A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, January 25, 2021

In the Belly of the Whale: Role Call

 An excerpt from In the Belly of the Whale, a novel-in-progress, can be found on the book and story preview page, linked on the left. It is one of a series of vignettes introducing various characters. These characters may or may not make it into the final draft.

A new excerpt has been posted at the same link.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Ancestor hunting.

Ancestor hunting is not for the faint of heart, and the further back one goes, the scantier the clues that come to hand. Even the Absolute Monarchs of the Enlightenment did not think to keep track of their subjects in as much detail as the modern Scientific State. If they sought you out at all, it was only for tax purposes, in which case the name of the ratepayer and the acreage occupied was sufficient unto. Vital statistics were the provenance of the churches. Compare, for example, the data scraped for the 1790 Census to that of the 1940 Census. 

But as Aristotle recommended, you start with the more certain and better known and proceed toward the less certain and lesser known.

Mary McGovern Cantrel, my grandmother's mother, had parents named as Matthew McGovern and Catherine Dolan on her death certificate, where it was further stated that she was born in Co. Cavan,Ireland, on 6 Aug 1856. . Lewis' Topographical Dictionary states that the "Kingdom of Glan" in Cavan was inhabited by "a primitaive race of McGoverns and Dolans" who intermarried and made moonshine whiskey.The barony of Tullyhaw in which these lands lay was co-extensive with the kingdom of the ancient McGaurans. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Be Afraid; Be Very Afraid. Please.

"[T]he whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."
-- H.L.Mencken

 "Never let a crisis go to waste."
-- Saul Alinsky

Psychology Today has told us that "a moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society." It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media." Such a panic does not mean that that there is nothing to worry about. There really were Stalinist agents in the US Government when Joe McCarthy rose to denounce them. (We know this because the fall of the USSR led to many files becoming public -- for a while -- and names were named.) But the panic sets in when people begin to see Russians behind every tapestry or potted plant. It is the panic, rather than a rational caution or skepticism, that leads to overblown responses.

Per Wikipedia, the concept of moral panic was laid out by Stanley Cohen in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Paladin, 1973). He studied public reaction to 1964 clashes in the UK between rival youth groups called “mods” and “rockers”during holiday weekends at beaches in Southern England. From these clashes -- and the media and public response to them -- he developed a social theory of moral panic comprising five sequential stages:

  1. An event, condition, episode or person is defined as a threat to the values, safety and interest of the wider society.
  2. The media then amplifies these apparent threats through inflammatory rhetoric These portrayals appeal to public prejudices, creating villains in need of social control (folk devils) and victims (the moral majority).
  3. The publicity surrounding the threat creates a sense of social anxiety leading to a public outpouring of concern.
  4. Government then responds to the public outcry and frames the alleged threat as being symptomatic of a wider social malaise that must be addressed.
  5. The moral panic and the responses to it transform the regulation of economy and society with the aim of tempering public outrage.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The World of 1820

We have previously glanced at the worlds of 1920 and 1870. Leaping now a further fifty years back, takes us to 1820 and the alien world of Jane Austen. Virtually nothing of the modern exists. People travel by stage coach, not railroad. Canal barges and bleeding are the latest in high tech. For longer distances, there are frigates and schooners. (Between now and 1870, railroads, steamships, and the electromagnetic telegraph will transform life, not least by allowing information to travel faster than a courier on horseback.) A new kind of blast furnace is about to revolutionize iron-making, hence making rails and bridges, and kick-starting an "industrial revolution." But the British Admiralty has rejected a new-fangled electrostatic telegraph on the grounds that flashing mirrors and relay towers (solar-powered telegraphy, or heliography) is perfectly adequate. At least when the sun shines. We might call the 1820-1870 era the fuse that lit the explosion of 1870-1920. For now, the world is solar and wind powered.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020


 I used to get email notifications of comments on these posts. For some reason that has stopped, and I haven't figured out how to restart it.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Putting On My Top Hat

Politics these days seem based more on feelz than on thoughts. Now that the shouting is over -- Biden won, so there are no mobs raging in the street -- and the only sound is the high-pitched whine of a well-known Narcissist. TOF thought to take a moment to review the awful simple-mndedness of standard political thought; to wit, the Left-Right spectrum.

Catastrophe Theory was devised by topologist Rene Thom to model situations where stable behavior suddenly flips to chaotic behavior (and vice versa). These surfaces have been used to model such diverse phenomena as the collapse of nations, the buckling of a beam, the binging of anorexia, the flight/fight of animals, boiling of liquids, et al. According to his Fundamental Theorem, there are seven elementary catastrophe surfaces, classified by the number of independent variables and the number of dependent variables. The behavior of a system governed by a potential function converges to an equilibrium surface, the manifold dM. The bends of folds of this manifold describe the varied behaviors of the system.

Back in the 70s, E. C. Zeeman applied the cusp model to political ideologies. The two parameters were A economic (opportunity versus equality) and B political (the rights of the individuals versus the rights of the group). The state space was a “cloud of points” representing the opinions of the individuals in the society. (These are measurable, at least in theory, by opinion polling.) The cloud was embedded topologically in a one-dimensional space, Y, which turned out to be the traditional left-to-right political spectrum. Zeeman‘s catastrophe surface shows why this simple line really has a complex “anatomy”.  

 An authoritarian left regime that moves toward economic opportunity without opening up politically is liable to snap suddenly to an authoritarian right regime. But if it moves first toward political freedom, it can transition gradually to an open economy. As a society moves smoothly around the parameter space (AxB at bottom) its equlibrium state moves about on the manifold above. For each position in parameter space there is a single unique state on the manifold... Until the society enters the bifurcation set (triangular region) where there are two equilibrium states. Inertia keeps it on the original sheet until it exits the bifurcation set on the opposite side. The original equilibrium vanishes and, governed by the potential function, snaps rapidly to the other equilibrium.

Projecting the surface dM onto the AY and BY planes reveals why dictatorships of the left and the right resemble each other so closely, and why right-wing populists often sound like left-wingers. It also shows why some social changes must be revolutionary; and why one-party states frequently develop left and right wings within the Party. 

In 2016, both "tea party" activists and "occupy movement" activists made the same diagnosis of America's ills: viz., the government was controlled by "oligarchs." However, they differed in their solutions. The one wanted to give the government more power (to be wielded, one supposes, by those self-same oligarchs), while the other wanted to elect a junior varsity oligarch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

In the Belly of the Whale

 TOF has begun working on a new Novel, if you will pardon the redundancy. It is set upon a generation ship traveling toward Tau Ceti at sublight speed. It will be set about 14 or 15 generations into the voyage, when the original constitution of the Whale's society is beginning to crack. By this I don't mean a written Constitution, though there is one, but more like how the society is constituted. What follows is a very rough draft of the Introduction. It's final version may differ considerably, depending on how things go from here. I'm thinking it will be an omniscient narrator and perhaps interleaved chapter of different kinds. We shall see.

Faint beneath the azure sky twilight bells do peal
Midst ruins where their echoes tone:
We were real. We were real.  We were real.  
As once they were, when life enfleshed these bones
And they fared forth to find what stars conceal.

        – Méarana Harper, Bailéad an Domhain Terra.


All this happened a great long time ago, by which we mean not only that it was long ago but also that it was great. It was an age of drama and romance. People dared greatly and they failed greatly. At times, they even achieved greatly. This is the story of one of their achievements. As well as one of their failures, as they are often the same.

They called the ship “The Whale” both because it was large and because it was destined for Tau Ceti. It was one of those dreams that they dreamed greatly. The Whale was built from a hollowed-out asteroid to provide spacious habitation for the travelers. Its manifold decks were stocked with all manner of good things: with power and light; with gravity plates; with water and air meticulously recycled; and with plants and animals (both manifest and eminent). The voyageurs needed an ecosystem entire to sustain them, for this journey would be no short jaunt, and those who raised the farther shores would not be those who cast free of Earth. They volunteered not only themselves but their children’s children’s children for, swift as the Whale would fly, twelve light years is a damned long slog.

This was in the days of the Audorithadesh Ympriales. Brethidiendy Miwell II attended the launch in his own person to bid them dyos. Orators spoke, women wept, strong men sighed. Children cheered and danced in the sunlight. Fireworks soared and burst and paper dragons capered through the throngs. Far above, the Whale cast loose from the Beanstalk and the solar powersat lasers beamed gigawatts of power into it. Then everyone went home and after a few centuries had passed, forgot entirely that there ever had been a “Whale.”

In the time after, bones piled upon bones beneath the grass, cities fell and new ones rose, ashes blew in the wind, and names that once did grip the heart in ice faded to musty memories. Can there be forgotten memories? Perhaps those are the happier kind.

Meanwhile, the Whale hurtled on. People aged and died and their children after them. Farms and industries flourished, or not. Vendors haggled. They never forgot they were aboard a vessel, but after a while, they ceased to care.

The Planners had thought of every small thing. They had even written a constitution for the Whale, devised by the best social technicians Earth had to offer, laying out the duties and authorities of every rating and rank on board. They had accounted for every contingency; but they had forgotten one large thing.

Those aboard would be human beings.

Whoa, What's This?

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