December 2013


My first daily driver was a 1979 Honda Accord. I phrase it that way because for a short time I had a ’71 Cutlass Supreme, but a kid generally has a hard time running a beast like that and I ditched it in favour of something I could afford fairly quickly. Anyway, I think something lost on us now is the appreciation of basic engineering in our vehicles—we’re obsessed with supercars and how expensive they are and hold a narrow view of what makes a good car. Not that I mean to downplay fast cars . . . of course they’re cool and have their own set of engineering landmarks, but those shouldn’t come at the expense of some of the more mundane aspects that are actually pretty neat.

One thing that confuses me is what we consider good fuel economy right now. Why? Well, a first-generation Honda Civic with a CVCC motor and special Weber side-draught carbs could achieve economy nearly on par with the collection of random junk we call “hybrid” cars. There would be no extra cost and environmental concerns associated with batteries and so on, no extra moving parts, and the car would cost practically nothing to make nowadays. How does it make sense that today’s compact car struggles to reach 30mpg? And even stranger, why do we now consider that to be pretty good, even for a 4-cylinder economy car?

But let’s get back to less abstract things, like Honda’s CVCC engine. CVCC means “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion.” The cool part about it is that this and other stratified charge engines is that it separates the fuel into a lean mixture, which goes into the cylinder, and a rich mixture at the spark plug. And if the reader is wondering what this could possibly have to do with dieselpunk, the idea of a stratified charge came from Rudolph Diesel. In fact, the direct-inject direction most engines are taking now seems to refer back to the diesel engine.

What was the result? Meeting emissions standards without using a catalytic converter. Sounds boring right? Well, it’s not that easy to do. I don’t think anyone even tries to anymore, possibly due to a massive conspiracy perpetrated by Big Catalytic Converter, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Big Lithium Ion Battery.

 

My Honda CVCC was in rough shape, but still worked pretty well. The whole thing seemed like a mess of vacuum lines, and perhaps this mechanically-derived route to emissions control was part of what killed this type of motor. Mine had a manual choke, which I found hilarious and still do. It was slow as hell, no thanks to the 2-speed Hondamatic transmission—although this was itself a fascinating piece of machinery. If I remember correctly, the Hondamatic wasn’t just a powerglide knockoff, but an automatic transmission that used gears more like the ones you’d find in a manual. I once drove this car for a week with the oil light on, and the thing didn’t give me any more trouble than it did before that erm . . . minor oversight.

Strangely enough, CBC News is on as I type this and I just caught a bit about an epidemic of catalytic converter thefts . . . see, people? That entire rash of minor inconveniences could have been avoided simply by driving a 200-dollar car from 1979.

Okay. So fuel injection comes along and is supposed to be more efficient. But . . . but it’s not? Why do these carbureted dinosaurs offer better economy?

I have no idea. The cars now, compact ones, are a lot heavier, perhaps. New safety standards and such. I don’t think anyone would ever accept a car with 80 horsepower these days, even if they just wanted a basic grocery-getter. But I think in Japan they might have turbocharged a later version of the CVCC and gotten decent performance out of it.

The importance of this isn’t lost on absolutely everyone though, since it has been designated as part of the Mechanical Engineering Heritage of Japan. I’m not entirely sure what that really means, but I assume it’s like a monument in Civilization XXX (I’m too old to know what version of Sid Meier’s Civilization we’re on . . . I ran out of time for that game around Civ 3 . . .) and when you look at the other, erm, “things,” on the list, it seems like quite a big deal.

As to why our expectations have changed, I can’t quite get it. Maybe the phrase “fuel economy” needs to be taken more literally—that is, to mean the optimum amount of consumption given the market, not necessarily some absolute race to the bottom. I know to a conspiracy theorist that sounds like stating the obvious, but I do think there’s a difference between “oil companies want you to use all the oil that is humanly possible so they can make tons of money right now” and “our perception and expectations of how we use resources changes depending actual conditions.”

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It’s hard to believe but the final marks are in and it’s already time to start thinking about next semester. The days since the end of final exams crawl by in comparison to during classes—if this is old news to everyone else, bear with me. I never, ever, EVER had planned to be doing this and the post-secondary school world is way outside my zone.

That’s the funny thing about this turn in my career plans. For the last decade, I had plenty of plans. Plans are important, they always said. They never really explained how to gauge the quality of those plans, nope . . . all they said was that there were plans and you had to make them to get anywhere.

It’s funny because getting into engineering was totally unplanned and outside the box; yet it was the best decision I’ve made to date . . . well, besides the decision to get engaged, but that’s another area of grown-up life beyond the scope of this post. Heh.

I think one of the lost posts on here might have addressed this in a meandering way—the precious idea that everyone is supposed to be “passionate” about one or two things and only pursue those for their entire lives. Going even deeper but probably too deep for the purposes of this blog, this idea ultimately arrives at the myth of the “true self” and candy-coated way people pigeonhole themselves because they’ve been told that whatever little box or category is most readily available to the outside actually defines “who you are.” It’s a dumb idea, and one so far entrenched in our culture that it isn’t recognized as the social oppressor it can be. Excuse the dramatic language.

Not that there’s something inherently wrong with picking something you like and sticking with it for life. Not everyone is restless and feels the need to question everything, and when that questioning becomes far too reflexive, it can manifest as self-doubt, which is one of the most crippling character flaws imaginable.

So there’s that meandering again, rearing its head. Reel it in, Petropunk.

Basically I surprised myself. I was sure that I’d failed a couple classes, but that was nowhere even close to happening. And while I’m very surprised and happy with what I did grade-wise, now that I know what school is like again and have a good benchmark for what kind of marks you get for the amount of effort put in, I can shoot for better marks next time. You’ll never get me to go along with all the new no-pressure strategies they are trying to introduce into high school grading now, but it’s a little unfortunate that the actual process of learning isn’t taken into account. A crappy student who makes big improvements still gets a crappy average, while a world-weary veteran of the school game can blow through, learn almost nothing new about themselves and earn endless praise despite the fact that he didn’t even show up most of the time. Ah well. Nothing is perfect. Attempts to reinvent the system haven’t produced anything that isn’t laughable yet, as far as I know. Anyone into “new math?” Didn’t think so.

Writing stuff:

I’m doing an interview/google hangout on Jan.11 with my publisher. You know, the one that was supposed to happen months ago but I had to bail due to other obligations. I’ll get a link up here for it soon, but if you’re curious about other authors on a similar wavelength, Tyche Books has their other authors’ interviews on the youtube. They’re worth a look.

Also, I’ve started work on another episode for Archon. After reading an article about how it has become acceptable these days to expect authors to work for free, I’m not into doing that whatsoever. Writers write stories. I respect guys who can give away their writing for free and make money off their appearances/other vague products, but that doesn’t mean every author should be expected to work for free and hope to make money from ad revenue or speaking engagements. My auto mechanic wouldn’t rebuild my transmission for free in the hope that I’d watch his weekly podcast and click on ads, and I think as writers we get backed into this corner of thinking that for some reason we need to live like that.

So I’m going to get a few episodes done and try to sell it. It may not see the light of day now, or it might just take a while.

 

That is all.

 

Well no, not quite. Ian Thornley rules.

 

That is all.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concrete and the Pacific Northwest–I haven’t seen much of either in steampunk, so let’s take a look at both at the same time. Just for fun. Concrete isn’t something we normally associate with steampunk. It kind of gets lost in all the brass and  . . . collars. But it became quite important in the later half of that era.

 

The Kaleden Hotel: 1910

Lots of other things were going on in the steam era. Yes, Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson is interesting to read about and we all can’t get enough of things made of gears that don’t really need to be made of gears; however, while Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson was doing his thing in Europe, his compatriots were also doing stuff way the heck out here in British Columbia. A few of them decided to build a bunch of orchards in the Okanagan Valley, and those who didn’t feel like making the trip invested in some of these communities. One such place was Kaleden.

Unlike a lot of the small towns around where I grew up, this wasn’t a staging point for miners and railway workers. It was a project undertaken by English bourgeois to irrigate the area and produce a lot of fruit. Elites back home funded much of the operation, which was mostly a success—it’s still a beautiful, dignified little place consisting mostly of orchards and, more recently, vineyards. It has remained bourgeois for most of the last 100 years.

The above photo is of the ill-fated Kaleden Hotel. No, it didn’t burn down. There are no ghosts or tragic stories. The skeleton you see there is a dramatic example of how ambition and lack of expertise turned a nice hotel into an abandoned shell.

The reason I mention this is that in an age where pioneer buildings were built of wood, someone decided to build a hotel out of concrete. Now, there was hardly anything around at the time as far as industry goes. I have no idea how or where they got their aggregate and what the logistics of that were. More on that later. But back to the story—the project fell on some financial trouble, and in that case the guy did what we all do when we need some cash: tear out the floors and sell it all! Right . . . .

When things got better, the guy wasn’t allowed to put it back together. Thankfully there must have been an engineer around—it was deemed unsafe because they hadn’t even reinforced the concrete.

Apparently the concrete was poured by hand. That means carrying it up a ladder and dumping it into the forms. That’s what the few historical accounts say—I’m not sure why nobody would have thought to use a rope and pulley, but I digress.

“But its concrete, how interesting is that?” you ask.

Concrete has been around forever, but actually wasn’t used very much between the ancient Romans’ time and the 1800s. The thing that revived it was the invention of Portland Cement (no relation to Portland Oregon or Maine), which made concrete a whole lot more consistent. To use concrete you need the right kind of rocks and the right mix of sizes of these rocks, and they need to be in a certain condition for it to work with the cement paste. Those gravel pits everyone doesn’t want in their back yard and writes letters to the editor about? Well, they’re actually very important to building a city and having them closer probably cuts down on pollution from trucking it around everywhere, but that’s another post entirely. The point is that the people who built this hotel had hardly anything available. There are tons of wood structures around from the same era, so I’m not sure why the builder chose to use concrete in this case. This is mostly conjecture, but to me the hotel was a ballsy move—a deviation, perhaps, from the overly practical “pioneer” temperament. Or is that kind of bravado a trait of pioneers? I’m not sure.

So while in mainstream steampunk land we have man portrayed as having such mastery over technology that he creates mechanically grotesque indulgences, here we have a case of that same bourgeois confidence falling flat in the face of ineptitude, the environment, circumstances, or some combination thereof.

Here’s a closer photo of the concrete. I chose this one because it shows just how random the aggregate in this concrete is. The big, long, flat, sharp rock is an example of everything you don’t want in concrete. Perhaps the reason they didn’t use rebar was because the size of this aggregate wouldn’t be able to pass around it and the concrete would separate. More likely is that they just used whatever they could find in the area. Also from the look of the rock, it’s dachite or something equally as unsuited for concrete use. When you look at geological maps of the area, most of the minerals they’d find are potentially bad.

In small towns that’s how concrete was done, though. And based on accounts I’ve heard personally from old guys around here, they still knew what worked and what didn’t, though in a broad sense. Of course now we know that mixing it in terms of “x-bags of cement with y-shovels-full of gravel” still isn’t good enough, but they made it work for house foundations and so on.

To the left you can see more of the same evidence of random rocks thrown into this concrete, and the pop-outs resulting from that choice.

Some might be disappointed that there isn’t some big dramatic fire behind this concrete skeleton, but to me the story of technical failure and financial blundering offers a lot more to think about. I guess readers don’t always see the underpinnings of a story, but for myself, and I imagine a lot of steam/dieselpunk writers, often the coolest stories full of action and drama stem from studying everyday situations like the one I’ve been writing about. And sometimes that starts with something as mundane as thinking about building materials, or electricity, or how a city is designed.

Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson is a fun character to play with—the aim of this post and my dieselpunk leanings isn’t at all an attack per se on those types of characters. But what I love about dieselpunk, and writing about “new world”—ish settings as opposed to opulent old empires is that Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson’s sense of entitlement and theoretical knowledge mean less when you change the rules of society. Industrial and entrepreneurial skills rule dieselpunk. Entitlement gets you nowhere—assuming that throwing money or status at a construction project will hemorrhage that old English money in an instant. Now, I don’t have a clue about what the person’s attitude was when they tried to build this thing, but it’s something that happens even today and is mitigated by the fact that we aren’t in the middle of the woods with no expertise or proper materials available.

The main point is that . . . well, sometimes things that aren’t interesting actually are. And that steampunk ought to exploit gold-rush type settings a bit more.

(Okay, so I have been doing blog posts straight from MS Word and it’s pretty neat . . . only apparently sometimes the formatting gets messed up in the process. Derrrrr.)


Once again I feel the need to reiterate that I exist, despite having left this revamped blog thing hanging. It’s the end of the first semester and I’ve found some extra minutes of time to consider things other than math and concrete. Some of these things include:

  • Eating properly
  • Doing things
  • Picking up some, but not all of my guitars
  • Running
  • The gym
  • ARCHON Part I

Somewhere in this period the plan was to get my entire condo painted and replace the floors. And by “get my entire condo painted” I mean “make a huge mess everywhere myself and hope it ends up looking better than it did in 1976.” Is that still going to happen? Derr.

Make no mistake—I’ve only completed one of seven final exams. So am I trying to weasel out of painting by mentioning that? Who knows.

What’s been really been on my mind outside the realm of civil engineering is Archon. The one good thing about not having time to write is that I get to totally forget what I’d written. When I read over the latest draft of this project, it was so foreign to me . . . a lot more foreign than what I’d experienced when I was writing all the time. When writers give you advice to put away your work for a while, it’s not just something that sounds nice. I never fully grasped the concept. Sure, I gave a mandatory three-month cooling-off period before attacking first-drafts. But I admit I did it more because it was standard practice than anything. Going over those drafts felt nothing like the strange world of reading something you can barely recall writing.

What of it? Well, you tend to catch idiotic writing tics a lot faster than normal. They’re like glowing toxic waste spills in the middle of your manuscript. You can’t miss them. But you can definitely miss them if you’re still close to the draft. The actual editing seems faster this way. Before it would take three or four passes to catch a lot of these things. We’ll see where I’m at after the first round of revisions, but it looks like it should take less time to polish.

Of course the other angle here is the fact that the story itself appears new again. It’s actually a good read this way. Before, it was kind of painful to keep reading stuff I already knew word-for-word. Not so this time. Part of why I’m so excited about this project is the very fact that it passes this test—the test of holding my interest at a time when I have no attachment to it whatsoever and have a million other things I need to do besides worry about my fiction. This is a really cool serial, and that’s why I don’t mind stringing along potential readers like I have been. Once it finally appears, it’ll be worth the wait. The only other time I felt anything close to this was with Blightcross, and that was just one novel among eight others . . . and consequently the only one that made it to print.

So what’s the holdup? I can get this thing ready to go relatively soon. I’m just unsure about the idea of cover art. If I just release this for free on my own (which is probably what I’ll do), I don’t want it to just be some text file floating around on the internet. Trouble is, I can’t make it myself and don’t know how to solicit artists on my own, never mind pay for it. The other option is getting it in with a few of the epublishers out there who handle serials, but the problem there is that they’d want at least two episodes up front. That I can do, but then the wait would be extremely long since I’d have to wait for the second part to materialize . . . and that might take a while given the current circumstances. I’d rather gauge the time I spend on future installments on reader interest in the first one.

Is cover art a big deal?

Am I too concerned with window-dressing? Should I just quietly place it on my blog and hope people find it?

Right now, I need some feedback about how people are finding new stuff to read. This is especially important given the niche audience I have.

Who wants to read some out-there dieselpunk where epic fantasy collides with Memphis Belle?