Monday, October 31, 2011

Things I've learned as a parent

To the question "have you done homework / chores / whatever I asked you to do," the answer "yes" is best regarded as a "no."

The more emphatic the "yes," the more likely it is to be "no."

The loudest shout from one room to the next will go unheard, but the muffled clink of a cookie jar lid can be heard clearly through three closed doors.

The words "just try it, you might like it" have never had any credibility. They didn't fool you, why would they fool your kids?

Today's "must have" absolute number one all time favourite cereal / snack / soft drink will languish, unconsumed, in the back of the cupboard for the next year.

This sometimes manifests itself as a stealth attack, wherein the item will be avidly consumed week after week right up to the point where you decide to buy it in bulk.

The best way to conceal an item is to leave it lying in the middle of the floor, preferably in a high-traffic area such as the top of the stairs, masquerading as something in need of being picked up and put away. This will render it entirely invisible.

Whenever you check the kitchen clock, leaving yourself just enough time to ferry child to music lesson / scouts / appointment with parole officer, the thirty seconds it takes to grab car keys and put on shoes will have mysteriously stretched to at least five minutes by the time you reach the car. I think Einstein's to blame. Somehow.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Science has a lot of explaining to do

First up, let's be clear. This is not an anti-science rant. I'm an avid science-follower and I wish scientists were held in more esteem in the world of sound bites, spin, and outright fabrication of "facts" that passes for decision-making in this world.

This is a lament at the hubris that surrounds much of science, particularly its claims of explaining the physical world.

Physicists are searching for "theory of everything" and hunting for super-symmetry and the Higgs boson to bolster or disprove various theories. This is all very exciting stuff. At least, I think so. But while we may one day have a "theory of everything", I suspect an "explanation of everything" will prove rather more elusive.

My contention is that, while scientific theories are good at describing things in a way that allows us to calculate and predict the behaviour of the physical world with exquisite accuracy, these theories don't go very far in terms of true explanation.

In other words, theories tend to be very good at answering questions of "what", "where", "when", but fall far short of "how" and "why".

Let's have a look at gravity, for example.

Newton's law of gravity provided a remarkable mathematical description for the motions of the planets, that accurately modeled what 17th century astronomers observed. Moreover, it made testable predictions, leading two centuries later to the discovery of Neptune, and then Pluto. These planets were not discovered, like the others, by spotting a point of light moving across the night sky, but by observing the motions of the known planets and deducing the existence of another, as yet to be seen, body. Newton's laws enabled astronomers to work out where to look, and - lo! - there it was.
As far as explanation goes, Newton's law tells us that there is a force of attraction between any two bodies. That works as an explanation on one level. But if you keep poking at it, you soon realise that no-one can really explain what the force is, or why two masses should attract each other in the first place.

Einstein's theory of general relativity goes further, and describes gravity in terms of the curvature of space. Again, the theory has remarkable descriptive and predictive powers, showing how light gets bent as it passes close by a massive body like the sun.

Yet again, this seems to take the explanation, the insight, to another level. It provides a means by which gravitational attraction takes place. But it still leaves open the questions of how a mass bends space. In other words, when you look closer, it doesn't really explain anything much.

Where I get hot under the collar, though, is when we enter the world of particle physics and quantum mechanics.

Yet again, the standard model of particle physics, and the weird world of quantum theory, provide huge descriptive and predictive power. They give us ways of viewing the subatomic world that provides insight undreamt of to scientists prior to the 20th century.
But when it comes down to understanding at a deeper level what's going on, scientists tend to wave their hands in the air and say things like, "The particles exchange force-carrying particles. That explains it."

No, it freakin' well doesn't!

It explains nothing. It just pushes the explanation a bit further away.

Nothing in any of the theories really tells us how an electron knows a photon when it meets one, or how a quark gets handcuffed to other quarks by a string of gluons. Those are the kinds of questions that I really want to answer.

All the theories do is provide a conceptual analogy that we can manipulate to get results that match observations.

I'm not knocking these achievements, don't get me wrong. Quantum theory in particular has been described as the most successful scientific theory ever. It makes some utterly bizarre predictions that have been proved right time and again by experiment, and you can thank these predictions for the existence of computers, GPS, cell phones, and many more modern conveniences.

It's just that, for all these successes, we are really no nearer to understanding - on a satisfying level - why the universe is the way it is.

Yes. Science still has a lot of explaining to do.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Casting call

Before getting to the main part of this post, which is an awesome blog hop hosted by the lovely Carrie Butler, here are a few reasons for celebration...

Today is our seventh anniversary in Canada. Hooray!

Today is also this blog's second anniversary. I started it off here to mark our fifth year in Canada.

This is my 200th post. Wow! What a lot of nonsense!

So...on to the blog hop...

The idea is to feature a few characters from your book or WIP, using some kind of visual aid. Please click on the sticker above to see the list of other participants.

Now, although I liked the idea of this I tried searching for suitable images to capture my characters but nothing seemed right. Some people seem always able to lay their hands on the right graphic or clip art when they need it. I envy them. Ferreting out nuggets from the ocean of information out there is not my forte.

So in the end I gritted my teeth and got out paper and pencil. Let's be clear about this. I draw. I paint. But I don't do people or faces, so this is way outside my comfort zone.

Anyway, here are some of the main characters from Ghosts of Innocence.

First up, meet Shayla Carver, my protagonist. Badass assassin on the outside, inside she's just a messed-up little girl trying to find meaning in an ugly world. Having her home world fried by Imperial warships when she was just eleven didn't help matters.

Shayla's nemesis, Imperial Chief of Security, Chalwen ap Gwynodd. Not someone you want to meet down a dark alley. In fact, even in a brightly-lit room it's not a happy encounter. People prefer to avoid being the focus of her attention. Even a "Good morning" from Chalwen feels like a full-on interrogation.

Chalwen's right-hand man, Henri Chargon, Chief of Internal Affairs. Dark alley or not, chances are you'll never even see him coming. If Chalwen could be likened to a bear with a bad hangover, Henri is more like a snake. Sly, patient, and deadly.

There are many more characters in the story, but I want to give special mention to the overall setting. I see the worlds themselves, the palaces and deserts, the forests and mountains, as characters in their own right. So here is Jemiyal, a mining colony where the climax of the story takes place.

Thank you, Carrie, and co-conspirators Melodie and Lisa, for an exciting blog hop.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Singulars and plurals

I have a question to put to my erudite band of fellow bloggers. This is a problem I keep hitting, and which critiquers and work colleagues regularly take me to task over.

My problem is that I keep referring to certain collective nouns, specifically nouns that refer to groups of people, in the plural, rather than the singular.

For example...

Suppose at work there is a department called the Standards Office for Paperwork, or SOP (because we like acronyms at work. Yes we do.)

Now maybe I would say something like: SOP has a policy for the use of triplicate forms, which is causing us problems with streamlining our operation. SOP are working with us to find a solution.

I know this is wrong. The problem is that I keep using plurals like this without even thinking about it.

And I think I know why.

When I talk about something that can be seen as belonging to the collective, such as policy (which, after all, could never be the product of real people, only of a faceless machine) I'm perfectly fine with the singular.

But whenever I talk about something that implies real individuals, like solving a problem, I always see the people behind the collective name. I can't help it. And it's as if I mentally insert the words "members of" in front of the noun. So I envisage that last sentence as "Members of SOP are..."

Except that's not what I say. It's just implied. To me, anyway, but other folks don't see it that way.

So, I repeat, I know this is technically wrong, and that is not what I'm asking.

My question...OK, questions, 'cos I'm greedy like

Do you have this same problem?

What do you do about it?

And, whether you are an incorrigible pluraliser or a knowledgeable grammarian, what do you think this says about how you see the world?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Global meltdown

The financial meltdown three years ago showed the world just how fragile the global financial machine has become. We are still feeling the aftershocks, with America's recovery hanging in the balance, and the drawn-out protests against austerity measures in Europe proving hard to contain. Either of these limping giants could fall and plunge the world into chaos again.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street protesters, and others joining them in their outrage, have a point. Where is the ordinary citizen in this equation?

They are directing their anger at the people at the top of the monetary food chain: senior executives and the super-rich.

That is a worthy ideal. Individual greed certainly doesn't help matters, and when the majority of people are struggling, it's galling to see others sitting pretty and visibly not caring.

The way I see it, though, these efforts are unlikely to achieve anything lasting unless they understand and act on one significant fact:

These people are no longer in control.

In fact, they probably never were.

What? These are the decision-makers aren't they? Surely all they have to do is choose to act differently and all will be well?

Firstly: fat chance of them acting differently. Human nature is deeply ingrained. And even if you get rid of them, every revolution in history has simply swapped one corrupt and self-serving oligarchy for another. To put it simply: shit floats.

Secondly: I don't believe these people are truly in charge, or in a position to effect real change. As individuals, they are as powerless as the rest of us.

Human society has grown into a complex ecosystem of super organisms - governments, corporations, NGOs, religions, protest groups. I use the word "organism" deliberately, because I think this is the most useful way of looking at modern institutions - as a new form of life.

I think the analogy is apt. Living cells metabolise. They take in a food sources and nutrients, and process them chemically to release electrons in a way in which they can be put to work. Along the way, they produce waste which has to be disposed of.

I don't think modern organisations are any different. Their "metabolisms" are mainly directed at producing money which can be put to work to ensure the organisation survives. They take in raw materials, knowledge, labour, and free up cash by processing these into goods and services.

The latter are, in effect, nothing more than waste products of this metabolism. The fact that these products are mostly useful, even essential, to our well-being has become only a secondary concern.

This used to be the main purpose of agriculture and industry - produce things that people need in order to survive and live well. But I think the whole setup has been flipped on its head. The wheels of commerce have taken on a life of their own, and our role as consumers has become little more than waste removal.

Does that paint a pretty picture?

Now, here's the rub. The fate and wellbeing of individuals is not the primary concern of any of these institutions. No more than your body cares about the survival of any one cell.

In other words...

People are no longer the beneficiaries of society.

Let's be clear now. I'm not saying that many individuals within these organisations don't care for the welfare of others. I'm saying that the collective, the organisation as a whole, has taken on a life of its own that does not have our interests at heart. This is an example of an emergent phenomenon, where seemingly simple rules acting en-masse can have surprising and unpredictable outcomes at larger scales.

I believe that the only way to achieve real change is to focus efforts not at the obvious individual targets, but on understanding this new ecosystem.

I think the efforts to change the behaviour of individuals is misguided. We need to change the behaviour of these new animals that we have built around us, that we are part of.

We need to understand how big institutions behave. What motivates them to behave the way they do? And, ultimately, how can we alter this intangible ecosystem to bring about behaviours that benefit ordinary individuals once more?

We need to find ways to reward organisations and governments not by how much revenue they can create for themselves or shareholders, but by how much they enhance the wellbeing of ordinary people.

In short, we need to give our global institutions a new diet, a new metabolism.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Canadian Thanksgiving

It's that time of year again. We don't have family nearby with which to share this intensely home-oriented celebration, but we do nevertheless pause to give thanks for the many riches we are lucky enough to enjoy.

Living in such a beautiful and peaceful part of the world. Even if the pressures of work and/or kids drive me to distraction much of the time, it's hard to stay wound-up in such stunning surroundings.

Friends and family, wherever they are in the world.

Cozy wood fires, and firewood stacked & ready to see us through the winter.

A roof over our heads, and food on the table. Things which we take for granted, but which are unattainable luxuries for so many.

And cheesecake. Where would we be without chocolate-covered cheesecake?

Oops! That didn't last long.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pesky numbers!

Last month I posted some writing targets for the year. I can now report that the "Critiqued" figure stands at 71%.

This is down on the 74% that I posted a month ago.

How come? Have I slipped into some bizarre time warp? Did I "uncritique" some previously-critiqued chapters?

No. I simply screwed up my calculation last time and included a whole segment that wasn't yet critiqued, only queued up. Damn you, Excel! The real figure should have been 67%, so I have actually made forward progress.

And, providing I don't mess up and miss a submission cycle, I should be able to make my target of completion by the end of November.

I don't expect to see much movement towards my other targets yet, because I'm frantically critiquing other people to earn credits and goodwill. This takes a lot of energy and I find I can't write or revise at the same time.

Plus, the chapters that are going through right now are getting some tough feedback. I need to work on Shayla's motivation, which is critical at this point in the story as she switches allegiance. I have a lot of work to do there, and need a clear mind with which to do it.
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