The Places I’ve Made

If I could get paid for the settings I’ve imagined, I’d be retired now. I’ve spent more than one November bouncing around a world I’ve imagined, looking for a story.

Remembering Topstar

Perhaps the most extreme example of that was Remembering Topstar. The setting is awesome. It’s a planet, you see, that’s quite a bit warmer than ours, so that only the poles can support life. At one pole there are people. They don’t know day and night, they only know seasons. Eventually they start to wonder what (or who) might be at the other pole.

I wrote it as an adventure story, and I think that was the right call. But it never found its mojo.

Setting details:

Metal is rare (a colleague suggested the planet’s sun be a red giant, an older star, which would mean there was less iron around when the planet formed). The traveling party brings with it a massive Foucault’s Pendulum to measure their latitude, and it represents an immense investment, comparable to us building a Superconducting Supercollider.

As the party moves south, wind and rain and jungle and creatures that live in the jungle get very, very, nasty. Then there’s the entirely devastating moment when the scientists with their pendulum tell you that you’ve barely left your front porch.

What a great place to put a story! Maybe I need to imagine that setting, then imagine Jules Verne growing up in that setting, and then write the story he would. A science fiction adventure story written by someone who lived on that world.

Glass Archipelago

Then there is Glass Archipelago. Miami, not long from now, when southern Florida is under water. Some of the towers have fallen, providing breakwaters protecting the remaining ones from the ravages of the superstorms that sweep across the Atlantic. Each tower stands as a city-state, ruled by a feudal overlord.

The oceans are almost completely dead of complex life; algae blooms have grown to just be the new normal and the water has no oxygen. While you might think aquatic mammals would still be all right, none of them are vegetarian, not even baleen whales. They all are gone.

The buildings make their living harvesting algae and sending it off to processing plants on the new US coastline, hundreds of miles away.

Setting Details:

Not too far under the ocean’s surface the city of Miami still exists, and there’s a good living to be made scavenging. There is another culture, the rafters, who live on giant rafts and make a living skin-diving for loot.

There are naval bases, nuclear power plants, medical research facilities, and on and on, all now lying under the ocean. Also, some of the algae produces serious hallucinogens.

My attempts at a story in this setting so far centered on a rafter, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good vector. Special bonus: living in the open on a raft her whole life, she’s got pretty serious claustrophobia.

Math House

Which brings us to Math House. Isaac Asimov once imagined a science he called “Future History”, in which the movement of large enough populations could be predicted statistically. The great Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire and using Big Math created the conditions for the following dark ages to be as short and benign as possible.

But what if the Galactic Empire had discovered Future History first? Would they not use it as a tool to prolong their dominance? Would not statistics become a tool of the oppressor?

Yeah, that’s probably not a hypothetical anymore. In the Math House world, math unsanctioned by the government has been outlawed. When math is outlawed, only outlaws do math.

There are the titular math houses, underground hideaways where the art is advanced. When the cops bust them, they do their best to convince the authorities that they are just watching the (required) television and doing drugs. Drugs are not legal, but they are sold by extralegal government arms, and not buying drugs will put a red flag in your file.

The math houses advertise themselves to potential members by posting elaborate puzzles embedded in graffiti. The clues will be scattered all over the city and it will take some serious math to work it out. If you can solve the puzzle and get to the right door with the right greeting, you have proved yourself worthy.

There are tiers to the math houses; finding the truly elite houses requires “publishing” through graffiti something new or innovative.

The best part of this world is that the cops who hunt the math-heads have to learn a lot of math. Eventually each of them realizes that their own success puts them on the suspect list.

Seems like a story in this world almost writes itself. Apparently not for me.

The End

I’m not sure this one belongs on the list. The world is blasted. The Armageddon wasn’t (entirely) nuclear, it happened when wizards went into a bare-knuckle brawl and wiped each other out, along with the planet. Now there is almost no fertile soil and crazy-ass creatures roam the spaces between, starved to the point of insanity.

Now there is just pain hunger and the occasional artifact, showing up when it is least welcome.

I did start to put a story in this setting, or at the very least a character study. The narrative gets rolling with what I have only now realized is the only actual human in the story dying.

Everything is poison. Everything is dead. Everything wants to kill you. Which is all just the way of things, no big deal, unless you are motivated by love.

The Garden

This year’s effort. Although I found some story possibilities late in the process, this is one of the most complete worlds I have ever built. Earth is gone (probably), and the last of humanity are really expensive hitchhikers riding alien battle fleets.

The core observation is that reptiles are much better-suited for interstellar space travel than mammals are. In this world, reptiles can be put into cryosleep, allowing them to slumber through the years of interstellar travel, while mammals, and humans in particular, must live through those years.

It creates an entirely different view of time between the two allies.

Why do the reptiles go to the extravagant expense of having humans on their ship? Because when shit gets crazy the mammals can burn brightly and reveal solutions. The reptiles, with their long view, are consumate strategists, but humans are the master tacticians. Decades of planning will go into each battle, but once all the shit is going down, having a mammal in charge is an enormous tactical advantage.

Historical Interlude:
I’ve been led to believe that George Washington was a great planner and logistics guy. However, word on the street is that he really sucked at adapting his plans as the battle unfolded. In my story, the lizards are like George Washington, and the partnership with humanity has given our favorite reptilian conquerors a massive advantage over their also-George-Washington rivals. The humans bring a fluidity to battle they have never known before.

Every human on those boats is there to help their hosts win battles, and negotiations, and perhaps, (unofficially) political rivalries. Every human is measured by the service they can provide to the ship. Perhaps fifteen percent of conceptions reach adulthood, and that’s just the way it is.

As a setting, it’s a tight, closed world where tiny things become big things, and so the powers that be work overtime to prevent the tiny things. Seems like a volatile world to write a story in. Volatile means interesting.

In conclusion

If you need a place to set your action, call me.

Programming and Pocket Universes

Programming is an odd activity. The goal of the exercise is to build something completely abstract that somehow does something useful. To build this abstract network of symbols and interactions, one uses a rigidly-defined set of linguistic constructs.

On many occasions I have declared, with a level of absoluteness proportional to my blood alcohol level, that good programmers are spatial thinkers. That programming is inherently visual. But the thing is, it’s not visual at all, because physical vision is bound to the real world.

Geeks corral the abstract concepts and in their heads build fantastic frameworks that only they can “see”. The deepest part of the programming is often done with boxes and lines on a whiteboard. The implementation is just details.

But those flat whiteboard representations don’t fully capture the life of the system. And we talk about the “problem space”, which is a rough definition of the world this software is supposed to improve, and a host of other spaces that aren’t like the space Captain Kirk flies through, or even the space Martin Short navigates. It is a space entirely in the heads of the people working on the project, and maybe not even all of them see it.

But it is beautiful in its own way. That space is not bound by physical al law; it is bound by the requirements of the project: rules created by some guy in a suit who wants to sell more used cars or by some lady in jeans who wants to identify people at risk of heart attacks. For each problem the programmer builds a world, a new space, unbound by that old, “traditional” space that has finite dimensions and entropy all those other distractions.

Programmers create small, specific universes. Pocket Universes. Most of those universes would be pretty boring to you; as you listen to Jane Geek at your class reunion go on about how she streamlined insurance claims, remember this: even if Jane Geek didn’t create a new universe, she sure as hell improved on someone else’s crappy universe (there are myriad crappy universes now). She is right to feel proud. How many Universes have you improved lately?

1

Gimme Swift

As a computer programmer, I live in a familiar cycle: Write some code, then run it repeatedly to work out all the kinks. There is a moment when you hit “run” for the first time, already anticipating what the errors might be, thinking about next steps when the error inevitably presents itself.

It’s been weird writing server-side Swift. I do my hacking, adding a feature or refactoring or whatever, I make the compiler happy, then it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty. I roll up my sleeves, start the program… and it works. Just like that. I run the tests against the other systems. It works.

It’s like you’re all ready for a fight and the other guy doesn’t show up. NOW what are you going to do?

Swift can be annoying with how hard-assed it is about certain things, but that picky compiler that sometimes forces long-winded syntax is like that really picky English teacher who you realize after the fact gave you a command of words you didn’t have before. If you have a null pointer in Swift, you went out of your way to create it.

Programming languages exist for the convenience of humans, not machines. So if you can make a language that makes it harder for humans to make a mistake, why wouldn’t you?

Man I enjoy writing code in Swift. Of the four languages I use regularly, Swift is hands-down the one I’m most productive with, even though I’ve been using the others for far longer. And just today I remembered that functions could return tuples, and I was like, “Damn!” all over again, thinking how I can shrink my interfaces.

That and a performance profile comparable to C (each is better for certain sorts of operations), and you have a language with some mojo. This ain’t JavaScript, homey.

Most of my days are consumed writing code in other languages (at least for now), and what strikes me every day is that the mistakes I make would not have been possible in Swift. Think of that!

3

My Visit to One of the Most Expensive Buildings in the World

Most of the top ten most expensive buildings in the world are opulent resorts or mighty skyscrapers. There is a nuclear power plant in the mix, and then there’s Apple Park. The new headquarters for my company doesn’t soar up to scrape the ionosphere’s belly, and it doesn’t drip with ridiculous lavishness. The cost came not from coating everything with gold but from building to design tolerances that the construction industry simply doesn’t do.

To make everything fit so tightly in earthquake country first meant resting the whole damn thing on shimmy-shake pads. Thinking about that puts the scale into perspective: The building is a ring; the whole of the new football stadium for the San Francisco 49’ers fits in the “garden” inside the ring.

When I first got through security and walked up to the building, the soft morning rain and the sun at my back produced a rainbow that seemed to emerge from the middle of the giant ring. One prone to symbolism might find that portentous. I took a picture, but I can’t show it to you. (I might have cheated but the picture’s not that great.)

Inside, it feels like the future. Like the fictional sets of many, many science fiction movies, but real, and… functioning. Considering that this whole thing was built on so many simulations, so many never-been-done-but-it-should-work-probably ideas, the whole thing has come together quite nicely.

I was on the third floor and I stepped out of the elevator to see the treetops of the cafeteria. The cafeteria was indoors at that moment (there are stunningly massive sliding glass doors — four stories tall — to open the cafeteria to the outside on good days), but it still felt arboreal.

One thing that enhanced that feeling was the near invisibility of the fence at the edge of the balcony looking down. Glass, clean, almost invisible, making me feel like I was floating over the space below. Happily, I am not prone to vertigo.

It is a building that glorifies glass. The stories you may have heard about distracted employees running into walls is true. Glass and pale cool stone define this quiet world.

I walked through the center of the ring, the path making satisfying crunching sounds beneath my feet. I saw places that had not been ready for the recent rains, standing water on top of newly-planted ground cover. And there is no place in the area built with Apple’s beer bashes in mind. (*WHAAT?*) Yet, there was a serenity in those rolling hills that I really enjoyed. I can imagine a monastery feeling that way.

When we started our stroll through the center of the ring the sky was offering a gentle sprinkle, but by the time we got to the path to the duck pond it was dumping rain and I was more inclined to get back inside. From the organic chaos of grass and trees and rain to the quiet, controlled world of glass and stone once more.

The people I was meeting with — now residents of this place — pointed out spots where trim was missing or small finishing tasks were incomplete. I imagine it will be a year or more before the miles-long to-do list is completed.

My group will not be moving to the new campus; even before ground was struck Apple had outgrown its new headquarters. It holds something like 13,000 people — similar to the Hewlett Packard campus that was razed to make room — but where the old buildings stood between parking lots, the Apple Campus leaves much of the real estate for parkland which I look forward to exploring. Apple was named for the local orchards; in part it was Apple’s success that destroyed them. Nice to see at least a few acres of them come back.

I may not work over there, but I will be finding excuses to visit.

2

So, I’m Married Now

Yep, my best friend in the whole world, my sweetie, my soul mate and I tied the knot today. I’m more than a little pleased by that.

18

Goodbye, Cassini

In about twenty hours, the spacecraft Cassini will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn and destroy itself, to protect any potential life on Saturn’s moons. Can’t have Earth-life-tainted space junk floating around out there.

Cassini’s mission has been an astonishing success — with an emphasis on astonishing. It found things that turned some of our notions on their heads, and revealed a small moon with a liquid water geyser(!). It’s going to take a while to figure that one out.

I’ll not go into all the details; there’s actually a pretty nice write-up at fivethirtyeight, and you can get real-time updates straight from NASA.

The scientific instrument I most appreciate is the plain ol’ camera – Cassini sent home some beautiful images. Here’s a low-res markup of one of my favorites: A shot of Earth taken through the rings of Saturn.

The universe is still filled with mystery; we’re barely out of our own back yard and everywhere we turn we find things that astonish us. As we struggle with the trials of having a lot of sentient creatures packed onto the rocky parts of the surface of one small planet, we would do well to take a breath and look up, and be awestricken by what we see.

2

Basking in my Own…

A long time ago I published a Chapter One here on this blog called Gravity. It was a little bit that I thought had legs. Eventually I devoted a NaNoWriMo to exploring the character, and today I read much of it. It has some pretty sweet moments, if I do say so myself.

A Jane Doe awakens in a hospital, and feels gravity for the first time. Everything is wrong, even though everything is empirically perfectly normal.

At the core is a battle between Liberty on one side, and Justice for All on the other (that’s how one side frames it, anyway). But it’s really a story of soldiers. Bitter rivals sharing a room, one crippled. Were she not crippled, Benji would have killed her and bragged about it later. But it was Jane’s own side that crippled her, that tore her down. They took her wings. And that is the only thing, the ONLY thing, Benji would never do. She was beautiful when she flew.

Though it would be irresponsible not to consider that Jane volunteered for this mission, confident that her own compass would never waver, even if her memory were erased.

Note: Benji and Jane never become a love interest. Seriously. You can discover respect without wanting to bone someone.

4

Patio Life: California

I was looking for something cool and fizzy to sip on the patio this evening, and the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas suggested a Gin and Tonic, with some fancy tonic already cold in the fridge. I’m not ordinarily a G&T kind of guy, but the idea fit conditions perfectly.

Then she said, “Ooo! You want a lime? I’ll go out and pick you a lime.”

 

1

Patio Life Returns

Life is good.

Lens Lust: The Phases

One thing about owning a camera whose nature changes when you change lenses — you start looking at a lot of lenses and imagining what you could do with them. Lens lust is perfectly human and even healthy. A few years ago I really started to appreciate what you might call extreme lenses, the lenses that push the boundaries of what is possible.

I even bought one kinda-extreme lens, and I still covet that lens’s even more extreme little brother, a lens made by Canon that cannot be matched on other SLRs because of physics. (The hole on the front of modern Canon cameras is larger, and the size of the hole is one of the things that limits what a lens attached to it can do.) I will own that lens one day.

But after a while, you’ve seen all the great lenses. You’ve appreciated the Noctilux and the latest Zeiss offerings, and you’ve seen that less-than-ten-made gigantic-yet-fast telephoto selling for the price of a modest home. (The perfect portrait lens, if you can get half a mile from your subject.)

Window shopping is about surprise, about finding something new and delightful, and people simply aren’t designing new crazy-extreme lenses fast enough. So now when I go hunting for over-the-top, cost-no-object glass, my response is “oh yeah, that one.” That doesn’t mean I might not linger over the specs, but it’s like I’m re-reading a favorite novel.

Then there is the magical day when you discover a whole new category of lenses to lust after. And this time around, a lot of them are pretty cheap. Welcome to the world of vintage glass. If you don’t mind undertaking the chore of focussing the camera yourself, a whole new world unfolds.

Although I assume technology has changed the way lens makers go about their craft, Zeiss lenses have been very good for a very long time. Others have been trying to knock Zeiss off their pedestal for a long time as well. Pentax made a serious run at Zeiss and produced some optically excellent lenses with superb build quality, and these days you can find those lenses cheap. And while shopping you can appreciate that the radioactive 8-element 50mm (it has thorium in one lens element) is not as good as the 7-element design that followed, with its expensive-to-manufacture curved interface between two glued elements, but that the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar is maybe a little better than the SMC Tacumar that followed. I expect that I’ll have a Pentax in the barn before too much longer.

And then there’s Zeiss itself. It was in the wrong half of Germany and at the end of World War Two and the whole damn factory, engineers and all, was carted off to Mother Russia. Some say quality degraded over time, but you can find some very cheap Russian lenses that are actually improvements on the Zeiss designs — improvements made by the Zeiss people themselves.

Which is all to say when you open yourself to vintage glass, not only do you find some pretty spectacular deals, you find some pretty cool stories as well. Learning the histories of some of the seminal lenses in photography is a special lens-lust bonus.

But while they’re not making enough crazy-extreme new lenses, they are by definition not making any more historically-iconic or secret old-school super-bargain lenses. Lately, when I’ve popped over to eBay to type in sexy lens phrases, I see the same list I always do. My fantasy wish list is becoming more stable; there are no new surprises as some oddball piece of glass hits me from out of the blue. I think there are still some discoveries in the vintage realm; some of the “vintage” lenses I drool over have performance comparable to modern lenses, but farther back in time (and cheaper yet) there are lenses that give a different feel to the photos. I picked up one Russian 50mm for pretty much free that falls into that category, and I will be doing a series of self-portraits with it in the near future.

But finding those lenses doesn’t provide the same visceral rush. You’re not really looking for the gems, the designs that were ahead of their time, you’re just choosing out of a bucket because what you want is the “bucket” look.

s-l500Are there new horizons? New categories of lenses I haven’t discovered yet, that I can drool over and study to learn their nuances? I hope so. There is the category “new lenses that act like old lenses”, discussed under the banner “lomography”, and while some of them are funky, I haven’t found any compelling reason not to just use an old lens instead. In fact, most of lomography is about using crappy old Holgas, pinholes, and plastic lenses, but if you really insist on spending money you can find a funky brass-bodied lens with apertures you slip in through a slot on the side. So… actually, it looks like I’ve already worked that vein dry.

I suppose it’s a sign of maturity, when you’ve taken a passion to where there are no more surprises, but it’s also an indication of why maturity sucks. I guess now I should spend more of my time looking at photographs, rather than lenses. After all, that’s how you become a better photographer. But I’m also an engineer, and I’m unapologetic for my fascination with this interface between art and engineering.

And I’m thinking that lens designers need to get off their lazy asses and make more wacky stuff.

3

Another Reason Mexican Television is Awesome

I’m in a local cantina and on the TV there’s some sort of quiz show happening. When the contestants get the answer wrong they get a pie in the face. When they get it right, they get a generous shot of tequila.

“Tequila!” the teammates of the most recent correct answer shouted in unison. Good times.

It Feels Different this Year

I’m a hockey fan, and if you insist that I be more specific I will tell you that I’m a fan of the local NHL franchise, the San Jose Sharks. Almost every year this team makes it to the playoffs. Almost every year they exit early.

Which is mostly just math. Half the teams in the playoffs are eliminated in the first round. By the end of the second round, only four remain. So MOST of the teams that make the playoffs go home early. But you do that too many years in a row, you get a reputation. Even if you go home because of a bizarre bounce in an overtime that shouldn’t have happened except the ref blew a call with 33 seconds to go in regulation.

Right now San Jose is skating agains St. Louis in a titan battle of saints in which God must be careful not to take sides. Like Joseph, Louis has earned a reputation for early exits. One of the two will reach the finals.

Three games in, it’s pretty easy to see that my team is the better of the two. Nashville took it to San Jose a couple of times in the previous round, but the Sharks answered by playing really good hockey. That good hockey has carried into the semifinal round with the Blues.

The Blues deserve to be here. They are a very good team, and they beat powerhouse Dallas fair and square. They beat the Stars by beating on them, and getting under their skin, and making Dallas do stupid things. They came out against the Sharks with the same strategy — and it failed utterly. A dude friggin’ pulled Joe Thornton’s beard and the Sharks laughed it off and scored on the power play. The Sharks, under the leadership of captain Joe Pavelski, just don’t take the bait.

Last game, Newt Gingrich Ken Hitchcock pulled his bullies and agitators and tried to match the Sharks with speed and skill. For a while, it seemed to be working. But nobody plays Sharks hockey better than the Sharks do.

And there’s the thing. Some time around the start of 2016 Joe Thornton started backchecking with energy and the rest of the team stepped up and Burns stopped making stupidly overoptimistic passes and it feels different this year. This isn’t a team getting by, it’s a team offering both an unstoppable offense and a disciplined defense (3 shutouts in the last 4 playoff games) and exposing no weaknesses to exploit. A team like that can laugh when an agitator on the other side tries to lure them into mistakes. Even people on the East Coast are waking up to what a good team this is.

It feels different this year. The Sharks aren’t looking for answers, they aren’t looking for the weakness of the other team. They’re playing their game, and they’re doing it well. It’s up to their opponents to solve the Sharks, and so far none has. Man, it’s been fun to watch.

It’s sports, and anything can happen. I felt confident two years ago when the Sharks went up 3-0 on the Kings only to choke away the playoffs. But this year the Sharks handled the Kings pretty easily, and while Nashville gave them a run for their money the way the Sharks emerged from that series has carried over.

What’s different this year? Maybe the most important thing is the C on Pavelski’s sweater. But don’t forget Wardo, and Donkey, and Jones. Don’t forget old man Zubrus making the fourth line a disciplined unit and a legitimate threat. Hertl’s lovely slap shot to open the scoring last night is now a rarity; under the new management the Czech kid is expected to be a complete player, not just a sniper but a stout defender and a guy willing to mix it up down near the goal. He has embraced the role and thrives on the chaos around the net. “Now I go to net, get rebound and score. Is better.”

The team knows: this is their chance. The older players, Thornton and Marleau in particular, know that time is running out, and this year they’re playing like their legacies are on the line. The new kids are hungry, and skilled, but they are inheriting discipline from the old-timers. It really is a joy to watch. At this time they are still six wins from their first championship, but no matter what happens I thank the Sharks for making it different this year.

1

Dreamtime

You know how sometimes you have a dream in the morning that you get up and start your day, then you wake up and have to do it all over again? I had one of those dreams this morning. In my dream, I went back to bed. It was a good dream.

1

An Open Letter to the Drivers Sharing the Road with Me on my Ride Home

Let’s start with the guy driving the faded red pickup truck, tires caked with mud, a skull wearing a german helmet adorning the back window, mariachi music blasting into the heavy traffic. You know who you are.

Thank you.

You went out of your way to make my journey home safer — not once, but twice, protecting me not only from yourself but from other assholes as well. The world needs more folks like you.

As for the minivan driver and the woman driving the beat-up sedan, I’d like to thank you as well. Also the woman who waved me through the four-way stop.

Toward the end of my ride I realized how out of shape I was when I started hallucinating. I could have sworn the guy who slowed down way before he needed to, specifically to give me a safe space to pass a moving van parked in the bike lane some distance ahead, and who leaned over to make eye contact with me and wave me ahead, a kind and courteous gentleman, was driving a big, shiny, new BMW.

But that’s just not possible, is it?

Still, hallucinations aside, it was a good ride home, and I’d like to thank all the courteous drivers out there who made it happen. I hope to see you all again soon.

1

wp-cli, Where have you been all my life?

WordPress updates can be pretty insecure. FTP was invented back before there was an Internet, and when when no one thought that bad people might be on the same network you’re using (why even have a password if you let everyone see it?). Ah, for those naïve and simple times!

Yet even today most of the Web-site-in-a-box products you can get to run on your GoDaddy account use FTP. I control my own server, and you can bet your boots that FTP is turned right the hell off.

It can be a hassle setting WordPress up to allow its update features to work in a very secure fashion, however. I was wrangling rsa certificates when I ran across another solution: rather than push a button on a web page to run an update, log into the server and run a command there. Simple, effective, secure, without file permission fiddling and authorized_keys files.

wp-cli does way more than updates, too. It is a tool I’ve been pining for for a long time, without even knowing it. Want to install a plugin? wp plugin install "xyz" and you’re done. Back up the ol’ database? They have you covered. Welcome to my tool belt, wp-cli!

If you’re not afraid to type three commands to update your site, rather than trying to maintain a hole in your security in such a way that only you can use it, then this is a great option for you. Check it out at wp-cli.org.