Friday, May 29, 2009

Dispatches from the Toaster-Oven

The plasma shield is firmly in place over my inbox again. Who keeps doing this to me? I have seven story submissions out in the world. Two are contests. I never do contests, and here's why:
  • Contests cost money.
  • Stay-at-home-moms always win.
  • I was never good at standardized tests.
  • Waiting for the results is so much fun.
These contests were at least free, which is how I got suckered into it. It's not like I haven't won contests in the past. Winning, sadly, gave me an inflated sense of my own accomplishment that was inversely equal to the sense of failure I got from losing other contests. I quit contests about the time I stopped financing a certain high tone literary 'zine with my contest submissions. Reading fee, anyone?

Another submission out right now is just like a contest, as there is only one slot in the issue. Did I know it was a last man standing sort of thing? Probably. But I sent it during one of those times that seem to creep up on me when I realized, idiot, you don't have anything out there in the world. Better send something somewhere RIGHT NOW. I wonder if this happens to other writers, this brown-colored boredom with one's Duotrope stats that can suddenly erupt into a full-blown career emergency.

And you'd think, with such a casual beginning, the submission would maintain a kind of easy impact on the psyche. "Did I submit this old thing to that old magazine? I forgot all about it! Now you're sending this little ol' check to moi?"

That never happens to me. I'm much more likely to have the submission grow in the dark like a mushroom until it is the only thing I can think about, night or day. While my friend is discussing supreme court justices over dinner, I've got a frozen smile fixed in place and I'm thinking, "Why won't he shut up and realize I'm waiting for an e-mail? The contest is over in FIVE DAYS and if I can't check my mail RIGHT NOW I'm going to DIE."

One might be tempted to suggest that the Toaster-Oven People have completely taken over at this point.

Anyway, what am I reading? Just finished The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. Lest you think I hate all science fiction trilogies (starting with the concept of trilogies) let me tell you, this is a good, readable piece of popular literature. The tone is William Gibson lite: quiet, observant, meticulous. The ideas are easy to grasp but complex and resonant. I liked both Gabriel and Michael as characters. I saw their motivation, understood their goals. Maya, who is a very engaging construct, seemed in some ways the least developed. She had a life before she was drawn back into the role of a harlequin. She seemed to switch over too easily. I wondered what impacts her normal life had on her harlequin life. Just my opinion. Maybe the story is more about Gabriel anyway. The fact that I have to ask who the main character is. . . well, anyhow, I really liked it.

Now I'm starting The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. No comments yet, though something tells me there might be religious overtones.

This has been fun but I really need to check my e-mail.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Food Supply after the Apocalypse

I did a little trolling last night for food references. My daughter, while eating sliced pepperoni out of a bag, said that she didn't worry about not having pepperoni after the apocalypse because, "This packaged s**t will last forever." Maybe she's right; we know from Lost that Saltines last at least fifteen years, and everyone has heard that Twinkies are indestructible.

But what do we really know about our food supply? The following are some references I gleaned from various places. Warning: this is a long post.

Let's start with canned goods.

From an undisclosed web site:
"Canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing. Canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture. Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures (75° F and below). Canned food as old as 100 years has been found in sunken ships and it is still microbiologically safe! We don't recommend keeping canned food for 100 years, but if the can is intact, not dented or bulging, it is edible."

Of course I don't know about the can of creamed corn I found in a rural cabin when I was nine. That was pure evil.

Here's the link to whole article:

If the food in cans is still good, how about the way we eat now? How do our current eating habits prepare us for the PA world? This from

"Americans are more likely to recognize food products than the specific ingredients in the seemingly endless array of products on supermarket shelves (some supermarkets stock over forty thousand different items). Fast-food outlets—a McDonald's, Taco Bell, or a Subway sandwich shop—are more recognizable than a steer, hog, chicken, or a bushel of wheat.

"By the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. was unable to visualize the source of its food supply from an agricultural perspective, that is, in terms of basic food groups, because a majority no longer live on farms. Instead, food had become an endless array of food products typically found on supermarket shelves, especially those that stock over forty thousand individual items. Most such foods are processed and packaged, and few are sold in bulk as was common sixty years ago. Nearly all were shipped from distant places, packaged in large containers, transported to huge warehouse storage facilities close to cities and metropolises, and trucked from there to be unpacked and displayed on supermarket shelves.

"Consumers were working more, earning more, and willing to pay more for convenience and for appliances like the microwave, which made convenience foods more convenient. By the end of the twentieth century, only one in three U.S. consumers said their food budget was a primary consideration in food purchases, while the other two said service and convenience topped their list."

Only one in three. Here's a link to the whole article:

Wikipedia article on food supply systems:
"However, conventional food systems are largely based on the availability of inexpensive fossil fuels, which is necessary for mechanized agriculture, the manufacture or collection of chemical fertilizers, the processing of food products, and the packaging of the foods. Industrialized agriculture, due to its reliance on economies of scale to reduce production costs, often leads to the compromising of local, regional, or even global ecosystems through fertilizer runoff, nonpoint source pollution, and greenhouse gas emission. Also, the need to reduce production costs in an increasingly global market can cause production of foods to be moved to areas where economic costs (labor, taxes, etc.) are lower or environmental regulations are more lax, which are usually further from consumer markets."

More stats for the curious: Who goes hungry in the U.S. now?

From Bread for the World:
  • 35.5 million people—including 12.6 million children—live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States (10.9 percent).
  • 4.0 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 11.1 million people, including 430 thousand children, live in these homes.
  • 6.9 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 24.4 million people, including 12.2 million children, live in these homes.

Wikipedia article on the food supply. Read the section on dictatorships and kleptocracies for the political causes of food insecurity and links to poverty.

What does it mean?
In my PA world (this is fiction, you know), in the absence of devastating nuclear or other global catastrophes, the capacity to grow food still exists, much as it did before. We are faced with a diminished human population which, in the near term, means that the existing food supply—canned and dry goods—are enough for a while. I don't know how long. Because all distribution networks have been interrupted, the food re-supply stops. In every community, especially in rural areas where some form of agriculture used to exist, people will attempt to grow food again almost immediately. With varying results. Old fossil-fuel-based farming methods no longer exist, so there would be a return to animal and human-based methods. This limits field size, but may increase diversity of crops. I don't know how long it would take for a community to be able to grow enough food to support itself—maybe three to five years, in temperate locations with decent rainfall. Maybe not in Scottsdale or Nome, Alaska. With intact communities who develop some farming success, I would guess that trade opportunities would grow as well. And with farming success and trade opportunities come the many ways other people can exploit and control the food source.

This where Madison, After begins. Ten years after the apocalypse, in a rural setting.

What I haven't been able to source is how long the US's existing food supply would last for our current population, if all distribution suddenly stopped. Two weeks? Three weeks? Longer? I'm not sure it can be calculated, given the different decay rates of perishables. If someone knows, please drop me a note.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dentistry PA

This is a quick update from the rewrite wars. Madison is well, though she enters a dark place. As I go more deeply into this draft, I've noticed two important changes I am compelled to make.

  1. I am emphasizing certain themes that seemed too trivial or obvious during earlier drafts. The example I'm thinking of is the role of women in the PA world. The other is Madison's attitude toward marriage. I understood both internally, but I felt if I hit the themes too hard in the beginning, I would be preaching. And there were other things about Madison and her world that I did not know and needed to explore. But going back to it, I can seed these issues lightly.

  2. Madison is dealing with more difficult situations. Sometimes it's tighter, more confrontational dialogue. Because I know more about the whole story, I can point conflict in the right direction. In the example I mentioned earlier, it is to have Madison do something almost unforgiveable, for which she feels no remorse. The scene has always been in the novel, but now I'm shaving away the soft parts and letting it stand as it is. I want to show that she has given up her humanity in order to save her family. I love the scene and I hope it works.

Anyway, I'm heading into the home stretch. It's as good as I've ever seen it.

While I slave away, here are some notes from my dental appointment yesterday! I know, who cares, right? Except the whole teeth-in-the-PA-world thing bothers me a great deal. Most writers don't address it. Why would they? Unless you're writing Marathon Man 2050, you don't want to go there. Harry Turtledove is almost the only guy who mentions teeth, and he said something about dental health not being good in the primitive alternates. Is he right? I asked my hygienist. Disclaimer: these are my notes and whatever I got wrong is not the fault of my wonderful and intelligent dental health professional. I spent most of my time shuddering and climbing the walls during the appointment.

PA Dentistry

In a world without soda and fruit juice and very little, if any, sugar, teeth would have much less decay. People who had a lot of fillings and dental work Pre-A would still be vulnerable to splits and breaks in their teeth. Fillings can weaken the teeth because tooth is extracted and refilled, thus compromising tooth integrity. Fillings, bridge work and crowns could also fall out. People born PA would not have the exposure to soda and juice and their teeth would be much stronger with very little, if any, decay. There would be fewer breaks, almost no cavities. I forgot to ask about wisdom teeth.

On the other hand, periodontal issues are much more dependent on a person's genetics. Perio disease (gingivitis, periodontitis, both chronic and aggressive) is plaque growing and spreading below the gum line. A person's genetic predisposition would not be helped or altered by the environment. As plaque grows and spreads under the gum line, it causes inflammation, swelling and bleeding and inflammatory response, where the body turns on itself, and the issues that support teeth are destroyed. Bone and tooth loss results.

Also of interest, your gums are extremely sensitive to stress and hormonal changes.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bye to Harry

Work has taken over more of my life than usual. I'm thinking about it at home which cuts into my Madison time. Advancement of the week: I realized two characters needed to be combined into one. It made me consider the way support characters help the lead characters achieve their goals. This is not always obvious during early drafts. Sometimes you need six months and a glass of wine to see it. More in a minute.

Firstly, though, Harry. This week I read a book about addiction, called, what else, Addiction, One Patient, One Doctor, One Year. It was pretty good, though the guy is in love with his profession and not nearly curious enough about his patients. After that, I read an Earl Emerson single title which deserves a post of its own. I'm a big EE fan, especially the genre stuff. I've never met EE but the worst thing that could happen is that EE might find out a fan, me, doesn't like his most recent. Let's just say he's not being well-served by his career choices. When all this was done and I'd hurled Earl, there was Harry Turtledove. I finished it. Here are a couple of observations:

Weapons in a PA world. He is very thorough in his research, painstaking about the function and use of guns. I appreciate this.

Visualization. He's got a very good eye for buildings, rubble, and vehicles. So much of PA is imagining what these things look like after 1, 20, 130 years. The other part is imagining how people adapt and rebuild. He's good at this.

Bored out of my mind. Yet. . . everything is spelled out in big letters in this story. There is no real conflict, I was never afraid for these characters. Then there is the small matter of an over-determined father-daughter relationship. Could almost be a little creepy.

Uninformed reader. I was looking for a photo of Harry so I could stick pins in it. There's no photo on the jacket. That's when I discovered the words "Young Adult" in the blurb. It explains so much—the dull conversation, the weird focus on muskets, the way he hammered every point as if there might be a test later. I get it, he was writing down. I take back all the nasty things I said about the guy. It's a fine YA novel. It's funny, it presents some good ideas. It's not Cormac McCarthy scary.

Why does knowing it is a YA novel suddenly make all my earlier complaints meaningless? YA could be something else. It could be Snowcrash. Any age, any speed, any gender.

Had I the world enough and time, I'd demonstrate my new trick, courtesy of Edittorrent. It's really cool.