Friday, 27 September 2013

Astrophysics Corner, Part 3 – The View from the Edge of the Galaxy

Astrophysics Corner, Part 3 – The View from the Edge of the Galaxy
In The Witches’ Stones – Book One - Igniting the Blaze, Dav Castillo explains a few facts about the Planet of the Amartos to Sarah Mckenzie:

"We're not about to let you out exploring at nighttime.  And even if  we did, it's pretty dark out there when the sun's down.  We're at the  very edge of the galaxy and there's no moon.  You wouldn't be likely to see much."

So, what would the view from the edge of the galaxy be like.   We asked our astrophysics consultant, Scott Olausen (a PhD candidate who is lead author on several Astrophysical Journal papers) for his view on “the view from the edge of the galaxy”, which he kindly submitted below.  Note that the planet is offset from Earth about 140 degrees eastward ,  at about galactic longitude 320 and 40,000 plus light years from the center of the galaxy, which puts it in the outskirts of the galaxy:

The first difference is that there'd be a lot fewer stars in the sky. Here on Earth, we can see about 5,000 to 6,000 stars in a dark sky with the naked eye. The vast majority of these stars are located within a few thousand light years of us, which isn't far compared to the size of the galaxy; we aren't seeing stars from halfway across the galaxy. Now, it turns out that the density of stars decreases as you get farther away from the center of the galaxy, so a planet near the edge of the galaxy (e.g. 40,000 light years out, compared to about 25,000 for the Earth) will have fewer stars in its neighbourhood than we do, to the tune of around 25% of how it is in our neck of the woods. Suddenly the number of stars visible even in the darkest sky drops to no more than 1,500. Other objects directly related to stars like nebulae and clusters like the Pleiades would similarly be more rare.


Another object that would look considerably different is the Milky Way, which as observed in the night sky is a faint band of light formed by starlight from the disk of the galaxy. On Earth, that band stretches all the way across the sky, though it is patchy and naked eye visibility varies. Conversely, on a planet at the edge of the galaxy the Milky Way couldn't possibly cover more than about a third of the sky or so. There's simply no galaxy to see in the other directions! It's harder to say, however, whether the Milky Way would be brighter or dimmer than it is on Earth. We see it as quite patchy because dust blocks a lot of the visible light, and the amount and distribution of dust is going to vary from place to place in the galaxy.

Apart from the Milky Way itself, there are a few galaxies that are visible from Earth with the naked eye. The brightest are the Magellanic Clouds, two relatively nearby dwarf galaxies (about 160,000 and 200,000 light years away) that are probably in orbit about our own. As it happens, the Planet of the Amartos is closer to these galaxies than the Earth is, enough that they might look about 20% larger and 50% brighter. Of course, the other visible galaxies, Andromeda and M33, are millions of light years away, so distant that they'll look basically the same from anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Lastly we'll consider globular clusters, which are groupings of hundreds of thousands or millions of stars, bound by gravity into spherical shapes, contained within the galaxy but not confined to its disk. About four or so globular clusters are visible with the naked eye from Earth, and I expect the numbers would be similar on the Planet of the Amartos.  Although they're less common further out in the galaxy, they're also easier to see since they're out of the disk of the galaxy so you don't have to worry about dust obscuring their light. There are even a couple globular clusters, NGC 362 and NGC 1261, that lie halfway between here and there so should look the same from both planets, but unfortunately they're too dim to be seen without binoculars.

Scott’s most recent paper,  “The McGill Magnetar Catalog” (an extensive catalog and population analysis of all known magnetars), has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal.  A pre-print version is available at:


He has published several other papers on magnetars and high magnetic field pulsars in the Astrophysical Journal, one of the most prestigious journals in the field.


Friday, 20 September 2013

Book Statistics Corner, Part 1 – Book Blurbs vs. Reader Reviews

There is a lot of information that a writer or publisher can mine in Amazon’s “Also bought” (that line of books at the bottom of the screen that says “People who bought this book also bought these books”, which is sometimes referred to as the alsobot).  It’s all publicly available for anyone willing to put in the time to do some tedious cutting and pasting and knows a thing or two about data analysis.  I am talking about a statistical analysis here – nothing that in any way violates anyone’s reasonable expectation of privacy.  Examining your alsobots can help a writer or publisher understand the market that they are already reaching, and perhaps shape their books to better serve that market.

As an example, one can use publicly available web-based software to do simple text analytics, that report on the complexity of writing.  Some common and easy to understand measures are word count, average sentence length, proportion of long or hard words (i.e. more syllables or more letters).  In the example below, I took a sample of about 20 books in the alsobot of Kati of Terra Book 1 (a Dodecahedron Books publication), with an average of about 20 reviews each.  I analysed their blurbs and also analysed the reader reviews of those books.  As you can see, as the complexity of the book blurb goes up (as measured by percentage of "hard words" with three or more syllables), the complexity of the corresponding reviews also goes up.  The correlation is fairly high (R-Square=.43), for those who have a background in statistics.  This general result holds true for a number of the other measures of writing complexity noted above.

So, what’s likely behind this?  I would hypothesize that readers judge the assumed writing style of the book by the writing style of the blurb.  Those who prefer a more complicated writing style will purchase and read the books with more complicated blurbs.  Eventually, when they review those books, they will write in a more complex style themselves, as that’s what they are comfortable with.  Similarly for readers on other points along this dimension.

What’s this mean for the writer or publisher?  I suppose one could take one of several lessons from it.  One strategy might be to attempt to maximize your market, by adapting the blurb style to the widest possible audience.  Of course, going after too wide an audience might just mean you don’t appeal to those most likely to enjoy the book.   Alternatively, one could try to target a very specific market, say readers who love complex prose, by writing a very erudite blurb.  Of course, if the blurb style seriously misrepresents the book style, that will just lead to reader disappointment and possibly bad reviews and returns.   

Alternatively, one could simply look at these results and conclude that readers will seek out and find the books with which they are most comfortable, and not worry too much about the whole matter.  Just be Zen about it - write in the style that is your natural voice, and wait for readers who prefer that voice to find you.

If you want to know where Kati of Terra fits in this spectrum, you can read the blurb here:


Friday, 13 September 2013

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - The Cast of Characters

Sept 4, 2013 Garneau Pub Patio, Edmonton Alberta

Part Nine – How Big Should a Cast of Characters Be?

Question:  Well, it is a beautiful late summer evening, here at the Garneau Pub patio.  The place is filled with students who are just starting the fall term at the University of Alberta - quite a cast characters, you might say.

Answer:    It’s busy all right.  I suppose you will use that to segue into something.

Question:  Yes indeed.  Your Kati of Terra books range over a wide canvas and bring in a lot of characters.  You develop your stories at some length, with many episodes and sub-plots.  Is there a particular model or a particular writer that you are following in this?

Answer:  I don’t think that there is anyone in particular that I am purposely emulating.  A lot of Science Fiction writers like to paint on a wide canvas, as you say.  An obvious example is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Question:  For the benefit of those blog readers who aren’t familiar with him, he wrote the Mars Trilogy -  Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars.  Those books speculated about the colonization of Mars in the near future.  They certainly had a large cast of characters and a sprawling storyline.  Anyone else come to mind?

Answer:  Jo Clayton, with the Aletus series.  Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.  Lots of others.

Question:  Besides giving good value for money, what’s the advantage of writing on a larger scale, and bringing in a larger cast of characters?

Answer:  Well, in SF you can have a whole galaxy as your canvas, and that gives you a lot of room to play in.  You can develop multiple ideas and imagine how a multitude of characters might interact.  In fact, it almost forces you to range widely, or at least it does for me.

Question:  So it’s a bit of the Russian novel phenomenon?  The huge setting itself makes you want to write on an epic scale and bring in a lot of characters.

Answer:  That’s true, though I am long way from a Russian novelist.  What happens is that you end up surrounding your main characters with a sizable cast of characters as each part of the overall storyline develops.  If you write in the trilogy or longer series form, that can carry on from book to book.   In both Kati 1 and Kati 2, our protagonists meet new people at every stop of their journey, just as real travellers do, or at least those of us who want to experience a great range of people and places.  Plus, they pick up co-travellers for periods of time who come and go, with the key characters always remaining the key characters.  This allows one to keep refreshing those characters, giving them new companions and new experiences through which to reveal themselves to the reader.

Question:  A bit like Doctor Who, with his changing companions.

Answer:  Perhaps a bit, though the dynamics are different, with Kati and Mikal being a couple.  But it does allow Kati and Mikal the opportunity to interact with different and varied characters, and to display their wit, sense of fun, and ability to improvise in the face of new challenges and new friends and adversaries.

Question:  You make sure that the local people that Kati and Mikal meet play an important role in the stories, assisting Kati and Mikal in their investigations and helping them to overcome the dangers and perils that their adversaries set up.  In fact, sometimes the minor characters play as significant a role as the heroes.

Answer:  Yes,  Kati and Mikal have a lot of confidence in the skills, talents and abilities of the common people that they meet during their adventures.   They rely on them and trust them, and that trust is generally returned.

Question:  Is that part of your own worldview?

Answer:  Oh yes, I suppose that’s part of my democratic shtick, my democratic assumptions, if you will.  I think that elitists tend to underestimate the intelligence and abilities of the common person.  I let Kati and Mikal live those democratic assumptions.  It may be unorthodox, given the prevalence of dystopian fiction, but that’s how I hope an intelligent future will unfold.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Empty Chapters

This isn’t about a poorly formatted table of contents, but rather about a visit to Chapters bookstore last weekend.  Chapters is the big bookstore chain in Canada – equivalent to Barnes and Noble in the U.S. or Waterstones in the U.K..  Until the on-line book revolution it was the place to go for books in Canada (unless you lived near a really good independent store or a campus bookstore).

So, our visit was on Saturday, at about noon.  This was in the trendy Whyte Avenue area of Edmonton, near the University of Alberta, and the Strathcona Farmer’s Market.  On a nice warm late summer Saturday, the area generally attracts tens of thousands of strollers and shoppers to the shops, restaurants and pubs.  The day went according to form – plenty of people on the sidewalks and the Farmer’s Market was crowded.

But Chapters was dead.  As I recall it from a few years back, it would have been packed with people at that time of the day on a Saturday.  Not so anymore – I was the only person at the cash register lineup.  And my purpose was to buy a mini-Kobo and gift card for an friend’s upcoming birthday, so that doesn’t bode well for Chapters’ future either.  He may become a convert to the Amazon or Kobo online stores, once he has an e-reader.

Personally, I am somewhat conflicted about the trend, to which I am of course contributing as both a producer and a consumer.  As a small e-book publisher, I can look at the demise of the big brick and mortar book stores as an opportunity for more business to come our way.   It will shift people to e-books and thus could increase our sales.  It will take away one of the main advantages of big publishers, which is physical access to  bookstores, for paper books.  That too, should help increase sales for independents, by leveling the playing field.

But it does sadden me somewhat as a book consumer, or at least in my nostalgia for being a bookstore consumer.   Bookstores were one of the few businesses that I actually enjoyed patronizing (pubs and restaurants too, but thankfully Whyte Avenue will still have plenty of them).  And, before books went online, Chapters had a decent selection.  As stores went, the ambience was fairly pleasant – for a book lover, being surrounded by books pretty well guaranteed that to be true.  And I have had a fair number of friends who worked in bookstores over the years, new and used, so I can feel for the employees too.

Turning to the business websites (Globe and Mail, September 3, 2013), I note that Chapters first quarter revenue declined year over year, from $187 million to $172 million, an 8% drop.  Their operating loss went from $9.5 million to $21 million, an increase of 55%.  The net loss was even worse, going from $5.5 million to $15 million, an increase of 175%.  Clearly, business is not looking up, though stock analysts still report them as anywhere from “hold” to “buy”.   I guess they aren’t exactly taking the long view.   One wonders how long a business can carry on, with those kind of numbers.  News from the U.S. is similar, where Barnes and Noble recently reported a similar drop in revenue (about nine percent).

So, it looks as if we might soon be closing the book on Chapters.  It’s kind of sad, but I guess we can take heart, that it won’t be the end of books.  Indeed, many more books are being published and distributed than ever before, including those published by Dodecahedron Books.  To use a favorite literary phrase of Kurt Vonneget - so it goes.