Casper Reed Glickmann of Pawtucket, NJ asks:
When a road is flooded out, why do people keep driving into the water like idiots and getting washed away or (if they’re lucky) gently settling to the bottom? My neighbor got stuck, and he drives that road two times every day. Don’t people have any sense?
In a lot of cases, the answer to that last question is “no.” But more to the point, flood water is generally not at all transparent, and people are optimists, and they think if they drive really fast, then like Wile E. Coyote, they can get across before their car notices it isn’t on the road surface anymore and gloomily sinks. But mainly, they just don’t know how deep it is. Even if they could see the road, or if it’s a road they know well, the extremely flat angle at which they view it when they drive makes it hard to gauge the change in elevation. It’s often tough, in the absence of a temporary lake, to even tell which way a road slants. This is why generations of people keep paying good money to see “mystery spots” where things roll the “wrong” way. It’s an optical illusion, folks! Duh!
But never fear! I have an answer which is both practical and just. At strategic spots, we need road signs on the shoulder which are essentially a big ruler showing how deep the water is at the lowest point. It should be measured in meters, to punish those who haven’t bothered to learn the metric system. And in case the entire sign is underwater, there should be another, higher sign to let people know the water is ridiculous.
People will still drive into the water, of course. But only the ones who deserve to.
There’s a coffeeshop near my house where I go frequently. They know me there. They say “Hi, Tyler!” when I walk in. They know my usual order. I chat with them. They smile at me, I smile back.
Then I go into a store where nobody knows me. They smile anyway, because it’s their job to smile. I can see the insincerity of it. That smile is a lie. My first interaction with them when I walk in the door, is them lying to me. The store is trying to recreate the friendly feel of being a regular, recognized customer, and that’s not actually possible. People have enough common sense to know that the store employees are not personally invested in their happiness. Most people can tell a fake smile from a real smile, and a fake smile is offensive.
The same sort of thing happens when one calls (or chats with) customer support. Suppose it’s a phone call for something that you know good and well requires a person to fix. You jump through multiple hoops to get in the queue to talk to someone. You must hear your account status or whatever the hell, for thirty seconds, telling you things that you already knew and are not relevant to your problem, before it will accept any further input. There’s an interminable wait during which one is regaled with ads for additional services at tremendously high volume (loud advertising is more effective, apparently). Yes, you can turn down your phone volume — at the risk of not being able to hear them at all when you finally do get a person on the line. You have about three seconds, generally, before they decide you’ve gone away and hang up.
So, big faceless company. I’m having a problem with your service, so I’m already in a bad mood. Being shouted at for fifteen minutes to buy more services from the same people who are causing me this problem, will not improve my mood. The first interactions, before you reach a person, all demonstrate that the company is completely insensitive to your likely feelings and cares nothing about wasting your time.
And when you do reach someone? They are all solicitude. Oh, I’m sorry you had this problem. I’d be ecstatic with overwhelming joy to help you with this. Oh, that must be so frustrating!
You know what? I wasn’t nearly this upset when I started this call eighteen minutes ago. My frustration at the original problem is now eclipsed by my frustration with your support systems and the abysmal stupidity of your advertising. And again, you start out by lying to me, and it’s not even a plausible lie, so also you’re insulting my intelligence. Both I and the rep are perfectly aware that to them, this is a job. Their concern is to get you out of their hair as quickly as possible, preferably but not necessarily with a solution. They’re graded on their average call length, lower being better. But always, there is the obligatory period of insincere soothing to be gotten through before we can get down to business. If it’s a chat situation, the reps probably have a set of buttons or something to insert their stock statements of fake empathy.
You know what would soothe me fastest? Listen carefully as I describe the problem, and work efficiently to solve it. If you just don’t ask dumb questions, or suggest I do things I just told you I already did, or that obviously have no connection with the problem, this will be a highly satisfactory and quick interaction. Let’s be honest with each other, and let’s just get it done.
I’m not here to complain that faster than light travel is impossible, or telepathy, or that you can’t go back in time. All those are fun notions to play with and don’t detract from a good story.
I am here to complain about things that needlessly don’t make sense. Things that couldn’t happen because of simple logic, or economics, or the way people are. And science that’s so egregiously wrong that it’s unforgivable.
Dense asteroid belts
An asteroid belt or field or what have you, doesn’t contain so many asteroids that you have to dodge them. You will in fact have trouble finding them. Don’t tell me it’s a big universe and anything could be out there. If asteroids are so thick that they’re likely to bump into each other all the time, they’ll knock each other into different orbits, break up from the impacts, get more and more diffuse until you have something resembling the real kind of asteroid belt.
And no, that doesn’t mean that a “young” asteroid belt would be super dense before it got spread out. What conceivable event could fill a whole stellar orbit with a neat line of tumbling boulders? If something blew up, the pieces went in all directions. If it formed as a belt originally, it took millions of years and was diffuse to begin with.
Just don’t do it. Don’t. There’s no excuse. Find some other challenge for your characters.
Turning a person into a monster by altering DNA
Altering someone’s DNA doesn’t change their physical form once they’re already grown. DNA tells how to build a body, not how to remodel it. And if you could create special DNA to, say, dissolve bones and flesh and recreate them in a different way, it would take years to finish its work, not minutes.
If your plot hinges on high-tech societies not having cell phones, or having computers that are more difficult to use than the ones we have now, or information being expensive, you need a new plot.
Any social species needs to communicate easily, to record and locate information. Non-social species don’t develop technology because nobody is smart enough or has time enough to build complex devices from scratch on their own.
Ridiculously poor security
Nobody can break into any computer, or open any electronic lock, or break any encryption in a minute or less. Nobody would buy equipment with such crappy security.
Now, there are levels of security. Yes, your standard combination padlock isn’t hard to open if you know the trick. It’s good enough to secure a locker in a place where someone would be noticed if they stood there fiddling with the lock for two minutes or attacking it with a bolt cutter. But you wouldn’t use it as the only security for your bank vault.
Just so, the notion that you can have a device to fool any electronic lock by, essentially, trying all the combinations, is ludicrous. What designer of electronic locks wouldn’t deal with this eventuality by activating a silent alarm and ignoring all input for a period of time, or other measures to cause difficulties for someone who’s clearly trying to break in?
If you can think of an obvious way to make whatever stunt the attacker is trying to pull impossible, doesn’t it bother you that the security designers didn’t think of it? Aren’t you infuriated when someone has set up an acrobatic obstacle course of lasers and didn’t bother to put a goddamn infrared motion sensor at the end of the hallway?
One thing changes
It’s fifty years in the future and the future is just like today, except that there’s this one new invention. This is lazy and boring, and that’s not how it happens. In reality, everything changes all at once. Every new tool is immediately applied and misapplied by those unruly apes, usually for purposes involving entertainment and sex, but definitely for loads of things the designers never intended. People disagree on whether something is a good idea. Technology is never evenly distributed. Thirty thousand other new things are coming out at the same time, and people combine them. They don’t use Amazon buttons to order things from Amazon: they hack them and use them to control electrical outlets in their smart house.
Humanity goes all in
Someone develops a new thing and everyone adopts it, then it turns out to be a disaster and they are all doomed. Doooooomed!!! Usually, it was an evil plot all along.
Really? Name one thing in the history of everything that people have ever unhesitatingly and uncritically adopted. Haven’t pried into, subverted, made up conspiracy theories about, refused to participate in, developed countermeasures to, developed alternate ways to do the same thing.
Failing to understand human nature is worse than failing to get the details of the science right. Nobody much cares whether antigravity is technically possible. They do care if characters behave unrealistically, including not only the protagonists, but the society. If the people behave so much more simply and consistently than real people do, the story seems shallow, lazy. These aren’t real people and we don’t care about them.
In the do-it-yourself department, I just posted a page explaining how to build a standing-up computer desk. This the one I’ve been using for some time, and I’m very happy with it, so I thought I’d share. Comments, complaints, etc. welcomed.
In honor of my recent visit to Reptile Gardens in Rapid City SD, I give you this giant lizard poem.
The Lizard Shelter
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.
Bring only what you need, round up the beasts.
Can’t find the cat; I hope she’ll be okay.
I’m sure that they’ll be here by end of day.
I feel the rumble, see dust in the east
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.
They’ll stop to make our cornfields their buffet.
Our beans and beets and wheat will be their feast.
Where’s the damn cat? I hope she’ll be okay.
In this strong concrete bunker we will stay
The roof supports a hundred tons at least.
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.
There’s lots of water, games that we can play,
There everything we need till we’re released.
Can’t find the kitty? Well, she’ll be okay.
Forgot something? Too late, we’re locked away.
Should our insurance maybe be increased?
Chickens are restless – lizards on the way.
Can’t find the cat; she’s probably okay.
- Thursday,12:30pm: Robot Liability Issues
- Thursday, 2:00pm: Science Tropes that Just Won’t Die
- Thursday, 3:30pm: E-books and the Marketplace
- Thursday, 8:30pm: Why Are There No Sexy Mummies?
- Friday, 11:00am: Are There Any Original Ideas Anymore?
- Friday, 3:30pm: Building Worlds for Fiction
- Saturday, 5:00pm: Best Young Adult Series
I don’t like my stuff to go out of print. So when I noticed that an issue of Stupefying Stories that contained one of my stories was no longer available from Amazon.com, I decided that would be a good opportunity to do the self-publishing experiment that I’ve been considering. I didn’t have anything else that would go with it, so I published it in its own very slim digital volume, at minimum price. It’s available from the following sources:
Dear Tyler (writes Dan The Man Williamson III of Duluth MN),
I recently inherited a time machine, and I’d like to use it to indulge my passion for novel gourmet cookery. I have access to a range of now extinct ingredients, but my problem is that I don’t know which things are edible, how to prepare them, or what they combine well with. Can you help? Is there a cookbook?
First, congratulations on obtaining a time machine. They’re worlds of fun and very useful. I don’t know of any time travel cookbooks offhand, and of course we’re talking such a wide range of ingredients that you’d need a whole shelf of books, at least. I’m not a chrononaut myself, but one does pick up some things by eavesdropping at science fiction conventions. So there’s lore, but nobody has codified it. This might be a good project for you to undertake, given your interest in the subject.
The field of intertemporal gourmet cooking is so vast it’s hard to know where to start. There are so many ingredients available in different times and places, and such a tiny percentage have been tried, that it’s a daunting project. I do think it’s time to make a start, though. Anything you come out with will probably be eagerly snapped up by other time-traveling gourmands. So, again, not an expert, but here’s what I’ve heard.
If you’re talking historical times, the ground is already pretty well covered, since you just have to find a book of the traditional cuisine of the region you’re visiting. These abound, so you’ll probably want to concentrate on prehistory.
There are some recipes already being passed around in the time-traveling community, so if you get the word out, people will probably send you some (feel free to comment here, folks!). Also, you might let folks know that you want ingredients to try out. There’s not much of an established market yet for this stuff, which of course is part of what makes it exciting. You’re not going to kill a whole woolly mammoth just for yourself, but if someone’s planning to bring one down you could sign up to buy parts (which is mostly how they finance those expeditions) — but you have to hear about it first. I’ve found people are usually glad to bring things back if you can tell them exactly what you want, preferably with a picture, and they don’t have to go out of their way for it, and it’s not too heavy (if it’s more than 10 kg or so, you might offer to help pay for the electricity to transport it). Keep a list of the times and places you’re interested in, so that when you find out someone’s planned coordinates, you’ll know what to ask them to bring back. Oh, and be prepared to return the favor!
One problem: unless you find a specialist in a particular milieu, it’s hard to get enough information about the local ingredients to assemble a whole meal from what’s available locally, that goes well together. And, many recipes have been refined through centuries of experiment; even if you know the local ingredients well, it takes a genius chef to take a bunch of new flavors and make them work together as anything but a novelty dish.
That’s why, if you have a prehistoric ingredient, it’s much easier to find a pleasing combination of it with modern ingredients. Many existing chicken, duck or pheasant recipes adapt nicely to some of the smaller dinosaurs, for instance. I haven’t had it myself, but I hear Thescelosaurus a l’orange is a treat.
So, I suggest you focus on recipes that mix conventional foodstuffs with just one or two prehistoric ingredients. If you’ve actually done any time traveling you’ve probably heard of some of the better known ones, e.g.:
- Eoraptor eggs: Some people like the yolk, some find it kind of rank. In either case, the white makes a wonderful stiff meringue.
Get them as fresh as you can — older than three days, forget it, might as well use chicken eggs.
- Leptocycas leaves: Flavorful but tough — steam until wilty, serve with pork or eohippus (if you can find some that’s not too gamy).
- Palaeostachya cones: Boil 30 minutes, discard the outside and eat the soft center, like an artichoke. Slightly sweet. With lemon butter.
- And the cuts of meat, megatherium flank steaks and so on, which mostly work well in recipes that involve their modern relatives.
Extinct spices are also a good area for culinary exploration. Sap from some old varieties of maple tree (I forget which but someone will know) makes a very nice sugar with tangy-resinous undertones (that might not sound particularly appetizing but you just have to try it). Dried ground Pachytheca has a sharp flavor that goes well with garlic and red meat (perhaps those Megatherium steaks).
I guess the nicest part of working on a book like that is having an excuse to try out all the recipes. Otherwise it’s hard to justify the expense of getting some of the ingredients.
Good luck, and don’t forget to always leave a note telling when and where you’ve gone to! Safety first!
Doctor Dead is now available on Amazon in both print and e-book editions (for anyone who might have been waiting for the digital version). The current deal is for a free e-book when you buy the print version.
From early feedback, I have learned that this book is enjoyable by young persons, nurses, first cousins of the author, and mothers-in-law.
Friday, March 6:
3:00-3:50 pm. The Curmudgeon Panel. VII White Pelican
5:00-5:50 pm. Marketing Your eBook. Room 419 (Krushenko’s)
Saturday, March 7:
12:00-12:50 p.m. When Robots do Everything, What Will People do? III Eagle’s Nest (Re(a)d Mars)
9:00-9:50 pm. Hero Support: Sidekicks and Minions. III Eagle’s Nest (Re(a)d Mars)