I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #17 - Peter David

As far as I know, Peter David has written 95 novels, mostly SF, and won 10 awards. I know him from his Star Trek books, of which, between 1997 and 2002, I read 19. I am now reading After Earth, the novelisation of the recent film with Will Smith, and discovered in it an appalling (and certainly unexpected) mistake.

On page 101, he wrote: A parsec, she recalled, was a measure for the speed of light, how far it would travel over one hundred years.

The sentence is at best awkward. What does it mean “A parsec [...] was a measure for the speed of light” when in fact a parsec is a measure of distance, as David writes in the next sentence?

But the problem is that a parsec is only 3.26 light years, not 100!

If you draw two lines from a point in interstellar space, one passing through the sun and one passing through Earth, when the amplitude of the angle between the two lines is one second of arc, the object’s distance is by definition 1 parsec. The “par” in parsec stands for “parallax” and the “sec” for “second”.

Imagine making two observations of a star with a six months period between them. During the six months, Earth will have moved half of its orbit. As a result, you will have to point the telescope in two slightly different directions. If you know the radius of Earth’s orbit, you can use the angle between the two directions to calculate the star’s distance.

Here is how you do it.

Earth’s distance from the sun (i.e., the radius of Earth’s orbit) is approximately 150 million km = 1.5 x 108 km.

A second of arc is 1/3600 of a degree and there are 360 degrees in a full circle, which is 2π times the radius R of the circle. This means that 2π x R / 360 / 3600 is the length of a second of arc = R x 4.85 x 10-6.

If a star has a parallax angle of two seconds (not one second because the two lines of view are through opposite points of Earth’s orbit, rather than one though Earth and one through the sun), to calculate its distance in kilometres you only need to imagine a circle of radius D centred on the star and passing through the sun. Then, the diameter of Earth’s orbit is given by:

1.5 x 108 km x 2 = 2 x D x 4.85 x 10-6

That distance will be 1.5 x 108 km / 4.85 x 10-6 = ~3.1 x 1013 km.

As the speed of light is 300,000 km/s = 3 x 105 km/s, 1 light year is 3 x 105 km/s x 3600 s/h x 24 h/d x 365 d/y = ~ 9.46 x 1012 km (actually, the light is 0.07% slower, but the year is 0.07% longer, so it works out just fine! :-) .

Then, 1 pc = ~3.1 x 1013 km / (9.46 x 1012 km/ly) = 3.28 ly. Close enough, considering the approximations.

There is no star at 1 pc from Earth, but Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth, is 1.3 pc away.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mac X error code -8084

Since when I tried out the very first Macintosh, in 1984, Apple has always impressed me with the quality and the cleverness of its products. But yesterday, while I was backing up to a new flash key my Firefox profile, I got the following error alert (the grey highlight is mine):

In itself, to get a cryptic error message was not a big deal. It only meant that a check had caught a very unusual error condition for which no explicit message had been created. I did what I always do when confronted with something unknown: I copied the error message into the clipboard and pasted it in Google’s search field.

It turns out the nowhere is error code -8084 to be found. Apple in 1998 published a list of errors, but it stops at -5553 and is pre-system X.

I discovered that the problem disappeared after quitting Firefox. The most logical explanation is that Firefox had opened a file with an exclusive lock, thereby preventing the system from reading it.

But it is a disappointment that Apple no longer publishes a detailed list of errors, even if it might be partially obsolete as soon as it is written.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #16 - Tom Clancy

I have read one and a half dozen books written by Tom Clancy, but I don’t recall having ever found in any of them as many mistakes as in Locked On. Perhaps it is because Mark Greaney wrote it and Clancy only lent his name to the book in order to sell more copies.

If you are into military and spy action, you will probably forgive Clancy and Penguin Books. It’s annoying though...

On page 17, we learn that a tourniquet had been cinched tight high on the right leg of a man. Then, the same man was stripped to his underwear. I bet it was difficult without disturbing the tourniquet!

On page 67, Clark and Chavez, after renting a car in Germany, travel to France. Clancy states that they had picked a cheap rental because it would attract less attention. Clancy writes: it would take only one set of curious eyes to pick out this vehicle, to spend some time, looking it up and down, and to realize that it was not from around here. Spend some time? What about throwing a glance at the German licence plates? No way that a cheap rented car from Germany could possibly have French licence plates!

On page 86 (line four), the full stop at the end of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph is missing.

On page 119, here is what Clancy has to say about European-style floor numberings: he began sprinting to the third floor, which was, in the European system, four flights of stairs up from ground level. This is wrong: in Europe, the third floor is three flights of stairs up from ground level. Clancy got confused by the fact that in the US the floor at street level is called “first floor”, while in Europe the same floor is called “ground floor”. The European “third floor” is therefore what the Americans call “fourth floor”, which is three flights of stairs up from street level. If Clancy had been correct, what number would the European assign to the floor at ground level? -1?

On page 197, when describing the tight security at a prison, Clancy writes: She would carry a purse with nothing of value in it because she would have to leave it in a locker, and she would not bother entering with her laptop or cell phone, because these would be taken from her immediately if they were on her person. This is an unfortunate sentence, because it implies that the guards in a top-security prison might steal from her purse if she left it in a locker. Also, “if they were on her person” is redundant and not convincing, as “on her person” seems hardly applicable to a laptop. But the real problem of this sentence is that it sets up a contradiction with what the author writes on the following page: the guard did not offer to help the much older woman carry her briefcase or pull her laptop bag. So, now she can take with her into the prison two bags while on the previous page she couldn’t even carry a purse?

On page 359, Clark climbed out of his waders. Then, two pages later, he shed his waders. Well, I assure you that he had not put them back on in the meanwhile.

On page 432, Clancy shows some knowledge of German when he writes “gottverdammt door” [his Italics]. Perhaps he used the German word because he didn’t want to upset some readers’ sensibilities by writing “goddamn door”. But he makes a mistake, because “door” in German is a feminine noun. Therefore, he should have written “gottverdammte door”. This is what people who speak multiple languages do: their adjectives always agree with the gender of the nouns, even in mix-language sentences.

On page 477, Clancy shows us an excess of political correctness: It was a man, Ding knew this instinctively, though he could not take the time to try to identify who was plunging before him to their death. Come on! We know it is a man. Why not say: plunging to his death? I hate this way of using “they” as a gender-neutral way of referring to a single person. I know: I will probably have to get used to it. But in this case, it is ridiculous.

On page 620: he felt thick snowflakes on his beard and lips. Having had a full beard for decades and having experienced how it feels to go out when it is snowing, I can testify that beards are totally insensitive to snowflakes.

On page 684, Clancy refers to Colonel Gummensson, who was a General on page 637.

On page 686, the missile silo number106 is mentioned for the first time, while we know from a few pages earlier that the missiles are in silos 103, 104, and 109, because that is where guards were posted.

There are also several awkward or wrong expressions that a good author shouldn’t have used. Here are those that I found inexcusable.

On page 4, Clancy writes: He pulled the wool blanket over his shoulder and flicked the straw from his beard that came with it. Since when do beards come with wool blankets? I would have written: He pulled the wool blanket over his shoulder and flicked from his beard the straw that came with it. Even He pulled the wool blanket over his shoulder and flicked the straw that came with it from his beard would have been better than what he wrote.

On page 45, the former President of the US is identified as Jack Junior’s father. Why not Jack Senior, or Jack Ryan Senior?

On page 180, Clancy writes: no record of his visit was recorded. This is awkward English. What about: no record of his visit was made?

On page 183, another “pearl”: Other than administering an X-ray that revealed a hairline fracture of the bone, then handing over a removable cast, a sling, and a course of antibiotics, Hendley’s surgeon had little to do other than to remember to keep quiet about the entire matter. Clearly, Clancy wrote such a long and convoluted sentence that, buy the time he arrived to “little to do”, he felt he needed to sneak in another “other than”. He could have started the sentence with “After”, rather than with “Other than”. It would have remained “heavy”, but at least it would have been correct.

On page 184, a “nifty” piece of dialogue: “Would that it always worked like that,” Gerry said to the room. No, I haven’t omitted or overlooked any word. What does it mean? I don’t understand it.

On page 224: exploit some intelligence find by American intelligence. Besides the ugly repetition of the word “intelligence”, the sentence seems at best awkward. Come on, Tom. You can do better than that!

On page 231: to become an agent of, but not an employee of, the ISI. This is correct, but the following would have been better: to become an agent, but not an employee, of the ISI.

On page 300: They learned pomp and circumstance from we English. Since when do we use “we” instead of “us” after a preposition? I hope that the practice doesn’t take hold. But perhaps it’s already too late and, unbeknown to me, most Americans already speak like that...

On page 309: we want to put our strength behind our friends and pull support for our enemies. I see what he means, but pull support from our enemies would have been better.

On page 332: he worried about the American who he had promised to protect. I understand that some readers might find whom too highbrow, but he could have dropped who (or whom) and live happy thereafter.

On page 355: he hiked through a small wood of loblolly pine where the slope of a hill led down into a tiny valley where a shallow creek wound from north to south near the fence line. Twice “where” in the same ugly sentence. The sad thing is that the details are totally irrelevant. With a 713-page novel, who would have missed them if Clancy had dropped this sentence?

Perhaps you are thinking that 22 mistakes and bad sentences in 713 pages are acceptable. I don’t. But then, I’ve always been a perfectionist!