Spring

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

Rumbald touchup crop adj1

I have two favorite seasons.

Most often I would tell you that fall is my favorite, as deep summery greens take on that rich golden glow that gradually deepens to such amazing hues.Dogwood

But on a spring day like this one … what can I say.  My affections wander, and my favorite is definitely spring!

I can’t help myself.

The craggy, worn-down mountain across the little lake has surprised me once again with the variety of its greens, spread over its flanks in soft, feathery poufs, while after-rain seeps and waterfalls slide glistening down its gray stony face.

Nearer at hand, birds and butterflies have come out to play in the sun, finally believing, perhaps, that the earlier daffodils were not such shameless teases after all, and that Spring has finally come. Perhaps. I, for one, may never trust their flirty yellow winks and nods again.

Dogwood 2The Dogwoods are a different story. Their shy white lace, so lovely posing here and there beneath larger trees, would never lead us astray. Would they?

But even if they have, and there is yet another bout of winter to come, I’ll take this day as a successful dress rehearsal for the performance that is surely, eventually, to come.

 

Photography by Ken and Paula Jordan

What’s this about a Blood Moon?

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

In case you haven’t heard, that “blood moon” that much of the press is talking about today is really a lunar eclipse, caused when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow early TOMORROW morning, April 15th.

A total lunar eclipse on Dec. 21, 2010.  Photo credit: Gary A. Becker and SpaceWeather.com

A total lunar eclipse on Dec. 21, 2010.
Photo credit: Gary A. Becker and SpaceWeather.com

According to atmospheric sciences professor Richard Keen of the University of Colorado, as quoted on SpaceWeather.com, the color won’t likely be a bloody red. That only occurs with high levels of “volcanic ash and other aerosols” floating around in the stratosphere. This time it’ll likely be a bright orange.

Folks across western South America and almost all of North America will enjoy the total eclipse, beginning at 6 minutes past midnight Pacific Time (3:06 a.m Eastern Time) according to SpaceWeather.com. At least a partial eclipse will be visible from far eastern Asia to far western Europe and Africa.

Even if you’re outside the viewing area or your view is clouded out, you can catch it on the web, live, courtesy of the Coca-Cola Science Center at Columbus State University in Georgia.

For full details see today’s SpaceWeather.com, including a map of North and South American visibility and a diagram of the moon’s passage through Earth’s Shadow.

Gift of the Oneida

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

Allies in War, Partners in Peace

Allies in War, Partners in Peace

A spur-of-the-moment family trip to Washington DC last week brought the opportunity, not only for cherry blossoms (whose slow blooming from day to day was truly beautiful) but also for a long-awaited return visit to the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Museum’s collection features arts, crafts, tools and cultural artifacts, ancient and modern, from Native groups the length and breadth of the western hemisphere. Among the most fascinating pieces are those created by Indian artists specifically for the museum.

Of those, I was most touched and inspired by a life-sized bronze sculpture entitled Allies in War, Partners in Peace, by Edward Hlavka of St. George, Utah. The work is a gift of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, memorializing the friendship forged between the Oneida and the fledgling United States during the Revolutionary War.

Its foremost figure is that of Polly Cooper, the Oneida woman who, with Chief Shenendoah and other Oneidas, walked over 400 miles in the winter of 1777-78 to bring supplies of corn for the starving soldiers at Valley Forge. She taught the soldiers how to cook the corn and remained to help them, refusing pay, throughout the war. The other figures are Shenendoah, in a traditional Oneida headdress, and George Washington, holding the wampum belt that symbolized the agreement between the U.S. and the Oneida Nation that “neither will interfere in the internal affairs of the other.” They stand beneath a white pine tree, said to be a symbol of peace to the Oneida. A hatchet is buried beneath the tree’s roots at Washington’s feet, and a pistol beneath the roots at Shenendoah’s.

Amazons — More Than Myth?

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

Greek Vase with Amazon on Horseback

Greek Vase with Amazon on Horseback

Were the Amazons a mere figment of Greek Imagination? Perhaps “… a propaganda tool used by the Athenians during times of political stress”? Or “beardless bow-toting Mongoloids” whom the Greeks mistook for women?

The Greeks were certainly mystified and alarmed by them and, as Amanda Foreman says in the April Smithsonian Magazine, did them to “…violent death in tale after tale.”

It was Homer who mentioned them first. In the Iliad (eighth century BC, 500 years after the Trojan War) he described them in a term variously translated as anything from “antagonistic to men” to “the equal of men,” and wrote them, says Ms. Foreman, as “… worthy enough opponents for [his] male characters to be able to boast of killing them—without looking like cowardly bullies.”

Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, placed their capitol in Themiscyra, a fortified city in what is now northern Turkey. In further details he places a group of them among the Scythians on the north shore of the Black Sea. The two groups intermarried, he said, eventually becoming nomads known as Sauromatians, and the women have “… continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient customs…hunting on horseback with their husbands…in war taking the field and wearing the very same dress as the men….Their marriage law lays it down, that no girl shall wed until she has killed a man in battle.”

Greek Vase with Amazon in trousers circa 470 BC

Greek Vase with Amazon in trousers
circa 470 BC

Could they be real? Archaeology has proven Homer and Herodotus correct before. Why not with the Amazons?

Well, thanks again to archaeological proof, it seems that they were.

In the early 1990’s a team of US and Russian Archaeologists, excavating a 2000-year-old burial mound in the Ural steppes near the Kazakhstan border, came upon “ … over 150 graves belonging to the Sauromatians and their descendants, the Sarmatians.” Among the burials of men and “ordinary women” they found “… graves of warrior women who had been buried with their weapons.” One, a “… young female, bowlegged from constant riding [was buried] with an iron dagger on her left side and a quiver containing 40 bronze-tipped arrows on her right.” Another female skeleton contained a bent arrowhead. Further, “… the weapon-bearing females measured [on average] 5 feet 6 inches, making them preternaturally tall for their time.”

Now some 50 or more such burial mounds have been examined, with many more interesting details. See here, here, and here.

So there they are, Amazons, and the Sauromatian/Sarmatian descendants of Amazons, just as Homer and Herodotus said.

The Way It All Began

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

Our Long Address

Our Long Address

This week’s post is tougher than I expected. Not because of too little information, but because of so amazingly much of it, so suddenly (from the public’s point of view), on a subject about which human beings might never, ever have learned anything at all.

I mean, of course, the news of four astrophysicists who spent two years in the thin, cold, dry, and therefore very clear air of the south pole, and what they saw.

The timing was dramatic. Just a week before, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson had reintroduced us to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos by teaching us our “long address” in the vast expanse of observable space. And now we have learned that these galaxy-class science nerds have seen to the very ends of it.

In so doing, they have proven yet another of Einstein’s great predictions — the existence of gravity waves — as well as Alan Guth’s inflation theory of the way the universe expanded in the first infinitesimally small slice of a second of its existence.

What they saw, in the words of early-universe expert Marc Kamionkowski of Johns Hopkins University (quoted in the New York Times), was “… a signal from the very earliest universe, sending a telegram encoded in gravitational waves.”

In more technical terms it was, according to Scientific American Magazine, “ … a pattern called primordial B-mode polarization in the light left over from just after the big bang, known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This pattern, basically a curling in the polarization, or orientation, of the light, can be created only by gravitational waves produced by inflation.”

What they saw was proof of the Big Bang.

Calling theirs a ‘cosmic’ achievement is no more than literal truth.

Even they were so astonished at the power of the signal that, just to be sure, they spent a whole year double-checking their results before they published. That effort proved their work accurate to so high a degree of probability that, as project leader Dr. John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics put it, the chance that the results were a fluke was “only one in 10 million.”

Even so, hordes more scientists are already hard at work to duplicate their findings. It’s the way science is done, making every effort possible to assure that theory, backed up by repeatable experiment and observation, produces reliable information about the nature of reality.

Beyond that, there’s little more that can be said in the space here available, except to offer some links for further reading:

New York Times: Detection of Waves in Space Buttresses Landmark Theory of Big Bang

by Dennis Overbye  March 17, 2014

Scientific American: Gravitational Waves from Big Bang Detected by Clara Moskowitz

High Concept

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

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This term turns up fairly often in descriptions of successful story.  I have an idea what it means, but there’s no way I could give you a definition.

 And concept, in terms of story, gets tangled up with idea, and premise, and theme.

 Maybe that’s a good place to start.

In his book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks explains idea as the “initial seed of a story,” to which concept adds “a forward thinking aspect” which expands the idea and develops detail. The premise then “brings character into the story.” And the theme “is what the story illuminates about real life.”

His example, with apologies to Clive Cussler, goes as follows:

Idea: “raising the Titanic from the bottom of the sea.”

Concept: “secrets [are] still hidden there that certain forces would kill to keep concealed.”

Premise: “an archetypical hero … is hired to do this job and in so doing saves his country from potential attack.”

Ok, got it. We’re talking about the “imaginative,” or “insightful” or perhaps “brilliant” development of a raw idea into concept. Right?

Wrong. What we’re really talking about, according to longtime screenwriter Steve Kaire, is not concept at all. It’s the premise. This, he says marks the difference between stories that are “pitch driven,” (that can be sold simply by pitching the premise to a film maker or publisher) and those that are “execution driven” (that “have to be read to be appreciated.”)

 Mr. Kaire’s “comprehensive definition of High Concept” lists five mandatory requirements, three of which address the quality of the pitch rather than the story.

 So … not so much about quality as marketability.

But Mr. Kaire is concerned with film. Would a general fiction writer say the same?

Jeff Lyons at Storygeeks.com, does agree that the issue is primarily “market appeal.” Commercially appealing books, he says, have “a clear line of demarcation” from the rest, and “That line is the high concept.”  Still,  his “seven common traits” of high concept in stories are much like the qualities we might expect to find in good writing:

  1. High level of entertainment value
  2. High degree of originality
  3. Born from a “what if” question
  4. Highly visual
  5. Clear emotional focus
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element
  7. Mass audience appeal (to a broad general audience, or a large niche market).

 Sally McDonald, defining high concept for Tropical Writers, Inc, touches on several of the same traits, then adds one more that comes close to summing it up for writers:

High Concept story, she says, “inspires readers & other authors to exclaim: ‘why didn’t I think of that.’”

 But of course the marketing aspects of high concept are really appropriate too, else our “imaginative,” or “insightful” or perhaps “brilliant” stories might never be read!

Sources:

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, Writer’s Digest and Storyfix.com

“High Concept Defined Once and For All,” by Steve Kaire, Writer’s Store

“Write Better: The 7 Qualities of High-Concept Stories,” by Jeff Lyons,  Storygeeks.com,a guest post on The Writers Dig Blog,Writersdigest.com.

Sally McDonald, Tropical Writers, Inc   

Earth Takes a Long Distance “Selfie”

Copyright Paula Jordan, 2014

Photo of Earth and Moon from Mars, Courtesy of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Photo of Earth and Moon from Mars, Courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

On February 6th, with the help of the Mars rover Curiosity, Earth took a photo of itself across 99 million miles of space. A person with normal vision, standing on Mars, would see Earth and the moon as “two distinct, bright ‘evening stars.’”

Curiosity is operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory,  a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

 

A Universal Word

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

Did you know there is one small English word that may be in every human language? There is, and it is familiar to every one of us.

In fact it is so useful, and so commonplace, that many parents and teachers consider it impolite.

Give up? It’s that homely, unmistakable question mark of a word, huh.

question-markMark Dingemanse and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, examined ten very different languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Icelandic, and indigenous languages from Ecuador, Australia, and Ghana, and found this one humble word in all of them. And it has since been found in 21 more.

As Arika Okrent writes in the March Smithsonian Magazine, “Not only did all of [those] languages have a word [to ask for] a quick clarification, but its form always resembled huh.”

In each case, the vowel is pronounced with a “relatively relaxed tongue,”  with no sounds like “ee” or “oo” requiring the tongue to move much. And the sound before the vowel “is either an ‘h’ sound or … a glottal stop,” the sound a cockney would use for the double t’s in “better.”

Is it a real word, though? What makes it anything more than a “mere grunt of stupefaction?”

Huh, like other true words, “is learned, and follows certain linguistic rules,” says Okrent. “It has no counterpart in the animal kingdom,” and “unlike innate vocalizations, children don’t use it until they start speaking.”

But is it really universal?

Dingemanse is ready to bet “yes.” Languages with common origins or overlapping histories often have words in common, but unrelated languages almost always have “arbitrarily different” words for a given thing. This word huh, however, appears in at least 31 languages with no common roots whatsoever. Most likely it has proven “such an efficient utterance for its particular narrow function” that language after language has tripped over it and adopted it independently down the ages.

So next time someone says something that is incomprehensible, or merely indistinct, why not turn to them with great dignity and say, “Huh?”

Artwork from howtoparenttoday.com

Mysticon 2014

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

MystiCon This was my first visit to Mysticon. I had heard good things about the con, and it did not disappoint.

As I’ve mentioned here before, among my many reasons for attending SF&F conventions are the things to be learned there about science, fiction, fantasy, and the world in general: what other writers are up to, what readers like about the books and stories they read, and what experts in various fields Dragon Cakeare excited enough about to come down to the con and share it. Neat new stuff to stir up the brain cells and stimulate the writing. Plus the art, music, theater, and games of the SF/F worlds, and always those amazing costumes. And the surprises. This time there was a wedding. Really! And a dragon wedding cake that roared.

panelThe panels, always a high point of the con for me, were both entertaining and instructive: discussions of logic in fiction, humor in horror, costume building, minding your nerdiquette, issues regarding human cloning and artificial intelligence, and the crafting of alternate universes, aliens, and social systems. On this panel, Gail Z. Martin, Michael A. Ventrella, Gray Rinehart, Tally Johnson, and Michael Pederson gave new writers pointers on “Tooting Your Own Horn.”

Gray Rinehart

Gray Rinehart

Todd McCaffery

Todd McCaffery

Highlights of the readings and performance scene included great new stories from Gail Z. Martin, Stuart Jaffee, and Guest of Honor Todd McCaffery.  Gray Rinehart and Danny Birt provided filk songs together with their fiction, and Danny followed up with a full filk concert.

Charles and Emily

Charles and Emily

The most touching moment of the convention came when Charles and Emily, dressed in their Medieval finery,  spoke their marriage vows. When the minister pronounced his benediction the audience responded with a forest of lifted arms and hands giving the Vulcan sign of good wishes: live long and prosper.

Mysticon

Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan

MystiConJust a short note today.

I’m doing chores and getting packed up to head out to Mysticon tomorrow.

I’m not on any panels this year …  maybe next year? … but I’ll be wandering around.  Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

I’ll have a Con report on my return.