Tag Archives: technical writing

“The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” by Edgar Allan Poe

HansPfaall

This is a cool short story by Poe that I would place in the science fiction genre. It’s the story of a man who decides to travel to the moon by means of hot air balloon. The bulk of the story is written as an epistle, a letter from Pfaall that was delivered to the city leaders in Rotterdam. But the genius of this story is that Poe also incorporates a satirical critique of the intellectual bourgeoisie as well as some great symbolism regarding the subconscious mind.

The first and most obvious clue that Poe is poking fun at the bourgeoisie is the names of the characters; for example, burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk and Professor Rubadub. And then, at the beginning of his letter, Pfaall compares his trade of mending bellows (which are used to blow hot air in a forge) with the “hot air” emitted by the self-important politicians and business-persons of that time.

It is well known to most of my fellow-citizens, that for a period of forty years I continued to occupy the little square brick building, at the head of an alley called Sauerkraut, in which I resided until my disappearance. My ancestors have also resided therein time out of mind—they, as well as myself, steadily following the lucrative profession of mending of bellows;

There are many passages where Poe incorporates writing that comes across as very scientific. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the information, but it is presented in a very methodical and technical manner which aids the reader in suspending belief.

The gas to be formed from these latter materials is a gas never yet generated by any other person than myself—or at least never applied to this purpose. I can only venture to say here, that it is a constituent of azote, so long considered irreducible, and that its density is about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen. It is tasteless, but not odorless; burns, when pure, with a greenish flame; and is instantaneously fatal to animal life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this story is the symbolism depicting a shift in consciousness. The moon is a symbol of dreams, the imagination, lunacy, and so forth. So after Pfaall initially takes off, he experiences an abrupt shift in his consciousness.

I gasped convulsively for breath—a shudder resembling a fit of the ague agitated every nerve and muscle in my frame—I felt my eyes starting from their sockets—a horrible nausea overwhelmed me—and at length I lost all consciousness in a swoon.

As he continues his ascent, he passes through a cloud, which represents his entering into the realm of the subconscious, where lightning symbolizes flashes of imagination and insight while he gazes deep into the hidden and mystical regions of the psyche.

At twenty minutes before seven, the balloon entered a long series of dense cloud, which put me to great trouble, by damaging my condensing apparatus, and wetting me to the skin. This was, to be sure, a singular rencontre, for I had not believed it possible that a cloud of this nature could be sustained at so great an elevation. I thought it best, however, to throw out two five-pound pieces of ballast, reserving still a weight of one hundred and sixty-five pounds. Upon so doing, I soon rose above the difficulty, and perceived immediately, that I had obtained a great increase in my rate of ascent. In a few seconds after my leaving the cloud, a flash of vivid lightning shot from one end of it to the other, and caused it to kindle up, throughout its vast extent, like a mass of ignited charcoal. This, it must be remembered, was in the broad light of day. No fancy may picture the sublimity which might have been exhibited by a similar phenomenon taking place amid the darkness of the night. Hell itself might then have found a fitting image. Even as it was, my hair stood on end, while I gazed afar down within the yawning abysses, letting imagination descend, and stalk about in the strange vaulted halls, and ruddy gulfs, and red ghastly chasms of the hideous and unfathomable fire.

While this may not be Poe’s best work, and at times it plods along rather slowly, it is certainly worth reading. There are some interesting passages and moments of brilliance which makes it worthwhile.

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“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking

BriefHistoryTime

This book has been on my list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. I had high expectations for a couple reasons. First off, I am fascinated by theoretical physics. Wormholes, black holes, quantum mechanics, string theory, all that stuff I find intriguing. But more importantly, as a technical writer, I am very interested in how other writers of scientific and technical information are able to present complex ideas in a manner that is digestible for the lay person. From this perspective, Hawking excels in communicating deep and complicated ideas in a clear and concise manner that we commoners can grasp.

There is a lot of deep information and I could not do the book justice by trying to summarize it. So instead, I will cite a few quotes that sparked some thoughts and questions for me. The first one concerns event horizons associated with black holes.

The event horizon, the boundary of the region of space-time from which it is not possible to escape, acts as a one-way membrane around the black hole: objects, such as unwary astronauts, can fall through the event horizon into the black hole, but nothing can ever get out of the black hole through the event horizon. (Remember that the event horizon is the path in space-time of light that is trying to escape from the black hole, and nothing can travel faster than light.) One could say of the event horizon what the poet Dante said of the entrance to Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” Anything or anyone who falls through the event horizon will soon reach the region of infinite density and the end of time.

(p. 92)

So I can accept that our physical bodies cannot surpass the speed of light, but what about consciousness? I could not help but wonder whether consciousness is the one thing that can travel faster than light. If so, is it possible for humans at some point in our future evolution to develop the ability to project our consciousness into a black hole and return back through the event horizon? I think these are valid questions. It has already been proven that consciousness affects quantum particles on a subatomic level. I feel that it is possible for humans to use consciousness to explore regions of time and space which are currently beyond our physical grasp.

Another passage that stood out for me was a question regarding whether the universe was created via the big bang or whether it is eternal and has always existed. As Hawking points out, the answer to this question has profound impact on religious ideology, but not in the way I would have expected.

With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started—it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

(p. 146)

When I first read this, it seemed completely opposite to what I conceived. I would have thought that the big bang theory would be contradictory to the concept of God as creator of the universe. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense what Hawking asserts. If the universe it eternal and infinite and has no beginning or end, then how could a divine entity create the universe? How does consciousness come into play regarding the creation of the universe? Again, challenging questions for me to contemplate.

Finally, I would like to cite Hawking’s closing paragraph regarding the elusive unified theory of physics.

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

(p. 191)

Understanding existence is in my opinion the proverbial Holy Grail. Who has not asked the questions: Why are we here? How was the universe created? Are there parallel dimensions? Can we travel through time? It is possible that one day physicists will find answers to these questions. I for one believe that when these answers are discovered, that humanity will see a bridge between science and mysticism, the likes of which we have not seen since the days of alchemy. I don’t expect to be around for that, but I would like to think that I will have participated in the global conversation.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading, thinking, and exploring!

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Black Widow: Issue #4

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Ha ha! Well, I spoke too soon. In my review of Issue #3, I mentioned a pattern that each issue was a stand-alone assignment. Not the case anymore. This is the first of what I suspect will be several issues all tied in to the same assignment.

Natasha is called in by S.H.I.E.L.D. to track someone capture someone named Molot Boga, or “Hammer of God.” Reminds me of a Led Zeppelin song, and the Malleus Maleficarum. Anyway, this guy is a psycho monk who is killing “sinners” under the direction of an unseen person. There is a lot of mystery and unanswered questions, so this is going to be a short post. I will say that I liked it and I am intrigued about what will unfold in the subsequent installments.

There is a cool quote in the comic that is worth including here:

But the truth about intelligence gathering? The devil is in the details. So you can’t miss a single detail or—you might miss the devil himself…

Details are important. I know this from my years working as a technical writer. But even more important is balance. If you focus only on details, you fail to see the big picture; and if you only look at the big picture, you miss the important details. As with most things in life, balance is the key.

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“The War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells

WarOfTheWorldsAs Halloween draws near, I figured it would be good to read some classic science fiction, especially since watching the old sci-fi films has been a long-standing Halloween tradition for me. And let’s face it; The War of the Worlds is one of the most classic science fiction books ever written.

I could write a lot about this book because it works on so many levels. First of all, it is a great example of how to employ scientific and technical writing into the art of fiction. As a professional technical writer, I found this very interesting. Wells includes a level of technical detail in his descriptions that is worthy of any technical document.

The oscillatory motion was imparted to this by one tentacle of the handling-machine. With two spatulate hands the handling-machine was digging out and flinging masses of clay into the pear-shaped receptacle above, while with another arm it periodically opened a door and removed rusty and blackened clinkers from the middle part of the machine. Another steely tentacle directed the powder from the basin along a ribbed channel towards some receiver that was hidden from me by the mound of bluish dust. From this unseen receiver a little thread of green smoke rose vertically into the quiet air. As I looked, the handling-machine, with a faint and musical clinking, extended, telescopic fashion, a tentacle that had been a moment before a mere blunt projection, until its end was hidden behind the mound of clay.

Another aspect of the book that I found fascinating is the comparison between humans and animals. Humans are compared to insects, an analogy that is fitting. Humans have a hive mentality and the way we interact is not much different than bees or ants. Many of us are only concerned with the goings-on within our particular mound and do not give much thought to what happens outside our hive, until it affects us directly.

The connection between humans and animals is complex in this book, and there is definitely a social critique on our relationship with animals. The manner in which the Martian invaders treat us is frequently compared with how we treat animals. We exterminate them if they become an annoyance to us; we breed them and keep them as pets; and we raise and use them for food. The book suggests that if a superior species were to arrive or evolve, we would become just another commodity for use by the dominant species.

“Very likely these Martians will make pets of some of them; train them to do tricks—who knows?—get sentimental over the pet boy who grew up and had to be killed. And some, maybe, they will train to hunt us.”

While the technical and the social aspects of this book were intriguing, I have to say that what I found the most thought-provoking were the religious metaphors and symbolism I found throughout the text. There are a lot of religious references in the book and one could certainly dedicate an entire analysis to that aspect of the book alone. Some of these biblical references are overt, such as the following passage comparing the Martian invasion with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then—fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work—What are these Martians?”

In addition to direct references, the story is filled with hidden symbolic references to the bible. For example, in the following passage, the heat-ray evokes images of the cherubim with the flaming sword blocking the way to the Garden of Eden. It is almost like technological advancement has brought us to the point where we are no longer able to return to the Edenic state, where technology will prevent us from reunification with the Divine.

It was sweeping round swiftly and steadily, this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable, sword of heat. I perceived it coming towards me by the flashing bushes it touched, and was too astounded and stupefied to stir.

I suspect you also noticed the symbol of the Burning Bush woven into the quote. When you read this book—and I encourage you to do so, even if you have read it already—you will find allusions such as this throughout.

To sum up, this book has earned its place among the ranks of the classics in literature. It works on many levels and each time you read it you will discover new things. When I first read it as a kid, it was just a really exciting sci-fi book about aliens and fighting. Now, I see it more as a profound social and religious commentary on humanity. I suspect that when I read it at age 80, it will take on yet another meaning.

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Artificial Writers

I read an article in Wired magazine last night that fed my nightmares and caused me to wake up in a state of anxiety. The article was entitled “The Rise of the Robot Reporter” written by Steven Levy (click here to read the article online). The story explores the advances by Narrative Science, a company that successfully created an algorithm that can analyze sports and financial data, then generate well-written news articles based upon that data.

The company’s CEO and co-founder, Kristian Hammond, makes the bold prediction that within the next 15 years, 90 percent of news articles will be written by computers and that a computer will win the Pulitzer Prize in about 5 years. At first, this seemed kind of cool. I mean, I’m a geek and stuff like this is fascinating to me. In addition, who doesn’t secretly wish that the news contained more plain, factual information and a lot less spin from media with political and social agendas? But as I slept and allowed this information to percolate in my subconscious mind, I became aware of a personal threat.

I work in the field of technical communication, writing various forms of internal and external communications for a software company. Some of these documents include user and administrator guides, as well as technical reference materials. I became very aware that much of what I do could be outsourced to a computer. Essentially, I gather data, analyze it, then compile it into a format that is usable and accessible to my target audience. This is no different from what Narrative Science’s software does. For me, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to see this algorithm being applied to technical writing, where the application analyzes the code, reads the engineering notes, and determines the functionality, then generates a set of instructions or reference materials that is accurate and useful. So where would that leave me?

Over the years, I’ve learned that it is important to remain adaptable and not fear change. If technical writing becomes automated, I’ll find a new use for my skills, such as developing training materials or managing the information generated by these artificial writers. Our world is changing fast. If you can’t be flexible, you will likely end up joining the ranks of those unemployed individuals unable to use the narrow set of skills they have become dependent upon.

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