Cool Mars Mission Stuff

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Long time readers, and even not-so-long time readers will know that I’m pretty darn enthusiastic about Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars. Space X is doing good stuff in terms of launching satellites into orbit, and hopefully the US will have a manned spacecraft capability again soon.

At the moment we subcontract out to the Russians, and I’m not so sure about the long-term sustainability of that approach.

So here is a pretty interesting article I stumbled across recently about a hush-hush conference Space X had with people who have studied the Mars habitability problem for a long time, including representatives from NASA.

Go ahead, read the article. It’s cool.

Groovy lighting- Dirk de Jager

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Huh, you think. Looks like a light. Well, as Dirk’s writeup will make clear- it’s more than just a light. This is a mil-grade, no-kidding, Austin Powers mood altering smart gadget that will change how you approach lighting in your love crib. Whoa- you can alter the colors in your pad with a swipe of your phone.

I will hand the floor over to my resident tech master, Dirk. He’s a lot more qualified than I to address this topic.

Dirk sez:

A small class on Domotics

Domotics are a part of the landscape with the title Internet of Things. In essence it means that via an internet connection devices can talk to each other. You can make that as elaborate as you want. Let’s take an example.

Say you are part of a modern couple. You and your partner are living somewhere in bourgeois suburbia, both have a paying job and have a home whose roof is plastered with solar panels. Normally washing would either be in the evening or in a weekend, or handled by some service. With domotics you could fill up the washer (don’t forget the detergent, but in the near future a feature that warns you that you haven’t will probably be incorporated as well) and switch on sleep mode depending on your preferences. Something like: Whatever happens, be ready at 5:30 PM.

Then the fun starts. While you are away, the system works out a moment to start and stop the cycle. When your panels give x amount of juice at 11.30 and your power wall or neighborhood-battery is at 95+% charge, it starts then. Or it communicates with the system and joins a queue after Ms. Jones ’s dishwasher has finished. If economy is your thing, you will come to love IoT.

So the possibilities are theoretically endless. Adding an assistant will enhance that even further because then you add brains to the operation. Until 18 months ago, though, a lot of the interoperational communication was locked down. And with stuff from Apple – and I say this without malice –  it mostly still is.  So choose your biosphere wisely in choosing an assistant.  With the battle of the assistants raging (Hi Alexa, Hello Siri, Hey Google, hoi Homey!) I was looking around to see what is on the market at the moment. And let’s start simple by locking in a light bulb.

50 shades of lighting

When it comes to “smart lighting” there are a few options. Most commonly sold at the moment over here in the Netherlands are the Phillips Hue (US), Klik Aan Klik Uit (overseas better known as Trust) and the IKEA Tradfri systems.

They work on the basis that you need (mostly) to use a proprietary hub. Also, you have to hook onto your home network. This hub works with 433 MHZ radio signals to communicate with the different devices. Why 433? Well, it is an older frequency that punches quite nicely through walls. And the datastream it has to send to the lamp is small; in essence “lamp 1 on” and “lamp 1 off”.   The hub also makes a 2.4GHZ WiFi connection to your network. Punch an app on your smartphone or hook the hub up to one of the assistants, and everything flies.

The hub also has the advantage that you can use different kinds of sockets. For example; a GU10 bayonet sockets in spots, or a small E14.

So why didn’t I ram in a Hue, stuff from KaKu or Ikea? First off, I hate extra hubs, especially when they are proprietary (yes KaKu I’m looking at you!). Secondly, I wanted a light that could do color. So there went IKEA. Trådfri only comes in white. Hue does color, but a hub and a set of lights will set you back around a € 160,- over here. In the US they charge about $ 145 w/o shipping.

So I went on the slippery slope to find an alternative for a E27 connection. And I found one made by Xiaomi. Never heard of that? Well, I can imagine that. The company is only 8 years old and was at first only aimed at the Chinese and Indian markets. That’s 3 billion customers and counting. They are dipping their toes now into the US and EU markets.

The good, the bad and the ugly.

I bought myself a Yeelight Smart LED Color Bulb in the EU standard E27/230v configuration. They also make them in E26. But look carefully at which one you buy. They come in different flavors.

The older model is grey and its serial marking is YLDP02YL. That one puts out 600 Lumens; roughly the output of an old 60W bulb. Nice for scenary lighting but not enough oomph for an avid reader as myself.

Since last June, however, there is a second version with 800 Lumens. They come in shades of white (YLDP05YL) and a color version (YLDP06YL).

The set-up is simple. You screw the bulb in a socket that is off. Fire up the app, and turn on the juice to the lamp. Register it to an email account, select the lamp you want to add, and voila! Let there be light. You can use the app also to make it work with Alexa, Google or If This Then That.

It’s a heavy bulb, though, and the design on it needs a little work if you want to screw it into an open sconce. But in a floor lamp or a covered ceiling construction they are fine.

Where can you get one?

Well, mail order will probably be your best option. The Beast in the US carries them for $19.99 for the white one, and $29.99 for the multi colored bad boy. Or if you don’t mind paying customs, you can go via AliExpress or a similar service.

Final remarks

Would I screw in one in every available socket? Eh, no. I like redundancy in my lighting. Were my internal internet connection to fail, I wouldn’t be able to fire up the lamp. I don’t need the internet for a normal bulb.

What’s next on the shopping list? Well there is a Google Home on it’s way, so I’ll see if they talk to each other. First in English, as el Goog will be speaking Dutch probably around Christmas. And I am keeping my eye out for a socket thing, so I can switch a fan off and on. After that? I don’t know yet. Maybe a nice little beamer in the bedroom powered by a Chromecast? I’ll keep you posted.

If you have any questions, punch them into the comments below or get in touch with the proprietor of this humble website. He will know where to find me and forward my mail.

And that’s all that Dirk had to say for this installment. Keep an eye peeled for future technical bits by him.

Future Interview- Colonel Pearce

howard all dressed up

Over the course of my career, I was blessed to have known some excellent soldiers. You can see one of the finest in his official photo above, Lieutenant Colonel Howard B. Pearce, Special Forces, United States Army, (Retired).

I couldn’t have asked for a better commanding officer in combat. He was aggressive, extremely mission-focused, approachable, and a subject matter expert in his field- a combat advisor and trainer of allied soldiers.

Let me give you a few facts from his bio. He served 27 years in the Army Reserve and Guard. The man has serious desert time- Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan to name a few stops. He also saw the sights in garden spots such as Kosovo and Eritrea. He’s trained soldiers from all over- Jordanians, Moroccans, Hungarians and Kuwaitis to name just a few flavors.

He finally retired in July of 2013 after a full career. When he hung up his boots he had accumulated no fewer than five sets of foreign jump wings to go along with his Master Parachutists Badge. He wears the “long tab,” or Special Forces tab. This sets him apart as a fully qualified SF soldier. In addition, he wears the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and two Bronze Stars. I could keep going, but you get the idea. Here’s a professional who has been tested and found worthy.

On the civilian side he graduated from Cleveland State University, and he’s been married to an incredible woman, Cara Kless, throughout his career. They have two children together.

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Howard Pearce has made an enormous impact on my life. In the photo above you can see him at work, as I came to know him as a comrade. Where do I even start describing all that we went through?

Let’s talk about the photo above for starters. The truck in the background was our combat vehicle, MAT-V 3-4. I served as the gunner, LTC Pearce was the vehicle commander, and SGT Robert Fears (our medic) was the driver. The situation was during combat operations in the Andarab Valley, a weeks long torture test in Afghanistan. Every single day we rolled out on missions in an extremely unfriendly neck of the woods. Colonel Pearce drove himself, he did what leaders are supposed to do- lead from the front, set an example, and share the dangers with your men.

I could go on and on about this soldier, mentor, and friend.

Suffice it to say that I feel privileged to know him as a comrade and a brother.

And I’m damn lucky that he has consented to be interviewed in the near future.

Stay tuned, readers.

Book Review- The Golden Minute

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BLUF- For time-travel fans, a must-read.

One of the author-ish things I do is help people out with beta reading. Not everyone is familiar with the concept, so I’ll describe beta reading as I’ve done it. Someone sends you a manuscript, either as a Word document or a Dropbox file. Personally, I prefer the Dropbox file. Of course, in theory someone could send you a paper copy. But wow, would that be cumbersome. I actually did this to my father when I produced In the Valley, my very first book. But that was before I knew any better.

You have to force yourself to be honest and analytical about the work you are reading. This is particularly difficult when the writing is really good, as you start getting ahead of yourself. One needs to slow down and look hard for faults, for stuff that doesn’t work, or is unclear or inaccurate. As you go you leave comments for the author, to act upon as he or she chooses. I rarely make a correction without leaving a note that I have done so- it could be that the author doesn’t agree with my change or note, and it’s important to remember that it’s NOT YOUR BOOK.

Now, I am not a master of the Chicago Manual of Style. For that kind of work, you need to hire a no-kidding trained copyeditor, which I am not. What I am is an avid reader, and I like to think I can pick up typos, howlers and flow issues. When I beta read, I try to strengthen a given work- post-publication reviews can be merciless, and there is a subset of people on Amazon who live to one-star books. As a beta reader, you are not doing the author a favor by failing to point out weaknesses or mistakes.

I say all of this by way of full disclosure. I was a member of the beta team for The Golden Minute, and as always I enjoyed the experience immensely.

Let’s talk about The Golden Minute, John Birmingham’s second book in the Girl in Time series. Long-time readers will know that I’m a big fan of JB’s writing. Years ago I used to carry his books around with me in my rucksack or assault pack overseas. I have read and re-read his stuff. So if he publishes something, I will surely buy and read it.

I was delighted by what I encountered in The Golden Minute. From the first few pages, I was struck by a few facts. One. No-one beats JB for creating and sustaining tension in a given work. Two. Birmingham does deep research into his subjects and milieu, partially in this case early Colonial Massachusetts. Three. JB can do complex character development and interaction.

He takes these three points and violently smashes them together into a whirlwind tour through time that is hard to put down. Just when the reader thinks that things are hairy enough, Birmingham clicks the verbal ratchet strap just a little bit tighter, until the reader finds themselves staring at the pages over a half-forgotten pizza dinner at three in the morning.

Seriously, JB, this kind of thing is bad for one’s health over the long term. However, in the short term it’s eminently satisfying. And the short term is where most people live.

This book was a challenging one for a beta reader. I had to repeatedly stop myself from jumping ahead and seeing WHAT COMES NEXT. Tracking the misadventures of the Marshal and Cady and watching their interplay was thoroughly entertaining. The two protagonists are as different as could be, both temperamentally and temporally, yet their stories intertwine seamlessly throughout the work to its conclusion.

At the end, of course you want more. This is as it should be. As is fitting in a second book in the series, many questions remain unanswered, and more challenges lie ahead.

If you haven’t done so, read A Girl in Time. Then get The Golden Minute. After that you can be pissed off that the third book simply isn’t ready yet.

Patience is a virtue, after all.

UPDATE: The Golden Minute has gone wide, you can score a copy on Amazon by clicking here.

 

 

Water

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There’s been a lot happening on the space front in the past few days. SpaceX has begun launching and recovering the new Block 5 versions of their trusty Falcon 9 rockets. They still haven’t mastered recovery of the nose cones, but it’s become a routine for them to bring back the rocket’s first stages. And then there are more sightings of possibly habitable worlds. Of course, to reach them, we’ll need an FTL drive. Uh, no word on that happening anytime soon.

A shame.

And then there’s Branson and his little space tourism rocket ship– the latest flight exceeded mach 2 and reached 170,000 feet. Soon we’ll be looking at the first true tourist flights and the monetization of space flight.

And finally, there is the announcement of the possible discovery of liquid water on Mars, possibly a lake under a glacier. It’s about twelve miles long or so. People are excited about this because such lakes sustain life in Antarctica. I dunno. The water, if it’s indeed water, is probably a hellish brine. Probably not drinkable, and possibly too toxic for life. However, there are organisms here on Earth that flourish in those circumstances, so who knows.

Pretty cool that there may be water on the surface of the Red Planet. However, I have long thought that the best chance for life on Mars would be in cave systems well under the surface. Look at all the weird stuff that lives in caves here on Earth- now imagine what may be found on Mars.

But all of the above highlights a trend as of late. There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in the space realm. I wonder if it’s the result of generations raised on science fiction who won’t take no for an answer- who want to go out there, take risks and explore.

This is encouraging.

Book Review- Black Chamber

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BLUF- If you like alternate history, you should enjoy this.

Usually I pick out books that I know I’ll probably like. Most of the time my guesses are OK- it’s pretty unusual that I get a dog. Also, there are a few authors that I’ll read darn nigh everything they put out, regardless of book description. And those authors rarely fail me.

For me, S.M. Stirling is one of those guys. And this book is not a dog. In fact, this is a book I’ll probably end up reading a few times. Stirling has a few of those titles. I’ve read In the Courts of the Crimson Kings and Conquistador over and over again. His latest, Black Chamber, may fall into the aforementioned book category.

This book has an excellent alternate-history premise. I won’t go into a lengthy description, you can click on this link to find out more in that regard. I will say that it involves the First World War, a hardcore US femme fatale, and an overseas plot that she must foil to save the United States from utter disaster.

Black Chamber does not suffer from a lack of action or tedious descriptions. The tension starts fast, and is maintained admirably throughout the work. There were a number of scenes where I found myself mentally skipping ahead, just to see what happens next. This is a good thing on the author’s part, and I had to force myself to slow down and appreciate what was happening.

Something I liked about this book is that the bad guys usually weren’t caricature evil-doers. In their own way they were brilliant or brave people caught up in monstrous activities. And what they have planned is pretty damn bad. No spoilers here, however.

I will say that I was jarred out of the story a few times by some minor attention to detail slips. Some examples include a “.445 Webley” (Webleys were .455) or “the ribbon of an Iron Cross, First Class worn in his second buttonhole.” An Iron Cross First Class does not have a suspension ribbon, the Second Class does. However, I’m being picky, I just came off a spate of beta reading for a friend.

To wrap things up- I was gratified to see an alternate history involving WW1. Far too little is written about this period, there should be more. If you’re interested, Harry Turtledove did an alternate history of WW1 as well, give it a read sometime. But back to Mr. Stirling’s worthy book- his premise is plausible, his writing is superb, and I enjoyed this work a lot.

You don’t have to twist my arm to read the kick-off to a new universe by Stirling, and I was delighted to see that he did not disappoint in any fashion. By all means, go out and put some dinars in his pocket. If you like quality alternate history, there’s an excellent chance you’ll like what he’s selling.

Entertainment well worth the price of admission.

 

 

 

Misplaced?

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I’m always a bit puzzled when I drive around here in the North and I see the Confederate flag displayed.

It can’t be denied that the Confederate flag is a part of US history. Hundreds of thousands died beneath those colors. From Fort Sumter to Appomattox, where the Confederate Battle Flag flew, brave soldiers on the losing side fought and died. It is a powerful symbol that must be respected. Not misused.

The Confederate Battle Flag has its place. My take on it is that it should be displayed in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are laid to rest, on battlefields, and in private displays during Memorial Day where a family had direct ancestors who fought for the Gray.

So it’s odd to see the CSA flag displayed so often in Ohio. Ohio provided the most soldiers per-capita (but third in overall numbers) to the Union effort in the Civil War. 320,000 Ohioans served in some military capacity during the war, 35,475 were casualties. Ohio regiments (such as the 122nd Ohio, an ancestor’s unit) served in key engagements throughout the war. Shiloh. Gettysburg. Chickamauga. Cold Harbor. The Wilderness. Abraham Lincoln said of Ohioans “Because I know that if there are many Ohio soldiers to be engaged, it is probable we will win the battle, for they can be relied upon in such an emergency.”

It is a proud record of service.

An estimated 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War. It was by far our deadliest conflict, and its legacy endures to this day.

We should be very careful with its symbols.

 

 

Planets worth a second look

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An article that drew my eye today involved a planet called Ross 128b, a possible rocky world within the goldilocks zone of a neighboring dwarf star. This world is about 11ly away, so it’s not incredibly distant.

I’m always excited by such finds, and they are happening a lot these days. Our technology for detecting such worlds is getting better, and some incredibly bright people are constantly looking toward the stars. Very exciting stuff.

Would I prefer that we had a feasible FTL drive? Sure. However, we do not at the moment. Something that will probably happen within my lifespan is that we may send an interstellar probe out there, in the case of Ross 128b we could reach it using a small unmanned craft pushed by solar sails and lasers.

By the time such a craft reported back, I’m pretty comfortable in assuming that I’d be dead. Oh well- the point of such exploration is for future generations to expand our footprint into space using technologies and techniques that are at present unknown.

It can be done. After all, my grandmother was born in a time when indoor plumbing or electricity wasn’t widespread, and she frequently hitched rides on a horse drawn wagon to school. One hundred years- look at how far we’ve come. It’s incredible.

Imagine where we’ll be one hundred years from today.

If we don’t blow ourselves up, or poison our planet irreparably, the future will be filled with wonders. Our i-gadgets will look quaint and primitive. And maybe, just maybe, we can get off this rock.

Here’s hoping.

The writing process, part one.

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I thought I’d take some time today to talk a little about the writing process as I’ve learned it over the last several years.

When this magical mystery tour began I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into. There was a story I held in my chest that was waiting to be told, but I didn’t have an idea as to how to get it out there. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted people to read it. That story was the seed for “In the Valley,” the first book in my initial trilogy.

So, not having any manual as to how to go about writing and producing books, I started searching the internet for options. Learned a lot of intimidating facts. One was that sending an unsolicited manuscript to a traditional publisher was a sure way for your work to end up in a “slush pile,” where some poor intern MIGHT read more than a page of what would cost you months of work. Then you would probably never hear back from said publisher.

After learning about that, I decided not to go that route. Struck me as a path towards madness. Sooo, I read up on indie publishing. This was more attractive to me because it seemed that yes, you could publish a book on your own terms, and then put it out on a site like Amazon where you have the potential to reach millions of customers… if you could somehow get your book out where people could consider it.

Ran across some more daunting facts. Don’t know if its true or not, but I saw somewhere that the average indie book sells about a hundred copies. I would later learn that this is about right. Also, I learned that indies are notorious for bad editing, layout, etc., and you simply have to pay good money to have your little darling polished and prepped. These bits of info almost scared me off again before I committed a single word to the page.

However, I can be stubborn. As I had nothing to do in the winter of 2014 other than await the judgment of the Army Medical Board, I said “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” and started to write. During this period I found out that I lapse into a sort of fugue state while writing- I feel a need to write, it doesn’t stop until the last word is written.

I vomited the book forth, and to my surprise I had a 96k manuscript after a month of intense work. Previously, I had never written anything longer than forty or fifty odd page papers in college.

A mistake I made is that I didn’t have an outline, there was no trace of deliberation, and I only showed my mangle-script to my dad after I had sent it to my one-stop-shopping publisher, CreateSpace.

Looking back on it, the book had serious flaws that could have been corrected before I submitted it. As it was, my editor actually sent me a positive feedback letter after the copyediting was done, but I didn’t have the jack to correct the book with some of what he suggested for a second round of structural editing.

The money wasn’t there, so I had to go forward with what I regarded as a flawed product. However, the many grammar mistakes had been squared away, I had fixed issues with POV shift, and it seemed to be a pretty decent book with an acceptable cover, so I hit the PUBLISH button on the CreateSpace page, and within a day or two the crazy thing went live on Amazon.

It was a proud moment, while it lasted.

No-one bought “Valley” for over a year, other than friends and family. Eventually I grew embarrassed of the book, I didn’t mention it to anyone. I figured I had joined the ranks of the “one-hundred books” club, and my work would sink into oblivion.

Also, I had a personal hang-up about “Valley” that was only obvious to those who knew me well. The book was chock full of stuff that had actually happened, only it was related through the lens of science fiction. The book was somewhat my story, a lot of stuff was too real. My shrink (to whom much is owed) told me that “In the Valley” was an unconscious mechanism for distancing myself from bad events, it helped to place a fictional veneer between the trauma of the past and my life in the present.

Given the above context, I recognized “Valley” as kind of a screwball form of therapy, and I grew content with it as such. If no-one ever read it, then OK. Hey, at least I had completed a book. Many never get so far. Writing as such wasn’t in the cards for me, I walked away from the desk.

But my book was still out on Amazon. It could be found by anyone.

One day, out of the clear blue sky, I received an email from a gentleman up north. He liked my book and he wondered when I would write the next one.

Now, I had kind of left a hook in “Valley” on the off chance that I might consider a sequel. Doing so was something I had seen again and again in fiction, so I had built such a device into “Valley.” However, I had never seriously considered writing a sequel. As far as I was concerned, “Valley” was a one-off, a smoldering garbage fire of embarrassment and failure.

Just because I thought my book was a pretty decent write-up didn’t mean that was actually so. But here was a random stranger asking for more of my writing. And he had demonstrated that he was willing to pay for it. By definition a professional writer gets paid for his or her work. And here was a guy who had dropped cash and was asking for more.

I am still in contact with this gentleman, and he may know who he is when he reads this. Brother, you were the snowflake that started the avalanche. Much obliged.

It was a turning point for me, the late fall of 2015. I made the decision to write a sequel, only this time I would take a systematic approach and I would study the methodology of the best out there. So I started reading, and I found the personal websites of some of my favorite authors. Most websites weren’t that great, but a few were pretty awesome. One author in particular had an amazing website and a whole collection of books. Also, he talked a fair bit about the writing process and how he would tackle projects. Before I ever “spoke” with him, I had learned a lot.

With new weapons in hand and the encouragement of some key actors, I sat down to write “The Captain’s Cauldron,” book two in what I decided would be a trilogy.

More follows some other time. J.

Speed bumps

Carrier

Came across a paper on the net that is kind of a different twist. It postulates that humans could be possible future agents of an interstellar mass extinction event- when we find another intelligent species, we will seek to kill them.

This, of course, is a sorrowful thread that shows up throughout my trilogy.

I don’t think it’s far off from the truth. The peak lifeforms from any given planet or exocivilization will by definition be ultra evolutionary competitors- these theoretical aliens will have overcome millions of other species to be the apex lifeforms on their worlds.

We will not tolerate other competitors in our hypothetical future domains.

Of course, it can only be that I view this subject from a human perspective, and as a witness to our nasty little internecine conflicts. As a species we have not only subjugated nature and other lifeforms, we also gleefully slaughter our own kind for any given reason. Some of these reasons are quite silly when you stand back and look at them. The color of another’s skin, the god they worship, their political leadership. It seems that humans will jump at any chance to kill the “other.”

Would this not count doubly so for exocivilizations? Mass media is full of violent encounters between us and aliens, such encounters have been a staple of science fiction since its founding. If you’ve never read it, see “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. As a child, I was indoctrinated by a cartoon series called Robotech, which featured an ultraviolent clash between human civilization and invading alien hordes. The spaceship pictured above came from this series.

We’ve been hyping ourselves up for a confrontation like this for a long time. I’m not going to bother listing the long, long list of movies that feature violent confrontations between us and aliens.

If and when we develop interstellar travel, and if we exploit distant planets (which will surely happen), any encounter between us and the “other” will probably not go so well.

We’ll treat other civilizations like speed bumps.