Thursday, July 31, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
From Barcelona, veteran rock journo, adman and promoter Rick McGrath just posted his special report at Ballardian on the opening of the first-ever museum exhibit dedicated to the life and work of J.G. Ballard. "Autopsy of the New Millennium," at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). A magnificent project, it includes a the beautiful installation of an automobile drowned in the sands of time, pictured below. And who can't love a Ballardian blog in Catalan?
Very cool. A reminder of the need for Paul Virilio's unrealized project, the "Museum of Accidents."
"Contemporary civilization differs in one particularly distinctive feature from those which preceded it: speed. The change has come about within a generation," noted the historian Marc Bloch, writing in the nineteen-thirties. This situation brings in its wake a second feature: the accident. The progressive spread of catastrophic events do not just affect current reality, but produce anxiety and anguish for coming generations. Daily life is becoming a kaleidoscope of incidents and accidents, catastrophes and cataclysms, in which we are endlessly running up against the unexpected, which occurs out of the blue, so to speak. In a shattered mirror, we must then learn to discern what is impending more and more often-but above all more and more quickly, those events coming upon us inopportunely, if not indeed simultaneously. Faced with an accelerated temporality which affects mores and Art as much as it does international politics, there is one particularly urgent necessity: to expose and to exhibit the Time accident.
(At least the Museum of Accidents also has a blog.)
Perhaps we should undertake a virtual curation of this museum. We could start with the tabloid newspaper photographs of Mexican photojournalist Enrique Metinides, who mainlines the zeitgeist better than most.
Untitled ( Empleado de Teléfonos de México electrocutado en el km. 13 de la carretera México-Toluca), 1971
(Jesus Bazaldua Barber, a telecommunications engineer, fatally electrocuted by more than 60,000 volts whilst installing a new phone line. Toluca, Mexico, 29 January 1971)
Black and White photograph
20 x 24 inches/ 50.8 x 61 cm]
In other news, they've got some sweet jobs posted at Blackwater USA. Deltek Costpoint Administrator? Dude, I so want that action figure. Along with a complete set of poseable Blackwater attorneys.
Monday, July 28, 2008
At the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey Wheatcroft joins the 50th anniversary Ian Fleming-James Bond pile-on with more flourish than most, as with these evocations of life in the Fleming household:
He got on with Ann on and off, as it were, in a curious relationship. Torture is conspicuous in the books, and an early Dr. No paperback cover (the kind of thing we don't see much in bookstores now) shows a girl with very little on dangling from manacled wrists while a vast black man stands over her to inflict horrible pain. But then Fleming knew whereof he wrote, warning Ann in one letter to ready herself for more of her own punishment and "be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days."
Then again, he might have been settling the score. Returning to the small house on the Dover coast he'd been lent by Noël Coward, Fleming heard laughter from the sitting room, which fell silent when he entered, and he realized that Ann and her friends had been guffawing over passages from galleys of Casino Royale. He never cared for Ann's salon of writers and artists and one can almost see why. One of her friendships at least bequeathed an unforgettable legacy: amid the memorabilia—Ian's old typewriter, or a cable from Clay Felker asking for a piece on Russian spying for Esquire—a visitor to the show is stopped in his tracks by Lucian Freud's haunting small portrait of Ann.
And one more of the circle was Cyril Connolly (even if, come to think of it, Ann was exactly the woman he had in mind with his lethal coining "smartistic"). In 1963, Connolly published a parody of Fleming in the London Magazine. "M" has conceived an illicit passion for 007, who is told to get himself done up in drag, go to a nightclub, and entice a kinky visiting KGB general, who turns out to be "M" himself in disguise ("I'm sorry, James," he says forlornly at the unmasking. "It was the only way I could get you," at which Bond's "long rangy body flared out above his black silk panties," before he cuts his boss short: "I thought fellows like you shot themselves.... Have you got a gun—sir—?").
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Bondage," New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 13 · August 14, 2008
Friday, July 25, 2008
Who says Gonzo died with HST? In Vanity Fair, of all freaking precious places, between the perfume ads and airbrushed milk-fed starlets, Christopher Hitchens has himself waterboarded by some hooded dudes in North Carolina (Richard Butner and John Kessel deny all involvement, but I'm not fully persuaded):
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.
In other news: If Radovan Karadzic can remake himself as New Age healer, "Dr. David," what does the future hold for Dick Cheney? Maybe some kind of late-night infomercials on first generation cyborg implants, or how to make a killing in international real estate with no money down?
Thursday, July 24, 2008
The spherical bath beckoned from an alcove on the far side of the room. A vermillion glow spilled through the panoramic window filling the opposite wall as the sun slipped below the horizon at the far end of the valley. Flavius sighed. The crushing weight of the previous week--had it really been a full week since he’d fled Culloden?--came down upon Flavius in a rush. His back ached. His feet throbbed. With every movement his joints seemed to grind bone against bone. Somebody or someone was still out there, trying to kill him, so naturally he was hiding out in the palace of the one person who, without a doubt, actually had executed Flavius in the recent past.
The idea made his head throb. The eerie familiarity of the Imperial court, the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab and even the very room he now sat in was disconcerting. He ran his hand across the pale green carpet, the coarseness of the weave contradicted by the softness of the fiber. He remembered the sensation from before. Like the other memories from his wondrous sword, they weren’t quite comfortable--as if they were a well-made pair of new shoes not yet broken in.
Flavius’ head nodded forward before his stomach growled in protest, startling him awake.
“I hear ya,” he muttered, forcing himself to his feet. “No need to get testy on me.”
Flavius shed his grimy, tattered clothes along the way, not caring where they fell. He debated a moment on whether to carry Memory into the bath, ultimately setting the sword against the wall with a shrug. The bath wouldn’t harm it, but it’d be useless in such close confines and only get in the way. He hoisted himself awkwardly into the spherical bath--the entrance was designed for the long-limbed subjects of the Eternal Dominion--and slid the door shut behind him. Then Flavius flipped open the valves, letting the near-scalding jets of saffron-scented water pulse over him, burning away his deep aches from every angle.
Flavius sat there for many minutes before his angry stomach prodded him to action. He closed the valves and the bath immediately inhaled, drawing out every drop of moisture and leaving Flavius drier than when he’d entered.
He climbed out of the bath much refreshed and encouraged. Deadly acid hadn’t spilled forth from the valves in the bath, after all. Knife-wielding assassins hadn’t sprung upon him from the shadows. Perhaps Emperor Camargo’s claims that he bore Flavius no ill will were sincere.
The room had grown dark. A handful of stars twinkled in the evening sky as the scattered solar trees in the terraced gardens outside his window flickered to life. Flavius took in the ethereal scene, half expecting the fey folk to appear, dancing along the pathways.
Then he realized his clothes were gone.
A jolt of panic rushed through Flavius. He turned to where he’d left Memory. The sword remained in place. Quickly he snatched it up and turned to face whatever threat might be lurking in the shadows around him.
“Have at me then, if ya got an ounce of courage in ya,” Flavius challenged. “Have at me and quit skulking in the dark.”
Two round eyes blinked at him with reflected light.
“No challenge to you, sir. No threats, no skulking,” the peq said, shuffling forward. “Our lot’s not to fight. We’re only to serve.”
Flavius exhaled, but kept Memory ready. It looked like the same peq that’d led him to his room earlier, but he couldn’t be sure. They had a troubling sameness about them Flavius found confounding. “What’re ya doing in my room without my leave? What’ve ya done with my clothes?”
The peq looked puzzled. It blinked slowly, as if buying time as it chose its words carefully. “I’m in your room because I’m tasked with readying you for dinner, sir. Your clothes are laid out on the bed, ready for you to dress.”
“Lights up,” Flavius said, and the room’s rim lights glowed to life. Flavius looked to the bed. Lying there, neatly folded, was his finest dress kilt, white silk stockings, pale blue shirt with intricate black and white embroidery down the length of the sleeves... “Good God-- where’d ya get this?”
“From the wardrobe, sir,” the peq answered. “It is yours, is it not? It’s my understanding that you’d left it here--”
“No, yer right. Damn. I did leave it here.” Flavius opened the built-in wardrobe beside the bed. His travel pack sat there, clean and ready, next to a pair of polished black shoes and heavy leather boots. Above, neatly arranged on hangars, were several shirts and three separate kilts and the sporran he’d had made in Trammila that was magicked to only open at his command. “Open yer maw,” he said, and the sporran clicked open. A quick inventory showed the sporran contained a half-dozen Potentials, the finger-sized inter-cosm locator Parric’d long insisted he carry, a half-empty flask of single malt and a tin of powdered Absinthe. Flavius took a swig of the single malt and smiled as it burned its way down to his belly. “Ah, that’s the spirit.” He took another swallow, then shrugged and downed the whole thing.
The peq watched him patiently.
“Sorry lad, I’ve gone off and forgotten my manners,” Flavius said, capping the flask and putting it back into the sporran. “I’d offer ya some, but glutton that I am, I’ve finished it off. It’s this coming upon places I’ve already been, making claim to my property what I’ve never seen before... Rattles the nerves a bit, ya know. I’ve got some powdered Absinthe if ya like.”
“Sir’s generosity is too kind, but I fear your powdered consumable would strike me dead were I to ingest it,” the peq answered.
“Yer probably right,” Flavius said, closing the sporran. “It is pretty brutal stuff. Close yer maw.” The sporran clicked shut.
“Now, there was something... something... Ah! Dinner!” Flavius said, and started for the door.
The peq cleared his throat.
“Perhaps sir would like to dress before attending dinner with the Imperial court?”
Flavius looked himself over, confirming that he was indeed naked. “‘S probably a good idea, that,” he said, returning to the bed. “I dinnae usually go out naked, mind you. It’s just I’ve nae eaten a decent meal in close to a month, what with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s war going sour and all. And that drink on an empty stomach...”
“It’s the empty stomach, ya see,” Flavius said, pulling the shirt on over his head. A silver brooch with wortleberries of blue sapphires so dark as to be almost black dropped to the floor. “Hello, I’d forgotten that bonny wee bauble. Did I ever tell ya how I got it?”
“Not to my knowledge, sir.”
“Oh, it’s a good story lad. Ye’ll like it.” Flavius got down on his hands and knees to search under the bed. “There was this dirigible captain what’d been doing business in Tradefare, regular like for years, loading up on exotic goods. Same’s everyone, right? Only this captain, when he’s getting back to his home cosm, he’s finding half his cargo or more missing. Gone, just like that. Now, I ken what yer thinking, but the crew couldnae pilfer this much cargo. Nae possible. And nae pirates, either. After three runs like this, he’s desperate, see? He’s lost so much, creditors are about to take his ship. So he goes to Knowicent and clever lass that she is, she refers him to me and...”
“Sir?” The peq cocked his ears forward when Flavius didn’t answer. “Sir? Is anything the matter?”
“You tell me, lad.” Flavius sat up, holding a featherscale between his thumb and forefinger.
It glinted brilliant crimson in the light.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
If you said "Chris Nakashima-Brown" then it's pretty clear your brain is as distorted as mine is. It's been pointed out elsewhere, but bears repeating: These Chinese anti-terrorism teams training on Segways have got the be the single most incongruous cavalry in the history of mobile combat. Net guns notwithstanding. All that's missing is Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.
Looking for something to do to pass the time while you wait for the photos of Karadzic's disguise to appear in the press?
((Washington Post: "Karadzic hid in plain sight with false identity"))
Over at The Infinite Matrix, editor and publisher Eileen Gunn has a new story by Serbian dissident activist writer Jasmina Tesanovic, "Cats and Cars," a beautiful fable about life and love and all the lingering melancholy of the twentieth century.
What went wrong? The big question. Or was it all right, somehow, the way it had gone? The big answer sprang to his mind: whatever happened should be recognized as the true state of affairs. So he loved that, and he accepted that as some kind of temporary answer.
Then another development: the kids started bothering him, asking him for money, food, attention. Being rude, not nice, not as his kids had once been. Then, he himself started growing bald, fat and bad tempered. Then something large and general went wrong in the part of the world in which he lived. People were menaced, they became unsafe, uneasy about their futures, about the sense of their life. The end of the century? Middle age crisis? Loneliness?
All, and nothing.
For an interesting bookend in a similar theme, check out Bruce Sterling's "The Denial," collected in Visionary in Residence.
Eileen's new issue also has a Yana Dubynianska story, "Barge Over Black Water," and a reprint of Cory Doctorow's "Nimby and the D-Hoppers" from Asimov's 2003. Infinite Matrix is among the highest quality and most beautifully designed SF mags online; one can only wish it would go back to publishing new work more regularly.
If Nimby's not enough 2003 for you, you can rummage Eileen's archives for my "Script-Doctoring the Apocalypse," a bit of psyops fiction involving the use of Frank Frazetta as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Monday, July 21, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
I've dealt with Sanders in the past--in fact, my story "The Makeover Men" is currently in the HelixSF archives--and found him to be a prickly fellow, quick to take offense, ready to engage in confrontation. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb by making these observations. He wears the label "ornery cuss" as a badge of honor, and I'm not about to hazard a guess as to why. Some folks are just born that way.
I find his use of racial slurs in the above-linked rejection letter disappointing and troubling. I won't be asking for my story to be removed from HelixSF, however. Sanders challenged me on the piece, made me do several re-writes and all in all hounded me into making the best story it could be. He got it, where all the other markets responded along the lines of "Not just no, but hell no!" Sanders published it when he said he would and paid me on time. So "The Makeover Men" stays up at HelixSF.
That's not to say I ever expect to submit there again. I don't condone his words, but then again I won't submit anything to Orson Scott Card's projects anymore either. For my money, Card's been persistently more offensive over the years on a grand scale, the only consequence of his being the spontaneous propagation of Card apologists. The righteous indignation against Sanders seems to be driven at least in part by the fact that Sanders makes it so easy to dislike him. He's become a target of opportunity. Those venomous folks attacking his detractors on the Asimov's boards, however, have no such excuse. In truth, they're the ones that disturb me the most.
The core tragedy--if I may be allowed the hubris to invoke such a mighty word--is once again seeing a member of a marginalized minority using demeaning stereotypes to marginalize a different minority. Native Americans have undergone some of the worst suffering, disenfranchisement and even genocide ever inflicted, yet despite our "enlightened" society, discrimination and stereotyping continues to exist. I just recently finished reading The Chicken Ranch: The True Story of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas by Jan Hutson, as wretchedly-written a book as there ever was. In a chapter on the history of the La Grange, Texas, area, Hutson launches into a full-blown attack on native people, the native Tonkawa tribe in particular. Stupid, dumb, lazy, lying and thieving are among the kindest descriptions she uses, going on to praise those European settlers who slaughtered the tribe to extinction as doing humanity a favor. I can't say for certain how Sanders would react to such characterization, but I suspect he might find it offensive. That one group could be victimized by such libels and slanders, yet lack the empathy to see the wrongness of their using similar tactics against other groups is equally wrong. It doesn't matter if you're William Sanders or Jan Hutson or Barbara Bush ("We're afearin' them darkie New Orleans refugees will stay in Houston") or Ray Nagin ("We're afearin' then Mexicans will stay here in Nawlins once they done finished rebuilding it")... well, shit folks. It's wrong. In 2008 it shouldn't take a ill-conceived rejection letter, a particularly vicious message board flame war or a long-winded blog post to get that basic point across.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Emperor Camargo smiled. “Indeed you are, Flavius. A very lucky man, indeed. Not many men get a second chance at life, or a third or a fourth or whatever the case may be in your unique situation.”
“All things being equal, I’d just as soon make this chance last a while. There’s nae anything pleasant about dying.”
“Truer words, Flavius. Truer words.” Emperor Camargo waggled a finger in Flavius’ face. “As a man who disdains death in all its forms, I have a warning for you. Please, Flavius, take it in the spirit of genuine compassion and concern for your well-being in which I offer it.”
“Within the various layers of the Empress Malinche’s garments are woven threads of nuse which have been steeped in the blood of your predecessor. Should they be loosed--that is, should the Empress happen to become disrobed in your presence--the nuse would immediately seek you out and do as nuse is wont to do.” The Emperor suppressed a small shudder. “No offense to your integrity is meant, you understand. It’s actually more a symbolic gesture than anything else. You know how dramatic court politics can be.”
“We are thanking you for the deliverings of such courtesy,” interrupted Parric. “I am assuring you, Flavius’ attentions lie far away from scandal.”
“Right. Furthest thing from my mind,” Flavius said, pointedly averting his gaze from the Empress’ direction. Even so, he could feel her stare boring into him.
“Our journeying is proving most stressful,” Parric added. “Our enemies leave us little opportunity for thinking of anything save food and sheltering.”
“Enemies?” Emperor Camargo raised an eyebrow.
“A longing story,” answered Parric.
“They always are,” Emperor Camargo agreed. “You’ll have to illuminate me as to the circumstances of your latest adventures over dinner. I confess we were just about to sit down to sup when word reached us regarding your unexpected arrival. It’s not a formal dinner, I fear--simple fare for a quiet evening--but you will, of course, join the Empress and myself to dine. I’m certain the chefs remember your distinctive dietary requirements, Parric, and can prepare something acceptable for you in short order. Flavius, as I recall, may eat freely from our table with no distress.”
“Your Imperial Majesty’s hospitality is knowing no bounds,” said Parric, bowing slightly.
“Now, not to put this matter too delicately,” said the Emperor, lowering his voice, “but you reek. Terribly so. Flavius in particular. Your previous rooms are currently unoccupied, so you may go to them and refresh yourselves. You may join us in the petite dining hall thereafter.”
Flavius opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it, sniffing himself instead.
Emperor Camargo gestured toward the gathered staff, and immediately a squat creature that’d been lurking in the background trotted forward on all fours. Little more than half the size of Flavius, it’s stocky body was covered with knobby blue-gray skin with thick tufts of black hair growing at the joints. Round, dark eyes dominated its flat face, and irregular teeth jutted up from a pronounced underbite. The turquoise livery it wore seemed particularly ill-fitting.
“This peq will guide you to your rooms. If you’re in need of anything, all you need do is ask.” The Emperor look down at the peq. “Isn’t that right, peq?”
“Quite right, Your Imperial Majesty,” the peq answered in a throaty, rumbling voice. “Our pleasure is to but serve. The guests will be extended every courtesy.”
“Excellent. Then I will see you shortly.” Emperor Camargo abruptly turned and returned to the dias, where Empress Malinche rose to greet him. The staff were already filing out of the hall.
Without further ceremony, the peq turned and trotted off toward an open door, so quickly that Flavius and Parric had to scramble to catch up.
“Well, that dinnae go the way I’d expected.”
“Indeeding. Emperor Camargo is a little too happy to be seeing us, I fear,” Parric said. “I’m finding our initial receptioning by his militia is less troubling.”
“Maybe he feels a wee bit guilty for killing me,” Flavius suggested.
Parric’s antennae turned toward Flavius.
“Yer right. Royalty nae ever feels guilt,” Flavius sighed. “Maybe the peq knows something. Ho, lad, ya look familiar. Did we meet on our last visit?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I couldn’t say for certain,” the peq answered, his stumpy tail bobbing energetically as turned and led them up a flight of stairs. “You smell familiar, sirs, but guests of your sort all look alike to me.”
“What’s the word among the staff, eh? What’re they saying about us?” Flavius scanned the corridor walls as he talked. The surroundings did look familiar now. “Do ye ken what the Emperor’s feelings are?”
“I wouldn’t presume to know His Imperial Majesty’s feelings on any matter, sirs. Our pleasure is to but serve.” The peq stopped before a familiar door and stood up on his hind legs to open the latch. He gestured to Flavius with his forearm. “Your room, sir. Do you know how to operate the flow valves in the spherical bath? My apologies, sir, but I have to ask. More often than not our otherwhere guests don’t know.”
“No need to apologize, lad. Yer just doing yer job.”
“Thank you, sir. If only our guests last week were as understanding.” The peq dropped back down to all fours and motioned to Parric. “If the T'ul-us Tzan would follow me...?”
Parric turned to Flavius. “We’ll be talking more later. But for now, be staying out of trouble. More importanting, be staying out of the Empress.”
“Ya think?” Flavius answered, sending Parric off with a rude gesture. As he closed the door, the memory of nude Empress filled his thoughts, mixed with that of her intense gaze in the audience hall. Flavius slumped back against the door, suddenly very drained. “Easier said than done, Parric. Easier said than done.”
Check out the Gitmo video of this Canadian interrogator trying to get a young detainee to "relax and eat your hamburger" while the detainee talks about how he has lost his eyes and feet, then sings/prays to himself through his sobs after left alone in the chamber, chanting what sounds like "help me" over and over. When the prisoner begs to return to Canada, the interrogator says he wants the prisoner to help him stay in Cuba.
"The weather's nice," he says. "No snow."
If you watch the video at CBS News, you get the extra treat of having it wrapped in some American consumer advertising. I got one for Exxon/Mobil, and another for MasterCard. Do they have some kind of placement algorithm that determines which spots are most suitable to accompany prurient viewing of interrogation videos?
CBS News: Katie Couric meets Omar Khadr.
Hamburger, well-done, from Camp X-Ray prison canteen: $2.78.
Orange jumpsuit: $12.95.
Black blob digitally inserted over heads of interrogator: $.0003.
Learning that a Gitmo interrogator has a dorky North Woods accent, more Garrison Keeler than Kiefer Sutherland: priceless.
NYT: "Blurry Peek at Questioning of a Guantánamo Inmate"
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Nothing matches the thrill of an awesome new bookstore in your town.
Domy Books, Austin (also Houston). Contemporary art, avant poetry, comix, vinyl toys, conspiracy & insurrection, 33 1/3, eclectic DVDs, readings and performances. What else do you need?
Cesar Chavez 1 block East of I-35, between the library and the payday loan store.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Through the benevolence of the brilliant Lou Anders, the only editor in science fiction who can actually see the future, I have a story in the upcoming Pyr Books anthology edited by Lou, Fast Forward 2.
The anthology includes an amazing selection of work by many of my science fictional betters -- including stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ian McDonald, Nancy Kress, and Marvel Team-Up worthy collaborations (!) between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell, and Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan. I am very excited to be included in this number, and having peeked ahead at the galleys, I can assure you it's some outstanding work.
Lou has just shared with us the cover art from San Antonio's John Picacio (photo above), which has some wonderful and somewhat uncharacteristic whimsy, playing on the 21st century reworking of pulp tropes by featuring prominently a flying ape in a metal suit. John discusses his inspiration for the piece on his blog here.
My story? Thanks to Lou's invitation to this pop cult postmodernist to generate some actual, honest-to-god, set-in-the-future-with-plausible-technological-extrapolation *science fiction*, I discovered the joy of true scif. The Hollywood pitch would be something like "Ribofunk 21st century Jake Barnes gets prosthetic substitute for what he lost in the war." Because, you know, contemporary science fiction just doesn't have enough amputee sex. It also includes a tree that grows Prozac, an installation of bio-art grown from the stem cells of celebrities, and a permanent Burning Man of the ultra-rich installed somewhere beyond Marfa TX.
It will be out in October.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Unimpressive, isn't it? This single-image shot is wholly unremarkable save that it documents my very first Deep Sky Object captured via astrophotography. Sky conditions were decent, with mild temperatures (for Texas in July, at any rate), humidity in the upper 60 percentile and clear skies. Unfortunately, continued strong light pollution in my neighborhood (street lights and residential flood lights) coupled with a bright half-moon and gusty wind severely limited my already-suspect ability to take any useable long-exposure images. Not to mention all the light pollution made it extremely difficult to focus.
Normally for DSO astrophotography, one takes a series of images--the more, the better, actually--and then stacks them using some software such as Photoshop, Deep Sky Stacker, Registax etc. Stacks of 20-100 images aren't uncommon, and the accumulated time of the exposures adds up to brighter, sharper images. Unfortunately, the wind was so strong that none of my images would register, that is, overlap each other with all the stars atop each other. Lots of doubling of stars, and squiggles and such. This is on top of my poor focus. The good news is that my slap-dash polar alignment was good enough to give me images with no noticeable star trails on 20-30 second exposures. There were definite trails on the 1 minute exposures I did, however. Out of all my shots, this one was the only one remotely salvageable.
M11 looked really cool through the eyepiece alone, however...
Thursday, July 10, 2008
The July 4 weekend had the family visiting my hometown of Columbus, Texas. The Houston Astronomical Society maintains an observatory site not too far away because of the relatively dark sky conditions there, and Columbus is where I did almost all of my observing with this scope. After checking out the nifty Clear Sky Chart for Columbus, Texas, it looked like I'd found the perfect time and location to break in the refurbished Meade 645, from here on out known as the Maroon Barsoom.
Cue reality. By Saturday afternoon things looked mighty grim. High humidity, overcast skies and a monster rain storm came through that absolutely drenched everything for an hour or more. I was starting to think the Clear Sky Chart was smoking something funny, but around sunset the clouds began breaking up and a light breeze dispelled the sauna conditions. It actually felt comfortable, so in a fit of optimism I started set-up. At this point I ran into my first problem. My folks' backyard is very large and in years past, offered pretty good views of most of the sky with the exception of parts of the southeast and a little bit of the northeast. Unfortunately, in the 20 years I've been gone, half a dozen pecan trees (which were insignificant back then) have grown to prodigious size rendering the backyard problematic for observation. I'd known they'd gotten bigger, of course, but since I'd not been lugging my telescope around with me, the impact of that tree growth never registered. Emergency location scouting revealed that a section of the front yard, near a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, offered fairly open views of the north, east and south. The west and southeast were right out, but it was the best I could do. There was a small concrete slab that offered a level place to set up the scope, chairs and a nearby power source. The crescent moon, Saturn and Mars were beyond my seeing, sadly, since I'd observed them many times in the past and would've liked to compare the scope's current visuals with my memory. Them's the breaks.
I'd forgotten my wrench and protractor at home, so couldn't do a perfect polar align, but I did manage to get the scope fairly well aligned once Polaris was visible. I plugged in the tracking motor. So far, so good. I had my set of recently-acquired GSO plossl eyepieces ready to use. But what to observe first?
As a teen, I used this scope for planetary, lunar and comet observation pretty much exclusively. I just didn't understand the whole Deep Sky Object concept, which is sad since this scope was made to excel at that. So I thought I'd try to find my first DSOs. The Orion Nebula is the only DSO I'd ever found and observed on my own before, but that came through using Monkey Girl's tiny refractor and was barely visible even then. So I don't count it. I checked my Sky & Telescope sky chart for something easy... and decided on M51. I remembered trying to find this Messier Cataloged galaxy (best known as the "Whirlpool Galaxy" near the handle of the Big Dipper as a teen and giving up in frustration, so imagine my astonishment when I found it instantly. In succession I observed it with 40, 25, 15 and 9mm plossls. The 15 gave me my best views, resolving the smaller companion galaxy although I wasn't able to resolve any pinwheel or dust lanes. The 9mm was simply too dim to make anything out.
I have to point out at this time that neighbors across the street decided to turn on all of their outdoor flood lights around this time, butchering my carefully cultivated night vision. Drat.
Wondering what I should turn to next, I noticed that Jupiter had crept into a gap between the trees to the southeast. Yay! I started with a 20, then 15, then I added my old Meade 2x Barlowe to the 15... I have to say, the 15mm plossl is rapidly becoming my favorite eyepiece ever. The four Galilean moons were all out on parade, but what floored me was the contrast and definition of the main cloud bands. Wow. I'd never seen them so clearly. I goofed around with Jupiter for another 20 minutes or so, trying different eyepiece combinations before it slipped back behind the trees.
I had a clear view of the constellation Delphinus, so I pulled out the chart to see if anything interesting could be found there. Hmm... M15, a globular cluster, is right to the south. Bingo. Found it no problem. I was unable to resolve it into anything more than a fuzzy, comet-like cloud, but it was unmistakable. By this point I was almost giddy--two for two on Messiers!
The constellation Scorpius was coming out from behind the trees and the star Antares was very bright (and very orange), so globular cluster M4 should be a snap, right? Wrong. I looked. And looked. It wasn't there. I checked the chart again. It should be there. Nothing. What the heck was going on? M4 is supposed to be one of the easiest clusters to find, and I'd already found M15 no problem. Finally, the sneaking suspicion comes upon me that I may have my directions reversed, that I'm looking on the wrong side of Antares. So I slew over a little and... there she is, M4 in all it's glory. Honestly, at first I thought I'd found an open cluster of some sort because of the sprawling tumble of stars, but yeah, it was M4 (I pulled the Maroon Barsoom out a couple of nights ago and double checked). Simply gorgeous. And the tracking motor seemed to be working effectively, since I wasn't seeing any significant drift in the DSOs. Yay!
The Wife was moderately impressed by the DSOs, but she and the kids wanted something more tangible. They weren't happy that Saturn wasn't visible, but would "settle" for Jupiter. So I picked up the scope and moved it over 20 feet or so (losing my flat surface and semi-accurate polar align in the process). We had a clear view of Jupiter now. Much oohing and aahing was made. I was very impressed by how sharp the planetary images were--4mm proved to be too much, giving more fuzz and blur than anything else, but at 6mm it looked quite impressive, with minimal washing out of the colors. Feeling pretty daring at this point, I broke out my Canon XTi and hooked up the T-mount and camera adapter. I inserted the 15mm plossl (remember how I said I liked this eyepiece?) but the resulting images were too small and bright initially. So I added the 2x Barlow. Score! Focusing, as has been mentioned in other places, is difficult through the tiny viewfinder of a dSLR, but thanks to the LCD image review and histogram, I was able to make a good run at it. Since the polar alignment was lost, the planet kept drifting out of the frame, but not so quickly that I couldn't compensate. It's not perfect, but here's a five-image stack I put together, including two of Jupiter's Galilean moons (although only one is readily visible). Not bad at all for what amounted to a shakedown cruise:
So by now it's after midnight, and as I'm experimenting with starfields and other through-the-eyepiece astrophotography attempts, I come to realize my hair is dripping wet. As are my lanterns, eyepiece case... Sky & Telescope is downright soggy. At some point, the dew monster snuck up on me. Time to call it a night. I packed up the camera and eyepieces and lanterns and hauled it all inside. I went back out, took a look at the faint light of the Milky Way above and the 20mm in the scope, and thought "What the heck? One starfield sweep then I'm going in." Would you believe that less than a minute later I'd stumbled across M11, the "Wild Duck Cluster," completely by accident? One of the best views of the night as well. I went to bed very happy.
The following night, I set up for a while back home in New Braunfels. Light pollution in my immediate skies is worse than in Columbus, due to the close proximity of San Antonio to the southwest, New Braunfels to my immediate north and a honking big street lamp less than 20 yards from my front door. Even so, I was able to get a decent shot of the crescent moon:
The following Tuesday, I got a decent look at M13 before humidity and high clouds drove me indoors.
As far as the optics went, I was very happy with the performance. The stars were very sharp, with only slight coma near the edges of the field--certainly a vast improvement over seagulls I remember seeing some of the final times I took the scope out before it sat unused for a decade. I guess collimation has that effect, eh? The one thing I really leaned is that it's difficult to focus the dSLR camera when it's attached to the telescope, simply because many of the objects being observed are so dim and fuzzy that it's well-nigh impossible to tell with the camera's tiny eyepiece when you've actually got them wholly in focus. But other than that, it was great. Before I pass final judgment on the Maroon Barsoom, I'd like to get it to a star party where there are other scopes with which to compare it, but in my opinion, I don't think it's too far short of its optimal performance when fresh from the factory.
Certainly the tracking motor works now, which is more than it ever did before.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Pretty, no? I applied two light coats then set it aside to dry, with the intention of sanding lightly the next day and applying two more light coats. Then the winds came. For well more than two weeks, it was far too windy to spray paint, so I turned my attention to the telescope mount and tracking motor.
I cracked open the old motor drive to see if I could figure out a way to make it functional again. I bought the telescope used from Texas Nautical in '83, with the drive clearly described as "not working." I remember that clearly, because as a 13-year-old about to spend more money than he ever had in his life, I simply didn't care. It was more telescope than I'd dreamed of, and I didn't really understand the value of a tracking drive. So I bought it in non-functioning condition. Later, out of curiosity, I plugged the motor in. It came on with a clockwork whirr. Neat, I thought. Maybe it works after all. So I set it up on the front porch one weekend morning and let it run to see if it would track--or rather, move on its own. Six hours later I unplugged it in disappointment. It hadn't budged. That was maybe 25 years ago, and I hadn't plugged it in since.
Thanks to the kindness of the online community, I've now got a scanned copy of the Meade user's manual for the 645, which I'd never had before. There's a nice diagram of the drive system included, as well as a drive troubleshooting section. I found this helpful, and decided to plug in the drive once again to see if I could diagnose the problem. The R.A. override knob has always worked, I should point out. The plug prongs were pretty mangled, so I worked them back into shape with a pair of pliers and plugged it in. The whirr returned. I adjusted the setting circles to 0 and marked the R.A. override knob as Meade suggested and sat back to wait.
Danged if the thing didn't work. The R.A. override turned as supposed to, the motor whirred along and the tube moved. How accurately, I didn't know, since I bumped the tube a couple of times and had to start over and eventually it got too late to continue. But the crazy thing was working! The motor did change tone a couple of times, as if it was struggling, so I suspected the gears need to be re-lubed (after 25 years? You think so?).
A few days later I returned to the motor. The cover had a bunch of dust and dead insects inside. Ugh. The worm gear was pretty gunky. What at one time was, I suspect, lubricant had turned over the decades into a thick sludge. Amazing that it'd turn at all. I set to work with a toothbrush purchased specifically for the job (I was afraid to use any degreasers other than detergent for fear of damaging the worm) and managed to get the worst of the nastiness out of there. Then, lo and behold, I just happened to notice one of the motor's wires crushed flat. It must've happened during the original assembly, when the cover was bolted over the motor.
Might that be what's caused the tracking motor to run/not run all these years? Since there was plenty of excess wire, it was simple work to snip away the bad section and re-splice. I don't know if that had anything to do with the motor's not running, but it didn't make any sense for me to not effect this repair. Having previously de-gunked the worm gear a respectable amount (not 100 percent clean, but most of what's left was just discoloration) I applied white lithium grease with teflon. Then I hand-cranked the RA adjustment knob until ungreased gears lined up with the worm and repeated. By the time I'd made the full 360, the tell-tale squeak accompanying my RA turning had faded almost completely. So far, so good.
Eventually, the insane winds that had been blowing non-stop for two weeks finally died down over, and I was able to get out and spray more layers of paint onto the 645. Spray and rotate, spray and rotate. Wait to dry, repeat. The next day sand, and repeat the process. Curse like a sailor when one can decides to start spitting for no reason when it's still 90 percent full. Curse curse curse. Let dry. Sand and sand again. Repeat paint application with a new can. Finally reach the point where I say to myself "That's probably enough paint." Apply clear coat. Let dry overnight, then sand with 1000 grit paper. Apply final coats.
At this point I want to make good on my promise to explain why I didn't apply enough primer. Turns out that 220 grit sandpaper was too rough. Or perhaps the 80 grit before that, which I used to strip away the old paint. Seems that the rough sanding left grooves in the tube that weren't entirely visible when I primed, but really stood out once metallic paint was applied. Light sanding and re-painting did little to remedy the situation, and I wasn't about to go through the time and expense of sanding everything back down and starting over. I'll live with it. Just remember kids: Primer is your friend!
When applying the final clear top coat, I vigorously cursed the gnats that come out of nowhere on a kamikaze mission. Then I fled into the house with still-tacky scope. The next day, I sanded with 2000 grit paper, wiping after ever stroke since wet sanding was not an option. The tube looked good, but oddly streaky in places from the sanding. I polished with Lemon Fresh Pledge. WOW! It looked better than good. Streaks had vanished, and the metallic paint really, really shone.
It was time to flock the tube's dull innards, so I got out my roll of Protostar flocking material (think adhesive velvet). Flocking, you see, is intended to cut down on light scatter and improve contrast during viewing. There's some debate over its effectiveness, but my scope needed something to improve the dull gray inside of the tube. The custom cut option Protostar offered came from a 30" wide roll, which was perfect for me, since my tube is exactly 30" long. I immediately discovered that rolled flocking material can attract lint, dust, cat hair and an ungodly number of bright white flecks of... stuff like nothing else. So I whipped out the sticky tape and spent the next hour trying to get it all picked off. I was mostly successful, but man, was that tedious. Then I clothes pinned the flocking material to the inside of the tube, marked it for a 1" overlap and trimmed off the excess (about 3" worth. I ordered extra to guard against coming up short). Then I rolled the material up on a thick wooden dowel, peeled back the wax paper backing, and began installing. Here's a before shot:
You'd think that since it sticks to the wax paper like nobody's business, it'd really hang onto the tube. Eh, not so much. At least not until you get about half of it laid down, at which point the paper is clogging up the tube so much you can't really reach anything. So the logical thing to do is tear away the paper, right? Just make sure when you do this, you don't allow the sticky side of the flocking material to come into contact with itself. In the immortal words of Elwood Blues, "Epoxy. Strong stuff." When I finally managed to separate it, somehow the adhesive had stripped from both sides of the affected patch. Where'd it go? Maybe I inadvertently created a dimensional rift. In any event, I finally got it all laid in, and despite my struggles, it looks pretty good. Here's the after shot:
With the tube completed, I turned my attention to the spider. In the image below you can see the secondary mirror spider, along with three bolts. To the left is one of the original specialized aluminum bolts used to secure the spider to the optical tube. As I mentioned earlier, one of the bolts snapped on me a few years back, and I hadn't had any luck finding a replacement. So I made one of my own (center). I picked up some thumbscrews from a local hardware store and using a hack saw, a file and a 6x32 drill tap, cut the thumbscrew into a passable substitute. Then I primed it and sprayed everything matte black. I can't take all the credit, though--this guy restored a Meade 826 a few years ago and faced some of the exact same issues I'm dealing with. My secondary housing didn't appear to be in as bad of shape as his, but in a few years, I'll probably spring for a whole new spider vane/secondary rig. Probably a new secondary mirror as well, as mine is starting to show some streaks.
The spider fastener was the single biggest issue I had to deal with to get the scope usable again. And I'd triumphed!
The time came to put everything back together. The primary mirror went in easily, as did the spider. Suffice to say, it was wildly out of collimation. I had to wait a few days until the sight tube/cheshire collimation tube I ordered came in, and then I had Apollocon intervene, so collimation had to wait. In the meantime, I painted some black trim and installed the spotting scope and focuser. I took the two aluminum end rings, which had gotten pretty dull and dinged up, and wet sanded them with 2000 grit paper. That perked them up nicely. The felt lining the cradle rings had become hard and brittle, so I stripped this out and used a utility knife to chip away the petrified glue. Then I sanded with 400 grit paper to smooth the inner surface somewhat. I picked up adhesive felt sheets from Hobby Lobby and cut strips which I applied to the rings (although in hind sight the leftover flocking material probably would've done the job as good or better).
I returned the end rings on the scope and used pieces of flat cork to try and avoid having to glue them on. Well, the cork secured them on all right, but even the thinness of the "shim" was enough to distend the end ring. And, I feared it might eventually warp the tube as well. So I pulled both end rings off (no small feat--the cork held them on tight) and added a strip of that adhesive felt to each ring. This proved to work much better. The rings slide on more smoothly, but still maintain a firm grip without any distortion. It may get loose later on with use and age, but I can always add more strips of felt along the interior of the ring.
I reattached the mount to the pier, and set the OTA in the cradle rings. Then I added the counterweight. And I plugged it in. After four hours, a quick setting circle check showed movement of.... four hours. Obviously, that's not a test for precision accuracy, but after having this scope with no tracking whatsoever for 25+ years, the prospects of having a working drive leaves me positively giddy.
Oh, I also re-painted the black motor cover.
For collimation, I took the whole thing onto the back patio and set to work. Wow. This thing was waaaaay outta wack. The secondary mount in particular wasn't playing nice, so I had to take it completely out to work on it. The adjustment screws wouldn't turn, and it took a bit of coaxing before they'd cooperate. The secondary mirror looked as if it'd come slightly dislodged, but the ancient housing was corroded and brittle so that I couldn't get it apart to address that issue. The mirror wasn't loose, just slightly out of position. And on closer examination, the secondary mirror was in somewhat lesser condition than my original evaluation. The whole secondary/spider shebang will definitely be due for replacement eventually, but I can coax a little more mileage out of them yet.
Using the sight tube I got the secondary mirror positioned and aligned, then the cheshire made the primary collimation a snap. I was very happy with how that went. There's still a slight discrepancy in the collimation when looking through the sight tube--the two innermost circles are somewhat off-center in regards to each other, an effect I ascribe to the secondary mirror being slightly out of position, forcing the secondary mount to hold a steeper angle than ideal in order to compensate, thus showing a larger silhouette than ideal. In any event, I couldn't do anything about it at that point, and judged it wouldn't have a dramatic impact on my initial viewing anyway.
Holy moly... the scope, she is done! For reference, her is one of the few images I have of it pre-restoration:
And the finished product. Behold the Maroon Barsoom:
And the wide-angle view:
And an infrared view of your humble telescope restorer along with the fruits of his labor, in glorious false-color, just to shake things up a bit:
Join us next time for the obligatory "first light" report!
Friday, July 4, 2008
Flavius’ footsteps echoed eerily in the deathly silence of the hall. Barely a dozen liveried staff milled in confusion along the perimeter of the oblong chamber, with a like number of guards spaced at even intervals, cuayabs held unobtrusively. The balcony boxes, halfway up the vaulted ceiling, remained empty.
At the far end of the audience hall, seated upon ornate thrones on a raised marble dias polished so brightly it hurt the eyes to look at, were the Tricentennial Emperor and Empress.
His skin was darker than the majority of his subjects, almost rust-like, yet his silvery hair grew full and flowing from his head down into mutton chops framing his face. He informal dress of ivory-colored shirt and pants with blue and gold embroidery spiraling around his limbs and torso. He wore a black leather belt studded with gemstones around his waist and an amorphous fan-like ornament of fluid colors hovered above his shoulders right behind his head in lieu of a crown, creating the impression of a divine halo. He looked just a touch past thirty to Flavius’ eyes.
The Empress was wearing an ephemeral gown, of course--this one a relatively understated mixture of creamy yellow and aquamarine, with pinpoint traceries of light flicking across the fabric in a constant dance. Behind her throne, to the side, stood her ever-present handmaiden, Papantzin, her hair pulled back in an elaborate knot of braided coils run through with a large golden pin. The corner of the Empress’ mouth ticked up as Flavius’ eyes met hers. Papantzin remained stoic.
Flavius stopped in the center of the hall, hand prominently gripping Memory’s hilt, and looked the gathering over. “Nae much of a turnout for us, eh Parric?” Flavius whispered as his partner slithered up beside him. “Looks like we must’ve caught them more unawares than we thought. Ken we can take ‘em?”
“Probabling,” answered Parric, “but I’m rathering not.”
“Well, I’m rathering that bastard dinnae kill me again, so in light of that, I’m going to shove Memory up his-- hang on, he’s talking.”
The Tricentennial Emperor stood, spreading his arms wide. “We are honored, good Parric, by your presence among us. We see so few T'ul-us Tzan cross into our cosms, and we are all diminished by your parting.”
Parric dipped his head and antennae in acknowledgement. “It is my pleasuring to again experience Your Imperial Majesty’s legendary hospitaliting.”
“And Flavius MacDuff, of Clan MacDuff--”
“--if I may be permitted to dispense with formality for the moment, it is good to see you,” the Emperor said. “You’re looking quite well. Doesn’t he look well, Malinche?”
“Indeed he does, dear Camargo,” the Empress answered with practiced disinterest, although her eyes watched him intently. “A veritable picture of health.”
Wide-eyed, Flavius glanced to Parric. “Ya daft bastard. Ya brought us to the wrong damned cosm, dinnae ya?”
“Don’t be stupiding. You’re rathering them attacking us instead?” Parric snapped his beak at Flavius. “And don’t forgetting the imperial protocol.”
Befuddled, Flavius racked his brain and it came to him in an abrupt flash from Memory: never address the emperor or empress by name, never compare yourself to them, never initiate physical contact... That last one, Flavius thought, was rife with all manner of pitfalls.
Emperor Camargo stepped down from the dias and strode over, clasping his hands to Flavius’ shoulders. “It really is good to see you again, although I must confess I’m quite surprised to see you so soon.” He glanced at Parric. “And you, Parric, your departure was rather abrupt as well.”
“Under the circumstancings, I’m not having much other choicings.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose not. Regrettable business, that,” Emperor Camargo said, drifting into a bleak reverie. As quickly as he’d drifted away, he snapped back. “But the sword worked, eh? Such a marvelous sword, with the power to raise the dead.”
“Not to contradict Yer Imperial Majesty, but the sword dinnae bring me back to life,” Flavius explained, finding the the conversation increasingly surreal. “It just passed on to me the memories of the other Flavius what died.”
“Semantics,” Emperor Camargo said, waving his hand in dismissal. “Although, in this case the semantics work in your favor. Death sentences are not negated by resurrection, my friend. Were you actually he, then your life would remain forfeit. Happily, that’s not the case.”
“Happily,” agreed Flavius.
Emperor Camargo pulled Flavius’ head closer to his and spoke softly. “The knowledge of what your sword can do was the only thing that made the whole sordid affair bearable, dear Flavius. Apart from your unfortunate transgression with the Empress, you and Parric have proven yourselves more loyal than many of our copil-blooded nobles. I’ll admit a great weight of dread lifted from my shoulders when the Empress Malinche informed me that you shed your sword long before she discarded the layers of her gown.”
Unbidden, the memory of her nude, six-breasted glory blazed in Flavius’s mind. Flavius glanced to her throne. Empress Malinche raised a provocative eyebrow, then flicked her tongue across a fingertip. A strand of gleaming silver hair slipped over her face. Flavius swallowed. “Er, right. Why is that?”
Emperor Camargo laughed free and easily, as if Flavius had made a witty joke a the expense or the courtiers. “Because lesser sentients are not worthy of such visions. Had your sword preserved any, shall we say, compromised memories of the Empress, your life would be just as forfeit as your predecessor’s.” He smiled. “Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that.”
Flavius forced a smile, not daring to look in the Empress’ direction. “Lucky me.”
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
What current avenue of scientific inquiry do you believe people should be paying attention to, and why?
This was pondered by Kathleen Ann Goonan, Nancy Kress, Mike Brotherton, Nina Munteanu, Jennifer Ouellette, Kay Kenyon and myself. Our answers are at http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/006823.html.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Okay, about the plane image below... Saturday afternoon, around 5:30 or so, I stepped out to the parking lot to put some stuff up in my car, and was met a serious thundering rumble. The con hotel is right in the flight path of Houston Intercontinental, so jets flying overhead isn't anything new. But this cargo jet took "overhead" a wee bit too literally. The shot was taken with my 28-135mm lens at the 28mm setting. No zoom at all. This plane cleared our hotel by maybe 100 feet, tops. Ditto for the buildings across the street. Another con-goer in the parking lot looked at me, then we both turned and scanned the immediate skyline for signs of smoke and/or fire from the expected crash. Seriously, the plane looked to be struggling. When nothing immediate happened, the guy wondered aloud if we should call 9-1-1. I assume they made it to wherever they were going safely, because I saw nothing about a devastating crash on the news, but boy, that wasn't a pleasant sight.
These last two are my favorites. For obvious reasons.