On the Road

What is your dream vacation? I’m headed out the door on mine, and it is surprising how few of these I have taken. I’m talking about going somewhere I’ve never been; somewhere far enough off well-traveled roads that no one I know has ever been there. Except for my travel companion, I won’t know a soul. I have no plans for what to do when I get there, and no real expectations for how this will turn out. There is enough time, a whole week, for exploring and relaxing and seeing what will happen.

The truth is that I love out of the way places. I keep tucking them into my books, from the town of Flores on Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala in z2 to the to northeast corner of Greenland in d4. You can’t get too remote for my tastes.

charles-kuraltOn the other hand, my traveling companion, who is usually referred to as my husband, is noticeably agitated about this dive into the uncharted, combined with a notable lack of advanced reconnaissance.  I agree that it adds potential for problems, and I try to think of why such an adventure calls to me in a way that sight seeing and visiting loved ones and going and laying on a beach somewhere simply does not.

And I remember Charles Kuralt.

When I was a kid, we watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. On a good night, the broadcast would include a segment called “On the Road” where this older, balding guy would wander into some town in the middle of nowhere and, always, discover a fascinating story to tell. I loved him, loved his travels and loved his stories. One could say I’ve spent much of my life trying to become Charles Kuralt, and I don’t know why. I even seem to have moved to his home state of North Carolina.

What was the charm? Maybe it was finding something you could not predict. Perhaps it had to do with taking a step back from busy life, and enjoying, for example, the simple pleasure of watching 8000 dominoes fall over.  See for yourself in this video from 1983.

Will I make discoveries like this on my vacation into the unadvertised, non-simulated nooks into which I go? Oh, I hope so. I really hope so.

Positive Waves for a Happy 4th

Nothing exists, at least not as solid matter. Push a theoretical physicist to describe what is and you are going to hear a lot about waves and particles.  If you push her further, she’s going to concede that at some very basic level the particles are really waves too. Yep, it looks like it’s all waves, man. Nothing but waves.

The character Oddball, Donald Sutherland’s goofy hero in Kelly’s heroes, might have had it right with his preoccupation with negative waves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out these short fun excerpts from the classic movie. Better yet, check them out if you do know what I am talking about.

Which brings me to music. Music is made of waves, big fat waves of oscillating matter, which, as we just discussed, is nothing more than teeny-tiny waves. So we have waves making waves, and its a very good thing, because music helps us deal with all that theoretical physics. It turns out that any wave can be described by three attributes: frequency, phase and amplitude.

So, what makes someone an excellent singer? Three of us got into this recently, and one came down firmly on the side of range. Can he hit the high notes? Another advocated for pitch. Does she hit that perfect A at exactly 220 hertz? I pushed for vastness, a voice that fills the void.

axlroseprivateRange person, who it turns out really cares about frequency, used the example of Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon as one of the all time greats. You can see for yourself which popular singers had the most range at a fascinating post called “The Vocal Ranges of the Worlds Greatest Singers.” Mariah Carey wins for high notes, while Prince takes the male honors. Low note ability goes to Axl Rose with Nina Simone winning for the females. Sheer range honors go to Axl with Mariah in close second. Kevin Cronin isn’t mentioned.

Pitch person holds that perfectly hitting the notes exactly right makes for the most pleasing vocals, but when pressed for who actually could do that, the most recent example he could think of was Bing Crosby. There is reason he had trouble finding more examples, as true perfect pitch is extremely rare. Other singers besides Bing who may have it (or have had it) include Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Yanni and, once again Mariah Carey. At least that is the claim made on this Mental Floss post called 10 people with Perfect Pitch.  This is, by the way, an attribute that involves a combination of phase and exact frequency.

mariah-careyMy examples of great singers included the young Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane, and Adele. Both of these ladies make me feel less alone in the universe thanks to the sound waves  they create, even though I know that I am mostly just talking about their amplitude. I found this list of top 20 singers with the most powerful voices and Adele came in at 18 and Gracie didn’t even get mentioned.  Josh Groban and Whitney Houston made the top ten, as did, once again Mariah Carey. Guess I’m going to have to start listening to more Mariah Carey.

Great singing, of course involves being able to do all three well. A lucky crowd at the Lincoln Memorial was treated to this beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner a few days ago by Star Swain, an assistant principal from Florida. She has range, she has pitch, she has power, and all her waves are positive. Oddball would have loved it, as did those who had the good fortune to hear her. Enjoy, and happy Independence Day to all!

 

 

 

 

Best movies about time, at least in this space/time continuum

travel-in-time-to-1969-space-time-continuum-andee-designI am part of the movie-viewing public that never tires of a well done flick that examines time. But, as one might guess from the plot of z2, my favorites involve a clever manipulation of time, or a riff on the mysteries of time, rather than straight time travel stories.

There are several reasons that simple time travel stories don’t generally impress me.

yankeeFirst, when they only involve going into the past, they are too often no more than an excuse to do a “fish out of water” piece on a present day hero in an historical setting of the writer’s choosing. I think that Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (written all the way back in 1889) pretty much covered this, and the subsequent 1949 movie starring Bing Crosby brought it to the screen well. If you want to write about (or watch) contemporary people experiencing early Rome or the Ming dynasty, that’s fine, you are absolutely entitled to your pleasures.  I just consider such stories to be more historical fiction than science fiction, and I’m not all that fond of historical fiction.

eloiConversely, if the time travel is only to the future, the DeLorean (or whatever the time machine is called) is only a vehicle to get present day people into the author’s wonderful, or awful, vision of tomorrow.  It is science fiction, but like H.G. Well’s tale of the poor Eloi, the time travel aspect is far less important than the future that is created. I may or may not like the story, depending on what I think of the tomorrow that is being described. For example, although I admire H.G. Wells and his groundbreaking ideas for 1895, I personally wasn’t all that crazy about the flesh eating Morlocks.

spock-prime1The remaining option, obviously, is to craft a story in which folks shuttle back and forth through time. I believe that this kind of fiction is so hard to do well. It is easy for a writer to fall into the silly and overused “the whole universe is going to unravel because I sneezed” situation, as in my least favorite time travel series ever, “Back to the Future.” Some plots avoid this better than others. I thought that the whole Spock Prime thing in the 2013 movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” was a wonderful example of how to avoid this scenario without a complicated explanation. Well done.

So what time related movies do intrigue this humble author? Well, I recently found this wonderful post called 8 great movies that manipulate time written by Jay A. Fernandez back in June 5, 2014 on a blog called “Signature” and I invite you to check it out for yourself.

Four of the eight are some of my favorite movies ever, based on their wonderful looks at the slippery and fascinating phenomenon of time. In order of increasing preference:

4. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) is based on a 1922 story by F.Scott Fitzgerald. The idea of a baby born as an old man who gets younger as he ages is intriguing, even though the love story which forms most of the plot was too schmaltzy for my tastes. (The truth is that I like romance novels even less than I like historical fiction.) A more modern take on this same idea isTime's Arrow Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. This is a far darker story based on the idea of time running in the other direction, in a scenario in which the opposite of reality makes more sense than the reality itself.

3. “Memento”(2000) tells the tale of a man who completely lacks short term memory, meaning that there is no recent past for him. The story picks at that disturbing connection between human consciousness and the laws of physics. What is time without an observer?

2. “Run, Lola, Run” (1998) shows how three split second variations at the start of a story yield three vastly different outcomes, not only for Lola, but for everyone whose life she touches on her maniac mission to save her boyfriend. 

1. “Groundhog Day” (1993) is the infamous story of a man forced to live the same day repeatedly. Yes, it is officially my favorite movie, because of its cosmic implication that we all get each of life’s lessons over and over until we finally wise up and learn what we need.

warped-clockThe list includes three other movies I have always meant to see (“Twelve Monkeys”, “Inception”and “Irreversible”) and one other I somehow missed hearing about but have now added to my list to check out (“Primer.”) It also gives an honorable mention to another favorite of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which makes up for the honorable mention it gives to Back to the Future. Clearly intelligent movies about the nature of time are plentiful, and hopefully the recent interest in science fiction will spur on even more.

 

Slowing Down Time

matrixIf you type “slowing down” into Google, one of the first alternatives it will offer you is a search of “slowing down time”. It is obviously a popular topic, and I knew when I created my hero Alex that his ability was hardly unique. Normal humans often report time moving slower during an emergency, although Jeff Wise has a wonderful blog post explaining how researchers have shown this is just an illusion. Fictitious super humans frequently slow down time to stop crime or protect themselves, none better photographed than Neo in the original Matrix movie.

But Alex is just a normal guy, in what I want my readers to believe is the real world. What’s more, time doesn’t merely slow down for him in an emergency, it eventually moves differently for him when he wills it to do so. During much of z2, Alex learns to recognize and to finally use this gift. Along the way, he gives the very nature of time, and the possibility of time travel, some serious consideration.

slowing-time-clockAs I created Alex, I wanted him to discover another who shared a variation of his talent so that at the very end of the book they could work together. Xuha, a short-in-stature student of Maya descent, surprises Alex with his fighting abilities and confides his own time manipulation talents. The two of them consider whether great fighters, athletes, and musicians might not all have a touch of these same abilities.

Here is an excerpt from z2, telling of the first time that Alex uses his ability off of a basketball court.

And then there she was. Alert, wide brown eyes and dark reddish-brown hair almost the color of the logs popped up about eighty yards away, just downstream of the logjam that Ken had called a “strainer.” All three of them shouted to her before the current sucked her back under. Alex felt his own breathing return, just knowing that she was alive. Seconds later she popped up again, downstream of a second clump of branches, but this time she was coughing out water hard. Alex looked closer. Good Lord. She didn’t have her life jacket on.

Ken seemed not to have noticed that fact, as he started moving, relieved, along the shore hoping to intercept Lola somewhere downstream. She was in the middle of the river now, moving fast, and she appeared to be coughing too hard to even try to make her way to shore. Oh hell, Alex thought, I know that she can barely swim. He looked around for anything he could grab quickly.

“Alex, get back here!” Sara yelled it as she saw Alex start to wade out into the fast cold water, a canoe paddle in his hand.

“Alex, no!” Ken joined in as well from his position downstream.

But all Alex could think of was that is he was going to have to pay for his decisions, he was damn well going to make sure that he did everything he could to make this come out right.

Then he noticed how wide the river really was. How far to the center Lola was and how fast she was moving. How slow his own progress in the deep cold water was going to be. And he realized that he’d never make it to her in time. She’d flail on past, still dozens of feet away from him, and none of them would have any way of reaching her before cold and fatigue completely overtook her.

And then it happened. The roar of the water and the sound of Ken and Sara’s shouts faded into a muffled background, and all Alex heard was the sound of his own heart pounding. The beat of it remained steady and firm as the water began to move more slowly. As did Lola. Alex had the odd sensation of walking out onto a basketball court, willing his body to move to the rhythm of the game, of this game. His feet felt light but firm as they moved with power along the rocky riverbed. His hands were strong and capable as they lifted the paddle out towards Lola. He was moving at a normal pace to him, but he was already in chest-deep, and only feet from her now. She looked puzzled but grateful, and Alex heard his own voice boom slowly “Lola! Grab the paddle!”

He thrust it into her hands, and as the current slowly twisted her body downstream, her fingers just barely curled around the white blade. Alex pushed the paddle more firmly into her hands. Her grip tightened as she realized that this ordeal could actually be over. Then Alex used the paddle to pull her in closer, finally reaching out to grab her shirt and drag her in towards shore. She collapsed at the waters edge, still coughing hard and shivering uncontrollably.

Sara rushed to her, and Ken hurried back to them, as Alex himself sunk down into the pebbled sand, now shaking with cold. Slowly, Lola’s coughing picked up speed, as did Ken and Sara’s movements and speech, and then everything moved with his heartbeat again, happening at the pace it should.

“I had no idea you could move that fast,” Ken chided Alex with a relieved grin as he joined the group.

“We yelled at him not to go out into that water,” Sara was shaking her head to Lola. “But thank heavens he did, huh?”

Lola was smiling. She pulled herself upright and stumbled towards Alex to give him a long hug. “How did you ever make it out there to me?” she asked.

“I wasn’t willing to accept any other alternative,” he said simply.

“That’s good,” she laughed. “I’m glad.”

As the rest of the day centered on getting off of the river and getting the Zeitmans dry and warm, and all of them back on the road headed home towards Texas, Alex kept having one thought.

I had no idea. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. But it didn’t. I had absolutely no idea that time would slow down like that for me anywhere but on a basketball court.

For two of my favorite sources of information on time dilation, see
It’s About Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity, N. David Mermin, ISBN 978-0-691-12201-4
Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, Michio Kaku, ISBN 978-0-385-52069-0

My job is to get wiser

It has been just over three months now since I became unemployed. It’s a big deal for me, even though it was my own decision, made once I decided that if I made my life much simpler, I had enough to get by.

I knew that my job provided more discretionary income than I would ever have again.  I knew that it provided a social circle of sorts, and a reason to bathe regularly. I was prepared for a lack of all those things. I felt like I’d always had it in me to a be poor unwashed hermit, so no problem there.

I didn’t realize that my job provided reference points for the passage of time, and that after so many years with a typical job, I would be disorientated without those familiar markers. My husband, who made this same plunge three years ago, saw what was coming. Of course, for the past three years he had been using my work schedule to mark his own days.

“We will still have special meals on week-ends,” he declared. “Drink a bottle of wine, grill a nice piece of fish.” I laughed at him.  “We can do that any time now.”

“Yeah, but we won’t,” he said. “You’re going to need this.” He was right.

motion 2I didn’t realize that my job provided a sense of purpose, even if that purpose was only to pay the bills. I have a higher purpose, I thought.  My real purpose is to write. I didn’t consider how writing is basically a manic-depressive activity for me, filled with bursts of creativity and action interspersed with doubt and lethargy. One’s purpose needs to be solid, a guidepost that doesn’t wax and wane to a bipolar rhythm.

So I’ve kind of informally been seeking a purpose, and oddly enough I think I’ve found one. It probably was my purpose all along, I just didn’t think of it as such.

My job is to get wiser. I actually think that is everyone’s real job, but I also think it’s not my business to tell other people what their purpose is. So  …. I’ll stick to me. I’m on a mission to become a wise woman. I’m not sure exactly what the process involves, but I’m pretty sure that it includes a lot of writing, reading, helping others, being close to nature, taking good care of my self, traveling, learning, and meditating. It might involve a lot more.  I don’t know. I’ll find out.

I figure that a would-be wise woman takes wisdom wherever she finds it. So now my life is a classroom and, as a full time student, I make little notes to myself wherever I go. People in town may think I’m a little crazy.

A wonderful local yoga studio has provided me with lots of material, not to mention a few more reference points as I try to make it to my favorite classes. “We are naturally drawn to movement,” the instructor said the other day, talking about how all the flashing blinking lights in our lives hold us mesmerized. “But remember that there is no movement without stillness.”

motionIt sounded very Zen, but in fact the man was talking good solid physics. There is no motion if everything is in motion together. You do know that the earth is zipping around the sun at nearly 70,000 miles an hours, don’t you? You don’t? How could you possible not notice traveling at 70,000 miles an hour? It turns out it is pretty easy when everything else moves with you. Have one thing stand still (or as good old Einstein pointed out, assume you are standing still and the other thing is moving 70,000 miles an hour in the other direction) and the motion becomes apparent.

That’s it.  You need motion. You need stillness. You need reference points. Way to go, physics! Way to go, yoga! Way to go, universe!

Physics for thought

Click to like George Takei

Click to like George Takei

The hero of z2 is a high school physics teacher, and a man so fascinated by light and energy that he has dreams about talking photons. As he struggles to make his material relevant and even amusing to his largely bored students, he stumbles on truths that will eventually shape his own life.

Can physics be funny? Of course it can, if you let it. And as many recent authors have shown, it can also be inspirational, challenging us to question our basic beliefs as we reach for a fuller understanding of our universe.

click to like Sun Gazing

click to like Sun Gazing

You are light and energy. You are stardust and five billion year old carbon. You are also almost entirely nothing, pure empty space broken up by miniscule flickers of something in all that nothingness; tiny specs that come together in a phenomenal way to create the illusion of being you. You are a miracle.

Thank a physics teacher for conveying that information.