up trim and my wife was going around behind me staging rooms and photographing them. And I'm composing ad copy when I have a few spare neurons.

 I gave my brother a status report last night and he pointed out the drain field wasn't ready.

That's when it hit me. That Vice President of Sales wasn't advocating a shoddy job papered over with glitzy cosmetics. My project will be complete when I have a nice house with good tenants. Right now, to get good tenants, I have to start advertising before everything is set. I need "apples to sell" so that I can start advertising. I can use the time between advertising (now), and renting to some good tenants to make the substance as good as the appearance. At the end of the day, I'll have "apples to sell AND eat." But right now, I have to get the cosmetics right.

You probably don't have to prep a house for rental, or build a complex software solution, but your writing may be in a state of partial completion. It'll take a while to find an agent, or editor, or do the things you need to bring it to market yourself. However, getting that person or persons on board  can be achieved with a polished synopsis and a double-polished first chapter. This is the "apple to sell" which you need today in contrast with the "apple to eat" you deliver tomorrow.

It is not a cheat, if you really do deliver on the non-cosmetic substance.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Egg Salad Recipe

The McGuffin is a common element of story telling and you really owe it to your audience to put some thought into it.

In every Hitchcock movie there would be some "thang" that the good guys had and the bad guys wanted, or vice-versa. And I'm not just talking about Hitchcock.

If it is a spy story, it could be a roll of microfilm of the plans to the top-secret Bruce-Partington submarine. If it is a detective story, it could be the key piece of evidence--perhaps a notebook--that would prove the bad guy's guilt. If it is a comedy, it could be  Gussie Fink-Nottle's book wherein he lampoons serious adults.

Exactly what it is is not important, merely that it is sought after and contended for by opposing forces in the story. Stories work better with conflict and the McGuffin provides an easy source of conflict.

If you write a story with a McGuffin in it, I suggest you think back to as many stories as you can remember, identifying the McGuffin in each. Then make sure you come up with a McGuffin that is somethng different. This is tricky because other stories have used the obvious ones--including egg salad.

If you are really stumped, consider changing your story into something wildly different with a wildly different McGuffin--like a bee hive. As a writing exercise, why not use a random noun generator and imagine a story with the noun as its McGuffin.

I just got "banjo."

A man is found murdered, garroted with a thin steel wire. Upon forensic analysis, it is a banjo string. The detective learns a Dixie-Land band was touring the area, but is evading him because of some lesser criminality. Detective tracks down a banjo with one new string that is owned by famous musician Redford Herring. His rival has a banjo with three new strings and the detective realizes the rival has swapped one old strings with Red's banjo...

Go ahead and try a few yourself.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Soviet Xerox Regulation

One of the nails in the Soviets' coffin was the Xerox machine.

They feared ideas and those ideas were the Soviets' undoing. One of the ways they discouraged the spread of ideas was to restrict the use of Xerox machine. They added watermark info so that when they found a copy with something subversive on it, they could track down which Xerox machine it came from.

This put a societal speed-bump on the USSR. Think about how you use Xerox machines. It takes longer to type or retype a page than it does to copy it. Suppose you have an interesting article in a magazine, or in a book. You just warm up the copier and a few seconds later you've got as many copies as you'd like.

The Xerox machine came into common use in the States in the 1960s. By limiting its use the Russians voluntarily set back the clock by decades. More than a societal speed-bump, it was like an anchor on Russian productivity.

There are good reasons why Ronald Reagan won the Cold War and that we're not speaking Russian right now. Centralized planning does not work and tyrannies collapse under their own weight. The problem is information. Only God has the information necessary to know what's going on at the level needed to make this happen. And tyrannies are not run by angels, but by greedy men who'll put their own interests ahead of the Party.

A free market outperforms a government-controlled market. It needn't be by more than a few percentage points per year, because that tiny percentage difference compounds over many years. This is how prosperous countries become also-rans, not by actually declining, but by stagnating as more-vibrant countries outpace them.

One of the more exciting technologies that is coming online is 3D printing. It enables people to print plastic parts in almost any shape they can imagine. And in a multitude of shapes no human can imagine, but that software can generate algorithmically.

Think of how many times you've had to discard an appliance because a tiny plastic part broke. For instance, I had a perfectly serviceable Amazon Kindle DX whose switch broke. Instead of sending me a new part, Amazon sold me a new replacement Kindle DX Graphite. With 3D printing, I could scan the old part, then print a replacement for a few cents' worth of plastic.

The reason why I mention this is that someone who loves Liberty more than the Federal Government has figured out how to print a gun out of ABS plastic on a 3D printer. And this guy has posted the plans on the Internet.

The Federales are not amused. No less than Senator Charles Schumer has said, "Now anyone..." (He then enumerates several boogie men.) ...can essentially open a gun factory in their garage. It must be stopped."

This is heartbreakingly stupid. For one thing, a 3D printed gun will never perform anywhere near as well as a conventionally manufactured gun. If anything, such a weapon will have only a novelty value. However, it does disrupt the legislative means the Feds have adopted to subvert the 2nd Amendment.

Yet the worst part of this is the precedent of the Xerox machine. I can readily envision the crowd running Washington (both GOP and Democrats) legislating restrictions on 3D printers. And like DMCA before it, the legislation will serve as a societal speed-bump that'll jack up the price of 3D printers, make them harder to get, and/or restrict what they can print.

How well will those laws work? Ask a Soviet Xerox repairman.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Lesson From A Grabby Kid

I have a once-a-month job for an hour at my church. I watch toddlers while their parents are in the worship service. Toddler-wrangling exposes human nature without the layers of social convention getting in the way. The kiddos have limited vocabulary and a narrow range of expression.

One lad is a hoarder. He's been recently adopted and I think he feels some uncertainty about losing possessions.

When my own children were small, I'd settle all "Mine!" arguments by tediously explaining who had ownership of the toy under dispute then handing it to the toy's owner. And I'd exhort the owner about the virtue of generosity and sharing. Then I'd find something else for the non-owner to play with. Everyone knew who owned what and nobody felt any uncertainty that they might lose it. Thus there was no need to violently retain possession of it.

(By the way, we settled all division of foodstuffs arguments with the simple, "I cut you choose," rule. In this the person who cuts must let the other choose which piece to take. This guaranteed a to-the-atom equal division when my daughter did the cutting.)

The reminder-of-ownership approach does not work in a group child-care setting where nobody--or everybody--has ownership of the toys. When the lad got grabby and was hoarding toy cars I could not remind him they were still his even if some other kid played with them for a bit.  He was standing next to a table with his back to the cars fending off the advances of another little boy who wanted to play with some of the cars he was hoarding.

I sat down beside him and started handing over cars that had fallen on the ground. I'd say, "have another one," and he'd take it and put it on the table, and I'd hand him another saying, "have another one." He'd put it on crowded-with-cars table and he didn't notice when other cars fell. I'd pick them up and hand them to him to complete the cycle. When kids are young enough they don't get tired after the thirtieth time. In fact, they are delighted by the repetitive action and words.

But I did get tired of the repetition and went on to other things.

Later the little hoarder got in a fight with another little boy about sharing toy cars. I intervened and separated the squabblers. And that's when I learned something.

I handed cars to the other kid and when his hands were full, I asked him to give one to the hoarder. He did. And I handed him another car. And another. We had this little daisy chain of cars passing between the three of us.

Unbidden, the hoarding boy said, "Thank you," to his former competitor and they started playing nicely together.

I don't think the grabby boy would hand over toy cars, but the other boy would, and by saturating the hoarder's acquisitive reflex we got the lad to actually start playing with the toy cars instead of just standing guard over them and keeping the other kids from playing with them.

I am told that Jiu Jitsu works by using the opponent's action against him. He pushes you and you pull him off-balance. He pulls you and you push him. This worked with the toddler's greed and I suppose that if you frame it correctly, it'll work with older kids and adults, too.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Cell Phones and National Decline

I grew up dreaming of space ships, and watching the rocket launches of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects. All heady stuff. America was the greatest country on Earth and only the Soviets challenged us with little more than maskirovka and compliant propaganda apparats in the New York Times. Nevertheless, we knew the USA was the world's alpha male big dog. And that knowledge might have even been true then.

Now, less so. The technology coming out of Silicon Valley propelled us forward so far and so fast, a description of a typical day in my life today would seem incomprehensible to my younger self in grad school. I was a SciFi fan then and things now are more advanced than the SciFi I read then.

That inspired a little aside in my story From Greenland's Icy Mountains (in Finding Time): "This 'hollow gram' uses technology that makes time travel seem like child's play."

I intend to describe some other technology that makes time travel seem like child's play, too.

Most technology we use today is unexpected and miraculous. Yet there are surprises: cross the border into Canada and your mobile data quits working: that Google Map application on your phone just falls over. And when you get off the airplane at Heathrow in London, your mobile voice data quits working, too. The first denial of service is merely a surcharge for international data roaming. The second is technically more difficult.

Cellular telephony has been subject to technical progress over the last two decades. There used to be none. Then there was analog cellular. And more recently digital cellular. This digital cellular has been deployed at different times in different locales using different technologies. I'm a technologist and I get boggled by the details. Yet, I can grasp a few rudiments. If you're in the USA there's two technologies enabling cellular telephony: CDMA and GSM. These are acronyms standing for Code Division Multiple Access and Global System for Mobile communications, respectively.

The USA, being first, built out a system that works fine for the consumer using CDMA. The rest of the world has deployed GSM technology with some exceptions. GSM has been deployed in the US, too. So, today if your cellular provider is Verizon or Sprint, your phone will use CDMA to talk to the cell towers that pepper the landscape. And if your cellular provider is ATT or T-Mobile, your phone will use GSM.

Should you never leave the USA, these considerations are completely irrelevant. Your phone will use CDMA or GSM and "just work" with your cellular provider worrying about the details.

Meanwhile, technology has become so advanced, and high powered computer chips so magical, that many phones have hardware that'll work with either GSM or CDMA. There's no need to buy a special "International phone" at least from a hardware perspective.

If your head is spinning from all the technology changes, remember that human nature--particularly human greed--does not change.

Thus the magical capabilities of the hardware are HOBBLED by the greed of the cell phone operators. Yes, the iPhone 5 bought from ATT is designed to work on both GSM and CDMA, but they've disabled the CDMA and will never let you reenable it. Even after your contract with them expires. Same goes for Apple when you want to buy an unlocked iPhone 5 directly from them. This prevents you from ever taking an iPhone 5 and your business to either Verizon or Sprint. Unless you buy an iPhone 5 from Verizon or Sprint in which case they've disabled the GSM and will never let you either unlock the phone or enable CDMA to take your business to ATT or T-Mobile.

Half the magic of the technology is disabled by some corporate entity or another to their gain and my hurt. Despite the fact that I bought my phone with my money, they won't let me use its full capabilities.

Screw that.

I bought an unlocked Samsung Galaxy. It came with documentation written in French, but I managed to get the battery charged before I left the States. After I arrived in London, I went to an "off license" store and bought a Virgin Mobile SIM card with 10 Pounds on it.

It made a big improvement over my last trip to England. Whereas last time I'd aimlessly wander lost among the maze if twisty London or Oxford streets, this time I could get lost, fire up Google maps, and see exactly where I was and how to get where I wanted. And I new I could summon aid at all times, too.

I think I got a bargain and I intent to use this Samsung phone next time I venture beyond the borders of the USA. And lend the phone to any friends travelling internationally.

When you travel internationally, you get a chance to see how other people live. Most of the similarities between people you never notice. Trivial differences get noticed. I thought the city of London showed its age.

Solving the should-be-simple problem of getting a smartphone working overseas showed me how the rest of the world has leap-frogged the US technologically. Samsung is a Korean firm and I'll wager the phone was built in China. The only contribution of US companies to this story are speed-bumps.

Congress is considering a law to make it legal to unlock one's cell phone. The fact that it is currently illegal to do so infuriates me. This is not the America that put a man on the moon.

Those more worthy than I: