Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Kingdom for a Flash Drive!

Circuit Board
Circuit Board by Fisherss Zhang

It seems that Spring is the time the of year for technological mayhem to come down on me.  Always.  I don't know if it is the tricksy hand of Fate or something less cosmic.  The laptop being the sole canvass on which I write my novels, this is always a big deal. 

2012: computer virus - vanquished with the proper dosage of anti-malware software.
2011: laptop fails to recognize power cord - BestBuy (grr!) sends laptop to Dell to fix.
2010: Jillian falls down the marble staircase at work, is fine but laptop is injured in the most expensive (warranty-won't-cover-it) way; the screen is spider-cracked.  Costs hundreds to repair.
2009: Old (5 year old) laptop acquires virus and Jillian buys the new Dell.

This year, aside from the typical wear-and-tear, unsightly scratched keys and dusty screen, the 4 year old Dell is healthy.  The casualties this year are two of the secondary gadgets that have become important to my creative life.  1.) My little green iPod nano (6th generation) died a sudden, unexplicable death after a year and a half of musical life.  It simply died in its sleep.  Baffling because I purchased the thing to replace my 7 year old iPod Classic, which for some reason STILL WORKS.  2.) The 4GB flash drive that I use to store the scanned files of my writings from the nascent childhood years through high school decided that it had no will to live, either.  Plugged into the computer, the laptop doesn't acknowledge its existence.  Neither does roommate's computer. 

These, in comparison to the laptop woes of yesteryear, are more inconveniences than crises.  The iPod can be repaired (for a fee) or replaced.  My music is safe.  The only thing I can't do is walk around with my creative mixes and transport myself into those inner worlds.  (The Olde iPodde only works from one earbud and has to be plugged in all the time.) Yes... there is that thing called silence I've discovered recently.  Nothing tickles the anxiety demons like listening to a lot of loud epic music (ahem, Two Steps from Hell).  Walking in silence allows me to take in the sounds of birds, of people talking, of the wind in the trees, thunder, planes, etc.  An internal, world-building brainstorm takes shape in a quiet(er) mind... on its own, without any help from soundtracks or symphonies.  Nothing clears the mind like quiet.  Nothing. 

The flashdrive is probably the bigger problem.  The day I discovered the 4GB's death, I spent way too much time trying to find solutions via Google.  The verdict is that the thing is dead, dead, dead.  Some tech-savvy people had suggestions for taking the drive apart to see if the elements in it were broken, and if they were, solder them back in place.  Even if I could take the thing apart, that seemed out of my range of skills.  Another idea: send the drive into a data recovery service for a couple hundred dollars and receive the files back on a disc.  Hm.  Not today. 

The bottom line on the flash drive problem is that this form of data storage is getting cheaper to obtain, therefore it's wearing out faster.  I had no idea about that.  All I cared about was that the flash drive could hold everything from my 1,000 page high school journals and much more and STILL fit in my hand.  For years, the flash drive has been the convenient alternative to the compact disc.  And now... learning that I should have had back-ups to these back-ups is news to me... that perhaps I was foolish to be scanning those files onto a flash drive instead of the harddrive in the first place, because all of my careful work is essentially gone.  All those writings, musings, prayers and projects - not to mention hours upon hours of scanning it all page by page - gone.  Almost.

Upset as I was, I didn't shout: "Cry havoc!  And unleash the dogs of war!" or "My kingdom for a flashdrive!"  I didn't beat my breast and roll in the ashes.  I took a hard look at these things I'd held so precious for so many years, scanned to PDFs and finally shredded.  Why did I shred those things?  Those papers and letters and journal entries and poems? These same things that took up most of the space in my backpack in high school?  I shredded them to make space for other things on the shelf, to be more organized.  I scanned them as an act of preservation, to remind myself where I started in this writing life.  But... I did not scan them to tell me where I was going.  In all honesty, I hadn't touched the 4GB in months.  If not for the residual pile of papers I wanted to scan, I would have forgotten it was there. 

All of this has me thinking about our reliance on technology... from e-readers to iPads to data clouds.  Nothing lasts forever.  I remember that my parents decided to assemble items for a time capsule around the time of the millennium.  I had a brilliant idea: record audio tapes (the favorite creative medium of my sister and me) of the four of us to carry messages into the future.  No, my dad said, it won't work; the batteries and the magnets will have worn out by then.  Or the technology will be so changed no one will know what an audio cassette is when they pluck it out of the box, just a hunk of plastic with a not-so magnetized ribbon and some holes. 

In this world, technology is obsolete the moment you buy it.  In a few years, when your MP3 player fails or your laptop bites the dust or your phone "needs" new apps, you'll wind up buying a new one, the next bigger-and-better thing.  Nothing we make will ever be completely permanent or backed up.  What about the pyramids, you ask?  Well, even those can crumble into dust.  Nineveh, anyone?  Whole cities and civilizations have been lost to the devestation of time.  Whole libraries have burned.  A number of Shakespeare's plays were lost.  This is not going to change simply because we have "better" technology - portable data drives and that nebulous thing called a data cloud.  These things break.  Data clouds, as I understand it, are expensive to maintain.  What about hacking?  And server glitches?  What happens if everybody saves everything to these clouds - pictures, videos, journals, recipes, stock market numbers - and the clouds keep growing?  Can the clouds hold it all?  Or will they burst and come raining down?  (And... there is an idea for a sci-fi story.)

This isn't a campaign for writing everything on paper and throwing one's laptop or computer tablet out the window.  I'm all for technology - old and new.  This is why I get excited about typewriters and calligraphy, old stand-by technologies that may be out of style in some spheres, but are definitely alive.  Perhaps I've read too much dystopian fiction lately (i.e. The Stand by Stephen King and The Passage by Justin Cronin), but I can't help finding the thought of typewriters and pens and paper comforting... something to fall back on if or when the lights go out.  Ah, technology - the tools change but the goal is the same: create something new.

Old Typewriter by Peter Gray

If time passes and I learn that the files on my flash drive are irretrievable, it will be a sad day indeed.  But... I have what I need to write forward.  If my iPod cannot be revived, I'll purchase a new one.  Not all is lost.  What's important cannot be down- or uploaded, saved to multiple devices, locked in a safe.  It's inside: that passion to create something new.  And sometimes, frankly, we have to make room for those new things. 

And I'm okay with that.  Are you?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Creative Cartography

When I was a little girl, the first fictional map that took hold of my imagination was that of Neverland on the inside covers of my Peter Pan book.  All of the illustrations in that book are beautiful oil paintings - full of color and life from the veins in Tinkerbell's wings to the curl of Captain Hook's moustache.  The map, too, was created on the same medium and brought to life an island of coves and mountains, Indian camps and homes underground.  Here was Neverland in full relief, suddenly a real place.  Of course it was real.

I suppose it was no coincidence that maps began to show up in my writing.  From middle school into high school I spent a lot of time on that rudimentry program known as "Paint" in order to create the island-continents of the planet where my characters were from... ironically "Eiresta."  Once I painstakingly traced the contours of Ireland and England onto tissue paper and broke them up into smaller islands to form those continents.  Silly?  Maybe, but at the time I felt it was important.  I needed to map what I was seeing in my head, to make tangible the little backstories that were a heritage for my pseudo-quasi Celtic creations. 

In high school I lived, read, breathed, ate and dreamed Star Wars, which means that my little creative writing projects inevitably took that shape.  Inspired further by J.R.R. Tolkein's maps of Middle Earth, the map-obsession continued.  Imagine my delight when I discovered galactic maps of the Star Wars universe inside the novels I read.  Finally, I knew where Tatooine and Dagobah were in relation to Coruscant (or the Imperial City) and Alderaan!  This map was handwritten, imaginative, pretty.  It did not attempt to calculate light-years or the three-dimension distance each star had to one another.  It was art, not science - simple and beautiful.  Naturally, I had to add a few worlds into the mix:

My addendums are fairly obvious: they are written neatly on little scraps of paper and pasted carefully onto the map, tucked into corners between stars and across the spine of the page.  At the top right was Ceilte, Nabbeor and the starless Rift which served as a no-man's land between peaceful worlds and evil Euronia (which even the Empire was keen to avoid).  I could see it: pieces of the massive puzzle finally in place.

Years after leaving the Star Wars galaxy, I found myself writing a novel which took place much closer to home in North Yorkshire, Great Britain.  While I did, of course, study maps of northern England, I mapped something that came directly out of my writing - a piece of the moors that was entirely my own fairy land.  I created it because my characters drew it themselves, tracking their own footsteps through a childhood playground, through barrows that were supposed to be haunted, passed ruined abbeys to a mysterious coil of rock they called Adrian's Pass after a legendary monk.

I drew this by hand, and it was such fun imagining the terrain, the twists and turns and slopes my characters had to traverse.  Bleak Point was a memorial to people who had disappeared on Adrian's Moor.  Where the ridges begin to grow, the fog thickens giving way to visions of demons who look like Benedictine monks.  Rose Cottage (added later) was a dilapidated house the characters found and made into getaway accessible only on foot. 

Which brings us back to space.  Waterwill and its in-development sequel have their earliest roots in that old Star Wars project of mine.  Nowadays these stars (if they existed, that is) might be visible from Earth.  I'm envisioning a cosmopolis over five hundred years in the future where humans have expanded their horizons to other worlds.  A cosmopolitan "nexus" has formed around a new star, 61 Virginis.  It is called the Virgo Nexus because of this capitol.  It is almost twenty-eight light-years away from where the worlds around good ol' Sol (our Sun) continue to thrive.  Below are two maps-in-progress.  Though Waterwill is complete, I have gone back to reevaluate the (very) approximate distances between the stars and expand on the worlds between Virgo and Sol for the sequel.  I am finding this extremely frustrating.

This map contains a few "familiar" stars: Alpha Centauri, Altair, Vega, Arcturus, Sirius, Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, Denebola, 55 Cancri, Castor, Pollux and Formalhaut.   I am trying to combine the fictional elements with the real stars, creating a sort of bridge between our home (Sol) and the Virgo Nexus.  The map above is supposed to be a "side-view"; the map below an "above view."

Like I said, this is a work in progress.  I've been working from several "star maps" from the internet, some helpful, some confusing.  I realized I am doing something here that I've never attempted before: that merging of fact with fiction.  The problem with these maps is that they represent two-dimensional thinking instead of three.  For example, Epsilon Eridani might be ten light-years from Sol or Earth, but it's at a diagonal away and below instead of simply ten light-years to the right.  On a 2D map, this diagonal would not properly register the distance... unless I got fancy with dotted lines and angles.  Last week, while I was away from the blog, I was busy pulling my hair out over the difficulty of showing distances as well as depths.  I was afraid of what mathematically-inclined people would say... how astronomers might snort at my imaginative calculations... how other science-fiction writers must have an easier (if not smarter) time of it than I do.

And then I realized "Hey!  This supposed to be art, not science!" Why did Star Wars appeal to me so much in the first place?  Because it wasn't concerned with the mind-twisting principles of relativity or a tangible explantion of hyperspace... or how the heck they actually have the capability of flying clear across a galaxy in a week's time (or less).  In Star Wars, these things simply were; no explanation necessary or required.  While my novels take place in Sol's interstellar backyard (or is it front yard?), and require a little more explanation as to how the vast distance is/was conquered by humanity, I simply see no reason to worry about whether or not Vega and Formalhaut are actually in their correct positions.  What matters is that they are part of the picture, part of that corridor between Virgo and home. 

And that's what I hope the maps, in whatever state of evolution, can show: pieces of the puzzle coming together to create a tangible world.  Everything else is just details: time, relativity, hyperspace. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cosmic Inspiration

I have been organizing my "Cosmic Notes" this week to refresh my memory on stars and planets and black holes.  For a non-scientist and one who is notoriously mathematically challenged, this is actually quite an interesting project.  I've begun studying maps of the closest neighboring stars to our solar system and envisioning a map between our "neighborhood" and the star systems that create the backdrop and setting for my novel(s). 

Everytime I go back "into" space I am fascinated by the possibilities.  This time around I'm learning about the habitable zone (the distance from a star that is neither too hot nor too cold, like Earth), the Heliopause, binary stars and pulsars.  More on these and other delightful things later this week.  For now, I wanted to share with you a link to Robert Krulwich's blog on the NPR site.  By some mad coincidence, he and I have both noted something very strange about the formation of our solar system. Compared to other systems under study, ours is quite atypical - our planets don't line up like those of other stars, we only have one sun, etc.  It makes me think of our knowledge of the universe is still quite limited, still Earth-centric, and still has room to grow.  Space is so weird.  Here's the link.   

Also, here's an interactive video called 100,000 Stars, a sweeping demonstration of our solar system, its star-neighbors and where we are located in the Milky Way.  Fascinating, breathtaking stuff.  Enjoy.

100,000 Stars

100,000 Stars infographic


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