Category: Weird Thoughts About Space

One of the things one does if one writes science fiction is think about space. Most people know very little about space, but you can’t get away with that if you write science fiction. You have to know something about space to write almost anything. And the one property of space that is most compelling is its size, its incomparable vastness.

Consider a thought experiment. Let’s compare a large ship to a crossing of the Atlantic. The distance from New York to London is 3460 miles. That’s a straight line, and you have to round the corner a bit, so let’s just use 3500 miles as a round number.

A large ship is one thousand feet long, give or take. So the distance from New York to London is 18500 times as long as the ship is. And anyone who has been on the ocean, even on a large ship, knows how vast it is.

OK, so how about space? The closest exoplanet found is Proxima Centauri b, which is 4.25 light-years away. So if we had a spaceship that had the same ratio of length to that trip as a large ocean-going ship has to the trans-Atlantic voyage, how long would that ship be?

One and a third billion miles long.

Wait. That can’t be right. Let’s invert the problem. If one had an interstellar ship the same size as a large modern ship at 1000 feet, how big would a ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean be if its length had the same ratio to the length of the trip?

The ratio of the ship length to the distance is 1.45 trillion times.

OK, so the Atlantic crossing is 3500 miles. If the ship was 1.5 trillion times smaller than that, the ship would be how long?

The ship would be just 0.00015″ long. If you put 25 of those ships end to end, they would span the thickness of a human hair.

But that’s the closest star with a known planet. 4.25 light-years. The width of the Milky Way galaxy is 25000 times that distance.

And that’s why space travel to other planets is such a pipe dream.

Right now, at least.




The End Of Summer

This week is the Rental Truck Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.

Seems like anyway. This is Indiana University Move-In Week, when 40,000 students move back into a town that has 45,000 permanent residents. Today, Wednesday, is Move-In Day, the peak of the craziness, when more than 10,000 people will move into town on the same day.

It’s absolutely nuts. None of the parents know where they’re going. They don’t know which streets are one-way, so every intersection can be a challenge to avoid a head-on in the left lane of a one-way street.

Bloomington helps out by having one-way streets seemingly at random, streets that terminate abruptly into Ts or dead-ends, especially around campus, and a lot of roundabouts that visiting people may or may not know the rules for. Also, major streets in Bloomington change names every mile or so. If you get off of Indiana 37 on Tapp Road, for example, it goes for one mile as Tapp Road. It then becomes Country Club Drive for a mile. Then it is Winslow Road for the next mile. It then becomes Rogers Road for an entire mile and a half, before it makes a 90-degree sweeper to the north and becomes Smith Road.

The dorms are all set for this invasion. Everyone’s dorm key (a mag card) and welcome packet are all organized in boxes ordered by last name, with half a dozen check-in people per dorm quad (four dorms with a common cafeteria). There are people all over to help get people oriented. The locals do their part by staying the hell out of campus.

Every pizza joint in town is working non-stop every day, and pizza delivery guys zoom around delivering free pizzas by the dozens to the dorm rec rooms, with every box having a dozen coupons stapled to the lid. There’s probably one person at each pizza place whose whole job all week is stapling coupons to pizza box lids.

Target has pallets of microwaves and compact refrigerators as end-caps, with “MICROWAVE meets IU dorm requirements” and “REFRIGERATOR meets IU dorm requirements” signs on them. When the pallet is empty, they bring out another. And another. And another.

The Science Fiction Towel Store (Bed, Bath, And Beyond) has a table in the back for pre-orders. Students ordered things on-line, so they go directly to the pre-order table in the store. Staff pulls the box with their order in it, and they check the items. Any they don’t want they put in a re-stock box, the rest goes into their cart and they go straight to checkout.

The quiet, lazy summer has come to an end here.

Category: Weird Thoughts About The 20th Century

The 20th Century was one of the most monumental in the history of the human race, and not just because it was the most recent. The changes that occurred were arguably the greatest changes that ever occurred for most of the human race.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the automobile was a novelty contraption. Most people got to wherever they were going by walking in town, or by train between towns. Horses were not ubiquitous, as most people think, because they were expensive to keep. They were the province of the wealthy, and of farmers, who needed them to pull their plows.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the only way across the sea was by boat. Travel over the sea was rare, hazardous, and expensive. One-percent of all ships were lost at sea in 1900, usually disappeared without a trace. They simply didn’t show up at the other end.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, 84% of the people in the world lived in extreme poverty, on less than $2 per day (in constant 2018 dollars).

At the beginning of the 20th Century, 10% of the world population lived in a democracy. The other 90% lived under some form of authoritarian regime (30%), colonial rule by a foreign power (40%), or an anocracy (an authoritarian regime with some democratic features).

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the telephone was just spreading in the US and was limited to local service, the reliable electric light bulb was only twenty years old, and the electrification of developed countries was just beginning. Communication was by mail, or by telegraph.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, death by food poisoning was common because there was no refrigeration, death by heat and cold was common because there was no air conditioning or central heating, and death by simple infections of cuts and blood blisters was common. Germ- and virus-based diseases killed millions more.

By the end of the 20th Century all this had changed drastically.

There are 270 million vehicles in the United States, driving on over 4 million miles of roads. There are over a billion motor vehicles in use in the world.

Long-distance travel in the United States and over the sea is now largely by airplane. Airlines carry 3.7 million passengers per year a total of 1.5 billion passenger-miles, with about 300 fatalities a year.

The total percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty fell below 30% by the year 2000, and is now under 10%, even as the world population went from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion people by the year 2000.

By the year 2000, 55% of the world’s population lived in a democracy, 25% lived under an authoritarian regime (mostly China), and the other 20% lived under an anocracy. No one lives under colonial rule by a foreign power any more.

By the year 2000, electricity had transformed human existence. Refrigeration, central heating, electric lighting, cheap or free telephone service worldwide, computers, the internet — the mind boggles just trying to catalog it all.

The combination of antibiotics and vaccines have greatly reduced death by illness and infection in the United States and the world. The leading causes of non-accidental death are now heart disease and cancer. Smallpox was completely eradicated worldwide, and the eradication of polio was very close, by the year 2000.

Why do I bring all this up? Because I hear some people say how terrible everything is, how bad everything is going. Some of these people say they want to go back to a simpler time, to a village-oriented rural past they have idealized.

Nonsense. I wouldn’t want to go back even a hundred years. The poorest people in the United States today live better lives than the Rockefellers or the crowned heads of Europe could manage in 1900.


Category: Weird Thoughts About My Books

I’m in a bit of a writing hiatus at the moment. I went down a bunny trail cogitating on the next book. I’ve since backed up and started over down a different path, so we’ll see where that takes us.

In the meantime, I’ve been giving some thought to the four books I wrote and published between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. In particular, I sold one thousand of these books in July, and the series has a 4.43 average for 93 ratings on Goodreads.

That’s insane. Goodreads’ four stars means ‘really liked it’ and five stars means ‘it was amazing.’ And selling a thousand books a month for a new self-published writer is very gratifying, but it certainly is unusual.

Now, Childers is my first novel. With four novels under my belt now, and a couple of dozen written reviews, I can see its problems. I intended that the main character be exceptional, but she’s too exceptional for some readers. Fair enough. And I was coming out of short stories, where you have to drive the plot along mercilessly to get the story in within the limits of the format. With that experience,  when I wrote Childers I covered twenty years in under three hundred pages. That story could probably have spanned four or five novels!

I also wrote myself into some problems I didn’t see coming. I considered space ships to be fragile enough that one good hit from an enemy ship’s beam and the ship will be lost with all hands. OK, all well and good, but that means my hero has to win every single battle to survive. Every single one. Another problem: In the second book, my hero creates a structure that makes interstellar war impossible. OK, fine, but how do I write more books that include the space battles and space navy action my readers like and expect?

But I thought I would give some thought to why the books are proving so popular with so many people. This may help some other beginning authors if nothing else. Reading the reviews and thinking about them, I’ve come up with some things.

  1. The books don’t offend sensibilities, but they aren’t SJW check-the-box claptrap, either. There is absolute equality between the sexes — I pretty much flipped a coin for every new character in terms of male or female — but it isn’t preachy. I don’t describe people’s skin color or ethnicity — my assumption is that the human race in the colonies would have bred back into itself in every combination over generations such that everybody is pretty much multi-ethnic — but I don’t dwell on any of that either. The characters’ names are all a mish-mosh of ethnic given names and surnames, and, in the Commonwealth of Free Planets, the ethnicity of the given name and surname seldom match. Ashok Gonzalez is an example. As for sexual preference, while the two main characters are heterosexual, no one else’s sexuality is discussed. But it is clear that the CSF accommodates people’s relationships regardless of their orientation because it is smart business practice if nothing else.
  2. There is only one new scientific construct — hyperspace — and the rest of the science is straight down the line accurate. I spend a lot of time developing the hyperspace construct in the context of the plot, and the details play an important part in various plot points, particularly in how the hero wins various battles. But SF readers are often very science literate, and none of the rest of the science jerks even a scientifically literate reader out of the book, because I was careful to have everything else be accurate.
  3. The books are about people, not about things, not about the future scenario. The world-building is strictly in terms of how it affects the characters, without a lot of exposition. That was deliberate. Every good story is about people. That’s why all of my covers feature the main characters, and as photographs of real people, not drawings of idealized characters. The stories aren’t about spaceships, or future society, they’re about people.
  4. The characters in the book are smart. In particular, they don’t do stupid stuff. There is no stereotype of the military commander who is a boorish, swaggering jerk. The main characters are mostly senior people, or destined to become senior people, in the military. I’ve known some senior people in the military, and they have been without exception thoughtful, intelligent, and well educated. Lots of my other characters are senior non-coms. While they can be a rough and tumble bunch, they aren’t stupid. And they have strong personal loyalties, which I highlighted in the books.
  5. The books often deal with the intelligent use of power. Power and authority can be abused, and that is the plot of a lot of fiction of all stripes, but most often, in the real world, they aren’t. The reason people in the real world have power and authority is usually because they earned it by not abusing it. In my books, I showed people with power and authority who spend a great deal of time and thought about how best to use it, how not to abuse it, which is more like the real world I see around me.
  6. The books are written in multiple-viewpoint third person, or omniscient third-person. Yes, it is the style today to write in limited third person, close third person, or even internal third person, in which the main character’s internal thoughts are endlessly (to me) described. But omniscient third person is the traditional story-telling mode, and is, to me, the most accessible for the greatest number of readers.

So that’s what I’ve come up with for why the books are popular with readers. Whatever the actual reasons, it’s been gratifying and humbling, and very much unexpected.

Which is one reason I am taking my time to come up with the next story. I wouldn’t want to disappoint my growing number of fans.


Category: Weird Thoughts About Food

I am going to make what on the surface seems an absurd claim, and then I’m going to prove it. Ready?

The McDonald’s cheeseburger is one of the great achievements of human civilization.

How in the world can I maintain that? Simple. There has never been more nutrition available for a cheaper price — in terms of the amount of work and time it takes the average schmuck to earn it — at any time in human history.

Consider nutrition first. You can pull the numbers yourself if you want, but this is from McDonald’s website.


That’s not bad. A little high on the sodium, but the government numbers for recommended sodium are stupid-low. Salt is not bad for you, as recent studies show. In fact, sodium is an essential nutrient. 15 grams of protein, only 300 total calories, low sugars, low trans fats, low cholesterol. That’s not bad nutrition numbers right there. It would have been a tremendous boon in earlier ages, and would still be welcome in many corners of the world.

For a buck. Yup. One dollar.

Now in 1960, I recall the McDonald’s cheeseburger being 19 cents. They were five for a buck, including sales tax. They were also smaller than today’s burger. I could kill five by myself. But 19 cents! Great deal, right?

Not so much. 19 cents in 1960 is a buck sixty-five now. Yup. $0.19 in 1960 is $1.65 in 2018 constant dollars. The current, and larger, McDonald’s cheeseburger costs only 60% as much as it did in 1960.

Well, but wages changed, too, right?

Not so much. The U.S. median wage in 1960 was $5,600. That’s about $48,000 in 2018 dollars. The median wage in 2018 is — wait for it — about $48,000 in 2018 dollars. So the median wage now is the same as then. But that wage measured in McDonald’s cheeseburgers went from under 30,000 cheeseburgers per year to 48,000 cheeseburgers per year.

Another way to look at it is that, at median wage, in 1960 it took a bit over four minutes to earn a McDonald’s cheeseburger. In 2018, the time it takes to earn a McDonald’s cheeseburger at the U.S. median wage is down to two-and-a-half minutes.

That is the least amount of time it has taken for the average putz to earn that much nutrition in the history of the human race.

And that’s why the McDonald’s cheeseburger is one of the great achievements of human civilization.

Now, remember all the doomsayers, the people who told you that the human race is overbreeding, and there will be food shortages by 1990? or 2000? or whenever? All those  sci-fi novels, with people in dystopian futures living on starvation rations?

Yeah. It was all a bunch of crap.

The doomsayers are always wrong.


My Writing Process

I have gotten lots of requests for details about my writing process. Some people try to outline (plotters) and get so enmeshed in details they get lost in analysis paralysis. (“Does this detail appear in the book? As a reader, do I care about it? Then why as a writer do you care about it?”) Others try to go pure pantser (write without an outline; ‘write into the dark’; ‘seat of the pants’) and write themselves into a corner.

First, read “Writing into the Dark” by Dean Wesley Smith. Seriously. Just do it.

So let me start with a story. In 1928, my grandparents drove their family, including my dad, from Peru, IL to Pukwana, SD to visit my great-grandparents. They borrowed Uncle Henry Schweickert’s brand-new Ford Model A. They necessarily drove mud farm roads (‘section roads’) all the way there, because there were no US highways, like US6 or US34. Those highways weren’t even laid out until 1929. In 2018, that’s a ten-hour drive, all on Interstate highways. Ninety years ago, it was more like four or five hard days each way.

How do you even do that? You have to know where your river crossings are. Where will you cross the Mississippi, for example? Into the 1960s, my dad still thought of long trips in terms of where the river crossings were.

When I write, I have a general idea where the plot is likely to go. For “A Charter for the Commonwealth,” I knew I was going to have a revolution against Earth’s economic and political dominance of its colonies. I knew that there would be a constitution or charter or something like that (this is a prequel, and the later books already published actually said Charter, so that’s what I had to call it). I knew there would be some kind of war with Earth. I knew that the planet Doma had to be destroyed. I knew the Commonwealth had to come up with a space navy somehow in order to fight the Earth.

I also knew that, like every other successful revolution, it would have to start in the upper classes and have money behind it. So I needed sponsors, and I needed to know their motivations.

So I had my big river crossings in mind. I had them sorted in my head in terms of the order they occurred. I also knew how far apart they were, in terms here of how the timeline worked.

One thing I had to keep in mind was the travel distance between planets, so I built a little map of that. This is the actual sketch I used.


I also had a little timeline for the second half of the book, when things are happening across multiple planets, and those time lags are important to consider to get it all to work. I mapped things out in terms of weeks from the passing of the Charter. I didn’t actually build this timeline until I was about a third of the way into the book, and, as you can see, it wiggled around a bit as I wrote. Here’s the actual timeline I used.


Those are the only outlines or notes I used to write the book.

So I know my river crossings, and roughly when I’ll get to them. What else do I need to have to get started writing?

I need a starting character. I need to know about four things about them, plus I need to know where they are and what their goals are.

For “Childers,” the starting character was Jan Childers herself. What did I know about her? She was almost fourteen years old, she was a malnourished, starving orphan, she was extremely bright, and she was very sneaky from just surviving on her own. Where was she? In the slums of Houston. What was her goal? To pass the Citizenship Exam of the Commonwealth of Free Planets and get out of the slums, and off Earth, forever.

For “A Charter for the Commonwealth,” the character was James Allen Westlake VI. What did I know about him? He was the scion of a very rich ruling family on Earth, thirty-eight years old, the Planetary Governor of Jablonka, and he had classical liberal values. Where was he? On Jablonka, in Jezgra, in the Planetary Governor’s office. What was his goal? To initiate and carry out a rebellion against Earth and set up the colonies as an independent, free nation built on Enlightenment values.

That’s all I needed to start.

The first paragraph of “Childers” is:

“Jan huddled in the shadows of the alley, merging into the darkness. The sky was just lightening now, the long, wild night beginning to recede. She pulled her rags closer about her in the pre-dawn cold.”

The first paragraph of “A Charter for the Commonwealth” is:

“The Honorable James Allen Westlake VI looked south out of the picture window of the Planetary Governor’s office of the Earth colony on the planet Jablonka. His capital city of Jezgra spread out before him, both south and east. To the west was the great sea, the Voda Ocean.”

And from there I’m off and writing, heading for my first river crossing.

One other thing I do as I write. I keep a second Word window open on my desktop. When I bring in a new character, I copy and paste their name into my notes and add a little description. When I use a ship name, or a planet name, or a city name, I put a note in the notes window under ‘Ships’ or ‘Planets’ or ‘Cities.’ When I need to refer to it later, I can refresh my memory about the name I used. Sometimes I’ll create a whole list of potential ship names, for instance, and then bold the ones I use as I use them, and add a little note (like ‘in orbit about Pahaadon’) so I can remember which one it is.

And that’s it. Then I write. I make it up as I go along. And, as the characters develop, they carry the plot along for me. I write slower at the beginning of the novel as I am setting it up. Maybe 1000 to 1500 words per day for the first week or ten days. But once I am about 10,000 words in, it starts to write itself and production goes up to 3000 to 4500 words per day or more until I run off the end of the story.

Category: Weird thoughts about the Declaration of Independence

They are the most radical and destabilizing words ever written, in any language, ever. The distillation of Enlightenment thinking, into just one hundred and ten words.

At the time of their writing, almost all of humanity was ruled by autocrats, whether dictators of recent vintage or hereditary monarchs of ancien regime, and had been for millennia. Within 200 years of their writing, the majority of humanity lived instead under some form, more or less perfect, of democracy. They were imperfectly implemented from the start, but have only grown more powerful with time and practice.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” — These aren’t opinions, or even facts, true now and under these circumstances. These are “truths”, true always and everywhere. And they are so obvious to us we won’t even argue the point.

“that all men are created equal” — So much for hereditary monarchs, titles of nobility, caste systems, and all the rest of the drivel people use to justify their self-appointed exalted positions of authority and abuse over others.

“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” — Man is endowed with rights, and they cannot be taken away by anyone or by any government.

“that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — Note that this is not an exclusive list — there are other rights, too. Note that “pursuit of happiness”. Not a guarantee, surely, but people have a right to pursue being happy.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men” — The only reason government exists is to serve the people. Consider the context! In 1776, the vast majority of people in the world were the subjects of some autarch.

“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — And the only reason government has any power is because the people let it have power. Not comforting words to most of the world’s rulers at the time, but it gets much worse:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” — There it is, the Right to Revolution. In black and white. In 1776. Absolutely remarkable.

“laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” — Once again, happiness. We have the right to a government that will act in our best interests.

We take these words for granted, because they are so familiar, but they shook the pillars of the world. France revolted in 1789. Much of Europe revolted again in 1848-1849. And they kept at it until all the monarchs were gone.

Today, of all days, read these words once again. Read them slowly and savor them, and realize just how radical they were at the time, how radical they remain today, and how much they changed the history of the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”