Plausible Animal Behavior

I love watching movies with dinosaurs. The CGI these days is so impressive, the dinos look like living animals. Unfortunately, as I get on a dino kick and watch through my collection, the behavior of the animals in some of these shows still needs work.

Cost Benefit Analysis

From childhood, all the way through middle-age, I’ve been watching nature videos. In all that time, the laws that animals follow are revealed, and they are pretty simple. Eat, mate, and most importantly, survive. Animals in the wild do not have access to insurance policies, hospitals, or HMO plans. Yet, the life they live is very dangerous. Everything they do comes with the risk getting eaten, failing to eat, or getting injured. Any creature on this Earth must make a cost benefit analysis before doing anything. Is the cost of doing something worth the benefit? An error in this calculation can easily lead do death. So, animals are very good at this. They don’t take unnecessary risks.

Unbelievable Animal Behavior


And this leads us back to the dino movies. Did the animals depicted perform this cost benefit analysis? From what I can see… No. In King Kong (2005), a Vastatosaurus Rex (similar to T-Rex) has just bitten into an enormous lizard. The larger half (perhaps half a ton of meat) falls to the ground just as the V-Rex spies Naomi Watts. Now, there’s a huge chunk of meat it no longer must chase laying at its feet, or the little blond who maybe weighs 120lbs. What does it do? It chases the blond, of course. Two other V-Rexes join the pursuit, desperately going after this insignificant morsel in Kong’s hand. Kong is obviously too tough to fight. He’s strong and in perfect health. Why even bother? Wouldn’t it make more sense to chase down an aging sauropod with a limp? How did these creatures survive if they take such unnecessary risks?


In “The Bloodiest Battle,” an episode of the documentary, Jurassic Fight Club, a trio of Allosaurus encounter two helpless Stegosauruses. They are stuck in the mud bordering a lake. One has been freshly killed by a Ceratosaurus. The Allosauruses kill the Ceratosaurus immediately with a surprise attack. Cool. Just then, a huge sauropod (Camarosaurus) comes to drink and also gets stuck in the mud, one-hundred yards away. The Allosauruses have literally tons of meat right at their feet. What do they do? Attack the sauropod, of course. Why? It’s a simple cost benefit analysis. Why risk battling a huge animal when the easy meat is right at your feet? They could have feasted for days on the stegosauruses with no risk at all.

Plausible Animal Behavior


The purpose of the two shows I mentioned is to provide exciting action and adventure, and they succeed. I love them both. Thing is, they ignored the rather simple laws of the jungle that all animals must observe, or perish. With a slight tweaking of the narrative, both could have had all the excitement, and believability too. The trope of the implacable enemy that never stops chasing you is a strong, effective one. I think it is possible to have that while still following logic from an animal’s standpoint. The movie, The Ghost and the Darkness does this superbly in my opinion. It’s based on a historical account of two lions hunting workers in Africa. These lions are more terrifying than most movie monsters, and part of the reason is, I can believe in what they do.

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The Weak Spot

Photo by: Na’ama Yehuda

The armies of sixteen nations struck at the rampaging alien machine. They tried bombs, lasers, microwave weapons, achieving nothing.

Finally, they dispatched Colonel Connelly Ekstrum. Known for being cool under fire, he stood still as the ten-story tall machine stepped towards him.

I wanted to run, but then Ekstrum said, “The aliens who built it must be very tall.”

As buildings toppled, I said, “What?”

“Every machine has a weakness, so designers make sure that weakness is hard to get at.”

“So?”

A giant foot came down meters away. “That’s to avoid this.”

Ekstrum reached out, and pushed the OFF button.
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Written for the Friday Fictioneers: https://rochellewisoff.com/2020/12/30/1-january-2021/

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Fishing Claus

Photo by: Trish Nankivell

The elf, Leafway, sighed. At Santa’s traditional summer home, his “Gone Fishin'” sign ominously read just, “Gone.”

The hunt for Santa Claus was on.

After weeks of searching, the elf Hollybranch reported in. Leafway answered his FTL vidphone. “What’s up?”

“I found him!” said Hollybranch.

“Thank Christmas! Where is he?”

“Well, he did go fishing, and it seems he was highly successful.”

“Eh? What does that mean?”

“He caught a mermaid.”

“Really?”

“Some things cannot be unseen.”

Leafway grimaced “I don’t follow.”

“Well, judging by their position, I can’t say if Santa caught her, or if the mermaid caught Santa.”
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Written for the Friday Fictioneers: https://rochellewisoff.com/2020/12/23/25-december-2020/

Merry Christmas everybody!

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Practical Expectations of a Mars Colony

Recently, a friend brought an article about a Martian colony to my attention. Being the lover of space and science fiction that I am, the title hardly encouraged me. Humans Will Never Colonize Mars offers the rather gloomy impression that a Mars colony isn’t happening anytime soon. Even though I intend to slice this piece up like a Christmas goose; I think it’s a good read and an important one. Please read it. When engaging in a large endeavor, we need to look carefully at the cold, hard facts, and this article provides a lot of valid ones. It’s a list of bad things that might happen, which is a good thing, because now we know we shouldn’t do those bad things.


The article presupposes too much naivete on the part of folks supporting a Mars Colony. It begins by pointing out that Mars is too airless and too cold, apparently believing folks expected to walk on the surface in a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoes. That’s like saying goldfish aren’t good pets because you need to keep them in a goldfish bowl. So then, how about we put it in a goldfish bowl? We get it, guys. Everybody knows you’ll need a pressure suit and you’ll only be able to walk on the surface as long as your air holds out. Then the article points out the radiation. Without a good magnetosphere, there’s little protection against solar radiation. That’s a real problem. I’ll get to that.

Next, the article points out that terraforming Mars isn’t going to happen quickly and not even within centuries. It’ll not be warm enough for running water on the surface. This is true. Nobody is going tubing with a sixer of Bud or wind sailing before retiring to the resort for a dinner of lobster… on Mars. Terraforming Mars into some sort of Garden of Eden is too damned hard to achieve within even centuries. The reasons are numerous. So let’s not even try, for now. Rather than saying a brick wall is impassable because ramming our heads into it doesn’t work; let’s simply walk around it instead, ‘kay? Then there’s the low gravity problem. The article lists the value or Mars’s gravity as “0.6 percent”. This is a common error that drives me to fits. It literally reads as “six-tenths of 1%.” No. Mars’s gravity is low, but far higher than that. According to phys.org the gravity is 0.376 or 37.6% of Earth’s gravity (see how I wrote the value?). That’s still low, and there are deleterious effects because of it. It needs to be addressed.


Essentially, the thrust of the article is Mars won’t be colonized because it won’t be as nice as Club Med. It’ll be more dangerous than attending a convention of sociopathic Agatha Christie fans, on a train. It could quite likely kill you. We get that. In the article’s defense, wild claims can lead to anyone wanting to submit such articles to bring folks back to reality. Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars by 2050. Hehe. Very funny, Elon. We’ll be lucky if there’s one-hundred people on Mars by 2050. No one is going to go there because it’s nice. It’ll be a job, a hard, dangerous job. People may live in domes, but I expect ones with no windows. The bleak Martian landscape won’t be worth it. Luckily, certain foams are proving to be effective radiation shielding. Any domes will be covered with the stuff. The gravity will be too low to stay there long, so workers must return to orbit to a spinning habitat to find gravity closer to one gee. After a time, they’ll go back to the surface for another shift. Repeat. And no one should stay in the Martian system for more than a couple years. That would be cruelty.

The primary point of a Martian colony should be access to the asteroid belt. It’ll be a waystation on the way to fabulous riches that asteroids offer. It’ll be like a base camp at the foot of Mount Everest; not a vacation spot, but a place to rest and recuperate of the ravages of high radiation and low gravity. It’ll be a trading post on the way back to Earth. This talk of we’ll never do it because it won’t be pretty, is nonsense. We won’t go to Mars to be pretty, we’ll go there to establish a human presence in space. Maybe in a century or two, it’ll be nice, but not in the near future. That’s a not a reason to stop. The astonishing potential for human progress is the reason why we should go, anyway.

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The Whistleblower

Photo by: Roger Bultot

I expected a whistleblower case. I met her at the boardwalk.

Esmerelda sat looking at the gantry where humanity’s first interstellar spaceship took off. “It was a small design firm,” she said. “Everyone did lots of jobs. He hired me as a secretary. Before it was done, I designed ninety-percent of the XV-11.”

“But William Tull made hundreds of billions off that design. Did he pay you?”

“Paid me a secretary’s wage.”

I saw dollar signs. “Well, let’s sue him! He owes you billions at least.”

“Naw.”

“Why not?”

“I ran accounting too.” Esmerelda smiled.  “Islands are cheap these days.”
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Written for the Friday Fictioneers: https://rochellewisoff.com/2020/12/09/11-december-2020/

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2020 Blues

Photo by: C.E. Ayr

Max and Archie ran into the house to avoid the hail of meteorites bombarding Earth.

“We should never have time-traveled here,” wailed Archie. “2020 is the worst year ever.”

“Not to worry,” said Max. “I’ll get us out. We’ll find our time-machine soon.”

“How?”

“Look, a string!” said Max. “We’re saved!”

“What good does that do us?”

“This is the string I tied on my finger to help me remember where I put the time-machine.” Quickly, he tied it back on.

“So where is it?”

“There!” pointed Max, triumphantly.

“You put it… there?” stammered Archie.

“Exactly! Right where that meteor crater is.”
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Written for the Friday Fictioneers: https://rochellewisoff.com/2020/12/02/4-december-2020/

Author’s Notes:

If Max seems a bit too effervescent, I’ll confess I’ve been inspired by watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

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Realistic Combat: Better Is No Guarantee

I recently realized that some science fiction readers and also those curious about the machines of war sometimes have a skewed notion about how military systems should be compared. I find this by reading people’s thoughts about books/movies I know and also reading through the questions about planes and ships in Quora. People ask things like: Is the Defiant ‘better’ than a Klingon Bird of Prey? Or: Was the Spitfire a ‘better’ fighter than P-51 Mustang. If you know much about the topic, then these are strange queries. They beg the question, “Better at what?” It would be like if someone asked you, “What’s ‘better,’ a kitchen oven or a barbecue grill?” This would incite the reply, “Well, I hope you aren’t lighting fires in your kitchen oven.”

With the machines of war, “better” is always a relative term, and the machines, while seeming to be similar, are often built for varying purposes. We cannot compare them with a simple answer of, “This one is better.” We seem to have a culture that demands things in the most simple black and white terms. People skip the details and go straight for the bottom line. Unfortunately, highly technical machines and warfare in general are far more complex than just the bottom line. Skip the details, and you’re begging to be confused by a result you never expected. It all makes me wonder how we got to this point.

A Culture of Over Simplification (or I Blame Star Wars)


Enter Star Wars. The bad guys wear black, and have all the advantages. Their fighters are better, their ships are bigger, and their forces more numerous. The good guys must win through sheer grit and determination. It’s a literary construct owed to the notion that the good guy is only as good as the bad guy, so you must make the bad guy really powerful. It’s quite simple to understand, but therein lies the problem. Realistic combat is never as simple as that. Usually, one side has advantages that the other doesn’t, and vice versa. Realistic warfare is a complex tapestry of strengths and weaknesses and the face of it can shift wildly in a moment’s notice. When penning a combat scene with any plausibility to speak of, it’s important to realize that one side that is better in one aspect doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. Battle is never as simple as a single quality.

Is Better Really Better?

Battle of Thermopylae

History shows this repeatedly. In the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans were far better trained and were better motivated. In two ways the Spartans were better, but even that wasn’t enough. Being heavily outnumbered and many other reasons, they lost that battle. Having numerical superiority, the Persians should have won easily, but they didn’t. They struggled against a talented enemy who defied their understanding of armed conflict. Both had advantages, but these qualities weren’t enough to produce an expected result. Another example: after completing a perfect 16-0 regular season the New England Patriots football team entered the Super Bowl. In just about every measure, they were a better team than their opponent, the New York Giants. The Pats should have won easily, yet they still lost after a series of improbable plays. Better wasn’t quite enough for a guarantee of victory because in conflict, better is a relative term. As Al Pacino said in the movie Any Given Sunday, “You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it.”

What Does Better Mean?

P-40B Warhawk
During WW2, the American P-40 served in the Pacific against the much-vaunted Japanese A6M Zero. The P-40 performed poorly against the Zero and this has led to a great many people believing the P-40 was a terrible airplane. In fact, it was quite good and served in nearly every theater of WW2. Jump to the present and (some) flight simulators model the P-40 as a flying brick, barely able to turn at all. This is a case of people having too crude an understanding of what better means. In truth, the P-40 was quite maneuverable, a very good fighter. But when compared to the nimblest fighter of the entire war, the A6M, it fell short. That doesn’t mean the P-40 wasn’t maneuverable at all, just not as maneuverable as the A6M (honestly, nothing else could dogfight as well as the A6M). An accurate comparison shows the difference in maneuverability was actually quite small. In technological warfare, better doesn’t necessarily mean orders of magnitude better. It usually means a fractional difference, a tiny one, where the difference between life and death is measured in milliseconds. The comparison between victor and defeated is often a razor’s edge.

It’s Man or Woman, Not The Machine

Lt Col. Carey Jones

When people see a great photo, they often say to the photographer, “You must have a great camera.” This is insulting to a photographer. There’s much, much more to taking a picture than just having a great camera. The F-4 Phantom fighter and the Mig-21 fighter met on the battlefield many times in the 70s and 80s. Which was better? I would say the F-4, but does that mean F-4 pilots had it easy because their foe wasn’t orders of magnitude better? Did they enter battle with no risk at all? Absolutely not! The Mig-21 was still a great airplane. If a Phantom pilot is half a second too slow, the Mig could easily shoot it down. The F-4’s advantages were not so great that they couldn’t be overcome by a talented pilot. Anyone entering battle is still brave and heroic even if they have an advantage. In all things, it’s the man or woman that make the greatest difference, not machine. The differences in equipment help us understand outcomes, but it’s always the human being that is the decisive factor. In stories of combat we don’t need gigantic differences between spaceships or mecha to make a battle interesting. Star Wars was easy to understand, but it also wasn’t believable. A literary technique, used to simplify understanding of the scenario, took the real drama away. Realistically described combat, with lives on the line and a razor’s edge between better and best, and all the complexities of warfare, is thrilling and plausible all at once.

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Unfinished Business

Photo by: Sarah Potter

Violet’s husband, George, hated her live-in sister’s parrot, Bobo. Violet hated the animal too, who cursed most vilely. George had sworn an oath to kill it someday.

Three years slipped by after George’s untimely death, but since then a falcon took up residence. Each afternoon she could see the shadow of it, a waiting sentinel. Violet often wondered if George had reincarnated. Silly perhaps, but she couldn’t help the persistent feeling.

One day, Bobo escaped the house. Mere seconds passed before the falcon swooped in and pinned down the squawking bird, violently yanking out colorful feathers.

Violet smiled, “Good boy, George.”
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Written for the Friday Fictioneers: https://rochellewisoff.com/2020/11/18/12067/

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An Unreported Affect

Photo by: Dale Rogerson

As I stared at my own reflection in the window, I took pity on him. Of course, he didn’t reflect anything at all.

“It must be frustrating,” I said. “Stuck like that.”

“You have no idea,” said the cloud of vapor. “I cannot feed at all, yet I can still feel the hunger.”

At one time, the thing would have killed me, but it remained harmless while still sick. “It’s a shame no one knows how your kind are affected. How long are you stuck as vapor?”

“No one knows. It’s not like scientists are studying how COVID-19 affects vampires.”
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Written for the Friday Fictioneers: https://rochellewisoff.com/2020/11/11/11988/

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Spaceship Shields in Science Fiction

The Necessity of Shields in Space


In so many science fiction stories involving spaceships, they almost always include shields on the vessels. Even in a real world scenario they’re important to have. Outside the protective magnetosphere and atmosphere of our planet, cosmic rays lurk. If a spaceship’s crew is exposed to them long enough, more than a few weeks, they will sicken and die. And let’s face it, a trip to Mars is going to take more than a few weeks. Then there are those pesky micrometeorites. Depending on the speed of your ship and the speed of the meteorite, something the size of a sand grain can hit with the power of a bullet, or a howitzer shell. So, whether considering science fiction or real spaceships, it’s good to have shields.

Spaceship Shields in Science Fiction

Often, in a scifi show, we hear a phrase like, “Shields at 42%!” I’ve been wondering about that and why it would work that way. Obviously, it adds dramatic tension, but would it really work that way when spaceships and their shields become a reality? I tend to think not. I’m not an engineer, so anyone who is out there can correct me, but I believe shields would either be working or not, operating at 100% or not at all. I understand that you could shift energy from one shield to the other in the trope, but why build in that capability? While in a battle, why not just run the whole thing at max capacity? Then you could focus on maneuvering and not bother with that detail. If your power plant could not run all shields at max, that would suggest you need a bigger power plant.

If we consider electronic components that we have now like the diode, for instance, they work at spec until they burn out and don’t work at all. Same for capacitors, resistors, etc. When the power supply on my computer died, I didn’t get a message saying, “Power at 42%, Captain.” It operated at its rated power level until something, perhaps a diode, stopped working and the power supply croaked. Shouldn’t shields operate similarly?

Plausible Spaceship Shields

When I wrote, The Huralon Incident, I imagined shields that were directed by a number of emitters. The devices project a small shield each until they absorbed more energy from a weapon than they could handle, and burn out. That’s it. Either it’s working or it’s not. These emitters would cover a ship, so even when you lost one, only a small portion of total shield protection went down. In such a case the report wouldn’t be, “Shields at 90%, Captain,” because that wouldn’t be very informative. The report would be like, “Emitter down on the ventral port quarter, Captain.” This would work better because the Captain now knows not to present the ventral port quarter to the enemy’s weapons.

So, what do you think? Does the idea of shields, that when hit, decrease in strength by degree make sense or not? How would you imagine a shield working? Let me know in the comments.

If you’re interested in a different way to see how shields might work in the future, check out my book, The Huralon Incident. It’s a military space opera with detailed space battles, a superspy, nanites, humor, sociopolitical world-building, and plenty of descriptions of food. You can find it below:

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