Virga over the Kirga

You know those clouds that have streamers of…something…hanging below them as if it were heavily raining, and yet it doesn’t reach the ground? Perhaps you don’t, as it usually occurs over deserts or at high altitude. I live in a desert at high altitude, so I see it all the time.

But I digress. There’s a word for that meteorological feature! Virga!

(Thanks to Orson Scott Card for bringing this to my attention.)

For more information, try’s page on the phenomena, along with lots of cool pictures of virga (though there were none of virga above the Kirga River, unfortunately).


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Book Review: Liberty Boy, by David Gaughran

Though I most often read fantasy or science fiction, anyone who follows my blog (all three of you) knows that I also enjoy history, biographies, non-fiction, and historical fiction. “Liberty Boy” is the latter.

Written by David Gaughran, an Irishman who lives in Prague and has previously written about South American history, this book is the first volume in a planned series about Jimmy O’Flaherty, a young man caught up in the turbulent turn of the nineteenth century in Ireland. Jimmy lost his father in a rebellion against the English, and is now trying to take care of his ailing mother and make a living amidst the aftermath of the 1803 uprising. He’s content to stand as a casual witness to history, even though that “history” revolves around hanging revolutionaries in the main street on top of the spot where he sells his wares.

There’s not much he can do about it, of course, and he tries to find other options to keep himself and his mother fed, while hoping the hangings will end soon and his life can get back to normal. But then he meets Kitty Doyle, a young, pretty revolutionary, with an unknown agenda of her own, and his life begins to drift away from the safety of his neutrality and his plans to sail to America to join his cousin.

“Liberty Boy” is the opening to a larger story, and serves primarily to set the stage by introducing Jimmy and the circumstances that get him into book two. He’s a likable character, but largely passive for much of the book until his personal conflicts force him to act. He wouldn’t be the first or the last man to get in over his head over a pretty girl, and I’m interested in learning what happens to him as the series develops. The novel leaves him in a difficult situation and at a major turning-point. I’m certain he’ll come through–he’s the main character, after all–but the real question is who he’ll become in the process.

The novel is worth the read for the historical insight alone. His portrayal of Dublin in the early 1800’s is fascinating and reveals yet another significant gap in my knowledge of history. I’ve long known, of course, that the domination of Ireland by the English has been a long, nasty sore spot that remains to this day. But it’s not something I’ve taken the opportunity to explore until now. With the amount of detail that went into this book, I trust that Gaughran has given me an accurate glimpse into that corner of history.

The novel is not overly long–about 250 pages in ebook format–and an easy read, even with the Irish dialect and gaelic words sparingly employed throughout the book. There’s some violence, some language, some gore, and some sexuality, mostly by allusion. It’s an adult novel, though not one that pushes boundaries by any means. It’s probably no more troublesome than the musical “Paint Your Wagon.”

I do have to offer this disclosure, however. This review is the result of a solicitation by the author’s publicist. Having discovered my review of Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe’s Tiger” a while back, they offered me a free ebook if I’d be willing to review it. I informed them of my policy on book reviews (I only review books I can review positively, as I feel in most cases the dislike of a book is a matter of personal taste) and they were fine with that. So in spite of the circumstances, you can rest assured that this review appears here because I enjoyed the book. There’s a good chance I’ll give the planned sequel a read when it’s released (I’d tell you more, but the book title itself is a significant spoiler).

There’s a fair amount of “grit” in this novel; Gaughran doesn’t soft-pedal how things were, but it doesn’t rise to the level of the aforementioned “Sharpe’s Tiger”, which was fine with me. Through Jimmy we’re given a fair cross-section of life among Dublin’s lower classes, and while it’s not an easy life, and its easy to see why so many would want to leave for America, it’s also understandable that so many stayed, as well. And it’s completely understandable that Jimmy is mostly a passive character through this part of his story–it seemed the best way to get by during that time was to keep one’s head down and nose clean, though even that was no protection at times. But on the whole, I enjoyed this view of Dublin of 1803 through Jimmy’s eyes. He’s a good guide.

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Six degrees of Adolph Hitler

Guilt by association. Guilt by breathing the same air. Guilt by handshake. Guilt by non-denial. This is the culture we now live in; a culture where a friend of mine has to wave off negative comments when simply posting that her father, a prominent business leader in the small city we grew up in, has been invited to a White House conference on business. As if being important enough to be invited somehow makes him a full-on, Kool-aid-drinking Trump adorer.

Are we really so small-minded that we cannot conceive that someone else might have different ideas than us without immediately branding them as evil? I hear all the time how people are ending friendships over political leanings, how couples are divorcing, and how people are being targeted for harassment simply because they don’t see the same way as the harassers. I myself have been labeled as a Trump supporter simply because I tried to explain how there could be more than one side to an issue. And after writing that last sentence I feel an immediate compulsion to make it clear that I did NOT vote for Trump, when really, why should I have to?

Why should it matter? But somehow it does. I don’t understand it. Have people lost their minds? Since when has it become acceptable to spew vile, vitriolic hate at someone and try to excuse it as fighting hate? It’s like a parody video I saw recently where someone shoots someone in the stomach, then claims it was just a prank. The victim, who was angry at first, suddenly accepts it with grins and nods.

It’s like banning all guns by shooting everyone who owns a gun. Shouldn’t you start with yourself first? And are you really surprised when they decide the don’t want to get shot and start shooting first? Quite frankly, this hating haters to stop their hateful hate is what got us into our current political mess in the first place. Whatever happened to Love Trumps Hate? I think those adhering to that policy forgot that it means you have to love everyone, not just those who agree with you. Echo chambers don’t change the world. They entrench the problems.

I won’t advocate love as the answer. I think that’s too much to ask right now. I’d be pleased enough if we could start by simply not judging each other in the worst possible light, followed by taking time to actually listen to those we disagree with and be willing to accept some validity to their views. That in itself would be a major step forward.


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Perfect pitch and timbre

Dana Cowern is back with an episode that appeals to both my scientific side and my musician side. Full of “gee whiz” moments for the musically inclined.

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Writing Update – Aug. 1, 2017

I had intended to post more frequently. I really did. Then a couple things happened, almost at once. For one, my wife and daughter went to Finland to spend time with my wife’s family, leaving the two boys and I at home. Right after I dropped them off at the airport I had to hurry to work for a meeting in which management announced mandatory overtime for the next month or more to get a project back on track. I now not only had a lot more work to do around home in the evenings, but I had less time in which to do it. Other things had to be put aside in favor of survival, like blogging.

Work on my novel came to an abrupt halt as well, as I opted to work through lunch–my usual writing time–rather than work an extra hour at night. It wasn’t entirely with regret, either. I’ve been struggling with this rewrite. Some of the new approach has been good, but some of it has felt like using my head for a tunnel boring machine. So taking a forced break has been good, because I didn’t even have to feel guilty about not writing. And much to my guilt, I didn’t.

But that’s not to say I haven’t been thinking about my story in the meantime. I’ve been picking things apart in my head, moving them around, and seeing if they fit back together in better ways. In the last few days I’ve been feeling a growing impatience with the status quo; I want to get back to writing so I can clean up the mess I’ve been making. The rewrite has been good. It’s given more depth to a character I’ve long sensed needed it. But at the same time it nearly killed my main character, who was forced into a mold I subconsciously didn’t like. I thought it would be good, but it made him unlikable.

But in my forced exile I’ve reached a compromise I believe will help. I’m going to revert back to my original scenes with him, but give him the new motivations I attempted to create for him in the rewrite. I’ll just do it better, and make it clearer his motivations are good, and not just spiteful. It wasn’t bad, but as I said, it was making him unlikable. His motivations are going to change during his arc anyway, so why not make my main character someone people will want to read about? I’ve never cared much for dark, gritty or angst-ridden characters anyway–I’ll let someone else write them.

My wife and daughter are home now, so my home life has relaxed a little. I’m nearly caught up on the backlog of work around the house, so I may be able to start carving out some writing time in the evenings soon. We’ll see. I do still have more thinking to do on my setting as well. I’ve been challenging my foundation, and decided it could do with a little shake-up. The basic premise is good, but it all needs more fleshing out and spicing up.

But if nothing else I’m encouraged to find the desire to write returning. As I’ve said before, the past year or so have been really difficult for me, to the point of wondering if I should hang it up. But it’s something I can’t easily give up, it seems.

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What I did on my summer vacation, Part One

Last year one of our big events was taking the boys to the Pokémon World Championships in San Francisco. That isn’t happening this year. Long story, but the bottom line is Pokémon screwed things up to where we didn’t think we had a chance of even getting an invite, so we made arrangements to go to North American International Championships instead. A fair bit bigger, but not as prestigious, and not as cool swag. And only Walter went this year.

The up-side was that one of Walter’s friends was also going, so we had traveling companions in his friend and his friend’s mother. After tackling it all alone last year, I have to admit it was nice having another adult along.

The adventure began with a red-eye flight from Salt Lake City to Atlanta, departing at 11:00 pm and arriving around 5:30 am the next morning. About the only good thing to that was the sunrise in Atlanta.

From there we caught a flight to Indianapolis, Indiana, where the tournament was to be held. Everything was to take place downtown, so while we waited to check into our hotel we took a little walking tour along the White River.

The downtown area along the river has really been taken care of, with many projects clearly intended to make it a pleasant destination. We passed by a museum and the NCAA Hall of Champions along our way, and both Indiana University and Purdue University were close by. Another few miles away was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the famous Indy 500 race is run, but we only ever saw that from the air.

Once we were able to check into our rooms we crashed until evening. The boys met up with some other players from the Salt Lake area for some Pokémon practice, while we adults went shopping–for supplies. We walked farther than we had intended, but we eventually found a grocery store and stocked up on food for breakfasts and lunches. In the process we got a more in-depth feel for the city, and I have to admit that I was starting to fall in love with Indianapolis. For a bigger city it really felt clean and safe. And there is such an amazing mixture of architecture!

The next morning marked the beginning of the competition. It was nice having the competition next door to the hotel–and practically a part of it, as it was connected by a skywalk!

There were over 250 players in Walter’s division, so they had to play nine rounds to determine the top 32 that would move on to the second day.

It was a long day! And when the smoke finally cleared Walter came in 55th, missing the top cut by one match. But he probably did the best of any of the Utah contingent.

The next day there were a lot of side events that the boys could participate in, so they spent much of the day at that. I did a little sight-seeing, and had a wonderful tour of the Indiana Statehouse. It’s a beautiful old building, and our tour guide was terrific! He was a retired fourth-grade teacher, and he knew his stuff–and knew how to make it fun. It turns out I was the first person from Utah to tour the Statehouse so far this year!

Beneath the rotunda is an incredible stained-glass window I just knew my mother-in-law would love! I tried to get the best picture I could for her, but my phone is only so good.

The floors are covered in Italian marble, and many ancient snails were caught in the stone. They left the fossils in, and so every so often you’ll find old snail fossils in the floor. Most of them have been named by those who work there.

Here’s another example of their amazing architecture around the government plaza.

The next day we flew home to Salt Lake City. Not much to talk about or show there. But all in all, I had a great time. Walter had a lot of fun, and barely even minds not getting to go to Worlds this year. I’d have to call our Indianapolis adventure a success!

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New sounds

When I was in my late teens New Age music arrived on the scene. Artists like David Lanz, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Andreas Vollenveider and others introduced music that was, in many ways, more simple, more ethereal, with just a touch of pop production values, but clearly a counter movement to pop music.  While it was little more than a curious side-show than its own genre deserving of its own radio stations, it became popular enough that one of our local radio stations produced a show every Saturday night called “Digital Star-streams” that would play New Age music. Sometimes it was a mix of various artists and albums, and sometimes they’d play part of a single artist’s album.

I discovered a lot of music through that program that has stuck with me through the years. Philippe Saisse has proven the one that stuck with me most, probably because he followed me into my Jazz phase. Tangerine Dream (their later “Private Music” work for true fans) also has endured well.

That was over twenty years ago, and New Age is all but gone, though it lives on under a diaspora of other monikers, such as Electronica, Trance, Ambient, Minimalism, World Music, Vaporwave, and the like.

Perhaps two years ago I discovered musician Nigel Stanford, who produced a fascinating music video called “Cymatics” with imagery created from various forms of cymatic waves. I listened to a little of his other music and thought it interesting, but nothing really stuck out at the time. “Cymatics” was cool, but lacked staying power.

I recently came across “Cymatics” again, and subsequently found several of his other tracks from his Solar Echoes album available on YouTube. For whatever reason it caught my attention this time, and then began to grow on me. It’s smooth and ethereal with an underlying energy, with interesting harmonies and flirtations with melodies, and a mixture of electronica and analog instrumentation that blends well.

I’ll admit my primary love of this new find is as background music. It provides presence and energy while not demanding attention. But it also rewards the active listener. I like enough I bought the album–in itself a bargain, as you get an hour and a half of music. He’s got another album already out, and a third in pre-release. I shall be watching his career with great interest.

Here’s a sample:

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Ode to aging

Trigger warning: Not for the faint of heart

Ayup. One of the down-sides of aging is confused hair.

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You’re a 31-year-old wizard, Harry!

Evidently it’s been 20 years since Harry Potter first exploded on the children’s literature scene. It doesn’t seem that long to me, and that’s probably because I was late to the Harry Potter party.

I was in college when it came out. I had plenty of other things to do. And let’s face it, paying attention to the latest and greatest in children’s literature wasn’t a high priority. My brother’s kids loved it–okay, their entire family loved it. So did a lot of other people. It was hard not to hear about Harry Potter.

And so I avoided it for quite a while. I tend to get a little snobbish about popular entertainment–if everyone loves it, then it can’t be that good. After all, most of the movies everyone loves leave me scratching my head over what the big deal is. Mass appeal has never been a recommendation for me. And I admit I’ve missed out on some good stories with that attitude.

So in my elitist snobbery, I can at least take consolation in the fact that I did become a Harry Potter fan before the movies came along. It was probably either my younger brother or moving in with my older brother’s family for a while that got me off the fence and into the books. And they were fun! There is so much to love about the Harry Potter world.

I remember especially finishing “The Goblet of Fire” and feeling the ground move beneath our collective feet. The gloves were coming off. Harry Potter was getting serious. Rowling had turned a corner, and it was delicious. The series got dark, but without crossing all the way over into dark and gritty. The sense of wonder was still there. The sense that goodness and decency would win in the end was still there. But the stakes were suddenly much higher, and we knew that defeating Voldemort would come at a cost.

Then along came the movies–or rather, with me, the movies followed close behind. They were good. They were fun. But they were limited. They couldn’t go as deep as the books could, but they were valiant try. Radcliff, Watson, and company became the de facto images in my mind as I read the latter end of the series, and that was fine. The movies have become the shortcuts back into the books. I can watch the movies and remember all the things I enjoyed in the books that didn’t make it in.

Harry Potter is very much a part of me now, and of my own family. I read all seven books to my kids (and Dumbledore’s voice nearly made me lose my own). I have a wand (thanks to my woodcraftsy brother). I don’t know what house I’m in. I don’t know which HP character I’m most like. Like most things I really love, my enjoyment is personal and mostly private. I don’t need all the pop culture trappings.

And while I of course love Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Snape, they are not my favorite characters. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Luna Lovegood, and Remus Lupin are more my style. And, I suppose, that’s an indication of the depth of Rowling’s world and storytelling. It’s big enough to give a reader room to walk around and explore outside of the immediate orbit of the main characters. There are characters of such variety that everyone can find someone they can relate to.

I’ve not tried to read anything else Rowling has written after “Deathly Hallows”. I’ve not even tried to watch “Fantastic Beasts”. Maybe it’s the old snobbery raising its head again. Maybe it’s the fear of disappointment. Perhaps it’s just my limited time. I don’t know. All I know is that if all I ever enjoy is Harry Potter, that is enough. Thanks, Ms. Rowling, for a magical ride.

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Go for the big guns!

I recently saw some clips from a couple different sci-fi movies depicting human soldiers in combat against aliens. In one they were up against alien robots, and the other against swarms of huge alien bugs. In both cases they were seriously out-matched. They could empty magazine after magazine into these aliens, seemingly to no effect (unless it’s a main character being threatened, and then it would only take a dozen rounds or so).

The thing that bothers me is that in neither case were the humans caught off guard. They had fought these aliens before. They were specially trained to fight these aliens.

So why were they so poorly equipped to do so?

In both cases they were eventually able to call in heavier firepower or air support that was finally equal to the task. But I have to wonder, if that’s what’s proven to work, don’t they just lead with that?

Yeah, I know. It’s a movie, gotta heighten the drama, can’t have it be too easy. But I’ve seen it done well. I’ve seen movies where the humans’ weapons are equal to the task under normal circumstances, but the aliens are able to take advantage of surprise, terrain, and/or superior numbers. That’s entirely different from firing hundreds of rounds at a single creature to no effect. You can have your humans be competent and still make things difficult. And frankly, the movies that do are generally acknowledged as some of the best military sci-fi movies of all time.

I can see a first-contact situation where the humans encounter aliens with no idea what to expect. But in cases where they’ve been fighting these aliens for a while there’s no excuse for them to show up without their best stuff. If the machine guns don’t work so well and the grenades do, forget the guns, go for the grenades. If air power is what works, put a couple of marines on the ground with laser target-finders and bomb the snot out of them. You don’t send in a company of troops with weapons that won’t do the job without a really, really good reason.

Or maybe it’s just me.


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