Selling the Moon

In less than twenty-four hours fuego pointed me to two news articles that directly affect my plans for building a hotel on the moon. The first was about a space elevator, and I was excited until I realized that the company involved hadn’t progressed past the press release stage of research. It was nothing more than attention whoring. Carbon nanotubes are the material du jour for building this thing, and when mankind can build them economically I expect we’ll have us a space elevator. That makes me happy.

Except for the problem of the huge transverse force at the base of the elevator to conserve the angular momentum of the Earth. As we move stuff up the ladder, the Earth has to slow down. Not much, but a little. The force to slow the Earth is transmitted through the base of the cable. Our friends the nanotubes are really strong when you pull them, but will snap like toothpicks when stressed to the side as the elevator car rises.

I really want to think of the answer to that one.

Meanwhile, fuego sent me a link to another credulous article, this time about robots which could build structures on the moon, using the materials at hand. Well, duh. You’re not going to carry bricks to the moon to build your house, you’re going to use the materials that are already there. Also, it makes complete sense to have a robot do the work. There is a cool video of a wall-building robot. Apparently the breakthrough that inspired this particular article is an animation of hypothetical robots building hypothetical structures on the moon. Wow! That’s some serious progress! I do note in the animation, however, that past the perimeter wall, the lunar landscape is untouched.

The first moon colony may not even have windows, and even if they do, the inhabitants will likely cover them up, because the construction scars that dominate the landscape will outlive mankind. The first house on the moon will have a view of a junkyard. On their days off the first lunar inhabitants will say, “Let’s go find someplace without footprints.”

They will go to my hotel.


Remembering Topstar

This is how far I got before I realized that the idea in my head wouldn’t fit in a short story.

Despite the altitude, it was too hot to sleep. Jor lay on his back and stared up at the stars. The captain had told him what would happen to the sky as they traveled, and while Jor had believed him it was a different thing altogether to see it for himself.

Topstar was no longer directly overhead. It was a little off-kilter, revolving drunkenly around the place in the sky it used to hold. The sun, too, was behaving strangely, dipping and rising as if a year passed every day.

The captain was moving carefully in the unseasonal darkness, stepping over the loose rocks that covered the slope. He crouched down next to Jor. “Drink some water, son,” he said, offering a tin cup. Jor took it and drank greedily.

“Thank you, sir.” He returned the cup.

The captain nodded and stood. “Be ready to march in an hour,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” Jor scrambled to his feet, his hand on his hat to keep it from blowing off. “Have you informed the naturalists, sir?”

The captain smiled and put his hand on Jor’s shoulder. “I thought I’d let you do that.”

Jor managed not to flinch from the contact. The farther out they got, the more familiar the captain became with his men. Jor managed a nervous smile. “Yes, sir.”

Jor watched the captain move on to the next soldier and gathered himself for the coming confrontation. Somehow dealing with the naturalists had become his job. They were like children, demanding yet ignorant of the smallest hazards of the wilderness.

The canvas tent that dominated the center of the plateau shifted and strained at the moorings that held it in place. Uncousciously Jor rubbed at the welt on his arm where a rope had whipped across his skin while he and the others had erected the damn thing.

The tent was bad enough, but Jor reserved his hatred for the scientific instrument which lay inside. He stepped through one set of flaps and then another to reach the still air within. The naturalists huddled around the apparatus, talking quietly. Even though their voices were civil, Jor knew they were arguing. It seemed to Jor that was all they ever did.

The “instrument”, the subject of Jor’s ire, towered over the three figures huddled around its base. Whoever had designed the instrument was clearly not worried about having to carry it. The four legs of the pyramid were heavy iron pipe, with solid spikes to drive into the earth to anchor the frame. From the peak of the frame a weight was suspended from a cable, hanging almost to the ground. The pointed end of the weight swung inside a circle of dominoes. As time passed it would knock over a new tile, progressing slowly around the ring.

“Excuse me, sirs,” Jor said.

They stood and pretended like they hadn’t heard him come in. The old one with the beard sighed heavily. “Hello, Jor,” he said.

“Time to strike the instrument. Captain’s orders.”

The youngest naturalist, barely older than Jor, said, “Please tell the captain we need just a little more time.”

Jor shook his head. “I’m sorry, Professor Hod. Captain wants to move by, um… spring. So we have light.”

“Please. Tell your captain that this is an unprecedented opportunity to calibrate our measurements. We’ve never been so far out and still able to see the sky. A little more time here will make the rest of the expedition much more worthwhile.”

Jor tried to look sympathetic. “Captain’s orders,” he said.

The bearded old guy, Professor Timkin, spoke up. “The captain does not understand science.”

“Are you asking me to explain it to him, sir?”

Timkin laughed. They were friends when the naturalists wanted something. “Fair engouh, Sergeant. But this really is important.”

“You said you would need 50 hours. It has been 60.”

“We thought that would be enough. But some of our measurements are unexpected.”

“It’s the altitude,” Hod said.

“I think not,” Timkin said. To Jor he said, “We need more time. Important measurements, you have to make many times.”

The third naturalist spoke at last. “It’s pointless,” she said. She looked at Jor with unsettling intensity, her black eyebrows pulled down over her eyes. “This one is powerless.” She turned her gaze on old Timkin. “And the instrument is limited. We’d best bank what little goodwill we have for when things get difficult.”

Jor was surprised to find an ally in Professor Rej. He was powerless, after all, and was happy to have that recognzed. Unfortunately Rej had already squandered her goodwill, both with the soldiers and, Jor suspected, with her colleagues. The naturalist just didn’t seem interested in what people thought of her.

“Two more hours,” Hod said. “Jor, you can tell him.”

Jor thought he caught Rej rolling her eyes and almost smiled. “I’m sorry, sirs. We will begin striking the instrument in ten minutes. If you can convince the captain before then, I will be happy to not carry it for a little longer.”

A couple of notes:

Originally the three naturalists were all men, but I decided to skew the story a bit toward the old adventurous science fiction, with the obligatory female and inevitable repercussions (some of them not-so-old school). I’m picturing hostile natives, continuously worsening conditions (constant horizontal hot rain), lots of soldiers dying, equipment abandoned, and a collapse of discipline that leaves the female singularly threatened. Meanwhile, the commander is going slowly mad, driven by dreams of conquering the south pole. He’s not turning back for any reason.

I am particularly happy with Jor calling morning ‘spring’. I kept the names short, thinking that might reflect a culture with a low population. I think of the names I came up with, however, ‘Hod’ is the only one I like. Rej I like, but in English there’s no simple unambiguous spelling. It’s a soft j; in Czech it would be Redž.


The Poetic Pinup Revue

I like words carefully strung together to create a new thought. I like beautiful photographs. Harlean Carpenter (who is a fiction) has, with a little technical help from me, created a magazine that exploits the synergy between the two.

Even as I helped assemble the magazine, I avoided reading the poetry. I wanted my first impression to be when my head was in a poetic place, that elusive region where metaphor is reality. Turns out in my current day-to-day life that doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. At last, a couple of days ago, I quit waiting to stumble into that place and just picked up the damn magazine and cleared my head.

And it was good.

I knew already that there were some amazing photographs. I’m happy to report that there are some good words as well. I have to be honest, there were some poems that left me flat, but come on, it’s poetry. Given something like 30 poems, there’s no way I’m going to agree with Harlean on all of them. But, dang. There’s some good shit here. If you read it, you will agree, although you might choose different poems.

And then there’s the photographic work. Dang. I’ve got a long way to go.

Looking at the final product, a few lessons emerge.

Lesson one: There are typesetting errors in one of the poems. One of my favorites, in fact. My “I don’t want to read until the time is right” attitude robbed the publication of a crucial proofreading step. Just know that I love bundt cakes but I don’t know why. (Note: if we order more of the first issue, we will fix the error. If you’re of an ‘I knew them when” frame of mind, you want to get in on the first printing.)

Lesson two: Putting your magazine on maximally heavy paper affects the way the middle pages are trimmed. They’re cropped closer to make the magazine pages line up when it’s closed. On a side note, heavy paper feels great.

Lesson three: When two poem/photo combos share a spread, pairing up similar pages leads to ambiguity.

Lesson four: Trust yourself more than you trust the Canadian Post. This is the biggest lesson of all. Don’t put out what you think people want, stand true to your vision and put out something you love. I can hold up a (surprisingly heavy) object that I helped make real. I flip through the pages and I’m both inspired and humbled. This is a singular vision, the kind of thing the corporate fashion monkeys dream of creating.

Lesson five: Don’t trust the Canadian Post.


Marketing the Fundraiser

Many people who read this blog have contributed to the Muddled Fundraiser for Locks of Love, an outfit that provides a semblance of normalcy for kids undergoing cancer treatment. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: when the donation threshold is met, I’m donating my hair. I have a lot of hair.

While you guys have been great, my efforts to drum up support in my workplace have not been as successful. It’s a different medium, and by the time I realized that the poster I put up outside my cube failed to emphasize the fundraiserness of the endeavor, it was too late. People had learned not to see the sign.

But I work at a technology company, by jing, and technology can help. Starting Monday I will have my iPad hanging outside my cube, with the following sequence of images running in a continuous loop, using the ‘picture frame’ feature. (That way I can let the pictures run without unlocking the iPad itself.)

I’m not putting the images up here at full size, and I may go back and change the font and the size of the text, but I thought I’d share my handiwork to date.

[photofade time=’10000′]

A couple of notes: Yes, I’ve fixed the error with the chopped-off line of text. I’ve got the cycle time set at ten seconds per picture here; I may lengthen the time for each image in the actual presentation. And finally, this thing looks great on an iPad screen.

If you haven’t donated yet, well, it’s not too late!

Do Not Attempt

One of the best things about modern advertising is the fine print. This is the craven cover-your-ass verbiage that expensive lawyers advise their clients to put under an ad to limit the advertiser’s liability. Here is a list of things I’ve been advised not to do:

  • Drive down a ski slope and do a barrel roll on a big jump.
  • Erect an enormous structure with a narrow track and drive through flamethrowers high above the desert floor.
  • Eat while lying on my back.
  • Pull a trailer.
  • Drive on Highway 1 at a reasonable speed on a sunny day.
  • Drive in an empty warehouse.
  • Drive on a city street at night.

Some of those things would be pretty stupid (and expensive) to attempt. Yet if I were to take all the automotive admonitions seriously, I wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere, ever. The sum of the auto warnings is, “Don’t use our product.”

Last night an ad reminded me not to drive very fast in a straight line on an unused runway, but oddly neglected to admonish me not to release a wild cheetah without taking measures to protect myself.

The ski slope barrel roll warning was actually phrased playfully, with the implied “yeah, we know this is ridiculous, but we’re going to do it anyway.”

People will blame our litigious culture for these silly admonitions, but except for a few well-publicized (and usually misrepresented) cases, I don’t think someone sliding a pickup truck down a ski slope has much hope of suing Toyota, warning or not. I think there’s a culture of fear that makes boardrooms timid, just as parents drive their kids to school despite ample evidence that the kids are better off walking. It’s all about worst-case thinking.

Who benefits from that fear? Some guy on retainer to Mazda who gets paid five thousand bucks to look at the latest ad and say, “Put ‘Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.’ at the bottom.” Based on Mazda’s lawyer not altering the text to mention angry carnivores, I wonder if he even watched the ad before submitting his careful analysis. What does Mazda get in return? The VP of marketing can tell the board “we asked a lawyer” if someone gets upset.

My strongest argument for why this is corporate cowardice rather than a reflection of our litigious society lies in Hollywood. There are no disclaimers in movies. Stupid people have died replicating stunts in movies. There was a movie where people lay on the double-yellow in the middle of a road. When a kid died replicating that stunt, the studio was not sued out of existence.

In the face of ample evidence that disclaimers are unnecessary and not even that useful when things do go wrong, advertisers still tell me not to operate my car in any circumstances. Hollywood is simply braver than Madison Avenue, as hard as that is to believe.

Moonlight Sonata

A stranger in a Prague café brings a message from a dead Bluesman.


I’m getting the hang of this podcast thing, I think. Despite the fact this is a longer story the recording and editing went quickly. Cowboy Bob’s voice softens over the course of the reading, reflecting that my voice was getting a little tired, but other than that I’m pretty pleased with the results.

Naturally there are a few lines I think I could have done better, but my reading was helped by the fact that a couple of years ago I coached someone else through the words, and realized that Bob speaks staccato, while the narrator likes to roll with long vowels. I cleaned up the language just a touch, as I’m not sure just where “the line” is at the iTunes store.

Recently I linked to a fellow blogger’s post about the life cycle of blogs; I can see the same tendencies for podcasts. This is my fourth episode, and, well, according to the numbers from PowerPress (the plugin that simplifies publishing to iTunes), the popularity of the series is trending, if at all, downwards. Taking a two-month break didn’t help anything, I’m sure, but I think my expectations may have been a touch on the unrealistic side. So, more work than expected to produce plus no instant celebrity probably kills a lot of podcasts early in their careers.

Then I remind myself that I have a blog which I spend too much time coding on and hasn’t earned me any recognition either, even after nearly a decade, and I’m still plugging away here. Um… wait, was that supposed to be encouraging?


Hedwig and the Angry Inch

My sweetie and I will watch the occasional on-demand movie, and last night we decided to watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was relatively cheap and a critic liked it. I’d heard good things about it in the past.

It is very, very rare for my sweetie and me to be so wrapped up into a movie that we don’t make the occasional comment or at least exchange looks. Somewhere along the way in Hedwig, we were both sucked in completely. You really feel for Hedwig, and the music is pretty sweet.

The Soulkeepers

It’s a strange omission in modern fantasy. Religion, that is. If religion does play a part in a modern fantasy, it’s because there’s some war between beings so powerful that we may as well call them gods. Sure there are angels and demons, but they’ve been stripped of their religious origins. The Soulkeepers, as well as scoring a refreshing two on the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam (the lowest score to date), allows that if you add magic to the modern world, then it only makes sense to acknowledge the belief systems already here.

Our main guy is Jacob, an Oahu boy, whose father was killed in Afghanistan. His mother disappears, and his dreams about the day she vanished are pretty strange. The result of his head being cracked open, obviously. Only the dreams don’t stop. Of course we know better than Jacob does that the memories and visions are real, and it’s a little annoying how long it takes him to accept the seriously weird stuff. But is that fair? We as readers know we’re holding a fantasy novel; Jacob has no such perspective. Wouldn’t you resist the truth? Still, I was ready for him to get it long before he did.

With his mother gone Jacob finds himself in a quiet midwestern town living with relatives he didn’t know he had, and doesn’t particularly like. He’s shoveled into a school that doesn’t welcome outsiders, complete with racist bullies (Jacob’s mom was Chinese) and to top it off the lady across the highway from where he lives is a (totally hot) spooky individual. Jacob’s anger puts him in her debt. You know that’s going to have repercussions.

Although Christianity (with a nod here and there to other belief systems) is a big part of this book, Jacob is not a spiritual guy; his new family’s weekly church expedition is tiresome and the family gathering that follows is worse. The only relief he has is his new best friend Malini, also an outsider. It is obvious to both kids that they are made for each other, and I thank the author for not teasing us along with a “will they/won’t they” plot line. Sure, the relationship has its bumps, but there are no contrived obstacles designed to milk suspense out of the situation. The bumps serve the plot.

There were a couple of times I thought the religion aspect was about to get heavy-handed. There are some Bible stories we’re asked to take literally, even while we meet a medicine woman in the rain forest. In the end though, the story avoids dogmatism and asks us only to believe in good and evil. To vaguely quote the book, “It’s not about who’s right, but about what’s right.”

We can root for Jacob to choose good but when he loses his cool it’s easy to understand why. He does some pretty bad things, bad enough to put him in a spot where the weight of those deeds promises to crush him. Only two things save him: The help of his friends, and, even more important, someone who needs his help. Jacob does a lot better when there’s someone who needs him.

That’s what I liked about this story. Jacob is far from perfect. He’s got some pretty nasty foes, but none that can destroy him the way he can destroy himself (…well, OK, eventually he meets some guys who could really mess him up, and he’s totally unprepared for the confrontation. But still…). Despite his ugly streak I was pulling for Jacob. When things go wrong, there’s no one else you’d rather have watching your back.

The lady across the street? In her words, “the closest thing to evil nearby”, and now his tutor. While the world may be black and white underneath, the people in it are lovely shades of gray.

Note: if you use the above link to somehow pay for this free book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


Nice Drop

I’m trying to get all the little pieces of my Web application working together, but I’ve adjourned to a venue that also has hockey. I just saw a pretty sweet play that will not show up on the stat sheet anywhere, or even in the highlights, but I have to mention it, even though a bad guy did it.

Picture a guy skating into enemy territory, the puck on his stick. Two defenders close in on him. He skates on. Yet he knows he’s got a teammate behind him, so as he skates into the valley of death he leaves the puck behind. That’s a drop pass. The first guy skates ahead, drawing the defenders, leaving space behind him for his wingman to do some real damage.

Tonight I saw maybe the best drop pass ever. The first guy in didn’t just leave the puck for his buddy, he pulled back and swung as hard as he could — over the puck. Every defender reacted as if he was shooting, crashing toward the net. First Guy’s stick passed harmlessly over the puck and he drove to the net, and his trailer could have set up a picnic in the space left behind.

Happily the bad guys did not score. Still, I give them credit for the best drop pass I’ve ever seen.

An Online Community that I can Get Behind

Since there are others using my server now, I thought it would be a good idea to upgrade my backup practices. I looked around a bit, hoping for a solution that was free, butt-simple to set up, and automatic, so I would never have to think about it again. I don’t like thinking when I don’t have to.

I came across CrashPlan, the backup solution my employer uses. Turns out their software is free to chumps like me; they make their cash providing a place for you to put that valuable information.

There are two parts to any backup plan: you must gather your data together and you must put it somewhere safe that you can get to later. The CrashPlan software handles the gathering part, making it easy, for instance, to save all my stuff to the external hard drive sitting on my desk, but if the house burns down that won’t do me much good.

Happily CrashPlan also makes it easy to talk to remote computers, provided they have the software installed. I put CrashPlan on my server in a bunker somewhere in Nevada, and now this site and a couple of others are saved automatically to my drive in California as well. Easy peasy! Any computer signed up under my account can make backups to any other.

But wait! There’s more! The cool idea CrashPlan came up with was letting friends back each other up. I give you a special code and you can put backups of your stuff on my system. I can’t see what you saved, it’s all encrypted. But unless both our houses burn down at the same time, there’s always a safe copy.

Sure, if you pay you get more features and they will store your stuff in a safe place where you don’t have to wait if I happen to be on vacation, but for free that’s not bad at all. The idea of friends getting together and forming a backup community appeals to me as well. It’s a great way for geeks to look out for one another.