Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Latest Extinction Event Began Thousands of Years Ago

Some researchers in Denmark have released a map of what global mammalian megafauna distribution would be like if humans hadn’t existed. Spoiler Alert: There would be a lot more big mammals everywhere. I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to species that have gone extinct but which human ancestors dealt with (I think the problem is that everyone conflates “extinct” into one period, from the dinosaurs to the dodo bird), but this is the first time that I know of that it has been quantified and displayed in an easy-to-understand graphic. Here’s the map:
I’ve often argued that the reason there are still so many large mammals in Africa is because they evolved with humans, and everywhere else they evolved without humans – invasive species tend to mess things up. The authors agree with me, and go further to say that many of our ideas about diversity are wrong. For example:

Today, there is a particularly large number of mammal species in mountainous areas. This is often interpreted as a consequence of environmental variation, where different species have evolved in deep valleys and high mountains. According to the new study, however, this trend is much weaker when the natural patterns are considered.

“The current high level of biodiversity in mountainous areas is partly due to the fact that the mountains have acted as a refuge for species in relation to hunting and habitat destruction, rather than being a purely natural pattern. An example in Europe is the brown bear, which now virtually only live in mountainous regions because it has been exterminated from the more accessible and most often more densely populated lowland areas,” explains Soren Faurby.

I found the press release through IFLS, and Josh Davis writes at the bottom:

The study does, however, presume that the changing climate at the end of the Pleistocene was not sufficient to kill the large mammals off on its own, and that it was man’s influence that delivered the death blow. This area of research is hotly debated and contested, with arguments flying back and forth as to the real reason the world’s large mammals died out. It’s generally thought likely to be a combination of climate change and hunting, but it’s impossible to say whether or not all species of mammal would have been able to adapt sufficiently to a changing environment and survive to present.

I can’t help but think arguments against human causes are simply trying to avoid guilt. Let’s look at Australia: The continent had a vast diversity of mammalian megafauna for tens of millions of years, megafauna that survived ice ages and warm times, and – most relevant – several glaciation events within the current ice age. Along come humans, and during the very next glaciation event that happens many, many species become extinct. The significant difference was the introduction of humans. Sure, it’s “impossible” to say whether all species of mammals would have been able to adapt, but it’s a pretty safe bet that most of them would have, because they had before.

The Brainery

I’ve finally found an online writing workshop that works for me (thanks io9), The Brainery Workshop Short Fiction Fall 2015.

I’m very excited, especially since the banking system here conspired against me so heavily by delaying and delaying and delaying my ability to pay for the course, until finally I gave up and put it on my wife’s card. It doesn’t matter how many things go wrong, she always goes right.

Life is More Perverse Than Fiction

When writing fantasy a lot of the story, by necessity, is not written from experience. In my novel I have an initiation scene into a fraternity, and I worried that I made it too over-the-top, too extreme, too ridiculous. Recently those worries have been set to rest, with the claim (nay, accusation) that “British Prime Minister David Cameron probably put his private parts into the mouth of a dead pig when he was at Oxford” as part of an initiation into a secret society. Now I think my scene may be a little tame…

Obviously this has got everyone chuckling, but Lawrence Richards has a good post about why Cameron would do this, why he would be asked to do it, and why – if you think about it – it’s no laughing matter.

The pig scandal that now has the world laughing at Cameron wasn’t from the Bullingdon Club but the Piers Gaverston, less well-known (until this week), but with a reputation for bizarre sexual rituals and initiation rites. Where the Bullingdon boys built their fraternity around shared values of hating the poor, the Piers Gaverston was about sexual humiliation and the creation of shared secrets. Its structural function is as an agreement of mutually assured destruction between the rulers of tomorrow – I know your secret and you know mine, so let’s stay on the same side, yeah?

This is how the power structures that oppress the world are formed, and how they’re maintained, and quite probably why the same families have been in the elite social circles for 800 years. This is the true old boys club, and it is set up to produce heartless oppressors the same way the school system is set up to produce mindless factory workers. We can all laugh at David Cameron for doing such a thing, but it’s probably why he’s Prime Minister of Great Britain…

The Pharmaceutical Price Rise Scam

The internet has gone berserk hating this man for a particularly dickish move he pulled, getting Turing Pharmaceuticals, the start-up he runs, to buy the rights to a drug and then increase its price 5555%, from $13.50 to $750 per pill. This is a terribly sad indictment on America’s health care system and on its economic system, and the New York Times has a great article on how this is merely a particularly egregious example of something that companies are beginning to do a lot.

However, it’s also a sad indictment on most of the media, and on most of the people complaining about this on social media who have only got their information from a meme. The drug, Daraprim, is described as an AIDS drug, but it’s really an anti-parasitic that’s used mainly to fight malaria and toxoplasmosis. Most people think toxoplasmosis doesn’t do anything unless the carrier is immuno-compromised, and this appears to be what was used to change the drug from generic to controlled distribution – which means you can’t get it from a general drugstore, only from certain places. This is significant, because “controlled distribution was a strategy Mr. Shkreli talked about at his previous company as a way to thwart generics” according to NYT.

This is what no-one is bringing up: Daraprim is a trade name, not the name of the drug. Shkreli, through Turing Pharmaceuticals, has purchased the right to distribute Daraprim but anybody can distribute the drug under its generic name, pyrimethamine. There are barriers, such as getting the manufacturing system set up, and apparently controlled distribution makes it “harder for generic companies to get the samples they need for the required testing”. Legally, however, there’s nothing to stop anyone from selling the generic drug. There’s nothing to stop the government from offering incentives for companies that produce generic drugs to manufacture those that are out of patent, and have encountered sudden immense price rises by the pharmaceutical companies (except pharmaceutical industry lobbyists, of course).

Get angry about this, the system doesn’t have to work this way!

In India pyrimethamine is apparently 5-10c a pill, so if you need the drug it’s probably cheaper to take a holiday to India to get it than to buy Daraprim in the United States.

This Time For Sure!

Almost two weeks ago I celebrated a return to the internet and blogging and general communications with the post And Now I’m Back. This turned out to be premature, Telmex was an even worse ISP than I thought. They sent a repairman, but didn’t tell us and he showed up while we were taking the kids to school. But he came back a week or so later and said our modem needed replacing.

By this stage we didn’t really care because we’d already booked to switch to a different ISP, this one with fibre optic cable rather than DSL, but for some reason cheaper. He replaced the modem, checked it worked and took off. Except he only checked the Telmex site and Google, and I found I couldn’t access anything else. We could only access sites located within Mexico – and for some reason Google.
Judy Garland Really Doesn't Care

Now we have fibre optic, not just higher speeds but more constant, and it probably won’t go down in a storm. This means I can write, I can research, I can communicate, I can relax… I surprised at how much it impacted my writing. Technically I could write just fine on my computer, but every time I went near it I remembered how crap Telmex is and just got too annoyed to do anything productive.

Buying a License to Print Money

You can buy a share of a license to print money! (conditions apply)

Australian company Bitcoin Group is having an initial public offering, planning to sell 60.7 percent of their company for A$20 million, as outlined in this press release. Bitcoin Group is a bitcoin mining operation, which means it runs the calculations that produce new bitcoins, thereby printing new money – albeit virtually. It’s a fairly risky investment, though, since the equations that create bitcoins are specifically designed to make it harder and harder to get new ones; so the company’s profit will fall unless the value of bitcoins keeps rising or they find ways to mine them more cheaply.

But there’s more! Some interesting stats in the releases, such as that around the world there is the equivalent of 400,000 specialised mining machines performing 400 petahashes of calculations and using A$1 million worth of electricity per day supporting bitcoins. So Bitcoin Group, which claims 6.1 to 6.3 petahashes of mining equipment, spends roughly A$15,250 on electricity per day – although obviously there’re ways to reduce this. At least, you’d hope so, because the company earned A$431,000 in the first six months of 2015, which by the numbers they’ve given would have used $2,745,000 of electricity. Let’s hope they’ve been ramping up production exponentially, and haven’t been using that amount of electricity for the whole six months. My point is that there are costs to printing money, even virtual money. At some point it’s quite possible that it will cost more to produce bitcoins than they’re worth.

It’s something that’s worth thinking about when writing science fiction stories – currencies won’t be the sole domain of the government, but any currency that is set up with require an infrastructure to support it, and the expense that comes with that.

And Now I’m Back

Thanks to my ISP I haven’t really had for an extended period of time (Telmex, never use this company if you move to Mexico). Apparently they haven’t built their network to withstand a light drizzle, or a slight breeze. The good news is that today there was no extreme climatic conditions, such as clouds, and I have internet, and I’ll post something quick.

10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break

This is a wish list by Charlie Jane Anders based on the idea that you have to know the rules of whatever you’re doing, but you don’t have to follow them. If you are going to break them, break them effectively. So let’s have a look at them, and consider them in the light of my novel Faer Play which I’m unexpectedly doing rewrites on.

1) No third-person omniscient
None of that here, the novel is “limited third” – although in my first draft I apparently jumped around a lot between this and omniscient and “ironic narrator”. That’s all be edited for consistency. Yay editing.

2) No prologues
It was actually suggested that I put in a prologue, specifically making my dream sequence a prologue because it is full of action. The dream sequence was originally a flashback sequence, which an agent at a conference told me was a no-no because it was “backstory”.

3) Avoid infodumps
This is something else I removed from the first draft based on the advice of this agent at a conference, with the result that all my beta-readers commented they had no idea what was going on nor how the world worked. Getting that page-and-a-half of information back into the story has been rather more difficult than I imagined, but I think I’ve succeeded with the idea of performance art.

4) Fantasy novels have to be series instead of standalones
I agree with this, a thousand times yes. If I see “Book One of…” on the cover my first thought is “if the rest of the series isn’t out yet, it would be better to wait until it is so I can read all the books at once”. This rule was instituted after I tried to read From Hell, an excellent comic series that I had to start reading from scratch every time an issue came out because of the time between them. Twelve issues over seven years…yeah, I’ll just get the phone-book version, thanks. My book is a standalone, although there are sequels. Sequels or other novels set in the world of the first are great, I love them, but writing a series just because that’s what is done often goes wrong. Take Robert Asprin and his MythAdventure series. I love this series, the first six books are amongst my favourite books of all time. Funny stories with great plots and interesting characters, not to mention funny… I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at any other books, including Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide. Up there with the best. Books 7-12, in my opinion, left a lot to be desired. They didn’t seem as funny, the plots weren’t as tight…I’m not going to complain here. My point is that after I finished reading them I found out that Asprin published the first six books independently, but got a publishing contract for the second set of six books, which allowed him to “plan more”. I think he worked a lot better as a pantser.

5) No portal fantasy
I understand that this trope is overused, but it’s the only way to tell a certain type of story. My novel is reverse portal fantasy, if such a thing exists.

6) No FTL
Not really relevant to my novel, but definitely a rule that can be broken because it is so restrictive. If you think science fiction can’t have FTL travel, just call it science fantasy. Everyone happy?

7) Women can’t write “hard” science fiction.
I had no idea this was a rule. It seems, on the surface, stupid, and digging a little deeper doesn’t reveal anything intelligent to comment on.

8) Magic has to be just a minor part of a fantasy world
Let me guess…this is the result of an influx of the literary crowd who insist they would never read genre? They can all piss off. If you’re going to write a story where everything is exactly the same as Earth, you may as well just set the story on Earth. Or would that require too much research and knowledge so that readers don’t get thrown out of the pretty prose by proclaiming “well, that’s ridiculous, that’s not how tigers behave”?
My novel has magical beings, and them being magical is kind of their distinguishing feature, but I don’t know if that counts as being a “minor part”… I’m going to say it breaks this rule because I think it’s a stupid rule.

9) No present tense
I think this is often considered a problem in any type of writing, along with second person. I actually agree with this one – if it’s done well, present tense and second person can be awesome, but it’s really hard to do well.

10) No “unsympathetic” characters
Well, I understand that it’s difficult to write a story where the protagonist is unsympathetic, but no character? This is a pointless rule, because what is unsympathetic to one person can be entirely sympathetic and relatable to another person. My novel certainly has bit characters who are treated with nothing but contempt (this is to add realism), but the main characters are flawed, but hopefully personable. I’m going to say that I half-broke this rule. I fractured the rule.

So, I only broke two-and-a-half “rules”. That’s good, I guess?

Why Be Vain When You Can Be Yourself?

Ah, publishing… guaranteed to start more arguments about writing than anything except the literature vs genre debate. Barnes and Noble has a piece about the worst book of all time, one that was deliberately written to be bad by a coalition of SF/F writers. The aim was to expose PublishAmerica as a vanity publisher – the main issue being that PublishAmerica insisted it was not a vanity press, but a traditional publisher. Well, Atlanta Nights effectively exposed that to be a lie by being truly terrible (B&N has some examples) and being accepted for publication anyway.

If you don’t know the differences between different publishing methods Taneeka Bourgeois-daSilva has a good, if somewhat dated, explanation of the differences. It’s dated because it doesn’t address the notion of e-books, so the self-publishing section talks about print-on-demand and off-set printing, when I think the vast majority of self-publishers these days concentrate on the digital market, and only print a book if it becomes popular or to demonstrate the savings the e-book offers. She also failed to mention the difference in royalties, which is pretty significant.

Vanity publishing may have had a use in the past, but not any more. There’s a hell of a lot of scamming that goes on in the industry, including over-charging authors, selling the useless additional things or charging for things that should be included, and sometimes even claiming copyright over the work. If you can self-publish an e-book at no cost except that of creating the document, and if you can use a print-on-delivery service and only print and pay for a book once it has been sold, why would you spend many thousands of dollars on a vanity publisher? I can’t imagine that particular part of the industry will remain in business much longer.