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Hot Earth Dreams

Weird to be Frank for a change. Oh well. Hi, I've got a story I want to share with you.

First, about the Heteromeles identity: Back when I first started posting comments here, I was working in an environmental consulting company that had a rule that they owned all their employee's creative output. My solution was to use "Heteromeles" for my private online activities and my own name for stuff I did for the company, so that if they ever did want to claim ownership, it was obvious how far they were over-reaching (they never did, of course). Heteromeles, for those few who haven't googled it, is the genus of my favorite plant: toyon, the "holly" that gave its name to Hollywood, which isn't too far from where I grew up. Toyon's not a holly (it's closer to photinias and hawthorns if you care), and it's known among botanists as the only woody plant in California that kept its Indian name. By the time I started freelancing, I decided to keep Heteromeles as my online identity more for the sake of continuity than anything else.

So about Hot Earth Dreams: Back in late 2012, I'd gotten well and truly sick of the Mayan Apocalypse (remember that? What were they thinking again?), and started wondering what it would be like to write a novel set in the deep future on a climate-changed Earth ...

...Well, one more digression. I've written two self-published novels, and I'm working to become a commercial author. Thing is, I'm an ecologist at heart. What I really love is world-building, starting from the physical constraints, working up through the geology, vegetation, lifeways, technology, and ending ultimately in the characters, whom I firmly believe are strongly shaped by their environments. I realize that this is almost diametrically opposed to the way most writers work, but this is relevant because...

... I started by asking myself the question: what will the Earth look like if severe climate change happens, and humans survive? At that point, my brain froze, because even though I thought I knew a lot about climate change, I couldn't find the words or even an image. This future was, quite literally, unspeakable. I couldn't articulate anything. It felt like my mind hit a wall and stuck. I had the intuition that my scientist and environmentalist friends were as blind as I was and that scared me, because it seems like a very likely future So I asked around, and my intuition was right. It became my great conversation killer, asking the question and watching people freeze and go silent, watching parents take long, sad looks at their children playing nearby, before they changed the subject. The best anyone could offer was "it'll look like Waterworld." I stopped asking.

But, because I'm a crazy ecologist and world-builder, I thought I could answer that question. I also realized that people probably wanted to know the answer more than they wanted a novel based on it. So, with a great deal of trepidation, I started reading, and most of three years later, I'd finished Hot Earth Dreams

As my friend Matt put it, this is a sourcebook for the deep future. It's 42 chapters, 900-6,000 words each, designed for people with short attention spans who want to easily find ideas once they've read them. This isn't a future history. Rather, it's what you need to know and think about to write a future history. I wanted to make it easier for people to talk about such a future, to dream about it. That's part of where the title came from. Another reason it's called Hot Earth Dreams is that it's pure speculation, a conceptual model, a what-if story that happens to be formatted as a non-fiction book. It's well-grounded speculation of course, but as most of you know, any congruence between futurist dreams and the actual future is more due to random luck than anything else, and I wanted to make that clear. I'm looking to inspire people to think and create, not to recruit acolytes. It's also a unique title, so it's easy to find.

You'll find it useful if you want to write a science fiction or fantasy story set in the deep future, if you want to create a game, a comic, or art, or write up a scenario for your boss. You'll also find it useful if, like me, you're trying to figure out why conservation still matters under climate change. If you're a climate activist suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder, perhaps this will give you a reason to struggle on. Even though this is a very pessimistic book, everyone who's read it so far thought it was uplifting. Apparently, being able to speak about a scary future is a good thing.

The critical thing is this: I couldn't have done it without you, the regulars on Charlie's blog. Thank you all! This book is the result of one of those "strange attractors" that dominates the deep reaches of Charlie's posts, when the original topic has long derailed and people start talking about other stuff. Over the years, I've floated various ideas that are now in Hot Earth Dreams just to see how people would respond. Sometimes they went over well, sometimes they didn't, sometimes someone would point out a flaw that caused me to rewrite a section. Without this feedback, both positive and negative, I could not have written this book, so thank you all, individually and collectively, for helping me.

And yes, please buy this book. It's self-published through Createspace, but that's due to the changing nature of the non-fiction publishing world. According to what I learned, in non-fiction publishing, whether someone buys your book proposal is less about the quality of your manuscript and rather more about how big your existing audience is. This is why celebrities can churn out books so fast—they cite their number of twitter, blog, etc. followers as part of the proposal and get their manuscripts published under their assumption that all of their fans will want one. I'm trying to break in the back way, which is self-publishing to see how well it does, then shopping the proposal. If enough people buy this book, it becomes commercially viable, which means I can work with a publisher to get the next edition into bookstores, libraries, book reviews, dorm rooms, and onto everyone's radar, in other words level up. If you buy this book, you will be one of those early adopters who determines its fate. If you like it, please review it online, recommend it to your friends, help it spread through word-of-mouth. You can also provide feedback, both positive and negative, at my blog, which is (of course)

Hot Earth Dreams is now on sale at Createspace (

on Amazon ( and on Kindle on November 13 (

I'll update this post as soon as it goes on sale at Amazon (which should be this weekend or Monday).

You can read the first five chapters here.

Thank you again for helping me get it written.



Oh go on then.

Big river UK are offering it already btw.


Thanks. That's the Kindle pre-order. If someone sees the paperback for sale on any Amazon site, let me know. As of Thursday 7 am PST, the paperback is only on sale at Createspace, so far as I know.


Amazon claim to have the paperback in stock and available on marketplace via Book Depository. They just let me order a copy anyway.

Whether this translates to something actually hitting my desk on Monday as they claim remains to be seen.


Will you be releasing a non-Kindle electronic version? (Ideally an epub that I can load onto both my iPad and my Kobo, for reading anywhere.)

Createspace wouldn't tell me shipping costs without creating an account, but if it's an American company I'm willing to bet they're close to the price of the book (based on past experience). only has the Kindle edition listed, so no chance of buying the paperback through them.


As for selling an epub, the answer is "Yes, before Christmas." Do you have a preferred outlet?

As for producing the epub...On the one hand, I've got Caliber, and I can produce an epub version. On the other hand, Caliber turned out to be worse than Kindle conversion for producing the mobi, and I wasn't thrilled about the epub test I did. I figure it's going to take me a day of wrestling to make sure the tables and chapters come out correctly in the epub version.

What I'll do at this point is take suggestions for further outlets to sell it through. Right now my main goal is to get it up on Amazon, and then I'll go from there.


I'm another Canadian who likes to get my ebooks from Kobo where I can.

Additionally, I tired to add your book to my to read pile in Goodreads, and it's not there yet. I could manually put in the info, but I wanted to raise the flag in case you have a particular way to want it presented over there.


"I couldn't find the words or even an image."

Yeah, I've been there. It's hard to imagine global catastrophe, and you're right — people don't want to think about it. I talk about real wrath-of-god stuff, and that's not such a bad way to think about it. But, specifics?

BTW, I think it is nearly impossible to get my local library to order your book. :-(


" ... designed for people with short attention spans who want to easily find ideas once they've read them."

Yep, exactly what I need! Have ordered book. Good luck!


Kobo please. They sell books in epub format with or without Adobe Digital Editions DRM. They have the Merchant Princes series in non DRM, so with Calibre it's possible to read it in any format. And with the right illegal plug in you can even bypass the DRM. At least a friend told me so. I forgot his name. Maybe it was a dream.


Did you have issues with Smashwords that you're not going that route this time?


I have one small problem with the title: since I know about the existence of dinosaur porn, I saw this, and wondered.... "She lay there, on the hot earth, rising and falling as the ground under her pulsed with the pulses of the underground river...."

And as for things to think of when worldbuilding, as my late ex used to say, you're talking about a planet, don't tell me a habitable planet is all hot desert like Dune....


Well, hopefully this book will make it easier for people to talk about climate change. Sometimes dry sarcasm can sneak in where other methods fail.

As for getting it into libraries, that's one big reason I'd like to get the next version commercially printed. Getting a POD book into a library is difficult, as the librarians depend on the Library of Congress and publishers as gatekeepers.

That's where you can help me out, by buying the book.


This is going to be a great resource for people. I just read the free five chapters, will buy when I save up the funds.

You have an excellent writing style by the way. Very smooth and easy. The only issue I have is that you might want to make it more clear what the stakes are up front. I mean right in the first couple of paragraphs. No later than the middle of page two. After all, most people are going to be dead. That's puts things in perspective,and gives people who aren't already informed on these matters a reason to keep reading.

Also, there are some grammatical mistakes on page 6. "while chapters 30-40 are about the 400,000 years after that the collapse" should eliminate either the redundant "that" or "the collapse" depending on what you meant. I think an "are" is missing from "Each of these talks about mental traps I’ve fallen into repeatedly in creating this book, and I’ve seen other people make the same mistakes" between "about" and "mental traps." Just trying to help!

Other than that, an excellent work! I cant wait to read the entire thing.



Re: Epub production,

What format is the manuscript in and how did you make the mobi?


I just got around to reading the sample chapters properly, and don't regret ordering.

I share your hope that you are wrong.


I wrote the original in Word, and that's what you're seeing in the sample chapters: Word, with a photoshopped cover of one of my old photos. It's been converted into a pdf and html, then I used Caliber to try translating the html into mobi and epub (I tried converting the pdf too--not so good). I also used the Kindle translator on the html version, which ended up looking better on a Kindle reader than what Caliber did to it.

I'm not a technical purist, and my ultimate concern is what comes up on the page or the screen. Years ago I learned the 10 pm rule, which is that anything I write will probably be read by a busy person at 10 pm after they've gotten their chores done, the kids put down, etc. Unless I'm trying to be deliberately obfuscatory, I think it's only fair to write something that can be read under such circumstances, because I do a lot of reading then myself.

Incidentally, the Kindle version should ship without DRM, if I checked off the proper box. That's something else to check tomorrow.


Definitely sounds interesting, and looks like it will be a useful resource. (Particularly if I give in and write a sequel to my first SF novel, a Warmed-up Earth is part of the background, and would be a bigger part of any follow ups.)

I'd also prefer it in epub. I've only bought ebooks through the Apple store (is that a possibility?) and directly from publishers. As for converting to epub, I started using the Pages word processor on my ipad. One of the main reasons I went with it was that it can export as epub and PDF, so I can email what I write to beta-reading friends. I have no idea how it compares to other converters, or how it deals with tables. A recent update to the app is supposed to have improved the epub exporting, but I haven't tried it since the update, and haven't yet figured out how to format the text so it exports the way I want.


ePub making: try Sigil. Quote...

What is Sigil? Sigil is a multi-platform EPUB ebook editor (think Word or LibreOffice but specific for EPUB ebooks) with the following features....

I tried to make an ePub of the GNU C library documentation with Calibre, and gave up after many hours. I had to compile Sigil (limited support on Linux), but even with that it took only a fraction of the time I'd wasted with Calibre.


As for selling an epub, the answer is "Yes, before Christmas." Do you have a preferred outlet?

I've had the best results with Smashwords. I have to manually load my Kobo, so the Kobo store is out, but I do want the option of having the file on the Kobo for camping trips. (Usually I use the iPad, so iTunes would work but then I couldn't load it into the Kobo — at least, I've never managed to load an epub bought through iTunes that worked on the Kobo.)

I have iBooks Author and can run files through that for you if you like. It can produce epub as well as fancier ibooks. And I have a friend who's published on Smashwords and is a Word expert, so if you want help making a good epub out of a Word file he'd be a good person to talk to. Email me a if you'd like me to put you in touch.

(I've published a couple of ibook on iTunes. It's really easy, and even without any publicity on my part my Mongolia picture book as moved nearly 500 units.)

Assuming you don't have an exclusive contract, I'd opt for both iTunes and Smashwords. iTunes because it has reach and suits people who don't want to manually load files; Smashwords because I'm selfish and it works best for me :-)


If you're intending to build an audience with this book, you might want to lower the price a bit.

$23.69, as the price for the Kindle version is here in Norway, is a bit steep for me to try out a self-published book...


Okay, votes for Kobo, Smashwords, and iTunes, and a hint to use Sigil.



How did you wind up at the $19 price point anyway? I'm curious, but I'll have to wait for reviews at this point.


If you have the ePub anyway, you might want to consider Google Play.

epub validation is a very useful thing.

I followed the experience of friends and have found draft2digital a simpler prospect than smashwords, but then again I wasn't starting from Word. You might want to look at them anyway.


I will be buying this book and reading it with interest, since one of the projects I've been kicking around in my head involved just this topic. I was thinking of having a post-collapse civilization finding its feet on a radically transformed Antarctica and struggling to become self sufficient before the salvage economy collapses and takes all hope of modernity down with it.


Also, I think that the general thrust of the discussion so far (what about this format? Have you tried this promotion angle?) nicely illustrates why OGH is leary of self-publishing as the Wave of the Future.


Well, we are limited in what we can talk about. As I posted on my blog, I really don't want to talk about "spoilers" just yet, because most people haven't read it and I don't think that's fair. It also helps me, because I need to see where people want to be reading it.

As for wave of the future, I'd suggest it's more the slush pile of the present, but really, there are a lot of interesting books that are being published, ones that have too small or specialized a market to be worth trying to publish on a bigger scale.

I had dinner with a friend tonight and showed her the book. She looked at it, and finally put it down and asked me, "so, what's the answer?" I thought about it a second and told her that the entire book was the answer, and that if it had been simpler, I wouldn't have had to write the book.

That, incidentally, is why I'm pricing it at $18.95. Considering how many hundreds of dollars I paid on references for research, I figured that $18.95 was a reasonable bargain. While I do strongly encourage people to write their own takes on the future, realize that if you start from scratch, it's going to cost more than $18.95 plus tax and shipping, even if you have access to a really good research library.


I haven't updated the initial post, but the book is now live on Amazon.

Amusingly, there are booksellers who are already selling it at $16.78, $18.05, $19.01, and $22.91.
Interesting glimpse into the online economics of secondary sellers. If someone wants something to talk about, I'd love an analysis of how all this makes sense.


Congrats on finishing the book Frank!


I bought this, thanks. I have to wait until they ship the dead tree leafs to me, but sounds interesting.

I have a soft spot for background books.

I can also very well understand people's reaction to your question - I have children, and I do not like to think how the world will look like when they grow up, or what their possible children will see and experience.


Hi Frank. I read this blog regularly, but don't comment much. (By the time I read a post, usually the thread's a hundred comments long.) As far as I'm concerned, your view on characterization's exactly what science fiction's supposed to do. (H.G. Wells spelled this all out a hundred years ago.) In any event, Hot Earth Dreams seems well worth checking out.


I'm trying to figure out if to order paperback or kindle.

Are there any pictures/diagrams in the book?


One thing I probably should have said above is that I would actually prefer a print copy; but don't deal with Amazon, in part because they don't accept payment methods I use online. I usually buy books online through Barnes & Noble, which is where I get Rudy Rucker's self published books when they become available. He Kickstarts them first, which I'd like to support, but can't for the same payment reason--unless that's changed since I looked it up.


There are two tables in the book, but (unless something went horribly wrong that I'm currently unaware of) they're readable in Kindle, as they will be in epub when I get that out.

The big difference between paperback and ebook is the index--it works in the paperback, while it's just a long list of search terms in the ebook version and the page numbers are meaningless. I'm a little sad about that, because I hid a couple of nerdy easter eggs in the index. That's the biggest advantage to buying paper.


Hey Frank, I hit page 9 of your sampler and decided that I'm going to keep going. Well done! Let's see if you can hook me into buying the remaining chapters.

Where can we send typos? I'd rather not clutter this forum.


Reading through the sample and just finished the chapter on big numbers.

I can't speak for everyone, but for me, I think your advice here is very wrong.

When you started talking about the "Great Oxygenation Event" that started 2.4 billion years ago and ended 0.85 billion years ago, I've already figured out "oh, this had a duration that was longer than the elapsed time since it ended; I agree, calling that an 'event' is very misleading."

Then you start to make that point by writing "2,600,000,000 years" and "850,000,000 years" and I think "it would take me at least 5 times as long to figure out your point if you had started with this". When I see "2,600,000,000" I have to stop and count out the zeroes to figure out how big it is, and then to compare it to the next number I have to stop and count THOSE zeroes, and by the time I reach the end of the paragraph I've forgotten the earlier counts and I have to go back and count again just to figure out which number is bigger.

Quick, which of these numbers is biggest: 872,000,000,000 or 9,000,000,000 or 2,900,000,000,000 or 10,000,000,000? Can you answer immediately or do you have to pause and count the zeroes?

Alternately, which of these numbers is biggest: 872 billion, 9.7 billion, 2900 billion, or 10 billion? That's a lot easier, isn't it?

When you're directly comparing/contrasting two numbers, it is a good idea to express them both in the same units (like writing 2900 billion instead of 2.9 trillion if all of your other numbers are in billions). But insisting on writing "000,000,000" over and over instead of "billion" is like insisting on expressing all of your times in units of seconds instead of years; it's more "pure" in some sense, but it gets in the way of my comprehension more than it helps.

(On a tangential note, I noticed in the previous chapter that you used "infinite" more than once to mean "really big, but definitely still finite". I'm enough of a math geek for this to upset me, and I found it particularly ironic considering you followed it up with a chapter about taking big numbers seriously.)


It's worth reading the rest of the book, because the big numbers issue is central to the later chapters.

While I wasn't planning on defending any of the work here, I've seen the big numbers mistake made so many times and in so many different contexts that I had to include it. People slipping up on it include everyone from physicists to ecologists to (shockingly to me) quite a number of paleontologists, archaeologists, and evolutionary biologists. I've made the mistake myself, repeatedly.

In particular, I've seen people have ptorblems when they're trying to juggle processes that happen across multiple time scales, some in decades, some in centuries, some in millennia, some in millions of years. It's a normal problem in describing the consequences of climate change, which is why it's a central point in the second half of the book.

I'd suggest you're quite lucky in that you don't make that error, Antistone. At least in my experience, you're in a small and privileged group.


Antistone / Frank L I hate to say it but using "million" / "billion" / "trillion" is also confusing & sometimes wrong. There is a much better method. Powers of Ten SO - we now get, using Frank's numbers: 87210^9 or 910^9 or 2.910^12 or 1010^9? At which point, the answer (about size) is obvious, isn't it? Or of course, uses the actual International Standard nomenclature( Shock, horror!) 872G, 9G, 2.9T & 10G Easy


Okay, part 2 of why big numbers are an issue:

Back when I was a grad student, one of the general ecology teachers used to test his students on the first day of class, just to see what their average math knowledge was.

He tested them, among other things, on exponents, logarithms, and reading graphs, since these are the minimum skills one needs in a general ecology class. When tested cold, these students tested at about a 3rd grade math level: they'd forgotten how to read exponents, logarithms, or how to put a graph into words.

The basic point is that, after twelve years of being taught to develop their short-term memories, through cramming and testing, they didn't retain a lot of their secondary education. Note that this was at the University of Wisconsin, which is not a rinky-dink school, nor were these stupid students. One of the students who failed this test later went on to get a PhD.

The bottom line is that yes, there are a lot of good notations out there. It seems that many (most?) students who learn them don't remember them. That may say more about our education system than about the abilities of the students.

Since the second half of the book is all about laying out processes on a common timeline and showing the consequences, I needed to work on getting everybody to at least attempt to see numbers the same way.


Liked the first five chapters. Waiting for it to become available in Canada in non-Kindle form.

( lists Kindle and paperback, lists only Kindle. No idea if that is under your control or not.)


I don't think that's under my control, but I'll see what I can do. CreateSpace should be distributing it to along with and Amazon Europe. I'm not sure why it's out in England and Germany, but not in Canada or Australia.

It's also supposed to be going out to Barnes and Noble and other resellers, but I don't see it there yet either.


On reflection, there are two possible objections you could be making here.

One is the one I said: the Great Oxygenation 'Event' had a duration that is LONGER than the elapsed time since it ended; the name makes it sound like a relative blip, when it's actually an era. But if you failed to notice that, I suspect that's NOT a problem with scale so much as a problem with context. You could replace "billion years" with "thousand years" and it wouldn't really change the issue. (If I tell you the "Great Widget Event" started 2400 years ago and ended 850 years ago, you could object to my styling that an "event" on exactly the same grounds, even though the scale is much smaller.)

On the other hand, suppose I tell you that the Great Exemplar Event started 2.4 billion years ago and lasted for 1 thousand years. A thousand years is tiny compared to the vast gulf of time that has passed since it ended, BUT it's still big compared to a human lifetime. Do you object to me calling that an "event"?


@Antistone --

I can't figure out what you're complaining about.

"Great Oxygenation Event" is pretty much standard terminology. (Like a lot of things in geology, it was noticed a long time before anyone knew how long it took. Hence the 80 My Cretaceous Period; the chalk got noticed before the span of time could be determined.)

Is there a problem with referring as events to things that are in fact tendencies? Sure, but I have the distinct sense Frank's noting that problem. So I'm not at all sure what you're displeased about.


It sounds like Antistone isn't actually engaging with the content, but is objecting to an example used to illustrate a principle. Whether he thinks the example being wrong invalidates the principle isn't clear. When I say principle here, of course what I actually mean is simply a line of argument, but it's easier to put it the way I have.

I have one small problem with the title: since I know about the existence of dinosaur porn, I saw this, and wondered....

Or perhaps the book is aimed at extraterrestrials, whether alien or human diaspora?


Hi Frank,

I've been reading your comments here on Charlie's blog with a lot of interest for quite some while, so the ideas expressed in the sample chapters aren't so new to me anymore. Still, they're very thought provoking, and I want to thank you for that!

For me, the most provoking (in a good way!) contribution you bring to the debate is your assumption that we will use all our fossil energy first, and the totally game-changing consequences this will have. Namely, that nothing we have presently in our mind as "technology" will work anymore. On one hand, that's simple logic and therefore self-evident. But on the other hand, it's truly mind-boggling. So mind-boggling in fact, that it simply refuses to register with many people, as already evidenced in some of the debates here in previous threads.

In reading the sample chapters, I've found some typos, mainly word omissions. Here's a short list (the correction is always in the italics):

page 2, line 6: "Other authors have been tackling …" or "have tackled …" page 2, line 18: the comma should follow after the closing quotation mark page 2, line 20: "… inspire us to care …", although it may be possible to drop the "to"; I'm not sure here, I'm not even a native English speaker page 7, lines 6-7: "… the text that contains them." page 14, lines 4-5: "… that are going on(?) around me …" page 42, lines 34-35: "Major ice sheets aren't likely to reappear …"

I've probably missed others, and also came across some syntax that was a little unclear. Unfortunately, I haven't kept a list of those, but you'll probably going to get feedback by other readers as well.

Once again, thank you for your work, and I'm glad to have you in the commentariat here on Charlie's blog!


What Antistone is complaining about—and he's absolutely right—is the assertion that writing numbers out in full makes their relative sizes easier to grasp. As he correctly says, it doesn't: beyond millions (xx 000 000), the number of zeroes is just too many to grasp in a quick glance: you just get the impression of a Big Scary Number (which I think I'll abbreviate to BS Number, because it's appropriate).

As Greg says at 37, the correct approach to this is to use scientific notation or SI prefixes. The fact that the "write the numbers out fully" method is garbage can be seen from the fact that when big numbers are actually necessary, in C5, Frank in fact wimps out and uses gigatonnes.

But, in actual fact, the example of the Great Oxygenation Event (or, more usually, Great Oxidation Event), as described by Frank, is (not to put too fine a point on it) a flat-out lie. The gradual and very episodic rise in the level of atmospheric oxygen between 2.5 Gyr ago and about 0.8 Gyr ago is not the GOE. To quote Sessions et al., Current Biology 19 (2009) R567–R574,

"Shortly after 2.45 billion years ago (denoted as ‘2.45 Ga’), atmospheric O2 rose rapidly and substantially to probably a few percent or more of PAL. Due to its apparent speed and singular nature, this time interval has come to be known as the Great Oxidation Event." [Emphasis added. 'PAL' stands for 'present atmospheric level'.]

The paper itself may be behind a paywall—I can see it, but that may be courtesy of Sheffield University Library—but if you can see it, their Figure 1 makes it abundantly clear why they are calling it an "event", and they certainly are not being misled by large numbers (geologists are a pretty numerate bunch).

As far as I'm concerned, the big numbers thing is a big red herring, and the fact that the asserted example is simply untrue doesn't make me feel good. Then I read stuff like "A tonne is 1,000 kilograms or about 2,205 pounds, so 1.4 teratonnes is 1,400,000,000,000 tonnes or about 3,086,471,670,588,286 pounds" and I start foaming at the mouth. I'd tear a first year undergraduate to shreds for that. Two significant figures are two significant figures: they do not miraculously become 16 significant figures when you multiply by a constant. 1.4×1015 kg = 3.1×1015 pounds, and the rest of the numbers there are invented out of whole cloth.

I also get fed up with all the rabbiting on about putting "carbon" into the atmosphere. Carbon is a stable solid, usually black and slippery, occasionally clear and very hard, and it has no effect on the climate whatsoever. You are talking about combustion products of carbon and hydrocarbons, principally carbon dioxide, but also methane. Expressing it in terms of "carbon" (and being sniffy about sensible people like Archer, who express it as CO2) doesn't fill me with enthusiasm either. (Note that a megatonne of carbon contained in 3.7 megatonnes of CO2 has very different climate implications from a megatonne of carbon contained in 1.3 megatonnes of CH4.)

Heteromeles is one of the more sensible commentators on this blog, but on the basis of this excerpt, not likely to be a recipient of any of my money.



The paper you cite is indeed behind a paywall, but the abstract and Figure 1 are visible for everybody.

However, the graph in their Figure 1 differs utterly from the graph displayed for instance in the wikipedia article on the subject (which incidentally also calls it "Oxygenation"; "Great Oxidation Event" gets redirected to that page).

So, at least the common wisdom of wikipedia (which of course says nothing about the actual scientific consensus, but is what almost everybody who is interested in the subject will see first) does indeed make the "event" take place for billions of years, just as Heteromeles asserts and (rightfully) criticizes.


In the text of the wikipedia page, however, it appears that only the beginning of the long process of oxygen saturation in the atmosphere is referred to as "Great Oxygenation Event", not the whole process. This would put Heteromeles' criticism in the wrong again.


That's not what I've seen, and quite honestly, I have no idea how what you're talking about would work.

Here's an alternative paper, from science (2014) It's also behind a paywall (the supplementary materials are available), but here's the abstract:

"The oxygenation of Earth’s surface fundamentally altered global biogeochemical cycles and ultimately paved the way for the rise of metazoans at the end of the Proterozoic. However, current estimates for atmospheric oxygen (O2) levels during the billion years leading up to this time vary widely. On the basis of chromium (Cr) isotope data from a suite of Proterozoic sediments from China, Australia, and North America, interpreted in the context of data from similar depositional environments from Phanerozoic time, we find evidence for inhibited oxidation of Cr at Earth’s surface in the mid-Proterozoic (1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago). These data suggest that atmospheric O2 levels were at most 0.1% of present atmospheric levels. Direct evidence for such low O2 concentrations in the Proterozoic helps explain the late emergence and diversification of metazoans. "

I'll let the chemists check in with the exact chemistry, but the problem is that the Earth had an enormous capacity to absorb free oxygen when the cyanobacteria first evolved, due to the presence of reduced iron, sulfur, and other elements in solution in the ocean. I'll point to iron, because the "banded iron formations" (Wikipedia article) were formed starting 3,700,000,000 to mostly between 2,400,000,000 and 1,900,000,000 years ago. The reason it's banded is that oxidized iron was laid out in bands, possibly in a seasonal pattern.

Note that "event" here (the Great Oxygenation Event) is still 500,000,000 years, or longer than the history of animals on land.

But it's not just about iron: there's ample evidence that, contrary to the article you cited, it took well over 1,000,000,000 years for cyanobacteria to produce a surplus of oxygen that remained in the atmosphere.

The more modern uses I've seen for the Great Oxygenation Event all talk about that entire >1 billion year period as an event, and none of them spell it out.

As for why I didn't write out all the digits in chapter five, the reason is that I actually tried it that way, and found that each number took up about 1/4 of each line of text. Since that actually detracts from readability rather than adding to it, I used abbreviations. I also demonstrated that in the text.

So why are you calling me a liar?


Ignoring the weird debate ... There's a few pieces of cli-fi (climate fiction) I'd like to see: Games. there are farming simulators, I want a Farming the Collapse simulator that has the player, over the course of a long game, deal with changing and ever weirder weather scarcity of fossile derived sources. This one should be really detailed and try to simulate nutrient cycles etc. There's civilization, i want postciv: building or maintaining a civilization when fossile fules run out, the seas rise and the weather runs amok (notice how, at least in the civgames I played, oil or coal never features explicitly as a resource? The age of cheap energy we are living in is baked into the game!). The game starts with the map near the end of a conventional civ game and features mechanics for scavenging old infrastrucutre (because noithing else will work).


I prefer measuring emissions as mass of CO2 or CO2-equivalents also, but I don't think that "carbon emissions" is actually wrong. The emissions we're talking about contain the element carbon bound up in different compounds. Compare: in environmental research you can find the term "nitrogen emissions" used to mean emissions of compounds of nitrogen with hydrogen and/or oxygen. As long as the convention is clearly established -- and I don't think you could mistake what convention Frank has chosen -- there's no problem.


Agreed. In the book I tried to keep it simple. While I'm quite aware that there are multiple greenhouse gases, not all of which decay into CO2, the problem is that a technically precise discussion gets really complicated, really fast, and most of greenhouse effect is caused either by CO2 directly or by things that decay into CO2.

I'll also admit that I largely avoided the issue of methane clathrates and hydrates, because I couldn't find good consensus on a) how big the deposits are (the error bar is worse than with fossil fuels), b) how fast they are erupting, c) whether the methane is making it into the atmosphere in large amounts, or getting decomposed by microbes into CO2 in the water column, and d) how much the oceanic [CO2] increase from methane releases will mess up the ocean's ability to take carbon out of the air. That's too many known unknowns, and I decided to stick with Archer's model, even though it's a bit dated.

My personal assumption is that we're going to get a partial handle on civilization's carbon emissions, some polar methane is going to make it into the atmosphere, and the result is going to be in the ballpark of Archer's scenario. That actually isn't the worst case scenario, but it's still pretty pessimistic.


A Farming the Collapse game would be interesting. It's not clear whether we know enough to write it right now, but hopefully this book will give someone the impetus to start fiddling with it.

Actually, something as simple as Settlers of Cataan--Climate Change would be interesting too.

One big thing I want to point out is that the Altithermal (especially the Deep Altithermal) isn't quite as alien as we might think: it looks like it lends itself quite well to Medievaloid-ish, even Steampunk-ish, SFF stories. The problem for the author is to get her head around a warm climate ("summer is coming" is a worse prophecy than "winter is coming"), fewer and different resources, and almost certainly some residue of "high tech" devices (like rocket stoves) that are ubiquitous, along probably with ideas like science, germ theory, evolution, and so forth. It would serve quite well as a setting for either science fiction and fantasy stories.

One issue with dystopian fiction and cli fi is that they tend to be commentaries about the ways we're screwing up right now and the negative consequences thereof. I'd suggest that creative types play with the deep future as its own place, where we're at worst the Precursors who left rubble everywhere, and at best long forgotten. Make stories about living in a strange future that are not allegories about the present. That's my personal bias, anyway. Hopefully there are editors out there who would buy such stories.


Just to be pedantic, as I recall it, Civ II and IV* both had global warming as a way to screw up the late game, caused by pollution. However, pollution from fossil fuels and nuclear meltdowns was lumped together.

Civ IV has oil and coal as important resources, but no provision for them (or any other resources) running out.

But that doesn't make them the AGW-centric 4X games you are asking for.

  • Haven't played Civ III or V enough to know.

Many years ago there was a post-nuclear war war game After The Holocaust about rebuilding the four nations the US broke up into, and fighting the others. Not what you meant either.


Civ's had warming for a long time, if you had the settlers on hand to terraform the mess forcing it was a pretty good way to handicap everyone else.

As for the arguments over scientific notation, the Great Oxygenation Event and so on - they read to me like a bunch of senile cardinals shaking a finger at Frank for writhing a book warning seamstresses of the dangers of sharp pins because he didn't write in terms of either standard metric Angels or new imperial Angels (for shame!).


There's an animated TV show called "Adventure Time" (magical fantasy, not sci-fi) that depicts a post-apocalyptic world not entirely unlike what you are describing here, Frank. Complete with legacy technology, altered landscapes, and mutated lifeforms.


Anno 2070 and Anno 2205 both have this kind of thing as a premise


Hate to say it, but that's not a bad description of a collapse.

It's worth remembering that getting to a more sustainable society will be equally wrenching, because it's going to involve wholesale rebuilding of civilization from the infrastructure up. Either way it's scary, but sustainability involves fewer premature deaths and destruction.

Thing is that it's a lot harder to figure out what a sustainable world will look like than what a crashed world will look like, which is why I decided to write about the latter.


Personally, if I start seeing numbers like, say, 245E+9 and 0.7E+9 expressed as 700000000 etc, I don't count the zeroes, I count the separators.


Interesting. For those interested in collapses of civilizations from the past there is Collapse by Jared Diamond. Great read IMO.

The fun part of the coming collapse is that it will affect pretty much the whole planet and thus the whole of mankind instead of just a local crash of ecosystems that no longer support a local civilization. Ecocide worldwide! That's the way we like it. Don't worry about it. Do you really want a continued existence of homo sapiens on Earth? Just keep doing what you're doing and we'll just get there that tiny little bit sooner.


Sustainable civilizations are not competitive. Competition requires maximizing economic exploitation. Thus the choice is not between going sustainable or not, it is between being conquered by a non sustainable civilization or being one. Unless something changes.


You swallowed that crap hook, line and sinker. American? Over 55?


In such a scenario I think Russia will do pretty well. OTOH, Africa is screwed, as usual.


Yes, and not until January. Should I put it in quotation marks? This is the principle on which the world is operating. It's a social construct, like a dress code. Doesn't matter if it has objective truth. It works that way. So we all have to wear a tie, because we are expected to wear a tie, because everybody wears a tie. It's an unfortunate corner we've painted ourselves into, but as such, what makes it untrue? If the USA or China or Russia returned to it's agrarian past any of them wouldn't last long. Where I live there are lots of Amish people, you always have to pass them riding buggies on the shoulder, and they sell produce by the road side, you see them walking around town. They live sustainably, but if we all went Amish, the whole country, what do you think would happen? Pretty soon we would be conquered by Chinese tractor salesmen, that's what. I've seen those Amish guys drooling down at the John Deere dealership. Even if the conquest is not military, it will be economic or cultural. We might be allowed to retain our Amish ways, but we would become a colony, as sustainable countries in the developing world are. There are possible technological ways out of this fix, or diplomatic ones, but that we're in a fix is undeniable.


If you really want the game with AGW in it, try the Caveman2Cosmos mod for Civ IV.

It has crime, diseases, pests, multiple pollution types, and goes from pointy sticks to spaceships and powered armour. Half the endgame is about taming your effects on your empire.

Of course, if you try it, I'll see you in a month once you finish your first game ...


Amazon UK were as good as their word. The paperback landed on my desk 30 seconds ago.


This shows how far behind the cutting edge I am in video games, but I was disappointed that Age of Empires didn't support indefinitely sustainable societies. That's understandable for the default game style but it was a thing I'd have liked to see. If nothing else it might have been easy enough to code forests to regrow and fish schools to spawn, likely both at a slow but noticable rate; as written all resources are fixed at world generaion time and the player needs to move quickly.

Of course it doesn't even have weather much less climate, so there you go.


For you, a us citizen, there are 19 other people on this planet. Each from another culture than yours. Some fairly close to yours, others very different from yours. So by definition your point of view is that of a minority. I understand that that is rather easy to forget when you live in a country as big as the USA. I cycled from Albuquerque to the eastcoast. It's a looong way. I saw the horse and carriage folks!. About the conquered bit. Due to the geographic isolation and the amount of firearms the US is among the few countries that can't be conquered by anyone.


Frank devoted an entire chapter specifically to talking about the mistakes people make when dealing with big numbers and what notational scheme we ought to use to minimize them.

If your book about the dangers of sharp needles includes a chapter that is specifically about the difference between metric and imperial angels and why everyone in the world should buck convention by using one rather than the other, I think it's fair for critics to debate your recommendations.


There's civilization, i want postciv...The game starts with the map near the end of a conventional civ game and features mechanics for scavenging old infrastrucutre (because noithing else will work).

A major problem with existing civ games is that they are hard to break into because they are very complicated. But they at least start on a small scale and grow gradually, so you get to start your first game with a simplified, small-scale example of what you will eventually be playing.

A game that STARTS with the civ endgame and then layers a whole new system of collapse and scavenging on top of it sounds like it would be a nightmare to teach. I assume that you'd use a greatly simplified model for declining cities, but you still start turn 1 with a complex, unfamiliar map with a crisis in every corner that needs your attention. I'm not sure how you'd make that playable.

I have noticed a trend in the civ games to focus on the accumulation of bonuses rather than penalties. Civ 2 has you fighting corruption and waste that drain your resources; Civ 5 starts with you getting all of your nominal production and then unlocks technologies that increase the output of basic terrain. Civ 2 has hard city population limits that require an investment of technology and infrastructure just to maintain your growth; in Civ 5, there's no population cap, and the equivalent buildings add multipliers to your growth rate. Civ 2 lets you switch from a form of government with one set of problems to a new form of government with a different set of problems; Civ 5 has a government "skill tree" where you just keep choosing new, cumulative bonuses to unlock.

My theory is that they do this mainly because bonuses are more fun than penalties, though it also arguably simplifies the game math. Both of those are going to work against you if you make a declining-civ game.

It's an interesting idea, though. Maybe someone will figure out how to make it.

(And yes, Civilization assumes that you never run out of oil. It also assumes that the marble quarry you built in 4000 BCE is still operating at peak output when the game ends in 2050 CE. Every simulation has an edge.)


Point about the easing into the game and so on is well taken. Maybe for postciv, you'd start as a small band in one city and try to transform and conquer?

I think for a Postciv game, you'd not start by hacking an existing 4x. I think you should start by identifying a dozen possible matter streams (coal, oil, ore, food, ...) and reserves, and infrastructure. It would not be a people or city management game with a ressource apsect tacked on, but a ressource management game at heart that you access through a people layer. But I'm a process engineer, for me everything starts with a mass balance ...


Regarding one of the recent attractors here, KSR nre Aurora seems to deal with the difficulty of space exploration:

And KSR is one of the authors whoom I think to get society and environment (whatever the difference is ... )right.


It's fair to debate the point, once you've read the entire book to see if the use I put that particular chapter to makes sense in context, or whether there is a better way to do it.

Otherwise, I'm actually in a bind, because I don't think it's fair to readers who are buying the book to recapitulate the entire manuscript just to show why this point is important.

I'd simply suggest reading the book, then commenting on it. I'll post an open thread on my blog for those comments tomorrow. If, after reading it, you think that notation is a mistake, feel free call me on it, and I'll be happy to debate it.



The book is now available at:

Barnes and Noble (

I'm still wrestling with Smashwords, because it through a fit over having to include footnotes and a table of contents. Once that goes up, I'll be able to ship it to iBook. I love how technology is so enabling.


I obviously didn't make the point well. I haven't used scientific notation in years and I'm part of the minority who have at least a superficial understanding. Frank is (I presume here) writhing for a general audience (and possibly the subset of writers) not scientists who could just look up the papers with all the data themselves. Anyway if he wants to address his audience he needs to use numbers they'll understand, scientific notation might be easier for a scientist to work with but its incomprehensible to most every one else and insisting it would be better seems to be missing the intention, which is to get people to think about big numbers not confuse them with a system they haven't see since high school if then.


I'm reading Aurora right now. It's closer to "right," I'll give you that. So far, I'm not sure whether it's possible to have two wheels of what are basically Stanford torus-sized compartments (twelve each in two wheels rotating around the common drive shaft), IIRC I'm not sure whether he's got the windows facing the right way (since it's being spun, out is down, so the windows should be on the inside, not the outside. Therefore you'd see more ship than stars if the lights get turned off), and he's slowing the Aurora down using something like an Orion drive blasting 20 nukes/second, which is kind of cool, but I keep thinking of it as the Woodpecker From Hell approach to vibrating this immense ship to see what pops loose, especially when you run the Woodpecker for something like 20 years to slow the ship down.

Fortunately, the tech in Aurora so far is somewhat better than in Planetfall, which I'm also reading, which is also being marketed as a demonstration of sustainable tech. There the author has Maxwell's Demon mashes the trash up into its component particles and sorts these particles back into materials streams, so that they can be somehow shipped all the materials to the "printers" in each home which take the place of good ol' Drexler-style assemblers. And it's all powered by solar power shining on dome surfaces. In other words, all the nasty hard stuff is being done automatically by magitech machines, while the rather gentrified humans get on with the business of administering the activities of said machines. Fortunately, the machines aren't remotely sentient, or it would look a lot like a slave society.

I think Kim Stanley Robinson's experienced enough at this that he's learned when not to define the technology too thoroughly, and therefore it looks more realistic.

I will say, my pissing and whining aside, that they're both good very stories, well worth buying and reading. Please don't let my sour grapes deter you from either.


For those of you looking for a game about this sort of thing, may I recommend Soft Landing?

An old-fashioned table-top game, good for playing with a few friends over a few drinks.


Just bought it from Smashwords. Picked up Ghosts of Deep Time at the same time.


Thanks Robert. Which format did you buy from Smashwords? Let me know how it came out, by email if you like.

For everyone else, I'm currently dealing with a list of errors that the Smashwords converter returned, and I've got to figure out how to solve them all before I can use Smashwords Premium to ship it to Apple.

I was going to hold off announcing the Smashwords publication until I was sure that it was good enough.


Apparently I should have taken more care to write my original comment in a way that would be understandable to people who hadn't read the sample chapter I was commenting on. Neither I, nor that sample chapter, said anything about scientific notation.

The sample chapter recommends that you should NOT write "2.6 billion years", because the timescale is (allegedly) easier to grasp if you instead write "2,600,000,000 years". (Scientific notation, for anyone who is rusty, would be writing "2.6 x 10^9 years".) Frank not only says that he intends to use this convention, but exhorts his readers to use it outside his book, too.

I happen to think that "2,600,000,000 years" is (often) HARDER to understand. I also think the logical extension of Frank's argument is that you shouldn't write "2,600,000,000 years", either, but should instead write "82,000,000,000,000,000 seconds", because if hiding those zeroes behind the word "billion" makes it hard to appreciate the time involved, then surely using a gigantic unit like "year" instead of the SI base unit of "second" must be just as bad.

As Susan pointed out in comment 46, Frank abandons his own advice two chapters later, writing "1,000 to 1,400 gigatonnes of carbon" (repeatedly), where according to himself he should have written "1,000,000,000,000 to 1,400,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon" (and according to my extrapolation of his advice should have converted that into "1,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1,400,000,000,000,000,000 grams of carbon", because a tonne is really just a megagram, so he's really working in units of petagrams).

Frank defends (both in the book and in this thread) his choice to use "gigatonnes" by saying that all those zeroes increase the size of the text and make it harder to read.

Well, duh.

Where we disagree is that Frank seems to think that that specific chapter is somehow a special case.


On the matter of scientific notation, I think Bill Bryson has the idea of it when he points out that it's not great for readers who are unused to the notation.

Though I salute the principle, it remains an amazement to me that anyone seeing '1.4 X 109 km3' would see at once that that signifies 1.4 billion cubic kilometres, and no less a wonder that they would choose the former over the latter in print (especially in a book designed for the general reader, where the example was found.)

This is a footnote to a point where he bothers to write out 10-43 seconds, both as a number and as 'one ten million trillion trillion trillionths of a second.' Just to get across how tiny an increment of time he is talking about. (This is p. 13 of A Short History of Nearly Everything, by the way.) Used sparingly, I think this sort of approach does a much better job of getting across your numbers than committing to writing out the numbers each time.

I say this as someone who glommed hard on your example paragraph. I read that bit as "Cyanobacteria seem to have appeared around [number] years ago. [Number] years later.." and then took your word for it when you later explained why those numbers were significant. And I don't think I'm alone in sitting more towards the Van der Grinten than Dymaxion end of the spectrum.


That one gets a yellow card for trolling. Yes, we do get to moderate our own posts.

Justin, I've got the text, and none of what you allege happens to be true. For anyone who cares, the text is in 12 point Garamond, which is an industry standard. Right justified is also industry standard, and an unjustified right margin is the classic mark of an amateur. Since I've got the text and I mentioned my wife exactly once, it wasn't justified the way you saw it. Based on this, I'd say you're trying to pick a fight, rather than providing useful feedback.


I downloaded the epub, although one of the things I like about Smashwords is that when you buy it lets you download any of the versions. This means I can download the PDF if I want to print a few pages (I tend to think better when I can write all over the document).

Haven't done more than load the file onto the iPad yet. Still got 2" of papers to mark (down from 6" on Friday) so won't really have time to check it out in detail for a few days. (I'd also want to load it on the Kobo and see how that works before giving you a "no problems" signal. I've found books that work on the iPad don't always work on the Kobo, and vice-versa.



I have unpublished a number of comments (and a couple of inappropriate responses) that were at risk of derailing this discussion.

Justin, Red Card. Leave this thread alone. (You may post on other topics, but not this one, as long as you don't derail them. Derail other topics as well and I'll ban you.)


OK. Took a quick look over dinner. The epub is readable, but I suspect some links aren't working. Before many references the text is purple, which usually indicates a clickable link, but nothing happens when I tap on it.

For example, in chapter 5 80 pages in (on the iPad) there's a paragraph that starts:

"A rather more plausible possibility is that we will use our rapidly advancing technology to capture carbon out of the air … way to sequester carbon (White 2014),"

Everything from the start of the paragraph until the parenthesis (but not including it) is purple and looks like I should be able to click it, but as I said it doesn't work.

So it's either a non-functional link or an odd colouring in the text.


Charlie, you might want to delete my comment at #85 too. I was replying to Greg, and when you deleted his comment mine doesn't make much sense. (And if he was off-topic, I was too.)



Thanks for the feedback Robert. I was afraid that would happen, once I saw that they put it up for sale before they ran it through their validation system, and I'm sorry your copy wasn't cleaner. The Smashwords version has been unpublished it while I'm working on the update.

I'm working on revising it per Smashwords formatting requirements (the style guide is 117 pages long, and I'm around page 75 at the moment). This takes awhile, as their instructions include copying the entire file to notepad to remove all formatting, then reformatting it, adding the footnotes back in as endnotes and hyperlinking each of them to the page, and so forth.

Whatever happens, I will make sure you get a clean epub out of this. Hopefully, once I load the clean version it will automatically propagate out to you at no cost. If it doesn't, I'll email you a copy.

Thanks again for your feedback.


Okay, I'm not going to complain about how numbers are represented.

Instead I'll ask if it's practical to release the sample as an epub rather than pdf. I've been working through the sample in my spare moments and the pdf reader in my mobile device is lousy for longer texts. It's not you or your book, it's the tiny screen - if I had a full size monitor it would be fine but I can't stuff that into my pocket.


Number-representation. I hate to moan on, but what's wrong with "Powers of ten"?

I mean, I'm 69 & I learnt this when I was 13/14 or so - so it can't be too difficult - can it?


I can cope too, but I also had to be taught how to do it in the first place.


If the original started as a Word file, I can empathize. I have to deal with Word documents when I publish stuff for the OAPT, and removing all the hidden formatting always takes the most time.

The footnote I tried works, but I didn't try them all.


Word's medulla-deep presumption that the only format change you will make after creating the document will be via a printer has been the cause of much unnecessary heartburn.


IIRC SmashWords insist on the input to their publishing system being a Word file. While they're one of the most convenient self-publishing pipelines for people who use Word, I, personally, wouldn't touch them with a barge-pole because of the Word file requirement. (I don't work in Word.)


Cool, can I vent for a minute?


Hot Earth Dreams was originally written in Scrivener. I ported it over to Word when I had to start dealing with references, because it sucks at in text references and it's not very good at porting footnotes either. It's really designed for fiction and scripts. Word, problematic as it is, handles basic formatting, footnotes, references, working with Endnote, indexing, and conversion to html and pdf.

I went with Createspace originally, not because it was the evil empire, but because I know readers here are all over the world, and this was the fastest way to get it out at least in Europe. This has proved to be the case.

There was a bit of fussing over the cover (note that Createspace's downloadable templates appear to be 1/8" off from what they manufacture, necessitating a email conversation and the purchase of two proofs to straighten out. Probably it's a money maker for them). If you're cheap, contact them first to find out whether a template is correct and how to fix it.

To create the Kindle version, I took the book version in Word 2007 (sorry Charlie), converted it to Word 2007 html, stripped out some ugly formatting (that took an afernoon) and got the Kindle converter to accept it. Indeed, Kindle did a better job converting the document than did Calibre.

Smashwords converter ("Meatgrinder") died on that same html document. What Robert reported is what came out the other end of the "Meatgrinder" converter. While I was trying to fix it, he bought a copy, and I couldn't even see whether it was for sale or not, which is why he's getting the clean version one way or another and I've unpublished the version he bought.

What I'm working on now for Smashwords involves taking the original document, feeding it to notepad to remove all formatting, copying this back to Word to save in a .doc file (they don't accept .docx), taking all the footnotes, feeding them to notepad to remove all the formatting, putting them in at the end of the document, hand numbering them, rewriting the Table of Contents, reformatting the entire text, bookmarking every chapter heading and every endnote (141 of them), then hyperlinking the chapter headings to the ToC, hand inserting all the now endnote markers and hyperlinking every single one to the notes at the end. And hopefully I formatted the bookmarks properly so that I don't accidentally corrupt the NCX file that MeatGrinder assembles from bookmarks, because then it will mix up endnotes and table of contents and destroy the document.

Also, they want a cover jpeg that's minimum 1400 pixels wide (the one above is 1326 pixels). They've got no problem with me doubling the size of that jpeg, so that's what I did, rather than go back and remanufacture that cover. Sorry about being a bandwidth hog.

And so on. Fortunately the 117 page formatting document they insist you follow is a free download. It's full of cheery quotes about how stupid Word is and that's why they can only deal with documents that you format following their exact specifications.

With apologies to Robert and the others who want to avoid the evil empire, this is the cost of making it available on Smashwords, and by extension on iBooks and Kobo.

My take is that Smashwords is repeating the bad business practices of the existing publishing industry. Kindle and Createspace seem to have kept up with the technology, while Smashwords offloads their failure to adapt onto the authors' shoulders. If you're writing fiction, none of this matters (unless you use footnotes...), but ebooks in general and Smashwords in particular aren't well designed to handle non-fiction.

Grumbling aside, I don't mind making it available in multiple formats. That's been my intent all along. It's just interesting to me how writing a simple non-fiction book with centuries' old formatting features like an index has turned into a tour of the unbuilt underside of online publishing. I thought people knew how to publish this kind of thing electronically (see all the science journals out there), but evidently not.


I think I speak for all of us when I say "aaaargh." Apparently the Createspace alignment thing is known but intermittent. I know of an author who went through 8 proofs sorting out various issues, and the alignment thing only showed up on the last-but-one one... for that book.

And we do know how to do all this electronically. It's been a solved problem for 30 years! "All" you have to do is learn an entire document markup language.


To create the Kindle version, I took the book version in Word 2007 (sorry Charlie), converted it to Word 2007 html, stripped out some ugly formatting (that took an afernoon) and got the Kindle converter to accept it. Indeed, Kindle did a better job converting the document than did Calibre. Smashwords converter ("Meatgrinder") died on that same html document.

Here's a tip: look at the HTML source Word emits and you'll want to throw up. Word produces -- at least, Word 2011 for Mac and every earlier version I've looked at produces -- the worst HTML I've ever seen. Hideous, hideous.

The best output conversions I've found (although I haven't invested huge amounts of time in looking) are: the Apple engine used by Pages (and the command-line textutil(1) tool on OSX), and Scrivener itself (which can produce Mobi files directly if you install Amazon's kindle conversion utility and configure it to do so).


I'm not disagreeing that Word does crappy html. The point is that the Kindle converter takes this crappy html and somehow turns it into a functional file. Smashwords requires a precisely designed file to do its thing, so they're offloading a task that can be automated onto the author.


Hi Frank:

Reading the more-diversity-is-better section of Hot Earth Dreams when email re: this week's Nature OpEd came in:

'Defensive drives - Researchers exploring ways to genetically alter wild populations are wise to air their plans.' 17 November 2015

How do you see this fitting in with your scenarios?

IMO, the most horrifying part so far is the policy to waste/destroy native Afghan seed stock. Did a fact-check because I found such deliberate destruction (evil) incredibly hard to believe.

Regards, SFreader


complaining about bad html these days is like complaining about bad machine code. Sometimes it matters but around 99.9% of the time it doesn't


So far as what the Harvard researchers are doing (e.g. talking about the impacts before they start the research), I think that's great. It's something I advocate for in real life on a regular basis, and I'm thrilled to see it in academia for a change (long story, but I've seen some stupid experiments let into the wild already).

One thing to be concerned about is that all aspects of biology are getting divided into lab vs. field, far more so than when I was in grad school a decade ago. This is problematic because a) the field sciences are getting under-resourced and fading away, and b) the lab geeks have no clue how much knowledge they're missing by not having the field experts around. Through a simple Dunning-Kruger effect, they could cause havoc outside the lab. Not that being in the field always helps (see the example of cane toads), but there is a body of knowledge about what has not worked in the past that needs to be kept alive and accessible somehow.

As for the Afghanistan seed bank, I read that as stupidity in action, rather than evil, but we'll probably never know. All it takes to destroy a hidden seed bank (as in Afghanistan) is some looters who think the containers are valuable. Dump the seeds, steal the containers, and you've made a few bucks while accidentally setting your country's agriculture back decades. Stupidity and ignorance really are a huge and perennial problem.


Frank, you insist at a few places that SF or CliFi shouild not always be about examining the present using a different setting (or however one translates that SF is not really about the future or not about the real future or ...). Can elaborate a bit? Is 'writing about the human condition, using SF tropes' something you want to avoid? How do you avoid writing about the issues and topics that are relevant to you here and now? Or do you mean it in a narrower sense, you don't want SFnal settings and McGuffins as heavy handed allegories for whatever is happening right now?



My point is that some people (many people?) see dystopian near-future fiction as boring, often repetitive. It's basically some exploration of how we in the present are screwing up, and the subtext is trying to get us to not screw up.

I'm trying to get more people to ask: what happens next? I suspect that our future probably is hundreds of thousands of years long. While we're likely to be stuck on this planet, that's a truly immense undiscovered country to explore, and Earth is going to continue to get stranger as it ages. It's kind of silly to do so only in the context of how we in the present are screwing up.

I'd like to get more creative people to try to explore it for its own sake. Give us back a future where people live their own lives. After all, once we get away from dystopia, how much of SFF really is a commentary about how current reality, and how much of it is simply the exploration of a "secondary" world? To me the biggest secondary world out there is the future.

If this doesn't make much sense, imagine mainstream literature about life in 21st Century America, rewritten in the following scenarios: --As a dystopian commentary about the failure of Medieval Roman Catholicism to be the One True Church; --As a dystopian commentary about the failure of the Chinese Empire to settle the New World; --As a dystopian commentary about the failure of Rome to be truly eternal; --As a dystopian commentary about the failure of Islam to spread across the world; --As a dystopian commentary about the failure of the British/French/Spanish/Portuguese/Whatever Empire to conquer the world; --etc.

Hopefully you see how each of these stories could be written, but at the same time, these stories don't really tell us much about actual life in 21st Century America. While we are the product of all these previous failures, we're not a commentary on past failures. We're our own time, doing our own thing.

What I hope is that people can write about a future where people do their own thing. Certainly they'll be the product of our failures, but does that have to be the only story we tell about them?


The classical argument: 'SF is always about the times its written in anyway',I understand that as a writer you can only do so much to escape your own frame. At the end of the day, what you produce will tell a reader more about you and what's on your mind right now than about the deep future it's set in. Or at least that's the school I mostly subscribe to, I tend to see SF not as forecasting.

So maybe the question is if CliFi is scenario developing for the times post collapse or a way to handle preTSD or a way of exploding genre boundaries and telling newer stories or all of the above. Or something else entirely?

But maybe it's not so important to nail down what exactly we want from our stories, but to look at what undeveloped possibilities there are, and explore them.


But maybe it's not so important to nail down what exactly we want from our stories, but to look at what undeveloped possibilities there are, and explore them.

Yes, that's my take on it.

That's the second half of Hot Earth Dreams. It's not that I think that climate change is a cozy catastrophe. Rather, it's that I think people are happier when we can hope that there is a future ahead of us.


The authorial conceit - that it's not merely entertainment


Once in a while I rad one of your pieces over on Wave, I think you share the authorial conceit.


I'm even more cynical than that.


Frank, I just cruised through the sample.

And I have two observations.

The first is you missed a possible market - table top game resource. Try marketing it as a systemless source book over at or

The second is you blew your price point from what's in the sample. Going by what's available, I'd suggest cutting the price by half or two thirds. The latter chapters may justify it, but the sample does not justify the price point because it comes across as a padded out article.

I'm very, very sorry but it doesn't grab me and I hope this might be helpful.


Hi Frank --

Smashwords isn't the only electronic book distributor.

Draft2Digital will take ePub and send it to Kobo and iTunes (and elsewhere). They also ask you to approve the result before anything goes live.

If I can put on my "information delivery with XML" hat, the thing about Smashwords is that Word is a really terrible choice of initial format; it's complex and poorly documented and it puts a ton of work back on the person trying to convert the manuscript. (Very much a dancing bear; one marvels that the thing is possible at all.)

You might want to look at Pandoc which is a general purpose document format converter that can target EPUB.

You might want to look at Libre Office, which will read your Word doc and emit reasonably clean HTML. (And there are some plugins out there that will emit EPUB.)

The EPUB validator is emphatically a good idea, because it makes the "is this them or me?" question much easier to decide. (It's not perfect, because no electronic distributor takes canonical EPUB; they've all got restrictive requirements or internal standards violations of one sort or another.)

Me, I turn novels into EPUB by going from a utf-8 text file to EPUB via XSLT transform, but that's not an especially mainstream choice and I haven't had to make it care about footnotes.


Is there a reputable online store (other than Smashwords) that will sell a DRM-free file in multiple formats, without locking it to a device (even if the user can dig in and find and unlock it)?

Something simple that understands "I give you money, you give me a file"?

I'm wondering, because as a customer it seems a pretty simple thing to want, and yet Smashwords in the only shop I've found that does that — which is why I wanted to buy from them, not knowing that they are apparently a pain-in-the-proverbial for authors.


Thanks Graydon. I'll check these out for the future.

Since I'm most of the way through my dancing bear routine with Smashwords, I might as well finish grumbling my way through it.


Multiple formats? I don't believe so, no.

For straight DRM-free EPUB, Google Play's the best technical choice.

There are really only two formats, if we leave out PDF as we should. (PDF is electronic paper, it doesn't handle reflowing well because it's specifically intended not to, so it's wretched on handheld devices.)

Mobi is Amazon's format, it's proprietary and peculiar and standard only in 800 lb gorilla sorts of ways.

(Draft2Digital creates a mobi file (from EPUB, or whatever else you can give them), and I think they'll generate a printed version via some Amazon tentacle or other from that, but so far as I know they don't have direct mobi format sales. I'd be delighted if they did.)

EPub is the actual open standard; nobody uses it in precisely standard ways but everyone but Amazon will accept it. (And the latest Amazon format, kf8, is effectively a mobi file and an EPUB3 file bolted together. It's not like they want to develop mobi into a comparable set of technical capabilities to EPUB3.)

So, yeah, getting things not originating with Amazon on kindle is a pain because Amazon wants it to be a pain. Amazon also really, really wants DRM for good (for them) business reasons OGH has discoursed upon in the past. So I don't expect the particular issue of being able to easily get non-DRM mobi files for Kindle to go away any time soon.


I've dealt with the rpg end of it, but's drivethrufiction might. I've bought bits that were .pdf, .mobi and .epub all in the same download. Aside from watermarking, no DRM. Would that fit your requirements?


A bit like MickeyShaft's automatically generated VBA, which seems to have been designed to break every rule of writing maintainable code ever written?


Multiple formats? I don't believe so, no.

For me, the multiple-formats that Smashwords provides is a feature. I like having a PDF, because I can print sections of the work and write all over it, or stick it in a file, or whatever. I've not had much luck doing that with epubs. (I can highlight in iBooks, but I can't print out or annotate.)

The books I'm working from have coloured sticky notes scattered through them, and sometimes xeroxed articles inserted into the 'right' place so I can compare sources. I haven't found an ebook reader that duplicates my paleolithic workflow yet :-(

For straight DRM-free EPUB, Google Play's the best technical choice.

When I visited the Google Play website they said a client was required. I've been leery about installing Google software, as Google apparently believes that they should control when it updates, and who cares if that blows through the user's bandwidth cap? (Happened to me once, and according to Google tech support there is no way to change that setting so it asks first. Even Adobe manages to treat its users better than that.)

If a client is required then I wouldn't describe Google Play as the best solution, from a customer's perspective.


Thinking about it (and based on a scan through the book over breakfast), you might want to change the free sample to include some of the later chapters, and not the stuff about numbers.

It just seems that the free sample doesn't give a good feel for what the book is about.

I don't know how much work this would be for you, and whether it would increase sales if you did it. But I thought I'd pass along the idea…


The only online stores that allow DRM-free multi-format downloads I'm aware of belong to publishers: Verso Books (who instead of using DRM embed the buyer's email address and credit card number in the file) and Image Comics.


This would also address BLP3's comment about price points. The sample doesn't give a good idea of how much useful stuff in in the rest of the book.


In terms of the paleolithic workflow, yeah, that's going to be tough to replicate. There are various PDF-annotators out there, like Xournal or the Windows-similar-application Journal which will totally handle the scribble and the post-it notes, but the "stick this article in the right place" part is hard. (Or, rather, the PDF features that allow that kind of thing are stuff you should never ever turn on for security reasons.) And the whole tactile part of memory is harder; it kinda sucks to be a tactile learner around electronic reading devices.

In terms of customer requirements, well, so far as I know, Google Play is the only online ebook distributor/store that will hand over a valid DRM-free EPUB file. (Kobo and iTunes both nominally use EPUB but don't really; their versions aren't valid EPUB. Draft2Digital doesn't invalidate their archive copy but don't sell directly. Smashwords doesn't (by repute, I bailed on "requires Word") reliably generate valid EPUB and there isn't anything you-as-an-ebook-provider can do about it when they don't.)

(I'm an XML geek. I care intensely about validity because of all the problems that means people won't have in the uncertain future.)

In terms of requiring a client, I don't think that's true; you can readily do the whole transaction through a browser. (Include read the EPUB if you really want. If there's DRM, yeah, possibly a specific client, possibly a requirement for a live network connection. DRM-free, you can unzip the thing and read the HTML files with a text editor if you really want... Though I'd hope you'd use whatever ebook reader you happen to like.)

I believe that's true even from iOS though I don't know how grumpy iOS is about directly loading ebook readers.

In terms of Android apps, including the official Google ones, Android's got a general settings ticky box for "update apps only over wifi". So you do get pushed security updates but they shouldn't do anything to your bandwidth cap if that ticky box is ticked. (I am moved to ask if your device provider might be Rogers? Though it's hard to imagine even Rogers taking that ticky box away...)


Actually, I've had the same thought.

For everyone else who doesn't mind a minor spoiler, The first half of the book is basically everything you need to know to understand what I'm talking about: climate change model, mass extinction, the numbers chapter, peak oil, population crash, etc. If you've read something like Eaarth, Deep Future, or Six Degrees, most of this will look familiar. But that's only half the book.

What Robert's talking about is the second half of the book, which is what makes it different.

The middle of the book is where I assemble all these disparate processes into what the future looks like after we've blown our fossil fuels and the climate warms. The final quarter of the book is about deep time issues, like Milankovitch Cycles, evolution, how the climate very slowly cools down again, and what happens to human knowledge and institutions over many millennia and under a changing climate.

It's all there in the introduction, but since the later chapters build on the earlier ones, I'm not sure how if they work as well out of context.

Still, it's something to think about.


And the whole tactile part of memory is harder; it kinda sucks to be a tactile learner around electronic reading devices.

Oh yeah. I find books in my shelves be remembering how to reach for them as much as by title and cover. ("Shelf in the stairwell, stand here, bend so far, left hand reaches… yup, that's the one.")


Verso Books (who instead of using DRM embed the buyer's email address and credit card number in the file)

That's a company to avoid, then. No bloody way to I want my credit card number embedded in a bunch of files on my Kobo.


I don't know how grumpy iOS is about directly loading ebook readers.

I've been manually loading iBooks for quite some time. Open Dropbox (where I've placed the file), tap the file, then choose the arrow-out-of-a-box icon (export?) , select "open in other", then iBooks, and it loads into iBooks just fine.


So you do get pushed security updates but they shouldn't do anything to your bandwidth cap if that ticky box is ticked. (I am moved to ask if your device provider might be Rogers? Though it's hard to imagine even Rogers taking that ticky box away…)

Bell DSL connection. I've got 100 GB a month, but some months I run pretty close to the limit — and Google's photo editors (the Nik Collection) can chew through several GB when they decide to update.

(I'm talking about my computer bandwidth. I've got a small pay-as-you-go allocation on the iPad for emergencies. And my cell phone is voice-only (and close to 15 years old).)


I've been manually loading iBooks for quite some time.

You should be fine then; use the browser to download the EPUB file and away you go. No specific client applications required.

I admit I hadn't thought of a capped DSL line as an issue; I use a small service provider that doesn't implement caps, and the idea is a strange one.


Yeah, I've been using Marvin on ipad as a primary ereader for a few years now because it works well and doesn't eat battery. Used to interface directly with Calibre but IOS disabled that a while back, so now I use Calibre's built in OPDS server to pull them via the OPDS option in Marvin.

Generally I buy books via Kobo's store, on the basis that Amazon and Google both know enough about me, but it's quite the faff to use them. I need to buy the book, download it to the Kobo desktop app, then open Calibre and use the OBOK plugin to strip the DRM and convert/import the epub into a proper format. Then I can pull down the correct metadata and sideload.

Not to mention having to remember how the process goes every few months when I buy another batch of books, or remember where the hell I got the updated plugin from last time, because kobo has made a minor tweak and borked everything.

I have to say the DRM wars have certainly made buying books online a snap these days. Reading them though ... :(


Calibre allows you to directly edit epub files in the Calibre library.

So that adds a step: buy ebook, load into Calibre and delete CC number, then put on Kobo.


Incidentally, on Hot Earth Dreams I toggled no DRM on any of the eBook versions. It's worth double-checking if this is what is coming out of the publisher, but so far I haven't seen anything. However, as the author, I'm not sure I would...

Also, Smashwords, Kobo, and iBooks are in process. Hopefully this next version is less buggy.


True, but the file itself contained the information. So if it was sent to you over an unencrypted link, then someone could (theoretically) grab the file and thus your credit card number.

Does the publisher say that they will be embedding your credit card number in the file?


Having checked a book from them, I must have misremembered; no credit card number to be found. (Where the hell I got that idea, I don't know.) It is extensively watermarked with the buyer's name and email address, which is warned about in the T&Cs.


And we do know how to do all this electronically. It's been a solved problem for 30 years! "All" you have to do is learn an entire document markup language.

I clicked on the link to see which one you were talking about, and saw it was LaTeX. I hope I'm not derailing when I say that I've written loads of lecture notes in it, papers, and an entire book. Which was published, by a publisher with good production standards, from camera-ready copy output by LaTeX. So I've got the experience to recommend LaTeX, and I do. Debugging its macros can be irritating, and so can incompatibility between different versions of macro libraries, but I'd much rather use it than Word. LaTeX is a markup language that describes the structure of documents in the same way HTML does; if you can learn HTML, you can learn LaTeX.

Having said that, I thought I'd better do a quick search for arguments against. There's discussion of this at, suggesting that many publishers dislike LaTeX because they're unused to working with it, or lack tools for e.g. comparing different versions of the text. (I'm speaking as an amateur who has never been inside a publisher's). On the other hand, Wiley and Springer, for example, will accept LaTeX, and will supply templates for styling it.


Sorry — that should have been a reply to anonemouse at 96.


Well, after doing all the formatting for Smashwords Premium (where they ship it to Apple and Kobo), I find out that it was all in vain, because their epub validator still does not like all the formatting that I spent three days creating exactly to their specifications, due to coding errors that cropped up somehow. They recommend I hire someone from their select list of formatters at a large chunk of what I've made so far in royalties to fix whatever the coding problem is, before they're willing to ship the file to Kobo and Apple.

Meanwhile, I've directly uploaded the same file to Kobo (that took all of 20 minutes this morning), where it's now for sale, and I'm working on another way to sell the book to Apple.

Nonetheless, you can buy Hot Earth Dreams as an epub or mobi through Smashwords at

Even though they're not willing to ship it to other companies, they'll still sell it to you.

As noted above, none of the electronic versions should have DRM, so please let me know if that proves to be a problem.

From an authorial perspective, I think Smashwords is by far the worst of the ebook publishers I've so far worked with. I do not recommend them for publishing anything other than simple fiction without a table of contents or footnotes.


LaTeX (like DCF, troff, or most SGML implementations) allows for form/content separation, but it does not enforce form/content separation, which is really what you want for a large distributed document system.

So the good technical argument against LaTeX is that you don't get clean form-content separation, which you want; you want the writer to tell you "this is a chapter title" and nothing else and you want the production process to go "OK, it's a chapter title, and our current output format is handheld devices with a screen resolution at or below 1280x720, so we're going to do thusly to display it..." and you do not want the writer knowing or caring about the details of the various output formats. If the writer knows any LaTeX or, worse, TeX, they can decide it's really really important to them to control how that chapter title formats and then you get into a nasty arms race with your content providers.

It's still miles ahead of Word because it's reliable and everything is explicit; if something is moving your drop cap one tenth em to the left, you can find it and change it as required.

I suspect that much of the dislike of LaTeX (or SGML or XML) is that everyone has already suffered to learn Word[2]; they don't see why they should suffer more[1] to learn something else that doesn't do WYSIWIG. That (in this sort of context) WYSIWIG is not helpful is very well supported as a factual statement but not at all easy to sell.

[1] suffering quite likely to include having to put up with those annoying *nix people.

[2] suffering to learn Word does a good job of convincing people that computers cannot perform reliably. It massively biases their subsequent computer-related decisions.


Would you believe that I actually have a chapter in the book about this? Well, two chapters really (one on why some problems are difficult and one on future languages).

Let's get away from discussion of computer formats and talk about English and Esperanto.

English is a stupid language. It's full of idiot spellings, its gender formatting is inappropriate at least for those of a more liberal bent, it's overly simplified compared to many other language, and moves to standardize it side-line and alienate many people (disproportionately the poor and rural) throughout the English-speaking world.

Nonetheless it's an international language of trade and science, due almost exclusively to the political events of the 20th Century, owing more to the language spoken by those who manipulate the world's food and energy supplies.

Now, if we were perfectly rational beings, at least places where European languages are spoken, we'd all learn Esperanto in grade school, and speaking Esperanto would be the sign of an educated citizen of the world. Indeed, this was tried in the 20th Century. About 2,000,000 speak it to some degree, about 2,000 natively, which is actually better than many other languages, but not incredible. Over the same time, Hebrew went from being a dying liturgical language to having over 9,000,000 speakers, again due to politics.

Getting back to Word, the problem is political, not technical. Word is ubiquitous, it's not hard to learn, and it and programs that use highly similar interfaces are used all over the business world. From a computer expert's point of view Word's a monster, but from a linguist's point of view, English is a monster too and so is every other common language.

So, my answer to why I don't learn LaTeX to make eBook creation is simply to ask why we don't all learn Esperanto to make it easier to talk with each other? It might be faster than trying to translate between British and American English, after all.

And yes, the reason why we have so much trouble with climate change is very similar to the reason why we speak English--it's a political problem, and getting everybody to drastically transform the way they do their everyday business is extremely difficult.


Remember that Word is a deliberate monster.

(You know how Facebook's business model is "we want to know everything about you, because someone will pay" and Google's business model is "get more people using the internet"? Microsoft's business model is make this hard. If you make it hard, you can create a massive ecosystem of courses and support and work-arounds and consulting firms and an expectation that the stuff Microsoft wants to sell you is expensive. Also, if make it hard enough, you can price undercapitalized genius out of your market completely, giving them a work-for-us-or-starve choice.)

Natural languages not only aren't deliberate monsters, I'd argue they're not monsters at all. Natural languages are ongoing collaborations among their speakers that necessarily retains some history. So it's more like an evolving clade of organisms than it is like any product of deliberate design, monstrous or not.


Well, one might hypothesize that the English language, especially as it is used by elites, is equally and deliberately exclusionary. So is scientific discourse, with its polysyllabic vocabulary and arguments over which model and level of discourse is appropriate ipso facto to the topic under consideration.

On the other hand, street English is crude, while kid's English is like, totally annoying.

Point made?

You can't separate politics from language, nor from business.


People imply politics, though, it's not a contaminant it's a consequence of being a social species. Corvids perfectly well have politics, it's not even just hominins.

So I'd argue that "separate politics from..." isn't a helpful construction, no matter what the variable is; you've got a group of four or more humans, you've for-sure got politics.

(Yes, this does risk reducing "politics" to "why are groups of humans so stupid?" I don't think that's helpful, either.)

I might argue that the more helpful approach isn't language but narrative; how do people imagine what they're doing? It's very hard to get someone to imagine what they're doing as a bad thing without giving them some alternative. (Which is why we see a lot of historical sweeping conversion events of one sort or another and nigh-zero outbreaks of The Great Remorse.)


Remember that Word is a deliberate monster.

Contrary to Frank's experience, I never found Word easy to learn, because it was never obvious where to go in order to edit a header, or to break a line without inserting a new paragraph. So thanks for explaining why! Anyone who wants five minutes of light reading, the computer scientist Tony Hoare wrote an essay called Software Design: a Parable about such programmes and the priesthood that evolves to operate them. That was back in 1975, but it's still spot-on.


Well, one might hypothesize that the English language, especially as it is used by elites, is equally and deliberately exclusionary. So is scientific discourse, with its polysyllabic vocabulary and arguments over which model and level of discourse is appropriate ipso facto to the topic under consideration.

Scientific discourse deliberately exclusionary? No more than, say, programming, and not with any evil intent. Ordinary language isn't precise enough to convey concepts such as (6E,13E)-18-bromo-12-butyl-11-chloro-4,8-diethyl-5-hydroxy-15-methoxytricosa-6,13-dien-19-yne-3,9-dione, that's all. Hence the polysyllabic vocabulary found in IUPAC nomenclature, a group theorist writing that the Monster group is the automorphism group of a 196884-dimensional commutative nonassociative algebra, or a radio designer describing high-side injection in the local oscillator and mixer of a vacuum-tube superheterodyne radio receiver.

As for arguments over which model and level of discourse is appropriate, the very first essay I had to write at university was on choice of model. Our brains are too small and our techniques too primitive for any of our models to be complete, so we are forced to choose between incomplete alternatives. You can't do proper science until you understand that, but there's no sinister politics stopping you, it's just that you need to master the tools.


Really? What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; ...

and the reply ....

I take thee at thy word: Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.


Precisely. I think it is time for this "elitist exclusionism" nonsense to receive a dose of the compulsory XKCD put-down


The most logical languages are the most ancient, with the record holder being Sanskrit. Most people tend to believe we started off with grunts and worked our way to modern languages. Seems to be the other way around.


We actually don't know that. Languages shift fairly randomly, and the guess is that, after something like 10,000 years of change, languages are essentially randomized compared to their ancestors. This is even more true of unwritten languages, which change more rapidly than do written ones.

So far, the oldest language we have some understanding of are the Sumerian languages and the few hundred core words reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European. Those are all around 5,000-7,000 years old.

By comparison, the modern branch of our species is 200,000 years old.

While this is somewhat speculative, I'd suggest we'll never be able to reconstruct the first language(s) humans spoke, and we probably can't even know what languages were spoken during the Ice Ages. Languages have changed so much since then that they're essentially randomized. Because of this, we can't talk about whether languages evolve in any particular direction. My bet is that they don't, but the key point is that we probably can't ever know.

Note that PIE and its descendants (including Sanskrit and English) "evolved" fairly slowly compared to other language groups. The whole process of dating languages (glottochronology) breaks down for Australia and the Americas, where large-scale borrowing of vocabulary between groups with very different linguistic lineages has made it so far impossible to reconstruct ancestral versions of modern aboriginal languages on these continents.

ref: John McWhorter, The Power of Babel


In case you haven't seen the computer movie: How To Go To Space (with XKCD!).


The most logical languages are the most ancient, with the record holder being Sanskrit.

No, the most logical languages are Loglan and Lojban.

Most people tend to believe we started off with grunts and worked our way to modern languages. Seems to be the other way around.

Well, using "logical" now to mean "no harder to learn than necessary", recent English is easier in several ways than its ancestors. It's lost gender, thank God, and noun declensions, and strong versus weak adjectives, and all sorts of other dreadful rubbish. Modern Dutch has lost most of its cases, though it has a few remnants: "Het Boek des Levens", "the Book of Life". Spanish and Portuguese are simpler than Latin. So at least in historically recent times, in one language family, some modern languages are more logical than their older versions. I don't know about other language families or longer spans of time though.


the compulsory XKCD put-down

Cf. Poul Anderson's Uncleftish Beholding.


It's really worth reading The Power of Babel, because McWhorter goes into things like this

One of the common patterns is pidginization of widely-spoken languages, especially if they're used for trade. What happens is that the language in question becomes used as a second or third language by people (it's actually more common for people to be multilingual, no matter how weird that sounds to Americans and other insular groups).

Anyway, what happens when you have two people of unequal language ability speaking to each other is that, by default, they tend to use simpler language. This means that the less fluent speakers tend to be the ones determining the complexity of the language, not the more fluent speakers.

This is why the languages of international empires, like English, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish tend to become simpler over time. Old English was the language of a kingdom on an island. Modern business English is spoken by billions, although almost all those speakers have a vocabulary of a few thousand words and don't use the full complexity of verb tenses. Still, they're the ones driving the evolution of English more than people like me, who are monolingual.

If you want to see ornate languages, you need to look at smaller, more isolated languages like Wolof, which is spoken by about 4,200,000 people (twice as many as Esperanto). IIRC, their language has 16 "genders."


FWIW the Australian Amazon charged me A$25.55 for the Kindle version.


One of the complaints about Esperanto is that it contains some of the same sloppy default-gender constructs that people have trouble with in English.


Cool, you got a small discount if the Google exchange rate is correct.


Hmmm. Backing up to this a bit, I got my PhD in a department that was famous around the country for the conflict between two of the ecologists, one of whom was my doctoral adviser. The conflict expressed itself in types of models used and the language used around them, as well as in the eyerolling among their respective grad students (many of us on both sides are friends to this day).

Fortunately, such fights are fairly rare, although another professor I know wears a bow-tie precisely because someone in the same field tried to strangle him with his tie at a conference over something he said in a presentation (which is shocking, because unlike me, he is a very diplomatic person).

In any case, it's not sinister politics in science, it's just politics as usual. When there are limited resources and strong egos, people clash. One of the fights is always over models and terminology. Evolutionary biologists argue about whether species are real things, while politicians argue about whether to call Daesh ISIL, ISIS, IS, and whether they get a better dog-whistle effect by calling them radical muslims, while centrists call them militant jihadis and left-wingers (and their Syrian opponents) call them murderous thugs. It's the same process in different settings and on different scales, and the point is that language is political, often designed to designate an in-group and an out-group for whatever end.


A blogger named Venkat Rao, who I mostly recommend, calls the language of the elite "powertalk", a coded language with which to simultaneously sustain the (necessary) delusions of the clueless and communicate with each other. A typical statement in powertalk is an offer and/or a threat couched in language designed to be, at face value, high minded and proper. People only learn powertalk by negotiating on a constant basis for years, so it's the language of lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and executives. It's not particularly hard to understand, because offers and threats are not effective unless they're understood. It is rather difficult to use, because conveying the message while maintaining deniability takes a measure of skill.

I agree that the scientific language is not deliberately exclusive, just much more precise than ordinary language for necessary reasons. Academic language in the humanities is a different story, though.

P.S. Congrats on the book. I'm about halfway through it. If I don't have much to say about it right now, it's because I've said my piece on a hundred other comment threads over the past few years.


Thanks Jay, and I've appreciated your comments over the last few years.



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This page contains a single entry by Frank Landis published on November 12, 2015 8:00 AM.

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