NerdGuy Fridays

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #33: Making Choices

(This post will have some minor spoilers for Miranda Chase #8, White Top.)

Please note that the following is written by a white, hetero male of the Baby Boomer cohort who has been happily married to a woman for almost a quarter of a century and looks forward to at least that much more of the same. Any offense to any group or individual is wholly unintended. My goal is rather to inform about a wider view I have learned and found supported by research.

#MeToo

Before we go on todays’ main topic (autism and sexuality), I’d like to take a moment to discuss this briefly due to its relevance to what comes below.

The MeToo movement has finally exploded into the news and is starting to weave its way into the fabric of our culture. My comment? About freaking time.

As my fans know, I’ve always been about writing amazing women. Some are kick-ass take-no-prisoners types (Yes, Emily Beale, Kate Stark, and Holly Harper, I’m talking about you). But others are the quiet heroine. The ones who operate from a place of understated brilliance (Miranda Chase, and Perrin Williams in my Where Dreams series to name but two.)

So the MeToo train? I was already on it years ago and I’m cheering ever moment of it. The theory that our society should treat women as people strikes me as kind of a “Duh!”—it is in the top 3 themes of every story I’ve ever written.

There is a history here you don’t want to get me started on right back to the Paul’s original writings and then the Council of Nicea in 325 AD when approximately 300 male bishops redrafted the Bible by choosing what books to include. The conclave of all men, among other crimes, did their best to remove women from almost all significant roles (right down to recasting the woman that a growing body of evidence said could well have been married to Jesus, instead naming her a whore). [Note: modern religious scholars have cast out ancient writings speaking of their marriage as forgeries… Is that truth or are they protecting their beliefs? I’m not in a place to judge but, based on past history, I find it hard not to reach certain conclusions regarding institutional bias.)

Let me just say that as a white hetero male, I find these and other actions to be a horrific reflection on my gender. (I really want a third primary gender: women, decent men, and the rest of the bigoted, misogynistic, abusive male jerks.) As I said, don’t get me started.

But there is another battle that’s been going on a long time and may have an even higher hill to climb.

Gender Choice

And this is what I want to delve into a little today. Some have expressed surprise, even shock at a choice Miranda makes at the end of White Top. Here’s a bit of the nerding out that I did when she came up with the idea.

Gender Identification

I’m a Boomer, born at the end of the 1950s. My social and sexual mores were formed through the lens of the “wild” ’60s and the “conservative” backlash and disaffection of the ’70s.

So, I did some research. Based on a Gallup poll of 15,000 individuals, Statista created this summary chart.

LGBTQ chartA Millennial (born 1981-1996) is 7x more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than people of my Boomer generation (1946-1964). Gen Z the number jumps to 12x (that’s 1 in 6 people).

Are these changes in our population or a change in our population pressures? (I’ll get to this in a moment.)

Yet here I am writing almost strictly hetero relationships. That statistic got me thinking and led me to write Brenda in Wild Fire (Firehawks #5) and Tricky Dog Gals (White House Protection Force stories #5).

Autism and Societal Pressures

To say that I did a lot of research to create Miranda Chase as a believable person on the autism spectrum would be an understatement. My kid has been an autism researcher and therapist for over a decade. And she was bringing books and discussions on the subject into the house well before that.

And one fact (of kajillions) was tucked away in my writer brain waiting for White Top. One of the common challenges faced by an autistic is the inability to understand “social norms.” The nuances of “correct” ways to be, behave, when to speak and when not to—and so many more—can completely elude the autistic. They may learn by rote how they’re “supposed” to behave in a public setting, but it is not something they can understand.

Along with this comes another challenge, unless it’s an advantage. Their inability to perceive social norms will make them less likely to conform their thinking to those norms. An individual on the autism spectrum will spend a great deal of time asking “Why?” Why is it done this way? Why do people do that and not this? And a common response to the answer will be, “But that doesn’t make any sense.” Societal constructs are, in that sense, false. They are rules we neurotypicals (those not on the spectrum) have created to run our society.

The more I’ve learned about people on the spectrum, the more I’ve come to truly understand that it’s not necessarily because they have some deficiency. In many ways, I think they have an increased range of view uninhibited by society’s imposed expectations. An autistic person may actually be far more rational as this Science Direct paper suggests.

Autism and Sexual Identification

Then the question arises: Is sexual identification a fact or a norm imposed by society?

Studies on this question are mostly lacking. Here’s one that states 15-35% of non-intellectually handicapped (ie. are sufficiently cogent to make their own reliable choices) identify as LGB. In the same article, a psychologist states that the likelihood of someone with autism not identifying as hetero is 2-3x more likely than the normal population.

Playing with the numbers

Above I noted that 9% of Millennials, Miranda Chase’s cohort, are likely to identify as non-hetero. If those with autism, are 2-3x more likely to identify that way, that says that 18-27% of them do so. That is in keeping with the 15-35% statistic. For Gen Z autistics those numbers become 32-48% (a third to a half) of the entire population. (versus 2.6-3.9% for us Boomers).

Where Is This Going For Me?

I don’t really know. I’m not going to suddenly “flip over” and become a major non-hetero writer. It’s not who I am. But am I going to be listening more to my characters when they suggest that they aren’t like me, as Miranda Chase did in her very quiet way? I’d have to say the answer is yes.

Why is it yes? I’m the author, I’m in control, right? Not completely. An author has to respect the integrity of the character. Making them behave in ways that aren’t true to them can “break” the character, making them unbelievable or untrustworthy within the scope of the story.

Is Miranda suddenly lesbian or bi-sexual? No. Miranda is a woman with autism, who doesn’t understand societal norms, and is instead making choices based upon who she likes and wants to be with. That strikes me as a pretty glorious way to be. She is, for lack of a better word, herself.

I hope, as an author, that my characters in the future will have a greater ability to make a choice of their own without my “boomer societal norms” being imposed on them—in any area of their thinking.

Is it a truth or a societal norm that “Women have no souls” as was argued in 575? Or that: “Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children… If a woman grows weary and at last dies from child bearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing – she is there to do it.’” (Martin Luther)

Is it a truth or a societal norm that we must live within the hetero bounds of the gender we were born with?

You know my answer. Look at the evidence and make yours.

White Top

White Top

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

More info →
NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Friday #32: Airliner Oxygen Masks

a political action-adventure technothriller…that we hope we never, ever see!

In creating my latest novel, I spent a lot of time learning about emergency air generation systems. And they are both fascinatingly complex and relievingly simple. As to why their relevant in a Miranda Chase novel about the Marine Corps helicopters that transport the President and Vice President…well, that would be telling.

Regular breathing air for almost all aircraft is very simple. The outside air is gathered from the jet air intake, cooled appropriately, compressed up to standard atmospheric pressure (at 7,000′ rather than Sea Level, mostly to ease the strain on the hull), and fed into the cabin (and, conveniently for the crew, the lower pressure keeps us passengers a little sleepy).

Emergency air systems are a little bit different.

Two Types of Systems

Pilot 

Airline pilots have a very simple solution, a special mask with a direct connection to an oxygen tank is close to hand. If you check out our old friend the Airbus Cockpit viewer, first encountered in NerdGuy #28, and look at the arms of the pilot’s and copilot’s seats, you’ll see that the outer arm is much larger than the inboard one. It also has a nice fat button that’s easy to find. Don’t waste your time looking in the pilot’s personal glove box…it’s out of view right behind there under a protective flap.

Here’s a much better view of one beside the observer pilot’s jump seat. These should easily last long enough to get down safely…if that’s going to happen. If you want to see one deploy, check out this incredibly tedious video (jump to 2:50).

 

The flight attendants will have access to similar portable systems so that they can give help around the cabin.

Passenger

Having airliners carrying around great canisters of oxygen for all of the passengers is prohibitive for a couple of reasons: weight and constant maintenance being the two major concerns. Also, three of the four emergency oxygen system fires listed in Wikipedia were caused by canister-based failures. The infamous fourth, the 1996 crash of ValuJet 592, was due to improper handling of oxygen generators. So, a different solution had to be found, and it was: chemistry.

Not for Long

An emergency air generation system rarely needs to get you down to landing. It’s main purpose is to last for the decent from cruising altitude (35-45,000′) down to safe breathing altitude (below 10,000′). Under normal conditions, this would take about ten minutes. Rapid descent probably under four. Emergency dive…yeah, that’s more Hollywood than reality unless it’s going to end very badly.

The normal oxygen generator system on an airliner runs for 15 minutes, which is plenty of time under almost any circumstances. The extremely rare exceptions were due to pilot failure: HERE and HERE if you want to see the animated videos (warning, while informative, these chronicle air crashes). Bottom line: They’re very, very safe.

A Simple Chemical Reaction

2 Sodium Chlorate NaClO3 –> 2 NaCl (table salt) + 3 O2 (good stuff for breathing)

There’s a catch. To make the reaction happen, it needs a trigger–heat. So, in order to create an intensely flammable gas that we need to survive, we must apply heat, about 600 deg C (1,112 deg F). Spooked yet? Don’t worry, there is a heat shield. But you can also see in this diagram that there’s a firing mechanism.

Well, the designers were worried, too. They didn’t want a lot of unneeded oxygen floating about the cabin.

Next time you’re on a plane, listen carefully to the instructions about donning the oxygen mask, every word in all of those announcements has meaning.

“Pull the mask toward you.” 

In doing this, you pull on a little trigger that ignites the hot chemical reaction to drive the breakdown of sodium perchlorate into salt and oxygen. And if it’s an empty row, the masks just dangle there, and no oxygen is generated. Why? Because no one was sitting there to follow that simple direction, “Pull the mask toward you.”

If there’s a cabin depressurization event or you’re in a smoky cabin and you feel like you’re choking, grabbing that mask may be your only chance. It will safely provide good, fresh oxygen. It’s just weird that it is also burning a very hot little chemical reaction just over your head.

Suddenly need emergency oxygen while on a submarine, spaceship, or the International Space Station? It will probably come from one of THESE (pdf). The exact same thing as on an airliner, except its big enough to fill the entire volume for thirty minutes, instead of just your little airline face mask.

And if you ever wanted an understanding of what it means when something says Mil Spec, like why is military specified grade so important?

Guess what. You can shoot these and they still work.

And if you want to find out why NerdGuy went there? Check out White Top. Releases Tuesday 6/22 in ebook, print, and audio.

White Top

White Top

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

More info →
NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #31: Behind, rather…above the scenes

One of Nerdguy’s many peculiar pasts was working in theater. In high school, I joined and ultimately ran the theater for two years. After college, I worked another three years in the theater scene that presaged the Seattle Fringe theater movement. Then, finally, after my bicycle trip around the world, I spent six more years working in the IT department for Seattle Opera.

Scale

Our budget for a major high school production ran approximately $250. The wonders of all volunteer labor. In the early 1980s Seattle pre-Fringe era, mounts (new productions) ran between $1,000 and $10,000, including crazy cheap labor and hungry actors.

A typical opera production in the late-1990s when I was there had a budget of a couple million. A big, new production might run as high as $5M.

In 1983, we took over an old porn house, gutted it, steam-cleaned and painted the seats, rebuilt the stage, painted all of the walls, hung new lighting instruments, and I installed a large new lighting and sound system, all for about $30,000 and it took us a week.

In 2003, McCaw Hall reopened after a year-long, $127M renovation that I had a very tiny part in. I left the opera in 2001, so my role never had a chance to get bigger. Would have been fun, though, now that I think about it. Nerding out over an entire new building on that scale….whoo-whee!

On last piece on scale:

  • Typical high school production: 6 weeks prep and rehearsal, 700-seat auditorium, 3 performances
  • The typical Seattle theater production I was involved in: 6 weeks prep and rehearsal (with some planning before that), 1-200 seat house, 700 performances (6 shows a week). (That’s how many I did on Angry Housewives, it ran closer to 6,000 total performances.)
  • The typical opera production: 1-2 years of prep (planning before that), 3,000-seat hall, 8 performances.

The Hall

Inside the shell of the White House, May 1950

McCaw Hall began life as an Armory. Then in 1928 it was turned into Civic Auditorium. A major renovation was done in preparation for the first World’s Fair after WWII in 1962. Part of the renovation gutted the interior and built a whole new building inside the armory (much as the Truman renovation built a whole new White House inside the old White House). It made for a fascinating set of curious backstage passages in the gaps, to say the least.

One of the peculiar shortcomings of the Opera House during the years I worked there was the area above the stage–the Fly Loft.

My high school theater’s loft, rose perhaps fifteen feet above the stage. Just enough to hide the above stage lights behind some long, short curtains called teasers. In the small Seattle theaters, there was no loft. There were exposed pipes bolted to the ceiling from which we hung lighting instruments and not much else. Mostly set up in old warehouse spaces, our problems were more that the audience in the back row of seats might risk hitting their heads on the ceiling.

Seattle Opera’s Fly Loft was about the same height above the stage as the stage itself. That meant that if we wanted to raise a long drape out of view, we could–barely. But then it’s bottom edge was interfering with lights, other set pieces, and…let’s just say that it was problematic.

a seattle pike place market operatic romanceThen came the McCaw Hall renovation. I had travelled back to Seattle to have a friend who still worked there give me a tour so that I could write my 2014 book Where Dreams Unfold that is partly set there as it is a romance centered around an opera production.

Dramatic new seating. Lovely new acoustics (the soundman in me really appreciated it as there’d been a dead spot where the singer’s voices mostly skipped the most expensive seats from about Row 8-18 of the main floor). There were also new rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, orchestra pit, trap doors in the stage floor itself for descents into “basements,” and a hundred other fun innovations.

But the Fly Loft? Man, that was breathtaking. The stage itself was now in an 11-story high building all of its own, that just happened to open onto the beautiful, acoustically lovely seating of McCaw Hall.

The Wonder of a Fly Loft

The McCaw Hall loft. Even in this wide-sweeping photo, it’s mostly out of sight above. A few set pieces are scattered about a bare stage. Four “trees” of lighting offer side-lighting positions. The seating can be glimpsed at the very right, past the edge of the proscenium (perimeter of the stage opening). And up above are the bottoms of various drapes, some lighting instrument pipes, and the white strip is the bottom border of a 64′ x 36′ rear projection screen. The main drape is somewhere up there as well. For more on this, check out the technical information brochure for renters HERE.

 

If you ever wondered how they change scenes so quickly, sometimes in the heart of a fifteen-second blackout, that’s the secret. In an instant, whole set looks can be whisked aloft and others lowered in the places. Roll out a cart, some stairs, a dragon, and the scene moves on. With the long minutes during an intermission? The entire physical layout of walls, stairwells, ocean bottoms, lofty peaks, and trees may be switched out. And much of that happens upward, not side to side.

Below is a side view. All that the audience sees is that little bracketed area in the lower center marked The Proscenium.

More on the Anatomy of a Renovation can be found HERE.

There are 112 80-foot long pipes (the diagram is wrong and says lines) that are hung on six-inch centers. They’re controlled by ropes that go up from the pipes to pass through a massive gridiron “the grid” of supports. The ropes then travel over pulleys to one side of the stage where they gather together and turn to go down again to the Flyloft. This is where each individual pipe is separately controlled to raise and lower the appropriate scene element. Each pipe can carry thousands of pounds of equipment or set pieces. During a major production, there may be an entire crew sitting thirty-feet above the stage in flyloft (basically bored out of their skulls–I speak from experience), awaiting their moments of mayhem as the ropes fly into action.

Overall, it’s an amazing system, still closely related to my long-ago high school theater, and equal to any world-class stage in operation. But why was this Nerdguy worthy? Note the funny little gap between the gridiron and the roof at the top of the overall Fly Loft itself?

Then read the excerpt below from my upcoming novel White Top.

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

Nerdguy #30: HMX-1 (Marine One)

As my dedicated fans will know, my next book in the Miranda Chase series is titled White Top (coming 6/22).

an action-adventure political technothriller

WHITE TOP

“White Top” is a common phrase to describe the helicopters used to transport the President, also called Marine One.  It is properly only called Marine One when the President is aboard, Marine Two for the Vice President. Very few others ever get to fly in a White Top: mostly visiting heads of state and the Commandant of the Marine Corps (the Pope did too). It is the world’s ultimate executive transport helicopter.

Because of their unique mandate, there are many strange and fun oddities about these helicopters and this Marine Corps squadron. I thought I’d share a few.

The group responsible for flying the White Top aircraft is Marine Corps Squadron HMX-1 (think Helicopter Marine Experimental 1st Squadron and you’ve got it–though the experimental part has been moved to VMX-1, except for the replacement Marine One helo). They were originally stood up (formed) in 1947 shortly after the Commandant of the Corps witnessed an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll. He knew he needed a better/faster way to get his Marines to the beach than long rides in landing craft and HMX-1 was created to study that need.

Jump ahead a decade to 1957 and President Eisenhower was on vacation  in Newport, Rhode Island when the Arkansas governor mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep black students out of white schools. Eisenhower mobilized the 101st Airborne to confront the NG and guard the students of the Little Rock Nine (this and this will get you started on this awful slice of history). The President needed to get back to DC fast. Parked nearby in case of emergency was an HMX-1 helicopter. It delivered the President to Air Force One in record time and set a precedent with the first-ever Presidential “lift.”

Over the years, several other outfits (Air Force and Army) tried to take over Presidential transport, but in the end, it’s all the Marines.

HMX-1

With 700 members, HMX-1 is the largest Marine Corps air squadron of them all. It is split into two sections: green side and white side.

Green SideGreen Side helicopterGreen side mostly flies the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor. The press gaggle following Marine One? They fly green side. Most of the luggage and merely VIP folks, they travel green side. Only VVIPs travel white side. An article on a couple of the other DC-VIP outfits can be found here.

White Side

Transporting the VVIPs of the American government is a very different proposition. Even though the white side helos fly for the same squadron from side-by-side hangars, white side technicians can’t just go over to the green side hangar at Quantico, Virginia to borrow a part or tool. Everyone working in the white side has an extremely high security clearance that can take a year or more to obtain (Marines will often “cool their heels” working green side while waiting for their white side clearance.) Every part must be fully vetted.

These helicopters, that initially got their White Top paint job when it was thought that would keep the helos cooler while sitting in the sun (it didn’t particularly but the paint job stuck), go through rigors that no other bird does. Here are a few:

  • Before any VVIP transport, they’ll take a half-hour flight to make sure everything is in working condition.
  • Every part is replaced at 1/2 of its rated lifespan.
  • Depot service (major overhauls) are also performed at one-half of the rated hours. While getting that service, they are upgraded to the very latest tech approved by the White House Military Office for the VVIP transports.
  • The President never travels without a flight of HMX-1 helos nearby–anywhere in the world. The President is the only global executive who does this. Helos are prestaged at every planned stop the President is going to visit. (Even when they aren’t planned to be used, they’re nearby in case of emergency.)
  • These traveling birds will typically fly direct within the US or Canada, or be  carried on C-5 and C-17 military transports along with the motorcade to anywhere else.
  • Their rotors have a brake so that the blades can be stopped while the engine is running at ready-idle. Almost all other helicopters, this is a direct connection, so if the engine is spinning, the blade is spinning.

The Birds

HMX-1 is in the process of retiring their present fleet. The VH-3D Sea Kings (the ones in all the White House lawn photos), and the VH-60N White Hawk variation of the Sikorsky Black Hawk (mostly flown overseas) are going away. As these were on-boarded in the late 1970s and 1988 respectively, it’s about time.

After a massively ugly bidding process that caused years of delay, and a four-year acceptance testing cycle, we should start seeing the VH-92A Superhawks taking over the role this year (2021).  Which made them a prime target for my latest novel, White Top. (Hint: the first lift missions of the Superhawk don’t end very well.)

Incidents (Accidents)

Perhaps the single most unique aspect of HMX-1 is their perfect record. They have never had a crash in their seventy-four year history.

Well, except perhaps in a couple of my books:

action adventure technothriller political romance
In the Weeds / White Top