Monday, June 30, 2008

Apollocon in the rear-view mirror

Apollocon, Houston's contribution to the SF firmament, has come and gone. I, for one, had a fine time, fumbling my way through several panels in the role of moderator and striking up all manner of interesting conversations over the course of the weekend. I lugged my camera along, and wasted little time in ticking a bunch of folks off with my shutterbug activities.

Here's the first processed batch of images for your enjoyment. Notice that a whole troop of folks from the Texas Renaissance Festival stopped by. I haven't identified the people in the pictures yet, but they know who they are--and anyone wanting to go into Flickr and help out with all the IDs are more than welcome to do so:





Apollo08_10No Fear of the Future contributor Alexis Glynn Latner











You'll notice that No Fear of the Future contributor Alexis Glynn Latner is well represented here, while Chris Nakashima-Brown isn't. Apparently, Mr. Nakashima-Brown had better things **coughcoughSycamoreHillcoughcough** to do than support area conventions. That's fine. We'll remember that the next time he phones at 3 a.m. needing help with a quarter-scale paper mache reconstruction of the Texas School Book Depository...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Salvador Dalí's Fantastic Voyage

I spent last week attending the Sycamore Hill Writer's Workshop with a dozen of my betters, an intense and rewarding experience.

The "story" I brought to the workshop included a rather odd "scene" in which CNN's Anderson Cooper and a team of other 21st century reality celebrities are miniaturized in the style of the 1966 Richard Fleischer film Fantastic Voyage, exploring the interior anatomy of Osama bin Laden, only to be overtaken by hijackers. Hey, it could happen. The episode is marketed by the network as "Anderson Cooper's Fantastic Voyage."

So, imagine my surprise this morning when, polishing up this segment for submission as a short short, I discover a real world work of art based on the movie by no less than Salvador Dalí. Titled, natch, "Salvador Dalí's Fantastic Voyage" ("le Voyage Fantastique").

Bizarrely, the studio managed to recruit the Catalan surrealist to produce the world's most far out lobby cards ever. The Salvador Dali Society explains:

Inspired by the classic Science fiction film of the same name, Salvador Dalí painted Fantastic Voyage welcoming an eerie sense of surrealism and fantasy that transports the viewer into their own "Fantastic Voyage." The film concerns a group of American Scientists frantically working to save the life of a colleague. The task at hand involves a mission inside the scientist's body to remove a deadly blood clot. To accomplish this, the crew shrinks their vessel and themselves in order to access the clot. The film starred Stephan Boyd and Racquel Welch.

Dalí worked with the film's studio, 20th Century Fox, to promote the movie's New York release. The campaign was documented by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and subsequently made into a short eight minute film titled Salvador Dalí's Fantastic Dream. The footage shows Dalí crusading around New York City using his celebrity to draw attention to the film's premiere.
The movie intrigued both critics and audiences and went to achieve box office success and was the recipient of many awards. It has since become a landmark in cinema, often praised for its use of special effects.

Dalí's painting seems to suggest an all together different "Voyage." The voyage in the film entails going inside of the human body. Dalí interprets the voyage as not going inside of the body but inside of the mind to explore its vast dimensions. Thus we are presented with a portrait of Dalí's subconscious. One can visualize the path laid out for the viewer as Dalí's "Voyage." We see reminiscense of older work suggested by the grand piano and telephone. Here Dalí sought to embody the spirit of the film rather than copy it.

We await with excitement the recruitment of Damien Hirst to produce anatomical marketing collateral for Saw V.



Bolts of green flame spewed from the cuayabs.

“Hold!” shouted the commander. Instantly, the lethal jets veered away from the flaming cage imprisoning Flavius and Parric, dissipating harmlessly.

Flavius held Memory warily as he shot a questioning glance at Parric. Parric shrugged, dismissing the Crafting he’d constructed.

“Commander Balam, sir. Third flight squadron of the Ninth Wing,” the commander said, holding his fingers to the side of his helm. “Affirmative, two of them. One looks to be a barbarian--”

Flavius stiffened.

“--and the other may be a minor Ketza’qua variant from the Farther Cosms.” The Commander Balam paused for a moment, listening, then nodded. “Affirmative, sir. Green. Four wings. Six eyes.” Another pause followed, then he rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Negative sir, I have no idea. The barbarian’s speech is little more than garbled belches and the Ketza’qua variant just cackles. Wholly uncivilized. Hurts my ears just to listen to it.”

“I’d love to hurt his ears...” Flavius muttered.

“They can? Understood.” Commander Balam cast a disdainful glance Flavius’ way. “Affirmative. He is armed with a sword that fits that description.” A long pause followed, and the commander frowned. “Are you certain? We could execute-- Yes, sir. Immediately, sir.”

Balam snapped around and barked at the militia men maintaining the cage. “Disengage the restraints. The commandant says these lesser sentients are expected and are to be conveyed to Un-pic Ja’ab immediately.”

Balam’s wej settled to the ground. “Come on, you two, if you can understand me. You’re wanted upstairs. Unless you prefer to fly yourself.”

“No, riding will be fine,” answered Parric, slithering onto the wej as the two militia men gave him a wide berth.

“Gad! It stinks of vinegar,” one complained.

After a moment’s hesitation, Flavius sheathed Memory and followed.

Balam narrowed his eyes at Flavius. “You’re trouble, aren’t you? I’ve seen your type before. Just remember the commandant can rescind his order to suspend your execution at any time.”

Balam gestured sharply. The wej leapt from the ground.

“Nae a very friendly fellow, is he?” muttered Flavius to Parric. “Still, ya’d a given him a right good comeuppance, eh Parric?”

“Actualling, I’m concerning myself more with the Emperor. It’s not looking like we’ll be sneaking in undetected as in our original planning.”

“Oh, ya ken that, do ya?”

“Don’t be a smart assing.” Parric watched the great Ketza’qua as they approached. It’s scales were the size of warriors’ shields, the edges tinged with a glossy black that formed a striking pattern in outline. The scales rippled as it breathed and shifted, clattering against themselves like a her of horses galloping down a cobblestone street. Here and there, scales peeled back to reveal immature Ketza’qua of varying sizes budding from the parent. As they swung around the creature in a wide loop, a team of wejii came into view, grappling with one of the daughter Ketza’qua. Two had lassoed the head from opposite directions and struggled to hold it steady as a third darted in to try and cut the twenty-foot-long creature free. It writhed ferociously.

“They are separating naturally when twice that size, but the Ketza’qua are easier to domesticating when immature,” Parric explained.

“What would anyone want with ‘em for?” Flavius stared at the struggling wejii, incredulous.

“Some are installing on other palaces throughout the Eternal Dominion,” Parric said. “Others are auctioning off to other empires spanning other cosms.”

“What? Ya mean to tell me they run these things through Tradefare?”

Parric snorted. “There’s not enough wealthings in Tradefare to buying a dead Ketza’qua, much lessing a live one.”

As they flew past the head, the Ketza’qua’s slitted green eye followed the wej it rose above all the trusses and catwalks to the palace proper.

Flavius shuddered. “That’s one beastie that dinnae look too happy.”

“No,” Parric agreed. “It doesn’ting.”

The wej cleared the palace ramparts, settling on a broad plaza decorated in a mosaic depicting the Tricentennial Emperor holding five cosms in his outstretched hands. Crimson-clad palace guards--each wielding double-ended cuayabs--filed out onto the plaza in a double line. Flavius stopped counting when the number topped two dozen. It seemed the palace was disgorging its entire populace.

Commander Balam leapt lightly off the wej, his cuayab held lightly at the ready. With his free hand he gestured down the path between the twin rows of palace guards. “I’m to escort you to the audience hall. It seems you’re honored guests.”

Balam set off down the row at a brisk pace. Flavius and Parric followed, with the other two militia men falling in behind them. Twin bronze doors untwined and they found themselves back in the familiar sleek, sensuous corridors seemingly sculpted of liquid wood.

“Still nae going according to plan, eh?” Flavius said to Parric. “Damn suspicious, their being so ready for us. If they can keep that Ketza’qua beastie under the yoke, I dinnae see why they cannae send those eight-legged uglies after me as well.”

“Yes, the thought is crossing my mind,” Parric answered. “I may be guilty of misjudging the Emperor.”

“Right. So then, ya think we can fight out way out through a hundred or so of these red-suited bastards?”

“I’m doubting we’ll get the chance. The Emperor is killing you once already, for certainting. I’m expecting he’ll try to finish the job, permanenting.”

An interwoven set of doors before them untangled and pulled themselves open, revealing a brightly lit hall beyond. Balam stepped to the side, patting his cuayab meaningfully. “Watch yourselves,” he warned. “If you so much as--”

Flavius dismissed him with a wave of his hand, and with his hand on the hilt of Memory, strolled boldly through the doorway, into the audience hall to meet his doom.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Well how do you get to be Caesar? I didn't vote for him...

Forgive me the cheesy title--just saw Spamalot this weekend and the aftereffects are lingering. But here's another product of my day job that you folks might find of interest, this one dealing with Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. I had a lot of fun writing this one up--follow the link for some nifty images in the gallery.
Tide and time: Re-dating Caesar’s invasion of Britain

Julius Caesar landed an invasion fleet on the shores of Britain in 55 B.C., expanding the boundaries of the so-called “Known World” and inadvertently sparking a dispute between historians and scientists for centuries to come.

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied their unique brand of forensic astronomy to the enduring controversy surrounding the precise location of Caesar’s landfall, concluding that the historically accepted date for the event--Aug. 26-27, 55 B.C.--is incorrect. The Texas State team’s proposed new date of Aug. 22-23, 55 B.C., reconciles all the conflicting evidence and offers both sides of the debate some measure of vindication in the process.

Texas State physics professors Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with University Honors students Kellie N. Beicker and Amanda F. Gregory, publish their findings in the August 2008 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

O Caesar, Where Art Thou?

“Most history books say Caesar’s landing date was Aug. 26-27 and he sailed to the northeast of Dover to land on an open beach near Walmer and Deal,” Olson said. “That cannot be correct. The afternoon tidal streams could not have carried his fleet to the northeast on that date.”

The origin of the debate, ironically, lies in the strongest historical evidence: Caesar’s first-hand account of the landing and ensuing campaign, which mentions the phase of the moon and chronicles in considerable detail information regarding time of day, landmarks and distances traveled once his fleet reached the famed white cliffs near present-day Dover. Caesar’s narrative describes how, once the winds and tides were favorable, the fleet sailed seven miles along the coast before finding a suitable beach to put ashore. Unfortunately, the actual direction the fleet sailed is one detail Caesar omitted, and in that single oversight lies the bone of contention.

Because of specific coastal and inland land formations referenced by Caesar, historians such as classics scholar Thomas Rice Holmes and archaeologist Charles Francis Christopher Hawkes have long maintained that the fleet sailed northeast along the British coast, coming ashore near the present-day town of Deal. The terrain to the southwest, they argue, simply does not match Caesar’s descriptions. On the other hand, men of science such as Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy and Admiralty Manual of the Tides coauthor Harold Dreyer Warburg insisted a northeast voyage was impossible since at the historically accepted date and time of Caesar’s landing the tidal currents would be flowing strongly to the southwest--carrying the Roman fleet in the opposite direction from Deal.

Deal or No Deal?

The Texas State researchers traveled to Britain in August of 2007 to study the problem first-hand. In a fortuitous set of circumstances, the equinox and lunar cycle coincided to closely replicate the tidal conditions Caesar experienced--such an alignment wouldn’t occur again until 2140. Extensive on-site research including the collection of tide gauge data, GPS tracking in a freely-drifting boat and a host of other factors confirmed that the tidal currents indicated a landing site southwest of Dover, while the topographical evidence supported a Roman landing at Deal.

The first break in unraveling the mystery came via an obscure account of the landing by Valerius Maximus, a Roman writing in the 1st century A.D. In Valerius’ work Memorable Deeds and Sayings: Of Courage, he recounts one Roman soldier’s bravery as the tide was falling during the fleet’s landing. The tide, however, would be rising during the fleet’s landing if the date of Aug. 26-27, 55 B.C. were correct.

The second break came from historian Robin G. Collingwood, who in 1937 identified a probable transcription error in a sequence of dates relating to Caesar’s landing, essentially rendering one of the Roman numerals for four (IIII) instead of seven (VII) or even eight (VIII). Applying Collingwood’s revisions to Caesar’s landing changes the date to Aug. 22-23--and reconciles all the previously conflicting evidence.

“If that’s the case, then everything falls into place,” Olson said. “Three things fall into place: the topography matches the ancient descriptions; it matches with respect to the direction of the tidal streams; and it matches with respect to the water level.

“Our new result is, essentially, the old result--we’re taking the Roman fleet up to Deal and the open beach, but what you read in the history books, that it was Aug. 26-27, that cannot be correct,” he said. “The scientists were right about the tidal streams, and so were the historians about the landing site. With our new result, our new date, everything is reconciled.”

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Attack of the Feral Hogs

Further evidence that Joe Lansdale is now reporting for the NY Times from East Texas, under a pen name: today's front page features an article about good old boys hunting feral hogs from golf courses on the far side of Houston.

Bacon a Hard Way -- Hog-Tying 400 Pounds of Fury"

The preferred method for Clint and Dusty, the hard-working dudes featured in the article, requires an ATV, a knife, a Marlin .30-30, a good buddy, your daddy, your buddy's daddy, and seven pit bulls wrapped in Kevlar.

The menace:

These are dark, bristled creatures with sharp tusks, long snouts and fleet hooves. They descended from the unholy union of swine introduced to Florida by conquistadors, domestic pigs escaped from farms and Eurasian wild boars released by hunters. They can grow to three feet high and weigh as much as 400 pounds.

Capable of breaking through fences, the hogs dig up the earth rooting for grub worms. They run pickup trucks off the road. They prey on young livestock and woodland creatures. They carry disease. They gestate in four months and deliver litters of a half dozen.

But a landowner’s menace can be a sportsman’s delight. Even to old hands, wild hogs have proved hard to kill and harder to catch. They recognize traps. They move at night. They run quickly over short distances. They evade hunters in the thick brush. When pursued, they lead dogs into the water to drown. Failing that, they back up against a rock or a tree to fight.

The hunters:

Casting about for a more methodical approach [to eliminating wild hogs from his property], [Blaketree National Golf Course manager Scott] Cory was referred to [Clint] Watson, 33, a bulldozer operator who culled hogs from nearby ranches in his spare time. Mr. Watson had been building traps with [Dusty] Kennedy, 25, a student of construction management who had married into his family. They charged landowners $200 for the traps, keeping the right to sell their catch at slaughter for 25 to 30 cents a pound.

For this more sporting endeavor, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Watson reached somewhat casual terms with their clients. The golf course, for example, provided free food and tee times, and the use of a cottage for their services.

Mr. Watson and Mr. Kennedy are quiet, reserved young men who carried knives on their belts and wore brown caps with references to a Bible verse: “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

On a morning with a forecast calling for nearly 100 degrees, Mr. Kennedy ate a breakfast of fried pork chops, put on jeans and long sleeves to protect against the brush, and set out around 3 a.m. At a shuttered filling station, he joined Mr. Watson. Their fathers, Bill Kennedy and Billy Watson, were along for backup.

Hauling coolers, ATVs and cages, their convoy rolled up Highway 90 in the starless blackness.

“When we first started, we went a long time without catching a hog,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t think we were ever going to catch one.”

Though a Marlin .30-30 rested by his knee, Mr. Kennedy had no intention of firing a shot. Cornering a hog was the job of the bay dogs, Toby and Buck, the bitch Fire and the pups, Whopper and Nub. Then the hunters would release the catch dogs, Josie and Roadie, to hold down their prey. Next it would fall to Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Watson to restrain the hounds and tie the hog. If all that failed, if a hog broke loose and went careering toward the road, the older men would make the kill with the rifles.

Not far from the town of Bedias, the caravan crossed a cattle guard onto a ranch owned by friends of Mr. Watson. The men fitted the bulldogs with layered vests of Kevlar and the bay dogs with four-inch nylon collars to protect their jugular veins. The hounds stood and tested the air, their yelps mixing with the croak of tree frogs in the yaupons.

“Oh, they know it’s fixing to be on,” Bill Kennedy said.

In the gray dawn, the hunters made their way through a thicket of greenbriers, wild lemon trees and bloodweeds. Nearby, the dogs began to yelp. The men gave chase, then waited as the sound died. Around them the trunks of small trees were marked with mud rubbed from the backs of wild hogs.

In time the men came to a clearing, paused for a dip of snuff and checked an electronic monitor for the whereabouts of Fire and Nub. Though their short sharp yelps were resounding, indicating they had bayed a hog, Fire and Nub had failed to summon the other dogs. The hounds seemed to believe this was a false alarm owed to Nub’s youthful enthusiasm.

Mr. Kennedy took the lead with the dogs. Mr. Watson stayed behind, listening. In the distance, the measured barking ended with an awkward yelp.

Through a walkie-talkie, Mr. Watson called for a report. “They was working on something, Whopper and Nub, but they ain’t got it bayed yet,” Mr. Kennedy responded. “I’m thinking about going in there, but I want to get more bay dogs in there.”

Mr. Watson moved toward the sound, then stopped. “Hey Dusty,” he radioed, “I smell a big old boar hog.”

The barking sounded again, and Mr. Watson charged through underbrush worthy of machetes.

Presently, Mr. Watson came upon Mr. Kennedy, red-faced and sweaty, covered in mud, bleeding from a cut that ran halfway across his cheek. Whatever his dogs had been chasing seemed to have gotten away. Mr. Watson called in the others.

The dogs emerged with no cuts or scratches. “No proof of a hog, anyway,” Mr. Watson said, kneeling to pat them.

It was 8 a.m. The older men were worried about the dogs in the sun. Mr. Watson proposed a search around the perimeter of the property. For hours, the hunters stomped through thickets and along creek beds. Following a riverside trail, they found a blue heron, a copperhead and a family of alligators.

“There just ain’t no hogs out here,” Mr. Watson said.

I bet they're laughing in Manhattan over that one. And I bet Clint and Dusty are having more fun.

Enjoy a lazy Saturday on that.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Hey gang, I was all set to post the latest installment of MEMORY last night when... well, there's no kind way to put this. As I was re-reading it I discovered a gross continuity blunder. A blunder pervasive throughout the whole segment. I know, you're thinking "How the heck can there be continuity errors in a piece of fiction that ain't that long to start with?" Let's just say I'm talented that way.

By my own rules, anything published stays up, unedited save for typos and such, so there was no way that goofed up version is going live. I'll get the rewrite up as soon as I'm finished with it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Discovery of a New Mineral

Until recently the International Mineralological Association recognized 4,324 minerals. Now the tally stands at 4,325. The Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at NASA-Johnson Space Center just discovered a new mineral in a very cool place: a particle of cometary dust.

Along with other interplanetary dust particles, or IDP's, it was collected in the stratosphere by an ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft. The dust particle of interest evidently originated in Comet 26P/Grigg-Skjellerup. IMA approved naming the new mineral Brownleeite, in honor of Donald Brownlee at the University of Washington, who founded the field of IDP research. Brownleeite can be synthesized but it's never been found on Earth.

The analytic methods that nailed down the new mineral were extraordinary. Keiko Nakamura-Messenger of ARES used a state-of-the art transmission electron microscope that was installed in 2005 at Johnson Space Center. Exploring a single mote of exotic dust, Nakamura-Messenger and her co-discoverers analyzed chemical composition and crystal structure at nanometer-scale.

NASA announced the discovery last Friday, June 13. Unfortunately, the official press release marginalizes the the significance of the discovery with the headline NASA Finds New Type of Comet Dust Mineral. Variously tweaked versions of the press release now appear on the Web. At you can read fascinating details and quotes (and see how somebody threw in a numerically challenged sub-headline raising the number of IMA-identified minerals to 4,345.) Over at they came up with the titillating headline Alien Mineral From Comet Dust Found in Earth's Atmosphere. Most venues on the Web retain the headline from the official NASA Headquarters press release. A news compilation site called rephrased it thus: New mineral found in comet dust by NASA team. Much better.

The technical paper announcing the discovery was presented at this year's Lunar Planetary Science Conference (Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIX, paper titled NEW MANGANESE SILICIDE MINERAL PHASE IN AN INTERPLANETARY DUST PARTICLE) with these images from the nano-analysis:

Way down telescope way pt. 2

Last week I shared the genesis of my current telescope restoration project, in which I expound (in my usual verbose way) how I came into possession of a 6" Meade 645 Newtonian reflector telescope and the subsequent years of use, abuse and neglect it suffered under my ownership. Lest any of you jot this down as one of those "He'll talk a good game, but not actually do anything about it" scenarios, I offer photographic proof of my get-off-my-duffedness (note how old and fat I look in this image. Oh, the sacrifices I make for you people):


Suffice to say the tube had suffered a lot of cosmetic damage over the years, but nothing terribly serious. The felt (or rather, the pitiful remains of felt) lining the rings which hold the optical tube assembly (OTA) to the mount had actually bonded with the paint on the tube. When I opened the rings and tried to remove the OTA, the process actually peeled some chunks of paint away--as well as a 1"x2" piece of the sonotube OTA's outer layer. The depression wasn't huge, really, but it may as well have been a crater to me. I trimmed it back some and glued it into place. Ugly, yes, but hopefully all will be made right in the end.

That out of the way, I turned my attention to the disassembly of the OTA. The tube is in serious need of repainting, and probably the worst thing I could do to the optics would be to try and repaint the thing with everything in place and in danger of getting big blobs of paint on them. One of the bolt/brackets attaching the spider (the assembly which holds the secondary mirror) to the OTA snapped a few years ago during a move, so that needs to be replaced. Fortunately, the three remaining bolts unscrew easily enough and I'm able to remove the spider successfully. There's a significant amount of paint flaking and peeling from the spider, but no serious corrosion anywhere. I could probably justify replacing the spider, but its in good enough shape that this feels more like an extravagance. Below is a shot of the spider, a close-up showing the paint flaking and mounting cracks, and finally one of the secondary mirror itself. Happily, the mirror looks to be in almost perfect condition.



The focuser and spotting scope come off next, and then the primary mirror. The screws come out of the primary mirror assembly easily enough... but the mirror doesn't budge. I've never taken it out before, and it had probably remained there, unmolested since it was first installed at the Meade factory. It took a bit more muscle than I was expecting (or entirely comfortable with applying) but finally the mirror assembly popped out. I was quite happy with what I found. Other than an accumulation of dust, the mirror looks in prime condition. Other than the broken piece of the spider, the OTA components are in great condition. I mean, just look at this mirror:



So now comes the actual restoration. The inside of the tube, originally painted flat black, has become more like a dark gray over the years. I don't feel all that comfortable (or enthusiastic) about repainting the inner tube, so I ordered flocking material from Protostar. Since my 645 is a 30" tube, their "cut from the roll" option was perfect for me. The flocking came in the other day, and I laid it inside the tube for a sort of dry run. Perfect fit, with a 2" overlap at the edges. I'm feeling good about this choice.

Before I can flock it, however, I have to repaint the tube. Before I can repaint, I have to sand it down. So I set to work with 80 grit sandpaper. It was very dusty work, I can assure you.


Amazingly enough, the paint came off with considerably less effort than I expected. For the various nicks and gouges too deep to be painted over, I used carpenters wood putty to fill in the gaps, and also applied generous amounts around the wounded area I mentioned above. After letting it dry overnight, I sanded everything smooth with 220 grit paper.


Get used to the phrase "then I sanded it down..." because it's a recurring theme. Once I finished and had the putty smooth and flush, it was time to apply primer. I ran a wooden dowel through the tube, packing crumpled newspaper around it so that I could suspend the tube between two saw horses and rotate it as I painted. I sprayed on two coats of primer, and let it hang in my office to dry.


Next time, we'll discuss why two coats probably wasn't enough. But hey, live and learn, right?

Thursday, June 12, 2008



The Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab floated before Flavius and Parric, the honey-soaked rays of the late afternoon sun glittering across the many-faceted towers in a prismatic spray. Pale yellow lights flickered from a thousand windows as well as the promenades that ran weblike among the towers. Great loops and whorls of no discernable purpose decorated the skyline and reached far beyond the balconies and retaining walls, casting surreal shadows over the valley a thousand feet below.

Beneath the palace, running the length of the perimeter was a colossal Ketza’qua. The yellow-bronze specimen was old and reeked of power. The trusses and cables holding it in place groaned and cackled every time the serpentine body flexed, but showed no signs of breaking.

Fleet-winged, kidney-shaped wej flitted around the tail of the Ketza’qua. As huge, translucent bubbles squeezed forth from a puckered orifice of the tail, crewmen from certain wejii bathed it in billowing clouds from directed hoses. Once the vapors of the setting agent cleared, another wej darted in to gaff the rising bubble, which had taken on an iridescent sheen. The wej guided the bubble beneath the palace and released it into a concave basin. The millions of bubbles holding the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab aloft appeared as nothing more than froth from a distance.

“I’d surely remember this place if I’d been here before,” said Flavius.

“Our previous visitings are coming through the nexial gap inside the palace,” Parric said. “You’re never seeing the outside before.”

“I’m nae sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Flavius said, tilting his head to the side. “Are they using that beastie’s farts to keep that castle up in the sky?”

“Nothing so cruding,” Parric answered. “The Ketza’qua is a six-dimensional being. Restrainings here without feeding is making it feeding in other dimensions. The digestings of higher dimension matters is breaking it down into the simplest elements. Those sprayings are stabilizing traces of lithiums in the Ketza’qua excretions. The remainings in the bubbles are mostly hydrogens and heliums.”

Flavius shuddered. “That... that is the mingingest thing I ever laid eyes on in any lifetime.”

“Really?” Parric cocked his head at Flavius. “Most are finding the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab a very beautifulling sight.”

“It dinnae matter how much ya shiny up the shite, lad, it’s still shite. Or farts.” Flavius snorted in disgust. “So how’re we supposed to sneak up there, anyway? I dinnae see nae ladders or skyhooks or whatever ya call them. D’ya plan on spelling us up there with your magic?”

“I don’t do magickings.”

“Then how’re we to get up there without any of them knowing we’re here?”

“We don’t. They’re already spotting us.”

Flavius looked up at the palace. Three of the wejii had broken away from the Ketza’qua and were headed directly at them. “Hoo, this is a bonny bag of shite.”

Two of the wejii veered to either side, flanking Flavius and Parric. The three-man crews rode standing in the open vehicles with a lank readiness. Silver traceries decorated their glossy turquoise armor, contrasting with their reddish-copper skin. The ivory plume of their feathered helms whipped smartly in the wind. The two crewmen on either side of the pilot each held a braided cuayab nearly an arm span in length. The braiding formed a sort of interlocked cage at the topmost end, which contained a emerald glow.

“Get yer magic ready, Parric,” Flavius said, drawing Memory. “Not the friendliest looking bunch of dobbers, are they? Ya dinnae ken they were expecting us, do ya?”

Parric twisted in his coils, keeping the three wejii in sight at all times. “Don’t be doing anything stupid.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, lad,” Flavius answered. “Let them make the first move. That’s the winning strategy, eh?”

The lead pilot made a subtle gesture. Immediately two men on the flanking wejii pointed their cuayab at the pair. Ribbons of undulating green flame spewed out. The flames arced and twisted, twining and weaving about Flavius and Parric until they were completely encaged.

Flavius slowly tilted his head toward Parric. “Right, then. What’s plan ‘B’?”

“Lesser sentients,” the commander shouted to them from the lead wej in a startlingly loud voice. “You have violated the writ of solitude in approaching Un-pic Ja’ab. Who are you and what is your business here?”

“Well, we’re old acquaintances of the Tricentennial Emperor, see,” answered Flavius. “I ken he wasn’t expecting us to drop in unannounced and all, but we was in the neighborhood--”

“They’re just uncivilized otherwhere rabble, sir,” the crewman on the right said to the pilot. “Their language is barbaric gibberish.”

Flavius shot Parric a questioning look.

“Remember when I’m Crafting a Hearing for you?” Parric said, examining the agitated cage with curiosity. “They have no Hearings. We can understanding their words, but they can’t understanding us.”

“Lesser sentients,” the commander said, this time in a voice even more bombastic than before, “since you refuse to speak in your defense, and offer no documentation to justify your presence--”

“Parric? This dinnae sound good.”

“No,” agreed Parric, “it doesn’ting.”

“--in violation of the writ of solitude, and as the thread your persons pose to Un-pic Ja’ab cannot be ascertained with any reliability in the absence the afore-mentioned testimonials and evidence, I formally sentence you to immediate execution under my authority as Commander of the Second Rank in the Eternal Militia of Un-pic Ja’ab,” the commander said. “Do the witnesses concur this is a legal order of the proper form?”

“Yes,” the other wejii crews answered in turn, pointing their cuayabs. “The sentence is legal and proper in accordance with the writ of solitude.”

“The sentence is issued and confirmed,” said the commander. “Kill them.”


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Way down telescope way

Like many folks of my generation, as a child I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Somehow I got it into my mind that astronauts and astronomers were similar professions, although one never seemed to actually get into space. Both had an eye on the sky, and I wanted to be one or both. Even before Star Wars turned me on to science fiction in a big way, I was fascinated with space and the solar system. Telescopes were cool. Alas, I was soon to find out that to have even a remote shot at becoming either an astronaut or astronomer, I'd have to eat, drink and sleep in a world of relentless number-crunching. To say that my mathematic skills are feeble at best would be an insult to all the feeble mathematicians in the world. So that particular dream was DOA long before I even knew it was feeling sickly.

My family wasn't of a scientific inclination--for my love of space, I was pretty much on my own at home. Fortunately, I had a next door neighbor, John Story, who was a space buff and a long-time member of the Houston Astronomical Association. He had a quality refractor--I have no recollection of the make or even aperture--that he'd set up on summer nights and show me all sorts of skyward wonders. John Loessin, the adult son of one of my elementary school teachers, had one of Celestron's early 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes that he'd use for visual observing as well as astrophotography. So I had some quality scopes around me. Naturally, I had to have my own.

I don't remember the details very clearly, but the general outlines of the story are familiar ones: In 1983, at the awkward age of 13 I mowed lawns all summer and amassed the princely sum of $300 plus change in my telescope fund. This was the most money I'd ever had in my life, suffice to say. Clueless about telescopes beyond the fact that there were different kinds, they cost a lot and they made far-away things look bigger, I set off to purchase one. Fortunately, Mr. Story pointed me in the direction of Texas Nautical Supply in Houston, which was--and remains--one of the premier astronomical resources in the state.

Somehow, I talked my dad into taking me. Or rather, he probably had business to conduct in Houston and consented to have me ride along. My first impression of Texas Nautical was that of a classic natural history museum, only instead of giant dinosaur skeletons on display, they had giant telescopes. In my memory, the display floor is choked with monstrous, drool-inducing 20- and 30-inch planet-killers, although in hindsight 10' and 12" scopes are the most likely sizes populating the upper end of their wares. Still, it was might impressive to me, an ignorant teen who'd hoped to head home with a 2.5" refractor.

A refractor was my scope of choice, simply because that was the "classic" scope in media, and what I was most familiar with thanks to Mr. Story. But $300 isn't a whole lot of money where telescopes are concerned, even back in 1983. Luckily, fate intervened. The salesman, knowing full well that I was suffering from a full-blown case of aperture fever, steered me towards the scope that would give me the most bang for my buck: A used 6" reflector.


The telescope in question was a Meade 645 model produced from 1977 though 1980 or so, a wide-field, f/5 model with a 30" optical tube. It had a tracking motor and manual control worm gear on a German equatorial mount set on a massive pier. I didn't learn most of those details until much, much later. Three things penetrated my mind that day: 1) the tracking motor didn't work, 2) it was within my budget and 3) that 6" tube looked like a cannon. Aperture fever, indeed. So I bought it, with my dad spotting me $20 or so to cover the tax (a concept of which I struggled to grasp for years afterward as well, which my children today stumble over as well). The scope was mine.

This was a telescope designed for viewing deep-sky objects. Unfortunately, I never really figured that out. I observed the heck out of the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. I viewed Venus with disappointment, and searched in vain for Mercury. I looked at the Pledias fairly often, which is as close to DSO observing I ever got. I tried and failed to find the Andromeda galaxy and others. I saw the disappointing Halley's comet when it came through, low on the horizon. I got 2x and 3x Barlowes for my lenses, and even tried stacking Barlowe on Barlowe for ungodly magnification (didn't work, though). I got a T-ring and camera adapter, and hooked up my folks' Canon AE-1 to my scope. I ruined many, many rolls of film because I knew nothing about photography. Eventually I gave up because I couldn't afford to buy and process film that would invariably turn out over-exposed, under-exposed or blurred beyond recognition. I was woefully ignorant--I really, really wish I'd taken the time to learn what the setting circles on the mount did, because that would've made my DSO hunts a lot simpler--but what I lacked in understanding I made up for with enthusiasm. I had fun.

Eventually, I stopped hauling it out as much as I once did. My own ignorance was my biggest barrier, a hurdle that increased my frustration with observing. I wasn't seeing what I wanted to, but I never quite grasped the fault was with me. Eventually, I stopped getting it out at all, which is the fate of many telescopes. The last time I observed with it was when Comet Hale-Bopp swung through the skies in 1997. I packed up the scope and the Wife (we were still not that far removed from Newlywed status at that point) and drove out to Lake Belton in search of non-light-polluted skies. Afterwards, it pretty much sat undisturbed as a museum piece. Over the course of several moves, the scope got banged around and picked up a bunch of cosmetic blemishes. A few years ago, one of the acorn nuts securing the bolt attached to the secondary mirror spider snapped off. Benign neglect had taken its toll.

I'm not certain of the specifics, but sometime in the past year with my growing interest in photography and acquisition of a Canon XTi DSLR my interest in astronomy was rekindled. The impressive quality and flexibility of DSLRs in taking astrophotography is, no doubt, a major contributor to this interest. In any event, a switch flipped sometime in the past month and "Someday I'll get around to fixing up that old telescope" became "I'm fixing up that old telescope now." Work has commenced, sweat has been perspired and money has been burned through at an alarming rate. And you, gentle readers, will get to follow this restoration every step of the way.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lost Books, Part VIII: Who?

Who? is a fine novel by Algis Budrys, now also lost to us.

I only met Budrys once, at my first Worldcon in 1987. He was a judge for the Writers of the Future contest, and I mentioned to him that the glossy certificates handed out to the runners-up (I'd just won my first), while pretty, didn't tell us what we'd done right or wrong. After that, the stories I sent to the contest always came back with a few lines of helpful feedback.

As editor of Tomorrow, he treated writers with courtesy and was always prompt to reply (I used to say that Tomorrow and Century were the only magazines named after their response times, though that was a slight exaggeration. Budrys was fast, but his rejections still took the usual two weeks to arrive by airmail). The world is poorer now that he's gone.

Who? was last reprinted in 2000, and there are still some new (or as-new) copies listed on, so it's not as lost as say, Margaret Tabor's Eclipse, which deals with a similar theme in a very different way (and which I'll discuss in a later column). Who? tells the story of Lucas Martino, an American physicist badly injured in a laboratory explosion while doing weapons research. Russian medics reach him before the Americans do, and the man they had over has a metal head (with a human brain inside) and a prosthetic arm. Dental records, retinal scans, voiceprints... none of these can be relied on, and DNA profiling had not yet been discovered. The cyborg's only identifying features are the fingerprints on one arm, which has obviously been sewn on - but is it re-attached, or transplanted? Is this man Martino, or is he a Russian infiltrator who's been very well briefed on Martino's life?

The cyborg attempts to prove that he is, indeed, Martino, but the Americans are understandably reluctant to let him near a lab again, or even to ask him questions about Martino's work that might tell the Soviets too much. An agent is assigned to discover who the cyborg really is, and finds the task incredibly frustrating. It's a good blend of cold war espionage story, mystery novel, and science fiction, which occasionally touches on the question of what is it that makes us who we are.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Separated at Birth?

The front page of this morning's NY Times offers up a wonderful anachronism that mixes memories of Ron Burgundy-esque evening news in the 1970s with the postmodern semiotes of the GWOT: a courtroom sketch artist has been admitted to Gitmo to record the ongoing "courtroom" proceedings. With KSM front and center, no doubt getting ready to launch into one of his Shatnerian comparisons of himself to George Washington.

[pic: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (right) at his arraignment, with Walid bin Attash.]

Which makes me wonder which of the great television defense lawyers is going to be pictured gesticulating dramatically to the imaginary jury. I bet he will look a lot like Raymond Burr.

And, which makes me wonder if it is a mere accident the logistical mastermind behind the September 11 attacks is a dead ringer for EC Comics and Mad Magazine impresario William Gaines.

With a little Gandalf the Grey mixed in, natch. Maybe a little magic moth is preparing to alight on the window of his tropical cell.

You be the judge.