Friday, May 27, 2011

Grubstaking and Kickstarter: Investing on the "small scale" for large returns

Kicking off my shoes on this Friday evening and indulging in a little time-travel whiplash about "grubstaking" and its modern 21st century equivalent (of sorts).
What's a "grubstake," you may wonder?
Well, I shall tell you.
According to Merriam Webster (online), a grubstake is supplies or funds furnished a mining prospector on promise of a share in his discoveries. (First use: 1863)

Grubstaking was responsible for a number of fortunes in the silver-mining boomtown Leadville, Colorado, for instance. There's Horace Tabor, who grubstaked what later became The Matchless Mine—ultimately making millions by outfitting two prospectors with picks, shovels, and food. (You can read about The Matchless and Horace Tabor's $17.00 initial investment here.) 

From our high-tech 21st century perspective, what's the equivalent opportunity? IPOs for Facebook, LinkedIn, and such? Ha! Don't make me laugh... I haven't millions (or thousands) to spare on a game like that. However, a friend introduced me to Kickstarter, and, after looking around the site, I think this may be about as close as it comes to modern day grubstaking. Kickstarter, according to its FAQ, "is a new way to fund creative projects." As a backer to any of the bazillions of projects, you can "kick in" as little as a dollar and help creative folks make their dreams come true. And you may not make millions, but you might get a t-shirt, a one-of-a-kind object, or some such. You can create your own Kickstart project.

So, with my modest pin money, I waded in, and backed two projects. In time-travel whiplash style, I backed one that's very 19th century, and another that's very 21st century.

19th century first: The Tin Gypsy, a project to "keep alive" antique photographic processes dating back to the 1850s, including tintypes (images on metal plates), ambrotypes (images on glass plates), as well as salted paper and albumen prints (images on paper coated with salts and albumen from egg whites). Check it out!

The 21st century project I'm grubstaking: Guitar Games. I'm somewhat prejudiced in favor of the whole concept, as this is the brainchild of a friend of mine. Too, Guitar Games encourages musicality in the next generation (or any generation), a goal that gets a big thumbs up from me!

I'm glad to see a venue like Kickstarter around. Yeah, we may not get rich off of any of this (at least, not the way Tabor got rich from grubstaking a couple of broke silver prospectors), but Kickstarter allows "small folk" like me to fuel the creativity of others, enriching us all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

New Mexico then... then... and now

When this post rolls up, I'll be at the Left Coast Crime convention in Santa Fe, New Mexico, hanging out with mystery readers and writers (and taking in the sights).

So, what to say about New Mexico?

Well, there's the far (human) past:
 Petroglyph National Monument and Bandolier National Monument

The more recent (human) past:
Georgia O'Keeffe and Los Alamos (back when)

My little piece of "now":

And lest I leave Victorian times out of the loop... here's a great website, Moments in Time, with a short video about Victorian fashion and New Mexico, a la 1880s. If you've ever wondered how women of this era managed to put on a corset without help, check it out!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Internet and Thomas Edison's pen

A little time-travel arm-chair adventure story, made possible by long-ago genius and modern-day technology.
For various reasons having to do with (my) fiction (endeavors), I was on the hunt for information about  the state of the phonograph in 1880.
It all began (a while ago... in terms of months that is, not years or decades) when I stumbled across the fact that the phonograph was invented in 1877 (factoid in the book The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s, which noted that the gas engine and carbon microphone were invented that year as well).
Very cool, I thought. I am particularly interested in the state of music and what was happening in the 1800s (before 1880).
As I came closer to writing what I thought of as "the scene" involving said phonograph, I began to wonder: What did this device look like? I know Thomas Edison invented it. Were there phonographs out and about? Was it a common machine? What did it play? The book didn't have any more information, so ...
I let loose the dogs of research...
Right away, I found a nifty photo on Wikipedia—Thomas Edison with his invention (photo taken in 1878)
In the same entry, I found an image of an Edison cylinder phonograph, taken in 1898:

Okay, so one is a tad too early, the other is quite a bit too late. So, what was the state of affairs in 1880? I began widening my search. Found some nifty stuff. Didn't bookmark it all, but here's a more "in depth" look at the 1877 machine, in Mix magazine (online) on the Edison Cylinder Recorder.
Somewhere along the line, I stumbled onto a reference of an Edison Phonograph patent dated may 18, 1880. Good enough for me...
A quick virtual trip to the US Patent and Trademark Office site, and lo and behold, I download a copy of Edison's 1880 patent (one page shown below):
At this point, late at night, I sat back in my comfy chair in my home office, and thought about what had just occurred. In 2011, from my laptop, in the comfort of my home, I had just snagged an electronic copy of a patent of one of Edison's most important inventions—130 years after his pen-and-ink copy (complete with his signature) was given the nod. I could examine the drawings and read the text and see his hand upon the page.
Truly amazing.
And I think Thomas Edison would have approved...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Nature Takes All

Sobering day, what with the 8.9 earthquake in Japan. This will be short.
We have always tried to understand nature and predict it.
Starting waaaaay back with clocking the seasons and the stars...

Right up to the edge of today, with predicting the motion of tsunami (thank you, NOAA, for your awesome modeling)...

So... Predict Nature?
To some extent. 
Harness it?
We've proved we can use a portion of the energy from sun, water, and wind for our own purposes, and pretty much extinguish species as we desire (although I do think the insect world will probably prove the ultimate survivors).
But "control" Nature? As in control the motion of tectonic plates and the evolution of the stars?
Not likely.
Too, we once believed the universe circled 'round our little planet.

We now know differently.

Humans = hubris. 
And Nature wins out, in the end.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Moving along...

Movement past and present.
I actually was going to post about something else, but this captured my attention instead.
Regarding the past: Eadweard Muybridge pioneered stop-action photography back in 1880s (galloping horse and all). There is a show of his work—including hauntingly beautiful photographs of Yosemite and elsewhere—which just opened at SFMOMA. I hope I can somehow make time to get to this exhibit. I'm fascinated by Muybridge's work ... and intrigued by his rather tortured personal life as well (all fodder for fiction, you know).

And for the cutting-edge here and now: Here's a really amazing technical development—a "Nano Hummingbird" flapping-wing nano air vehicle, developed for DARPA by AeroVironment.

Description that goes with the YouTube video: "Battery-powered and remote-controlled, the hummingbird-like prototype uses flapping wings for propulsion and control. Carring a video camera and downlink, the prototype has a wingspan of 16cm (9.5in) and weighs just 19 grams (0.66oz). It can hover for 8 minutes, remaining stable in gusts up to 5mph, and reach up to 11mph in forward flight."
What can I say? This... is... awesome. I'd like one for Christmas, please.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Deadly... or not?

Ann Parker here, kicking off my shoes for a TGIF post. I've run into a bit of a sticky wicket this week in trying to negotiate the past from a present frame of reference. (I love the term "sticky wicket," btw. Comes from cricket, first used in 1882, so I can't use it in my fiction, more's the pity.)

This week, I've been obsessing over certain kinds of plants (i.e., poisonous), their effects on people and livestock, and their names, both common and scientific. I've been running into sticky wickets and time-travel whiplash, left and right.

What to do if an "old" reference says a plant is highly poisonous, and recent sources say it's not?

What to do if the common names of the plant changed over time, but I'm not sure when/where a certain name came into existence?

For instance, if a character from 1880 is talking about this plant:

 Would they call it:
  • Golden Smoke?
  • Scrambled Eggs?
And if it flourishes in a particular area NOW, was it there THEN?

So far, I've been going to Google Books, putting the plant name in the search engine, limiting the search to items before 1880, and seeing what pops up.

A long process, and I'm still thrashing about.

And I don't even want to go into the thicket of scientific names, that seem to morph over time.

So, it's back to thickets and wickets until next week. Same time, same channel.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What's the Rush??

Kicking my shoes off on a Friday, and thinking back over this past week. Have been chatting with my-son-the-gamer about "rushes."
And I don't mean the kind of rush you get when you level-up in Halo, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, etc., etc. (Yep, I'm learnin' the lingo...)

I'm more interested in figuring out what the "next new thing" or even the "current new thing" is. What everyone's rushing to, in terms of making easy money.
Like the Gold Rush in California (1849).
Or, the Silver Rush in Colorado (1879).
Or, the boom (mid-1990s).
Or... the real estate boom (early-ish 2000s). 

(If you're interested in some of the commonalities, here's a great New York Times article from 2000 talking about the Gold Rush, the Oil Rush, and the Rush that sums things up nicely...) 

It's more a frame of mind I'm looking for: The get in, get rich, get out mentality that doesn't see failure as a personal possibility.
With these kind of rushes, you also tend to find a media frenzy that feeds into/off of the growing belief of the populace that, hey, look at all those folks who did [whatever], I can do it and become rich too!

For instance, how many people do you know who became real-estate agents in the early- to mid-2000s, thinking it'd be "easy money?" Or people who got into the "flipping houses" game?

Okay, I think we'd agree that's pretty much over.

So, what's the hot topic now?

 Is it social networks? Facebook. Twitter. deviantART. LinkedIn. These are the ones off the top of my head. How easy is it to actually start up a new social network?
Is it apps? Angry Birds, anyone?
Is it online games? ... heard of MineCraft?
Is it cleantech/greentech? Solar energy, smart grid, electric cars. Hmm.

In my little corner of the world, in the publishing and writing field, I can see/sense a "rush" mentality regarding epublishing and ebooks. I hear echoes of what I think of as "rush rhetoric":
It's easy!
Anyone can do it!
So-and-so is making $$$ per month, selling his/her ebooks... and you can too!

What do you think?

Friday, February 11, 2011

It's kinda like this and it's kinda like that

Happy Friday!
Since it's end of the work week, I get to kick off my work shoes and write about what's been rumbling around in my mind since my last (first) post.
In particular, I was thinking about the explanation that 100 femtoseconds is the length of time is takes for light to travel the width of a human hair.
Dang, I *love* stuff like that, i.e., taking a complicated concept and bringing it down to earth.
I could've said "a hundred femtoseconds is a hundred-quadrillionths of a second." Or "ten to the minus thirteen seconds." Or "zero-point-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-one second long." And you'd probably say something like, "Whoa, that's a lot of zeros."
But would you get it?
Because all those zeros don't really explain how long 100 femtoseconds is, in everyday terms.
So what's this got to do with consumption, you ask?
Okay, get ready, here comes the whiplash.
From 2011 to 1880.

I have been reading a lot of stuff about consumption in 1880. (Not "consumption" as in consuming food or goods, but "consumption" as in tuberculosis.) It's hard to grasp in this day and age just how insidious and downright frightening tuberculosis was back then (just like it's hard to grasp the concept of a femtosecond).
I was getting some really good information, but wasn't getting the immensity of the problem.
 La miseria (1886) by Cristóbal Rojas (1857–1890)
... Tuberculosis was EVERYwhere in the 19th century ...

... I read the "The Salisbury Plans in Consumption" in the Transactions of the American Medical Association, 1880 (held in NYC). The author, Ephraim Cutter, M.D., opens his paper by describing the extent of consumption:
It is estimated that one-quarter of the human deaths is caused directly or indirectly by what is commonly called consumption. Taking man to comprise 1,500,000,000 of individuals living on this globe, and the rate of annual mortality to be one in fortyfive, there is a total of 33,333,333 yearly deaths. One-quarter of this number gives 8,333,333 annual victims offered on the altar of consumption. The intellect is unable fully to comprehend this vast number. Allow us to try to measure it by some common gauges. I find I can write my name readily ten times in one minute. It would take me 833,333 minutes to write it as many times as there are annual consumptive deaths. That is, it would take 1 year, 213 days, and 16 hours of uninterrupted writing simply to inscribe the names of this host, if on an average they consisted of thirteen letters.
Suppose the vast company could be marshalled in rows four deep and two feet apart, this host would reach 770 miles in length, and occupy 10 days and 17 hours in passing a given point at a continuous rate of three miles an hour.
If the coffins of this host averaged three feet in length, and could be placed end to end, they would reach 24,999,999 feet, or about 4733 miles, or farther than from here to Liverpool. Their funerals, at an average cost of ten dollars, would sum up $83,333,333.
Bringing the matter down to the United States, with a population of 45,000,000, we have 250,000 annual deaths from consumption. A mortality of 20,000 deaths in the late epidemic of yellow fever convulsed the nation and cost $27,000,000. How can we estimate our annual monetary loss from one-quarter of a million deaths from consumption? If the deceased had been associated in an organization, it would take its secretary to call off the roll, at the rate of 36 names a minute, 4 days, 19 hours, and 44 minutes of continuous phonation.
Now I get it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Coming every Friday (give or take... with a margin of error) and LCLS

Since my days are taken up with work (scribbling about science and technology) and my nights are taken up with fiction (writing the Silver Rush historical mysteries of 1880 Colorado), I suffer regularly from what I think of as "time travel whiplash"—switching intense focus between these two worlds.

So, why not blog about it? But, I need a schedule. Once a week is doable, I think. Fridays are good: the work-week is done (well sometimes), and I generally have lots of science bits rattling around my brain, and the fictional world is usually clamoring for its turn. So here we go. Blogging on Fridays, with some unknown margin of error. Of course, the more I blog, the larger the sample size, and the smaller the error bar (at least, that's the theory).

As promised, here's a nifty bit of science to keep your eye on: the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at SLAC creates X-ray pulses that can capture images of atoms and molecules in motion. How fast does the "shutter" have to be to take these pictures? Less than 100 femtoseconds. And how fast is that? One hundred femtoseconds is the amount of time it takes light to travel the width of a human hair. i.e., pretty darn fast.
More about the LCLS here.
Some amazing research results from LCLS here.
And an amazing image from these recent results: 
 An X-ray diffraction pattern of a single virus particle. The X-ray pulse lasted a millionth of a billionth of a second and heated the virus to 100,000 degrees Celsius, but not before this image was obtained. (Image: Tomas Ekeberg, Uppsala University.)