Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Storm Books

Over the years I've read a few books that dealt with storms...books where a storm becomes as much of a factor as the characters themselves. Below is a short list of non-fiction "storm books" that are notable, and it's a list I hope to expand on in the future.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Although technically not a book about a storm, it is a detailed account of a fateful expedition up Mount Everest that begins to unravel once the mountain climbers begin their descent. Without giving too much away, it is at that point in the narrative that the weather suddenly changes everything.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

An account of an incredible storm that formed off the Eastern seaboard in the fall of 1991, and how the ship, the Andrea Gail fared in it. The book attempts to reconstruct the events of that storm, the rescuers efforts, and life for those who were left behind. Interestingly enough, at the same time a giant blizzard was ongoing in the Upper Midwest.

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

This is the story of a hurricane that devastated and engulfed Galveston, Texas in September of 1900. It is as much a detailed chronicle of the event as it is a character study of Isaac Cline, a scientist who worked at the time with the U.S. Weather Bureau. Vivid descriptions and memorable characters.

If these books are not enough, there's always storm chasing websites such as these with footage/chase accounts:

Also, here is an interesting link I found a while back. It's severe weather coverage (via radio) of some notable storms in the past. Especially interesting is the coverage of the tornado outbreak from May 6th, 1965. There were four F4 tornadoes that night, 13 fatalities, and 683 injuries. Most notable in the 1965 broadcasts is how the on-air personalities' perspectives change as the night goes on and damage reports start rolling in.

Can you think of any books to add to this list? If so, please leave your ideas in the comment section below. In about a week or so, I'll review the non-fiction book "Warnings" by Michael Smith. Part autobiography and part historical narrative, it details the development of the warning system currently in use for the nation's weather.

P.S. I've decided to get onto more of a schedule with this blog. Going forward, the plan is to feature Apologetics on Mondays, Weather/Outdoors on Wednesdays, and Technology on Fridays. Along with that, there will be some random posts on writing, music, and other things.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Signature in the Cell - A Review

Confession: I'm not a biologist. Nor do I ever see myself working in any field related to biology, although I did do well in biology in school (and other sciences).

So why did I pick up this book in the first place?

Well, for one, I like to read things outside of my normal fields of interest once in a while and two, I had the opportunity to see the author give a talk at a conference last fall. I had heard of the book before and had heard some of intelligent design arguments that are out there (pro and con), so I was aware of who the speaker was. He was well-spoken in his talk, and what intrigued me even more was his mention of a Wired magazine article he did some time back that only used a fraction of the material that discussed in the interview. He mentioned about how he discussed the topic of intelligent design for three hours, and covered all sorts of subtopics such as nanotechnology, the DNA code within cells, etc. More details of that issue can be found here and here.

At this point, I wanted to read the book just to see where it went in terms of apologetics and because he made reference to fields I was very familiar with: information science and computer science. Admittedly, I had some basic knowledge of DNA, proteins, and basic cellular structure before I started reading the book, which helped.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the book this summer, and just finished it the other week. The basic premise of the book is this: there is a great deal of sophisticated machinery within a cell. What's more, the DNA found in those cells looks a lot like computer code. On top of that, the process of replicating that information is also quite sophisticated.

In addition, a perplexing question is brought up throughout: given all the information in a human cell, how in the world did the information get there? This is not just a jumble of data is written like code and serves a greater purpose. Even the so called idea of "junk DNA" is falling apart (as the author points out) because science is finding that there really is a use for it...even if we haven't completely figured that out just yet.

Structurally, the book follows Meyer's own journey as he considered and/or discarded the various theories of the origin of life, and how the information got into the cell in the first place. In chapters nine and ten ("Ends and Odds" and "Beyond the Reach of Chance"), for example, he mathematically explains just how astronomical the odds are that life more or less came together out of the primordial soup and pieced itself together by chance.

Towards the latter third of the book, Meyer uses this compelling comparision: when one looks at Mount Rushmore, you can't help but think that such carvings were created by intelligence. In other words, the rocks didn't just crumble or erode over several thousand years to create the four faces on the monument. He also makes mention of the SETI project, which is an ongoing search for extraterrestrial life. Now if they find a pattern in the signals coming from space, or more dramatically, some kind of message, then it would most likely be attributed to intelligence.

To make a comparision to my own field, from a software development standpoint, I can tell you that anybody can throw together a program in a matter of minutes using a list of a particular programming language's keywords. Getting the program to actually run is another thing. Getting that same program to perform something useful is another hurdle.

Getting that program to then be used by your company or even the world as a whole takes a completely different level of skill and maybe even a team of programmers working together. And what would the end user see after using the product? Hopefully, they would see realize some amount of intelligence designed the product and that the program didn't just "assemble itself" one day on a cluster of networked computers.

Several times throughout the book the author made parallels to the field of information science and computer science, which helped me through the more difficult passages. Even if I didn't completely grasp the concept of folding, I could follow his comments such as comparing the code inside of DNA to that of an operating system. He also frequently references visual examples he has used with his students in the past to illustrate larger concepts.

The book's chapters also seemed to echo the type of apologetic you would find in the Biblical book of Romans...even though it focused on the specific issue of the origin of life and was heavy with science. It should be noted, however, that Meyer makes it clear in his book that the issue of intelligent design is separate from that of theological issues...and it is.

Regardless of your worldview, Signature in the Cell is a deep, thought-provoking, and sometimes challenging read. Whether the author intended it or not, it also strikes me a sort of indirect apologetic...and one well worth spending your time considering.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Of Cyanide and Silicon

This video is stunning.

A couple of years ago, there was a Saudi inventor who tried to patent a microchip in Germany that could be used to track criminals via GPS. That, in of itself, is not necessarily a new concept. This device, however, would also contain a dose of cyanide that could be triggered remotely.

Several questions spring to mind.

If patented and produced somewhere else (which just might happen), who would define who gets such a chip? Secondly, would a chip actually stop that person from committing a crime? Third, who makes the call on when it's time to press the button and terminate the person?

In a way, you could call this a sort of "kill switch" for criminal behavior, although usually a kill switch is meant to save someone's life from death or injury, not take it away.

Another question that comes to mind is what if an innocent person is incarcerated, given such a chip, then set free? What if there is some administrative mistake and they get taken out? Sure, those types of issues may represent a minority of the problems that could arise, but nonetheless they would exist...and that is not something I'm seeing being addressed anywhere.

Ultimately, though, it is alarming that someone came up with the idea in the first place. Also, in the patent application, the list of possible uses was rather broad (criminals, fugitives, political opponents, etc.). That is one very slippery slope of possible recipients.

And as I've stated before, there are usually two sides to every new piece of technology. This one, however, seems quite dark on both sides of the equation.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fresh Air

Tomorrow is Father's Day here in the States, and this one is going to be an unusual one for me, in that it will be the first one without my father, since he passed away several months ago.

In his case, the last days of his life were a struggle to get "fresh air", as he suffered from pneumonia. This wasn't his first bout with it, and in fact, a year earlier he was hospitalized with it. The first time, however, he looked to be in very rough shape and I didn't think he was going to make it through.

He did, of course, but I used that time in the hospital and subsequent weeks to witness to him about the many things God has done for me and others around me. You see, I was never quite sure where my Dad stood on matters of faith, and although I knew he attended church off and on during his life, it was mostly off during the last few decades. Sure, we had discussions about God, the Bible, and the different things going on in various churches in the area, but I was never completely sure where he stood and with the onset of his illness I suddenly felt a sense of urgency. Only God knew his heart, however.

His second time with pneumonia was different, though. He actually didn't look all that ill and on the last night I was able to talk to him, we discussed many things, including current events and efforts to build a new temple in Jerusalem. There was a great sense of peace about him, too. Towards the end of my visit, one of the last phrases he said was "I'm just down, but I'm not out."

A day later his blood oxygen levels dropped dramatically and a day after that he was gone.

The takeaway message from all this is that it is vitally important to witness to others about what God has done for you in your life, even if it is in a small or subtle way. We really don't know when our last day will come, or when we will take our last breath of fresh air, or when that last day will be for others around us.

So many times, too, I have seen witnessing opportunities with friends, co-workers, and strangers that never came around again. Sometimes I did a decent job of witnessing, and in other instances, I fell short of the mark. Like any skill, however, I am learning, and learning to recognize that with some people, you may only have one shot at witnessing to them.

In Job 12:10 it states, "In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind." Make every moment count. Seek out ways to share what the Lord has done. It's not all that difficult and it might change someone's life. After all, the next time you see a particular friend, relative, or stranger, it could very well be the last.

This entry is a part of the Christian Writer's Blog Chain for the topic "Fresh Air". Please take the time to visit the other sites listed to the right. Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Two Sides to Every New Piece of Technology

Often times with each new piece of technology, it seems there are two sides to its implementation that should merit careful consideration. Recently there was an article (press release?) about a company that has created a light bulb with a chip inside of it that would allow each bulb to have it's very own unique IP address. While that's a bit unusual, I can see some good outcomes of this as well as some strange ones. From the article:
"You could monitor, manage and control every light bulb from any Internet-enabled device – turning lights on and off individually, dimming or creating scenes from your smartphone, tablet, PC or TV – to save energy as well as electricity costs."
First, let's look at the benefits of such creativity.

Maybe you could turn your smartphone into a remote control of sorts, setting your lighting, air conditioning, etc. when you are away from home. In the home, I'm sure you would be able to do the same. Additionally, you will probably be able to adjust your lights and appliances as a whole and monitor their power consumption or maybe even keep energy costs down by turning off lights in rooms where no one is present. Some of this technology is essentially already in existence in different forms, but this could bring it to a more user-friendly level.

Now what about the flip side? Well, are they talking about IP addresses that are available to the internet, or just to your home wireless router? It's difficult to deduce from the press release.

If it is made available widely, then what? What if someone decides to launch a denial-of-sevice attack against the group of IP addresses that represents the appliances in your house? Would it trigger the same effect as a power outage or loss of control over your appliances? Sure the article mentions a 128-bit AES encryption mechanism, but it may not take much just to create some type of disruption. I'm sure the sophisticated malware writers out there could potentially have a field day with this one.

Can you imagine inviting a group of guests over only to have all the lights and the appliances in the house start going haywire just as you are pullng a turkey out of the oven? Or, what if someone decided to run up your electric bill by turning up the thermostat full tilt and turning on all your lights/appliances while you are on vacation? Yes, there are plenty worse things that could happen, but it would be a weird thing to get stressed out about and could get potentially dangerous if safeguards are not put in place (i.e to prevent the air conditioner from running in the winter or to prevent the furnace from running nonstop until something overheats).

Whatever the outcome, this could get interesting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

April Rain

A poem from my upcoming book, Horizons.

April Rain

I walk downtown
but the 50-story rocketships
can't offer peace
like the sleepy April rain

Gray green red violet black
blossom up
as the tasteless drops
swarm earthward onto the pavement

But the concrete, the street signs
can't offer paint
for the newness of approaching spring

The crisply shined windows
can't offer reflection
for the dreamy glow of summer
silently igniting

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Art of Hoop Jumping

A few months back I entered one of my novels into the Writer's Digest Self-Published book contest. I did very well (19/20 score, very positive comments), but the last line of the judge's comments got me thinking about a lot of things:

"The main thing I want to suggest is that Michael Galloway keep writing and look for a major New York house for his next book."

There are several possible meanings to this line.

One, the book I entered was strong, but unfortunately it was self-published, and in some circles, that pretty much means that a traditional publisher will not pick it up unless you have some astounding sales to show for it. Two, I'm "not quite there yet", but if I keep at it, I will be, and I should shop my next novel around when I complete it.

Then there is the third possibility. My writing is strong, I could have traditionally published this book, and I should traditionally publish my next book (assuming it is well written). The judge also mentioned they did not see any way I could improve on the book I did send in. So...this leads to the next question.

What if I don't want to traditionally publish at all now? What if I've been so turned off by the industry/submission process in general that all I want to do is get on with my life, write great books, and build a reading audience? Or should I continue to perfect my hoop-jumping skills and try to jump through a continually shrinking set of hoops?

I don't mean to sound sour, but I have spent many years sending off query letters, waiting for replies, etc. At times it was an agonizingly slow process. It didn't help that I was very picky about who I send my queries to. To add to the slowness, however, some agencies didn't want you to query multiple people at once. That always struck me as odd, considering many agencies nowadays have gigantic slush piles, limited staff to review the queries that do come in, and many of these agencies are under great pressure by editors and publishing houses to "minimize risk". So, why then, should I spend several weeks in waiting when the package I spent hours creating gets reviewed in 30 seconds or less?

I've read innumerable articles and books on the art of the query process. I've read many articles on how to build the perfect synopsis. I've read many articles that dissected successful authors' query letters and how they made it through the hoops. I've tried innumerable techniques. I also went to a writer's conference where the seminars were good, but when I overheard a writer cornering one of speakers (maybe "trapping" is a better word here) and the editor sounded polite but kind of miserable, I cringed.

Would there come a day when I would spend my time attending conferences just trying to corner agents and editors?

Sorry, I'll pass.

So again I ask, am I in the business of hoop jumping or writing great books?

At the end of the day, I'd rather look back and say I helped to push the art of fiction writing a little further forward, and pushed myself to my limits. That, to me, is a job well done.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Descriptive Overdrive

There are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to describe a given object.

Take for example, this picture of a brick. How would you describe it?
Here's a sample description list for this particular object.

Heavy, red, pitted, rectangular, cracked, chipped, brown, construction, dense, coarse surface, sturdy, durable, strong.

Great. So there are many ways to describe a brick.

Okay, let's say instead you have a scene which somehow involves a brick wall. Or the building or the destruction of that wall. Now what?

Well, for one, you can tie the descriptions of the wall to a particular chararcter. Let's say you have a construction worker. How would they describe the brick wall? Or, what about a disgruntled youth thinking of grabbing a brick to go break a window? How would they describe the wall? What about someone standing by the ruins of the wall after a fire or natural disaster? The list is really endless, but in this circumstance, you can tie a scene's desciptions to your point-of-view character, and it could dramatically alter how the wall is described.

You can also pick certain descriptions to evoke a particular mood. For example, you could describe a brick wall as being aged, weathered, chipped, faded, and forgotten. You could probably also choose to focus on other elements, such as strong, tough, a necessary wall between neighbors, etc.

In short, the descriptive words you use can have a major impact on how a reader feels about your scenes, your characters, and your story. At the same time, however, you have to be careful not to go into "thesaurus overdrive" and plug in every interesting sounding word you can find as alternatives to more mundane words such as "red" or "crumbling".

If you get too creative, however, the descriptions end up drawing full attention to themselves and you run the risk of throwing the reader out of the story. If someone is constantly looking words up or trying to visualize what a dilapidated, crimson, hodgepodge barricade looks like, you may end up losing your reader before they even turn the page.