Congratulations Erik and Melissa Marsh!!

Greetings all,

Today is a special and important day.  As this post goes up, two of our own will become one:  Erik Marsh  and Melissa Rogers will simplify things for us and become Erik and Melissa Marsh!

The pair of them are, individually, two of the most engaging, intelligent, and caring people I know.  Together, they not only fit better than just about any other couple I know, but I’m sure they will somehow transcend even their previous standard of awesomeness.  I’m sure they will only continue to grow in their love for each other and the Lord Himself.  I pray the future holds on the best for them!

Congratulations, Erik and Melissa Marsh!

Science Fiction Problems: Lasers (Or: “LOSER”s)

Hello all, and welcome to this week’s (not time travel) edition of Science Fiction Problems. I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now and had to shoo Dr. Melton away from it lest he encroach upon my sacred territory, but now I will finally address that oh-so-often used sciencey space weapon, the laser. In this episode I will be describing just how the things allegedly work, and highlighting some emerging technology that will rapidly make lasers a viable weapon in current-generation warfare. No, you did not misread that last sentence, but don’t get too excited- we’re still a ways away from beam-swords and blaster cannons. In my next post I’ll get into how laser weapons are used (and misused), and how realism and fantasy can be balanced to make them cool and believable.

Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

Wolf Eyes Sniper 260 Hunter flashlight on wall
Just in case you didn't know what I meant, now you do.

In case you didn’t catch it, that’s what “LASER” actually stands for. Actually, to be more accurate, lasers that generate their own light for the process would operate with “Light Oscillation by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”, but the acronym “LOSER” is not quite as catchy. We’ve probably all played with a laser pointer at one time or another, and it may have occurred to some that the little dot they generate seems something like the dot from a flashlight when you shine it close to a surface. Both lasers and flashlights focus light into a beam, but of course lasers are much more highly focused- but how is this? Well, obviously there are differences, but they operate on the same basic principles of quantum physics (Einstein again).

parabolic reflector
Okay, pretend that shower-head thing is a light bulb, and you get the idea

Light as Particles or Waves (Both/And?)

Light is a peculiar thing to model mathematically. In some cases, light  seems to act in waves, as in radio or microwaves, and some cases, more like particles, as in gamma radiation. For lasers, it is easiest to imagine light as particles, like grains of sand, which travel in a straight line from the source. With flashlights, the light particles are emitted and reflected as well as possible to force them all in one direction- the further out from the source, the more spread out the paths of the particles become, and the beam spreads. With lasers, instead of focusing them, the light particles are emitted into a tube-like chamber and reflected back and forth (or “oscillated”) between two reflective surfaces. As the chamber fills with bouncing particles, a large amount of them find their way through a hole in the center of one and pour out in a straight beam. Because the light particles fly out only once they are traveling in the same direction, the beam is very tight and focused.

If you’ve ever used a powerful hand-held spotlight, when you put your hand in front of the lens, you can almost

laser diode diagram
1: light oscillating, 3: reflector, 4: reflector with "hole", 5: laser beam

burn yourself from the heat. Now imagine if all of this heat was focused into one little dot, sometimes only a few nanometers in diameter, and you can get an idea of how lasers can be used to cut through things as hard as steel or diamonds. The cutting action comes from the energy of the light particles transferring to the surface, converting into heat, so if all of that energy is focused into one tiny point, it starts to burn, melt, or vaporize the material away.

So, pretty cool what we’ve managed to figure out here, but there’s one major problem that keeps us from building Death Star-class super-weapons: all that energy has to come from somewhere. It takes a significant amount of energy to carve up quarter-inch stainless steel, but what about several feet of armor plating? You can hook up some nuclear generators into your death ray if it’s mounted on top of a military compound or aircraft carrier, but as of yet we have no practical way to generate that much power for laser weapons mounted on aircraft or armored vehicles. Part of the problem is that most of the energy that is used for the laser is actually coaxed out of some kind of electron-rich material (be it solid, liquid, or gas), and so there is a certain inefficiency in the process, not to mention all the heat generated to deal with. Fortunately, we now have the FEL laser.

The Free Electron Laser

FEL laser battleship defense
We may be losing air superiority shortly, but hey, there's always the navy!

This is a neat trick that gets a lot more bang for the energy buck than the typical setup, using electromagnets to yank a bunch more electrons from the laser’s medium. What this means is that it’s now possible to generate a much higher amount of energy in a laser, and so it takes less power to emit a more powerful beam. It’s also much more stable and easier to control, so the beam can be tweaked depending on the application and need, making lasers a much more flexible option as a weapon. Watch this short Youtube video if you want more information; it’s pretty neat seeing how it works. The way the Office of Naval Research presents it, they plan to stick these high-powered, super-efficient lasers on aircraft carriers to shoot down incoming missiles (and potentially enemy aircraft- note the shot down helicopter from the video). This technology also has a ton of industry applications, but more important to us science-fiction fans, this is a huge step towards practical, effective laser weapons. Pretty soon the navy will have railgun-toting battleships and impervious missile-hacking laser defenses- how cool is that!?

Alright, I think I covered that well enough- next week I’ll get into how science fiction has treated (or mistreated) this staple technology, and give my advice for how it can be handled realistically while not sacrificing the coolness factor.

Until then, what are your favorite lasers in science fiction? Does it bother anyone else when books, movies, or tv shows fall back on the inexplicable Star Wars-style blaster weapons?

Sketching in the Margins: A Sure-fire Way of Getting Worried Looks from Your School Teachers

From these random monsters, weapons, giant robots and cityscapes, I found inspiration for my worlds of fantasy and science-fiction

Kindergarten board-book Attack Bat and Attack Bird
Quite possibly the cutest and "Best Illustrated" kindergarten board book ever.

I’ve always created creatures, scenes, and ideas on the page, but for me, it’s always come more easily in the margins than on the lines. I am a notoriously distractable individual and doodler, and my mind sometimes drifts away from the drone of particularly uninteresting teachers to the dark depths of the ocean or the battlefields where titanic suits of armor clash swords. I tend to become engrossed in sketching these creatures or creations and often fill a large portion of the empty space of my notes with these drawings. This is not to say that I do not pay attention in class- in fact, I learn a great deal from lectures and the notes that I take for them, but I do seem to inevitably find inspiration for some new sketch while attempting to decipher my professor’s cryptic diagrams on the white board.

This habit started way back in elementary school, where we were actually supposed to draw in school. Not content to draw a little house or a nice puppy, I drew epic battles between great-white sharks and heroic torpedo-launching submarines.  I drew dinosaurs with dripping fangs and claws, and stick-figure explorers fighting them off with boxy little firearms and dotted-line bullets. The violence was of course graphic enough to make any male proud.

If it weren’t for the fact that I was undoubtedly the happiest little boy in the whole school, someone might have taken my drawings as some sort of confused cry for help from a particularly disturbed individual. As it was, my drawings usually inspired eye-rolls from the girls, “awesome!”‘s from the boys, and stifled giggles from my teachers when I excitedly explained them to the class.

highschool art oppression black demon
This is probably the closest I've come to art that speaks for itself- freshman year of high school was not fun.

Once “art class” became a specified and exclusive time to draw in school, my itch to sketch began spilling out into the margins of my notes. I drew swords and various other weapons as I simultaneously adapted to increasingly intensive subjects. For a while I struggled, but eventually I learned how to listen while I doodled, and exactly when I needed to give my undivided attention.

My high school doodles were not much to speak of, but I further developed my meager skills and attempted to draw more cleanly. I’ve never drawn people well, but I took an interest in trying to become somewhat better at it- I was never very good at faces. I carried my habit into college, and managed to make sure it did not affect my note-taking efficiency, but once I became inspired to write, these sketches took on an entirely new life. From these random monsters, weapons, giant robots and cityscapes, I found inspiration for my worlds of fantasy and science-fiction. I developed my entire system of magic from a diagram I threw together during a lecture on Differential Equations, and several more ideas for that world’s creatures and peoples from others.

Sketching appears to be, as Rachel would say, an expression of my Muse. Looking back on all of the drawings in my history, I see a timeline of my own growth as an individual. This is a small part of who I am, and as it appears, a part of who I will be as a writer, broadswords, aliens, and all.

So, does anyone else out there draw to become inspired? How ’bout all you doodlers out there, have you ever gotten an idea to write from something you randomly drew in the margins of a notebook?

March Thresher sword wielding walking puppet
I've always had a fondness for magic puppets that kill things.
insectoid alien cyborgs
This is an example of a sketch that grew into an entire culture for a science fiction world

Science Fiction Problems: The Imminent Rise of Our Robot Overlords

In this post:

  • The Technological Singularity theory expects that we will eventually accidentally replace ourselves with A.I., probably within the next 50 years
  • This can be a problem for writers of science fiction, but there are creative ways to get around it
Gotta love those violent, flesh-rending robot squids, yessir.

There  have always been crazy theories going around about the end of the world or civilization as we know it, from the Y2K bug, to all of the innumerable times a clergyman thinks he’s calculated exactly when Jesus will come a knockin’, but every now and then there’s an apocalyptic scenario theory that seems legitimate enough that hundreds of people simultaneously decide to write about it. Maybe there’s an asteroid as big as Texas barreling towards Earth (Armageddon), or we’ve finally tossed one too many ppm’s of CO2 into the atomosphere and Mother Earth’s set to kick in a new ice age to get back at us (The Day After Tomorrow), but my favorite has always been the inevitable rise of super-intelligent robot tyrants. From this little gem we get The Matrix, and Hal from the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like the ones above (with exception to The Day After Tomorrow in my opinion), this one’s plausible based on a popular theory called the Singularity.

The Technological Singularity

Here's an interesting review of a presentation on the future singularity:

I found an article written on this subject that you probably don’t want to dredge through, but it covers the subject in depth and was presented to a forum at NASA back in 1993. The main idea is that technology has been developing in a steady, exponential curve that will eventually become so steep that it will become a singularity, that is, an essentially infinite property. Basically what this means is that through the course of scientific development, we will inevitably create artificial intelligence as capable as the human mind, and once we do that, it is reasonable to assume that these artificial minds will be able to create something better than themselves, allowing their new race of machines to very quickly render us obsolete, thus ending the Age of Man. This is thought to be something that will happen pretty soon (the author of this article said he would be surprised if it didn’t happen before 2005…woops!)  and most give us 25-50 years before we accidentally cause our own extinction.

Aside from the sobering reality of the notion, this theory makes more than a few problems for us writers of Science Fiction. How can you set something in year 2200 if the prevailing opinion says that we’d already be slaving away in the biothermal farms under the steel foot of our benefactors by 2030? This potential problem can be (and has been) handled in a number of ways:

This one always creeped me out... Denial (That which you pretend isn’t there can’t enslave your species, right?)

The theory of Singularity, while popular, doesn’t exactly have a way of proving itself. As I mentioned, the article I’ve linked above assumed the singularity would already have happened by now, and there’s no way of know when such technology would develop A.I. to the degree necessary to trigger our doom.  It’s  also somewhat of a generalization: even if we do come to a point where we are doubling our scientific knowledge as often as every day, it wouldn’t necessarily  be knowledge that would be useful for Artificial Intelligence (Marine Biology,  for instance), and there is reason to believe that it is not possible to create self-aware A.I. at all. This is to say that you can reasonably ignore the problem of the Singularity as long as you decide why there aren’t super-intelligent robots, or at least why they haven’t felt the need to do any global genocide recently.

Acceptance (Maybe it won’t be so bad after all? I can get used to protein-gruel…)

Ghost in the Shell- Stand Alone Complex
If you happen to like anime, the tv series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is extremely well-written and handles the Singularity event quite well

You don’t have to have tyrannical A.I.’s to have the Singularity. Perhaps cybernetics have developed to the point that humans can basically keep up with the progress of machines, or essentially become one with them by becoming part machine themselves. A.I.’s can also be really smart, essentially omniscient, and endlessly upgrading and still not have it out for humans. You have control over the motivations of all of the characters in your story, including the synthetic ones, and you do not have to make the machines villains if you don’t want to. There are plenty of Science Fiction stories that have their humans living right alongside the robots that would in another story take over.

Cheat (It’s not cheating if I make the rules…)

This game's science fiction background is very well thought out.

You could reasonably address the Singularity problem any number of ways to allow for its existence without allowing it to become the death of humanity. There might be laws in the world that prevent any meaningful development of unrestricted A.I. You could blatantly disallow that sentient A.I.’s are possible, or that they can only exist in a restricted form. In the videogame series Mass Effect, the artificial intelligences are not only restricted by intergalactic law, but the particularly powerful ones can only be developed within a Quantum Computer, a device that cannot sustain the personality outside a huge core in the center of the ship. The A.I. can be as awesome as it wants, but in the end it’s stuck in a giant ship and renders itself no real threat to humanity.

As you can see, avoiding the destruction of the human race is as simple as coming up with something creative. There are any number of other ways in which the Technological Singularity can be dealt with, and it could be a very useful source for drama and conflicts in your story. The only thing to keep in mind is this: be nice to computers- you never know when they might finally be able to take over.

Tuesday’s Turkey: The Movie Formerly Known as “The Avatar”

Giant turkey leg
That's a big turkey!

When we here at Lantern Hollow Press started planning Turkey Hunt Week, it took me about 5 seconds to decide what my turkey would be. I was a tad wary when I heard that The Last Airbender was to be directed (and written, apparently) by M. Night Shyamalan, and much to my dismay, even my already low expectations were summarily plunged through. I have nothing specifically against the man, I really loved The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, but what he did to this otherwise very clever and very popular series is very disappointing.

I had only seen a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender before I saw the live-action movie, but everything I rememebered about it told me that Shyamalan had not nearly done the show justice. I looked the cartoon up to see if I was wrong, and was so intrigued that I watched the entire first season. Especially for a kids show (and there are many that argue for its wide appeal beyond its target audience), the Avatar series is exceptional TV, which is why M. Night Shyamalan’s “vision” of it is such a turkey.

My biggest and most general “beef” with The Last Airbender would be that this movie contains some of the worst-delivered dialogue I’ve ever seen. Every joke fell flat. Every dramatic statement lacked weight. It quickly became obvious that Shyamalan was trying really hard to write for kids, and didn’t seem to think that his audience would be able to understand if the plot points were not explained, in detail, several times. This led to extended scenes of dialogue in which the characters explained everything to each other, often accompanied by strange camera angles and awkward cuts. If I were a kid being fed this terrible execution of dialogue, I would feel that my intelligence was being insulted.

I can understand the problem of cramming an entire season’s worth of plot into an hour and forty-three minutes, but what Shyamalan came up with feels like the elementary school pageant version of Hamlet (not that I’m comparing a Nickelodeon cartoon to the brilliance of Shakespeare, but you get the idea).

The Last Airbender movie Aang
^ Total dork

My best example of how the live-action Avatar movie fell short of the quality of the cartoon series is in the end of either. This is where things got really bad in the live-action movie, in a sort of coup de grace to plot integrity. As Shyamalan writes it, the evil general Zhao walks up to the pool, amazed by the two endlessly circling koi which embody the spirits, and asks “But why would they take such helpless forms?” to which another character answers (after another awkward camera cut) “To teach man humility.” Really, Mr. M? That’s the best you could come up with? Beside the incredibly lame script, the scene diverges completely from the mythology surrounding the two spirits which is fully explained in the cartoon and actually makes sense.

To top it all off, Shyamalan’s Aang (the main character of the series and movie), after an unbelievable and shoehorned emotional struggle, makes peace with himself and goes to face the Fire Nation navy from the ice walls of the city. Tapping his newfound powers, Aang creates an enormous tidal wave that looms monstrously above the ships. At this point I was thinking “Oh, well that’s pretty cool”, expecting the wave to crash down, obliterating them. Instead, the ships flee and Aang gently lowers the wave, harmless except for a few splashes here and there.

Last Airbender movie Avatar State Aang
^Still a total dork; Use the wave! Crush things!!

Let’s contrast this with the image below. This is what Aang turns into in the cartoon, which the show’s creators nicknamed “Koizilla”. He then proceeds to mow through the entire Fire Nation army and then carve up that same fleet which Shyamalan spared for some reason. It makes some sort of sense if M. Night Shyamalan was going for a little less violent of an end to his movie, but why that would be necessary for a show that is already made for kids is beyond me.

In all that awesome destruction in the cartoon, there isn’t a single on-screen death- just broken up ships and soldiers splashing in the water. The movie actually shows the evil general being drowned in a sphere of water by the Water Tribe soldiers- a fairly graphic death that was only hinted at in the cartoon. I have no idea why Shyamalan swapped the original ending for his, but it takes away what could have been an incredible scene in live-action and CGI that I for one would have liked to see, only to show the personal side of death in the general.

There are so many examples of how M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender fell short of the original

Koizilla Avatar State Aang

source, but I’ve said enough here to merit his movie as Tuesday’s Turkey. If they make a sequel, I sincerely hope that the director will heed the will of the fans and honor the Avatar series as it deserves as an all-around well-written and original show.