Science for SciFi: Jargon

a man doing an experiment

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Writers want their smart characters to sound smart. Making a character sound smart sounds hard. But really it just requires a surface-level understanding of the topics and an understanding of keywords.

As a scientist (a chemist) and a writer, I understand this challenge well. So I thought I would help by explaining some basic concepts, keywords, and tools used by scientists. This will be the first in a series of posts highlighting interesting parts of science (mainly chemistry) for writers looking to beef up their technobabble.

My own experience and knowledge of chemistry has biased much of this. My fellow scientists who are reading this and feel their favorite topics have been ignored can resolve this grievance by submitting a guest post or leaving a comment.

The “Three” Branches of Science

There are three basic branches of science, but each of them has many subfields and specialties each with it’s own quirks, norms, and standards. Do not mistake these fields as exclusive. Each field may have it’s own focus but in truth the are better at denoting specialties than limits. The lines that separate these fields are becoming blurrier as time goes on and science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary.

Physics – the “most fundamental science” according to Wikipedia. Physics aims to study force, energy, and motion to understand the fundamental laws of the universe.

Chemistry – the “central science.” Chemistry fills a space between physics and biology. Sometimes it is hard to determine where one begins and the other ends. In general, chemistry is concerned with reactions between different chemicals, or analysis of chemicals and their behaviors.

Biology – this field is concerned with the study of living things. Many think of counting fruit flies and dissecting frogs when they think of biology. Much of modern biology shares techniques with biochemistry as scientists have tried to pull apart the secrets of smaller and smaller systems.

Common Vocabulary

Accurate – often confused with precise. To say that something is accurate assumes that there is a “true” value.

Aliquot – a very specific portion taken from a larger sample of liquid sample.

Amino Acids – amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are twenty common amino acids and all share some common structural features.

Atoms – atoms consist of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons, and are surrounded by a collection of “orbitals” where the atom’s electrons are found. An atom is composed primarily of empty space.

Atomic Orbitals – regions of space around an atom where an electron is likely to be. Orbitals that farther away from the nucleus contain higher energy electrons.

Bacteria – ubiquitous and mostly harmless microorganisms. Normally we only care about bacteria when we are sick. Bacteria inside our bodies perform many vital functions that are not completely understood.

microscopic shot of a virus
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Deoxyribonucleic Acid – nature’s data storage. DNA tells cells how to build the proteins that keep them functioning.

Elements – an element is a pure substance that contains only one type of atom (not counting isotopes). Elements can now be created artificially. Many of these are unstable and decay quickly, but some researchers have speculated about a potential “island of stability” hiding among the undiscovered high-mass artificial elements.

Evolution – the theory of evolution is a theory, as far too many would like to say. You can read more about that later. But it’s worth remembered that evolution is a fact. If you can’t wait a few million years you can watch it happen in a petri dish. The Theory of Evolution is simply out best explanation of how it works. Another vital thing to remember is that evolution has no pre-determined direction. “Good enough” is enough for nature.

Functional Groups – a segment of a molecule that determines is properties in a reaction. Examples of functional groups include hydroxyl groups, carbonyls, and much more.

Hypothesis – a hypothesis is an educated guess. A scientist takes known information and uses this information to predict what will happen in their experiments.

Inorganic Molecules – defined simply as “not organic,” inorganic molecules can contain both metals and non-metals.

Ions – ions are atoms that have lost or gained electrons and have a positive or negative charge as a result. Paired positive and negative ions form ionic salts.

Isotopes – isotopes are rarer forms of elements that differ in the number of neutrons contained in their nucleus. Natural samples contain a mix of isotopes in different rations depending on purity. Isotopes will vary in atomic mass and stability. These properties make isotopes useful in many applications.

Law – a law describes a known truth about the universe. Theories explain how laws work, laws do not change when a new theory is devised.

Light – both a wave and a particle. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Light interacts with matter in a myriad of interesting ways. Scientists often take advantage of these interactions to study properties of matter that are invisible to the naked eye.

Molecules – molecules are built from atoms. Most things we interact with are some kind of molecule. Bonds within molecules are the result of interactions between electrons and atomic orbitals.

crop chemist holding in hands molecule model
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Organic Molecules – the components of gasoline are organic. Organic molecules make up all living things on earth and many dead or inert things as well. Carbon and hydrogen are the primary elements that make up organic molecules.

Peer Review – When a scientists completes a project they write up the results and submit it to a relevant journal in their field. The editor at that journal decides whether the topic is relevant to their publication. If it is, they send the article to reviewers, who are normally other experts in the field. These reviewers look at the article, comment on its merit, and specify what in the article needs to be changed or corrected. An article might go through multiple rounds of corrections before the reviewers decide it is worthy of publication.

Precise – often confused with accurate. Precision is about consistency. Repeated measurements of similar value are said to be precise. We can’t always expect to be accurate, so we aim to be precise instead.

Precipitate – a precipitate is a solid that forms out of a solution.

Proteins – these are how living cells do things. Proteins serve as structural elements, transport molecules, catalysts, and many other things.

Polymers – large chains of molecules constructed from smaller subunits called monomers. Polymers have many useful properties. Kevlar, nylon, spider silk, cellulose, and all plastics are polymers.

Redox Reactions – redox reactions are a huge part of chemistry and biology. The word redox comes from the two related reactions, reduction and oxidation, that are part of every redox system. A useful mnemonic is LEO the lion says GER. Lose Electrons = Oxidation. Gain Electrons = Reduction.

Ribonucleic Acid – DNA’s less popular cousin. RNA carries out several functions inside of a cell. For example, mRNA carries instructions from the nucleus to the ribosome.

Solutions – solutions are everywhere. Solutions have two parts; the solute and the solvent. The solute is a solid that dissolves into a liquid, the solvent. A good rule of thumb when making solutions is that like dissolves like. Polar compounds dissolve in polar solvents, nonpolar compounds dissolve in nonpolar solvents.

Theory – these explain how a particular phenomenon works and why.

Viruses – bits of DNA or RNA bundled up in a shell of proteins and sometimes lipids. Viruses can only survive for a short time outside of a host and reproduce by hijacking the machinery inside of host cells to make more of themselves.

Qualitative – qualitative measurements are somewhat vague. They care about quantities like bigger, smaller, lesser, greater, and so on.

Quantitative – quantitative measurements are exact. They yield a specific number and should have all kinds of statistical analysis to go alongside them.

Quantum – science fiction writers frequently abuse this word. Which is understandable, many trained and experience scientists struggle to grapple with quantum physics because of how unintuitive it is. At this scale the classical physics described by Newton is no longer adequate to model what we observe. So we have a separate branch of physics called quantum physics to describe the behavior of particles on the subatomic scale. Quantum physics is based on probabilities and energy. We can’t nail down the precise location of an electron, but we can determine where it is most likely to be.

Common Laboratory Tools

Balances – many people will recognize these as scales. Many classrooms still used old fashioned balances not unlike the scales found in a doctor’s office. Modern laboratory balances are electronic and can measure mass with a high degree of accuracy.

Dewar – a vacuum insulated container that can be filled with liquid nitrogen, dry ice, or ice water. A dewar is useful for a keeping a sample cold for extended periods.

Gloves – there are two reasons to wear gloves. To protect the scientist from the sample, or to protect the sample from the scientist. The same properties that make many chemicals useful also make them dangerous to human life. Just like many bacteria and viruses that are of interest to scientists are also dangerous. In other cases it is the scientist who could damage the sample. Humans are full of DNA, proteins, and all sorts of other things that could contaminate biological and forensic samples. Gloves are an important part of this. Another important thing to remember about gloves is that the material matters. Nitrile gloves are probably the most common but not all chemicals are compatible with nitrile. Some chemicals may breakdown nitrile or soak right through. Gloves made of other materials are available for those instances.

crop faceless person in outerwear putting on latex gloves
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Glove Boxes – for samples that must be rigorously protected from oxygen, or for samples that may be dangerous to the user, glove boxes are the best option. Glove boxes are exactly what the sound like. A large box, with a glass window and a pair of large rubber gloves. The inside of a glove box is filled with an inert gas like argon or nitrogen.

Heating Mantle – chemists use heating mantles to drive chemical reactions by converting electricity into heat. Heating mantles are controlled by a variac that regulates the supplied voltage. Some heating mantles have a built-in variac, but in most cases the variac is a separate component. Heating mantles are often placed on top of magnetic stir plates.

Hot Plates/Stir Plates – hot plates are another option for heating solutions and materials in lab. Many have a built-in magnetic stirring function that can make a magnetic stir bar inside the reaction vessel spin.

Mortar and Pestle – a frequent component of imagined alchemy labs. Mortar’s and pestles remain useful tools in chemistry and biology labs.

Pipettes – pipettes transfer small volumes of liquids. Some pipettes are carefully calibrated, others are little more than fancy eye droppers.

crop chemist using modern equipment during work process
I’m not sure what they’re trying to do in this photo. I have no idea why anyone would clamp a volumetric flask like that. Or why they would use an open flame instead of a hot plate (flammable vapors make an open flame dangerous in many labs). Still, it’s a good illustration of a pasteur pipette being used to add approximate amounts of a certain chemical.

Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com

Spatulas – spatulas are used to move solid chemicals from one place to the other. For example, from the bottle to a balance or from a weigh boat to a reaction flask. Metal spatulas will be common to most undergraduate, but some labs use disposable plastic spatulas.

Syringes – syringes are incredible useful. Biologists may find many uses for syringes in drawing blood or injecting drugs. Syringes are used to work on air free reactions. Syringes are fantastic for piercing septums and adding or subtracting aliquots with minimal interference from surrounding oxygen.

Common Laboratory Instruments and Techniques

Some instruments are available from commercial sources for thousands or millions of dollars. Others are so specific that they need to be custom built by the user.

Centrifugation – centrifuges separate sample components by density. The centrifugal force causes high density sample components to move outward and form layers.

crop unrecognizable cosmetologist taking test tube out of centrifuge for plasma in modern clinic
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Chromatography – chromatography separates sample components. All chromatography involves a mobile phase and a stationary phase. The mobile phase carries the sample through the stationary phase. As the sample interacts with the solid phase it becomes separated into its components. Many techniques pair chromatography with another analytical technique such a spectroscopy or mass spectrometry.

Electrophoresis – electrophoresis describes the movement of charged particles in an electric field. Multiple separation techniques use electrophoresis to separate sample components such as gel electrophoresis or capillary electrophoresis.

Fluorescence Spectroscopy – some molecules absorb light at one wavelength and emit light at another. Fluorescence is useful in many instances and especially in biology and biochemistry. The strong signal given by fluorescence makes it easy to distinguish from background noise. This is its main advantage over absorbance spectroscopy.

Infrared Spectroscopy (IR) -heat is transmitted through infrared waves. When those waves hit a molecule, parts of that molecule vibrate in characteristic ways. These vibrations are like finger prints for different functional groups.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) – probably one of the most useful instruments in modern chemistry. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance takes advantage of the “spin” that is an inherent property of subatomic molecules like protons and electrons. Basically they behave like tiny magnets. An individual spin has a value of either +1 or -1 and when opposite spins are paired these spins cancel each other. Certain isotopes of common elements have an odd number of subatomic particles in their nucleus resulting in a non-zero spin. NMR works by placing a sample inside of a magnetic field. The unpaired spins then align with the field and the instrument hits the sample with radio waves of a specific frequency. The unpaired spins then flip as they absorb the energy from the radio waves and release energy as they return to their original orientation. The environment surrounding each unpaired spin affects the signal they emit, allowing us to determine the structure of molecules. Proton and Carbon 13 NMR are most common, but isotopes of Oxygen, Fluorine, Phosphorus, and more can also be targeted. Special, expensive solvents have to be used for liquid samples to avoid interferance. The same technology is also used in MRI except in this case the density of spins is used rather than the individual behavior of those spins.

person holding silver round coins
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Mass Spectrometry (MS) – another incredibly useful instrument in modern science. Mass spectrometry begins by injecting a sample, ionizing it, and shooting it at a charged plate. This results in peaks that show us the mass-to-charge ratio. Mass spectrometry can do a lot. So much that mass spectrometry research almost constitutes its own subfield, but it is useful to all other niches of chemistry.

Ultraviolent/Visible Spectroscopy (UV/Vis) – UV/Vis instruments are used to study a sample’s interactions with light in the visible and ultraviolet range. There are two basic types of readings we can get from this: absorbance and transmission. Absorbance is how much light the sample absorbs, transmission is how much light passes through the sample. Accurate readings depend on knowing the emission profile of the light source. Basic instruments assume that this profile is constant, more sophisticated instruments take constant readings of the light source. Interference in these experiments may come from fluorescence in the sample or form surrounding light sources.

X-Ray Spectroscopy – of all the electromagnetic waves X-Rays contain the most energy and are the most destructive. These high energy rays frequently ignore anything outside the nucleus. Various forms of X-Ray spectroscopy are used to determine the structures of solid crystals and identifying the elements and isotopes in a sample.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

I picked up this audiobook on a whim after I heard it mentioned on a podcast. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into at first, but the narration and subject quickly drew me in.

Paxton asks a simple question with a complicated answer: What is fascism?

Many authoritarians of the last century have been referred to as fascist, but according to Paxton few of these dictators fit the mold. This is because fascism is not merely defined by it’s tools and imagery but also by its origins. Fascism is fascism because of how it takes root and how it behaves once in power. Fascism is a mutable beast capable of changing its appearance to match its surroundings and for that reason it is also hard to identify until it is too late.

Paxton explains that this is because fascism adopts new images and icons in each iteration. This differentiates it from isms that emerged in the nineteenth century; capitalism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism is a rejection of democratic ideas and even education in favor of action and emotion. It fees on perceived victimhood, intense nationalism, fear of the other, and the glorification of violence. In order to take advantage of these feelings, fascists must adopt local symbols and customs for their own use.

He argues that fascism develops in stages. In the early stages a nascent fascist party is composed of what are essentially hooligans, street fighters, and outcasts. Taking advantage of their followers’ willingness to participate in mass demonstrations and do violence, they begin to assert themselves in democratic elections. Finally, once allowed into government they work to dismantle the same democratic structures that got them into power in the first place.1

For most of the book, Paxton focuses on Nazi Germany2 and Fascist Italy.3 He explores what makes them similar and different. Part of this examination explores the differences between what fascists said and what they did. Once in power, fascists stray from their previous ideological purity in order to satisfy the corporate and conservative interests that help them attain power.

In my view, based on the information Paxton presents, there is little pressure for the actions and words of fascists to have anything in common. Once a personality cult has been constructed it doesn’t really matter what the fascists do as long as their leader maintains their image.

Finally, Paxton looks at whether fascism could happen again in other places, and there are some who have argued that fascism was limited to the particular circumstances of its time. Paxton argues that the characteristics of the leader are less important than the perceptions the public attaches to them and that early-stage fascists are relatively common. Successful fascists, if they arise, will learn to moderate what they say and do and how they present themselves in order to make themselves palatable to a wider audience. For example, an American fascist movement would more likely clothe itself in religious imagery rather than swastikas.

The book’s prescience and the clear parallels between the past and present make for a fascinating and terrifying combination. The book was written in 2004, and Paxton remarked that there were dangerous trends in the years after 9/11. He predicted that an American fascist movement would involve a great deal of religious imagery, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Islamic sentiment, and probably a lot of imagery focusing on the flag or the confederate battle flag. We’ve seen many of these things rise to prominence in the Republican Party.

It is not hard to see similarities in Trump’s presidency, QAnon followers, and the Proud Boys. What is more frightening is the GOP’s general acceptance of them in order to garner more votes. Hinting that our new American fascist movement may have already progressed through its initial stages.

Perhaps most importantly, we see today the same toleration of civil violence that was seen in Nazi Germany. Many people are fine with violence as long as it is not directed at them. Excuses made for attacks on protesters by police and proud boys this past year come to mind. I try to remain optimistic about the future, but it is hard not to see the warning signs around us today.

Overall, I can’t find any faults with the book. It’s a fascinating look at one of the most important and destructive political forces of the 20th century and one that forces the reader to reconsider what the word fascist really means. If you can, I also recommend listening to the audiobook. It helped me get through the book quickly by listening to it during my commute and the narration was perfectly suited to the book’s topic and tone.

If this topic interests you, you may want to consider listening to It Could Happen Here by Robert Evans. Evans is the host of the podcast Behind the Bastards (the podcast where I heard about this book) and wrote several op-eds after the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Notes

  1. Trump’s efforts to discredit the recent election results come to mind.
  2. Recently, many conservatives have claimed that the Nazi’s were actually socialist. This is not true. Modern conservatives do this to draw attention away from their more radical allies. The words “socialist” and “workers” were added to broaden the party’s appeal and have little to do Nazi ideology. Timeghost has a great writeup about this and also about the myth of Nazi economic success.
  3. Fascism first emerged in Italy after WWI. Which is funny, because Mussolini was the original fascist and Hitler came later, yet Hitler became the “star” of the Axis Powers. The word fascist derives from the the word “fascio” which means ” a bundle of sticks.” Use of this symbol, which dates back to ancient Rome, was meant to convey an image of strength through unity.

Now Accepting Guest Posts!

I’ll be honest, this blog is a hobby and only attracts minor traffic, but it’s a lot of fun. Through my efforts to promote it on Twitter and Instagram I have met a lot of other great creators and streamers and it’s participating in this community that has been the most fun.

That is why I’ve decided to start offering opportunities for guest posts and collaborations. If you like this site and want to collaborate send me an email with your idea at charlesm@charles-m.com with the words GUEST POST in the subject line. I will check this email at least once every week, if I take awhile to get back to you just send me a message on twitter @expyblg.

I cannot offer payments and I don’t expect payment for any collaborations. This is meant to be a new way to interact with the larger community and hopefully support each other. With that said, I do have a few rules about what can be included in a guest post on this site.

The Rules

  • You should include whatever biographical information about yourself that you would like included with the post.
  • You may include links to your own blog, twitter, kofi, wattpad, instagram, patreon, twitch, redbubble, or etsy pages.
  • You may not include affiliate links, referral links, or anything that could be construed as spam.
  • Your guest post should relate to speculative fiction, writing, worldbuilding, gaming, or something related to these communities. Don’t hesitate to ask if you are not sure whether your idea fits.
  • You should email me before you start writing. If something doesn’t quite fit I’d rather not have to say no to someone who has already written an entire essay.
  • You may submit something that you have already posted on your own blog.
  • Commentary on current events or anything that could be construed as racist or discriminatory is not allowed.
  • All sources for material that is not your own should be properly cited.
  • Non-fiction posts should have references that support your arguments and provide links to further reading.
  • Submissions should be sharable in Google Docs.

Some (But Not All) Topics That Would Make A Good Guest Post

  • A short story, poem, game, or setting that you have made and would like to share.
  • A review of a book, board game, video game, movie, or television series that you enjoyed (or did not enjoy).
  • A guide for a writer trying to write a character who works in your career or field.
  • Explanation of a historical event or technology that may help worldbuilders.
  • Reviews of pens, keyboards, computers, notebooks, or other things that writers may like.
  • Discussion of your own scifi/fantasy inspired art and your inspirations.
  • Which D&D class is the best and why.
  • Simplified explanations of complicated topics for writers who want their characters to sound smart.
  • Guides to writing character backstories.

You Should Watch Gilmore Girls

I grew up with shows like the Gilmore Girls playing in the background. My mom really liked the show when I was younger and I don’t think she realized that I was actually paying attention. Then, a few months ago, I was looking for a new series to watch with Emily and my mom decided that it should be Gilmore Girls.

Emily was unsure, but I know a trick that works every time. All I need to do is put the first episode on and Emily will watch it. She wont say anything, she might even pretend not to be interested. But then I let a day or two pass and before too long she asks if we can watch another episode. Works every time.

So that’s what we’ve been watching on and off the past several months and we’re on season three now. Although the show was aired in the early 2000s, which is basically forever ago, it’s still a good show if you are looking for something fun to watch that wont force you to pay too much attention.

Here are some reasons.

It’s About A Single Mother And Her Daughter

Gilmore Girls is unique because it follows a single mother (Lorelai) and her teenage daughter (Rory). They are also best friends, and this is really the main premise of the show. The important thing about this is that they are independent to a fault. Both of them are completely comfortable being themselves and the people around them love that for that (although the grandparents do get annoyed).

Lorelair and Rory are mother and daughter but also best friends. Source.

Dating comes up frequently, but it’s not the focus of the show. Mother and daughter try to help each other navigate various social and romantic situations but there is never a need to have “man of the house.” In fact, both characters chaff when male characters try to assume that role.

The Grandparents Are Hilarious

Richard and Emily Gilmore are Lorelai’s wealthy and oftentimes estranged parents. In the very first episode Lorelai is forced to her parents to ask for money for Rory’s education and in exchange her parents require her and Rory to visit them for dinner every Friday.

At first their relationship is very antagonistic but later evolves as the elder Gilmores learn to be more accepting and a little less stuck up all the time while still making it clear how they think that Lorelai should be living her life. On second thought, no they don’t act less stuck up, but they have their moments and are endearing in their own way.

We haven’t actually seen this episode yet but this picture was too good to pass up. Source.

The dynamic between the two when Lorelai first asks for money is what I enjoy most. For the most part Richard Gilmore has a friendly demeanor and rarely gets as involved in the family bickering. He is more than happy to write Lorelai a check, it’s Emily Gilmore that wants conditions placed on the money. I like the idea that he and his newspaper are just along for the ride.

Kirk Will Make You Grateful You Don’t Know Him

Kirk is a reoccurring character who does all sorts of odd jobs around town. At various times he works as an exterminator, amateur photographer, skin-care inventor, and a lot more. He is also insufferable. Everyone in town is annoyed with him about 95% of the time.

I really want to know how he figured out just how dangerous his “skin care” products are. Source.

Every time Kirk makes an appearance you just know that he’s about to make someone uncomfortable. He’s the kind of character that is fun to watch and great to not know in real life.

One more. I couldn’t pick just one. Source.

Luke Has The Best Tantrums

Luke owns the local diner and is a close friend of the heroines. Lorelai and Rory go to his diner just about every day so that Lorelai and Luke and can verbally abuse each other while Lorelai drinks what Luke is sure is too much coffee.

Luke serves as Lorelai’s “love interest” for much of the show. Or at least he’s the one everyone thinks/knows should be her love interest. More important are Luke’s constant fights with Taylor. Taylor is the man who owns the local grocery store who is far too uptight and has far too much influence in town. Luke hates everything Taylor represents, or at least acts like he does. I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter really as long as the fights are fun.

It’s Relaxing

I like serious shows. Emily doesn’t. I probably watch too many serious shows. Gilmore Girls is a great show to relax while watching. It’s a nice slice of life that lets you follow the characters’ ups and downs. It’s also a lot of fun. Stars Hollow, where the story takes place, is a quirky small town that the show makes you wish it exists.

Really though, just watch it. The troubles and anxieties of the characters are endlessly relatable and entertaining. You wont regret it.

This post was a little different from what I normally do. If you want to see more Gilmore Girls content let me know on twitter @expyblg or shoot me an email at charlesm@charles-m.com. If you really like this content and want to help me make more you can buy me a coffee or visit my store on Redbubble.

Mugs: A Review

Since I moved out of my parents’ house I’ve accumulated more mugs than any reasonable person needs. I’m also on the lookout for more. It’s gotten to the point where Emily regularly teases me about how many mugs I have. Even though she bought many of them for me. I admit, it’s a lot. But is it enough? Probably not.

So here is a review of some of my favorite mugs, some of them have a story behind them. Others are just neat.

Handmade Mug from Dalhonega Georgia

When I first moved out this was the mug I used the most often and the one that I am using as I write this. I don’t remember the name of the store where I got this mug but I do remember the circumstances.

It was almost immediately after my graduation from college, my cousin was getting married so my father and I drove down to Georgia for the wedding. My father’s sixtieth birthday was also happening that week and my aunts had arranged for a surprise party at a restaurant in Dalhonega.

After the party, my dad and I took a walk around town and wandered into a pottery shop where almost everything had been handmade by the man who owned it. We were looking around, and at this point I think we had signed the lease for my new apartment, and my dad decided that I needed a mug as a housewarming present and told me to pick one.

It’s a good mug and it’s safe for dishwasher and microwave use. Although the shape is a little unusual I really love the little imperfections from when it was made. It really adds to the uniqueness of the mug.

Saratoga Coffee Traders 10 Year Anniversary Mug

Saratoga Coffee Traders is a coffee shop in, you guessed it, Saratoga Springs. They’re also one of the best places to go to get Death Wish Coffee, which is not unique to them but they do sell a lot of it. If you haven’t had Death Wish Coffee then you need to. It’s loaded with caffeine, perfect for those morning where you want to wake up and induce a heart attack at the same time.

Besides serving various drinks and snacks, Coffee Traders also sells a selection of mugs, bagged coffee, coffee accessories, and coffee-sponsored comic books (yes you read that right). The problem is all of these cost money, so while I would stand in line waiting to order a large Death Wish I would often admire the various mugs on display and look mournfully at the price tags. So one Christmas my dad asked me what I wanted and I said I wanted a mug from Saratoga Coffee Traders.

He ended up getting me two of these anniversary mugs. These mugs are handmade and they are BIG. They are very well made and I like the colors, the problem is that they are so large that my coffee often cools down before I am able to drink it all. Because of this I don’t use these mugs often but I do enjoy them. Plus they tie in nicely to the next mug on the list.

Saratoga Guitar 25th Anniversary Mug

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.

“Damn that’s one fine looking mug. I want that mug.”

Well too bad. You can’t have it.

This mug was part of a very limited run that my father had made to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his store, Saratoga Guitar. He had always sold hats and shirts but had also talked for a long time about adding other merchandise. So to celebrate the stores anniversary he ordered a limited run of these mugs from Deneen Pottery. Deneen Pottery is the same company that made the Coffee Traders mug. They specialize in hand made, custom ceramics.

Besides being the owner of Saratoga Guitar, my father also organized and ran the Capital Region Guitar Show. A yearly/twice yearly (depending on the year) convention in Saratoga Springs for guitar aficionados. To celebrate the 25th year of being in business by father organized an after party for the 2019 show. Many of his friends came to perform for this afterparty, pizza was delivered hourly, and multiple charities came to fundraise at the event. My dad also ordered a very limited quantity of these mugs. Most of them were immediately sold or given to staff, so yeah, if you want one then too bad. You should have come to the show.

This mug is a little awkward because of the large lip, but it’s easily my favorite mug and the one I use most frequently.

Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Mug

You may not know this, but I happen to be a brother of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity, the world’s oldest and largest secret national music fraternity. Though Greek Life has many issues, fraternity members rarely live up to stereotypes, and for many fraternities provides a safe space for men to connect with other men without having to worry about the baggage that comes with toxic masculinity.

Being a part of this fraternity helped me a lot in college, I was chapter president during my senior year and since graduation I’ve continued to work with my fraternity as a regional alumni coordinator. Mostly I just send out newsletters, but it gives me something to do and many alumni are very appreciative of my efforts and it’s nice to be appreciated.

I don’t get as many occasions to wear letters as I used to, but I like keeping around a few mugs that I can break out during virtual province meetings.

American Chemical Society Membership Mug

The American Chemical Society does this cool thing where they send mugs to their members that correspond to the number of years they have been a member. This one is Hydrogen (Element 1) because it was send to me for my one year anniversary of membership. Roughly.

Unfortunately I don’t have any more of these because membership fees are expensive for a lowly graduate student such as myself so I chose not to renew. But still, I love ACS swag.

The Wisdom of Uncle Iroh Mug

This is a relatively recent addition to my collection. At the start of quarantine I got back into Avatar the Last Airbender, and I mean REALLY into it. And so did several of my friends.

Randomly, my friend Lauren, who is also a fan, saw this mug and ordered me one and I love it. Lauren is pretty cool and you should check her out. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as a_science_life, she also founded ForensicBites, a scicomm initiative that makes new developments in forensic science accessible to the general public.

Hartwick College Mug

One of my greatest regrets from undergrad is that I never bought a mug. I was a poor college student so I would often admire the mugs and other drinkware but never bought one. Eventually, I graduated and I was a poor college student no longer. Instead I became a poor graduate student and I was finally able to buy one of the mugs I had wanted for so long.

I have no complaints about this mug but also no special praise. I enjoy the shape of it and the finish has a nice texture. The only problem is that sometimes soap scum sticks to the outside. It’s not a big deal though, and it’s a good mug.

Thanks for reading this far! This post is a little different from my normal content. If you like it and want me to create more content you can help out by buying me a coffee.

My Father’s Guitars

I’ve been thinking about my father a lot in the past week and I’ve been handling his death a lot better than I thought I would. It’s been the little things that have made the loss feel more real. Moments where I pick up the phone to call him and I realize I can’t.

Even though there was often silence between us I loved working with him. I loved going to guitar shows and talking with the other dealers. It was a great time to just sit with him and admire the music we both enjoyed. He never tried to make us be like him, he always supported what we wanted to do and never pressured us to take up guitar like him, but I could see how happy it made him when I would pick up a guitar at work and clumsily strum a few chords. It made him happy, and it made me happy, and while I will never been as good as he was it makes me happy to have been able to share that with him.

Keeping busy has helped. I’ve been helping my mother go through his things, mainly his guitars. He owned a guitar store, so of course he bought and sold them all the time, but he also had a lot of guitars in his personal collection. Some of these were investments (he treated guitars like other people treat stocks), some he just thought were cool (he had sooo many vintage Peaveys), some were built for him by his late friend and luthier Rodger Bennedict, others he had bought because he wanted to give them to my brothers and me one day.

Once we’ve had some time to process the loss, my brothers and I will go through the collection and decide who gets what, but in the meantime the guitar I will be playing is one that my dad gave me years ago.

When I was born my dad bought me a guitar, and he did the same for my brothers. He bought each of us a Seagull and held on to them until we were ready to have them. He actually tried to give it to me several times in the past few years but I never accepted it. When I lived in the dorms I didn’t feel safe taking it with me. I didn’t want someone to get drunk at a party and try playing it and I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep it humidified properly. But now my dad is gone and I have an apartment where I know it will be safe. So I took it, and it’s what I’ve been playing the last few days.

I really can’t overstate what great condition the guitar is in. The stickers were still on it until a few days ago. For those who don’t know, Seagull is a brand of guitars made in Canada under the Godin umbrella. All of their lines are phenomenal, but Seagulls always held a special place in my father’s store. Every customer who came in looking for an upgrade had a seagull thrust into their hands. My dad loved them, and he bought three of them, one in 1995, one in 1997, and another in 2000 for my brothers and me.

For twenty-five years this guitar has been waiting in storage for me to pick it up and I really cannot understate how incredibly well-preserved it is. You see, guitars are very particular, solid top guitars especially. The strings place a massive strain on the instrument, over time the neck of the guitar can warp and the bridge can start to pull away. And if the wood dries out the top can begin to crack. For this reason, guitar stores and guitar players work hard to keep their instruments properly humidified. And if the are going to be stored without being played the strings are often loosened or taken off completely.

My dad was always better at giving advice than following it. This guitar was stored in exactly the way it shouldn’t have been and it is pristine. The neck is nearly perfectly straight and the spruce tops looks brand new. All it needed was a new set of strings. You could hand me this guitar and tell me it came out of the factory yesterday and I would believe you. It’s really amazing how well built it is.

Once this all shakes out I’m going to come away with a lot of guitars. But this guitar, the first gift he ever gave me, is one I will treasure always.

My Dad Died

That’s it. That’s the title.

He had been battling COVID-19 for about two weeks. He had it rough, but he had never been the type to admit that he was sick, but he took it seriously. I was very worried about him at first when I called him and it sounded like he could barely speak. But then he got better, and after awhile his appetite returned. He had been living alone since my parents split up. I and many of his friends arranged to have food and medicine delivered to his doorstep.

A few days ago he excitedly told me how he had eaten some of the jello I sent him. He was tired, but he was feeling better. Then yesterday morning, January 12, he wasn’t answering his phone. I called my mother, she called the police, I rushed over. I told myself he had just fallen asleep without charging his phone, but I knew. I knew. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself yet.

Over the past decade, even longer maybe, I have wondered what this day would be like. Would I have any regrets when he was gone? We didn’t always have an ideal relationship We fought a lot because he wasn’t always the father I wanted him to be. He was hard to talk to, he didn’t always care about the things we cared about, he didn’t always understand our hobbies. But I loved our roadtrips together, I loved working with him in his guitar store, and I loved watching movies with him. Whenever a new historical or war movie came out that no one else wanted to see I could always guarantee that he would want to go with me.

And he was so supportive, of everything. He was always so proud of me and my brothers and his friends say that we were all he talked about. When I first tried my hand at writing on sheets of loose leaf paper he was so excited that he bought me my first computer. He was the first to sign up to my email list, and would contact me after every post. A few weeks ago I sent him the first eight chapters of the book I’ve been writing. He loved it. I wish I could show him the rest.

About two years ago my parents split up and my dad moved out. It was a hard two years for him, but at the same time it was something he needed. We grew closer, he became more attentive, more talkative. We grew a lot closer. I wish that we had had more time together. I wish that he had been able to fully grow into his second bachelordom. There are so many things I still wanted to do with him. I had ideas for roadtrips, I had diners I wanted to visit. I wish we had more time.

At the same time. I can honestly say that I don’t have any regrets. He knows I loved him, he knows I didn’t hate him. There’s nothing more that needed to be said and I am thankful for that.

My father was very popular in his community. It has only been a day and already there has been an incredible outpouring of support. All day I’ve been on the phone with his friends, and my friends. Dozens of people have posted to Facebook about him. He was a big part of the local community and he is dearly missed. In the coming months I’ll be using this post as a way of archiving all of the tributes being made to him.

I know these times are hard, but if you have a few dollars to spare it would mean a lot if you could donate to Caffe Lena or the Franklin Community Center in the name of my father, Matthew McCabe. No one who walked into his store needing help ever left without it, but these are two causes that he kept coming back to.

Thank you. And wear your mask. Please.

Tributes To My Father

  • A celebration of my father’s life is being planned for Feb 20th and will be hosted online by Caffe Lena. Anyone who wants to say a few words can email a 3-4 minute video to reese@caffelena.org.
  • I had really only just begun to upload all of my father’s music to Youtube. He was so excited by the idea of sharing his music again. I still need to upload the rest, but you can listen to what is there so far here.
  • As long as I knew my father he was playing music. He used to bring me to his gigs when I was little. He would say I was his roadie and make me feel important, and then order me a plate of chicken tenders. Life for all musicians during covid has been tough. A few weeks ago he sang at his last gig which was done over livestream. He was so excited, it was the first time I ever heard him get nervous about a gig. You can find it here.
  • Just a few hours after his death there were dozens sharing their grief and their support. It’s so good to see that the community he loved so much loved him back. Saratoga Living was quick to share the news.
  • I spoke with a very nice reporter at the Saratogian about this article this morning. As much as I miss him it helps to talk about him.
  • Spectrum News interviewed several of his friends the other day.
  • An article from the Times Union.
  • The mayor of Saratoga Springs plans to declare a day for him.
  • Another article with details on the tribute being planned for him at Caffe Lena.
  • Saratoga Living recently published this tribute, which includes quotes from several people, including myself.

The Final Frontier

I’ve made a few posts about a one-page roleplaying game that I’ve been working on called The Final Frontier. It’s a simple tabletop roleplaying game perfect for any tired game master who just wants to run a quick oneshot with their players.

While I was designing the game I tried very hard to imagine scenarios that could be solved without violence. The game is meant to put players in control of characters not used to daring adventures and life threatening situations. Instead, players are challenged to use mundane skills to solve the problems before them.

I like to think that I succeeded. In the past few weeks I played several encounters with my players.

In the first one, players encountered a cult worshipping an alien hiding under the ice of Europa. The alien was infecting members of its cult with a psychic virus that allowed it to control them. Its goal was to get enough cult members to build a ship capable to taking it back home. My players didn’t care about any of this. They got back on their ship and left the inhabitants of the Europa colony to their fate.

In the second, my players encountered a strange alien object passing through the solar system. Though they didn’t know it at first, the object was an alien probe designed to test any species it encountered. After years of intercepting transmissions from Earth the object used the harvested data to present puzzles to the characters to help its algorithms ensure that it has been interpreting the data correctly. By the end of it only player character achieved their desired surge in internet popularity and another experienced what he believed to be a revelation and left ready to found a whole new religion.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the game is finally posted on itch.io! You are free to name your own price for the game so please, go check it out be sure to tell your friends about it.

Becoming Comfortable with Failure

If you have ever taken music lessons you know what failure is like. For an hour each week you’re stuck in a room alone with your teacher while they constantly interrupt your playing, make you repeat the same few measures over and over again, and tell you that you haven’t made enough progress that week. None of it’s personal, or at least it shouldn’t be, they’re hard on you because it’s their job to help you identify your weak points and help you get better.

Ideally, the same is true for group meetings in graduate school. Though many PI’s like to make their criticisms personal, the real purpose of group meeting is to identify what needs to be fixed and where to go next.

The same is true for writing. Now, I am not a published author, but I do write a lot. Short stories, blog posts, research papers, research proposals, fellowship applications. I like to think I’m reasonably good at it.

The most important thing about writing, just like music and research, is to accept that you might have made mistakes at it and work to fix them. Mistakes, poor word choices, terrible plots, all of them can be fixed as long as you actually write it down first. Don’t worry about how it sounds or reads in the moment, just write and plan to fix it later. If you never write, you’ll never finish.

It’s also important to realize that everyone needs an editor. It can be easy to take edits personally, but remember that an editor is just trying to help you. The meaning of your writing might seem obvious to you but that is because you wrote it. A saying or turn of phrase might make perfect sense to you but might not be as commonly understood as you thought. Other edits might be because you and your editor just have a different style.

Most importantly, the project you’re working on now doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. It’s enough to finish the project and take what you learned from it and apply it to your next one. The longer you work at something the better you will get, and you will always look back on your past work and think of how much better you could have made it. Doing the best you can now will allow you to do even better late.

So rather than worrying about perfection, worry about done.

If you like content like this and want to see more, give me a follow on twitter or consider buying me a coffee. Or…you could check out my new one-page rpg game on itch.io!

Tales From The Golden Fleece Inn

“Stupid,” Sarah mumbled to herself as she trudged along. “That was stupid.”

She shouldn’t have gotten involved, should have done a better job of hiding those papers. Now all her accounts were gone, and she was alone and cold. She touched her hand gingerly to the side of her face. It was still tender. Would it bruise? Probably.

Where was she?

She looked around. She had taken off running from her apartment and how she was on a street she didn’t recognize, and she was severely underdressed for the weather. Her watch said it was nearly midnight…

This is the first story in a series set in The Golden Fleece Inn, an ancient establishment located outside of the material plane. Continue reading on Wattpad.