Friday, April 30, 2010

The SeaTac Sloth

The human imagination can be caught by anything. Yesterday mine was captured by an extinct giant ground sloth.

Vonda McIntyre and I visited Seattle's Burke Museum, a small museum of natural history on the University of Washington campus. Among other fossils sits the SeaTac Sloth. This creature -- or rather, its bones, minus the head -- was discovered in 1961 when SeaTac (Seattle-Tacoma Airport) was undergoing construction. At what became the base of anchor 4B of FAA Approach Lighting System No. 1 at the north end of the airport, a construction worker found bones in the hole he was excavating. Work was immediately stopped and an expert summoned. (I love that image: "Cancel construction and get a paleontologist in here STAT!") The bones were identified as Washington State's only specimen of Megalonyx jeffersonii, a giant sloth that lived about 12,500 years ago, was about the size of a small cow, and ate vegetarian.

The name came from President Thomas Jefferson, who also discovered bones of one on his estate in Virginia. However, Jefferson was of the opinion that there might still be some of these creatures left deep in the unexplored American wilderness, peacefully munching away on roots and twigs in what would become Kansas. He was wrong, but that also is a nice image.

The museum's tiny gift shop did not, alas, have so much as a post card of the SeaTac Sloth, an unforgivable omission. They had buttons of pigs with teeth, puppets of saber-tooth tigers, and books about T. Rex, but nothing for the SeaTac Sloth. There just ain't no justice.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Literary Snobbery

The new ATLANTIC (or maybe it's the one before that) has a very interesting article about Norman Mailer written by his widow, Norris Church Mailer. She was his fifth wife, and apparently a saint -- she was willing to mother all nine (nine!) of his children from previous relationships, and to do so quite successfully. She is frank about Mailer's infidelities, as well as how much she loved him, but what most caught my attention was a tiny incident on an airplane.

Norris was reading a novel by Mary Renault. Mailer asked her to leave it at home: "I can't have people see you reading things like that!" My blood boiled.

First off, who was he to tell her what she can read where? But more germane to this blog, Mary Renault was a fantasy writer, and an extremely good one. Her novels (THE KING MUST DIE, THE BULL FROM THE SEA, THE PERSIAN BOY, THE LAST OF THE WINE, etc.) combine a scrupulous rendering of ancient Greece with some magical elements as she retells the stories of Theseus and other mythological Greek heroes. Her prose is evocative, her characters, strong, and her recreation of the ancient world remarkably vivid. But of course she was a fantasy writer and hence beyond Mailer's approval no matter how well she wrote.

I shudder to think what Mailer might have said had his wife been reading Harry Potter.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Science Education

This is one of the most discouraging things I've ever seen. A survey of 1,005 adults chosen at random was conducted by phone last June. The subjects were asked twelve questions based on general scientific knowledge. The questions are very simple. I got all twelve right, which is fine -- except that I am among only 10% who did so.

Did I mention how simple these questions are? Take the survey for yourself, at The web page following the quiz gives the scoring breakdown.

What are we teaching in our schools??

Monday, April 19, 2010

Moving with Pods

I have not blogged for a while because I have been in the process of moving to Seattle, using U-Pack pods. If you should ever care to do this, here is the drill: Two 6' x 7' x 8' metal containers are deposited in your driveway by a forklift. These containers turn out to be somewhat smaller inside, which means two weeks of diagrams drawn on graph paper are no longer useful. My sons, daughter-in-law, and friend fit things in as carefully as possible. These "things" included 50 boxes of books, which are easy to fit in, and such odd-shaped objects as vacuum cleaner and elephant tables, which are not. The fork lift returns, takes away the pods, and sends them by truck across the country, where you assemble a group of beyond-the-call-of-duty friends to unload them. Here is a virgin pod, unloaded:

Here is one jammed to the ceiling, which Jack and Rod are manfully divesting of its contents. These contents shifted in transit, qualifying all our helpers for hazard pay, and making it clear why I, the packing supervisor, should never aim for a second career in household relocation.
The pods cost less than half as much as full-service movers, although of course they involve six times the effort. Would I do it again, should I ever have to move again? Probably not. Despite using a lot of blankets, some of my furniture got dinged in transit. This was my fault more than the moving company's. But I've come to the conclusion that this is a game for younger travelers. Although I would miss all the phone calls to the company so that I could say afterward, "I talked to the pod people last night." For an SF writer, this sentence may be worth the entire experience.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Talent and Effort

Although the "Burgomeister" pirate stealing other people's novels does not seem to think so (see previous post), writing uses both talent and effort. A long-standing question has been: How much of each? Is talent inborn, do you have to possess innate ability to be a writer, can it be taught, how much of success comes from talent and how much from hard work? These questions have been applied not only to writing but to music, art, sports, chess, even business.

Geoff Colvin thinks he has some answers. He's the author of TALENT IS OVERRATED: WHAT REALLY SEPARATES WORLD CLASS PERFORMERS FROM EVERYBODY ELSE. He brings together an impressive amount of research in various fields to reach his conclusion: Talent is mostly a myth. What counts is practice, but practice of a very specific kind, and over a pretty specific period.

The period is ten years, at a minimum. Yes, people succeed at lower levels before that, but reaching the top requires steady, intense practice for ten years. If, like Mozart and Tiger Woods, you start before you're three, you get the ten years in earlier. What counts is number of hours. For instance, students at an elite music school were divided into three groups: (1)those seen by their instructors as potential concert soloists, (2) those seen as potential professionals but not soloists, and (3)those seen as potential music teachers but not performers. In all case, thousands of hours of previous practice distinctly separated the three groups.

But what of, say, the Beatles, who had a hit before ten years had passed? Colvin argues that their early music was not as original or important as what came after ten years; it was not world class. The same, in science fiction, could be said of someone like Robert Silverberg.

What I thought most interesting, however, was the kind of practice that produces excellence. It cannot just be hitting more golf balls the way you always hit them, or playing the same violin pieces over and over, or playing more chess, or writing more stories like your previous stories. It must be "thoughtful practice," in which you obtain feedback, analyze what is working and what is not, and deliberately work on extending yourself in your weak areas. It is, Colvin reports from his interviewee, "work, not fun, and exhausting." But over time -- enough time -- it produces results. He details how Tiger Woods and chess champion Judit Polgar did that, and "exhausting" does not begin to cover it.

I believe all this, or at least most of it. I know that at the three times my own modest career made significant advances, I was deliberately trying to do something differently than before, and as a direct result of feedback from people whose opinion I respected (once Gene Wolfe, once Bruce Sterling, and once Ralph Vicinanza).

Read this book and decide for yourself.