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.)