Monday, June 16, 2014

Stop calling them the 'Middle Ages'

One issue with the study of the Middle Ages, is the very name of the time period. It postulates a middle ground that implicitly references the two endpoints - the Roman Empire and the so-called ‘Renaissance’. Like the middle child, the Middle Ages gets overlooked because of the name.
Casting about for a new name, I’ve considered two. The first is the Archipelago Ages. ‘Archipelago’ is used to emphasize how each city, village and county was its own little island in both space and time. The name accentuates how individuals study individual islands also highlights the differences and variety of each region. Researchers can also point out how a variety of sources changes how much we know about each island, labeling some islands as unknown due to the paucity of materials - with the unstated challenge that some future historian might some day explore the territory, adding to our knowledge.
Of course, most places are not literally islands, so we can postulate each island is connected via metaphorical ocean currents that allow for trade of culture and technology. Additionally, a tribe or group of people would colonize groupings of islands, thus describing similarities. Islands existing in contact -either geographically or on trade routes - would show similarities with their neighbors as well.
At least two objections to this name come to mind. First, although Europe does possess important islands- Britain, Ireland, Sicily and so on- peninsula is the major geographic feature, not island. Even more importantly, the image of historians studying a metaphorical archipelago holds for many time periods of history, not least of which would be the actual archipelagos of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Archipelago Ages has distinct disadvantages and doesn't fit.
Concordat Era is the second and more fitting description of the Middle Ages. The one thing that seems common is people, both individually and in groups, were constantly making pacts and promises. Whether between lord and knight, town and king, or guild and artisan, contracts were everywhere. Even peasants made contracts - eg wealthy peasants contracted with poor to provide housing and clothing in exchange for household services. Even parents would contract with children to spell out exactly how much support the children had to provide after the parents retired.
By emphasizing the contracts the various issues of certain other words- eg the f-word-ism-are avoided. We sidestep whether the pacts were for land, money, goods, included juridical powers or military service. The compacts could be implicit by custom or explicit and spelled out in detail. In fact maybe that’s how historians should describe the cultures of the concordat era- the movement of implicit to explicit and back.
Since people like to use things they are familiar with, they would use familiar kinds of concordats, changing them to new conditions as needed. In this scheme, the Crusaders weren’t introducing a particular -ism, but simply taking up the tool they knew, adapting it as necessary and employing this tool for a goal - governance of the land conquered in the Crusades. Same thing for William the Conqueror after Hastings.
Concordat Era gives the Middle Ages new stature, as existing as more than a waypoint between ‘Antiquity’ and the ‘Modern’ era. The new name underscores the primary feature of the time period, including the variability and diversity, without the need for constant hedging about and equivocating. It gives the layperson a handle on what was going on for hundreds of years without extensive study of all cultures in Europe. Let’s start using it today. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The real purpose of the MSL laser

The Mars Science Lander has a big ole laser on it and NASA says its for science. In real life, there was a secret mission to Mars that's gone rogue. The Cimmeria Advanced Traveler landed in the Terra Cimmeria area seven years ago to explore crater formations. The probe began ignoring commands, responding occasionally, if at all. Scientists have lost all contact and fear the missing probe may biologically contaminate the sandy Martian soil. Extreme measures must be taken. The purpose of the laser is obvious: Curiosity must hunt down and kill the CAT.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity lands on Mars! See pics on

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Independence Day

I was thinking of the old movie Independence Day, the one with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. At end of the movie, humanity celebrated the destruction of the alien mothership and all the strike ships. Happiness and good will pervaded all.

The scene glosses over the reality of the situation. The aliens destroyed the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington DC with their opening salvo. The humans nuked the strikeship in Houston with no effect to the strikeship, but plenty of effect to the surrounding countryside. After the initial attack, the strikeships started moving through out the country, destroying major cities. We could probably add Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas, NV to the list, at least. The rest of the world fared no better, with all the major capitals destroyed, followed by subsequent destruction of major cities.

The power grid was probably destroyed, so most US cities have no power. The refineries near Houston were destroyed also, so gasoline would soon be in short supply. Food could not get from the farms to the survivors easily. The catastrophe grows greater the more you think of it.

And the aliens could have done so much more. Fortunately for us they were a telepathic race with no concept of internet security. Any sort of smart alien invasion we would have little chance against. Most stories of alien invasion deliberately gimp the aliens so humans can take that slender shot, and against all the odds, triumph.I'm all for humans winning, but we may not be so fortunate as our fictional counterparts if we ever contact intelligent alien life.Luckily for us, it appears we have a long time (possibly forever) to prepare. 

Monday, October 10, 2011


I have found I am particularly distrustful of stories of economic inequality based on worth. There are several reasons for this, including an inaccurate mixing of statistics, a person's actions that do not accumulate worth, and a lack of indication of remedies.

First, many of these articles seem to mix worth and income, gliding from one to the next with the ease of a smiling car salesman asking you what payment you want. They neglect that although Bill Gates is worth $40 billion dollars, the worth is mostly in Microsoft stock. Bill Gates' worth is not a big bank balance with the first five digits reading something like 40,272 and the next six digits ticking steadily upwards as interest accumulates. His worth is in the form of stock, whose value is determined by the market. The same can be said for Warren Buffett and dozens of other billionaires and thousands of millionaires. Admittedly, their income is extremely high, but if you want to talk about income inequality, use income figures. Don't shift sneakily over to worth in mid paragraph, or even mid sentence.

Next, lets face it, most people don't really think about increasing their net worth. Imagine a person making $40,000 a year, well below national median income. They are frugal and have no ongoing debts, and even possess a small emergency fund against things like needed car repair or emergency room visits. Give this person a $2000 bonus and do they really rush home and invest in Disney stock? No, its spent on a new HDTV, or a gaming laptop, or new furniture, or a trip to Paris. People in middle and below income brackets simply don't think about long term gain of worth.

I agree that many people in these income brackets are struggling financially, burdened with expenses such as school loans or credit card debt. And the credit card debt is not necessarily from unwise consumer spending, but from something like necessary car repair when the savings balance showed zero, or a long spell of unemployment. Any windfall would most wisely go to reducing expenses, not investing in new worth.

Also, the road to increase one's worth is currently very murky. The fickle stock market will eat your windfall like a hungry West Virginian after an evening smoking pot. Real estate will take years to show a profit, if ever, and still requires a large initial investment. The lack of clear direction for improving one's financial worth is actually a severe problem, worthy of another essay. Still, most people have a consumer mentality, and this prevents people from accumulating wealth.

Lastly, constantly pointing out worth inequality doesn't really indicate any long term path to remedies. More taxes? Republicans fight even mild increase in taxes on the income of the wealthy tooth and nail, so no increase on total worth will gain ground politically. And any substantial tax that required the Buffetts or the Gateses of the world to divest would drive stock prices down as they flooded the market with stock or real estate. Sorry, that $10,000 in Microsoft stock you diligently saved for, its worth $7500 now. So even if the Wall Street Protests gain ground, exactly what will they do with that political power to promote spreading of wealth?

So you can see that statistics and essays comparing worth are, well, worthless. They mix statistics to confuse the reader, they refuse to take into account the consumer mentality prevalent in the United States, and never mention any solid remedies. I'm all for moving people up the socio-economic ladder, but lets start with something more concrete than discussions of worth.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reading List

Well I've just come from The Art of Manliness and their reading list, so I was inspired to put together my own. I haven't tried to rank them. This list is more of books that people actually read, not just say they've read.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein - pro- military
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman - anti-military
Old Man's War by John Scalzi - third view of war
With Fire and Sword by Henyrk Sienkiewicz - 19th century adventure novel
1984 by George Orwell - brutal dictatorship
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley - dictatorship of comfort and free sex
Catch-22 - by Joseph Heller -anti-military and founded a new phrase
The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold - what it really means to do God's will
Dune by Frank Herbert - Messiah in space
Double Star by Robert Heinlein - doing your duty although it erases you.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - human nature, and some comments on war
A Princess of Mars - by Edgar Rice Burroughs - honor, courage, rip-roaring adventure.
Tuf Voyaging - George R R Martin - for some reason, Haviland Tuf appeals to me.
Callahan's Cross Time Saloon - by Spider Robinson. Shared pain decreases.
Day of the Triffids by John Wynham - end of the world via biological warfare.
Huckleberry Finn - by Mark Twain
The Hobbit - J RR Tolkien - of course
Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien - natch.
Macbeth - Shakespeare - murder, treason, guilt!
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card - kids are smarter than adults
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Enge
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Startide Rising - David Brin
Have Space Suit - Will Travel by Robert Heinlein
Hyperion by Dan Simmons - kind of have to read the sequel Fall of Hyperion also
Watership Down - Robert Adams

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hero or Protagonist?

I've wondered on whether to use the term hero or protagonist when talking about writing. Both have their upsides and downsides.

Hero is the older term. Its short, four letters, I'm done. But it traditionally indicates a male character. The term also tends to connotate a character with few faults. With the modern fixation on "three dimensional" characters, or even worse "gritty and edgy" characters, hero just seems old fashioned and past its prime.

Protagonist? Too long, and my fingers hate typing it. Its just damn pretentious, like my main character has a dark past doing something awful, like "selling drugs disguised as a nun". Or he stands on windswept crags, staring into dark thundering clouds, spending forty two long pages pondering the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I've decided to use the word "toon", from "cartoon". Toon is used by many MMORPG players to refer to their characters in the game. It seems to have come from World of Warcraft, inspired by the cartoon like artwork perhaps, but may be older.

Oh, but am I writing cartoons? Those aren't realistic at all! Well, when you get right down to it, most fiction is about unrealistic people or situations. The audience, whether readers or viewers, generally want something extraordinary. More action, more drama, more comedy than in real life. All fiction is about the out of the ordinary. A story about an engineer who goes to work, comes home, reads novels, goes to movies with friends, works out twice a week and goes to church once a month will never get published. If the same character stumbles across a plot to assassinate the president, or discovers vampires living next door, or "falls into a wormhole and the next moment is fighting Sleestak halfway across the galaxy", well thats sellable copy.

And in the 21st century its not enough to have extraordinary circumstances. Your character has to have some dark past. Its just not enough to fight fundamentalist christians bent on assasinating the great progressive hope, the protagonist (I swear it takes me a full sixty seconds to type that fricking word) must also be a former drug dealer, or committed atrocities as a mercenary in Iraq, or something "gritty and edgy". All in the name of 'three dimensionality'.

Of course, most people just aren't like that. Most of us are pretty two dimensional. Most of us will not dangle upside down from a high rise trying to disarm a nuclear bomb while struggling with the DTs because we're an addict who picked the wrong day to give up heroin.

The word toon reminds us what we write is not normal. Our audience wants more than normal and its our job to give it to them. If we don't, the reader will move to some one who will.

Reference: Orson Scott Card in his book on characters points out that fictional characters are not normal. I think Dwight Swain does too in his "Techniques for the selling writer", but can't recall. The quote about Sleestak is from an episode of Castle, I don't know which one.