Space Wonders: Better than Traveling There

Just a quick gallery today of some of my newer pictures from Space Engine. I’m looking forward to addition of accretion disks around black holes and blue stragglers in globular clusters in upcoming updates. As in the earlier post, all images are exactly as captured in Space Engine, without any post processing, cropping, etc.


Grifting Away: The Big Con

Fascinated by swindlers? I’ll have to confess I am, probably because it is such an alien concept to me. Not only does it require snappy thinking on your feet to steer a mark the way you want, it requires faking empathy and, of course, a complete disregard for others. Myself, I’m more like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: “Check your email, because when I think of a retort, I’ll send it to you!” (Or something to that effect.) I could never be a con-man because I’m not quick enough in conversation, not a good actor and, hopefully this is a more positive trait, constitutionally not able to screw someone like a con man does. But I don’t think I’d make a good soldier either and I do love reading about war, so why not cons?

The grandfather of all books on cons is The Big Con, by David Maurer, first published in 1940, available now as a high quality e-book. Professor Maurer was a linguist who, apparently, knew a lot of con men. He seems to have first approached the subject of confidence games from the argot but the book, while it does have an extensive glossary, is first a story of the confidence games and the con men themselves.

It distinguishes short cons, like the old shell games or rigged card games, where the mark is fleeced for his cash on hand, to big cons, which played out over hours or weeks, and involve putting the mark on the send for more money. We learn of what a store is and how they came to be: they are false gambling, brokerage, or other establishments that are completely stocked with con men and exist only for the purpose of duping the mark.

The stages of a con are also elaborated from the roper’s identification of a mark and directing him to the store to the blow-off where the mark, once fleeced is sent on his way in a manner least likely to cause problems for the con man. Sometimes that is no more than sending him to another city to “square accounts,” the con man never arriving, of course. Other times it has to be more dramatic, as with a fake murder that causes the mark to run and hide. Such a murder might involve a packet of chicken’s blood hidden in the mouth, a cackle-bladder.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like the 70’s movie, The Sting, it should: Maurer filed a $10 million lawsuit against the studio and received an out-of-court settlement in his favor. I love that movie but always figured it was just Hollywood make-believe. It isn’t and The Big Con will show you the ins and outs of this scam and many others.

The book even goes into the bit players, how people become big con players, what happens to old con men, even what type of personal lives they tended to keep or whether any of them ever cashed out while still on top. I can’t say it has given me any immediate story ideas but as an illustration of one aspect of human nature and just a fascinating read in itself, I recommend it.

Be warned, like anything, it is a child of its times. There is some overt and ugly racism in a few places. It is also sexist, although not as much as I expected given the racism. The style is a little slow. Some of the reviews on Amazon claim it is repetitive and you only need to read the first quarter or so. Personally, I did not find it very repetitive chapter to chapter, but rather found a lot of the prose a bit more wordy and repetitive at the paragraph level. The other annoyance is that argot is used throughout, usually with no definition aside from the glossary in the back. In a hard-copy, this would not be too much of an issue but in an e-book I found it somewhat annoying (a better e-book edition would have had a link to the glossary at first use). There are a handful of transcription errors but overall editing was good.

If you liked The Sting, and some of the later movies on cons, like The Grifters, or just like a fascinating true-crime read, and can tolerate its unfortunate bigotry, I definitely recommend it.

Warp Speed: How Fast do you have to go to get the Stars to Sail by?

In a star cluster orbiting the  milky way (Space Engine)
In a star cluster orbiting the milky way (Space Engine)

John Pyle’s post on Light Speed, Not so Much, reminded me about something I wanted to look into based on my Space Engine experience. In this wonderful simulator you can go anywhere in the universe with the engine kindly accelerating you to fantastic speeds, as necessary. As part of the experience, you get to experience the Star Trek warp effect: stars go sailing by all around you as a readout at the bottom of the screen shows your current speed. It might be km/s over a planet or AU/s in a planetary system. Between stars, you typically get to go parsecs per second (a parsec is 3.26 light years). Hop over to the next galaxy and you’ll be travelling at hundreds of kilo-parsecs per second. This is a good thing, because otherwise travel would be tediously slow.

One of the neat things about Space Engine is that it doesn’t just pop you over to your destination, you travel to it, accelerating and decelerating. You fly through dusty arms of galaxies, through nebula, globular clusters. As I mentioned stars zip by a la Star Trek. This got me to wondering: I think Space Engine has a pretty solid model of spatial relationships and velocity. Therefore, I can use it to gauge what Star Trek warp factor I’d need to be traveling to get the same visual effect of star motion that we’ve seen since the original series. Of course, I had a feeling the TV show was way off but it is fun to do the numbers.

First, I’ll use the newer series’ definition of warp. You can find a great definition of what warp factors mean at’s engineering department: Warp Factors Defined. At warp 5, you’re going 215 times the speed of light and at warp 9 you’re going 1516 times the speed of light. That’s pretty fast, right? Indeed it is but as the old cliché goes, space is really big. At warp 5, it’s 40 hours per light year. Not bad for the local neighborhood but not too zippy. At warp 9, it’s only 5.9 hours per light year, so several light years per day.

So what would the star motion look like? Fire up Space Engine, play around with your speed and… you’ve got to be going around a light year per second to start to notice much star motion. Pick a densely populated region like the heart of a star cluster and maybe you can get away with 0.1 light years per second. But at those speeds, you are just starting to notice star motion. If you really want to be seeing stars zip by, like in the opening credits,  you might be looking at 1 to 5 or more light years per second.

Even at warp 9.99, at 7912 times the speed of light, you’re crawling by at one light year per hour+, or ~4000 times slower than the speed you need to get the stars to zoom by. I’m not sure how to turn that back into a warp factor but since warp 10 is the max, it is something like warp 9.9999, perhaps?

This means that if you intend to use that cool “star gliding” effect in your own stories, you better be having your star ships travel much, much faster than they do in Star Trek, so fast that your ship could get to the Andromeda galaxy in a few days. That’s probably too fast for most science fiction stories, unfortunately. Put another way, the Star Trek apparent star motion isn’t really practical, although it sure does look cool.

Just goes to show that space is really, really big.

Finder Pages

Just a modest clean-up to the site: I’ve replaced the archives and category links on the left which had become bloated and not terribly  useful with a menu strip above with pages to posts by categories.

Next step will be to look at a new theme and probably rework the banner.

Let me know what you think!

SpaceEngine: Go Anywhere in the Universe

Sunset on a Brown Dwarf
Comets around a Brown Dwarf

Along with the Universe Sandbox, here’s another great tool for the science fiction author: SpaceEngine. This fascinating program is still in beta, and a bit buggy, but to get an idea of what it can do, take a look at these pictures, all of which are unmodified screenshots. Most are from my son’s exploration over a few hours. The first two are my own effort after about 30 minutes of playing around.

Aurora on a Distant Planet
Aurora on a Distant Planet

Whereas Universe Sandbox is an orbital dynamics simulator, great for playing around with solar systems and disrupting them by blowing up a planet or shooting black holes through them, SpaceEngine takes a different route. It models a huge number of known astronomical objects, from every moonlet in our solar system, to nearby stars, globular clusters, nebula, galaxies, etc.

Gas Giant
Gas Giant and Galaxy

Where it really gets interesting is the vast number of astronomical objects for which there is no known data because where current observational data runs out, it creates the rest procedurally.

Ringed Waterworld
Ringed Waterworld

Pick a galaxy and fly into it. Find a star in that galaxy and zoom to it, visit its planets and moons, search for life, exotic planet rises, there’s really no limit. I’d consider some of these for cover art for certain classes of novels.

Over a Desert World
Over a Desert World

When poking around the universe can keep you busy for days, who knows what story ideas you might find?

Ice Moon orbiting gas giant in a binary star system
Ice Moon orbiting gas giant in a binary star system

SpaceEngine not only creates lovely visuals, it backs it up with  physical data: object mass, gravity, atmosphere, orbital period, mean temperature, even modeling presence of life. It’s fun if you just want to poke around alien worlds and its a dream come true for Science Fiction worldbuilders. Plus it has more lens-flares than the last Star Trek reboot!

An Alien Shore
An Alien Shore

Has anyone else given it a try yet? What do you think of the pictures from it?

Semi-colons; No Place for Them in Fiction?

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...
Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as part of a critters critique, I passed on some comments I’ve received from many critters and from a few professionals as well: don’t use semi-colons in fiction. Per critters guidelines, I didn’t present it as a rule, more as a “here’s what response I get when use them.”

You see, I love semi-colons. They are a natural form of expression for me.

Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about them in A Man without a Country, according to The Quotations Page. I’ve seen it referenced many times so it’s probably an accurate quote.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt was entitled to his opinions and he was no doubt on firmer ground than I am but that seems overly dismissive to me. Semi-colons have a recognized role in non-fiction. While they may not be the convention in fiction, they clearly mean “soft end of sentence, following sentence related to previous one.” Or sometimes, they are used in place of a comma between clauses if the clauses contain a lot commas for other reasons (and-lists, multiple adjectives, etc.)

After passing on my wisdom, such as it is, in my critique, I thought I’d double-check my current novel manuscript for them. Again, I’m kind of fond of them, but why buck convention? It’s a style thing that seems to rub editors the wrong way. It’s not like they are absolutely necessary (the semi-colons, not the editors).

So I fire up Scrivener and find that ‘fond’ doesn’t really begin to describe my preference for them. They were everywhere, not every scene but probably two-thirds of them, and in many scenes, multiple places. And this is after I had already made a decision to avoid them before I started my last revision. Ugh. Imagine if I hadn’t decide to purge them already 🙂

For the record, Scrivener’s global search is kind of lame: you get a folder of the scenes containing the search phrase. Within a scene, you can search for next occurrence but to go to the next scene, you need to click on it in the search results folder. Worse, if you do a ‘next’ in the search pop-up and there are no more instances in the current scene, you have to clear an annoying pop-up warning before you can do anything else.

That makes an irritating task all the more tedious because removing semi-colons is not trivial. Sometimes it is no more than replacing with a period and capitalizing the next letter, which doesn’t exactly roll off my fingers on the keyboard. But often, more substantial re-work is required to avoid the construct: turning the sentence pair into a compound sentence or even re-writing the pair entirely.

I’m about two-thirds finished after several hours. A funny thing has happened as I purge semi-colons, though. While I don’t agree with Kurt that they have no meaning, I am starting to truly appreciate why they aren’t typically used in fiction because I think my semi-colon-less prose is better than it’s predecessor. I’ve removed a few unnecessary sentences in some places. In more, I’ve reworked the sentence into something that seems more interesting to me.

Now, if I can only avoid putting them in my drafts in the first place, I’ll be all set. It’s tough: I don’t notice them any more than a comma or period these days. It’s probably a manifestation of my engineer-think.

How about you? What’s your opinion on semi-colons?