The Coming World of Magic

I was not too surprised to see an article titled U.S. millennials post ‘abysmal’ scores in tech skills test, lag behind foreign peers in today’s Washington Post. The article says that in a test of literacy, math and technological problem-solving skills, US millennials (defined as age 16-34) ranked very low against their peers in other countries no matter how the data was cut by race, gender, and education.

This ties to a recent revelation of mine. I have been coaching an FTC robotics team this year. The team has done well and has designed a very innovative robot. The boys on it are all bright, eager, and have learned a great deal. In many ways, they are much like me at that age: geeks fascinated by technology, computers, military history and so on. But there was one surprising difference: not one of them knew any programming.

There are kids out there at this age (15-16) who do know how to program. But in a sample of 5 hard-core geeks, not one knows how to code? I was rather shocked, to be honest.

But it comes back to a trend that the test cited in the article above gets at: users of technology do not necessarily understand it. Today’s technology with its ready games, images, social media, suck up a lot of the time. This has already had a noticeable effect on the reading of books. Less recognized is the effect it is having on the sorts of skills mentioned in the article.

If a teenager is spending an hour on social media and another few hours on gaming or surfing, that’s the same time in their busy lives they might have spent in the past reading, learning to program, learning how a radio works or fixing a lawnmower. It can lead to a generation of people who are savvy about navigating the web, have an innate sense of how a GUI should work, but have little idea of the technology behind it.

In the case of this particular study, the results are relative: the US scores low, other countries score high. Some of the distractions for US youth must be present for youth in other countries. This may mean that the scores have little to do with technological distractions but, then again, the US may be worse because it was an earlier adopter of the new marvels.

We’ll see how this plays out but for the science fiction author in me, it’s not hard to imagine a future where most of the world population has a superficial understanding of technology: they know how to order a pizza online or track down an old friend, but they have little idea of what happens behind the scenes. It’s not like 20 or 40 years ago, the average person understood the underpinnings of technology but if the geek portion of a generation isn’t learning how the technology works, then there may be very few technologists and very little innovation down the road.

From a story point of view where conflict is necessary to drive the story arc, one can imagine a future where the rich countries are complacent and comfortable in their technological cocoon but have lost the ability to create new technology. Or perhaps this is what happens to very mature civilizations: maybe Earthlings encounter a space-faring race where very few of the aliens really understand how their technology works, leaving them unable to react quickly enough to an aggressive, more flexible race (us).

It would be an interesting turn-around from the uber-dominant, militaristic alien races to have one that, while more advanced, is more like a clumsy giant, out maneuvered by a still agile humanity.

As to the article itself, I can’t say it is all doom and gloom for the US. These things always have a way of coming and going. What I wouldn’t advocate as a response, however, is more homework. I think homework has been over done. Free time to explore is what kids really need. And maybe incentives to understand their world better: maybe more tangible rewards for the ones who start writing or programming, ‘doing’, instead of soaking up all that lovely media out there.

To circle back to the title: if we do create generations of descendants who have no understanding of the technology in their bright and shiny world, they will essentially look to technology as magic.

Arthur C. Clark’s 3rd law is:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

I think most of us, when seeing it, imagine it applies to a less advanced race experiencing the technology of a more advanced race. But what if, instead, the technology of the advanced race appears to themselves as magic?

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.

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.

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?

Using Human Nature and the Rule of Three

Fire hydrant in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
Who knew these were lethal: Fire hydrant in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nila’s post on a kerfuffle over a scathing video review is a reminder that we’re all human. In fact, it’s our human foibles that make the best hooks for stories because it is easy to see ourselves in the failings of others. In the case of the two ill-behaved authors, neither should have acted the way they did but help me if I can’t see myself in both of them.

So, for the post-Thanksgiving stupor, here’s some musings on human nature and the way our brains work.

Hours of careful research watching fail videos with my son have left me with a number of insights. One, of course, is never let your child ride anything wheeled without a helmet, nor try any stunt without a cup. But better for the writer, never underestimate a young male’s thirst for glory. It may manifest in the 21st century as really stupid parkour attempts but it has to go back to before humans could speak. Glory-seeking is a proven motivation for young heroes, especially if a woman is watching. The popularity of these videos is also a testament to the enduring appeal of schadenfreude, although in our defense, my son and I prefer the silly ones to the ones where someone gets hurt.

Parkour-pivot (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Stickman doesn’t have any breakable bones. And where’s his helmet!

There are a few other tidbits to be gleaned from these videos. Do you know that infants and very young toddlers go stiff when they fall? It must be an evolutionary advantage, I’m guessing because it makes it easier for a parent to catch a slipping child. I vaguely recall that from my own sons’ infant days: it’s easier to catch a board than a pile of jelly, not that I ever dropped my child.

Today, while in Old Navy, I had the chance to coach my son on the finer points of life, another tradition dating back to pre-humanity (most mammals train their offspring in someway, from a lioness teaching a cub to hunt, to a mare nudging a colt into the herd.) Of course, these days, it’s not so much about where to find prey or how to make a fire but more important things like, “Son, when your girlfriend or wife is shopping, make her carry the stuff she wants to buy. That way, the shopping trip will end sooner.” My wife stuck her tongue out at me but I was simply furthering an ancient father-son tradition, really, it was more of a duty than anything else.

Something even older than mammals: organic brains are wonderful pattern-matchers. Even pre-brain ganglia do this to some extent as they desensitize to repeated stimulus. A simple fish will learn the signs of when food is around. Any animal will stay away from something that makes it sick. The first grazer by the water hole probably swiftly learned to watch out for those floating logs that might be a crocodile.

Pattern-matching, may, in fact, be the primary purpose of brains beyond the basic control of body, feeding, reproduction, etc. Every mammal learns the basic patterns related to season, time of day, and various warning signs. I remember a mouse trap experience: I bought a fancy electronic one, supposedly a swift kill. I didn’t mind the mice myself so much but when one surprised my wife in the bathroom at night, they had to go. So I smeared peanut butter, as recommended, as the bait and zap: caught one the first night. Never caught one after that. I bet it’s because the mouse voided some “this place is bad” scent as it died and the trap no longer smelled good to other mice, despite the peanut butter.

Fast forward to humans and marvel at the patterns we find. Many are real. Grumpy lady at the DMV counter? Tread carefully because she can and will make your life miserable. A bunch of young men drinking from paper bags on a street corner after dark? Maybe there’s a better way to get to where I’m going. With our mammalian brains, we are excellent at gleaning patterns, even if we don’t realize what we’re doing. With our human intellect, we are outstanding at it. Of course, this can get us into trouble.

One place is stereotypes. As someone who recognizes the pattern-matchers in our heads, I’m not actually hostile to stereotypes. They can sometimes be useful. Of course, in contemporary life, they can be also be troublesome. They can even be immoral if a stereotypes keeps someone from doing something they are well suited to do. But we all make use of them. They are a natural response of our organic brain to the available stimulus so no point pretending they don’t exist. Acknowledging them can help you bypass your evolutionary wiring and do the right thing, when necessary.

As a writer, stereotypes are a mixed blessing. If your reader shares the same stereotypes, which they often do, you can make use of them to shorten a character sketch. Some stereotypes are likely to be accepted without much issue, such as a little girl playing with a doll, but many cause a negative reaction in your reader, sometimes enough to lose them. Even the doll example might lose some readers, although hopefully fewer in this post-feminist age. It’s a gray line because one person’s stereotype is another person’s archetype. In the end, better to steer clear of them or at least be conscious of how you are using them.

Another aspect of our pattern matching is superstition. I’m not personally superstitious, except when it comes to D&D dice:  hey, I need some excuse to have so many dice because I really don’t need a pound of them for any other reason.  Even so, I don’t really begrudge the superstitious because that’s what you get when you give a mammalian brain the awesome computing power of a human brain. Especially when you look to superstition in the medieval or ancient world, it’s my opinion that for most people, it made some sense of a crazy world.

A well-educated Roman might (and did, we have many of their writings), scoff at the superstitious but for most in that day, raised on only stories and what they could observe with their eyes, it was easy to attribute misfortune, disease, war, famine, etc., to the violation of some arcane ritual or the ill-will of a displeased god.

For one, they had few valid data points to extrapolate on. Saw two different people run over by a cart while wearing a striped shirt? Maybe I just won’t wear striped shirts anymore. I warn my children of the peril. Generations later, there may be a prohibition against wearing striped shirts, for reasons unknown. (In the Imperial period there were many customs, even ritual phrases, whose meanings were lost in the mists of time.)

Those who study how people react to bad news, do so in part to understand our fascination with gruesome events. We’re fascinated by things like the following, even though the odds of it happening to you are miniscule:

Humberto Hernandez, a 24-year-old Oakland, California resident, was killed after being struck in the face by an airborne fire hydrant while walking. A passing car had struck the fire hydrant and the water pressure shot the hydrant at Hernandez with enough force to kill him.

(Wikipedia has an article for everything! More disturbing is how many of the stories I already knew because of my own fascination with bizarre deaths.)

Once upon a time, our ancestors lived as hunter-gathers in small groups. Even with annual gatherings of larger groups, they might have only known of 2000 people in their entire lifetime. If something bad happens to 1 in 2000 people, it isn’t that unreasonable to worry that it might happen to you. If it happens to in 1 in 6 billion people, maybe you really shouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Great advice but our brains are wired to worry about anything we hear about. Good for hunter-gathers, bad for media-connected 21st century humans.

It’s like the move to soft baseballs. I can see the reason for it as a parent but as an engineer, I can’t help but note that probably more kids die in car accidents on the way to baseball games than actually die from a hard baseball to the chest. Still, we do it because it’s all about control: we can’t control the car accidents (or maybe fool ourselves that we can, since we are the driver) but we can control the baseball, so we do.

Back to superstitions: they allow(ed) people to feel they had some control over what otherwise seemed a chaotic world. Superstition is just another way of organizing and categorizing the world, another way to allow a human to predict outcomes. If I don’t wear a striped shirt, a wagon won’t run me over.

It’s not so different in our age. If our infant’s binkie falls on the floor, we clean it. Of course, we know there are actually microbes that might make them sick, but how do we know this? Did we culture the floor and examine it under the microscope? No, unless you happen to be a microbiologist, you know this because someone told you, in person, through a book, a documentary, whatever. So, in the end, like the advice to not wear a striped shirt, it is just something we learned from others. We may have more convincing reasons behind it but this idea of questioning received wisdom is something rather recent, and for most of human history, perhaps not really a good trait. Maybe the advice to not wear a striped shirt is not too valuable but the advice to not swim in a waterhole that herd animals are avoiding might be really good advice. Chomp, says the crocodile.

As to those dropped binkies? For the first few months with the first baby, they get washed in the dishwasher on the anti-bacterial cycle. By the second child, he’s lucky if it gets wiped off before it’s stuck back in his month. Bad parenting you say? Not at all: it’s more pattern matching. You see, by the second child, we parents have observed all the things our children put in their mouths and they didn’t get sick! So, we skip the binkie sterilization. What’s the point? He puts everything else on the floor in his mouth. Hey, he even licks the floor.

This makes me recall a friend’s tale of his toddler coming from the backyard with half a slug in her hand.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I fished the rest out of her mouth.”

“Why? It wasn’t going to hurt her.”

“Yeah but it was really gross.”

True. One of the perils of life in the northwest. Here’s another and it’s a pattern I learned from only a single incident, and one you can benefit from without having to suffer it yourself: when walking on decking at night or early morning in Oregon, wear shoes. Smushing a fat slug between your toes is really no fun at all.

Back to writing, there are many ways to make use of your readers’ pattern matching but one of the most powerful is the rule of the three. Myself, I love it both as a reader and a writer. It’s basically, two events set a pattern, a third incident (that violates it) breaks it. It’s a wonderful tool from D&D games to books to movies because humans pick up on the pattern without even realizing it, which means they develop a visceral expectation of what comes next. So when you break the pattern, they are surprised and entranced at a core level.

What crazy patterns have you observed among your fellows, or your own behavior? Do you make use of patterns in your own writing?