NerdGuy Fridays

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

NerdGuy #34: Watching the Little Guys

NerdGuy has been busy, but he’s working to make a comeback more regularly on Fridays. Thanks for all the nice emails asking for more NerdGuy Fridays. It truly helps.

a buchman action-adventure technothriller

No Spoilers

(There are no spoilers for Miranda Chase #12 Nightwatch here even though I’m talking about an excerpt from the final scene…it’s just really cool. And it’s something my wife, with a Masters in Marine Botany, insisted that I include. Once I studied them, I had to agree.)

The Excerpt (yep, hours of research to write this little bit)

The guide had been a font of information from the moment the group had met in the lobby of Thule Air Base Top of the World Club. It was the social center for the six hundred people who worked at this northernmost US military base.

See this poster on the wall. It’s actually a photo micrograph of Neodenticula seminae. It’s a species of plankton that hasn’t been seen in the Atlantic for eight hundred thousand years. Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both emerged less than three hundred years thousand ago. Because of the melting of the Northwest Passage, it has migrated over from the Pacific for the first time in all those years. This image is of a sample collected right here in the bay.

They had looked like curved stacks of golden glass blocks to make up a tube of warm color. Andi was glad that someone had made it safely through the Northwest Passage.

The Neodenticula seminae

It is one of my wife’s favorite plankton. She said it looks like lovely glass blocks under the microscope. Here’s an image from the 2010 research paper: “Morphological and phylogenetic comparisons of Neodenticula seminae (Bacillariophyta) populations between the subarctic Pacific and the Gulf of St. Lawrence” available at

Neodenticula seminae from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Northwest Atlantic, light microscopy. Fig. 1. Straight ribbon-shaped colonies. Fig. 2. Coiled ribbon-shaped colony. Fig. 3. Solitary and paired cells with chloroplasts.

The Cowl

Buchman Nightwatch Cowl
The Neodenticula seminae are the little white and gold bars floating in the upper layer of the ocean in the Nightwatch Cowl. Then the floating ice on the horizon and the Aurora Borealis above. (My wife knit this as part of a drawing for anyone who purchased Nightwatch through my webstore in the first month it was available. Congrats to Nancy!)

The Perspective

I’ve always been fascinated by the ice, in case you couldn’t tell (MC #11 Skibird and my Antarctic Ice Fliers both in Antarctica, and now MC #12 Nightwatch in the Arctic). I botched an option to go to Antarctica as a college-student intern and it remains a deep regret. I still hope to get there someday. But like astronomy (I ran the college planetarium for 4 years) and airplanes, it has always fascinated me.

The opening of the Northwest Passage (from the northwest Atlantic over Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea and on to the Pacific) and the Northeast Passage (from Europe over Scandinavia and Russia also to the Pacific) is having enormous impact on both trade relations and the environment. The shipping routes from China to the US East Coast via the Northwest Passage and to Europe over the Northeast Passage is already effecting global economics.

As a kid I read every account I could find about the early explorers from the deeply misguided Sir John Franklin to the utterly brilliant Sir Ernest Shackleton. The single most gripping account I ever found was Hell on Ice written by Read Admiral Edward Ellsberg, one of my favorite authors (thankfully back in print after years OOP).

Ten years ago I recall a pair of men set out to do a trek across the North Pole. They said it would probably be the last time it could ever be done from landfall to landfall because of ice melt. The next year, someone tried, but fell through the ice and died. While looking for those articles, I stumbled on this one “The Untold Story of the Boldest Polar Expedition of Modern Times” (2020). They couldn’t reach the ice at either end by land, so they did it by boat, in fall (Sept to Dec), which means  they did their crossing in the dark!!! The last line particularly caught my eye: “Even if there were other explorers in this world willing to try, it’s unlikely ever to be repeated, due to the Arctic’s shrinking ice cap. Polar experts believe it’s likely that within the next 20 years Septembers in the Arctic Ocean will be entirely devoid of ice, even at the North Pole. Says Gamme, “The great modern polar exploration era ended with that trip.

Of course, plankton aren’t the only critters now making the crossing: “Gray Whales Ocean Hopping from the N. Pacific to the N. Atlantic Ocean!” (2021)

I watch the ice caps shrink and I can only wonder at what incredible opportunities and tragedies await us. I’m hoping for mostly the former, of course.

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.


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) autistics 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.

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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


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.


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.

an action-adventure technothriller an action-adventure technothriller audiobook

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.


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 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.

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