June Comics Roundup

I read a lot of comics this month, none of them particularly exciting or amazing.  Here’s a quick summary.

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Phonogram: Rue Britannia The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen

Meant to be a funny riff on superteams, Nextwave was moderately funny, but suffered from the boundaries it put on Warren Ellis’ delightful (but usually debauched) sense of humor.  A good effort in the context of Marvel, but The Authority (also by Ellis) and The Boys (by Garth Ennis) are better yanks on the same chain.

Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

I don’t really know what to make of this comic.  Gillen and McKelvie craft a world where music fandom can, in certain people, be a source of magical power.  What they use that power for is unclear to me, though.  Mostly to fight with one another about how to get more musical magic power.  The story and art are solid in Rue Britannia, but this is really a comic about music, and your interest in (and love of) British music will probably determine how much you like this comic.

The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century by Dash Shaw

A collection of comics, storyboards, and other detritus inspired by or informing Shaw’s IFC show of the same name (which I have not seen).  There are little gems that work really well in this comic, particularly the moments of narrative that fold back on themselves and re-imagine earlier segments in new ways.  That said, this isn’t a complete story so much as, well, detritus from Shaw’s show.  I would be interested to see what a more careful narrative from Shaw would look like, but this itself didn’t do much for me.

 

Green Lantern: Secret Origin Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns Green Lantern: Blackest Night

Green Lantern: Secret Origin
Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns
Green Lantern: Blackest Night
by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis

I am not adequately prepared to review these books, as I am definitely not the target audience.  The expectation is, to my mind, that you will be thoroughly versed in Green Lantern-ania before you start.

At its heart, the Green Lantern story is just plain weird.  The whole premise of a wish-fulfilling ring that manifests the will of the user and becomes stronger when the user is fearless already hurts my head.  But then add in that the ring is some kind of interstellar supercomputer and that the user is part of a galactic police force and you’re in deep.  A friend recommended the Johns Green Lanterns and I will agree that they’re intricate and interesting, carefully-plotted and built into a crescendo.  But as a neophyte to Green Lantern, only the Secret Origin part was very accessible, and even that has a lot of inside baseball, so-to-speak.  But Rage of the Red Lanterns, in which all sorts of other lantern colors appear, and Blackest Night, which appears to be Green Lantern’s version of Marvel Zombies, are both so dense with already established characters and multiple plots that I was doing my best to hold on through the many permutations of good and bad, multi-colored rings, and never ending intergalactic fistfights.

Two other ideas about this reading experience come to mind.  First, I’m reminded of my sordid attempts to read Batman comics as written by Grant Morrison.  Inscrutable.  Second, I imagine my bewilderment echoing in the minds of all the poor souls who decided, this year, that they would check out True Blood for the first time.

…until then, if the man says Tahiti is in Europe, it is.

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.”  Here’s what I found.

Photograph from a series depicting the sinking of RMS TAHITI
Photograph from a series depicting the sinking of RMS TAHITI

Five points if you know from to which movie my subject line refers.

Seems a little fishy to me: Amazon and the non-DRM Kindle book

Yesterday, I posted a review of the techno-thriller Now & Again from E.A. Fournier.  Toward the end of the review, I wrote that it wasn’t possible to buy a “non-DRM” ebook version, and Mr. Fournier rightly corrected me that his book is offered without DRM from the Kindle store.  As someone who follows these issues, I was surprised to learn that Amazon offered that option — it’s been part of the common conversation about Amazon and DRM that they have been holding the line against open books.  I’m glad to see that changing.

"Eliminate DRM sign" by Anirvan
“Eliminate DRM sign” by Anirvan

So I did some searching around to see what I could learn about DRM-free ebooks from Amazon.   I found this post on Defective by Design, an anti-DRM site.

How do I tell if a Kindle ebook has DRM?

At first, all Kindle ebooks had DRM. However, now there are some offered that are DRM-free. We want to be careful to only tag the DRMed ebooks as defective. Of course, Amazon does not make this easy. Some publishers will include DRM-free in their name, such as “Candlewick DRM-free”. Otherwise, in the product details section, look for a line that says “Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited”. That indicates an ebook which does not have DRM. (“Amazon Kindle Swindle“)

I checked and Now & Again does, indeed, include the “Simultaneous Device Useage” indicator.  I also looked at some ebooks published by separate publishing houses and found the “DRM-free” bit in the name of the publisher.  This is a promising start, for sure!  It leads me to two questions and one observation:

Can Amazon remotely delete a non-DRM’d ebook, as they infamously did with Orwell’s 1984?  I looked around for a few minutes and can’t find anything to indicate one way or the other.  I’d be interested to know if these books are watermarked or otherwise tracked by Amazon.  ( I don’t have a problem with it if they are as long as the watermark doesn’t inhibit the use of the file at all — I think watermarking is a good middle solution, at least allowing the vendor to track the means by which their copies are getting into the open.)

I’m also curious to know if the “non-DRM” form of the ebook is actually unrestricted.  In other words, it’s not a crime for me to convert a .doc to a .pdf right now, because the technology necessary to do so doesn’t involve breaking open DRM.  When Amazon says its book is “non-DRM,” is it really an open, unrestricted format that could be converted without violating the DMCA, or is it a faux-free version that’s free to copy but not convert?**  This issue matters because free-to-copy-but-not-convert would be a big step in helping maintain Amazon’s Kindle stranglehold on the ebook market, and would still act to restrain the other lawful activity one should be able to pursue with purchased goods (due to the first-sale doctrine).***

Last, I notice that the overall marketing space of the Kindle and Amazon still avoids any mention of the DRM issue.  Even ebooks where the author explicitly selected “No DRM” are not marked that way, but are rather marked as shareable across all devices, which is not the same thing at all.  And publisher-created ebooks get even less notice regarding their DRM status.   Amazon seeks, here, to minimize the DRM conversation itself.  They don’t want people thinking about DRM at all, particularly not if it means seeing a difference in value between the ebooks they buy from publishers and the ones they buy from self-published authors.  The latter “just” have an extra option to use across all devices at the same time.  It’s nothing, really.

** I apologize if I’ve not explained the nuances of this argument well enough.  I’ll take one more stab at it, just in case.  The issue has to do with what’s allowed versus what’s legal. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to break security schemes on software or hardware.  If you wanted to convert your conventional DRM Kindle eBook to another format, you would need to use special software to do so, and you would be breaking the law.  My question is, have the “non-DRM” Kindle books actually been opened up so they can be copied, converted, and so on without violating the DMCA, or have they just been unlocked from the specific limitation of multiple device use as indicated on the product specifications page?

*** All this hedging aside, I’m optimistic that these really are good DRM-free ebooks.  I am inclined to think Defective by Design would be calling them out on it if these weren’t really DRM free.

Now & Again, by E. A. Fournier

Now and Again by EA Fournier
Now and Again by EA Fournier

Now & Again: a novel by E.A. Fournier*

E.A. Fournier’s novel begins with the story of a bereaved father and son who have just lost the mother in their family, but quickly becomes a science-fiction action-adventure story involving quantum computers, multiverse theory, and nanotechnology.  I hesitate to offer more in the way of plot description because I’d hate to spoil the inventive story.  A few thoughts:

  • Fournier’s work brims with descriptions that provide solid, strong visuals without getting too verbose.  The action is clear and well-described, and the novel’s pace is quick.The science-fiction concepts emerge with just the right amount of science hand-waving to allow the story to continue, but without spending so much time on the fiddly bits that we get bored or suspicious.  Like a good SF action film, we believe the tech because Fournier doesn’t lean too hard on it.  At the same time, this means the threat that emerges in the second half of the novel isn’t really explained very well.  It’s a big bad, but we don’t know where it came from or why it’s there.
  • Josh and Kendall are admirable characters, with clear motivations and strong personalities.  Many of the other characters don’t get the room to breathe that they should — the novel’s biggest flaw is that its action doesn’t allow the room to flesh out the minor characters thoroughly enough.
  • This also means that the villains seethe with a melodramatic villainy like a Clive Cussler novel.  The most complicated minor character is the lead scientist Everett.  Fournier makes clever use of the multiverse idea to develop different aspects of the character in different timelines.  It’s a clever solution to the limited space he’s able to give the character.
  • One of my favorite ideas (Minor spoiler ahead) is the notion that if we figured out a way to look at other multiverse threads, we would make the most of it by copying all their technological inventions.  Our technology would move forward at the fastest rate.

Overall, Now & Again is an enjoyable read, a solid action adventure story with a low-key SF angle.  Worth your time, particularly for fans of techno thrillers.  Now & Again is available from Amazon as a Kindle book or a paperback POD book.  At present it looks like the book is unavailable in other eBook forms, so if you value buying the book in a non-DRM form, you may have to order the paper copy.  (Mr Fournier informs me that the Kindle edition is DRM free. My error.)

*Full disclosure: I received this book for free as a review copy, and I am friends with one of the author’s sons.

Tweets from 2013-06-17 to 2013-06-23

We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

This is the fourth in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.

Pre-reading:

In Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I reflected on the challenges facing the institution of university education in the Age of Electracy.  Like the industries I explored in part 1, the University must reconceive its project if it is to survive in the new era, and more importantly, if it is to remain valuable to the students it educates.

What we are not:

One thing we need to consider is the way Electracy has changed what we do.  In the era of high literacy, we offered access to knowledge, both physically (with our tremendous storehouses of information) and mentally (by teaching the skills and offering pathways through that knowledge).  While the second half still holds somewhat, the first half has become increasingly irrelevant.  While our function as a museum might still hold in some way, that’s very different from being an institution of learning.  We are not a repository of knowledge.

In the past fifty years since the G.I. bill sent so many middle- and lower-middle class men to college, we have seen a significant rise in our credentialing function.  The past few decades have seen a cultural shift in which these degrees are, more than ever, gateways to basic middle class job opportunities.  As such, we’ve gotten into the business of authorizing entry into that class, but the value we purport to guarantee has not stayed consistent in the public’s mind.  More and more people see the degree not as an assemblage of learning but as a piece of paper that lets them apply for jobs.  As such, alternate (less expensive) forms of credentialing have emerged in place of our expensive credentialing.  We are not a credential granting body.

What we should do:

Those of us who value university learning understand that a good education means more than that piece of paper, it represents an array of skills and problem-solving abilities hard-won over the course of several years of study.  More and more, it’s crucial that we focus on providing students with those skills and helping them understand the skillsets they maintain.  As a professor in the humanities, this challenges me because our skill tools are difficult to measure and slow to emerge.  We hear from students how the work they do with us comes back in a year or two to augment their later work with others.  But we need to think about how to frame the education we do through the public utilitarian lens.  I’m not suggesting that we move toward quantifying our output, but that an articulated sense of the practical results students gain from working with us is valuable and important.

We need to continue jettisoning the antiquated idea of the professor as distant lecturer/expert or imparter-of-sacred-knowledge.  The aspect of our work that does not scale up is the personal, the individual attention to personal learning and guidance with an expert.  It’s in this guise that I think we offer the best learning to our students and the means by which we transition toward an Electrate model of education.

Finally, we need to reconsider how we take advantage of intrinsic motivation across the whole of the student experience.  It’s cliche to say we need to revise the very basic premises on which we educate students in this country, but as an instructor I feel strongly that we must do just that.

We have a long way to go, but I think the fact that so many smart people are already thinking about this stuff (see part 1 for my inspirations/ sources/ informants) is a very encouraging situation.

Wait a second, which one of these is the good person? Scandal, sns 1 and 2

Scandal
Scandal

Scandal didn’t strike me as the kind of show I would normally like.  Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show looks like a soap opera with a political background.  And it is.  But it’s also pretty compelling in many ways.

The show focuses on Olivia Pope and Associates, an organization of fixers who work to help political clients deal with news fallout.  They fashion themselves as white-hat gladiators, working to help people who deserve it.  The two things that made me want to watch it were: 1) Jenny thought I would like it (a high value recommendation, for sure); 2) it has Joshua Molina, an actor I have enjoyed since his days on Sports Night.  A few thoughts about the first two seasons of the show:

  • The show puts a lot of stock in the romance between Olivia and the President (who is married to another woman), and regularly reverts to sexy sex scenes between the two.  These are, I’ll admit, pretty sexy.  But overall I find their behavior juvenile and annoying, and as this is the main driver for many plot aspects of the show, it’s a pretty big negative.
  • I like the side characters a lot–particularly Huck, the socially awkward maven who can do anything related to spycraft but also has a mean streak.  Each of the side characters has their own darkness and benefits, and these are far more interesting to me than is Olivia’s doomed love for President Fitz.
  • Like many soap operas, (or like Alias, to which this show owes a strong debt), villains and heroes slip in and and out of favor with shocking frequency.  As we think about each character, the water gets muddied and we must struggle with the question of whom to root for (Everyone has their dirty.  Well, almost everyone).
  • One core idea at the heart of the show that gets very little introspection (though it isn’t completely ignored) is the idea that a secret network of influence and power in Washington controls much of what happens, and that the public-facing aspect has little importance.  Narratively, this is a key idea as it gives the characters something to do.  In the real world, even as it is likely true, it’s a real bummer of an idea.  Especially because any characters in the show who try to peel back that layer of corruption ends up dead.
  • The show establishes a great rhythm, often ending on a cliffhanger.  For a while, I was watching episodes in pieces — I would watch the last 30 minutes of an episode and 15 of the next, so as to minimize the desire to just watch the next episode, and the next, and the next.  Etc.

Scandal trades on the X-Files model, which depends on a good balance between single episode stories and long arcs with consequences for the characters.  Like X-Files, it also has been building layer upon layer of conspiracy which could very well undermine the big payoff we always hope for in a story like this.  We’ll see what happens in season 3.

 

 

Who you callin’ sooty?

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.” Here’s what I found.

East Island, June 12, 1966.
East Island, June 12, 1966.

These are Sooty Terns, FYI.

Punctuation matters: establishing your ethos (or failing to)

Like many writing and rhetoric instructors, I focus a lot of energy on helping students wrestle with the concept of ethos, the image, reputation, and authority the author presents on her own behalf to the reader.  This concept becomes most important as we discuss two issues writers must face: proper grammar and citations.

With citations, we discuss the reason for using sources (to gain authority for the author by showing that the writing reflects ideas already established by others) and then explore the value of sources by disreputable or anonymous authors (very little). Sources without their own established authority do not provide any value to the author of the piece, and are thus far less useful than valuable sources.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
What we have here is a failure to communicate

With grammar, we discuss the effect we make on our readers.  I often use the analogy of wearing nice clothes to a job interview, even one for somewhere that doesn’t require nice clothes for its staff.  Wearing nice clothes shows a specific attitude, an approach to the interview that shows not just enthusiasm, but a knowledge of the practices of interviewing (and thus inclusion in the body of people who know how to act in a workplace).   Grammar plays a similar role.

All of this came to mind as I read this brief passage in a larger piece from PZ Myers about a recent creationist rant directed his way:

I must also mention that his habit of capitalizing the binomial name is a bit irritating. We teach a class in science writing here that hammers on a lot of the scientific conventions, and we literally tell our students that one of the first signs you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know basic biology is that they get the punctuation wrong. (“I’m a professional ‘biologist’ “)

My democratic impulse is to suggest that one’s knowledge of proper nomenclature in biology isn’t relevant to one’s argument about the facts of biology, in the same way that one’s knowledge of how to interview does not reflect on one’s work ethic or ability to learn how to use a cash register.  But both issues play to the same question — do you know the basic rules of the game? If not, many people are going to discount what you say because you obviously don’t belong.

As social animals, we divide into a multitude of sub-groups, and one’s ethos in each group gets shaped by one’s ability to speak the dialect (or act the part) of that group.  Of course, the limitations of those sub-groups often overlap inequities in our culture and hide harmful prejudices, so we mustn’t imagine that rhetorical biases justify discrimination.  But we must be aware that they influence ethos.

Game Night

I’ve been playing a lot of board games lately, a product of both the growing age of my children and my recent acquisition of some board-gaming buddies who play every week.  I’ve decided I’ll start tweeting game nights, but also will write about the games a little bit.

Betrayal at House on the Hill Betrayal at House on the Hill

Battlestar Galactica

I’ve played the BSG board game twice so far, and both times I was an incompetent Cylon.  One time I just didn’t understand the strategy, the other time I made a tactical blunder that revealed my villainy at the first possible opportunity.  Gah!  Oh well, I almost won anyway.    It’s a fun game, but has lots of rules and is probably more fun with a group of seasoned players than with newbies like me.  It’s also fun to say things like “Damn toasters!”

Betrayal at the House on the Hill

This is a fun game that shifts gears mid-stream and gains a different outcome each time.  It’s a good group game, but the end varies widely depending on the goals the players need.  In our case, the players needed to get to a central space with two objects and I needed to kill them.  I made one tactical error, but really I was hampered by the board, which did not give me the opportunity to protect the space like I wanted to, and the two objects they needed were already on the board.  Alas, they won in short order.  If I’m not careful, I’ll soon acquire the title of #Lamest

The Walking Dead (two board games, one based on the comic, one based on the television show)

I had fun playing these games, particularly the one based on the comic, which has a bit more strategy and a more interesting board to work from.  I won’t say too much more about that, but instead encourage you to look for Paul Booth’s forthcoming essay on the subject.

Cthulhu Dice

A fun palate cleanser, the limited game actions and intense dependence on luck make this less fun than its sibling game, Zombie dice.

What would you put on a Road Trip playlist?

Family Truckster
The Family Truckster

We’re taking the Great Family Road Trip this summer for two and a half weeks in July, so we can expect to spend plenty of time in the car with the kids.  Consequently, I’m putting together a few playlists — one for us when the kids are watching movies, one for the whole family, etc.

As an artificial barrier, I’m making these playlists no more than 60 minutes.  Just cuz.

What would you put on your Road Trip playlists?

It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.

Pre-reading:

Monkey with glasses
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy.  In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion.  These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers.  By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.

At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model.  I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.

1. Lectures, information, and syllabi

For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.”  We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests.  Hopefully some of it sticks.  This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied.  Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.

The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity.  Information is no longer rare.  It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed.  On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either.  A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.

As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time.  For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.

2. Convenience

It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study.  They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.

Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon.  And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.

But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.

3. Credentialling

The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist.  By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer.  As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well.  Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future.  Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.

These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions.  As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.

In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.

Read more: We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

Then put your little hand in mine, there ain’t no mountain we can’t climb: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Replay
Replay

Replay by Ken Grimwood

It’s human nature to wonder whether our lives would have turned out differently if we had made different choices.  What if you had stayed together with that old flame?  What if you’d chosen a different career path? Children? No Children?  Grimwood’s novel takes such questions to a new level with its central premise, following a man who dies and “replays” his life from a single moment twenty-five years earlier, over and over again.  A few thoughts:

  • In any novel built on a single core premise, the execution of that premise has to be thoughtful and thorough.  Grimwood accomplishes both masterfully.  The elements of the world necessary to make his replay possible play out perfectly, the explanations appear when they need to, are found by the characters when they must, and are left at times tantalizingly unresolved.
  • Grimwood also balances the narrative with new elements, keeping the reader involved by adding new aspects to the story just when the reader starts to feel like they understand it all.  Another novel based on a premise that adds twists at just the right moment is The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas.
  • I think the novel tackles the question of age-fatigue very well.  Of course, when someone lives dozens or hundreds of years longer than everyone else, they will develop a different view of the world, both more weary and more wise.  Winston finds a kind of truth in his search for meaning over several lives, and as we go along with him, we develop a similar wisdom.  I’m reminded of the sanguine long-lived characters in several SF novels like Accelerando, Schismatrixand the debauched villains in Altered Carbon.
  • The biggest flaw I noticed is the lack of uncontrolled negative experiences.  Sure, Winston endures his share of heartache and bad choices, but the novel never burdens him with the random tragedies that many people experience and one would expect to emerge eventually in the experience of multiple lifetimes.
  • Like Groundhog Day, the solitude of repeating leads Winston to develop an internal peace, a sense of purpose we all hope for (at least, those of us who encourage and believe in liberal arts education), and wisdom.  With decades to relive instead of just a day, Grimwood’s protagonist gets to make choices with consequences, a far different experience than Phil in Groundhog Day, a man trapped in a single small town for a single day.

Last, the novel adopts a view of time-travel that’s too narrow for my taste.  Throughout his lives, Winston makes choices that would have ripple effects on those around them, but in Grimwood’s story, those ripples dampen pretty fast.  Only the biggest of moves have long-term consequences for people outside Winston’s immediate circle.  I suppose it feels realistic, but it’s disappointing.  I guess I like to imagine that we have more effect on outcomes than Grimwood thinks we do.

You need lots of supplies at Barbeque time.

This month, I searched the Flickr commons for photos with the keyword word “Ocean.” Here’s what I found.

(2) H-46's above ocean NHHS Photo
(2) H-46’s above ocean NHHS Photo

Great, another thing to worry about in the cold dark of the middle of the night.

Solar Flare on a distant sun
Oops! Were you using that planet? Sorry.

Years ago I saw the Discovery channel (or was it SyFy?) movie Super Volcano and added a fear of a massive North American purge in the wake of a Yellowstone eruption to my worry-list.  I read Simon Winchester’s Crack at the Edge of the World  about the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco and learned that there is a large fault–mostly dormant–in southern Illinois that could certainly send an earthquake toward Chicago, where none of our buildings are built with earthquakes in mind.

It’s happened again: Solar flares.

Randall Munroe’s latest What If knocks it out of the park with the most-common of physics questions, “what would happen if the sun suddenly went out?”  Among his answers — our children and fighter pilots would be safer.  Most of them are funny.  But this one is downright terrifying, to my mind:

Reduced risk of solar flares: In 1859, a massive solar flare and geomagnetic storm hit the Earth.[1] Magnetic storms induce electric currents in wires. Unfortunately for us, by 1859 we had wrapped the Earth in telegraph wires. The storm caused powerful currents in those wires, knocking out communications and in some cases causing telegraph equipment to catch fire.[2]

Since 1859, we’ve wrapped the Earth in a lot more wires. If the 1859 storm hit us today, the Department of Homeland Security estimates the economic damage to the US alone would be several trillion dollars[3]—more than every hurricane which has ever hit the US combined.[4] If the Sun went out, this threat would be eliminated.

Improved satellite service: When a communications satellite passes in front of the Sun, the Sun can drown out the satellite’s radio signal, causing an interruption in service.[5] Deactivating the Sun would solve this problem. (“Sunless Earth“)

In case the prospect of a massive electrical surge that destroys everything with wires in it doesn’t frighten you, the photo above was taken by the Hubble space telescope of a distant star where the solar flare was so massive that if it had come from our sun, it would have extinguished life on Earth.  But our sun is stable and doesn’t do that, NASA says.

Sure it doesn’t.