February 21st, 2011

#2562: Vital resources

Rare earth metals are vital to our economy and China has slashed its export quotas of them.

The article is full of a lot of bad reporting, though. For one thing, when discussing the hazards of mining rare earths, it talks about "occasionally unearthing dirt that is radioactive".

All dirt is radioactive, to one degree or another. There's a lot of uranium and thorium in soil.

The other thing: "The high costs and damaging techniques pushed most rare earth mines out of business in the early 1990s." The sentence is missing three words: "of environmental regulations". Tuck that phrase after "high costs". (Bonus points: cut "and damaging techniques" from it.)

It tries to make mining for rare earths sound like it's especially dirty, but all mining and smelting operations are toxic. There's a nickel mine in Nevada (I think it's Nevada) where the soil is so heavily contaminated with heavy metals nothing will grow there.

China's managed to become the dominant supplier of rare earths because the commisars don't care about the environment or the health of its workers. China can mine and smelt the stuff and just let all the crap go into the air, water, and soil; sure, it means that a bunch of people get cadmium and mercury and arsenic in their rice (beyond trace amounts, I mean) but the elites of the Communist Party don't have to worry about that. Party elites get richer and live better, and China has a few million fewer proles to worry about. (I mean, after all, they have a population problem there! What's a few million when you've got 1.1 billion people?)

But since China's going to drastically reduce its exports of rare earth metals, it means the supply of cheap metals is drying up. That makes mining them in the US into a more economically sound proposition.

...but there'll still be a transition period, where the world supply of rare earth metals is limited; and that'll drive up prices. So for the next couple of years, companies which need things made with rare-earth metals are going to be struggling--and that means less hiring.

See where this is going?

* * *

As always, feminists get what they want, and then bitch about it.

Nowhere does the article discuss how the marriage contract has been skewed in favor of women to the detriment of men. If you get married, she can divorce you at any time for any reason, and the divorce court will give her half what you own and alimony to boot. If you had a kid before the divorce, she'll get child support until the kid is 18, and the court doesn't care if that doesn't leave you enough money to live on.

Naturally men are going to avoid this kind of crap.

* * *

Monopoly played with house rules. Expanding money supply leads to inflation; cutting the same money supply leads to depression. Welcome to Economics 101.

* * *

I'm linking to this Ace of Spades post because of the first part, about how music sales have declined.

I don't know that piracy is really that big of a reason. I think the biggest problem the music industry faces is that THEIR PRODUCT IS SHIT.

Every once in a while I hear a song done by Ray Charles or Bing Crosby or any of a hundred other musical greats, and I realize, "This guy sang this song without AutoTune or tone correction." Musicians also didn't have MIDI or drum machines; think about that the next time you listen to an old song with drums: repetetive beat that the drummer is performing had to be done by hand, in real time, as an analog tape recorder ran.

To be a successful musician, you actually had to be able to perform.

Not so these days. Popular music is generated in a computer. If your singer hits a wrong note, or sings an entire song half a tone flat, you don't need to redo the take; just budget for tone correction instead. The music itself only needs to be programmed once via MIDI; after that, no one ever has to touch an instrument.

So what happens? You get talentless hacks who succeed because of marketing. So-and-so can't sing worth a shit, and he can't play an instrument, but he can talk fast and rhyme words and dance, and our talent scout liked his performance at some club, so we'll make him a big rap star.

What is happening to the recording industry is, in fact, economics at work. Their product is shit and--more importantly--bands no longer need the recording industry, thanks to the Internet. Bands can self-promote and keep all the proceeds of CD and merchandise sales; a guy working in his basement can produce a professional-level product in his spare time.

(Like this guy, a friend of the Fungus.)

* * *

Man, I slept too much.

Yesterday I made pot roast (not well, unfortunately, but edible) and did not do much else. I'd be up for a while, then go back to bed, then get up, then sleep more, blah blah blah.

I learned that when you're going to put a chunk of meat into a crock pot of turkey broth and let it simmer all day, you can put the vegetables (potatos and carrots) in at the same time; they won't turn to mush. I had arranged things such that dinner was to be around 6; I put the potatos and carrots in at 3, and they weren't done in time. After I ate I put the heat back on and let them go until 11 PM, at which point they were finally done.

I've been thinking about making corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's day with the crock pot--throw in a hunk of corned beef, potatos and carrots and cabbage, and let it stew all day. I never used to like corned beef; now I do. Oh well.

Noticing that I have frozen bratwurst and two cans of sauerkraut, I think I'm going to try baking the brats in the kraut: just get a casserole dish and put down a bed of the kraut, then add brats and more kraut until it's full. Then add some beer, cover with foil, and bake at 350 for half an hour or so. Ought to be tasty.

* * *

I'm really not all that happy about anything right now. Well, it's not surprising--Friday sucked.

Saturday was all right, though I hated having to leave the party early, as it were. Og has the particulars; Cafe Borgia sounds like a nice place but I can't justify spending $50 on a meal when I've got no income. It's not anyone's fault; it's just how it is. What can you do? I certainly am not going to expect anyone to pick up my tab.

There'll be other opportunities.

Anyway, Sunday I spent alternating between comatose and kitchen, and started reading Building Harlequin's Moon, which is a collaboration between Larry Niven and one Brenda Cooper.

...how do you get to collaborate with Larry Niven on a novel? I'm pretty sure that would help me a lot....

Anyway the story is not-bad. It's clear that 90% of the writing was done by Cooper, because I'm not seeing many of Niven's stylistic cues in the story. (Example: In recent years Niven has developed a tendency to have people address others with their names in a clunky fashion rather than insert dialogue tags. "'Sigmund, I don't know.'" rather than "'I don't know,' Billy said.")

Well, it's the last book I bought from Borders. I went there on Thursday, before going to the range, hoping to score Kimi ni Todoke #7; of course they didn't have it. They did have Strawberry 100% #12, which was the next book in that series that I wanted; so I got that and the Niven-Cooper collabo, and got out of there for (barely) under $20.

Then, on Friday, I got an e-mail saying they were going to have a 20% off "closing" sale. Argh. That's the story of my life. Anyway, since the place is closing and I can't justify going back for more books, it seems safe to say that I won't be buying any more books there.

Anyway, once I get going on the basement, I'm going to be finding all my other books, and I'll have plenty of stuff to reread.

I have an entire box of Mangajin I want to reread; it was a magazine which was devoted to Japanese language and culture, and it used comics to teach Japanese grammar. It was pretty neat, and it's where I first learned about Maison Ikkoku and Yawara!.

One of those issues mentions a manga series about a guy who turns into a girl. One day he wakes up female, and stays that way; it sounded interesting but I can't remember the title. Apparently it was a pretty popular series; someone might have scanlated it--and I could find out if I had the title of the stupid thing.

But cleaning the basement is a big job; and of course I haven't had anything else to worry about these past few weeks....

#2563: Is Libya falling?

I don't know what to think if ol' Moammar has been given the hidey-ho.

But in Libya, elements of the military are defecting rather than follow orders to shoot; and it sounds as if it's the latest country to fall in the big collapse of the middle east.

Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain...now Libya; and somehow I doubt any of them are going to end up being representative republics when the smoke clears.

Alan Caruba reminds us that these are primarily food riots.

Look: the value of the dollar is falling. It can't even keep its value because Obama and the Democrats ran the printing presses at emergency maximum for three years--and the GOP is once again showing its true colors and trying only to turn the speed control down to "full speed".

Because the dollar is losing value, it takes more foreign currency to buy a given unit of any commodity priced in them. American wheat and corn, for example.

America has been a net exporter of food for a long time. This land has only supported agriculture for about three hundred years, at most, and for the last hundred years we've known a lot about artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Automation, mechanization, and advanced chemistry have made it possible for one farmer to produce more than a small army of farmers once could; and because we have the rich soil and the infrastructure and the transportation network, we produce more of everything than we need. "Breadbasket of the world" is, at most, an exaggeration.

But it only works well so long as the dollar is strong. Say it takes ten zorkmids to buy a dollar, and a bushel of wheat costs a dollar. This works well for everyone; there's plenty of food to go around and no one has to take a beating to make it happen.

But what happens when the value of the dollar drops because of inflation? Maybe it only takes five zorkmids to buy a dollar--but a bushel of wheat costs ten dollars because the dollar buys less. Suddenly wheat is fifty zorkmids to the bushel, where it was only ten zorkmids before; and the people who have the zorkmids don't have all that many zorkmids to spend in the first place.

Food riots are not uncommon in those countries; they've happened many times before this. The thing is, the US acted to stabilize the regimes in those countries following the guidelines of our own national interests.

True fact: international diplomacy is a dirty frickin' game. It's full of lying, cheating, stealing, and backstabbing. Sometimes you support people you don't like solely because it's a bigger advantage for you than having some other asshole who hates your guts get in and take over. Carter didn't seem to get that with regards to Iran in 1979; and Obama doesn't seem to get it, either.

The difference this time is that the Obama administration is not coming down on the side of our national interests; he doesn't care about them. Obama would much rather take credit for Egypt becoming "democratic"--and have it end up an islamic dictatorship like Iran--than help a regime retain power that is, at worst, only tepidly anti-Israel, even though Israel is our only true ally in the region.

Obama doesn't like Israel, either. Obama doesn't like any of our allies. Witness please how he's treated Great Britain.

As for old Moammar--the guy's a skunk, but he learned his lesson about sponsoring terrorism after Reagan had him bombed in 1986; and in fact that little object lesson turned off the spigot of anti-American terror for quite some time. He was quietly running his tin-horn dictatorship and not bothering anyone excessively; is it really an improvement to be rid of him if his replacement is an islamic nutjob?

Somehow I doubt it.

#2564: Does misery make you more creative?

Probably due to the various miseries of life, over the past several days I've been feeling an increased hankering to do some real writing--fiction, I mean, the kind of stuff I hoard in hopes of selling, one day.

In my plethora of hard SF, there's one story I've wanted to tell properly ever since I first got into writing the stuff. It's the first novel I ever wrote; it took me about four years of painstakingly scribbling text longhand to get it all down on paper, and it was--of course--some of the most godawful shit ever extruded onto paper. It could not be otherwise: it was a first novel and it was written by a kid starting at age 12 and ending around age 16.

Now, with the wisdom and experience and practice that the intervening decades provide, I can actually tell the story I originally wanted to tell. The problem is how.

As constituted right now, it tells--as a loose grouping of short stories--the life story of a political scion who abandons the future his parents have carefully planned for him, and enters military service. He serves with distinction during the second interstellar war fought by Man against a race of xenophobic sauroids; he rises from fighter school to command a battle group, and in fact his leadership ends the war.

The story is full of all kinds of neat things--a fighter assault on a deuterium refinery floating in a gas giant; the tale of how he escapes from his parents and their Secret Service detail; his relationships with various important figures in the story universe; and a bunch of others besides--and it ought to be easy for me to write.

But it's not. And I don't know why.

The original story is almost completely useless. It has a rambling plot that never really does anything--it's just this guy talking about all the neat shit he's done--and nothing in it ever happens for any reason other than, "This is neat!" But it contains the germ of something useful, a tiny shard of something worthwhile in a vast conglomerate of slag.

The problem isn't knowing what to cut; the problem is knowing how to use what I keep. Do I do X? Do I do Y? How about Z? What works best for this? How do I convey the sense of what it's like to be there?

Rule number one is always just tell the damned story. Too many writers forget that part; they get so wound up in symbolism and metaphor that they forget: the entire purpose of fiction is to tell a story. You can spend all the frickin' time you want on making your novel a metaphor for Man's struggle against ennui, but if the story is boring the only people who will like it will be literary critics and the hopelessly intellectual. (Read that last as "stupid people".) And only the members of one of those two groups actually pay for the novels they read.

Rule number two is get out of the way and let the reader enjoy the story. The more you make your reader think about what you've written, the less immersive your story is. You don't want to jar your reader out of the story; you want him to be incapable of putting the damn book down. Throw all kinds of jargon or purple prose at him and he's going to have to stop to decipher each sentence; it's a mistake to think that convoluted sentences and tangled descriptions somehow make you a better writer. The best writing is that which ends up being invisible to the reader: he doesn't have to think about it and the stuff you wrote goes right into his brain without slowing down.

Rule three: If the story's not holding your interest, it won't hold anyone else's. Everyone's taste is different, but the best way to make a story interesting to others is to tell a story you're interested in telling.

...but I'm having trouble obeying those rules with this story, and--again--I don't know why. Heck, I can't even seem to quantify the problem I'm having with this.

But I learned years ago that wanting to write isn't the same as being able to write. Right now I could open Word and maybe add a few sentences to whatever project I selected...but they wouldn't be good sentences and the story wouldn't advance anyway. (See rule #3.)

I've tried doing the "discipline" thing and making myself write a certain amount each day; but if my heart's not in it, the stuff that comes out is crap. (If my heart is in it, then it's effortless, and it sings.)

So, to answer my own question: no. No, it doesn't. Misery may give me the desire to create stuff--if only to get away from reality for a while--but it takes away the ability even while it enhances the desire.

* * *

Several months ago, I alluded to this awesome idea I had for something salable. What it is, is a series of vignettes about a hapless wizard, the mage he was once apprenticed to (who is now a talking skull) and the former master's cat.

I banged out about twelve vignettes and was really happy with it...until a fatal defect occurred to me: for a humorous story, it wasn't exactly funny.

No, strike that. It's hilarious--but it's not "laugh out loud" hilarious; it's wry and dry and ascerbic. There are a few LOL moments; but for the most part, the humor comes from the disdain in which the storyteller regards everything going on around him. (The story is told from the cat's viewpoint.)

My target market for this bit of fun is Knights of the Dinner Table, a comic about a bunch of tabletop RPG players. Only about half of each issue is comics; the rest is various columns about RPG stuff. Each vignette is about a page of text, and it should be very easy to slot into a magazine like that.

But the fact that it's not really HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! funny gave me pause. I stopped adding to it; there have been too many times that I've let someone read something humorous that I generated and which garnered zero laughs--solely because the humor was written to amuse me and my dry, wry, ascerbic sense of humor.

What I've got is probably enough to send to them and say, "I can keep doing this for as long as you want to print it." There's a ton of story I can tell; after twelve chapters I've barely gotten started. Further, my first sale ever (only sale, so far) was to this selfsame magazine, and it was pretty much the same kind of humor that is in this story.

I am fairly confident that if they decided to pick it up, I'd have no trouble resuming my work on it. Money is the ultimate validation.

* * *

I've been writing since 1979, and I still don't know WTF I'm doing.