NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Monday, September 24, 2012

REVIEW: Wired [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[Still recovering from surgery, but I have owed y'all this review for some time...]

It's not often that I take a recommendation that somebody gave me for book, then turn right around and recommend it to others.  However, I'm making an exception for the book "Wired" by Douglas E. Richards.  The book is part mystery, part adventure, and all science fiction.  The story starts out with David Desh, retired special forces operative, who has been tasked to hunt down Kira Miller, a dangerous terrorist.  Miller is a molecular biologist who's been experimenting with viruses that can deliver diseases tailored to specific populations and racial groups.  The target is not just a psychopath, but a genius, and a deadly one

The truth is much more convoluted and David  soon discovers that Miller has been experimenting with ways to enhance human intelligence… and succeeded.  She is always several steps ahead of David, and seems to know exactly what he's thinking and planning.  Despite the fact that she knows that David's job is to track her down and deliver her to the authorities, she tries to convince him that she has been framed, and is being tracked for her knowledge of how to increase human intelligence by several orders of magnitude.

I'm fond of thrillers and adventure novels, so I was prepared to like the novel from the start.  I wasn't entirely sure if I would be happy with the neuroscience, but the book was recommended to me by a person who really does understand physiology and pharmacology.  The author, Douglas Richards, has a masters degree in molecular biology and yes, he got the brain science right. Wired takes as its central principle something that I have discussed in many columns, articles, and panel discussions – namely, that memory and cognitive performance is less about the number of neurons and more about the number of connections between neurons.  The central "gimmick" of Wired is that any changes to intelligence require fundamental changes in the chemical neurotransmitters and receptors that mediate information transfer between neurons. It doesn't hurt that it's pretty good story and adventure.

I might have a few quibbles with the experiences of the principal characters in their heightened intelligence state, but I held my tongue and kept my preconceptions in check.  I felt vindicated in the end with the epilogue and set up for the sequel "Amped." In all, I think Wired is an excellent story and well worthy of recommendation.

Until next time, we'll have to settle for caffeine to keep us Wired and wait for the next installment of exciting science news to get us Amped

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Brief hiatus (Wed & Fri) [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I'm having carpal tunnel release surgery on Thursday.  I will not be able to post the Wednesday blog, and possibly not the Friday blog. I plan to be back at work by the weekend - I've still got more Dragon*Con After Action Reports and an idea for a new series of blogs.  More to be unveiled next week!

Monday, September 17, 2012

NEAT STUFF: [DCAAR] Dragon*Con Gangnam Style [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This one is just for fun.  There's a catchy music video making the rounds of Youtube that features a variety of costumed players ("cosplay") at Dragon*Con.  It's a catchy little tune, and the video shows a great sampling of Dragon*Con people and locations. [No, we don't all cosplay - there's few looks that I could pull off that wouldn't resemble Jabba the Hut - but it certainly is fun watching the others!]

For those unfamiliar with the background, Korean pop-artist ("K-pop") PSY has a video and song out called "Gangnam Style."  The words are in Korean, but the eponymous phrase "Oppan Gangnam Style" gives a clue to the meaning behind the video images of opulence and pretension.  Translated as "living/being Gangnam style", it refers to the trendy, elite Gangnam district which conjures many of the same images to S. Koreans as Beverly Hills does to Americans. It is said that PSY intended it to poke fun at people who aspire to be rich, famous, trendy and/or opulent

Videographer Bui Minh Nhat created this video using PSY's original music, but various players from Dragon*Con [Note, this makes it parody and a derivative work - perfectly acceptable to copyright.]

Sit back, put down the beverages and enjoy!  As Gandalf says "I Approve!"

[Link for the email recipients:]

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Simulcast: Guest Blog at AccordingToHoyt [Full link to blog for email clients.]

My friend Sarah A. Hoyt asked for guest blogs, and I was happy to oblige.  Since her blog deals with a lot of issues surrounding writing - from plotting to publication contracts - I thought I'd chime in with some of my observations.  I'm running the full text here, but if you want to comment, please go over to her blog ( to join the conversation.

Before going into my comments, here's her preface:
*Having been an editor, I know that some formatting is important.  You need to be able to read the submission without battling for the information through a Horror Font or asterisks galore.  However I know what Doctor Roberts is talking about.  This is different.  I’ve said before that gatekeepers get so jaded they lose track of what good stories are.  Which is why they start hanging inflexibly on crazy stuff.  I once read an interview with a major professional editor — back in the nineties — who said that he hated word processing because it made everyone look the same and he “couldn’t tell who is good.”  Now, not to brag, but I usually know who is good after three paragraphs, even if it’s written in crayon on wax paper.  I don’t propose that people should send crayon on wax paper stories, but to hang up on minor formatting issues is also insane.  The other part of this is ageism.  In a case of thinking they’re Hollywood, they think they need  young writers to appeal to young readers, which is insane — not only do we not read by age, but most young readers aren’t looking for writers their age.  The way they’ve found to discriminate against those forty and older is to say that pieces with two spaces after the period aren’t acceptable.*
Now mine...

I have a bone to pick…

As a fiction writer, I admit that I’m still very much in the wannabe stage.  I am not yet published in Science Fiction/Fantasy, although I have been submitting short stories to various contests for a few years now.  I recently started submitting to the two big magazines – Analog and Asimov’s.  As expected, to date I have received only rejections.  That’s ok, I’m learning what they don’t want as I go along.  I have no great expectations about getting published in my first or early tries, therefore I shall muddle on, keep writing and keep submitting.

Still, I have a bone to pick.

You see, I am not truly a novice at writing.  I am a scientist – and not just a theoretical or practical spend-all-day-at-the-lab-bench type, but the I’ve-written-over-100-published-articles-20-book-chapters-and-25-years-worth-of-grant-applications type. I know how to write, how to speak, and how to use all of the tools that people of all professions use for writing.

Oh sure, you can say “but writing Science is not the same as writing Science Fiction” and I’d agree with you. I have a blog in which I am attempting to explain brain science to writers (and readers) of Science Fiction.  I try to take the technical information and remove a lot of the jargon and details that require a PhD just to read.  I have been told I do a decent job of explaining, even though I was recently criticized by a press officer for not making my explanations understandable at a 7th-8th grade reading level.  Guilty as charged.  I write science for the public at about high school graduate/first-year college level, and for people who don’t mind looking up the occasional term for further understanding.

But writing for the “common audience” is a different mind-set for me.  So much so that I find I cannot switch back and forth between writing scientific articles or grant applications and writing SF/F (or my blog).  If I am going to write for 2-4 days on a short story, I cannot read, write or even review scientific papers.  Once I drop into the “public” writing mode, I dare not do any of my professional writing or I risk using inappropriately casual structure and colloquial language.  This is less of a problem when writing my blog, since the material is still science-related, but I still have to be careful  when I switch back to work-related writing.

That’s not the issue I have, though.  I admit that my fiction writing is probably still not up to the standards of certain authors and publications, and I have much to learn about the craft of writing.  I also freely admit that I have not necessarily been writing exactly what those magazines may be looking for.  My stories tend to be at the long end of “short story” and I’ve been all over the place with genre as I try to experiment with my writing.

No, I don’t have a problem with rejection.  My issue is with something else in the rejection letter. 

Several of the letters have included the comment:

“In the future, we’d appreciate it if you formatted the story in standard manuscript format (SMF). You can find out more about SMF here:

My first reaction was “How could this be? I did format the manuscript as if it came off of a 50 year-old Royal typewriter!  I did leave space above the title for those hypothetical handwritten notes from editor to typesetter, and I even included a word count and page number/title/author heading at the upper right (must be the right not left, because it may be clipped in the left) corner.

What was my crime? My infraction that may bring down the wrath of editor and industry upon my head?  Was it the fact that I forgot and used my pen name in the heading, and not my real name?  Was it that fact that I used “Courier New” instead of just plain old Courier monotype?  As I read further, I discovered my crime.

I am guilty of inappropriate punctuation.

I learned to type on a typewriter and still tend to put two spaces after a period or colon. I use dashes in my text – somewhat like this – and I put spaces around them.  In my defense, when using just about any proportionally-spaced font, my word processor will not automatically convert double or stand-alone hyphens to em-dashes unless I do put spaces around the character.  My usage of three asterisks on a line by themselves to indicate a break in the story is yet another infraction, instead I should have been using a single centered hash mark:
There are a couple of other minor details that I may have missed, but they are all just that… minor.  I have been unable to find any major infractions in the stories I have submitted.  I am thus left with the conclusion that my infractions have been minor.  However, it also leaves me with the vague fear that if I do not correct these stylistic differences I may be labeled as unteachable (or worse yet, intractable) by the editors to whom I submit my manuscripts.

Mind you, I know something about the preparation and review of manuscripts.  In 30 years I have written all or part of 100 articles that are published in scientific journals (about 10,000 to 15,000 words each).  For the past 25 years, not a year has gone by that I have not written at least one grant application for submission to National Institutes of Health or other funding agency.  During at least half of that tenure, I have also been a reviewer of such grant applications.  Each application runs about 35,000 to 50,000 words in length and they are a veritable pain in the posterior to write and to review.  Whereas an academic researcher such as I may write 1-to-3 grant applications a year, there is also the potential to review 10 applications (by invitation) for a single NIH review meeting (of which there are three per year).  That’s the equivalent of 3-5 novel-length manuscripts read and commented upon in the course of about two weeks.  A typical committee reviews a minimum of 75 applications per meeting, and there are currently 200 committees reviewing applications at a rate equivalent to 24,000 novel-length submissions to NIH.   NIH has several standards for readability – Arial or Georgia 11-point fonts, they scan better.  There are length, margin and line spacing standards.  The reviewers need to write notes all over a grant application – yet all applications are single spaced because of length concerns.  Surprisingly, NIH has found that monospaced fonts are harder to read than proportionally spaced fonts.  I guess those dumb NIH reviewers just don’t know all the tricks that fiction editors can teach them!

Not that I have not even gotten into the numbers and perspective of writing scientific articles, but many of the same In scientific review, we do have those reviewers who pay close attention to the formatting details of a submission.  We have a phrase for that – we call it “inappropriate attention to irrelevant details” and a reviewer either learns to pay attention to the appropriate aspects of the manuscript at hand, or they are no longer sent material to review.

As both a scientist and a writer, I find there is equal irritation with myself for failing to realize that there are certain formatting standards that I am failing to acquire – but I am also irritated with an industry that still adheres to a formatting style that is at least 30 years out-of-date  (since the advent of the IBM Selectric and digital printers).  With all of the discussion these past few months about changes in the publishing industry and failure to adopt appropriate business models, I find this to be a most egregious example of the “gatekeeper” mentality that Sarah Hoyt, Kris Rusch, Amanda Green and others have written about in recent months.

I do understand the need for a consistent format for readability, and I can certainly acknowledge that there is a standard format to which editors are accustomed.  But if a writer has adopted a readable style, should they be scolded for missing the details, especially when those details are irrelevant to the story?  Perhaps it’s just me and those of you reading this rant will tell me I’m wrong.  But I don’t think so…

…And I personally have over a million words in print on my side of the argument.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NEWS: 9/11 [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Yesterday was the  11th anniversay of the 9/11 attack on the United States.  I actually had planned to run a "Fluff" blog today, but after the additional incidents in Cairo and Benghazi,I can only hang my head in disgust at the so-called justification for the violence and the lack of an appropriate U.S. response.

Our prayers go out to the family of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and the families of the Marines and others killed or wounded in Benghazi.

Semper Fi.

We'll return on Friday with the regularly scheduled content.

Monday, September 10, 2012

NEAT STUFF: [DCAAR] Messiest Ways to Kill a Zombie! [Full link to blog for email clients.]

One of the most fun panels in which I participated occurred late Sunday evening at Dragon*Con on the "Apocalypse Rising" track.  Michael Z. ("Mad Mike") Williamson and I hosted "Messiest Ways to Kill a Zombie" to a packed room - and all sorts of warped entertainment ensued.

I should first give a shout-out to Shannon Chesnut and the staff of A.R. who organized one of the wildest (yet strangely practical) tracks at Dragon*Con.  Subjects in the track included "Inside the Mall: Urban Survivalism" and "Year Two: What's Next" (which I will cover in later DCAAR blogs) to panels featuring AMC's "Walking Dead" TV show.  The track is also heavily supported (even infiltrated) by Zombie Squad.  So, Apocalypse Rising is a great track for discussion of post-apocalyptic SF, disaster preparation and recovery... and killing Zombies.

This panel was designed to be pure fun, and Mike and I have been tweaking the concept through several SF conventions this year.  Our thanks to Drew and Kristan who, frankly, didn't know what they were getting themselves into when they were tapped to fill out the panel, but performed admirably!

Now - for the premise - we're ignoring any concepts such as contagion, after all, if we have to worry about a little splatter, we're not getting messy enough.  Second, as Mike says, we're talking real zombies.  Those head-splitting creatures in Resident Evil don't count... after all, let's be realistic, folks! Third, this is all in fun, our way of joking about a very popular idea - don't read any ulterior political or ethnic "code words" into it.  Fourth, put down the beverage and food, sit back and enjoy...

Dragon*Con 2012 - The Messiest Ways to Kill a Zombie:

Friday, September 7, 2012

The GUIDE: [DCAAR] "Who Are You, Really?" [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This is the first in a series of posts that will include the tag for Dragon*Con  (Dragon*Con Science Fiction Convention, Atlanta, GA, Aug 31-Sep 3, 2012) and and will essentially consist of "After Action Reports" (hence [DCAAR]).  Some are appropriate for inclusion in The GUIDE, others for NEWS, COMMENT or NEAT STUFF and will be titled appropriately.  I plan to write brief blogs on the major panels on which I participated, but a few may get edited out for various reasons.

My first Panel came as a bit of a surprise to me, for it was in the "Main Programming" track (usually meaning high-profile guests) whereas I expected to participate in SF literature, Science and "Apocalypse Rising" tracks.  As indicated in the blog title, the title of the panel was "Who Are you, Really?" and I presumed a bit of a tease on the part of programming director Regina Kirby with whom I have discussed my various names, pen-names and screen names [I was partly correct, too!], but in fact, I was added to the panel to provide a brain science perspective on identity and personality - both of the writers themselves, and of the characters they create. 

Fellow panelists included author Elizabeth Moon, author and widow/executor of Fred Saberhagen - Joan Saberhagen, author Catheryne Valente and author Kathryn Kurtz.  There I was, the lone person not a "known" author, but wonderful people that they are, the others made me feel an integral part of the panel.  On top of all of this, the panel was simulcast with the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention (WorldCon) being held the same weekend in Chicago, IL.  Ms. Moon, Saberhagen and Valente were in Chicago, Ms. Kurtz and I in Atlanta, with conversation and questions from both panels and audiences.  I know that the A/V crew had some issues, but the simulcast - with Chicago on the big screen and their microphones and ours running through a common loudspeaker system.  In was an incredible way to start the convention.

The topic of "Who we are" was launched, and I particularly liked the comments about our early childhood identities.  In school we were quite often known by labels other than our own - several panelists were "children of divorce" or "sister of ___".  I myself recall being known primarily as a nerd.  Discussion then moved on to whether (and how) those labels stuck with us and affected both our future behavior and our own image of ourselves.

In terms of establishing identity as writers, we discussed how work, location and the identity we create (ethnic and cultural) affect not only what we write, but how we are perceived by the public.  I brought up the issue of basically having two identities - as academic scientist and as a science/SF writer/blogger - and how it often requires me to complete isolate my writing and blogging so as not to intermix writing styles.  We went on to discuss how the identity we create can help or hinder writing and creation - including the fact that there are few depictions of minority persons and cultures.  It was lamented that writers have difficulty in writing "The Other" in terms of opposite gender, orientation, different nationalities, etc.  One argument was that until recently, the editors and publishers felt that their readership warranted excluding "The Other" or that people naturally have difficulty creating accurate characters with depth from other viewpoints.  [I disagree - I know a male agnostic who writes a highly convincing Christian soccer mom, and a straight female European who writes nonstereotypic gay male and quintessentially American characters.]  Nevertheless, effectively writing such characters requires us to delve deeply into questions of identity and personality.

I have one apology to make, in that Ms. Saberhagen directed a question at me that I thought was addressed to someone local to Chicago, and I fumbled the answer at first because I was anticipating hearing an answer, instead of providing one.  My apologies, and I think we got that one steered back on track.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience and a great way to start the convention.  I look forward to many such opportunities in the future!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Seeing what is really there. [Full link to blog for email clients.]

In recent posts (Illusion and Fooling the Brain) I demonstrated that the visual system is very good at making inferences and allowing a person to "see" things that are not really there. Today's post is about an art form that fools the brain using objects and images that really are there!

Copyright 2012, Delae C. Noctra, used with permission
I sometimes think that my friend Delae C. Noctra must be seeing the world using different eyes and brain than the rest of us.  He calls his pen-and-ink art "hydroliptic" - hydro because it is free flowing, and [el]liptic for deliberate obscurity.  His signature piece is shown in the two images embedded here, but I highly recommend you check out the samples at his website -  The first image is a cat with characteristic ears, eyes and furry chin.  The second image is clearly a butterfly with narrow body, smiling face and wide wings superimposed on a sunrise.

The surprise is that these are the same image, simply rotated 180 degrees.  The art is similar in concept to the "ambigrams" popularized by the Dan Brown book and movie "Angels and Demons" - except that instead of the same images from just two directions, Noctra's work uses all possible angles, as well as images and words.

Copyright 2012, Delae C. Noctra, used with permission
Go to the Hydroliptic site - click on "See the Art" and check out the first panel: 32 Team Scramble.  There you will see Noctra's complex blending of text - and the other 3 samples show just a few of the possibilities of this unique style of art.  My favorite is unfortunately not shown online, as I understand that it is still a work in progress - but the art blends images of the human brain with words.  It is called "Neuro-minded," and I hope to someday have a print of it hanging in my office.

Noctra's first-ever gallery showing (discounting a couple of stealth gallery ambushes - this is his first official showing) is this Friday, Sept. 7, from 7-10 PM at the Woodland Moth Studio in Winston-Salem, NC.  If you are in Central NC, I highly recommend this showing.  Noctra has made masks for the kids featuring his cat/butterfly and will present the world debut of his 9/11 tribute - a 5 x 6 foot print featuring imagery of the World Trade Center Towers that reveals a different scene every 90 degrees of rotation.  I have seen it as an original in small format, and can assure readers that there are indeed 4 unique scenes (plus embedded symbology) that completely meld into the background of the other 3 scenes.

I plan to be there, and I will continue to report on the rise of this talented artist - in fact, I hope to convince him to bring his art to Science Fiction/Fantasy conventions throughout the Southeast.

Until next time - look carefully, and you will see what is really there!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dragon*Con After Action Reports [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I just returned from Dragon*Con.   It was 4.5 days of concentrated geekdom punctuated by some really good panels.

Given that I averaged 4 hours sleep per night since last Thursday, I need a bit of recharge time - thus the best way to stay current with the posting schedule is to devote a blog to each of the key panels in which I participated.  Writing those should be fairly quick and easy.


Well, starting Wednesday, to be precise.

Did I mention that I'm short of sleep and have to work tomorrow?

See you later!